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What is the Church and Why Does It Matter?

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July 13, 2011

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”  Matthew 16:18

The aim of this series is to help you share the passion of Jesus Christ for His church.  In the eyes of the world the church is weak, ineffective, out of touch, the enemy of progress—and the list goes on.  In the eyes of Christ, the church is uniquely precious, supremely valuable and infinitely glorious.

The Need for a Compelling View of the Church

There are many Christians who have never seen the church through the eyes of Jesus.  The vast majority of Christians in our country have never seen what we will look at in the Scriptures this month.

76% of Americans claim to be Christians.[1] With a population of just over 300 million, that means 225 million Americans claim to be believers.  Of that number, 52 million gather for worship on any given weekend.[2] What about the other 173 million people in our country who have no living connection with a congregation of other believers?

There are 173 million Americans who would say that they are Christians, but who do not worship with other believers.  Think about what that means:  Less than a quarter of those who claim to be Christian gather with other believers for worship.

If we could talk with these 173 million Americans, my guess is that we would hear many different stories.  Some would only have a faint connection with Christianity.  They may have been baptized as infants. They might say they believe that Jesus died and that He rose, but they have never experienced the living power of Jesus Christ in their lives.

Others would say that they have served and believed, and they’ve been burned.  They saw some sin or scandal in the church and determined they would never go near her again.

The three stumbling blocks that have most often plagued the church, are the same stumbling blocks that plague the world—money, sex and power.  Find a person who is alienated from the church and there’s a good chance that an offense involving one of these three lies at the root of it.

Others came to church and simply got nothing out of it.  There was no spiritual substance, nothing that related to life.  It was entertainment, but you can get entertainment many other places, so why get it at church?

Others may just have drifted, got involved in other activities, or just never found a church that felt like home.  It’s not hard to find reasons to abandon the church.

We live in a highly individualistic culture.  Of all the cultures that have ever existed in the history of the world, this is the most individualistic.  Our natural pragmatism asks, “What’s the most efficient way to get things done?” and the local church doesn’t look the most likely vehicle for changing the world.

Some are saying, “The church is damaging to your spiritual health.”  They say the church is toxic to spiritual life, and that if you really want to follow Jesus what you should do is leave the church, because you can’t follow Him there.[3] You can read more about the church leaving movement and find good answers to it in the book by Kevin DeYoung.

Christians in America desperately need a new and compelling vision of the church.  We need to see the church as Jesus sees her.  We need to discover and then share the passion of Jesus Christ.  When and where have you been presented with a compelling biblical vision of the church?

That’s our purpose in this series, and by the time we are done with these four weeks, I hope you will feel that the great privilege of your life is that

you belong to the church which is Christ’s body and that you share the passion of Jesus for His bride.

What is the church?

The first time I thought about this question seriously was with a group of friends in the junior common room of the London Bible College.  We were students who loved the Lord, and we were all studying theology.  We met together for worship and prayer.  We shared fellowship.  We were in each other’s lives and we were studying the Bible.

So, the question naturally came up: Are we a church?  If you have been involved in student leadership at a Christian college, or led a campus ministry, you have probably got into this discussion.  It isn’t a simple question to answer.

If three Christians meet at a bus stop every morning are they a church?  What if they talk about the Bible on the train or at Starbucks?  Is your small group a church?  And if not, why not?

A growing number of Christians have the idea that “church” is simply the plural of “Christian.”  They feel that any group of Christians meeting at any time or place is a church.  Are they right?

What did Jesus mean when he spoke about the church?

What does the word “church” mean on the lips of Jesus?  Whatever Jesus means when he uses the word “church” is what I want it to mean for me, and it’s what you want it to mean for you.

There are only two occasions in all of the four gospels where the word “church” occurs.  Our Lord used the word “church” twice and what he said defines the church for us.

All Believers in Every Age and in Every Place 

“I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:18

The first time Jesus used the word “church” is well known.  Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and Christ says to him, “I will build my church” (16:18).

The church that Christ is building has to refer to all believers in every age and in every place, because there is only one.  “My church” is singular!  It encompasses all Christians.

Christ is not speaking here about a local church like The Orchard, which is only one church among many.  Our Lord isn’t speaking about the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans or the Catholics.  He speaks here about all believers in every age and in every place.

There is one church and Christ says, “I build it.”  Believers in Christ from every time, every place and every culture are one, whatever brand of church they belong to.  The New Testament makes this emphasis time and again.  There is one body in the Lord.  “Peter, this wasn’t just your idea.”

The church is built on the solid rock of Christ himself.  Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus says to him, “The Father has revealed this to you” (Matthew 16:17).

“Peter, you are in touch with reality when you say that I am the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and on this reality that you have confessed, the reality that I am indeed the Son of God, I will build my church.”  The church stands on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We are founded and built and we stand on this.

Then Christ says, “The gates of hell cannot prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  You can’t say that about any local church or denomination.  All over the world there are sad stories of churches and denominations that have lost their way.  Travel through Europe and look at all the churches that have closed.  The gates of hell prevailed over them.

Jesus speaks of the church in every age and in every place

When Jesus speaks of the church, He speaks of the church universal—

the entire body of believers in every age and in every place.

God knows who these believers are   

Any local church will be a mixed bag of those who truly belong to Christ and those who do not.  We should expect this.  Jesus said the wheat and the tares grow together (2 Timothy 2:19), and sometimes you can’t tell the difference.  That’s why there are disappointments in the church.

We are not joined to Christ by belonging to the church.  We belong to the church by being joined to Christ.  In 2 Timothy we read about men in the church like Hymenaeus and Philetus who wandered away from the truth, and whose teaching spread like gangrene. Their teaching was spreading like gangrene in the church.

The Apostle says, “Nevertheless God’s solid foundation stands firm… The Lord knows those who are His, and, everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19).  God knows who are his.  He knows the real from the hypocrite.  He knows the wheat from the chaff.  Nobody fools him.  No one deceives him.

We know that “everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (2:19).  So, if a man holds on to wickedness, he should not try to fool himself into thinking that he belongs to Christ.  You can’t fool God, so don’t go through life trying to fool yourself.

No one on earth has ever seen the full company of believers

Since the church is the full company of all believers in every age and in every place, nobody on earth has ever seen it, only Christ can see it.  The church will be unveiled in all its glory on the day when Christ stands with a great multitude that no one can number of all his redeemed people.

On that day Christ’s people will say, “Salvation belongs to our God” (Revelation 7:10).  They will be there because they have been washed by the blood of Christ, the lamb of God who took away their sins through his sacrifice on the cross (7:14).  And the Lamb will lead them into springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (7:17). 

The Local Congregation

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you… if he will not listen, take one or two others along…

if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Matthew 18:15-17

The second time Jesus spoke about the church, He’s talking about a dispute between two believers, so this cannot mean, “Tell it to all believers in every age and in every place.”  That’s impossible!  Nobody could do that.  Jesus is clearly speaking about a local congregation of believers.

Alan Stibbs points out that when you see a thin crescent in the sky, nobody says, “There’s part of the moon.”  We say, “There’s the moon.”

“For the part that is visible is genuine moon and, what is more it is more, it is actually, though to us invisibly, united with all the rest of the moon.  Similarly, a local Christian congregation is genuine church become visible.  It is ‘body of Christ’ and invisibly one in Him with the whole of His body”[4]

Our Lord used the word “church” in two ways:  First—all believers in every time and place.  Second—a local congregation of believers, called out by God to worship and sent out by God to serve.

Called out by God to worship

“Let my people go so that they may worship me…” Exodus 7:16

In the Old Testament, God called Israel out of slavery to worship Him (Exodus 7:16).  God’s people believed His promise.  They painted the blood on the doorframes of their houses and God brought them out of slavery.  What a liberation that was!  He took them safely through the Red Sea and He gathered them for worship at Mount Sinai.

The great purpose of the Exodus was that God was gathering a people for Himself, a people who would worship Him together.  God said to Moses,

“Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me…” (Deuteronomy 4:10).

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word used for “assemble” there is “ekklesia.”   The word was used to describe a gathering; it could even be used to describe a secular gathering, assembly, or as we would say, a congregation.  That same word “ekklesia” is used for church in the New Testament.

Literally, “ekklesia” means “called out.”  God says, “Call the people out to worship!  Call them out to hear my Word, so that they learn to revere me.”

God’s pattern of life for Israel was that his people would assemble for worship, where they would place themselves under his Word and his presence would be with them.

Sent out by God to serve

“I will make you a light to the nations that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Isaiah 49:6

God’s people in the Old Testament were not only called out by God to worship, they were sent out by God to serve.  And Jesus chooses this word with all its rich background of Old Testament meaning and he says, “I will build my ekklesia.”

I will build a community of people called out by God to worship and sent out by God to serve.  This ekklesia will be visible on earth in local congregations of believers.

So writing to the church in the New Testament, Peter says…

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of Him who brought you out of darkness into His wonderful light?”

“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  1 Peter 2:9-10

As a local church here in this community, we are called out by God to worship and we are sent out by God to serve.  Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).  We have what John Stott calls “the double identity of the church…”

“We come to Christ in worship.
We go for Christ in mission.” [5]

None of us is here by accident, because it is God that gathers the church.  The church is not a self-selecting group of people.  It’s never—you, me and a few friends who we’ll choose.  The church is gathered by God and he adds to it, daily, the people who are being saved.

Do You Belong to the Church?

Do you belong to that great company of men and women, boys and girls from every age and every place who confess with Peter and with every believer that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God?

Have you come to the place of saying to Jesus Christ, “Your word is truth for me.  Your will is the way for me.  Your grace is life for me.”  Have you turned away from wickedness?  Are you ready to do so today?  I’m asking “Do you belong to the church?”  You don’t belong to Christ by joining the church.  You belong to the church by being joined to Christ.

Would you be ready to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and submit yourself to him today?  Receive me as a rebel who now surrenders to you.  Receive me as a skeptic who now believes in you.  Receive me home as a lost sheep who has now been found by you.

Do you see the privilege of belonging to the church?

If you belong to Jesus Christ, you are part of the community drawn from every culture and from every place and from every generation.  God has released you from the tyranny of sin and death and hell.  He has set you free in a new exodus, through Jesus Christ.

He has called you out, and he has brought us together so that on the ground, where you are sitting right now, there may be a community of people who declare the praise of Jesus Christ.

After we have sung a hymn, he is going to send us out, bearing the name of Christ, living in the power of Christ, bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ.  You say, “Pastor, you don’t know how dark it is in the place where I work.”  It would be a lot darker if you weren’t there.

By God’s grace the church has been called out to worship.  By God’s Spirit the church is sent out to serve.  The day is coming when, by God’s Son, the whole church will be taken up into glory.

Listen to these words from the Heidelberg Catechism…

What do you believe about the church?

“I believe that the Son of God, though the Spirit and the Word,
Out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end,
Gathers, protects, and preserves for Himself,
A community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith
And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”

I cannot imagine a greater privilege than that.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_United_States
[2] Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, “Why We Love the Church,” p. 30, Moody Press, 2009
http://www.amazon.com/Why-Love-Church-Institutions-Organized/dp/0802458378/
[3] This is not new.  Bishop Ryle, writing in in 19th century says, “Let me warn men not to be shaken by those who say that all visible churches are necessarily corrupt, and that no man can belong to them without peril to his own soul.  There have never been wanting men of this kind, men who have forgotten that everything must be imperfect which is carried on by human agency, and have spent their lives in a vain search for a perfectly pure church.” Excerpt from “Knots Untied,” p. 286, James Clarke & Co., 1964.
[4] Alan Stibbs, “Such a Great Salvation,” p. 234, Mentor, 2008
[5] John Stott, “The Living Church,” p. 20, InterVarsity Press, 2011
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0830838058/

 

© Colin S. Smith

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