One of the most visible of the blessings of the Kingdom is the church. Here is the new community of Jesus' friends. Here is the gathering of believers with Jesus, bound together through his indwelling love, renewed through his Spirit-inspired Word. The church, the gathering of believers, is the place where we are most able to experience the presence of Jesus. As we meet together with Jesus we respond in worship - we repent, praise, thank, confess, pray to and hear him. Indeed, this new community is a mighty blessing.
Although we use the word to refer to the building where Christians meet or the institution, denomination etc. the Bible uses the word quite differently. In Greek (the original language of the New Testament) the word church means "assembly", "group".
There are obviously many types of assemblies or gatherings, eg. political rallies Acts.19:32. One such gathering was the Christian assembly (church) formed when the Christians met together on the first day of the week (Sunday).
This local meeting of believers is a visible manifestation of the heavenly assembly which itself was imaged in the gathering before Mount Sinai of Moses and the children of Israel, Heb.12:18-24. The ultimate gathering of believers is in heaven, Eph.2:6, Col.3:1-4. In fact, believers are assembled at this very moment with Christ in heaven. We are even now part of that great multitude assembled around Christ, Rev.7:9. So the church is a local gathering of believers with Christ which images the heavenly assembly.
The children of Israel had been led out of Egypt, out of bondage. After crossing the Red Sea they headed toward Mount Sinai, for it was here that they were to meet with their God. When they had encamped before the Mountain, God visited them in great glory and splendour (Exodus 19-20). The essential character of the assembly, compared to any other, was that God was present, they met with him and talked with him.
When Israel gathered before Mount Sinai, there were two immediate results from their meeting with God:-
i] Unity - "You shall be my own possession among all people". They felt their oneness with each other through their oneness with God. They became a community.
ii] Understanding - God revealed his will to them, the ten commandments, etc. They understood the truth, the truth that was to set them free. A free people to serve God.
The great Prophets (800 - 400 BC) when they spoke about their own day said, that when people assembled, say at the Temple on Holy Days, it was nothing like the great assembly before the mountain, for now sin had driven God away. Yet a day was coming when God would again visit his people. They would assemble before him, see him face to face, and they would be one in him and his word would be on their hearts.
In 30 AD John the Baptist announced that the "day" had come. So Jesus appeared in Palestine; He gathered his people (disciples); He was with them and they became a solid group of friends around him learning from him.
There was no thought when Jesus ascended to his Father in heaven that the new Christians had been left alone. They were in the new age. Jesus had said, "I have not left you alone, I am with you always" and "where two or three gather together (assemble) I am in your midst." So Christians from the first century onward have experienced the results of God's (the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit) presence in their meetings:
i] Unity, oneness, fellowship, love. We are the "body of Christ", i.e. a group of people bound together by our leader, Jesus, by what he has done for us and by what he is now doing.
ii] Understanding, truth, the Word. Jesus revealed the deepest truths of the universe to his disciples, they in turn passed on that information which is now recorded in the New Testament. When we meet and study that record Jesus guides us through his Spirit.
Yet the church (assembly of Christians) is still not the final reality. We still await the day when God will call the great heavenly assembly in the last day. In that day we will see God face to face, we will be one and know all. At the moment the church is but a shadow of that heavenly reality, yet it is all we have, so we must care for it.
What is a church supposed to do? In simple terms we might say that the purpose of the church is to meet. More specifically we might say its purpose is to meet with Christ. If it is to meet with Christ, what are we to do when we meet? There can be only one response for a believer who meets their risen Lord. They must worship him. We meet to bow before our living God in adoring wonder, praising him, thanking him, asking of him and hearing him.
The word "worship" means adoration, awe and reverence, eg. Matt.28:9, 17, Lk.24:52, 1Cor.14:25, Rev.7:11. When the church meets, it meets with Jesus. The only appropriate response we can make in the presence of Jesus is to bow before him and adore him. We can only cry with Peter "depart from me for I am a sinful man". Our response must be like the adulterous woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. We can only but worship him.
The substance of congregational worship consists of praise, thanksgiving, prayer, Eph.5:19, and the hearing of the Word of God, Eph.4:11-13, Col.3:16, Heb.2:12, 10:25.
The prime agenda of the church is to be a worshipping community.
Being secondary doesn't mean being second-rate. The prime purpose of the church is to worship God, but having done that it serves as a channel for the blessings of God. There are two basic blessings which the church channels to believers. They are unity and knowledge -the promise of oneness, union in Christ and the truths that guide our lives and train us for eternity.
i] The promises. The most powerful promised blessing of the Kingdom which comes to us in the gathering of the believers is union with one another, but particularly with Christ. The intimate friendship or union we have with Christ is a heavenly reality which is made real for us now through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jn.14:15-18, Rom.8:1-27. The Bible describes this union as: abiding in Christ, Jn.15:5, Christ in us, Gal.2:20, members of Christ's body, 1Cor.6:15-19. The gathering of the people of God serves to make real our oneness in Christ. It is in our loving care toward the brotherhood that Jesus "manifests" himself to us. When we touch each other in love we touch Jesus, Matt.11:25-30, 25:31-46, Jn.13-17, 1John.
ii] The commands. The church serves both to preserve and teach the commands of Christ and provide an environment of support and encouragement for the living out of those commands in the Christian life.
a) A personal walk with Christ
Spirituality. Making real our oneness in Christ comes in a special way when we do not forsake "the gathering together of the brotherhood".
Sinlessness. The church serves to preserve and teach the most profound life-changing truth available to humanity. Truth encourages us to see that our standing in the sight of God is "by grace alone" and "not of works lest anyone should boast".
Simplicity. Cross-bearing discipleship, cf. Lk.12:22-34.
b) Upbuilding our Christian community
The command of Christ is that we "love one another", Jn.13:34. This love is primarily exercised within the Christian fellowship toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, 1Pet.2:17 - "the least of these brothers of mine", Matt.25:40. This love within the Christian fellowship serves as the sign of the dawning Kingdom to a dying world, Jn.13:35. Love is seen in encouraging and caring for one another, 1Thes.4:1-12, equipping each other for service through the exercise of spiritual gifts, Rom.12:1-8, Eph.4:1-16, and especially in showing mercy - forgiving, accepting...
c) Reaching out to the lost
The function of the church is to preserve the purity of the gospel, 1Tim.3:15. Believers are to equip each other with the pure gospel so that each may give a defence of their faith when asked to do so, 1Pet.3:15. The fellowship of believers also recognizes, trains and supports those gifted as evangelists, setting them apart for the work of evangelism, Eph.4:11.
The Christian church, as it exists today, is the product of a long social history. The institution is therefore a blended organism rather than a totally spiritual fellowship of believers. It has gone through numerous reformations and awakenings, but in the end, it is still very much a human organization.
Many believers have found the institutional church so compromised that they have abandoned it for House Churches or Christian Communes. We must never fail to recognize the weaknesses of institutional Christianity. It often promotes "pharisaism" and fraudulent Christianity ("bums on seats") by being a "no friends' club" or a refuge for psychological cripples. It often encourages easy-going "success" forms of discipleship.
Yet today, particularly in Western societies, there is still no better framework for believers to nurture the fellowship and reach out to the lost. So when it comes to the institutional church we find it is still a very effective "sheep-fold" and a "fishing-boat".
During this week spend time praying for the substantial nature of your church. Pray that the fellowship be strengthened and that the sermon next Sunday be empowered by the Spirit.