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.