The poet William Blake wrote the following insightful words as he reflected on how easily we do not see or experience the reality that God intends for us: “Life’s dim window of the soul/ Distorts the heavens from pole to pole,/ And leads you to believe a lie,/ When you see with, not through, the eye.” Nowhere is this more evident than in people’s perceptions of the church. Random interviews of the public concerning their observations on the church, draw typical answers such as:
- “It’s a ghetto of hypocrites.”
- “It’s OK, I suppose, if you need a crutch in life.”
- “It’s only out for our money”
- “It’s caused all the major wars in this earth’s history.”
- “It’s an irrelevant fortress, out of touch with reality in this world.”
- “It’s a haven for leaders with personal moral issues.”
- “It’s a place of infighting and power struggles.”
- “It’s a social club for elitist, wannabe super-spirituals.”
Sadly, a number of these observations from time to time prove to be true of some congregations and church organisations.
They are not, however, a description of what the church is from God’s perspective. Far from it.
In the Old Testament, God revealed and manifested His presence in the Sanctuary of Israel. “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) was His instruction to Israel. When the tabernacle was ultimately completed, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35).
In the Gospels, God revealed and manifested His presence in the person of Jesus. As the living Word, who had always been with God, and shared the same nature as God, He came “and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection were all a revelation of the heart of God (see John 14:8-11).
In the other books of the New Testament, it becomes clear God chose to reveal and manifest His presence through the Holy Spirit residing in Christians who, together, made up the church.
Speaking to His disciples, who were troubled and confused when He told them He was about to leave them and return to heaven, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth… . You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16, 17). The Holy Spirit was to take Jesus’ place and transcend the limitations of Jesus’ human body. He brought the living Christ to each individual and through them to the world around them.
The book of Acts and the apostle Paul’s letters to various groups of Christians who met together around the then known world, specifically described the church as a community of people filled with the Holy Spirit, living in the age of the Spirit (see Acts 2:14-18, 32, 33, 36- 39). They demonstrated the fruit of the Spirit in their personal lives (see Galatians 5:16-25) and, as needed, manifested the gifts of the Spirit in their proclamation of what Jesus had done—and wanted yet to do— in the lives of people around them (see Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11).
For example, spiritual gifts were gifts of the Spirit to the church (see Romans 1:11). Spiritual wisdom and insight was wisdom and insight from the Spirit to the church (see Colosians 1:9).
Spiritual songs were songs inspired by the Spirit in the church (see Ephesians 5:19).
Spiritual blessings were blessings that come from life in the Spirit in the church (see Ephesians 1:3).
In several places the Bible speaks of the “fellowship of the Spirit” (see 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1). This term does not only encompass a personal intimacy we as individual Christians may enjoy with God through His indwelling Spirit. It also embraces the sort of relationship fellow Christians can have with each other because of the Holy Spirit dwelling in all of them.
If God is the Father of all of us, and Jesus is the brother of all of us, and these relationships are made possible with all of us through the indwelling Holy Spirit, then that makes us all related in the one family, sharing the same relationship as the Trinity (see John 17:22).
The New Testament places an extremely high emphasis, estimate and importance on the church.
There is no room for lone rangers in the church. We need each other.
The Bible never talks about the followers of Christ as individuals. God always addresses His people as a community.
In the Old Testament it is, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the New Testament it is, “Let us” (Galatians 5:25).
Fifty-eight references to “one another” in the New Testament highlights the emphasis and critical focus on mutual encouragement, edification and comfort we are called upon to give each other.
Jesus calls the church His “bride.” There is all the intimacy of a conjugal relationship hidden in this metaphor. We become His bride by entering into a docwright.com.au similar covenant relationship with Him, becoming “in Him” in the fullest sense.
That means He makes available to the church all that is His, in a legal and experiential sense. He wants us to fully avail ourselves of all His assets.
Jesus also calls His church His “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and His “witnesses” (Acts 1:8). These terms describe the church as His representatives here on earth. As God saw fit to give Adam and Eve rulership over the creation He had first brought into existence (see Genesis 1:26), so the church is given the same authority in the new creation (see Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20). To be a representative of Jesus is to re-present Him on the earth.
It was never God’s intention that the church would fall short of any aspect of Christ’s teaching, living, ministering and even dying. We are to love the unlovely the way Jesus loved those who put Him on the cross (see Luke 23:34). We are to love one another in the family of God the way Jesus loved impulsive Peter, and traitorous Judas (see John 13:1-30). It is that ability to love like God does that finally convicts the world of Christianity’s authenticity (see John 17:20-26).
On the surface, the church may seem a long way from this ideal. Every book of the New Testament was written to address some problem in the church, calling it back to God’s heart for it. The book of Revelation gives a thumbnail sketch of the church as it existed at the end of the first century (see Revelation 2 and 3). It is also an accurate description of the church, as it has existed all down through time—and it is mostly disappointing.
It is a wonder of God’s love that He looks at the church as what His people are legally in His eyes, and can become experientially. So committed to the church is God, however, that He sends it appropriate discipline when it misrepresents Him.
Thank goodness for His heart that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).