The Christian faith is a faith for individuals.
The apostle Paul rejoiced in the intimacy of this faith. Emphasising this intimacy by his repetition of personal pronouns, Paul declared:
Gal.2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
Paul hadn’t always been able to say that – in fact for a part of his life he was totally opposed to the Christian faith and tried to eradicate it. But he changed or, to be more precise, he was changed. Paul was made aware of his sin and brought to repentance – no-one repented for him and no-one exercised faith on his behalf – Paul had to do that himself.
It is the same for all of us if we would be true followers of Jesus Christ. We too must repent of our sin and we too must exercise our own personal faith in a Crucified Saviour. We enter one by one into the way of Christian discipleship.
And yet we are not meant to go it alone as Christians. God’s plan of salvation involves the building of a new community of saved individuals. As Christians we are designed to live out our lives of Christian discipleship in this new community. The name of this new, redeemed community is the church.
The church is not designed to be an institution but an assembly of individual people who have all been saved by the grace of God. Neither should we confuse this assembly of people with buildings of brick, stone and mortar. Church buildings are at best simply the place where the people who constitute the church actually meet together.
This morning we are going to take a brief look at what the Bible teaches about the church. The article from our Statement of Faith contains a good summary of that teaching. Let me read it to you now.
"The universal Church is the body of which Christ is the head and to which all who are saved belong. It is made visible in local churches, which are congregations of believers who are committed to each other for the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administering of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; for pastoral care and discipline, and for evangelism. The unity of the body of Christ is expressed within and between churches by mutual love, care and encouragement. True fellowship between churches exists only where they are faithful to the gospel."
The Universal Church and the Local Church
The Universal Church
In the gospels Jesus used the word "church" just twice. In doing so he was referring to the body of believers that would be properly constituted as the church only after his death, resurrection and ascension. In one of them he refers to what we call the universal church and in the other his words are more applicable to what we call the local church.
The expression "universal church" is not found in the Bible but is used to describe one of the two ways in which the simple word church is employed.
When we speak about the universal Church what we have in mind is every believer for whom Christ has died.
Jesus spoke about this church in Mt 16:18 when he said:
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Jesus did not mean to teach that the church would be built upon Peter. Peter had just made that wonderful declaration which had been revealed to him by God the Father:
Mt.16:16 "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
The church would be built upon the Lord Jesus himself.
This church is made up of the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth along with all those Christians who have already died and been received into heaven.
A person cannot belong to this church unless he/she is saved. A person cannot be saved and not belong to this church.
Paul referred to this complete body of believers made up of individuals from every place and from every point of time when he wrote:
Eph.5:25 "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..."
It should be immediately clear to us that this church has never yet met together. We look forward to the day when all that changes:
Rev.7:9-10 "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!""
The Local Church
In a few moments we will look at some of the pictures that the Bible uses to describe this wonderful body that Jesus is building, these pictures are designed to help us get a better understanding of his church. Before we do that we need to realise that the Bible uses the same word "church" to describe the more limited body which is a local congregation. While we can distinguish between these two usages there remains a clear link between them:
This universal yet invisible church is made visible in local churches or congregations.
In Mt.18:17 Jesus spoke to his disciples about the matter of church discipline and this is what he said:
"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
Now surely it is obvious that Jesus is not talking about the universal church but of a more restricted gathering? We find exactly this type of restricted gathering frequently referred to in the NT. The Acts of the Apostles talks about churches being planted in place after place; Paul’s letters which make up a considerable part of the NT are, in the main, letters that are addressed to local congregations or assemblies of Christian disciples. And in the Book of Revelation Jesus addressed a series of seven letters to seven individual local churches. The NT refers to by name more than thirty of these local churches.
So what is a local church? To what does it refer in the NT?
The answer is quite simple. A local church is a congregation of believers who are committed to one another, having been called by God.
Following the success of Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost we read:
Acts 2:41-47 "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 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 favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
The major reasons why individual Christians met together in these committed gatherings were the following:
The worship of God
The preaching of the Word
For administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper
For pastoral care and discipline
Each of these categories is better carried out in fellowship with others. Yes, I know it is possible to worship God alone and indeed some Christians are obliged to do so due to persecution or isolation but some of the descriptions of Christian worship are impossible to apply to an isolated believer: yes we can sing on our own but how can we sing to one another if there is no-one else around? It is usually much easier, and much more encouraging, to sing in the presence of a congregation of like-minded fellow-believers.
Pastoral care and discipline is not and never was meant to be a purely private matter between a pastor and individual members of the flock but is to be a care exercised by every member of every other member. That is what is intended when the instruction is given to "bear one another’s burdens".
The local church was and is meant to be an active team where its members share together, carry out their common calling and ministries and exercise their various gifts for the common good.
The NT doesn’t recognise the lone-ranger model of discipleship but sees the disciple as a person committed in the community of the local church and as the local church is people a disciple’s commitment is to those people. Does that describe you, I wonder.
Pictures of the Church
A SPIRITUAL HOUSE
Eph.2:19-22 "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
1Pet.2:5 "you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
There is something solid and permanent about a house and when the idea of the house is developed into that of a household we are moving much more into relationship type territory, into a family environment. And so the idea of a spiritual house or household sits easily with the idea of the church as a family, God’s family.
This particular picture also introduces us to the idea of historical continuity – we are related not just to our brothers and sisters alive in our own local church but we’re standing on the foundations that others laid before us, going right back to the apostles.
This house is a work in progress too. When we look at the local church we can sometimes be discouraged by the mess that we see but there is an end to every building site and project, a time when the scaffolding will all come down to reveal the beautiful construct that our Lord has been putting together.
And what is more we have this wonderful opportunity of being involved with a project that will last into eternity! Many men and women live their lives for such pathetically small goals. They devote themselves to enterprises that are destined to crumble and be replaced – but the house that Jesus is building will go on and on throughout all eternity. Now, isn’t that a project worth being involved in!!
THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
Eph.5:25 "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,"
Rev.19:7 "Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;"
Rev.21:9 "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb."
There is no closer relationship on earth than that which exists between a husband and a wife and that is the way the Lord Jesus thinks about his people who make up the church. He sees himself as the husband of his bride. In normal circumstances a husband is proud of his wife, thrills with his wife and loves to be with and to enjoy her company. On his wedding day he celebrates and he boasts of his bride. That’s how it is meant to be! That is why marital breakdown is always such a sad business. But there will be no ‘marital breakdown’ as the Lamb marries his bride who has made herself ready. He will never ever forsake his people having given himself up to save us!
If you have any lingering idea about Christianity being tedious and dull you simply haven’t got a clue about the real deal!
THE BODY OF CHRIST
Col.1:18 "And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent."
Eph.1:22-23 "And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all."
This picture draws our attention to the intense unity that exists within the true church. We’re not all the same and are not meant to be! We are different with different gifts and abilities etc. but together we are united in one body. Lionel Messi may be a great footballer but he would be useless if both his feet were left! Difference in submission to Christ our head leads to balance, beauty, efficacy, productiveness etc etc.
What a privilege to be a member of the universal church – saved for all eternity by the blood of the Lamb – but what a wonderful privilege it is to be part of the local church which lies right at the heart of God’s plan of salvation!
Of course this church isn’t perfect – it is after all a work in progress and how foolish we would be to avoid the place where God is pleased to be at work.
Of course being involved and committed to the cause of Christ there where the Lord has placed us will at times expose us to the criticism of others. The non-believer will at different times mock us, persecute us or ignore us. But that is no reason from holding ourselves aloof – the church will emerge from all its trials and tribulations in triumph to perfection and glory!
Small wonder that old-slaver, John Newton, could write about the wonders of the church of Jesus Christ as he did "Glorious things of thee are spoken". Do you agree with him?