29 / 06 / 2013
Church Weekend Away
'The Church – What is it Anyway?'
The Church Talk 1: What is it Anyway?
Welcome to our Weekend Away.
This weekend we're looking at the topic of the church. And I wonder what you're expecting, because 'Church' is one of those elastic words that can be used in all sorts of different ways. Consider how the word church is used differently in these phrases:
• 'I'm off to church' = church as event or destination
• 'My daughter is going into the church' = church as career path / institution
• 'Church building fund' = church as bricks and mortar in need of construction funding
• 'Church community' = church as a fellowship of people
• 'Persecuted Church' = church as a suffering group, usually considered across borders and even continents.
• 'One holy, catholic, apostolic church' = a theological construct – all people saved by Jesus, sharing his righteousness, based on the witness of the apostles
• 'Wagga Wagga Baptist Church' = the church that I grew up in – whose name indicates it's local to Wagga Wagga – but not limited to any one bit of Wagga, like the Ashmont Baptist Church – and associated with the (mainstream) Baptist Union of NSW – not the strict legalistic Independent Baptists, like the Wagga Wagga Independent Baptist Church.
• 'Church of England' = the association of churches that are connected by a combination of history, geography and theology, founded in the English Moderate Reformed Tradition, governed by Bishops etc. and established by law under the leadership of the King or Queen. As distinct from the Roman Catholic Church, or the national church of Germany.
I could go on, because we use the word 'church' in any number of different ways – and that's a problem because not all of them reflect the bible's view of church. So
we often have distorted ideas about church. For that reason our first task this weekend is to ask 'What is the church – how does God define it'? That's the goal of our first talk this morning, I hope you'll find that there's a lot more to the church than we might think.
This weekend we're going to spend most our time in Ephesians (we could have roamed all over, but it helps to contain ourselves somewhat, and just about everything I want to say can be found in that one book) – but there is some ground work that we need to do in this talk, so we'll range around across Old and New Testaments in this talk before we come to land in Ephesus for the rest of the weekend.
And you'll be pleased to know that I have three Points:
Church is an Assembly Called Out to Hear God's Word
Church is the Universal, Heavenly Gathering and the Local Gathering
Church is Gathered to listen to God, speak to God and Praise God
Point 1: Church is an Assembly Called Out to Hear God's Word
So as we begin a weekend of thinking about the church we start with the basics – and you can't get much more basic than the question 'what is a church?'
The word 'Church' doesn't actually turn up all that often in our bibles, but when it does, it's translating the greek word ekklesia and the Hebrew word qahal. Both ekklsia and qahal are common words, like 'table', not religious words like 'altar' (or ironically, church). And both mean a gathering, a meeting or an assembly. Famously the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19 is repeatedly called a church – that is an ekklesia, though for some reason our translators use crowd and assembly, not 'church' to translate ekklesia there (see Acts 19.32, 39,41)!
Ekklesia was used by the anchient Hebrew / Greek scholars to translate qahal when they translated the OT into Greek around 200BC (what we know as the Septuagint, or the LXX).
Now Ekklesia is a composite word – like 'football' (do I need to spell out foot ball is made up of 'foot' and 'ball'?) and like foot-ball the two parts give us a clue to it's meaning – in this case ekklesia is made up of words for 'called' and 'out'. So our gathering is gathered by someone, it's 'called out' to meet.
A Word's origins tell us a bit about it's meaning, but the most important thing is how it's used. So we turn from our dictionaries to the Bible.
The classic 'church' passage in the OT is the assembly at Mt Sinai. That's Exodus 19-34, fifteen whole chapters, so it's a good thing we've got all weekend! Just kidding we can't look at it in detail today – but we have looked at it in detail over the spring term this year and last, so you might like to catch up on those sermons (here) after this weekend.
For now, let me summarise: after rescuing them from Egypt God gathered all Israel at Mt Sinai (also known as Mt Horeb) and he came down on the mountain and met with them. The people were strictly warned to prepare themselves, and not to even touch the foot of the mountain, or they would be put to death. Moses went up into God's presence. And God spoke to them – he spoke out loud, they heard his actual voice, thundering from the mountain as God declared the 10 commandments to them … and the people were so terrified that they begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking or they would surely die!
You may not recognise that as the pattern for our church services – but the Bible does. Four times in Deuteronomy this is called the day of the church – Deut 4:10, 9:10, 10:4, 18:16; Stephen calls it the day of the church in Acts 7.38 and Hebrews 12 makes the comparison explicit.
Deut 4.9ff sums it up for us:
4:9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. 4:10 Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb (that is Sinai), when he said to me, "Assemble (that's our word for 'church' – church –) the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children." 4:11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire.
Notice God's stated purpose in this: he gathered them there so that they could:
1. hear his words;
2. learn to revere him; and
3. teach his words to their children.
God gathered them to hear God's covenant word – with an ongoing purpose, so that that covenant word would be remembered, so it would be lived by, and so that it would be passed on to the coming generations, so they could live by it too.
This Day of the Church was designed as a defining event: God's Covenant Word defined who they were and how they lived in the land. So this gathering is the highpoint of the Exodus, even more significant than the great rescue that brought them out of Egypt. This is the point of the rescue – God brings them out so they can be his people and he can be their God.
But of course there's a deep irony: God gathered them to listen to his word, but they begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking! The word of God—being the word of God—calls for a response. It demands that its hearers listen to it, pay attention to it, and receive it; that they respond with obedience and trust, but they couldn't bear to hear it.
Nonetheless as the pattern for our church gatherings this suggests a starting point for a definition of church – a church is God's gathering those he has saved to hear his word by which they are to live. God gathers them together, and God gives them life through his word.
Already we see a great gulf open up between church and all other gatherings or associations. Our social institutions – the labour club; the football club; the knitting circle and mothers meeting – they're about us getting together with people with shared views or interests; we opt in, or the members of the club can opt to include us if it's that sort of club. But church doesn't come from us, it doesn't flow from our needs, agendas or interests, it's from God for his agenda, his word. Church is God's doing, we're caught up in something much bigger than ourselves, like the Israelites standing at the foot of Mt Sinai watching the whole thing blazing with fire and shaking at the sound of the very voice of God.
So the first application is this – we are called out – distinct from the world around us, deliberately so; we're called to belong to God, to live under his covenant. That means we live to a different set of standards, but more than that, it's about belonging: we still belong to our family and our country and our facebook contacts; but now we belong more fundamentally to something bigger and more significant, to God's church, God's people – he is our God and we are his people – this is the most fundamental and important thing about us – we remain where we are, but we're fundamentally changed.
And when we meet we need to recognise the place of God's word. This OT pattern reveals God's word is the absolute fundamental. Christians can gather for all sorts of things – but if the word of God is not central, then they are not church. If we gather to sing, but not to listen to the word of God, it's not church. If we gather for religious rituals and to hear some thoughts on moral issues but don't listen to the word of God then it's not church. If we put on a great show with spectacle and mystery but don't listen to the word of God it's not church. If we teach that the bible's not God's word, just man's views about God, it's not church. If the bible is carried around and treated as a religious artefact, but not opened and listened to; if religious behaviour and moral teaching are everywhere, but the word of God is absent – then it's not church.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Many gatherings call themselves church but they're missing the fundamental thing, God is not there because they do not listen to his word. The Word of God is central to the very existence of the church, it is the life of the church, hearing it is our central aim and purpose as a church, because it gives us life, and it sustains our life.
So the first thing we need to know about church is that it is the gathering around God's word. But there's more. So we move on to our second point.
Point 2: Church is the Universal, Heavenly Gathering and the Local Gathering
'Church' in the New Testament primarily refers to the church in heaven, gathered around God's throne, and to each individual local church as an expression of that one eternal heavenly church. There are many earthly congregations, but they have their source in the heavenly reality of which they are all manifestations.
In Ephesians we see this in the language of 'the heavenly realms', have a look at chapter 1 verse 3:
Eph 1.3 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.'
Eph 2.6-7 'and God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.'
In both those passages 'us' is a corporate entity, we together, we as a church, are blessed in Christ, we together are seated with him in the heavenly realms. That is, the church exists now in heaven in God's presence, we are seated there now, spiritually, in Christ – because we're in him, where he is, there we are!
This is true of every local church, every gathering or assembly to hear God's word. So this includes us as we sit here this morning, and week by week – as we meet here we're also seated there in heaven with Christ – Wow!
This follows the pattern of Mt Sinai – but better. As Moses went up the mountain, so we are raised up. As Moses met God in a pattern of his heavenly throne room, so we sit in God's actual heavenly throne room. As Moses heard God speak and sat down to eat and drink with God and hung out with God; so in Christ we dwell in God's presence forever, hearing his word and feeding on it.
All of this is spelt out clearly in Hebrews 12, so let's make a detour there…
Pick it up at verse 18:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear."
This is Mt Sinai being described, But "you have not come to that" he says:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly [there's our church] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
We've been gathered together at the Mountain of the Lord: not Sinai, Zion— not the one at Jerusalem, but the heavenly Zion. We've come to a gathering of all the saved, and to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very centre. Coming to Jesus we come to the mediator of a new covenant that speaks a better word than the word of Abel (remember Abel's blood cried from the ground for vengeance, and God heard it; Jesus' blood does not cry out for vengeance, but for mercy!).
Like Exodus we're gathered to hear God speak. But we're hearing a better voice: the voice of Jesus' blood, which speaks mercy, pardon and forgiveness. That is the voice we've come to, the gospel voice of salvation through Jesus Christ. So when we gather as the saved to hear the word of God, the word of God that we hear is the word of our salvation, the gospel word that saves us. We are warned to listen to this word and not reject it; we're to respond to it with trust, repentance and obedience.
So the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly – church – is the gathering of all God has saved and redeemed in Christ who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may live by it.
This is the gathering we see in Revelation 4ff – a great multitude from every tribe and nation gathers around the throne of Jesus, everyone who's united with Christ, everyone who's died and been raised with him to sit in the heavenly places. This gathering is now hidden in Christ – but when he returns, our hidden life will be seen by all.
This is the church that Jesus has in mind when he says in Matthew 16 "I will build my church". By the preaching of the apostolic gospel in the power of the Spirit, Jesus gathers his elect from the every corner of the earth and assembles them round his throne forever.
So where does our church fit into this picture? Our gatherings (or ekklesiai) are participations in, or perhaps it is better to say 'anticipations', of this heavenly assembly. Just as our discipleship stems from our life in Christ by his Spirit within us, so our church gatherings stem from the heavenly gathering we are part of in Christ. We gather here on earth in our small assemblies not to find our way to God but because God has already found us and gathered us to himself in Christ.
How can we get our heads around this? I'm sure we've all seen a royal court – if not in reality in film or on TV. A royal court is designed to reveal and reflect the majesty and power of the sovereign. Everything centres on the royal throne from which authority flow and rule is exercised. And earthly courts are modelled on the heavenly court where God rules from his throne. That heavenly court is far, far greater than any we might lay eyes on in this life – greater even than anything we can imagine in films or fantasy. Nothing can compare with God and his glory. There he sits on his mighty throne, high and exalted. And around him bows rank upon rank of mighty angelic being, so much greater than us they're terrifying to look at. And as they proclaim him praise the very earth shakes – this is the picture we get in the bible – and these are just his servants. And he glows with perfection, holiness and mighty power – he's like the sun. And like the sun we can't look directly at him, but must bow our heads.
And the remarkable thing is that we, his church, his people, sit with him in that heavenly court.
All this means our highest and greatest identity is fixed here, our closest allegiance is to Jesus and his church, not to home or family or people, let alone to clothing brand or sports team. By faith in Jesus we are transported into the heavenly realm, already seated with him there – included in him: where he is, we are! And our humble little church is a part of all of that – when we meet on a Sunday we are doing something far more than we can see on the surface, we meet in Gateshead, and we meet in the very throne room of God. In that sense all churches are humble and little, even the greatest, most impressive church pales into insignificance beside the heavenly gathering of all God's people.
How does this affect what we do in church? This is what stands behind all that teaching in 1 Cor about the church needing to accurately reflect God's character – we meet as God's people, in his name, around his throne. Don't do anything that would be unacceptable in the crown court of heaven, because that's where we are! Our energy and enthusiasm not only linked to the people around us, but to the heavenly court – to the saints who have gone before, to the angels, and to God himself who meets with us, speaks to us, hears from us. All we do in church is done in his presence… so sing heartily, pray fervently, praise with all our might etc. not just for us here, but for God himself.
And finally see how this affects our significance. All of us in life want to be part of something bigger, something wonderful and powerful, something that will last. We want to be great, to leave our mark on the world. This is one of the greatest causes of dissatisfaction in our lives – we strive for years to get something – career, marriage, family, big house, whatever – and when we arrive we're like 'is this is? Is this really all there is? There must be more…' But significance is staring us in the face. It's here, it's right here, in this moment as we meet around God's word and listen intently, as we work at submitting ourselves to him, as we try and encourage each other to live for him, and as we pray for each other, as we pray for this world and declare Jesus' goodness to our friends – these are the moments of eternal significance. Our problem is that we can't see it, so we trade in our life in church for a successful career path, or because we've got more chance of getting married somewhere else, or because we're upwardly mobile and there's no church near by in our better suburb, or because it just doesn't fit with the many glamorous and important things that dominate our priorities. And we swap eternal significance for passing pleasure and deceptive gain.
We need to learn to see and to feel the weight of eternity, right here in our church, the local manifestation of God's heavenly, eternal gathering.
We've seen that the bible defines church as the gathering of God's people around his word; and that it meets locally and also around his great throne in heaven. What does the bible specify we do in those meetings? That's our next point:
Point three: Church is Gathered to listen to God, Speak to God and Praise God
The bible doesn't specify an order of service, let alone a prayer book. But it gives us principles for our meetings. We see in Ephesians that Church is gathered in obedience to God's word through which he rules over us, in dependence on his Spirit through whom we pray to him, and in joyful expression of praise. So we teach the bible, pray and sing God's praise. And we do these things to build each other up to maturity. It is clear we will do other things together – like celebrate the Lord's Supper and perform baptisms, but these three are the centre of our church practice.
One of the key passages about what church looks like in practice in Ephesians is
4:11 It was he (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From 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.
The spiritual gifts of 1 Cor are here gifts of Christ to his church – and not just things that people can do for the church, but people who serve in key roles in the church. These gifts are to build the church. Jesus is the chief builder and he builds through giving builders: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers; and they build in their turn by equipping God's people for works of service by which the people are all built. So we're all builders, and we're all building together so that the church is built.
Building the church consists of two things – increasing the maturity of the believers: building up; and increasing the number of people in church: building out (or building in). Our translations say 'built up', but the original simply says built. And this building work leads everyone to maturity so that we're all able to stand – not battered and blown about by every wind and wave of teaching, but standing firm in the truth.
As we've already seen the church is built and believers led to maturity, by the teaching of God's word – all of the gifts listed here proclaim and teach the word of God.
Second we are instructed to pray:
Eph 6:18 'pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me…'
The church is not just a listening group, but a speaking group, we speak to God as well as listen to him: we pray in line with the spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers and requests.
Our speaking to God is not like his speaking to us – he commands and we obey, we ask and he grants as he sees fit. But it's not hopeless like sending a letter to the Queen or Prime Minister, because we have been told to ask; and we're not limited to big and important things – don't bother the master with trivialities –we're told to pray all kinds of prayers and requests. If it's on our hearts, God wants to hear it from us. But we don't pray just anything, we pray in the spirit – that is in line with the spirit, in keeping with his holiness – so we mustn't pray for sin or anything that will diminish God's glory or our obedience, instead we pray for his will to be done, for his name to be honoured.
And God doesn't promise to give us everything we ask for, He promises something far better - that he will do what is best for us.
And somehow in his mighty sovereignty God uses our prayers to do his work.
So we pray, we must pray, we dare not pray. And notice I'm talking about our church, not just us as individuals. We must pray on our own, we must stay close to him. But our solo prayers must be part of our wider church prayer life. Sunday services, home groups and prayer meetings are essential times to meet for corporate prayer, to pray together.
Finally we sing.
Eph 5.18-20 'be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.'
Not like singing is unimportant to us, an optional add on; it's an essential part of our meeting – singing is an emotional response that runs deeper than mere speaking. Why do supporters barrack, chant and sing? Why do we have national anthems? Why are teenagers so passionate about their favourite bands and artists? Why does music reduce grown men to tears? And in the light of all that God is and all that he's done for us, how could we not sing?
What do we sing?
• Scripture – with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs;
• Encouragement – speak to one another with psalms etc.; and
• Thanks – sing and make music in your hearts, always giving thanks for everything.
Our singing not just directed to God alone, but to one another, so that we will build each other up. And our singing is not just with our lips, but from the heart, out of the overflow of our thankfulness to God for all that he has done for us. This is the essence of praise – declaring God's goodness in the light of the things he has done for us.
See a knitting club is characterised by knitting – it may well do other things, like talking and eating and drinking, that facilitate being a group, but if they do not knit they have lost their purpose, they're no longer a knitting group, just a social group. In the same way we are characterised by these three things that mark out who we are – God's people fed from his word (including the sacraments, visible words) and so diligent and careful listeners at his feet; dependent on him for all things, and so fervent in prayer to him; and full of joy and thanks to him for all he has done and so overflowing in joyful song. We will do many other things that facilitate and reflect our love for each other, but these three things make us a church.
How does this change our church meetings? The big challenge is that our meetings are to be purposeful – to build each other up into maturity. We do not meet randomly, but for growth, for mutual benefit, as I seek to build you up and you seek to build me up. Therefore we pay careful attention – bible teaching isn't just information, but life giving and shaping; prayer isn't just someone speaking comforting words, but our expression of our absolute dependence on God and our confidence in him to provide for us; and we do not sing just to break up the meeting; but out of overflowing joy and delight in God, and to encourage and strengthen each other so we all stand firm. So don't switch off at church, don't come to watch or to even just to grow – come to engage with God and build each other, sing heartily, declare the creed with gusto, devour the bible teaching as life giving food. Don't come to judge the word, but to receive it.
Notice how this also elevates our serving one another: you teach Sunday school, you look after children in crèche, you serve on the door or in the kitchen or in the band. And it's hard work isn't it? And it doesn't seem to make much difference in the big scheme of things. And you'd love to come to church and relax, it's such a pain that church is such hard work… but remember when we serve each other at church, however small and insignificant our service, we're building along side Jesus, we're doing what we were designed to do. It may feel like drudgery, but God's work progresses through our mundane service, little by little. Don't give up, don't chase comfort (there will be comfort enough in heaven) instead chase service opportunities, so that you'll be like Jesus, the master builder.
Out time is gone, what have we learnt?
First God has called us together around his word. If you had an appointment with God, a sit down in a café say, what would it take to break that appointment? But God himself calls us to meet and to sit at his feet and listen to his word. This is the first appointment in our week, the highest priority, the most significant thing we do.
Second we meet with a very clear purpose – that we might listen to God so that we can live for God. What we hear is the command of the living God, the covenant word that teaches us how to live. Our lives must be shaped and transformed by this word.
Third we don't just meet with the people in the room, we meet with God, and with all his people and his angels gathered around his throne. Church has a glory and significance far beyond what we see. We need to be reverent, and to adorn ourselves with good deeds and with love and joy and peace and patience and all the fruit of God's Spirit at work in us. And we pray knowing that he hears us and gives all we need.
And finally it is a joyful gathering – God gathers his saved people: our meetings should overflow with joy and thanksgiving and song. Just like football supporters can't stop singing, so we're bursting to celebrate our God and his saving work.
There's more to say, but we end with a working description of church – church is God's saved people gathered together to hear his word in order to live by his word, to pray and praise him. Let's pray.