What Is the Church?

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What Is The Church?

(The following is a transcript of sorts, of a teaching message that I gave on May 15, 2016. I was given the privilege of filling in at the pulpit for our Pastor, who was away for some personal time.)

What is the church? The answer to this question can be as diverse as the number of people who answer it. When listening to the answers to this and other questions of a similar nature, from those inside and outside the church, the emotions evoked in me are anything from shock to grief. Some of the responses to the question might include perceptions, groups of people, the name of a church, buildings, the things done to us by human hands, membership to a set of human criteria, experiences, wounding, certain leaders, sacraments, traditions, modes of baptism, or any number of items. But very few times is anything from the Scriptures quoted to answer the question, “What is the Church?” 

The book of Ephesians is a letter describing the position and responsibility we have as believers. In the first few verses of the first chapter, Ephesians 1:3-14, the path and results of justification is described, among other things. There is a four phrase description that can help us simplify the passage: heard, believed, you in Christ, Holy Spirit in you. You heard the word of Truth, you believed the word of salvation, you are placed in Christ, and then you are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of your inheritance. 

So, what is the church? It is a group of people who have heard the truth, believed, been placed in Christ, and who have the Holy Spirit placed in them. If this results in justification, then the Bible tells us that we have no part in our being justified, and that it is all a work of God, even our believing. The church, then, is not a human invention, it is a divine institution. Becoming a part of the church, as the Scriptures maintain, has nothing to do with all the external expressions that so many are familiar with and practice week after week, and year after year. The traditions and experiences that we are familiar with are the expressions of our particular faith and our particular part of the church.

When we look at what most people declare as the “birth’ of the church at Pentecost, we find some interesting facts from the text of Acts chapter 2 (May 15th just happens to be Pentecost Sunday in the liturgical seasons of the church this year). Pentecost is one of the seven feasts in the Hebrew calendar that declared the work of God among His people. These feasts were Passover, Unleavened bread, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles. Unleavened bread, Weeks (or Pentecost), and Tabernacles were the three feast that required attendance by every male of the age of accountability. First, we need some background.

Jesus declared that, on the confession that He was the Christ, the Son of the living God, that He would build His church. There are two words that come into the picture as we look at this statement by Jesus. One is the fact that He is the Christ. There are many places in the Scripture that the believer is said to be in Christ, and literally in the Christ. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, or Anointed One. We need to understand that we are in the Messiah. The other word is the English word church. Church is the Greek word ekklesia, a word that means “called out ones.” Called out of what, and into what? Called out of the world and into a relationship with God through His Son. We find that both of these words have a history and have their origins in the Old Testament.

The Messiah, or Anointed One, was a term to designate a coming Savior who would save His people from their sin, slavery, and oppression of every kind. He, the Messiah, was their Deliverer, Hope, Restorer, and Expectation. There are many Messianic verses in the Old Testament that are only fulfilled by and through Jesus. The word church, when looked up in a Greek dictionary will mostly lend to a definition that includes the words assembly or congregation. In our English translations of the OT we find that the words assembly and congregation are the translations of two Hebrew words: eda and quhal. (I do not grasp the subtle uses myself entirely). It is important to note that you could be part of the eda, but not part of the quhal. The quhal is what is translated as ekklesia in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT. Thus, you may be part of the whole Assembly of God’s ethnic and external people, and not be part of the ones who have personally heard the call of God into relationship, the quhal or the ekklesia. Maybe that is what Paul meant, in part, in Romans 9 when he said that “not all Israel is Israel.” Maybe that is what is meant when Jesus says, “He who has ears let him hear.”

So, going back to Pentecost, was it the birth of the church? NO! Did something new happen? YES! After the tongues of fire, there was awe and criticism. But, Peter standing up stated that what was happening was prophesied by Joel in the OT (Acts 2:16). It was new in form but should not have been unexpected. Peter goes on to say that Jesus who was crucified was now made Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), another OT prophecy fulfilled and realized. Peter then says that this is the part of the ongoing plan of God, as many as the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39). What about this call? We know it goes forward. Where, and how far back, does it go?

We know that God had planned from the time of the Fall to redeem mankind back into relationship with Himself. He then keeps his purpose and plan in tact through the special people who listen and obey Him right up to the time of Abraham. In Genesis 12:1-3, God called Abraham into relationship, and promises him that he will be great and that all the nations and families of the earth will be blessed through him. We know that Abraham understood the promise from Jesus’ words in John 8:56: Abraham rejoiced to see My day and was glad. God then continued the promise to Isaac, Jacob, and to the people who became the nation of Israel.

When we look through the OT we then find many metaphors used to describe this call to relationship that God has for His people. Not all the nation always heard the call to relationship, but there were those who did. The Bible often refers to this smaller group as a remnant. Those who heard the call were described as a bride, a vineyard, a flock, and a kingdom (as in Exodus 19:5-6), among other metaphors. God called the people to obey, love, and serve Him. He would then be their provider, sustainer, and king. When we get to the NT we find Jesus calling Himself the Bridegroom, the Vine, The Good Shepherd, and the King.  Is it any wonder that the religious leaders of the day had a problem with His using the metaphors of God and applying them to Himself. Is it any wonder that Jesus was so vilified by the leaders of His day? He claimed to be God, and that no one could come to Father except through Him.

When we get to the NT we find additional metaphors for the people in relationship with God. We are stones in a spiritual temple with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. We are members of a spiritual household with God as our Father, and members of a family with brothers and sisters. We are a holy, royal priesthood (1 Peter 9-10), with Jesus as the High Priest. We are the body of the Lord with Jesus as the Head (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 2:23). We need to remember that none of this is without the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. His ascension exalted Him to the place of authority and rule (Acts 7:56; Philippians 2; Revelation 4-5, 12, 19).

The Holy Spirit was involved in the activity of Pentecost. He was the activity!! Was this when the Holy Spirit was first given? NO! Did He come in power? Yes! When, then, was the Spirit given first? In John 7:38, Jesus declared that all who believe in Him would have springs of living water flowing from them. This He said talking about the Holy Spirit who would be given once Jesus was glorified. He was glorified at His resurrection. On that same day of His resurrection at evening, He appeared to the disciples in a locked room. After giving them peace, He said receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22). There are no fireworks and fanfare when we receive the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). It is all of God. (It is a danger to make a dogma out of what happens as a result of the Spirit being in us or filling us). The disciples are then told to wait in the city until they are endued with the Spirit, or clothed with the Spirit (Luke 24:49). Being clothed is what others see us dressed in. (We are told many times to put on Christ.) The disciples are then told that the Holy Spirit will come upon them with power (Acts 1:8). This is a forceful action as a result of their being filled (Acts 2:2-4). The Holy Spirit is a gentleman and will not force His residence in us in the justification work of God. Peter then encourages the listeners at Pentecost to repent so that they could receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

So, Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us who have heard the word of Truth, and have believed, that we are placed in Christ in all that it means, and that we have the Holy Spirit in us as a guarantee of our eternal inheritance. Justification!! Part of the church!! Romans 5:1 states that, therefore, since we have been justified,,,,,,,,,,. Romans 8:1 starts with, therefore, there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, and chapter 8 ends with no separation. Romans 12 states that, therefore, be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Past, present, and future are in Romans 5, 8, and 12.

Have you heard, believed, and are you in Christ? Are you part of the church? The church as the Scriptures define it. The people that God is calling to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. The church that is the body of Christ. The elect from every age from eternity past to eternity future. The invisible church that is the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews, and of whom the hymn writer states we have “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” The church that is all around the world. The elect from the four corners of the earth. It is much bigger than just those who gather at Mohicanville every Sunday. It is much grander than how we tend to define ourselves. We are an important part, but only a part.     

Some of us have heard and believed, and there was no fireworks and fanfare. You doubt. Read the Truth of God’s Word and live out what is in you.

Some of us are hearing, and have heard, and have not believed unto salvation. Do it!

Some of us have heard, believed, and are complacent in our faith. Move on!

Some of us are moving with God by His Spirit. Persevere, endure, and overcome.

If you are in Christ, nothing you do or have done can keep you from entering into Paradise and Heaven.

If you are not in Christ, then a whole life of doing things cannot get you into Paradise and Heaven.

Our foundation is the risen, exalted Christ. Hear the word of Truth and believe.   

God is Good and Heaven is for Real.

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To say that God is good and heaven is real, is to declare that there is a trust and perspective that we as believers have in Jesus, that most of the world will not. But there are other statements that we use, or are used in our healing, that may need to have some more thought and response put into them as we encounter people going about our lives. Some of these statements are, “it was an act of God,” or, “it must have been God’s will,” or even, “why did God let this happen!” Sometimes we may mean well, but at times I think we can contradict ourselves if a larger understanding and perspective is not in place. God gets the blame for many things that are not to His blame. They are because of pride, selfishness, disobedience, and sin in general. I am not going to submit or presume that I know all the reasons these statements can be used, or how God may use them in spite of our inadequate attempt to make use of them. I only want to challenge, and be challenged, to a greater understanding of the purposes of God so that I can have an increased knowledge of the heart of God. It has been said that if you do not see His hand, trust His heart. Either way, I know that I am only going to see the tip of the iceberg, as they say.  

The Bible does not set out to prove that God exists. It asserts and assumes His existence and sovereignty. It also states clearly the condition of the human heart and human existence in all of its reality. The Bible narrates for us in many forms, and different types of Biblical literature, that we have an origin, a reason for existence, a morality to attain, and a destination. It also declares that the reason for many of the trials, griefs, and challenges that we have and face were not of His choosing. But, because of His purposes and His grace, He works within the choices that we make, and have made. Creation at the beginning was free from sin, corruption, and death. Because we have been created in the image and likeness of God we have free will. Free will allows us to choose to love or not to love, freedom to choose to keep commandments or disobey. The first couple was deceived into disobeying. In their pristine environment they were offered an opportunity to assert their independence. They were given warning of the choices they could make. God had warned them that they would surely die. We know from the story that they did not die right away. The Hebrew scholars suggest that the language implies that “in dying you will die.” They would die physically, but they would die spiritually first. It was surely God’s mercy that forced Him to keep them from the Tree of Life, by posting guardian angels so that they would not live eternally in a corrupted and decaying state of being (see Genesis 3). Separation was not His intention for their existence. Then only a few verses later we find God setting out a plan of redemption, for them and all who would follow (Genesis 3:15).

Since the beginning God has been working out His plan to redeem, and restore humanity into full fellowship with Him. The Bible is filled with God’s encouraging, calling, warning, judging, and leading all of His people through all the ages, to a future, final restoration of all things. His means to that end have been many, but His purpose has stayed the same. He has even used and created events, that for many were seen as natural phenomena, but to the spiritual eye are known to be orchestrated by God. He has interrupted the course of an event or situation to draw attention to His presence and involvement. We call these occurrences miracles. A miracle is when God sovereignly and supernaturally interrupts the normal function and activity of an event or person, changes the status of the condition, and then the normal function and activity continues, normally and naturally. God uses His miracles to authenticate or confirm a message or a messenger of His choosing. The responses to the miracles of God are as many as the people who were privileged to observe them, but finally are divided into only two perspectives, those who see God at work, and those who will come to any another conclusion. For the remainder of this blog post I will include miracles and healings in the same category. It is important to know that the Bible distinguishes them individually.

Physical healing is a miracle that the Bible records quite often, especially in the Gospels. Once Jesus was in a house teaching, and a lame man was lowered through the ceiling by his friends (see Mark 2). Jesus saw their faith, and told the lame man that his sins were forgiven. To this the leaders chastised Jesus that only God could forgive sins. His response was, “so that you may know that the Son of Man can forgive sins,” He then healed the lame man. The miracle of healing was a sign to point to who Jesus was, and what He came to ultimately do. Healing is often called one of the sign gifts. A sign is something that points to something else greater or more significant than itself. The types of healing in the Scriptures are various, and the means of healing are never the same in any two occurrences. Sometimes touch was used by the one doing the healing. Sometimes there were just words spoken. Sometimes faith of the one being healed was part of the context, sometimes the faith of the ones bringing the one healed, and sometimes faith is not mentioned at all, or indirectly. Sometimes the one healed was present, and sometimes they were not near. Sometimes Jesus knew who He was healing, and sometimes it caught Him by surprise at who touched the hem of His robe. Sometimes Jesus told people to show themselves to others, and sometimes He instructed those healed to tell no one. Sometimes Jesus used nothing, and sometimes He used dirt and spittle. Sometimes He restored what was lost, and sometimes He gave what was never there to begin with. Sometimes the ones healed knew who He was, and others did not know who He was. Sometimes the impact was for the one healed, and other times it was for the impact of those nearby. Sometimes it was just a shadow, and sometimes it was a piece of cloth. Sometimes many were healed, and a few times we are told that Jesus would have healed, but could not because of a lack of faith on the part of those He wanted to heal. What does this point to? That miracles and healing are indeed a sovereign act of God to point us to Himself and authenticate His messenger. That is where we must begin in our trust and perspective.

What was, and is, the ultimate purpose of healing? Is it to make our situation or condition better? Yes, it will do that. But if that is all we want to occur we have missed the sovereignty of God. Do we want a miracle or healing to improve our lives? It may do that, but it will at best be temporary. When we get to heaven and ask the lame man about His healing, will he tell us that physical healing is what he needed, or will he tell you about the forgiveness of his sins that Jesus gave. The lame man still had to face death as one who could finally walk. But now, with his sins forgiven, he could know that heaven was his destination regardless of his malady. 

Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, was very sick and near death (see John 11-12). Jesus was summoned by his two sisters to come and heal him. Jesus purposely waited. Lazarus died and was buried. Four days passed. When Jesus finally came, He called on both of the sisters to believe that He, Jesus, was the resurrection and the life. Martha proclaimed that she knew her brother would rise in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus commanded them to take away the stone. He prayed to God the Father, thanking Him for hearing Him, so that those around could hear Him say it. Then He raised Lazarus back to life. The purpose of raising Lazarus back to life was to point to the power and person of Jesus, and what HE came to do.

Did Jesus raise Lazarus because He loved him? That is part of it. But the purpose of the miracle was to point to who Jesus was, and is. Did it make Lazarus’ life more full after coming back to life? To be sure, his perspective was a little clearer than anyone else in his village. Was his life one of notoriety? Yes, but not the way we would expect. There were those who saw the miracle and gave God the glory, and there were those who saw the same event and did not. The religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus and Lazarus afterwards because of their envy and jealousy. Did Lazarus eventually die again? Yes.

Now this is the hard part. How do we answer the obvious questions? Why do some get healed and others do not? Why does God choose to work in one instance and seem to be silent in another? Paul healed many and yet God chose to leave him with his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul’s eyesight was never healed, and his execution was never cancelled. There seems to be a very broad spectrum of answers from teachers, leaders, and church positions. Some on one end suggest that some, or most, of the sign gifts are not present in our day. The other end of the spectrum wants to make one particular mode of healing the pattern or the dogma (belief) of a ministry. “Why are they not in the hospitals,” we ask? Some claim healing for the wrong reasons. It may be dangerous to claim something that is sovereignly purposed and used by God. The whole of Scripture does not promote either of these extremes. Most people are in the middle, many unclear what to think, remaining silent, untaught, and maybe unconvinced or confused about the reality of miracles and healing. It may be that we need a better understanding of God’s purposes, and the eternal perspective that He wants us to gain.

I would like to humbly submit my observations about what the Scriptures contain about miracles and healing. These are my insights only. I believe that God is more, or most interested in our being in a right relationship with Him and not being deceived, than our ease in life, our comfort, or even the preservation of our physical life. He uses miracles and healing to show us Himself. Do we need them? Sometimes! Does He show Himself faithful when the ones we love are struggling and fighting their afflictions, and still keeping their faith in Him to the end? I have seen it, and I am humbled. Is He concerned about every minutia of our existence? Yes, indeed!! He cares deeply!! But our lives here, in this sinful condition, were never meant to last forever. We would not want it to last forever. Do we grieve because of the loss of loved ones? Do we ache for those who have a challenge that seems unbearable? Sure we do, to tears! We look forward to a city whose maker and builder is God. The faithful people who have gone before were not delivered from their persecutions (Hebrews 11).  We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22). If God is good, then we are promised that He will use all things for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). If heaven is real, then we do not want to be here any longer than is necessary to complete what He has designed us to do. I have heard it said that our ministry of reconciliation is to assist people to get into a right relationship with God and prepare them for death, and once that is settled, then teach them how to really live. Our trust that He is good, and that heaven is for real, are two of the truths of the faith that gives us a perspective on what happens to us here. Some would suggest that that is just the easy excuse we fall back on when we do not have answers, or something does not go the way we would like. Is it an easy excuse? It takes a large portion of humility to submit to Him by faith in those times. Humility is not easy for any of us. Humility was, and is, our problem to begin with.

Miracles and healings are given sovereignly, and used sovereignly, by God alone. If we ask for healing, we ask in faith. We are even told that we can ask persistently. But knowing that God knows the end from the beginning, He knows the greater purposes that will benefit us. Trusting that what He is doing is the greatest good and knowing that when His glory is our delight, will produce in us a trust in His promise: “He will do more than we can ask or think.” Only then do we then have the right position before Him. Peter saw the glory of Jesus at the transfiguration, and then declares that we have something more sure, confirming: the prophetic word (the Bible), that we are to adhere to until Jesus returns (2 Peter 1:19). We are told to endure, persevere, and to overcome the world as Jesus did. Some suggest that time heals all things. No. Time reveals the Healer of all things. God is in the process of redeeming a people for Himself in and through His Son Jesus Christ. One day soon, He will restore the creation, glorify our decaying bodies, and reunite us with those who are in Christ who have gone on before us. Knowing that God is good is a statement of the trust and faith we have in Him. Knowing that heaven is for real is a statement of the hope we have in Him. The Bible reassures us that no trial comes our way that God in not aware and that God will be with us. God uses our sufferings for His purposes in this life, and they are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory that is to come (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).