Lecture 42: The Church
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: The Church
Jesus says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not destroy it.” What is that church? What is Jesus talking about? As you read through the New Testament, you learn very quickly that the church is not a building. I know that when we talk about “going to church,” we are talking about coming into this physical structure. But the church is not a building. That is simply nowhere in scripture. The church is not a denomination. The church is not any human organization. The church is the assembly of true believers. When you and I are in isolation, when we are off by ourselves, we are not “the church”. When we gather together, when we assemble, we are the church and it is the assembly of true believers. Not every one who comes into the doors of of a religious building is a disciple of Jesus Christ. Not every one who appears to be a part of the visible church is actually part of the invisible church, the true church, the church that is made up of people whose hearts are known by God. Augustine says “Many sheep are without and many wolves are within.” The church is not a building. It is not a human structure or organization. It is the assembly of true believers.
With that as a foundation, I would like to look at four of the major metaphors of the church that are used throughout the New Testament. There are quite a few, actually, but there are four that occur more frequently than others and I have two goals in looking at them. Goal #1: I want us to define the church Biblically, and I do not want us to define the church according to human tradition. Human tradition is incredibly strong and pervades our thinking at levels much deeper than we possibly understand. I want to make sure that we are thinking in a Biblical way when we think of the church. Let me ask two questions: 1. Is this building a sanctuary? Well, there is the Old Testament. There is the Temple in which God inhabited, but that is not the case in the New Testament. You are the sanctuary; together we are the sanctuary. It affects whether we can spill coffee on the carpet and get upset about it or not, frankly. 2. Why don’t we baptize people immediately upon conversion? It is the only model there is in Scripture. There is no model other than baptism immediately following conversion. Peter preaches to the Ethiopian Eunuch, he becomes a Christian, and he baptizes him at the first water they pass. While we are inheritors of tradition, much of the Baptist tradition is that baptism is viewed as a ritual for joining a human organization. That is as unbiblical a notion as there is! It does not exist anywhere in Scripture! Goal #2: I want us to enjoy God’s vision of the church, and as we look at what the Church is, it will motivate us to act like the church.
Christ is the Head of the Church
The first of four metaphors is that Christ is the “Head” of the Church. Colossians 1:18 says that Jesus is “the head of the body, which is the church”. Jesus is the head and from the neck down, we are the body of Christ. Ephesians 1 is one of the stronger passages on this. Ephesians 1 starting part way through verse 20 says that God “raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” In other words, Jesus is pre-eminent in authority. There is no authority over him. All authority exists under him; He put “all things under his feet.” God put all things under Jesus’ feet and “gave Jesus as head over all things to the church which is his body.” Christ is the authority over all things. It is, after all, his church. This is not some religious organization where we all get a vote. This is not a democracy and none of us have the option of making church into what we think it should be. I am going to qualify that in a moment, but I want to say that strongly. Not one of us has the option of making the church into what he or she thinks it should be, because Jesus is the boss. Jesus is the Head and we are called to implement what he thinks the church should be.
I heard a lot of discussion about who carries the vision in a church. There is only one vision who carries the vision in a church and it is not the head pastor, worship leader, or the elders. At the deepest, most profound level, the vision for the church is God’s vision for the church as expressed in God’s Word. Because we exist under His authority, it is our responsibility to try to find that center of the bull’s eye, that center of the Gospel, and say, “His vision for the church is right, therefore it is our vision for the church.” He is the Boss. He is the Head and we live under his authority. It is easily forgotten, is it not? It is easy to forget who is in charge. Unfortunately, we all know of stories or been involved in them. Stories of pastors who forget that they are not in charge; they forget that Christ is the Head of their church and they may start well, but they start to use the pulpit to gain favors, sexual favors and monetary favors as they continue. We all know stories of pastors who start well but finish poorly. We have all heard of stories, unfortunately, of secretaries and janitors who forget that it is Christ’s church and they wrestle control of the church from Elders and Pastors or whoever. You have heard stories like this.
We forget whose church it is
We probably all know examples of people who start thinking they are the head of the church and know its needs best by virtue of their longevity in the church, giving to the church, social status outside the church, or whatever be the reason. One of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard was called ''Stinking Money.'' There was a wealthy man in a church who had extensively given and eventually decided that he wanted something more than a tax deduction for his giving. He decided that it was his church and if he was going to support it than it better become what he wanted it to be. He attempted to lay down the law to the Pastor who proclaimed the following Sunday in his sermon ''Stinking Money,'' “If you think that by giving money you are in charge, that somehow this church becomes your church, your money stinks and your stinking money is stinking up the offering and we don’t want no stinkin’ money! So stop giving!.” We so easily forget, do we not, that this is Christ’s church. That He is the authority, the boss and we all serve under. Every person, whether you are an Elder, staff member, or lay person is called to submit to God’s authority as expressed in God’s word. This puts church leadership in a somewhat difficult position. Because we are called to lead and we cannot be afraid to lead as part of the leadership team; that is our calling and giftedness, but we must also greatly fear the seduction of power and the possible corruption of the Gospel at our hands. So in leading, the leadership must submit to God’s vision for the church and God’s authority over the church.
We are the Body of Christ
The second metaphor is that we are the “Body of Christ.” This is a metaphor that developed in 1st Corinthians 12, although it occurs in various places. It is a powerful metaphor. The human body has a variety of needs. Our bodies have the need of walking, talking, seeing and many other things. Bodies have a variety of different parts to meet the many needs of the body. The same is true of Christ’s Body; Christ’s body has a variety of needs because it is full of people. For instance, in 1st Corinthians 12:7 Paul writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” To every one of us is given a gift, a manifestation of the Spirit, a gracious, undeserved gift, and we are to use that gift, not to our own advantage but for the common good, for the good of Christ’s body. Paul continues and spells out what some of those gifts are. All of us are called to treat one another with mercy, deserved or undeserved, but God has given a supernatural gift of mercy to some. While we all must attend to life's details to some extent, some of you have been given the gift of administration. You actually like working with details. Some of you have been given the uncanny ability to serve, to see needs, to be perceptive and then to know how to follow up. Some of us have been given gifts of teaching, and while all of us have to be able to explain the hope that is in us, there are some who are especially gifted to move the church towards the middle of the Bull’s eye and say “This is the Gospel.” That is what Christ’s body is all about. We have these gifts and they are to be used for the common good.
One of the worst things that can happen in the human body is when part of it decides to stop working. If your kidney decides to take a break, where do you spend the rest of your life? On dialysis. When one part of the human body stops working, it puts its load on the rest of the body that the body was never designed to carry. I spent Friday night playing basketball with my son and my right knee buckled because I pivoted incorrectly. My left knee quit working on me a long time ago, so what happened? My left knee stopped working and my right knee has to pick up the load, which it cannot do. It is sore now too. My ankle is sore. My lower back is sore. My head is sore and my ego is deeply wounded because part of my body stopped working. I was designed to have two knees. That is the way God put my body together and without one of those knees my body cannot function. The same is true of Christ’s body. We talk about the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the people do 80% of the work. That is never the way that the church was designed to function. It is a terrible way! It puts this untold weight on parts of the body that that part was never designed to function in that way, and people are taken out of their area of giftedness and doing things poorly simply because they have to get done. There are those among us who have this gift of encouragement, the ability to look at a person and say “That person is hurting. I need to go to that person, get to know them, encourage them, and share Christ with them if they are not a believer.” But when you do not do that, it puts the load on the other part of the church, the ungifted part of the church. There are people here who are gifted to serve, but if you sit on the fringe, if you refuse to participate, then you are not working for the common good of the body. The statistic that 40% of Evangelical Christians do not give a penny to their church or to any other cause. When that 40% does not carry its load, it puts an amazing amount of weight on the 60% to carry. The best thing that could happen in terms of body life in this church is that all the parts of the body of Christ say “I have been gifted, I have been called, I have been ordered to use what God has given me for our common good. Not for my advancement but for the good of the church. The church is not what I get out of it. That is not what it is about. The church is about what we can do for each other. If I could rephrase a well-known saying, I would say, “Ask not what Christ’s body can do for you. Ask what you can do for Christ’s body.” The focus of life within the body of Christ is not my left knee saying “what’s in it for me?” It is “How can I use what I have been gifted and called to do so that the body can function in the way in which God intended it to be.” If that happens, we become a symphony with each of us instruments playing in balance and harmony. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ.
The Church is a Family
There is a third metaphor that is especially powerful: The church is a family. I want to put a qualification in here right up front because I know for some the idea of us being a family is the farthest thing from what you want because you were raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family. I know that the evangelical church is no different than the rest of the world. If you do not believe that, pick up Kent Hughes’ book ''Set Apart''. It has all the research numbers from the Barna Group in it. I understand that statistically a significant portion of men are addicted to pornography. I know that a significant number of you ladies and men have been the subject of sexual abuse by your fathers and by your mothers, by your brothers and sisters and by your uncles and aunts. I am not going to be naive. We are not going to be naive and say “somehow Satan hasn’t had any effect on this body”. That would be foolishness. You need to hear this, and you may not be able to accept it intellectually, but God’s call is that you believe it by faith, and that is that God’s family has a perfect Father. His children are messed up, but God is a perfect Father who always loves, who always disciplines properly, who is never too busy for you, and who never, ever uses you. If you cannot get that into your mind, pray that God gets it into your heart. God is into relationships. He did not die for things; those are going to be burned away. He died for people. Relationships with people should be our priority, as well. God is into vertical relationships. He wants a relationship with you and that is why He is our Father and He calls us His children, 1st John 3:1, ”See what kind of love the Father has given us that we should be called Children of God and so we are.” God is into vertical relationships where He wants to be our Father and we can be His son and His daughter. God is also into horizontal relationships, the relationship between us children.
This is not a religious organization. If you want an organization go join the Country Club. At least you can play golf there. This is not a human organization; it is not a religious organization. It is a family, and you and I are brothers and sisters. When I look out and see someone I do not know, I say “There is someone who is in my family. I am going to spend eternity with him. I need to get to know him. I'm going to invite him for lunch.” It is looking at people, looking deep into people’s eyes and seeing hurt and pain and caring about it. You see, this is what a family does. If you want something else, go play AAU basketball. God is into relationships, vertical and horizontal. If I said it differently, I would say, “God is into community.” Yes, we walk through the Pearly Gate one person at a time. There is no family package; we go through one at a time, but what is on the other side? Family. Community. A new Dad and brothers and sisters. God is into community. There are a lot of verses that talk about this, but one that hit me recently is Hebrews 10:24, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and to good works.” Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works; you cannot do that by yourself. It is absolutely impossible to be obedient to Hebrews 10:24 if your idea of church is restricted to going out and looking at God’s creation. You cannot act obediently to this and thousands of other verses if we live in isolation from our brothers and sisters. It is just nonsensical and disobedient. We must, in community, stir up one another to love, to do the right thing. God has prepared good works from before time that you and I might do them. What does that look like? What does it look like to be part of a community that stirs up one another to love and good works?
I heard another metaphor this week that was especially powerful. There are two of forces that work in us; both me individually and us as a group. In both an individual and a community there are two "Big Dogs." Big Dog #1 is the power of sin and flesh. That Big Dog wants to grab us by the ankles, drag us down and destroy us. He is a powerful beast, and only gets more aggressive when you do not feed him. It is a powerful animal, is it not; the power of sin and the power of flesh and its only intention is to destroy. But there is a second Big Dog in our life, the Big Dog of God’s Spirit working in our regenerate hearts. We all know that the Holy Spirit is the most powerful force and He cannot lose, but when it comes to issues of sanctification, the issue of growing into holiness, God works in such a way that these two dogs are at war within us. The question is, What dog wins? Do you know the answer to that? The dog that wins is the one you feed. So how are we going to be a Biblical community and how are we going to stir up one another to love and good works? We are going to feed the good dog. We are going to encourage one another towards holiness. There is an amazing passage in Randy Alcorn’s book about snakes. He writes, “I don’t want you to think about snakes for the next 5 minutes. Don’t think about snakes. Don't think about those long, squishy, squeemy kinds of things. Don’t think about them now! They are brown or spotted. Don’t think about snakes!” At the end of the passage he asks, “Have you thought about anything except snakes?” He continues, “Now think about God and think about his glory and his majesty and His wonder and His awesomeness and His grace and His mercy; the particularities of His character and how He has deemed it such that in His mercy and His grace He extends Himself to sinners and He dies for us while we are sinners and He loves us and He draws us to Himself and He makes us new! And has anyone thought about snakes in the last 30 seconds?” Well, of course not. It is one thing to say “I am not going to feed the bad dog.” And that is good since we need guard rails. But how many of us, long term, have ever responded to the “No! no! no! no! no! no! no!” method of Biblical holiness. “Now don’t think about snakes, John Smith! Don’t think about snakes!”. Does that work for anyone? It does not work for me. You have to starve the bad dog, but you also have to feed the good dog. You have to feed the Holy Spirit. You have to set before your eyes, mind and mouth that which will stir up one another to good works to empower, in our growth towards holiness, the Holy Spirit dog to win the battle. There is a powerful verse in Romans Chapter 8 that makes this point without metaphor. Romans 8:5 says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and it is peace.” You see, Romans 8 cries out that we have to be willing to look at a person and ask, "What is your mind set on?" if we are going to stir up one another to good works and love. If our eyes are set on the things of this world, on voyeurism, violence and materialism, the things that hold out a promise but never satisfy, the bad dog will win. Or, are you feeding the good dog by setting your mind on the things of the Spirit? Is your heart and mind so full of Jesus Christ, the glory of God, the wonder of His salvation and the amazement of His mercy and grace that there is simply no room for anything else? Because we feed the good dog when we do that. When we are setting our mind on the things of the Spirit we are being consumed with the glory of God and the other stuff just goes away.
Do you know what a mind set on the things of the Spirit looks like? Do you know what it looks like to be feeding the good dog? Philippians 4:8, ”Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Can we take Philippians 4:8, put it on a sticky note and stick it on our television, on our calendar? Can you and I write it out on a sticky note and stick it on your wallet and look at how we spend God’s wealth. It is not ours, right? You are not even your own; your body is not your own, you were bought with a price, the precious blood of the Lamb of Jesus Christ. I am not my own. You are not your own. We have nothing to say, unless you want to go to Hell. We are His and He says, “feed the good dog”. He says, “Set your minds on the things of the Spirit if you want to end up in Heaven with Me, if you want to have the kind of life that you were built for.” Can you and I pass the Philippians 4:8 test? Where is our mind set? This is just an example of a way in which we can stir up one another to good works. It is hard work, is it not? Discipleship is hard work, it is a lost art, because it is so hard to do and we tend to turn and say “You know what? I don’t want to deal with that.” We turn our heads at our brothers and our sisters and say, “We are not really in the same family. I don’t really care what happens to you. Go to Hell if you need to, I don’t care.”
We are the Temple of God
We are the Temple of God. God’s family has a home and that home is a Temple. Individually and corporately we are the temple of God. 1 Corinthians 3:16: “You are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you.” My body is the Temple of the Holy Ghost. I will not join it to a prostitute. I will not practice what destroys it. That is the teaching of Scripture. We also become the temple of God when we gather as the assembly of true believers. When we are in the Temple of God, we exist in His very presence. We fall down and worship, because that is what happens when we stand face to face with God. As the Temple of God we worship in the very presence of God. Yes, He is in my heart, but God's presence is here as we are together as the church, as the Temple of God. We already know what heaven is going to be like. If you want to know what real, full, unbridled, passionate, joyful worship is, all you have to do is look at the end of the story in the Book of Revelation, chapter 5. That is what worship in the Temple of God looks like. I cannot say it any better than John. Beginning in Revelation 5:6: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” That is worship.
I heard a really good sermon the other day from my nephew. He talked about how this eternal worship service is not something that is going to happen when we get to heaven, but it is going on right now! That means that when you and I gather together, the whole goal is to enter into the worship service that is already going on in heaven. It is to have our prayers become the incense and to enter into the declaration of who the Lamb is and the declaration of what the Lamb has done. I know so often that we hear, “Well, I don’t like the worship at that church.” Or, “That was good worship today.” Those are answers to the wrong questions. All worship is right. The question is “Was I able to enter into the heavenly courts and worship the Lamb?” That is the question that we leave here pondering and rejoicing over. Was I able to declare who the Lamb is? Was I able to declare what the Lamb has done for me? That is worship. Worship is not about me. Guess what, it is not about you either. I know, as hard as it is to understand, the universe does not revolve around you or me; it revolves around God. The only real worship is the worship of the one true triune, awesome, wonderful, majestic God of the Universe. It is into His presence that we are called. It is into His presence that our prayers and our thoughts and our listening and our singing all brings us into. That is worship in the Temple. We are a Temple. There is a sense in which God is present here opposed to another place because the whole world is not His temple. It is where there is an assembly of true believers who have become the church that we become, as a group, the Temple and we worship.
There is a second part to this. When you think of God as being in a Temple, and of you being in the Temple, the issue of our sin and His holiness becomes paramount. We sing “I want to see you high and lifted up” and I ask, “Do you really want to see Him high and lifted up?” Because every single time in Scripture, like Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 when they see God high and lifted up, they end up flat on their faces because they know they are sinners and they are crying out “Woe is me for I am a sinner!” And God, in His mercy, extends forgiveness. When we are in the Temple, in the presence of our Holy God, worshiping our Holy God, we are cognizant of our sin and the wrath that sin causes. But it is out of that and through forgiveness and what Christ has done on the cross that we are then called to holiness. The Temple, the presence of God, and the worship of His holiness calls you and I to be holy as well. Paul makes this connection painfully explicit in 2 Corinthians 6. Paul has been talking about being unequally yoked and he is saying that you cannot join the Temple of God with idols. You just cannot do it. And then verse 16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, 'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.'” We are the Temple of God, which means we are called to be different from everyone else, because we come into the very presence, we worship the Holy God and we are called, in turn, to be holy as well. What does it look like to be called to this 2 Corinthians 6 kind of holiness? If I can continue my metaphor from earlier, it means you starve the bad dog. You and I cannot pursue the holiness that we confront when we gather in the Temple of God if we are feeding the bad dog. The only way to do it is to starve the wicked dog and understand that when dogs get hungry they get meaner. We must not set our minds on the things of this world.
Let me annoy you a little longer with Randy Alcorn because he does such a great job of annoying me. Page 67 in ''The Purity Principle'', “ 'But there are hardly any decent TV shows anymore'. Then stop watching TV. Read a book. Have conversations. A novel idea. 'But all the new novels have sex scenes.' Then read the old novels. Read fiction from Christian publishers. 'But I have subscribed to ''Sports Illustrated'' for years, back before they had the swimsuit issue.' Well, they have it now, so drop your subscription and tell them why. 'It is almost impossible to rent a movie without sex and offensive language..." He goes on, talking about some practical steps and says, “You know what? The Bible never commands us to watch movies, but it does command us Guard your heart. It is a battle. Battles get bloody. Do whatever it takes to walk in purity.”
What does holiness look like?
This is the other side of it. We take Philippians 4:8 and use it to feed the regenerate dog. When something does not pass the Philippians 4:8 test we will say, “Do you know what? I would rather do what God has called me to do than that.” I may still want to do it. I may enjoy it, but it is wrong and I do not want to feed that dog. I do not want to set my mind on the things of the flesh because I want to feed the good dog. I want to set my mind on the things of the Spirit and that which is pure, lovely, wholesome, wonderful, and what is the reflection of the character of God. That is what I want to consume my life with. I want to be so full of the glory of God that there is no room for anything else. That is feeding the regenerate dog and setting your mind on the things of the Spirit. We are the Temple of God. We worship and are called to holiness as we stand before the very presence of God. We are the Church of the Living God, the assembly of true believers. The Church is built by Christ; it is a supernatural reality and cannot be destroyed, but we can. Christ stands at its Head, the authority over all things. We are His body, variously gifted members of the divine symphony. We are family; we are into relationships, stirring up one another to love and to good works, and we are His Temple, worshiping in His presence and walking in His holiness. What does the world have to offer that can even remotely compete with that? All that the world has is lies, deceit, and empty promises. The world has never kept its promises, because Satan is the father of lies and he has been lying from the beginning. You will not get one promise answered from the world. There is no satisfaction in this place. Rather, God’s vision for the church, this supernatural entity of which we are all parts, is an opportunity for us to worship and to walk in holiness. There is nothing else, absolutely nothing else.
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
- What are some ideas or terms that you have used to describe the church that are not based in the New Testament? How does thinking the building is the church move you away from biblical thinking?
- How have you seen the headship of Christ in a church maintained or ignored? How could a biblical understanding of church have helped to solve the problem?
- List all the different needs of Christ’s body that are currently being met. This should encourage you.
- List all the different needs of Christ’s body that are currently not being met. This should challenge you.
- What are some practical steps we can take to “stir up one another to love and good works”? How can we encourage one another not to set our mind on the things of the flesh — give examples other than TV and movies — and how can we encourage one another to set out mind of the things of the Spirit? What dog are you going to feed?
- What will help you move into the worship service of Revelation 5? What keeps you from it?