"Jesus?" Yes!Believers must know and love one another. (John 13:34-35)
"The church?" No!
These words express the sentiments of some in today's society toward the church. Negative and critical! Why? Many reasons, perhaps. In recent days, some religious groups have had to swallow a big dose of criticism in the face of scandalous behavior on the part of some leaders. Wrongs have been committed. Scars remain.
So, is the church to be written off for good? Because of human frailties and failures, is the church to be permanently rejected? Before adopting this point of view, should we not take into account what God has to say about the church? Surely, a few human abuses cannot justify a wholesale dismissal of all the positive things that pertain to the church.
What is the Church?
First, it is important and necessary for us to identify what we mean when we speak of "the church." Frequently, the word is used in ways that do not match Biblical meanings. For example, many people use the word "church" to refer to a particular building--usually one with certain features that set it off from other buildings. Others say "church" when they are speaking of a large religious organization that includes a number of congregations and buildings--a particular denomination. Still others use the word to mean Christianity in a broad and generic sense--meaning Christian influence in society.
The fact is that the Bible never uses the word "church" for a building, a denomination, or Christian influence in society. The term stands for something else.
The church refers to people--saved people! It is a visible community of people who have exercised faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. (Ephesians 5:23) The church is God's family! (1 Timothy 3:15) To belong to this family is to have citizenship in heaven. (Philippians 3:20) Many of us are proud of a "family tree." Yet, kinship with noble human beings can never compare with the spiritual kinship we have with God and His children. (Ephesians 3:14-15)
Christ Loves the Church!
"Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it." (Ephesians 5:25) If He loved the church so much, so should every human being! Anything that Jesus was willing to die for is something that we should be willing to live for. Think of it. He offered His blood as the purchase price of the church. Expensive! (Acts 20:28) Since He bought it, it is His. No one has a right to lay claim to it. He, alone, has full authority over it. (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:22-24) Christ wants His church to be strong and pure! Paul writes, "Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her... [WHY?]... to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (Ephesians5:25-27)
No wonder Paul writes in Ephesians3:21, "To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!"
Biblical References to the Church ...
There are many terms used in the Bible that demonstrate how intimately and vitally the church is related to Christ who is its maker and builder. (Matthew 16:18) Jesus is the foundation upon which the church is built--Matthew 16:15-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11. It is called His Body--Colossians 1:18,24. It is His family or household--1 Timothy 3:15. He is head of it--Ephesians 1:22-23. He dwells in it which means that it is His temple--Hebrews3:1-6; 1 Corinthians3:10-17; Ephesians 2:19-22. Through the church, God makes known His manifold wisdom in the heavenly realms--Ephesians 3:10-11. The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth--1 Timothy 3:15. In light of these and other such passages on the greatness of the church, how could anyone assume that the church is insignificant or non-essential?
"In Christ"... "In the Church!"
"In Christ" ... "In the Church!"
If one is "in Christ," he or she is "in the church of Jesus!" The idea of being saved by Jesus and then "joining some church" is not in the Bible. The same thing that saves a person places him or her in the church family. Galatians 3:27 teaches that "we are baptized into Christ." 1 Corinthians 12:12 teaches that we are "baptized into the Body." The same action that puts us "into Christ" also puts us "into the Body of Christ"--the church.
The Church of "His" Choice!
Paul writes, "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--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) How many "unities" did Paul mention in this passage? Review them. These seven "ones" are all vital links in God's plan. Not one of them can be eliminated.
There is "one body." Nowhere in the New Testament can you read that anyone was ever told to "join the church of his or her choice." Obedience to the Gospel puts us into the church of Jesus Christ. (Acts 2:47) It is regrettable that humans have confused or ignored simple New Testament teachings regarding the church and how we become members of it. It is natural and even commendable that people should want to grant the privilege of choice to everyone. But, when broadmindedness is promoted at the expense of truth, it is not commendable. When the Scriptures specify a certain way that we are to obey our Lord, that means that we are not to do it in any other way. (1 Peter 1:22)
The Assembly of the Church!
The Greek word for "church" is "ekklesia." This word, alone, means no more than the English word "gathering." Yet, when the Bible speaks of the "church of God" or "church of Christ," a very unique "gathering" is indicated--one in which God is central! Members of God's family assemble at regular intervals in local congregations. Great care should be taken by believers to be united with a local church in which God is worshipped, the Bible is respected, the biblical plan of salvation is taught and practiced, and Christian love is shared by all.
Believers in local churches meet together on the first day of the week to "break bread" or observe the Lord's Supper. (Acts 20:7) In this weekly activity, there is to be meaningful communion with the Lord and with each other. (1 Corinthians 10:17;11:17-34) In Christian assemblies, the Body is to be built up through prayer, teaching, singing, and loving fellowship. Committed Christians will value those times when the church assembles and avoid needless absences. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
The Work of the Church!
The church was God's idea. Surely, He had good reasons for bringing it into existence. The New Testament identifies several ways in which the church is used by God to accomplish His purposes. The following are noteworthy...
1. The church is instrumental in the sanctification process!
Sanctification? What's that?
The word "sanctify" means "to make holy!" God is a holy God. He wants His people to be holy--different from the ways of the world. "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children." (Ephesians 5:1) Paul told Christians in Thessalonica, "It is God's will that you shou1d be holy." (1 Thessalonians 4:3) The cultivation of holiness is not something humans achieve by their own doing. The Holy Spirit, who lives in Christians, encourages this growth process. (Galatians 5:16-26)
Active participation in the life of the church is one crucial way by which sanctification is encouraged and strengthened. It is a process which continues over a lifetime. Whereas "justification" [see previous lesson] occurs immediately at the time of obedient faith in Jesus, "sanctification" is an on-going process that is finally completed and perfected in heaven itself. (1 Thessalonians 3:13) This maturation process is described in Hebrews 10:14, "... because by one sacrifice, He [Jesus] has made perfect forever [ "justification" ] those who... BEING MADE HOLY [ "sanctification" ].
Can you see how active participation in the life of the church encourages and enhances one's sanctification? Without it, spiritual growth will be stunted and stifled. Sanctification will not occur.
2. The church is instrumental in the edification process!
Edification? What's that?
The word "edify" means "to build up." God loves His people and wants them to be strengthened and fortified--"edified!" Life in this world frequently rips and tears at the human spirit and body. The world can be vicious--cruel and destructive in many ways. God's plan is for His church to provide an atmosphere in which His people are loved, encouraged, taught, and even healed. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Remember, God's church is His family. It should be a "family circle" in which each member is loved, wanted, needed, and appreciated! Jesus said, "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must lose one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
The spirit of love and encouragement is to prevail when the family of God assembles. "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25) Can we see that the church is to be a close-knit community where burdens are shared, wounds are healed, love is shown, and relationships are valued?
In order for "edification" to occur, there are several crucial factors that must be understood and practiced:
Christians must be willing to be open and honest with each other. (Ephesians 4:25)
God's children must understand that even though they are not saved "by good works," they are saved "for good works." The church provides the avenue for these "good works" to be carried out. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Members of God's household must learn to accept and love each other in spite of past mistakes and imperfections. (Romans 15:1-3; Ephesians 4:29-32)
Members of the community of faith must spend meaningful time together praying, breaking bread, singing, studying, and other types of constructive interaction. (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:24-25)
3. The church is instrumental in equipping God's people for ministry!
The New Testament teaches that every Christian is to be a "minister" of Christ. At the time of conversion, one enters the "ministry." In Ephesians 4:12, Paul teaches that evangelists, pastors, and teachers are to prepare God's people for "works of service" [ministry] so that the Body of Christ may be built up. Thus, local churches must become training schools so that God's people are equipped for effective service in the world.
Central to the idea that each Christian is a "minister" is the fact that every believer has some special gift or ability from God which is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit and used to build up the Body of Christ. The New Testament refers to such abilities as "spiritual gifts." Peter writes, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10) Paul adds, "We have different gifts according to the grace given us." (Romans 12:6)
Thus, a very important function of the local church is to help its members identify and deploy their spiritual gifts. Only as this process occurs can God's plan for ministry be fulfilled. "From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:16)
4. The church is instrumental in the work of evangelism!
The marching orders of the church are summed up in those final words that Jesus spoke to His disciples! "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)
Until recent years, Christians have nearly always believed that the central mission of the church was evangelism--spreading the "good news" of Jesus! Because of liberal trends and teachings, there has been a widespread loss of confidence in the truth and power of the Gospel. When this ceases to be "good news" from God, the church will not demonstrate excitement for spreading the Gospel.
The Intimacy That is to Characterize God's Family!
In some cases, modern-day churches are little more than country clubs and social organizations. Warmth, love, and intimacy are absent. Church-life resembles theater-life. Participants pay their money, watch the show, and rush back to the real world. No sense of partnership or fellowship with other believers!
God's vision for His Family is beautifully described in Mark 10:28-31. Peter reminds the Lord that he and other disciples had "left everything to follow Him." Jesus' response is quite interesting! He says to Peter, "No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for Me and the Gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life." Don't miss the deep message of this passage.
Question! When Jesus tells Peter that the sacrifices he had made to be a disciple--home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, and fields--would be replaced a hundred times as much in this present age--homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields--what was He actually saying? How can one give up his or her home, yet gain one hundred homes? Or, give up a mother and father only to be given one hundred mothers and fathers? How can this be?
The answer? In the church, God's big family, we find close and intimate relationships that can be very deep and strong! In God's Family, a person finds mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Homes are shared and strong bonds are formed. Such intimacy! And, as Jesus points out, along with these benefits will come "persecutions." These are the blessings we enjoy "in this present age!" But, what does Jesus promise members of His Body "in the world to come?" He says, "... and in the age to come, eternal life!"
In the next lesson of "The Seeker" series, we will explore in the light of biblical principles, what we should expect after becoming Christians . Does "life in Jesus" exempt us from the trials and tribulations of human existence? If we serve God, will He spare us from dark nights, stormy waters, and painful experiences?
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