What is the significance, if any, God gives to the church? What role, if any, does the church have in God’s purpose of reconciling creation and humankind to himself in Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:10)? What role, if any, does God give the church in a Christian’s relationship with God, Christ, and the Spirit?
Centuries of church history have shaped the church. Centuries of history, of traditions, and of human desires, have shaped the understanding of what the church is. These two statements are often denied with the assertion of understanding shaped by the pure teaching of the Bible alone. Deny it all we want, it is difficult for any human being to be totally free of seeing with glasses shaded by history, tradition, and prejudices. Yes, I want to see clearly, with humility, with an open heart and mind. I want to know what the church is in the mind and heart of God. This post is the first in a series based on sermons which I prepared and preached in January and February of 2012. I present this post and the ones to follow as simply the thoughts of one sojourner. Agree or disagree, share your thoughts as I continue my journey. One important point, as I explored this subject, as I write, I am not thinking, “what does the Bible teach about the churches of Christ, that is, about the fellowship to which I belong and for whom I am a minister.” This is my honest effort to understand what the Spirit teaches us, if anything, in God’s word, concerning the church.
It is often clarified the church is not brick and mortar. The church is the people. The Old Testament identifies the people of Israel as the people of God. In response to God’s words of promise and hope through the prophet Nathan, David prayed, “There is none like you, O LORD, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making for yourself a name for great and awesome things, in driving out nations before your people whom you redeemed from Egypt?” (1 Chronicles 17:20-21). This is more than a gathering of people like the gatherings this fall on Saturdays and Sundays at the various stadiums across this land. “Your people Israel”, “his people”, “your people”,a collective identity, a people, one people, a nation, a race, “God’s people.”
God’s purpose to redeem a people to be his people went beyond Israel as realized in Jesus Christ. God has made “known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory–even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles. As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”’” (Romans 9:23-25). Drawing from Exodus 19:5-6; Hosea 2:23; Isaiah 43:20-21, Peter describes the church, Christians as a collective identity. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). A people, much more than an audience which gathers together at a theater to watch a movie. A people, a nation, one race, one nation, one people bound together by a common heritage, a common calling, a common loyalty, redeemed and called by God in Jesus Christ.
Most significantly, this people are God’s people, whom he calls “my people,” a people for his own possession, God’s very own. In his prayer David was recalling God’s redemption of Israel in God’s rescuing the nation from Egyptian bondage and leading them into the Promised Land. “And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making for yourself a name for great and awesome things” (1 Chronicles 17:21). This pales before God’s redemption of his people in Jesus Christ. What C. S. Lewis calls that one grand miracle. “(Jesus Christ) gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).
To be made the people of God is to receive mercy from God. As with ancient Israel, being chosen, called, and redeemed to be God’s people has nothing to do with our worthiness. Rather God’s people are chosen, called, and redeemed out of God’s love form them through the blood, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By God’s love and grace Christians together, the church, are God’s chosen race, his holy nation, God’s people, his unique possession, called to be his people.
God’s saving, redeeming, and reconciling purpose in Christ, is not just to choose, to call, to save, and to be merciful, to individuals, to be God’s person. God’s purpose and work, his mercy, is to create a people, a community, his own people in Jesus Christ. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19. Read all of Ephesians 2 and notice the purpose of the death of Christ was and is to reconcile humanity which is torn apart by enmity. He died, he lives, to bring people to peace with one another and through this peace to bring them to peace with God in one body. Body, that which Paul called the church, Ephesians 1:22-23.)
God did not call me out of darkness into his glorious light in Christ so that I might stand as one person in Christ. He called me, you, out of darkness into his glorious light in Christ to be his people, together in Christ. A Christian does not stand alone in his relationship with God, as God’s person. Christians stand together in their relationship with God in Jesus Christ as God’s people. One race, one nation, one people bound together by a common heritage–Jesus Christ, a common calling–Jesus Christ, a common loyalty–Jesus Christ, united together in one God, one Lord Jesus Christ, and in one Spirit. PLEASE read and study Ephesians 2.
My thoughts are not focused on any one group of people who call themselves Christians, the church, the true church as distinguished from all others who call themselves Christians or the people of God. For now I just want to understand what God tells us about his people in Jesus Christ.
I am humbled by the reality that I am one of God’s chosen, one of his people. I am humbled by God’s love and mercy in redeeming me as one of his people in Christ Jesus. How humbling is this teaching of Scripture, this truth of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. God chose US; in Christ God made us, all disciples of Christ, HIS PEOPLE! How uplifting and encouraging to know that in Christ I am one of the people of God!
The calling we have as God’s people is to develop and maintain the solidarity God has given us as his people in Christ (Ephesians 4:1-6). It is imperative Christians remember it is not we ourselves who have created our being God’s people, who have reconciled us to one another. God, in his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ, has chosen us as his people. Jesus Christ through his death and his Spirit has brought us to peace with God by bringing us to peace as one body, one people, one nation, the temple of God (Ephesians 2). Eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, for the purpose to proclaim the excellencies and praises of God, of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Christians are to bear witness to God’s glory, power, love, and grace, through their individual lives and their lives together as God’s people. God’s people, as one people, are to imitate God’s righteousness, love, and holiness. God’s holy priesthood, his holy nation, is to reflect the character of God, individually and in the way they treat one another.
A collective identity, a people, one people, one nation, one race, God’s people. “There are false (and potentially sinful) principles of unity around which people organize themselves. Persons find their sense of identity from citizenship in a nation, being of the same race, sharing a certain occupation or economic status, adhering to a particular political doctrine, participating in a certain social class, sharing the same level of educational attainment. The church is intended to transcend all of these bases of unity. True peoplehood is to be found in God through Jesus Christ” (Evertt Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 91).
“For (Jesus Christ) himself [by his blood] is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).