Manage episode 271324524 series 1187873
What Is God Doing in the World?
Two weeks ago we started a series on the church. I said that the church occupies a central role in God’s plan for the world. The church isn’t a secondary part of God’s plan. The church is the main stage where God’s plans and purposes for the universe are performed.
We looked at four passages of Scripture that show us the central place of the church in God’s plan for the world. In those texts (Eph. 3:10, 1:22-23; 1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 16:18), we learned that God is revealing his wisdom and the authority of his Son and the truth about reality through the church, and nothing will stop him.
It’s Important to Know Where We Came from and Where We’re Going
The Bible has a lot more to say about the church, about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. This is why we’re going to spend thirty two weeks considering the church together. We’re going to begin by doing four weeks on the “History of the Church.” This is not the same as “Church History.” It’s not an overview of what has happened in the church for the last 2,000 years, but rather an overview of what the Bible says about the people of God.
It’s important for us to start the series like this because it’s important to know where we came from and where we’re going. As those who trust and hope in God, we didn’t just appear out of nowhere. God brought us here, and he’s taking us somewhere. History has a point and a plot. Understanding this helps orient our lives and know who we are.
It’s not surprising that those who don’t believe in the God of the Bible often struggle to find their place in life, to know who they are. If history is cyclical and we just keep reincarnating until hopefully we reach Nirvana, then our lives will be filled with despair because we’ll never know if we’re good enough to get to the next level. Or if history is a just a jumble of random, purposeless, natural causes and effects, then our lives will be void of meaning. If the memory of our lives vanishes forever as soon as the sun burns out, then our lives have no point. We’re simply cogs in the machine of the universe.
But if there’s a God in heaven who created everything by his powerful word, who made us to know him, who sent his Son Jesus to bring us back to him, and who’ll remake the world one day, then our lives have meaning, our hearts can have hope, and our sadness can be turned into joy.
Understanding our history as the people of God, understanding our past and our future, gives us a stability in the present. We need to know who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going before we talk about what we’re supposed to be doing.
What Does “Church” Mean?
We begin our tour of the history of God’s people by looking at “The Church from Eternity to Eden.” Before we do that, I need to lay some theological groundwork for us as we think about the church. First, I need to define “church.” What does the word “church” even mean? And, relatedly, what is the relationship between Israel and the Church?
These are massively important questions and so I want to address them before we look at the church from eternity to Eden. Here’s what I’m going to try to argue: The church is the people of God who trust the promises of God from the Old and New Testaments in their gathered state.
The word “church” didn’t appear out of nowhere when Jesus used it in Matthew 16:18, “On this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, ekklesia was the word used to translate the Hebrew word qahal. In the Old Testament, the qahal was used to describe the gathering, or solemn assembly, of the Israelites. It was the word used to describe Israel when Moses led them to gather before God at Mount Sinai. It referred to the people of God assembled before God.
Ekklesia, as we learned last week, does literally mean “called out ones.” But the way it was always used was to mean “called together.” An ekklesia in the Greek world referred to an assembly that was called to perform a specific task. This idea of assembling, meeting, or gathering is critical for our understanding of the word “church.” The ekklesia wasn’t just the “called out ones,” but rather the “called out and called together ones.” It wasn’t a synonym for “the nation of Israel” or “the people of God” in general, but referred specifically to “God’s people in their gathered state.” Ekklesia is the word used in Hebrews 12:22-23, “But you have come to…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.”
The word “church” therefore describes what happens when the “called out ones” come together before God. “Church” by definition is a gathering of people called by God. Church isn’t a building you walk into, but a worshipping community you belong to and gather with. Church is not a place, a building, a denomination, or an institution. Church is an assembly, congregation, gathering, or meeting of God’s people.
This is why you can’t do “church” at home. You can’t watch church online or on TV. You aren’t the church when you’re at work. Yes, you can worship at home (eg. Home Worship Guide), you can watch preaching at home, you can sing along with worship songs at home. But “church” only happens when the people of God come together to worship God. One of the reasons we chose not to live stream our services during the quarantine is because we wanted to be careful not to teach that church is what happens up front on the stage, or that you can watch church. Church is the gathering of God’s people and there’s simply no way to reproduce that.
This is why the New Testament knows nothing of a follower of Christ who doesn’t gather regularly with other followers of Christ to worship God. This is why the New Testament expects Christians to regularly gather with other Christians. Hebrews 10:24-25, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Notice how the writer contrasts neglecting the assembly with encouraging one another. In other words, assembling with the church results in encouragement. You’re encouraged by others and you encourage others. But no encouragement happens if you don’t assemble. This is perhaps one reason why so many Christians struggle with doubt and despair. Neglecting the assembly is removing one of God’s primary means of encouragement from your life.
Are you in the habit of skipping church? Of course, we all have to miss sometimes. We tell our members that, unless you’re sick or out of town, we expect you to gather with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day. Our Church Covenant says, “We covenant to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” During these strange times, I of course understand that not everyone is able or comfortable to gather because of age, health, or concern about the coronavirus. However, many pastors fear that many folks will not return to church because they’ve bought into the notion that the church is more like a provider of content rather than a people who congregate. May it not be so with us.
What Is the Relationship Between Israel and the Church?
Now that we’ve considered what the “church” is, namely, that it’s the assembly of God’s people, we can now consider the broader question concerning the relationship between Israel and the Church.
How do the people of God from the Old Testament, namely the Israelites, and the people of God from the New Testament, namely Christians, fit together? Christians who love Jesus and believe the Bible have different ways of answering this question. Israel and the church have much in common, but there are many distinctions as well. Some of the distinctions are profound. In the Old Testament, God’s people are ethnically distinct. In the New Testament, they’re ethnically mixed. In the Old, they live under their own government with God-given laws. In the New they live under the governments of the nations. In the Old they’re required to circumcise their male children. In the New they’re required to baptize those who believe the gospel.
Though Israel and the church are not identical, they are closely related. But they’re only related through Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the promises and patterns of the Old Testament. He kept the law perfectly. He’s the new temple and a better priest and better king and better prophet. He’s the land where his people live. Jesus is the fulfillment of all that Israel pointed toward, and the church is his body.
So what’s the relationship between Israel and the church? Because Jesus fulfills all the promises and patterns of the Old Testament, and because the church is the body of Christ, the church is now the new people of God on the earth, the new Israel. Paul explicitly identifies Israel with the church in Galatians 6:16. He says that “all who walk by this rule” are “the Israel of God.” And in Galatians 3:29, he says, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Christians are the new Israel, the new people of God on the earth.
The Church is the Old and New Testament People of God
To sum up, the church is all of God’s people, all who’ve believed in the promises of God in the Old and New Testament. But the church is not some amorphous, vague, or formless group of people. The church is God’s people assembled before God. The church is the people of God who trust the promises of God from the Old and New Testaments in their gathered state.
This assembly is in heaven and on earth. The church is both universal and local. Henry Barrow was an English Puritan from the 1500’s who was martyred for his view of the church. In one of this books, he defines the church in a way that holds the universal and local aspects of the church together. He says, “(The) church as it is universally understood, contains in it all the elect of God that have been, are, or shall be. But being considered more particularly, as it is seen in this present world, it consists of a company and fellowship of faithful and holy people gathered together in the name of Christ Jesus, their only king, priest, and prophet, worshipping him aright, being peaceably and quietly governed by his officers and laws, keeping the unity of faith in the bond of peace and love unfeigned.”
Where Did the Church Come From?
Now that we’ve seen what the church is, we can begin to consider where it came from. It didn’t suddenly appear at Pentecost or Caesarea Philippi or Mount Sinai or even in the Garden of Eden, where God’s people enjoyed perfect fellowship with God. In order to find out where the church came from, we must travel back into eternity. The Bible says that the church was conceived in the mind and heart of God in eternity past. Before anything existed, God drew up his plan, counted the cost, and decided to call a people to be his treasured possession.
The Church Began Before Anything Else
Ephesians 1:3-6 is one of the clearest biblical windows to look through to see this. This text says that the church, the people of God broadly speaking, began before anything else. Verse 4, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.”
God choosing his people before time began is called divine election. Theologian Wayne Grudem offers a good definition of election: “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.”
God choosing some people and not others is a very biblical idea. In the Old Testament, we learn that God chose Noah and Abraham out of all the people on the earth at that time to be his servants. God chose Isaac instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau, David instead of his brothers, and Israel instead of any other nation. Deuteronomy 14:2, “The Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the earth.” Peter applies the same terminology to the church in the New Testament, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).
This truth is taught in other passages as well. 2 Timothy 1:9, “(God) saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” John says in Revelation 13:8 that “all who dwell on the earth will worship (the beast), everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (cf. 17:8).
Back in Ephesians 1, why does Paul start by telling us that election happened before time? Because he wants to emphasize the graciousness of God’s choice. God’s choice happened before Jew or Gentile believers existed, before they could do anything good or bad to effect it. Paul says it this way in Romans 9:10-12, “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” Because election happens before human history, it’s not based on any human achievement. It’s an absolutely free gift. The members of God’s assembly are only there because God decided that they should be there.
“Predestined for Adoption”
Verse 5 says that God “predestined us for adoption as sons.” This is a restatement of the blessing of election from a different perspective. Paul is saying the same thing in a different way. Before time began God chose to adopt men and women into a personal and intimate relationship with himself. This is an incredible privilege because those who now call God “Father” were at one time “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” (2:2, 3).
But, despite our sin and rebellion, God chose to adopt us. This verse tells us that God’s choosing us is the same as his adopting us. When he chose us, he adopted us. When he adopted us, he chose us. This is what happens when we adopt a child. We choose them, we set our love upon them, we fold them into our lives, we make them our own.
Theologian J. I. Packer describes adoption as “the highest privilege of the gospel. The traitor is forgiven, brought in for supper, and given the family name. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.”
The reason God adopted us is because he chose to love us. We did nothing to earn or deserve his affection. God doesn’t love us because we performed well and kept all his rules and started going to church and stopped being a bad person and started being a good person. God loves us because he chose to love us.
God Delights In His People
The end of verse 5 explains the attitude with which God elected believers. The word for “purpose” means “pleasure” or “desire.” God chose to love his children out of a deep desire to do so. He took great pleasure in electing his people. He didn’t do it begrudgingly. God elects his people out of joy. He’s thrilled to give us what we don’t deserve.
Listen to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God’s joyful generosity is meant to kill our fears. If he’s happily given us his kingdom, won’t he happily provide everything we need?
And listen to the prophet Zephaniah’s words: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17). God’s pleasure in saving us gives us strength and takes away our fears. God isn’t a miser. He’s the most generous and joyful giver in the universe.
On this passage, I wrote in this month’s newsletter: “God sings ‘loudly’ and ‘with gladness’ over those who belong to him. His love quiets our fears. He sees us. He knows us. He understands what we have done and what has been done to us. And he is happy to be our God…Christian, because you belong to Jesus, God is pleased with you, delights in you, is happy with you, and even sings over you with joy. No one else may feel this way about you, but the only Person in the universe who matters does…Do you believe that God delights in you? Do you hear God’s sweet voice singing over your life? Does your heart feel God’s joy in you as his child?”
Who Are We Church?
So where did the church come from? Ephesians 1 makes it clear that the church didn’t choose to assemble before God. The church didn’t choose God. God chose the church. Each member of his assembly was chosen before the world existed.
Christian, church member, God chose you before there was a you. And he chose you because he loves you. And he loves you because he loves you. Because he loves you, he delights in you. He’s happy with you. He sings over the assembly of his children, both in heaven and on earth.
Who are we church? We’re the chosen, adopted, loved, delighted in people of God who’re gathered together to worship the God who made us and saved us, and nothing will ever take this away from us.
Because the church took shape in the mind and heart of God in eternity past, it’ll survive every challenge of the present, and will triumph in the future. God has given us something that we’ll never lose and brought us to a place we’ll never leave. We “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly 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…Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:22-24, 28).