Back to the Basics: Church 101
Welcome to Living Hope! We are almost done with a series we started in January called “Back to the Basics: Knowing why you believe what you believe.” We have a couple of points left to unpack. Today, we begin a new mini-series on the doctrine of the church:
10. That the church, consisting of all true believers, being Christ's own and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is the Body of Christ, the invisible church; that the church is holy, universal and one in Christ; that the invisible church manifests itself in the visible church, the local congregations consisting all who profess to believe in Christ and are baptized; that as the people of God and a kingdom of priests, the church is called to grow unto the stature of the fullness of Christ and to fulfill her missionary work through the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in worship, ordinances, fellowship, discipline, and services.
11. In the priesthood of all believers, and the parity of the ministers and the laity.
As you can see, this is more than a mouthful. Some of these things were covered in 1 Peter like the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so I will only briefly touch on them.
Sometimes I hear Christians say, “If only we were like the early church, things would be easier!” And they would go on about how pure the early church was, untainted by tradition, and full of life and vigor, living together, giving sacrificially, and experiencing God’s power and miracles regularly. Although I do agree that there are a lot of things about the church in Acts that are noteworthy, I wonder if we are naïve if we think the early church was the perfect church.
So it makes me want to ask a follow-up question: which of the early churches do you want us to be like now? Do you want to be like Corinth? They had to deal with lawsuits between believers, sexually promiscuous, including a man who was sleeping with his stepmother, abuse of spiritual gifts, getting drunk during Communion, out of control services, just to name a few issues. Or what about the churches in Galatia? Those churches had to deal with Judaizers, who were quickly leading everyone astray in their faith causing them to abandon the gospel. Jesus personally even rebukes the church at Ephesus saying they lost their first love (Rev. 2:4). The church at Laodicea was also reprimanded because they kicked Jesus out of their church with their materialism (Rev. 3:14-22). The Thessalonian church had a false idea of the end times and resurrection, thinking Jesus would return so soon that they stopped working and was drowning in grief.
Yes, though the early church was brimming with joy from the outset, it was nevertheless quickly led astray by false teachers, and had their fair share of heresies and internal division, like we do today. So there has never been a pure and perfect church and there will never be a pure church this side of Heaven. If you do find a perfect church, my advice to you would be not to join it and make it imperfect by your presence! Nevertheless, as faulty and imperfect as the church is, Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for it (Eph. 5:25).
But at the same time, I must admit that if I had to pick one church to be a part of from the early churches, I would have to pick the Thessalonian church. They are not perfect, but they were a growing church. Just my two-cent’s worth there. But let’s back up and start with some questions:
I. What is the church?
First of all, the word “church.” Norman Geisler notes that the root meaning of the term church (Gk: ekklesia) is ‘those called out.’ This is the literal sense of the word. We are a “called-out” people. However, it seems that when the New Testament uses the word “church” it was defined as an “assembly of believers or followers of Jesus.” Ekklesia appears 114 times in the New Testament (3 times in the gospels and 111 times in the epistles). The Hebrew idea of “church” was qahal, also referring to a “gathering of people.”
Now this opens up a huge discussion about Israel and the church. I really don’t want to talk about church and Israel and if the church is really the “new Israel.” It seems to be that whether people were saved by faith pre-cross or post-cross, we are all part of one group, the people of God. Though I do believe that according to Romans 9-11, a large number of Jews will turn to Christ sometime in the future, nevertheless Jews and Gentiles are now part of one organism: the church.
We must also talk about the ideas of the universal church and the local church. The universal church is the invisible body of all believers. Grudem says, “The invisible church is the church as God sees it.” This includes all people of all time who have come to faith in Christ, born again by the Spirit and subsequently added to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). On the other hand, the local church is “the visible manifestation of the universal church in any given locality.” Grudem adds, “The visible church is the church as Christians on earth see it.” In a sense, local churches are gatherings of members of the universal church.
This causes us to see that in the New Testament, the church is never mentioned in reference to a building. This is because the early believers did not meet in buildings. Peter says believers are “living stones…built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). Notice the focus is on believers themselves being God’s house, not that they met in a physical structure of house. Paul intends the same meaning when he says, “You are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). The church in the Bible always refers to the people of God. Romans 16:5 says “… greet the church that is in their house.” Paul refers to the church in their house—not a church building, but a body of believers. So church in the New Testament was not something you went to, it was something you were. It was not even a service or event, but the people of God gathering together. Now I’m not going to throw a fit if you say, “I’m going to church today.” But just remember that in God’s eyes, He cares more that we realize we are the church gathering together in a building and not a group of people gathering in a church.
II. When did the church start?
Some would say the church was there in the Old Testament, but my understanding is that the church started on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Yes, the people of God were always there, but this program to bring together Jews and Gentiles together and reaching the world for Christ, started with God reversing what happened at the Tower of Babel in Acts 2. If you remember that story in Genesis 11, man tried to reach God and God ended up spreading them out with different languages. Here in Acts 2, tongues of fire came down (God comes down to man) and everyone understood each other. The Gospel was now for everyone. God reverses Babel, a picture of religion and a works gospel.
Moreover, Jesus in Matt. 16:17-18 says, “I WILL build my church” (emphasis mine), indicating that it was not yet started since the foundation will be His death and resurrection. Also several New Testament passages indicate that in the Old Testament, the church made up of Jews and Gentiles was a mystery (Col. 1:26-27; Eph. 3:4-5), not because it was hard to understand (like The Trinity), but because it was not fully revealed in the OT, though the OT does prophecy about it somewhat. Now if you really want to say the church is all believers of all time, I will not un-friend or kick you out.
III. What is the church like?
The more we understand that we ARE the church instead of doing church activities, the more mature we will become in Christ. One of the ways to help us mature in this way is to look at how the Bible uses several metaphors/images to describe what the church is like. Let me list the metaphors for you and then go back and unpack some them a little bit. For example, the church is to be “a family.” Paul says we are of the “household of God” (Eph. 2:19). God is our Father and we are His sons and daughters (2 Cor. 6:18; 1 Tim. 5:1-2). This is why when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He said pray like this, “OUR Father” (Matt. 6:9, emphasis mine) and not “MY Father.” Another image is the “bride of Christ” (Eph. 5:25ff). Yet another one is the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:12ff). Other ones include branches on a vine (John 15:5), a new group of priests (1 Pet. 2:9), a flock (Acts 20:28) and we already mentioned building or Temple (1 Cor. 3:9; 16). Each of these images adds a new dimension on how we should be the church in God’s eyes. Let’s unpack some of them.
a) The Church is a family (2 Cor. 6:18; Eph. 2:19)
God gives believers something better than friends upon salvation. He gives them a family. When God saved you, He not only saved you you’re your sin, He also saved you from your solitude. You are no longer alone because God is with you and in you as a believer, but you have a huge family now where you belong. So because the church is a family, we should seek to increase our love and fellowship to one another. Families also serve one another. In this way, as Mark Driscoll says, the church is not a restaurant. If you go sit at a restaurant, it is normal for people to come and serve you. You just snap your fingers or call for a waiter/waitress. But try snapping your fingers around the dinner table at home. Do that to your mom and your dad will do something to you. No, at home, you are not expected to be served, but to serve. You are expected to serve at home because you are part of the family. I think one of the ways God is growing us a family here at Living Hope is because of the way we serve one another. Praise God! The church is a family.
This also means we are committed to each other. Families are messy. I always say that in my family growing up, we put the “fun” is dysfunction. So you will have people who irritate you and annoy you at church. Welcome to the family! That’s what families are like. You also have weird cousins. Yes Living Hope may have awkward people, because families are awkward. But this is my family.
b) The Church is a Bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25ff, Rev. 21:2)
The church is a bride as well. When you think about that, we should be moved toward purity and whole-hearted devotion, love and submission to Christ. In this image, we see that sin is committing adultery against Christ. Paul says we are betrothed to Christ (2 Cor. 11:12), i.e. engaged. In Jewish culture, once you were engaged, the husband would leave for a certain time to build his bride a home. This was why Jesus the groom said, “I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). After the groom showed up to take His bride away, there would be a wedding feast. So the bride would wait in expectation. As the bride of Christ, we wait in expectation for His return. Do we?
c) The Church is a Branch
Next, we are branches in a vine. This should remind us the idea of resting in Christ and abiding in Him for fruitfulness. When I say “fruitful,” I don’t mean just external blessings of being used by God, but I mean holiness and walking by the Spirit bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Because I am a branch and He is the vine, I realize that being attached to Him, clinging to Him in desperate dependence and that organic and dynamic relationship should consume me more with what I am becoming in my life instead of what I am doing with my life. What am I consumed with? My career or my character?
d) The Church is a New Priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9)
As the new priesthood, our responsibility is to bring people to God. I want to create thirst in people’s life for the living water. I cannot quench it, but I can create it. I am His royal priest, meaning I am a priest who belongs to the King and have access to the true King and true High Priest. I am not even talking about evangelism per say, but in even helping other believers come a little closer to Christ by encouragement, prayer and exhortation. What would happen if we woke up each morning thinking to be God’s priest that day? Again, I am not going to belabor this point, as we studied this in 1 Peter last year.
e) The Church is God’s Temple (1 Cor. 3:9;16)
Lastly as His temple/building, I have access to God’s presence. Are you aware of His presence in your life and in our midst? I like what Ravi Zacharias says, “We have local churches where we meet together as believers. We no longer go to Mount Sinai to meet God. Why not? Because the place of the tabernacle and the temple is now replaced by the body—your body and mine—in which God meets with us and God dwells with us, and where we have communion with Him. When we come to the church now, we don’t come to the sanctuary; we bring our sanctuaries with us. This individual entity is the locus of appointment between God and me. There He meets. There He dwells.”
This does not mean we don’t need a local church, but that we realize when we gather together on Sundays, as a visible manifestation of the universal church, it is a foretaste of what it will look like when we are together with Him in Heaven. Heaven is simply the presence of God. God will meet with us. We have Him whom are hearts are made for and we will be experiencing that in community. You will have God’s maximum attention and He will have your maximum attention as well. Listen to John in Rev. 20:3: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God will himself will be with them as their God.”
But how do you experience God’s maximum attention of you now? You give Him your maximum attention. That is worship. Worship, simply defined, is a preoccupation with God. I am not talking about simply singing songs, I mean your whole life and including our life together here as we gather on Sundays. All of life is worship!
And the way you get preoccupied with God is to intentionally cultivate worship habits. It’s not natural, thus it requires intentional cultivation. Let’s apply this to Sunday service. I will look at why we gather in more detail next week, but today I want us to think about the question, “Am I accessing all that God wants me to access as I gather with believers on Sunday?” God is always trying to get Himself to me. The question is, am I there to receive it? If Sunday just becomes something you do once a week, you are missing out! Sure the Lord is with you when you are alone and speaking to you, but there is nothing like gathering together with God’s people.
The Bible says in Ps. 22:3: “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel,” which can be translated, “You are dwelling in the praises of Israel.” The idea is that God’s special presence is in the midst of when His people gather. It’s true personally, but it is also true corporately. Do I actively cultivate intentionality in my worship every Sunday? When I walk into this building, am I expecting worship to happen? Or am I determining to make worship happen?
When do you prepare for the Sunday service? In reality it should start Monday morning. I’m sure if you heard your favorite celebrity, author, musician, athlete, etc. was visiting you next week, you would probably think about giving that person your best today. But let me encourage that if you want the most out of your worship time here, start Saturday evening to prepare yourself. If you want the most from God, give Him your best. He gave you His best already. For me, I try hard to finish all sermon work by Friday or the latest Saturday afternoon, so I can rest in Him Saturday night and have time to reflect and pray Sunday morning as well. This has come from failing several times as I have stayed up late on Saturday nights finishing up and walking in here half asleep and tired. So turn off electronics on Saturday night, limit social activities and take time to prepare your heart to have an appetite for God’s Word and enjoy His presence on Sunday morning.
I also think that as we walk into this building, carrying our sanctuaries with us, we should be in anticipation to hear from God. We are not here to watch a movie or a performance. We are participants not spectators. So have your Bible with you. Open it and follow along. Let’s take time to prepare our heart before the lead worshipper asks us to. I notice we are casual (including myself) joking around and then suddenly starting to sing songs. Let’s cultivate intentional worship habits. Take time before you come to church to pray for yourself and everyone that God would meet us. Pray with your family if you come with your family. He’s here, but that our eyes would be open to see Him. I certainly could use a lot of prayer!
Pastor Robert Morgan says, “We must remind ourselves, over and over, that the focus of Sunday worship must be upon the living Christ among us. In truth, if Christ were bodily present and we could see him with more than our soul’s eyes, all our worship would become intentional. If Christ stood on our platforms, we would bend our knees without asking. If He stretched out His hands and we saw the wounds, our hearts would break; we would confess our sins and weep over our shortcomings. If we could hear His voice leading the hymns, we too would sing heartily; the words would take on meaning. The Bible reading would be lively; meaning would pierce to the marrow of our souls. If Christ walked our aisles, we would hasten to make amends with that brother or sister to whom we had not spoken. We would volunteer for service, the choir loft would be crowded. ..If we knew Christ would attend our church Sunday after Sunday, the front pews would fill fastest, believers would arrive early, offering plates would be laden with sacrificial but gladsome gifts, prayers would concentrate our attention. “Yet … Christ is present.”Let me close with this last thought:
IV.Why is the church important?
By this question I am referring to both the local and universal church. First of all, the church is important because the church is at the very heart of God. Remember how the high priest used to wear a breastplate that had all the names of the tribes of Israel on it? (Ex. 28:29). The people of God were always close to the high priest’s heart. How much more the church of God close to our great High Priest’s heart? God is a relational being and from the beginning He wanted a people for Himself. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under His rule. I like what Gordon Fee says, “God is not just saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather, he is creating a people among whom he can live and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character.”
So the church is at the heart of God and His purposes and His gospel. Pastor Mark Dever says, “Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.” The church is God’s main instrument in glorifying God in the world. The church is not the center of it all. Jesus is the center. But the church is called to show the world that Jesus is the center of at all.
In addition, the church is important because Jesus loves the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). Christ founded the church (Matt. 16:18), purchased it with his blood (Acts 20:28), and intimately identifies himself with it (Acts 9:4). So because Jesus loves the church, we should love the church. Since Jesus gave Himself up for the church, we give ourselves to Him and then for His body. Do you love the church that Jesus loves? Are you willing to give yourself for Living Hope, so that we may together reproduce God’s life and character here and be His instrument in bringing the nations to Himself?
Pastor and author Joshua Harris says we should fundamentally have the right reasons to love our church. He says, “Don’t love the church because of what it does for you. Because sooner or later, it won’t do enough. Don’t love the church because of a leader. Because human leaders are fallible and will let you down. Don’t love the church because of a program or a building or activities because all those things get old. Don’t love the church because of a certain group of friends because friendships change and people move.
Love the church because of who shed his blood to obtain the church. Love the church because of who the church belongs to. Love the church because of who the church worships. Love the church because you love Jesus Christ and his glory. Love the church because Jesus is worthy and faithful and true. Love the church because Jesus loves the church.”
Do you love Living Hope? Why do you love Living Hope? Let’s thank the Lord for allowing us to be His visible manifestation of His invisible body. What a privilege to be part of God’s cosmic, ultimate plan! Where do you personally need to grow in looking more like the church that God envisions? How are we intentionally cultivating worship habits? How can we grow in this? Above all, let’s ask the Lord that we would stop just thinking about going to church and start thinking about how we can BE the church for whom Jesus shed His blood.
Geisler, N. L. (2005). Systematic Theology, Vol. Four: Church, Last things (17). Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
Enns, P. P. (1997). The Moody Handbook of Theology (346–347). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.
Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (855). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
Check out the video clip here: http://www.joshharris.com/2010/06/mark_driscoll_church_is_not_a.php accessed 2 June 2011.
Zacharias, Ravi (2004). I, Isaac, Take Thee Rebekah (72). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Morgan, R. J. (2000). Nelson's complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed.) (815). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Quoted in Horrell, J. Scott. “The Self-Giving Triune God, The Imago Dei And The Nature Of The Local Church: An Ontology Of Mission,” http://bible.org/article/self-giving triune-god-iimago-deii-and-nature-local-church-ontology-mission#P100_44919 accessed 11 February 2011.
Taken from http://tollelege.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/the-church-is-the-gospel-made-visible-by-mark-dever/ accessed 2 June 2011.
Harris, Josh. “Wrong Reasons to Love the Church,” http://joshharris.com/2010/01/wrong_reasons_to_love_the_chur.php accessed 31 May 2011.