This morning we're going to transition into looking at the doctrine of the church. In some ways we've already been talking about the church even as last week we looked at spiritual gifts. After all, the Spirit gives gifts to individuals who are part of the church. So speaking of spiritual gifts or manifestations of the Spirit is not a topic limited to the doctrine of the Spirit alone but also ecclesiology. In the same way, even as we go on from here looking at the doctrine of the church we will not cease speaking of the Spirit, for the church is made of those people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and empowered by him to live in a Christ-honoring manner. Therefore, this morning I want to begin by looking at the nature of the church. I want to answer the question, \"What is the church?\" or \"What is the nature of the church?\" Then I want us to think through applying these truths in a way that will inform not simply what we will talk about from this point forward but also those topics which we have already discussed (especially the use of spiritual gifts in the church).
What or Who is the Church?
The church is difficult to define because you can talk about the church in so many different ways. For example, you can talk about the invisible church (all saints throughout all the ages) or the visible church (those whom we currently see professing Christ and following him), the universal church (all of the saints throughout the world) or the local church (those believers who make up a church in a local setting, such as CCC), or many other dichotomies. We even refer to buildings at times as churches, though it is clear that there is nothing holy about a building but that the people are the church.1 All of these elements make it difficult to provide a definition of the church. A good definition of the church has been given by Mark Dever who has spoken of the church as \"the body of people who have been called out of the world by God's grace and who have been called together to glorify him by serving him in the world.\"2
This definition is helpful because it stresses that the church is people, that it is a body or corporate group of people, that we have been \"called out\"3 of the world, that we have been called together (to one another) and that we seek to glorify God as we serve him in the world; which are all important elements in thinking of the church. However, we might ask, \"Who are those individuals who have been called out of the world and to one another to serve God?\" The answer to this question is that it is all those people who have been united to Christ through faith. The people of God, the church, are those united to Christ by faith. But let's take a brief look throughout the Scripture to understand why it is important to stress that God's people are those who have been united to Christ through faith.
The People of God
After the Fall, the flood, and the scattering of people all over the face of the earth at Babel, it was clear that God would have a people for himself. He called to himself Abraham and made a number of promises to Abraham and to his offspring. Abraham's offspring, Israel, would be the people of God; they would be his people and he would be their God, as God would have a people in this world. And sure enough Abraham had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob, whom God named, \"Israel,\" for from this one man would come a nation of people, and he represented the whole. This idea of one representing a whole (singular representing plural) is common to the Old Testament as even the king of the nation could represent the whole nation.
But Israel sinned and walked away from their Lord and so God judged them, allowing them to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and brought into captivity. However, even then God promised a day when he would deliver his people and bring to them the promises he had made. As the Israelites were led away to captivity we read of their lamentation. Rachel, Israel's mother, had been buried near Ramah, so as the Israelites are led away into captivity, the prophet writes of hearing Rachel weeping for her children. Jeremiah writes in Jeremiah 31:15, \"Thus says the LORD: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.'\"
It looks as if God will not have a people for himself. However the Lord tells Rachel to stop. Jeremiah continues, \"Thus says the LORD: 'Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declare the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country'\" (Jer. 31:16-17). There is a promise here that God will bring his people out of captivity and persecution to himself. He will have a people. He will call them to himself.
In the same way, as Israel is in captivity and it looks as if God's people have been cut off from him, as if they are dead, God takes Ezekiel to a valley of dry bones (or at least a vision of these) and tells Ezekiel to speak to these bones, raises them up, puts life in them, and brings about an exceeding great army. Then God says to Ezekiel, \"Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord\" (Ezek. 37:11-14). Even before Israel had even been conquered by Assyria, however, Hosea had prophesied something similar, saying, \"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him\" (Hosea 6:1-2).
Therefore, though it looked quite bleak at times, the Old Testament anticipates God gathering a people for himself out of captivity and giving to them the promises. It anticipates God raising a people from the dead on the third day so that they might be his people and he might be their God. God indeed will have a people. But who are these people? Who is Israel? To whom will these promises come? And how will these promises come?
The New Testament answers this question for us. It answers us with one name: Jesus. As Matthew writes of the birth of Christ, he writes in the first two chapters of a number of things being fulfilled. We read phrases throughout these introductory chapters like \"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet â€¦\" (1:22), \"for so it is written by the prophet\" (2:5), \"This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet\" (2:15), and \"that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled\" (2:23). Matthew is clearly sending the message to his readers that Jesus is fulfilling what had been spoken about in former days. But one of these uses is particularly interesting.
As Jesus is born, Herod gets news that the one of whom it had been prophesied that he would be born in Bethlehem had been born. Therefore, Herod, concerned that this one would be a rival for the throne began killing \"all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under\" (Matthew 2:16). Then, immediately after writing that Matthew writes, \"Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more\" (2:17).
As Matthew contemplates the scene in Bethlehem it points him to the days of Israel's captivity. Even as they were enslaved and hopeless 580 years earlier, so now their persecution continues. Rachel continues to weep over her children, refusing to be comforted, for how will God have a people. But we remember that Rachel had been told to stop weeping, for God would deliver his people out of captivity and bring to them the promises. Yet how was this to happen, for even now Israel was still being persecuted and seemingly without hope of living under the blessing of God, receiving the promises.
Matthew is showing us that the answer to Israel being delivered from captivity is wrapped up in this little child named Jesus. Rachel can stop crying because he is not killed under this persecution. As Herod dies and this child escapes the threat, God is fulfilling his promises to Israel in one man who represents the whole - the true Israel. Matthew is showing us that God's true people are wrapped up in one man, Jesus of Nazareth.
But what then about the promises of raising his people from their graves, even on the third day? Again, when Jesus hangs on the cross with the sign over his head, \"This is Jesus, the King of the Jews\" it was showing that this one man was representing an entire people. He was their King, and he died the death his people deserved on their behalf. And we all know what happened next; he was raised on the third day. That was not by accident but in order to fulfill what Hosea had prophesied, that God would raise his people on the third day. God was fulfilling every promise concerning his people through one man, Jesus.
In fact, even the promises to Abraham and his offspring were coming to this one man. We are reminded of the great name promised to Abraham as Paul writes that, having raised Jesus from the dead, \"God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name\" (Philip. 2:9). And the promise of land is expanded to the whole world in the New Testament (Rom. 4:13), and we see that Christ becomes the one who inherits the whole world, as it had been created \"for him\" (Col. 1:16) and as God had said to him in Psalm 2:7-8, \"You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, the ends of the earth your possession.\" All the promises were coming to one man, Jesus.
\"But,\" we might ask, \"didn't God make these promises to Abraham's offspring? Shouldn't these come to God's people?\" We can answer this question two ways. The first is by seeing that the promises were always intended to come foremost to Christ. Paul writes in Galatians 3:16, \"Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to his offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ.\" All the promises come to Christ who is the true Israel of God.
But then does God have a people? Indeed, it is those who are united to Christ through faith in him. Again, Paul writes, \"Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. â€¦ for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise\" (Gal. 3:7, 26-29). God's people are those who are united to Christ by faith and consequently are heirs of all the promises that have been fulfilled and come to him. That's who the church is, and it is recognizing that God's people are those united to Christ by faith that is the foundation for our thinking about the nature of the church. In fact, as we begin now to think through the nature of the church we can say about every aspect of the church, \"Because the church is those persons who have been united to Christ by faith â€¦\"
The Church Is United
Because the church, the people of God, are those who are united to Christ, consequently we are bound to one another. Clowney writes, \"Christ fulfils the calling of Israel; those united to him are by that fact the new Israel of God (Gal. 3:29; 4:21; Rom. 15:8). The ethnicity of the new people is now spiritual rather than physical, making the bonds stronger and the brotherhood more intense (1 Pet. 1:22). Christians are not just born-again individuals, they are a family, 'spiritual ethinics', the new people of God in Christ.\"4 The church is by nature more than a collection of individuals. We have a corporate identity; we are a family, a body, an organism, a fellowship of the Spirit. This unity is linked to the fact that we are united to one, who is Christ. This is why when Paul addressed the Corinthian church which was filled with division he did not ask, \"Is the church divided?\" but \"Is Christ divided?\" (1 Cor. 1:13). He wanted them to see that it was a ridiculous concept to attempt to divide the church since we are the church by the fact that we are united with one man, who himself cannot be divided. Again Paul shows us this connected between our unity and being united to the one Lord, Jesus Christ as he writes to the Ephesians, \"I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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\" (Eph. 4:1-6).
Linking what we've spoken of over the past few weeks with our discussion today, we can add that one of the major tasks of the Spirit in the church is preserving and bringing about unity among the Lord's people. Paul ends his second (canonical) letter to the Corinthians saying, \"The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all\" (2 Cor. 13:14), he uses the same phrase in Philippians 2:1-2, and (as we saw) he write to the Ephesians of the \"unity of the Spirit.\" When Paul writes of being filled with the Spirit, his description of the result of this is \"addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs\" (Eph. 5:19), obviously showing that the Spirit works to bring about and preserve unity. Then, if we look at what \"grieves\" the Spirit in Ephesians 4:25-32 it is the practice of those things that bring division to the body of Christ and do not build up others and preserve unity. Finally, as we saw last week, the reason the manifestations or gifts of the Spirit are given to the church is so that the whole body might be built up. They are \"for the common good\" (1 Cor. 12:7).
Therefore, when we think of the people of God, just as we can say that we are united to Christ, so that we are one with him, we should also see that we are united to one another, and therefore one with one another. The early church saw this clearly as their realization that they were united in Christ and through the Holy Spirit actually led them to share their goods and possessions as well. We read in Acts 2:44-47, \"And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.\"
Early Baptists saw this unity as well. The signing of covenants, showing the unity of the members, was common in churches up until the middle of the twentieth century. The language of the First London Baptist Confession of Faith shows this well. Simply listen to their description of the church: And all His servants of all estates (are to acknowledge [Jesus] to be their prophet, priest and king;) and called thither to be enrolled among His household servants, to present their bodies and souls, and to bring their gifts God hath given them, to be under His heavenly conduct and government, to lead their lives in this walled sheepfold, and watered garden, to have communion here with His saints, that they may be assured that they are made meet to be partakers of their inheritance in the kingdom of God; and to supply each others wants, inward and outward; (and although each person hath a propriety in his own estate, yet they are to supply each others wants, according as their necessities shall require, that the name of Jesus Christ may not be blasphemed through the necessity of any in the Church) and also being come, they are here by Himself to be bestowed in their several order, due place, peculiar use, being fitly compact and knit together according to the effectual working of every part, to the edifying of itself in love. That is a beautiful picture of the church, a body, a family, united in Christ.
The Church Is Holy
In addition, because the church is those persons united to Christ, who is holy, the church is holy as well. We are a special, set apart people, a people who have been called out from the world. Therefore, we are to be different from them. Paul warns us in the book of Romans not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). We are a people who are different and live differently from the world. Peter writes of the church, \"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light\" (1 Peter 2:9). Then he again writes, \"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, \"You shall be holy, for I am holy\" (1 Peter 1:14-16). Because we are united with Christ, we are holy, and must display just to the world. Just as Paul explained to the Corinthians that division among God's people should lead the world to conclude Christ is divided, so immorality (especially unaddressed immorality) in the church should lead the world to assume that Christ himself is immoral and unholy.
In the same way, linking our discussion to the work of the Spirit, we must be holy, reflecting moral purity, because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is holy (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Because we are indwelt by the Spirit we are both unique in this world and should walk in purity.
We must also remember that holiness is not something we simply measure as individuals. Remember, the church is not simply a group of individuals but a family, the family of God. Therefore, we cannot claim to pursue holiness unless we pursue holiness on a corporate level. Clowney says it well, writing, \"Growth in true holiness is always growth together; it takes place through the nurture, the work and worship of the church. â€¦ Together we grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph. 4:13, 15).\"5
This is something which we all too easily miss, but it makes complete sense, especially when we think of the body as a metaphor for the church. Could you imagine claiming yourself healthy because while your liver is riddled with cancer your legs sure seem to be working fine? To have disease in one part of the body makes the whole body unhealthy. We do not consider ourselves healthy simply because only our respiratory system is affected by disease. In the same way, we must break with thinking of holiness in individual terms and must begin to think of holiness corporately. It could be the reason church discipline, for example, has fallen out of use in our day is because there is a rising focus on the individual over the corporate body. And if indeed holiness can be achieved individually, apart from the body, then discipline isn't as necessary, but since holiness is a corporate reality, it is absolutely necessary. Thus Paul writes, \"Do you not know a little leaven leavens the whole lump? â€¦ Purge the evil person from among you\" (1 Cor. 5:6, 13). This, I do not think, is simply a warning against sin spreading but a warning that sin in one part of the body corrupts the whole and therefore must be addressed. Thus, Dever's words are true, as he writes, \"Far worse than a church in which someone commits adultery is a church that says nothing about people committing adultery.\"6
The church is the body of individuals united with Christ through faith who have been called out of this world to God and one another to glorify God through serving him in the world. And because we are those united with Christ, we must be united and holy, which brings us to our conclusion.
Another Word about Love
This brings us back to the note we ended on last week, namely, the need for pursuing love as God's people. Obviously our union with one another demands love. As Paul spells out how it looks to eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit, he writes of us \"bearing with one another in love\" (Eph. 4:2-3). However, holiness also demands love. In fact, love is a key aspect of our holiness. How is it that Jesus said the world would know that we are unique, strange, and special? That is to say, how is it that Jesus said the world would know we are his? He said, \"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another\" (John 13:34-35). This is why everything we pursue as a community must be driven by God and one another. It is because we are united to Christ who is holy. Therefore, we are united to one another and must be holy.
So, even as we concluded our topic of spiritual gifts last week, so we remind ourselves again. Make every effort to esteem others in this body, laboring for unity, bearing with one another, carrying one another's burdens, rejoicing with one another's joys, praying for one another, and longing for other's growth in holiness alongside your own. Does the call to love one another as Christ has loved us demand any less? Of course not. May God's grace be with us. Amen.
1In fact, buildings set aside for the gathering of the church do not come around until the third century, and even after this it was stressed that the people, not the building, was the church. Oliver Cromwell would even have his horses stay in the church building to communicate that there was nothing holy about the building in and of itself.
2This definition was given by Mark Dever in an Ecclesiology class taught on campus at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on January 7, 2003.
3The Greek word ecclesia which we translate \"church\" is made up of two words meaning \"called out of.\"
4Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 44.