Sunday 8 May 2011

The church and the Word of God

William Tyndale translated the first English bible in the 16th Century, from the original Greek and Hebrew languages. His intention was produce a version of the bible that was clear and understandable; one that it made sense even to the “ploughboy” – the ancient equivalent of a checkout assistant at Tesco.

One of the most controversial verses translated by Tyndale was Matthew 16:18. These were words spoken by Jesus himself in response to Peter’s confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” My NIV bible reads as follows:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Matthew 16:18

Tyndale didn’t use the word “church”, instead replacing it with the word “congregation”. Tyndale’s bible caused a great stir within the Roman Catholic Church. One biographer writes, “To change these words was to strip the Church hierarchy of its pretensions to be Christ's terrestrial representative, and to award this honour to individual worshipers who made up each congregation.”

So when the King James bible – a new English translation – was later commissioned and published in 1611, specific instructions were given to translators not to use “congregation”, but to reinstate the word “church” in its place.

What is the church?

Today we use the word “church” in a variety of ways. As I write this, Prince William and Kate Middleton have just gotten married in a majestic church building (that is Westminster Abbey). Each Sunday, I go to the Chinese Church, while many of my friends go to other churches – like Eden Chapel, St Andrew the Great and Cambridge Presbyterian Church. Hence, we use the word “church” to describe a building (“We are raising funds to fix the church hall”), a Christian event or meeting (“I had an awesome time in church this morning”), a Christian denomination (Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist), a specific group of Christian believers (“my church; your church”) or all Christians around the world (the universal or catholic church).

Yet how does the bible describe the church?

This week, I have been asked to speak on the topic, “The Church and the Christian”, exploring the relationship between individual believers in Jesus Christ and the church. The brief I was sent included very relevant questions for us as Christians today. How do we integrate with the life of the church beyond Sundays? What is the relationship between the church and parachurch organisations, like Christian Unions and mission agencies?

In other words, how does this apply to me? Should I attend my college group or get more involved in a church house group? How do I find a church when I return home after my three/four years here at Cambridge?

In preparation for these very relevant and applicable issues concerning the church, I thought it might be helpful – at least, for me – to first think through the foundational questions of what the church is, the definition of a good and healthy church (conversely, a bad church) and the reasons why, if at all, is the church important?

So before exploring the connection of the church with the individual Christian, it might be worthwhile to establish the church within the framework of the following relationships:

1. The church and the Word of God (Today’s text)

2. The church and the glory of God

3. The church and the body of Christ

4. The church in and out of the world

5. The church and the Kingdom of Heaven;
and then finally,

6. The church and the Christian today

I will build my congregation

Back to Tyndale. For him, the church was never a building. Nor was it a complex social organisation, with layers of bishops and archbishops, such as the Church of Rome. He used the word “congregation” to mean small, discrete, localised gatherings of individual Christians.

The Greek word is ekklesia, literally, “called out”. It wasn’t a particularly religious word, as ekklesia commonly referred to gatherings of a social, or even, political nature. We find it in Acts 19, never speaking of Christians, instead referring three times to non-Christians, worshippers of the pagan god Artemis, who had gathered in front of the town hall to cause a riot. A few months ago, hundreds of students gathered outside the Senate House, protesting the sudden increase in university tuition fees. You could similarly call them an ekklesia, a gathering of individuals.

Another important thing to note is this: When the bible does use ekklesia to refer to Christians, in almost every single instance, it is talking about the local church. Most of the New Testament consist of letters written to individual churches – local gatherings of Christians situated in different parts of the world.

To the churches in Galatia.
Galatians 1:2
(Note the plural “churches” – not one single church, but many church located in this one location)

To the church of God in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 1:2

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
Colossians 4:10

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:1

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.
Philemon 1:1-2
(A Christian gathering that meets in someone’s house is here, also called a church. Similarly, Romans 16:5)

The fact that these Christian gatherings were held in homes meant you could only have so many people meeting in one location. While Acts 2 records the explosive growth of the believers numbering thousands (2:41) and meeting daily in the temple courts (2:46); after the dispersion of Acts 8, outside of Jerusalem, it is clear that the early Christians met in houses (often of its wealthier members); gathering for worship and even for meals (see 1 Corinthians 11 – dealing with the Lord’s Supper).

Yet, the bible calls each of these gatherings, though small and scattered, the church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2, 11:16, 11:22). As a social entity, they are individuals from diverse backgrounds – poor and rich, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, men and women. In God’s eyes, they are his church.

This does not disqualify large church gatherings today – mega-churches numbering thousands upon thousands – renting out football stadiums and filling up concert theatres. Then again, even the humble Chinese Church in Cambridge would be considered a mega-church when compared to say, the church in Corinth, numbering 40 to 50 believers at most.

However, this does affirm the church in China today: Millions of believers meeting in homes, secretly in small numbers, sometimes just a few families in an apartment. These have a lot in common with the early New Testament church. When they gather in the name of Jesus Christ, they are no less, the church of God in the fullest sense.

Now I am all for the use of the word “church”. It comes from kuriakon meaning “belonging to the Lord (kurios)”. It is a wonderful reminder of the church pointing forward to Jesus as our head, our foundation, our God and our Saviour. He has redeemed us. He is our Lord. We are his church.

But I think Tyndale was saying something very significant in his translation. Ekklesia simply means “gathering”. That is why Tyndale went with “congregation” – you “congregate” when you meet with one another; when you assemble. And the significance of Christians being gathered together in the New Testament is seen in God’s work and purpose in gathering his people to himself in Christ since the Old.

The church in the wilderness

Curiously enough, Acts 7 describes the Israelites during the time of the Exodus as the “ekklesia (NIV: assembly) in the desert”. We read:

(Moses) was in the assembly (ekklesia) in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.
Acts 7:38

In fact, we find ekklesia recurring frequently in the Old Testament (the LXX; Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer to Israel as a nation. It is used in place of the Hebrew word Qahal, often translated as “assembly” in our NIV English bibles. For example, the title to the book of Ecclesiastes is transliterated from the Greek, whereas in Hebrew it is known as Qoheleth, meaning “teacher of the assembly”.

God has been gathering his people to himself all throughout the history of the bible, not just beginning with the New Testament. However, one important point to note from the assembly of the people of God in the Old Testament is this: They are gathered to hear the word of God.

Look back at Acts 7:38. On Mount Sinai, God speaks to Moses through the angel. He receives “living words” from God. God rescues Israel from slavery in Egypt so that he might gather them to himself to worship him (Exodus 20). He speaks to them from the mountain, delivering the Ten Commandments. Moses compiles the laws which become the Book of the Covenant. God reveals instructions for worship: the tabernacle, the priests and the sacrifices.

Reflecting on this, Moses would later call this event the “Day of the Assembly”. You could also translate this the “Day of the Church”. It was the day “the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of fire” (Deuteronomy 9:10, 10:4, 18:16).

On that day, the people of God gathered to hear the word of God.

God’s people around God’s Word

The author to the Hebrews picks up on this same event, using the picture of the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai. He then goes on to say that we as Christians have come to a different mountain. Same God; but the big difference is we have received a better word. We have Jesus.

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church (ekklesia) of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24

The comparison is between two gatherings (two ekklesias), two mountains. But also, two words. The Old Testament people came to a mountain where they received words that terrified them. They “begged that no further word be spoken to them”.

We have come to Zion; not a physical location, but “the heavenly Jerusalem”. God is still judge. He is still just as awesome and fearful (Hebrews 12:28). But through Jesus we receive a covenant that “speaks a better word.” This word defines our worship and our joy. It defines the church.

God gathers his people around his word. For the Israelites at Sinai, it was the Law. For Christians, it is the gospel – the fulfilment of the law and prophets, found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But in both cases, the church is gathered to receive and obey the word of God.

Today, we are more likely to say that the main reason why we meet together as the church is to worship. Not bible study. “You can read your bible at home. When we come together, we ought to love another, pray for each other’s needs.”

The context of this passage from Hebrews 12 is acceptable worship. The church gathers to worship God. Yet the whole book was written to Christians tempted to worship God by returning to their Jewish traditions and roots. In so doing, they were abandoning Jesus. Jesus is the only true worship leader. He offers the only acceptable sacrifice – his body and blood on the cross.

The key to acceptable worship, according to the book of Hebrews, is listening. Again and again, the author says, we must listen:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
Hebrews 2:1

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.
Hebrews 3:15, 4:7

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.
Hebrews 12:25

The problem the book of Hebrews is addressing is this: In their earnest desire to worship God, these early Christians had abandoned the word of God. They were abandoning Jesus.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you shouldn’t pray during our meetings, or that you should only have bible studies in every meeting. It isn’t a question about what the church does. I am dealing with the question of why the church exists.

God gathers the church around his word, the gospel. The gospel enables us to worship God acceptably and joyfully. We respond to the gospel. The church is the result and fruit of the gospel.

And where there is no gospel, there is no church.

On this rock I will build

Jesus says he will build his church in Matthew 16. But he also tells us what he will build his church on.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Matthew 16:18

This is one of the most controversial verses in the bible. The Roman Catholic Church see Jesus here establishing a line of succession in leadership for the church, beginning with Peter as the first pope. Others think Jesus is speaking about Peter’s confession (“You are the Christ”). Still others would say Jesus is speaking of himself. He is the Rock.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus is building his church – he builds the church; the church is his. And we have already seen that ekklesia has a rich background in the Old Testament people of God, especially in the events of the exodus. They were rescued from slavery under Pharaoh and gathered as the new community of Israel under God. Yet this is more than national identity. “The gates of Hades will not overcome” this new community. There are cosmic and eternal dimensions to this earthly community. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Secondly, Jesus says he will build his church “on this rock”. It is a word play on the name Jesus has just given Peter. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” Jesus says, “I tell you that you are Peter.” Jesus gives him a new name, petros (which means “stone”; whereas the Greek word for “rock” is petra). Peter is an unusual name for a Jew. Yet, the way in which the New Testament widely refers to him as Peter, instead of his actual name Simon, means the authors recognise the significance of this one individual and the name given him by Jesus.

Jesus will establish his church and he will use Peter in a unique and significant way. The question is: how?

The book of Acts traces the growth of the early church, placing special emphasis on the role of Peter. He stands up to address the brothers in Chapter 1 of the importance of choosing a replacement for Judas. At Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples enabling them to speak in tongues, Peter stands up once again to preach evangelistically to the large crowd that had gathered, calling them to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38), resulting in three thousand being added to their number that day.

Peter continues to feature as the main character in the subsequent chapters. He heals the a crippled beggar in Chapter 3, a large crowd gathers to see the miracle, and he preaches to them about Jesus. The church grows to five thousand in Chapter 4.

When he and John are arrested by the guards and brought to face the rulers, elders and priests in Jerusalem, this simply becomes another platform for Peter to speak boldly about Christ. Luke, the author, remarks how the Jewish leaders were caught off-guard by the courage of the apostles; “they... realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).

Chapter 5: Ananias and Sapphira attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit, at the cost of their lives; Peter is there speaking the very words that convict them of this truth. People brought the sick, laying them on the streets, on mats and beds that “Peter’s shadow might fall on some them as he passed by”. Peter is a big deal.

That is, until Chapter 12. Peter gets arrested (again!) and is miraculously freed by God (again! 5:19). After that? No Peter. Acts has 28 chapters. Peter’s story ends in Chapter 12.

Well, that’s not entirely true. He gets up to speak in Chapter 15, as one voice among many in the Council at Jerusalem, nonetheless an important voice. The issue is about Gentiles – non-Jewish Christian believers – in the church. He says this:

7 ... Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
Acts 15:7-11

After these words, we do not here about Peter ever again in the book of Acts. Meaning that according to Luke; from the author’s perspective, Peter’s role was done. He laid the foundation for the church. Through Peter’s witness to Christ’s death and resurrection, he and the apostles were used by God to establish the church – in Jerusalem, onto Samaria, then onto the ends of the earth.

The church’s one foundation

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has the most amazing things to say about God and about the church in all of the bible; and we will look at this letter in more detail at a later date. And Paul writes these words describing the one foundation of the church.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
Ephesians 2:19-20

What does God use to build his church? What is absolutely essential in the church of Jesus Christ?

Yes, the answer is Christ Jesus “the chief cornerstone” – the end of verse 20. But verse 20 begins with the words, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”. They are one and the same. It is the apostolic witness to Jesus as the Christ – the true Son of God, as Peter together with the disciples confessed back in Matthew 16.

Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, in establishing the church at Corinth, “I laid a foundation as an expert builder... for no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Paul lays the foundation; yet there is but one foundation. He is referring to the gospel, “the message of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) or “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Or as John writes in the book of Revelation, recording his vision of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven itself – the Holy City. There John describes the foundations of this city of God:

The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Revelation 21:14

What is the foundation of the true church of Jesus Christ? It is the apostolic witness to the gospel - The message of the cross. Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Where there is the gospel, there we find the mark of a true church. Where there is no gospel, there is no church.

Jesus says he will build his church on this rock. When he said this to Peter and the apostles, there was no established church. The apostles were simple fishermen with little or no education, much less theological training. Yet what they had was Jesus. And for that one – albeit, brief – moment, they recognised Jesus for who he really was.

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Matthew 16:15-16

For that Jesus said to Peter, You are blessed. For that confession, Jesus says, was revealed not by man, but by his Father in Heaven. And Jesus was saying to Peter and to the twelve apostles, God would so use their confession of Christ such as to build his church – Jesus’ church – here on earth; and in heaven.

What is the church? It is God’s people gathered around God’s word. The gospel is the one foundation of the true church of Jesus Christ.

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11

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