Church is a Group Activity (4): Form, Fit and Function
A Texas rancher bought 10 ranches and put them together to form one giant spread. His friend asked him the name of his new mega-ranch. He replied, "It’s called The Circle Q, Rambling Brook, Double Bar, Broken Circle, Crooked Creek, Golden Horseshoe, Lazy B, Bent Arrow, Sleepy T, Triple O Ranch."
"Wow," said his friend, "I bet you have a lot of cattle."
"Not really," explained the rancher. "Not many survive the branding."
See, this is Paul’s message in this second chapter of Ephesians that we have been studying. We have to get past our past. We have to realize that it is never going to work if we have Circle Q, Double Bar R, Golden Horseshoe and Triple O. We won’t survive the branding! We’re not Jew and Gentile – we’re not male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, Gringos and Hispanics – we are the church – the body of Christ – one entity, one identity, one aim and one goal.
Paul has been showing the Ephesians important truths about the church in three images as we finish chapter two. He has shown them to be a country – equally privileged; a family – equally belonging and finally a building – equally needed.
III. The Church is a Temple
C. We Have a Fit
Okay, so we’ve seen that we have a foundation –basically consisting of the teaching of the apostles and prophets -- Scripture, and we have focus – none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Thirdly, we have a fit in this church, this body of Christ seen as a building. We have a fit, and that fit concerns each of us individually. Let’s begin reading at verse 20: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21) in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. If you analyze this closely, you will see that verses 21 and 22 are basically saying the same thing, just in different words. We want to particularly notice the words “being joined together” in verse 21 and the words “being built together” in verse 22. They are parallel words speaking eloquently of our place as believers in the body of Christ, the church. Let’s look at them more closely.
First, we should note that both are present tense verbs. That emphasizes the ongoing action of the building process. Many of you have no doubt visited some of the cathedrals in Europe that were literally centuries in the building – truly amazing structures and works of art. Well, this living building of God’s church has been under construction for over 2,000 years now with no end in sight. It was under construction when Paul wrote to the Ephesians. It was under construction as the apostolic era gave way to the church fathers. It was under construction during the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, and it is still under construction today. It is a living building.
Second, we should note that both verbs are passive. That means that it is God who is doing the building, God who is doing the joining together. If we have truly accepted Christ as Savior and Lord we are part of this magnificent building project, but we should never labor under the impression that it is on us to build the church. That is God’s job. We are to function together; we are to labor together with Him; we are to be active, but the actual constructing is His.
Now, let’s look at the meaning of these words. Both are taken from the construction industry. The first literally means to fit or to pile. And then Paul has added the little Greek word for “with” to form a new word. Thus it means “to fit or join with”. The word picture is this. In the day in which Paul was writing, stones were joined together to make the wall of a building without the use of mortar. They did not have the advantage that we have today of being able to fill in the gaps where stones did not fit precisely by the use of mortar or cement. The fit had to be precise. The stones had to fit exactly. Paul’s addition of the little word with, then, emphasizes the extreme importance of there being a fit between all contiguous stones.
What are those stones? Well, it is implied here, but Peter, as you will recall, specifically states, the stones are believers. [I Pet 2:5] you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. We are the stones, Beloved, and Paul is emphasizing, by adding the little Greek word “with” to “fit” how important it is that we fit together. He adds that same little word “with” to the more general word for “build” used in verse 22 – so by the time he’s done, we get the picture. We Jews, Gentiles, bond, free, white, brown, black – whatever we are, we are to fit together.
Just think of some of the implications of this picture. First, we see that the stones are placed into position in relationship to Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone, so if they do not align with him, they cannot belong. If we have not come to him by faith, we are cast aside. You’ll recall that we saw a couple of weeks ago from Isaiah 28 that the plumb line – the standard of Christ our cornerstone is justice and righteousness – standards we could never meet on our own but only as we accept His righteousness for us. We really have two choices in that matter – be cast aside by man, as was Christ, but accepted by God – or be accepted by men, but cast aside by God because we refuse the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Only believers are part of this building.
Second, we see that the architect is God. That means that it is not for us to determine where we fit, or how we fit, or what gifts we bring to the fit. That is all for Him to determine, and it is for us to cooperate with His purpose. If God says, “I want you in row 14 and column 4”, would it not be presumptuous of us, though we are a living stone, to say, “But I want to be in row 17, column 8 with my friend Johnny.” If God says, I want you in Eaton, CO, would it not be presumptuous for us to say, “But I like it here – in Anaheim.”
Third, the stones are of different shapes and sizes, perhaps even of different material, and they are employed for different functions. Some serve in one way, some another. If God says, “I’d like you to see to the financial matters of this local body,” who are we to say, “but I want to teach a class.” See, God is the architect and our whole endeavor must be to see where He is wanting us and cooperating with His plans. If God says, “I’d like you to organize the building project,” who are we to say, “But I want to be the pastor.” That’s one difficulty in working with living stones, you see. They sometimes choose to exercise their own will to their own detriment and that of the rest of the building. We need to cooperate with God in His architectural responsibilities so that we don’t force Him to have to discipline us. The question isn’t what do I want, but rather, where do I fit?
Fourth, the stones are linked to one another. From where they are placed they cannot always see this; they cannot always even see the other stones. But they are part of one interlocking whole regardless. And, implicit in this is that they need each other. Stones who refuse to fit in, who avoid fellowship, who want to go it on their own are useless in God’s plan and may well not be true stones at all.
Fifth, the stones are shaped by God so that ultimately their fit is exact. This is a sometimes painful process, and it is lifelong, but ultimately we are promised that 6) he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. And, as we’ve already noted and as Paul says in Romans 8:29, we are predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. That’s when the fit will be perfect. But even now, we should be making progress to that end.
Sixth, the stones of the temple are chosen, shaped, and placed, not to draw attention to themselves, but to contribute to a great building in which God alone dwells. As we will see in a moment, it is always about His glory, not ours – but interestingly enough, as we mature, we will find that our greatest happiness comes in glorifying Him.
Finally, the placing of each stone is only part of a long work begun thousands of years in the past that will continue until the end of the age when the Lord returns.
I once heard of an evangelist who told the following incident: He had a friend who in a time of business recession lost his job, a sizable fortune, and his beautiful home. To add to his sorrow, his precious wife died; yet he tenaciously held to his faith -- the only thing he had left. One day when he was out walking in search of employment, he stopped to watch some men who were doing stonework on a large church. One of them was chiseling a triangular piece of rock. ’Where are you going to put that?’ he asked. The workman said, ’Do you see that little opening up there near the spire? Well, I’m shaping this stone down here so that it will fit in up there.’ Tears filled my friend’s eyes as he walked away, for the Lord had spoken to him about his own bleak situation. We’re being shaped here to fit up there. I like that.
I tell you, Beloved, there is not one thing, big or little, that is entering your life that is not God fitting you for your place in His temple – not one. If we could only see from God’s perspective, when we are most burdened, we are most blessed and in every circumstance, we are becoming more fit as we live by faith.
D. We Have a Function
Now finally, this image of the church as a building reveals that we have a function. There is a purpose to the church considered as a body and it is a privileged purpose indeed. We find it again in both verses, the last phrase in each case: 21) in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Our purpose? – we are collectively a holy temple, the dwelling place for God Himself.
To get the background to this, we must first look at a couple of OT passages. God is represented there as personally taking up a dwelling place, first in the tabernacle at the time of the Exodus and later in the temple of Solomon, the house that David so desperately wanted to build for God and which was finally completed by his son.
First, the tabernacle. We read in Exodus 40:34-35: 34) Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35) And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. God’s presence in the tabernacle and then temple was a very special concession to man, and it was His choice to dwell among the Israelites that rendered them the people who were “near” and the other Gentile nations those who were “far off.” They were literally and physically far away from this particular gracious manifestation of God.
God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple were cause for very reverential behavior. His presence was manifest above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, the place that could be entered only once a year, only by a priest and only after an atoning sacrifice.
We find God’s presence entering Solomon’s temple in I Kings 8. We should first note that in his dedicatory prayer, Solomon recognizes that God cannot be confined to any particular place or area, certainly not a temple. He says in I Kings 8:27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Solomon was well aware of the omnipresence of God. And yet God did in a special sense inhabit this temple. Just move back a few verses in I Kings 8 and we see that. Look beginning at verse 10: 10) And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, 11) so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. 12) Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13) I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” The Greek version of the OT uses the same word for “dwell” in verse 13 that we have in Ephesians 2:22. It must have been a great day when Solomon was able to offer this temple to God and God honored that effort with His presence.
But, of course, much had happened between that time and the time of Ephesians. The Lord had long since abandoned His earthly habitation in the Jewish temple because of their eventual idolatry and unbelief. And though a new temple had been built by Herod in Jerusalem and the Jews once again went through all the symbolic rituals, the presence of the Lord was no longer there, having departed centuries before during the time of Ezekiel. But now – now in the time of the church age -- now there is to be something new.
The New Testament presents two concepts of the temple of God. First, in some sense, the bodies of individual believers are the temple of God as we find in I Cor. 6 19) Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20) for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. This is Paul’s teaching in the context of instruction regarding sexual purity. Thus, in one sense, each of us is responsible to consider our own body as the very temple of God and to treat it as such by the way we care for it.
But Paul had also spoken in I Cor 3 about the collective group of believers being a temple of God: 16) Do you not know that you (plural) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (plural)? 17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you (plural) are that temple. Now, writing later in Ephesians 2, Paul has expanded and refined the concept. Here he is noting that those who in OT times were “near” as well as those who were “far off” have now been combined into a single new entity, neither Jew nor Gentile, but a new man, and it is in that combined group of living people, not in any material building, that God has taken up a special residence. He is no more totally confined there than He was in the OT tabernacle and temple. He retains His omnipresence as before, but His special manifestation is now through this new entity, his body, the church.
One cannot escape the thought that as Paul dictated this letter, he had not one but two temples at the forefront of his mind. Even as he dictated, there stood in Ephesus the magnificent marble temple of Artemis (‘great is Diana of the Ephesians’), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and in whose inner shrine there was a statue of the goddess. At the same time in Jerusalem there stood the Jewish temple built by Herod the Great, barricading itself against the Gentiles, and now also against God, whose shekinah glory it had housed in its inner sanctuary for centuries, but whose glory as revealed in its Messiah it had sought to extinguish. Two temples, one pagan and the other Jewish, each designed by its devotees as a divine residence, but both empty of the living God. For now there is a new temple, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. It is his new society, his redeemed people scattered throughout the inhabited world. They are his home on earth. They will also be his home in heaven. For the building is not yet complete. It grows into a holy temple in the Lord. Only after the creation of the new heaven and the new earth will the voice from the throne declare with emphatic finality: ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.’
So, here we are, dear people, we, the lot of us, collectively in this little 130 year old building – here we are every bit as much the habitation of God on earth as was the tabernacle in the wilderness – every bit as much the habitation of God on earth as was Solomon’s great temple. Here we are. Raises a very important question, doesn’t it? Just exactly what is it that people are seeing when they look at us, we who are the housers of God at 2nd and Cheyenne in Eaton, Colorado? Do they see His grace manifested in our lives, in our talk, in our attitudes and actions toward each other and others in our community? Do they see His power in our faith and our expectations and in our prayers? Do they see His love in our kindness toward each other even when, no, especially when we do not necessarily agree with each other? Do they see unity of purpose, strength of mind, and a passion for others to know God? Do they see the real thing, or do they see a poor imitation, dysfunction, disharmony, ego and pride. Oh, I pray with all my heart that we are the real thing, imperfect though we may and will be that we are the real thing. Do you believe that God dwells among us?
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great English preacher from the mid-20th century told this story once. He said he remembered a woman who was a spiritist, a medium, a paid medium employed by a spiritist society. She used to go every Sunday evening to a spiritist meeting and was paid three guineas for acting as a medium. This was during the thirties, and that was quite a large sum of money for a lower middle-class woman. She was ill one Sunday and could not go to keep her appointment. She was sitting in her house and she saw people passing by on their way to church where Lloyd-Jones happened to be pastoring in South Wales. Something made her feel a desire to know what those people had and so she decided to go to the service, and did so. She came ever afterwards until she died, and became a very fine Christian. One day he asked her what caused her to stay. This was her reply and this is what I'm illustrating. She said, "The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat amongst the people I was conscious of a power. I was conscious of the same sort of power as I was accustomed to in our spiritist meetings, but there was one big difference; I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.” The point is she was aware of a power. This is the mysterious element. It is the presence of the Spirit in the heart of God's children, God's people and an outsider become aware of this.
Is God among us in such a way that people feel it when they come in? Don’t you cry for that? Don’t you want that? Don’t you revel in the thought that Almighty God has taken up residence among us? Oh, God, may we be worthy by your grace of this high calling and purpose! To be God’s habitation in this world, and being prepared to be His habitation in heaven. That’s a high calling, folks. It just doesn’t get better than that.
Now, in conclusion, think about this. We are now at the end of chapter 2 of Ephesians. Remember where chapter 2 started? Dead Men walking. Remember that! Dead men walking. Zombieland. Paul started by describing the Gentiles past in that light, but soon acknowledged that the Jews shared that very same fate. Apart from Christ and His cross, none of them and none of us are more than dead men, walking around, but without any spiritual life at all, with no hope, without Christ in the world and completely unresponsive to God.
And, now, here we are not only responsive to God, but His very habitation on earth. Kind of leaves you speechless, doesn’t it? And in this last section, we’ve seen that church is a group activity. By means of three images, Paul shows that
• the church is a city – we are all equally privileged;
• the church is a family -- we are all equally wanted;
• and finally, the church is a building – we are all equally needed
Do you believe that? Do you believe that we are all equally privileged, equally wanted and equally needed? If we do, God can use us to accomplish great things. Unity is a mighty force. Did you ever wonder why you can shine a normal spotlight, even a very powerful one, at a steel beam and all that happens is it’s easier to see. But point a laser at that beam, and it can cut right through it like it was butter. Why? What’s the difference? Both are light.
Well, in my junior year in high school, I wondered that same thing so I wrote a paper on laser beams, and I found out, at the risk of oversimplifying that a laser consists of tube with mirror at each end. Normal light consists of photons of energy that move in relative, but not precise order. When photons of light are introduced into the laser tube, they begin to bounce back and for the between the mirrors which eventually gets all the energy going in precisely the same direction. That’s why a laser beam never gets wider. You could point it directly at the moon and it would the same width there as it is here on earth – and that is the source of its power. The concentration of energy, all moving in exactly the same direction results in the intense heat that can cut right through the beam of steel.
Here’s how the same can be true in the spiritual realm. In the early years of his ministry, Dr. George W. Truett, at First Baptist, Dallas, took the following verse as his text for a morning’s message: “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 18:19). Having quoted his text, Dr. Truett asked: “Do you believe it?” Of course he did not expect an answer, but one was forthcoming nevertheless. As he paused for a moment that his question might be understood, a very poor member of the congregation, poor in this world’s goods but rich in faith, rose to her feet. “I believe it, pastor,” she said, “and I want you to claim that promise with me.”
“It staggered me,” Truett said. “I knew I did not have the faith to claim the promise, but before I had time to answer, a big, burly blacksmith in the congregation rose to his feet; “I’ll claim that promise with you, Auntie,” he said, and together the two, the poor washer-woman and the blacksmith, dropped to their knees in the aisle and poured out their hearts in prayer for the salvation of the woman’s husband.”
Now it happened that this husband was a riverboat captain on the Rio Grande, a swearing, foul-mouthed drunken sot, and he was at that moment sleeping off a drink at home. That night, for the first time in many years at least, the old riverboat captain was in the church and while the pastor preached the woman prayed, not for the salvation of her husband, rather she was thanking God for it, for she seemed to know it would happen that night. And of course when the invitation was given this old foul-mouthed captain came to give his heart to the Lord and he became one of the most dependable and faithful workers in that church.
If that’s what happens when two agree, what will happen as we continue to increase our unity, our passion and our concentration, Beloved? What will happen? Only God knows, but I want to find out, don’t you? Church is a group activity. Let’s get to it. Opportunities for service will become more abundant as we get into Fall. Seek now how the Lord might want to use you.