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The Building: Christ’s Presence in the Church

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July 27, 2011

“In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Ephesians 2:22

I have some big prayers for this series.  For younger people trying to discover what God would have you do.  Some of you have gifts that could be used strategically in the work of the church here and around the world.  I’m praying that as we get a better vision of what the church is that you would seriously think and pray about whether God would be calling you to devote yourself full and directly to serving the body of Christ.

Some of you are in mid-life and you are looking at how to readjust your focus.  You’re in a position where you are able to do that.  I’m praying that there will be many in mid-life who get a fresh vision of the body of Christ and who say, “In the second half of my life, as God gives that to me, I am going to devote myself to the good of the body of Christ.”

Many of you have significant influence within Christian organizations.  You are doing marvelous work and you influence policy within these organizations.  I’m praying that as a result of this series, you will say, “It is not enough to lead people to Christ and disciple them.  Our organization needs an intentional strategy to help the people we serve to become part of a local church.”  This is of huge importance.  If you understand the doctrine of the church, it will begin to shape vision and policy.

For all of us, I’m praying that you will feel that being a member of the body of Christ is the greatest privilege that you have in this world.  I’m praying that all of us will value and treasure this gift and pour ourselves into becoming all that the church can be for the glory of Christ.

For those who are disappointed or frustrated with the church

The biblical image of the church we’ll be looking at today is especially important for people who’ve been disappointed with the church.  You may be saying, “I’m hearing all this about a local congregation of believers, but I could tell you a story or two.”  Well, I’ve been a pastor for over 30 years, and I could tell you a story or two as well.

If you’ve ever been discouraged or frustrated with the church, if you’ve ever felt like giving up on the church, and my guess is that most Christians have felt like this at some point in their lives, then this message is for you.

More than anything else, what we are going to look at today is what you need to hear and grasp and see, so that you will be able to sustain a lifetime of ministry within the body of Christ, wherever he places you.

The church is unlike anything else in this world, so God uses multiple images to teach us what it’s like.  We are the body—this image tells us that Christ works through the church.  Today, I want us to see that we are the building, and this speaks of Christ’s presence in the church.

The Church is a Building of People

“You… are being built together…” Ephesians 2:22

When Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), he was talking about people.  God’s great purpose over all the centuries is to gather a people for himself.  Here on earth, Christ gathers people in local congregations of believers called out to worship and sent out to serve.

This image shows that the purpose of our Lord is that he wants to build us together, “You too are being built together” (Ephesians 2:22).  Peter, who is referred to as “the stone” or “the rock” picks up this same theme saying, “You [are] living stones” (1 Peter 2:5).  Christ is putting together a building that’s made up of people and each of us is like a living stone.

It’s important to remember that building in New Testament times was rather different from the way that we build homes today.  We are used to building with bricks.  The obvious thing about bricks is that they are all the same.  They are the same shape, the same size and the same color.

But the picture here isn’t a building with bricks, but with stones, “You are living stones” (2:5).  Stones come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors.  They are hewn out of a quarry.  When they come out they have all kinds of rough edges and the great skill of the master builder is to fit them together so that each one finds its special place within the building.

One of the joys of travelling in Scotland is seeing the “Drystane Dykes” (dry stone walls).  A dry stone wall is one that’s built without mortar.  You see them all over Scotland and in some other places in Europe.  Amazing! No mortar, and yet many of the walls have stood since the 17th century.

These walls have no mortar—they are simply stones.  You cannot build a dry stone wall from one shape or size of stone—it is impossible!  The whole point of it is that the strength of the wall depends on the placing and the shape of each individual stone.

It is something like this that the Apostle Paul is telling us about here—each of us is like a living stone.  We are all different.  We all have our own individuality, and Christ uses this as he builds his church.

You may come to our congregation and say, “I’m not so sure that I’m like other people here.”  Then I would respond, “That is exactly why you are needed here.”  Because it takes all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors, all kinds of living stones, for God, the Master Builder, to build the building that he is putting together.

God created you as a one-of-a-kind.  He redeems what he created.  What he has placed in you by creation, he has now redeemed for the good of his church and for the ultimate glory of his Son.

The Church is a Work in Progress 

“The whole building… rises to become…” Ephesians 2:21

“You too are being built together…” Ephesians 2:22

Notice the present tense, “The building rises… You are being built together,” this is something that is still going on.  This is very important, especially for those who are prone to discouragement.

The Apostle is telling us here that the church is a work in progress, and God’s building is not yet complete.  So, no one should be surprised if the local church looks and feels more like a building site than a showroom.

The church is made up of ordinary people who are in the process of being redeemed.  We are all sinners in the process of being renewed.  There isn’t one of us here today who is everything that he or she might be, and none of us here who is everything that he or she will be.

It was Augustine who described the church as “a hospital for sinners.”  He said it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because the patients were sick.  The whole point of the hospital is that people are there because they’re sick and they haven’t yet recovered.

Set your expectations of the local church wisely.  It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage.  So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?  When we see him we will be like him, but until then we are like a building under construction.

In any congregation of believers you will find that there are things not yet done and things that are out of place.  Some things need to be taken down, other things need to be cleaned up.  Many things are only roughed in and need to be finished.  It will always be like that until Jesus Christ comes.

It’s easy for a critic and the cynic to come into the local church and say, “Look at all this that is not yet done.  Look at all this that is not yet complete.  How can Jesus Christ be present in this?”  And the answer is that Jesus Christ is present in his church as the builder.

Suppose you have a remodeling job to be done in your house.  You hire a builder, you give him the key and you go away on vacation.  A week later you come back and everything is exactly the way you left it.  What’s your conclusion?  You’d say, “The builder hasn’t even shown up.”

But if you come back and there are drop cloths on the carpets, ladders against the walls and a huge pile of junk outside on the pavement, you’d say, “The builders have been here,” because there’s chaos.

The evidence of Christ’s presence in a local congregation of believers is not that everything is complete, but that everything is in process.  The fact that the church often feels more like a building site than a showroom is evidence of the presence of the builder.

If you do not understand that the church is a work in progress, you will spend the rest of your life looking for perfection, and you will end up alone.  That is not the will of God for you.

The Church is a home in preparation

“You too are being built together to become a dwelling place in which God lives by His Spirit.” Ephesians 2:22

Christ will not be the builder forever.  One day the building will be complete and when it is, Christ will make it his home.  In other words, Christ will be at home with his people, when all his work in and among his people is complete.  You are being built together“to become a dwelling place in which God lives by His Spirit” (2:22).

A theme that runs through the Old Testament

One great theme that runs through the bible story is God looking for a home on earth.  At Mount Sinai God told Moses to build the tabernacle, a meeting place between God and his people.  Then the Lord said something even better, “When you get into the Promised Land… seek the place the Lord your God will choose… to put his name for his dwelling” (Deuteronomy 12:5).  The meeting place will now be a dwelling place.

Later David discerned that Jerusalem was that place.  That’s why Solomon built the temple there.  And when it was dedicated, the cloud of God’s glory filled the whole place.  All the people could see the visible evidence of the presence of Almighty God.  Here was the place where God actually is.  Here was the place where God’s presence was made known, the dwelling place of God on earth.

Follow the story of the temple.  God’s people sinned against him in various ways, but by the time you get to King Manasseh the worship of God in the temple has been replaced with astrology.  There are astrological signs etched in the temple of God (2 Kings 21).  So, the glory of the Lord departed from the temple.  God withdrew his presence.

The temple was eventually overrun and God’s people became exiles in another land for 70 years.  Then God brought them back in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and they rebuilt the temple.  But when they dedicated it, no cloud of glory came and filled that temple.

They had the word of the prophets and they were looking for what God would do for a dwelling place.  By the end of the Old Testament, the prophets are looking for the day when “the Lord will suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1).

And then one day he did.  When Jesus walked into the temple, do you remember what he found?  The leadership of the temple had lost their vision of ministry to the nations.  It was no longer a house of prayer, so Jesus drove out the traders.

Later he said, “Not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).  In the year AD 70, in come the Romans and what Jesus said comes true, and it’s never been rebuilt.  So, where’s the meeting place with God?

Jesus said something else, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).  He wasn’t referring to the building.  He was referring to himself, to his own flesh.  Do you see the huge significance of that?

The Lord Jesus Christ is saying, “You’ve thought that there was just one location in all the earth where you could have a true meeting with God.  I’m telling you, I am the place where you meet with God.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s true because “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

Then Jesus went on to say something extraordinary, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

The New Testament promise

If you come to love and trust the Lord Jesus Christ, here’s the New Testament promise: The Father and the Son, through the agency of the Spirit, will truly come to make “home” in you.  That’s why, later on in the New Testament, we find the Apostle Paul saying, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”  (1 Corinthians 6:19).

That’s what you are.  If you’re in Christ, this is really true of you.  That’s why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  What was true of the Old Testament temple has become a living reality in me!  It’s staggering.

The church is a gathering of believers called out by God for worship and sent out by God to serve.  When believers gather Christ is present.  Why?  Because you, if you are in Christ, bring the presence of Christ with you when you gather for worship, and you take the presence of Christ with you as you are sent out to serve.

Of course, when two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, there he is in their midst.  He has to be, because if the two or three are in Christ, they bring the presence of Christ when they gather together.

Christ makes his home here on earth with his people, and everything that the temple pointed to is actually fulfilled in believers, who “are being built together to become a dwelling place in which God lives by His Spirit!”  Christ makes his home here on earth with us, until he bring us to make our home with him in heaven.

How to Use the Truth that the Church is the Building

Use this to grow in patience

God uses two very imperfect environments to reshape us into the image of Christ.  One is the family.  The other is the church.  Why?  Because these are the places where we rub up against others, and God uses this experience to smooth out the rough edges in our lives.

Think about yourself as a living stone.  You’re cut out of the quarry and thrown into a wheelbarrow with some other stones.  It doesn’t feel good because your rough edges are up against other stones.  Then the builder takes the hammer and the chisel and starts chipping away at the edges.   He’s shaping you.  All of this happens in the church.

You ask to grow in patience, so Christ places someone in your life who you find exasperating.  You need to grow in courage and God puts you next to someone you find intimidating.  One writer says, “Christians need the church for its problems as well as its blessings.”[1]  That’s true.

Another writer describes believers as “God’s abrasives.” How in the world are the rough edges ever going to come off you, if you never bump up against God’s abrasives?  That’s why loner Christians end up with all the rough edges still on.  They never get close enough to the means God would use to shape them into all that they can be in Christ’s building.

The church is the crucible in which we learn patience and endurance and forgiveness.  You need the church with its problems as well as its blessings.  This is the place where it happens—the family and the church.

You will never grow without them.

It’s often said, “If you find a perfect church, don’t go there, because you’ll spoil it.”  I have a new version of that, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there, because it won’t do you any good.”  Why?  There are no abrasives in the perfect church.  There won’t be any in heaven, but we need them on earth.  It’s through the trials in life that Christ sanctifies us.

Joseph Ton, the Romanian pastor who was imprisoned for his faith, stayed with Karen and I in our home in London for some time and I had the opportunity to ask him this question—“Joseph, tell me what it was like to be a pastor in prison.”

One of the stories this dear and godly man told us was about one of the guards.  Joseph had made it his practice to ask about their children, so that he could pray for them, as well as for the guards, which was mind-blowing to these guards, who were very harsh men.

One day, one of the guards asked Joseph, “Why are you different from the rest of the prisoners?  These guys all hate us.  But you are praying for me and for my children.”  Joseph said this one line to him, “To me, you are God’s stonecutter.”

Friend, who are the stonecutters in your life?  Who is God using in this painful process of chipping off those rough edges, so that you became all that you can be in the everlasting purpose of God?

He does that painful work in the family and in the church, and it’s for his everlasting glory.  So, use this to learn patience and to become someone who’s not too easily discouraged whenever there’s a difficulty.  You will never endure in ministry unless you grasp this.

Use this to defend against sin

The whole point of a building is that it’s visible.  The church is the visible home of the invisible God.  We bear his name.  We have his presence.

You’re going to go out into the world this week and you bear the name of Christ.  You are a member of the body of Christ.  You are part of the building of Christ.  And you are going to be tempted.  You are going to be tempted to do something you know you shouldn’t do.  You’re going to be tempted to say something you know you shouldn’t say.  You’re going to find that there is an impulse within you to cultivate a sour spirit.

To defend yourself against that, I encourage you to say this to yourself: “How can I do this?  How can I say this… when I am a living stone in the holy temple of Almighty God?”  It will help you to defend against sin.

Use this to increase your joy

What a joy when the building is complete!  There is coming a day when all the work of Jesus Christ will be complete.  For you to be part of what Christ brings together for the everlasting glory of God will be an inexpressibly glorious joy, and that day is coming—the temple in which God dwells by His Holy Spirit.

Right at the end of the Bible you find the Apostle John looking out on all of the redeemed company of God’s people, the whole church brought together in the presence of the Lord, and he hears a voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men” (Revelation 21:3).  Now we’re in the presence of God with great joy forevermore!

I promise you this: You will be more at home in the presence of Christ, as a believer, fully redeemed in heaven.  You’ll be more at home there, than at any time and any place you ever have been in your entire life in this world.  You will be more at home with Christ and he will be at home with you.  Nothing about us will grieve him on that day, because his work will be complete.  To be part of this work that Christ is doing in the church is the greatest privilege of our lives this side of heaven.

 

[1] Peter Jeffrey

 

© Colin S. Smith

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