A Place to Belong: The Bible and the Church
Church: The Misunderstood Word.
For everyone who wants to understand God's Word and His plan for today, there is a term that you need to know. That term is 'church.' This is one of those words which means more than most would think.
When we use the term church, many people think about a building where worshippers of God meet on a regular basis. To others, large powerful organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, or the Church of England come to mind. Some may even think of a group of people who belong to a religious assembly as a church. But unless they are well versed in the Bible, few people on the street would know the biblical definition of the term.
The Greek word that is used in Scripture for church is the term ekklesia, which simply means "a called out assembly." In ancient Greek, it referred to an assembly or a congregation of people. It was not originally used to refer to a religious assembly in the Greek-speaking world, but usually to a political one.
This term was also used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to talk about the people of Israel. They too were a called out assembly of people. If you could read this text in Greek you'd see the term used some seventy times to translate the Hebrew word kahal.
I. The Local Church
When we see the word church in the New Testament, we need to distinguish between two major understandings of it. Sometimes it is referring to local assemblies of believers in a particular area of the world. These local assemblies didn't meet in an elaborate building such as many of us do today. Rather some met in private homes or house churches. However, in the first century, due to persecution, Christians assembled any place that they could find, including open fields and the Catacombs, which were burial places. The church was not a building but the people who were assembled. It is this sense of the term that is meant in passages such as Romans 16:3-5 where Paul says:
"Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus, who have, for my life, laid down their own necks, unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house.
But there is another use of the word in the New Testament to which we must now turn. Sometimes it is referring to the Universal Church.
II. The Universal Church
The universal church is made up of all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world, both living and dead, who are saved by grace, through faith during this present age in which we are now living, commonly referred to as the Dispensation or Age of Grace.
Before this, God was dealing mainly with the people of Israel. The Lord had made promises to their forefather, Abraham that He would make him into a great nation and bless him and his offspring. And originally, Israel was to be the means whereby God would bless all the world (Genesis 12:3).
Unfortunately, they failed miserably, which led God to temporarily set them aside (Romans 9-11). It was because of this fall that God has begun the Church, also known as the Body of Christ. In this universal church, God is placing both Jews and Gentiles alike. By the way, the term Gentiles is used for everyone who is not Jewish. So God is no longer simply dealing with one nation, but with the whole world. (Ephesians 3:4-7; I Corinthians 12:13). He is saving a people for His name. And they are united under one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
From the beginning, man was meant to live in community. He was created in the image of the Triune God, and so was made to be a social being. The Lord Himself said that:
"It is not good that a man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
So God gave to Adam a helper, a wife with which to share life. From this union came children, families, and communities of people.
Sin destroyed, the relationship between God and man. Man's sin separated Him from God. But it also did something else. It alienated man from other men and women. We see this in many ways, whether by the constant wars that mankind has had with one another over the centuries or by the cruelty that people have perpetrated against one another. Also, the broken relationships and divorces that destroy families and friendships are another example of the curse of sin in this world.
Jesus Christ came to save fallen humanity and to bring them back into relationship with the sovereign God. Where there is a separation from God, Jesus has made us sons and daughters of God, through faith in His name (I John 3:1). And with the new relationship with God, is now the potential to unite mankind again.
Every person who accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior is placed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, the church (I Corinthians 12:13). Two of the major characteristics of the Church which are emphasized in Scripture are their unity and their love for one another, and for a lost humanity. This unity and love can come only through the indwelling Spirit that lives in each believer. Paul, in Ephesians 4:1-6 tells us:
"Therefore, I the prisoner of the Lord implore you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling with which you have been called. With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."
The church at its best demonstrates to the world what it means to live under the sovereignty of Almighty God, and shows the love and unity that they possess by God's grace.
Of course, Christians aren't perfect yet, and won't be until Jesus returns in glory to give us new and glorified bodies, not affected by the old nature and the curse of sin. But Scripture teaches us in II Corinthians 5:17 that anyone in Christ is a new creature. We have been given a new nature capable of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ. So, the Church of Jesus Christ has the ability to demonstrate to the world a unity that mankind hasn't experienced since the Garden of Eden.
III. We Are Adopted Into a Family
Not only are we united, but we are also considered a family by adoption. Scripture makes it clear that though all mankind was created by God, they are not all part of His family. Sin has made us His enemies.
Romans 1 talks about the fact that the Lord's wrath is being revealed against a world that refused to glorify Him as God, but exchanged that glory for idols, and became ever more decadent in their thoughts and in their actions (18-32).
Ephesians 2:12 says that before Christ we were without hope and without God in the world. But now, because of what Jesus did on the cross, those who place their faith in Him are not only reunited to the Lord of the universe, we are now the children of the living God (I John 3:1). We have been adopted into His family and are heirs and joint heirs with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14-17). So the Church is seen as a family of believers, united by their common faith in Christ. And we are to care for one another as we would any member of a family.
IV. We Are Placed in a Body United Under One Head: Jesus Christ
The metaphor of the Body of Christ illustrates the unity and the diversity we have as believers. We are to act in unison to do on this earth, what Jesus would do if He were still physically here. The church as His Body is to act in such a way that Jesus is seen and glorified in what it does.
Our Lord was on this earth for around 33 years. When He left, it was His design that we act as His hands, His feet, His eyes etc. in order to continue to do His work on this planet. There are many parts to that Body, each having a different function and each contributing to the whole in some way. The diversity is seen clearly in the fact that we all have some Spiritual gift given specifically to help build up the Body. None of us is expendable. The Lord has placed us all in the Body for service. (I Corinthians 12).
However, it must be remembered that though there are many members, with differing gifts, there is only one Body, controlled by one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to Him we must all look for instructions to carry out His work on this planet (Ephesians 5:23).
V. We Are a Holy Temple
John Berstecher tells the story of an amazing building which was built for an international exposition. The citizens of the city in which it was built called it a monstrosity and demanded that it be torn down as soon as the exposition was over. However, from the moment that the architect designed the building, he took pride in it and defended it from those seeking its destruction. He simply knew that it was destined for greatness. Today, it is considered one of the architectural wonders of the modern world, and its designer is thought to have been a genius. It stands as one of the primary landmarks of Paris, France. The architect, of course, was Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and his famous Eiffel Tower was built in 1889.
Jesus is the Architect of the Church, the Body of Christ. In this further metaphor for what Christ is building, Paul calls us a holy temple, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Speaking to the Gentile Ephesian Church he states:
"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, is being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord. In whom you also are built into a dwelling of God in the Spirit" ( Ephesians 2:19-22).
In the Old Testament, King Solomon built a magnificent temple for the Lord. However, Christ Jesus is building a far superior edifice made up of all those who have come to know Him as Savior. Jesus is the cornerstone, which is the stone that sets the foundation and squares the building.
We are being built in order to be a dwelling of the Lord. Christ's Temple will not be complete until every person who will believe in Him has been added to that structure. The interesting thing is that our Lord has entrusted the work of building to us by having us tell more and more people the good news of the Gospel. To the outside world, we may look like a bunch of incompetent blunderers. However, Christ, the architect sees us for what He is making us all into. Individually, the Spirit of Christ dwells in each and every one of us and each of us is called a temple ( I Corinthians 6:19,20). But together also we are being built into a magnificent structure for His dwelling as well.
We have only scratched the surface of this magnificent Bible word. But we've seen enough to know that the Church is at the very center of God's dealings with mankind today. When we are saved we are all placed in that Universal Church. We belong to each other, as Christians, and together we all belong to the Lord.
Sin separated us from God and from one another. Salvation brings us both fellowship with God and unifies us under one Head, Christ, and into one Body. And, it is through the Church, the Body of Christ, that God's plan of salvation is being offered to the world. Because of all of this and much more, we can all rejoice and say: "Thank God for the Church!
If you are getting the picture that the Christian life is not just about God and me and simply my personal relationship with Him, then you're getting more of a biblical picture of what it's all about. There are no lone wolves, left to simply fend for themselves. We are a new family, a new community, a Body of believers, a Temple. And we have one major thing in common. We are all under the sovereign headship of Jesus Christ. It is a wonderful thing to know that God has not placed us on this earth to wander about aimlessly on our own. We each have a purpose that God has given to us, and our gifts make the Body function properly. We belong together and function best in community.
As believers, let us continually seek to maintain the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church, and practice love toward our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. And when all is said and done, may the people of this world be able to look at us, despite all of our faults and shortcomings and say: "Jesus is surely alive, because I can see His work in His people, the Church." Lord, let it be so!
© 2012 Jeff Shirley