This brief article will unpack Jesus’ founding statement on the purpose of the church, thereafter the source of the church’s power will be acknowledged and then biblical images for the church will be explored. Each section will include thoughts and questions for practical and contextual application.
The Church is God’s plan in the World. (The foundation and purpose of the Church)
The church has existed for two thousand years. Many have predicted the demise of the church and yet it continues. Sometimes it’s something to be proud of and at other times we cannot be so proud.
But to really understand the nature and purpose of the Church it will be helpful to hear what Jesus had to say about the nature and purpose of the Church. Interestingly enough, the identity of the Church is inextricably linked to the identity of Christ.
`But what about you?` Jesus asked. `Who do you say I am?` Simon Peter answered, `You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.` Jesus replied, `Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.` (Matthew16:18)
People had speculated on Jesus’ identity: Some saw Him as a prophet, others as Elijah come back from the dead. Peter, however, saw it clearly. He realised that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah).
Jesus response about Peter and the Rock is unusual. Being able to read Greek helps here. The name Peter is derived from the masculine greek word for rock (Petros) but the word for the foundation of rock which Jesus uses as the foundation of the church is a feminine word (Petra).
So if the rock on which the church is built is not Peter, then what is the rock? The foundation of the Church is Peter’s creed: `You are the Christ – the Son of the living God.`
This is the basis of the church and there are three resulting facts:
- Jesus is the One who builds the Church and it is His.
- Our identity and purpose is tied up in His identity – He is the saving Messiah.
- Even the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.And what is our purpose? To proclaim Jesus and prevail against evil. Through thick and thin.So, to conclude this section: What is the Church? – It’s God’s choice place of work in the world – Jesus is building it! When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. (Acts2:1-3)The coming of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people was God’s birthday gift to the Church that He inaugurated. Today this same Holy Spirit wants to work in us to enable us to do and be more than we ever thought we could. The church is not expected to enter the struggle on its own. When we are open to God, the wind will blow and we will have fire in our bellies.
- Here are some thoughts to consider:
- Wind and Fire are good symbols of the Spirit’s coming. The thing about wind is that it is invisible – we can’t tell where it is from or where it is going – we can’t manipulate the Spirit, but He does blow away the cobwebs of a staid faith and bring about new life. Fire is powerful, and like the burning bush, we burn but we are not consumed. Fire ignites. It is warm and illuminating. We talk about people who are motivated by the Spirit as `on-fire` people.
- A few days after the Ascension of Jesus, the leftover disciples gathered to for worship. They were a fearful rag-tag bunch, but something happened to them that equipped them to fearlessly take the message out on the streets and for Peter to bring over 3000 people to faith though a simple sermon.
- The Church’s Power
- What is the purpose of the Church? – To proclaim Jesus the Messiah who saves – To prevail against evil
- The church will still be here when Google, Microsoft, and many of the organisations and brand-names we know now are long gone!
- It is easy to become negative about the Church. It is also easy to mistake the minister for the church. It is easy to get wrapped up in the local congregation’s agenda and lose sight of our purpose.
- Are there times we close the `windows` of our hearts and churches to keep the wind out because we like being settled and in our rut?
- Are there times that we quench the fire that burns in us by sticking to our own agenda’s and staying far from true worship?
- Does our church resemble the rag-tag bunch before the coming of the Spirit, or are there signs of God’s work in our midst?Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to the others. (Romans12:4-5)There are four important features to this image:
- In the New Testament the body is the most frequently used image for the Church. The head of the body is Jesus and we are the various parts of it.
- “Images used for the Church #1: The Body”
- There is unity in diversity. Although we are different, we belong to one another.
- Though we have different functions we have a common purpose: The growth of the body.
- When one part of the body hurts the rest of the body shares its pain.
- If we are separated from the head, the body will cease to function.
- One could probably stretch the analogy further by saying that the body has various systems like the digestive system, the breathing system, and so on and that these systems could be likened to congregations and even denominations. Again the same rules apply – the digestive system needs the circulation system and both still need to be connected to the head.
- How aware are you of being part of the body?
- Are you trying to be a part on your own or are you comfortable with the fact we will need to rely on one another?
- How in touch with the head (Jesus) are you?As you come to Him, the living stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him – you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus. (1Peter2:4-5)These truths can be divided into two parts:
- Firstly there are truths about Jesus. If one reads on, Peter identifies Christ as the cornerstone and capstone of the building.
- We’re stones – not bricks (bricks are all the same) in God’s building. By this image Peter is conveying some important truths about the Church.
- Images#2: A Building
- The cornerstone was important, because the Master Builder would lay the cornerstone and the labourers would use the cornerstone to get the orientation of the building correct. All building was done with reference to the cornerstone.
- The capstone is the stone at the top of an arch and in a sense brings together two opposing forces. The higher the arch, the more impressive the capstone. The church is founded by Jesus and He is its foundational cornerstone – He defines the orientation, purpose, and direction of the church. But He is also the capstone – He is to be lifted up and glorified by the church
- The second set of truths have to do with us, the stones.
- Stones in a wall are all unique and each has a part to play.
- We have to find our `fit` in the walls of God’s building.
- The mortar that binds us together is Christ’s love overflowing from our hearts
- A wall cannot consist of one stone – we need each other Sometimes we struggle with the stones who are next to us. Sometimes they let us down or frustrate us. Our committment to being God’s building is tested at this point. Can you imagine a wall of stones bickering at each other? There are unfortunately some churches that are like that – they have forgotten the Cornerstone and the Capstone.Are you guilty of looking at the other stones instead of the Cornerstone and Capstone?But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. (1Peter2:9)So what are we as the church?
- In the Greek Peter uses four words here – the English repeats `people` twice. The word used for chosen people could be translated as generation, but in this sense generation does not mean only one generation but has the sense of `from this generation on.
- Image#3: Chosen Royal Holy Belonging people
- Have you found your fit in God’s building?
- A generation for whom Christ took the initiative.
- A priesthood who are also called God’s children – we are Kings Kid’s – Royalty!
- A nationality marked by a new value system : Holiness. We’re committed to living to please God.
- We’re a community covered in the fingerprints of God. We belong to Him. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him. (2Corinthians11:2)The most poignant instance of this theme is not found in the New Testament, but the Old. The prophet Hosea is asked to marry a prostitute and love her. But she runs off and loses everything. And this happens again and again. Each time Hosea is sent off to buy her back and restore her. It is a beautiful picture of a patient God and a wayward people.
- There are three important aspects to this image:
- This is an unusual image. One that Jesus alluded to more than once. Do you remember the parable of the 10 virgins waiting for the bridegroom? Or what about the time when the John’s disciples accuse Jesus’ disciples of not fasting and Jesus points out that the guests do not fast when the groom is with them. In Revelation, the church is part of Christ’s triumphant return and meets Him as His bride.
Image#4: The Bride of Christ
- We are called to faithfulness and purity. Paul’s comment comes from a deep concern for the Corinthian church which was deeply divided and headed in the wrong direction. We are all aware of the stereotyped purity of a bride. I believe that this is not just a sentimental thing, but because deep down each bride connects somehow with the bigger picture. We can’t have two masters. Even less can we have two husbands. Unfortunately the incidence of spiritual adultery is even higher than our statistics of unfaithfulness in earthly marriages.
- We must be ready at all times. We don’t know when the Groom is coming. But we must be prepared. Our lamps should have enough oil. (For someone like me who leaves things to the last minute, I must say that I find the story of the virgins and their lamps (Matt.25) very thought-provoking!) He is coming again. He has not forgotten us. As the day for their wedding gets closer, an engaged couple will often draw closer. During my engagement I was away in Grahamstown finishing a thesis (which i got done the day before the wedding) and Brenda (my wife to be) and I missed each other terribly. Jesus’ return is imminent! What does it say if the bride-to-be doesn’t want to spend time with the Groom as the wedding draws nearer??
- The Groom is returning for the bride, and – in fact – just like Hosea, He keeps on searching us out. He came to the Cross, He revealed Himself through His Holy Spirit, and He will keep on making Himself available in big and small ways loving and caring for his children.
How good a bride are you at the moment? Faithful? Ready? Excited about His return?
Images#5 – The flock
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood. (Acts20:28)
Max Lucado says: `When I see a flock of sheep I see exactly that, a flock. A rabble of wool. A herd of hooves. I don’t see a sheep. I see sheep. All alike. None different. That’s what I see. But not so with the shepherd.`
Paul is giving final instructions to the elders of the churches here. The Palestinian shepherd walked in front of the sheep – he did not chase from behind. We are more familiar with ranch-hands than we are with shepherds. Shepherds know the names of the sheep. They know when one is missing.
For the shepherd the individual is important, but so is the flock. The flock needs the individual (which is why the shepherd will leave the 99 in search for the 1) but the flock is important too. The leadership of the church is called to be a shepherd leadership which carries a staff (to strike enemies) and a crook (a bent stick used to hook into the wool of a sheep who falls into the water or into a crevice. Unfortunately today, many of the `shepherds` carry a whip (excessive use of authority and structure) and a brand (which makes everyone the same, opens up turf wars, and causes one to boast about numbers)
A good shepherd doesn’t have to count to see if every one is there – a good shepherd notices that someone is missing.
We are called to be a flock. In all sorts of ways we are responsible to each other. If one sheep is distressed, the other sheep will share that distress and alert the shepherd.
- Have you noticed the individual `sheep` around you and taken time to appreciate their gifts and talents?
- In what ways can you help `shepherd` the flock?
- Did you notice how much Jesus was willing to pay for the sheep?Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household. (Ephesians2:19)We often hear this said, but the reality is that when family works like it should, then family is one of the greatest blessings we can have because their love is not based on what they like about us, but on commitment. So we are a family formed not by the labour pains of a mother, but born out of the indescribable agony of our Saviour on the cross. We belong to each other – we are brothers and sisters – children of God.
- Paul says that we are members of God’s household. A little later in chapter 3 he clarifies this further when he specifically calls us family. And our being family is a consequence. Consequence of what? Our being family is a consequence of Christ’s death on the cross where He not only dealt with the separation between us and God, but He also dealt with the dividing hostility between us and our fellow human beings.
- `You can choose your friends… but not your family!`
- Image#6 – Family
- Does church on Sunday feel like a family reunion? How can you make it more like that?
- When last have you phoned one your Christ-family members just to see how they are?
- Is there someone in the family that you don’t really like? Can you make a commitment to love them out of commitment because Jesus died for them? I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone `like a son of man,`… (Revelation1:12-13)There is something very unusual about this picture. One would expect John to see Jesus first. One would think that the Risen Ascended Lord Jesus who is later described as having eyes of blazing fire and double-edged sword coming from His mouth would dominate the scene, but this is not so. The first thing that John sees is the lampstands.
- There two insights to gain from this:
- This is a very interesting passage. It’s part of the Revelation that John received. At this point Jesus has just begun to dictate seven letters to seven churches. John turns around to see the voice speaking to him. The first thing he sees is the seven lampstands (which symbolise the church) and then he sees Jesus standing among the lampstands.
- Conclusion: Jesus and the lampstands
- It is through the church that Christ is made visible to the world today. It is the church that is Christ’s hand, feet, and voice to a world that desperately needs to hear about Him.
- The church is incredibly important to Jesus – He stands _among_ the lampstands. He is in the midst of the church. So much so that one doesn’t notice Him at first, but He is there! When we come to church to find Jesus, we should not look up but around!
This concludes this first article on founding and power of the church and images that describe the nature and purpose of the church. The next article will explore the work and building up of the church.