SEEING THE CHURCH
“His intent was that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In these two verses, the apostle Paul gives some of the greatest revelation on the Church that man has ever received. It is clear to see, as we read the New Testament, that the Church is central to the plans and purpose of God. It is our understanding of this and our response to it that will determine our own individual fruitfulness.
Ephesians 3v10-11 tells us that God has a plan, a purpose. This purpose is not an afterthought, not a Plan B, not a panic response to the Fall of Man. Instead this plan was conceived in the heart of God way back in eternity past. This plan is quite simply The Church. It is through the Church Paul tells us that God reveals His “manifold wisdom”. The word manifold means “many sided”, “many coloured”, “multifaceted”. We serve an awesome God, a God far bigger than our concept or understanding of Him. He is the unfathomable God, the unknowable God, the unapproachable God and the unseen God. Yet God’s plan and purpose from eternity past was to make Himself understood, knowable, approachable and visible. He does this by first giving us His Son Jesus, then His Church, which is the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1v23).
The scope of God’s remit to unveil Himself goes far beyond our towns, villages and cities. He wants to reach the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”. This is the ultimate destiny of Church – to show heaven, in its entirety, who God is and what He is like.
God is many sided, multifaceted – yet each expression of His Church is an expression of who He is. As a diamond, when held up to light, reflects many different colours yet remains one piece, the Church when shining with the light of God’s presence, is one body, yet effulgently radiates different aspects of His glory and reality.
This verse shows us that the Church is not primarily here to educate people or reform society or meet people’s social needs or to be a fellowship gathering, but it is a Spiritual organism, testifying of a Spiritual Being to other spiritual beings.
When we consider the magnitude of God’s purpose for the Church, it is so humbling to think that He allows us to be a part of this wonderful plan.
When the Church is mentioned in the Bible, it is important to realise that it is always referred to as His Church. It is never mentioned as belonging to a Pastor or a group of leaders or a tithe-paying group of members, but always as belonging to God. In Matthew 16, Jesus famously said, “I will build my Church” – twice emphasising His ownership. In Acts 20v28, the Church is simply called “the Church of God”, a title used elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 1v2 and 1 Corinthians 11v16. In Hebrews 12v23, the Church is called “the Church of the firstborn”. God not only takes ownership of His Church, but chooses to identify Himself with His Church. He is not embarrassed or ashamed of His Church, but proudly and boastfully (if I can use those terms of God) declares, “This group of people are mine! They belong to me!”
In scripture, God always chooses to identify Himself with His Church. When Saul of Tarsus persecuted the Church, Jesus accused him of “persecuting me” (Acts 9v4). Likewise Jesus said in Matthew 10v40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Our attitude to the Church is our attitude towards Jesus. How we treat the Church is how we treat Jesus. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” (Matt 25)
In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira are judged by God and struck down dead. Peter declares that they “lied to the Holy Spirit” (v3). Interestingly, as we read the passage, it is clear that Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Church. But again, God so identifies Himself with His Church that lying to the Holy Spirit and lying to the Church are in effect the same thing. God never separates Himself from His Church. Jesus and His Church are one. The Holy Spirit and the Church are one.
When we understand that the Church is God’s plan, it will perhaps help clear up some faulty thinking that many Christians have today. You often hear of Christians talking about the fact that “God has a plan for their life”. This is true, as scriptures like Jeremiah 29v11 show. However as we have already seen, the plan of God is the Church. And that is it. He has no other plan. The plan that God has for your life as an individual can only be discovered and outworked as we connect to His Church. Many Christians are helplessly searching, trying to discover “what is the plan of God for my life?” – there is only one plan of God – the Church. In being part of God’s plan, you discover your plan.
Again, Christians speak of “their destiny” and will buy books and attend seminars trying to discover what their destiny is. This risks narrowing down “our destiny” to a function: my destiny is to lead worship, to be a successful businessperson etc. No, your destiny is far bigger and more exciting than that! Your destiny is to “make known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, the manifold wisdom of God” as you become part of this amazing organism called His Church!
In the book of Acts, we not only see the plans of God outworked but also the plans of Satan. Satan’s plan is always to attack the Church. He tried attacking God directly and was defeated by Him on the cross; so today he attacks the Church. Acts 8v1 tells us that a persecution broke out “against the church”. The New Testament and Church history show us that Satan always seeks to destroy the Church. Why? Satan has figured out what most Christians miss: the Church is God’s plan. If he can stop the Church, he can stop God. The Church is the outworking of God’s power, God’s will and God’s purpose. This is why Satan hates it so much and seeks to destroy it. Thankfully he never will. Jesus said the gates of Hades would never overcome His Church.
If only Christians would acquire the understanding that Satan has! “What is God’s will for my life?” “What is the plan that God has for my life?” “What is my purpose?” God’s will, God’s plan and God’s purpose is always – the Church. As we become part of the Church, we discover our own individual functions and roles, but never apart from the ultimate plan – the Church. In disconnecting us from the Church, Satan seeks to disconnect us from our own purpose and destiny.
The Devotion of the Devoted
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2v42-47)
Here we can see the extraordinary devotion of the devoted. The word devoted means “to be steadfast, enduring, faithful.” This was the attitude of the disciples towards the Church. Notice that they devoted themselves. This wasn’t about the leaders forcing or coercing or persuading people to come to meetings or to get involved in the vision. The Holy Spirit had so moved upon their hearts, that spontaneously and willingly these believers gave themselves, their lives, their time, their energy, their finances, their all into the local church.
The success of the ministry of the early Church was based upon the truth that every believer saw: life is about more than self. They chose to live for something and be part of something that was much bigger than they were. When we take our eyes off ourselves and see what God is doing through His Church and through community, we position ourselves to receive all that God has for us as individuals.
Paradoxically, when we live our lives “others-conscious”, we discover our own identity, ministry and purpose. No one wanted for anything in the early Church because people had committed to pouring their lives into others. How different would Church be today, if instead of focusing on our needs, wants and desires we poured ourselves into meeting others’ desires and focused on other people’s needs and wants. I would meet your need, you would meet my need, and consequently, neither of us would have any need!
We require a bigger focus, a bigger vision and a bigger picture for our individual lives and ourselves. We need to see the Church, see each other and see how we individually fit into God’s plan. We need to commit to devoting our lives to a cause that is bigger than we are.
This is what John meant when he said that “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3v16). Love always gives itself away, pours out, is never self-seeking, looks outwards and focuses on something other than itself. Imagine if we were so gripped by a vision of the Church that we poured out our lives and gave all that we were towards its success, growth and health!
John Cassian said, “the bond between friends cannot be broken by chance; no interval of time or space can destroy it. Not even death itself can part true friends.”
I am reminded of the account of the four friends in Mark 2 who brought their paralysed friend to Jesus. These four men saw a need that was bigger than their own. Instead of focusing on their own miracle or encounter, they committed to transporting someone else into God’s presence. They literally carried their friend to Jesus, doing what Paul told us all to do when he said, “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6v2). They used all of their strength and energy to ensure that someone else received a miracle. They risked their own reputation and, despite the embarrassment and even potential legal repercussions, tore open someone’s roof so that their friend could have his encounter. Their passion, commitment and zeal were focused on someone other than themselves.
Consequently, before Jesus focused on the paralysed man, He focused on them: “When Jesus saw their faith …” (Mark 2v5). The act of perceiving, acknowledging and responding to a need that was bigger than their own received the attention, approval and commendation of heaven.
In 1 Samuel 14 we read the story of Jonathan and his armour-bearer attacking a Philistine outpost. An armour-bearer was an incredibly important, but dangerous, role in the army. An armour-bearer would help carry his commanding officers shield and other weapons so that these heavy tools didn’t weigh down the officer. An armour-bearer literally carried someone else’s burden. An armour-bearer also had the awesome responsibility of ensuring the success and safety of his commanding officer.
A sense of self-preservation prevails in battle: “How do I get out of this alive?” An armour-bearer doesn’t think like this. An armour-bearer focuses on someone else: “How can I make sure that they get out of this alive?”
Imagine if we committed to being armour-bearers for each other in the Church? Imagine if we habitually focused on each other rather than self? Imagine if our automatic response to crises was “How can I help you get through this?” Imagine if our goal in life is not to fulfil our own destiny, but to help others to fulfil theirs?
When Jonathan proposed the risky strategy of attacking the enemy without backup, he was effectively going on a suicide mission. The response of his armour-bearer is a wonderful statement of courage and loyalty: “Go ahead, I am with you heart and soul” (1 Samuel 14v7).
This armour-bearer would stick with Jonathan no matter how great the danger. He would remain devoted to his friend no matter the cost to his own safety. Jonathan’s success would be his armour-bearer’s success. They would both share the victory that day (1 Samuel 14v14).
Oh, that God would raise up armour-bearers in the Church today … that he would raise up friends, like the friends of the paralysed man … that He would raise up a Church devoted not to self, but to each other … that He would give us all the eyes to see that we are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves!
In Ephesians 2v22 Paul declares that “together [i.e. The Church] is becoming a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit”. The New Testament makes it clear that God dwells, abides, moves and lives in His Church … not in buildings, conferences, events or organisations, but in His people who come together as one to worship Him. Jesus Himself declared, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18v20). This is an incredible promise. Of course, Jesus is with you as an individual wherever you go, but there is a special manifestation of His Spirit and a special promise of His personal presence given to the corporate Church that meets in His Name. Jesus doesn’t stipulate that we need to organise a conference with a “special guest” preacher before He will appear in our midst – it is simply that believers are gathered together in His Name.
In Revelation 2, Jesus is described as being amongst the lamp stands (the lamp stands being the Church). Jesus moves in the midst of His Church. When we meet together as the Church, Jesus is there. The power, glory, authority and presence of heaven are in our midst. Surely we are standing on Holy ground! Notice, Jesus never says part of Him will be present (as if somehow He can be divided up and portioned out). No, all of Him is with us. This is so important to grasp. There is as much of Jesus present in your local church on a Sunday morning as there is in the special “revival” service taking place in another part of the world. There is as much of the anointing and resurrection power of Jesus available whilst your Pastor is preaching, as there is when your favourite television evangelist is preaching. He gives Himself to His Church. He is present in His Church.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3v16 “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” Who is He writing to? The Church! In fact, all of the epistles (except the Pastoral Epistles) are written to churches. God speaks to His Church. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2v11). If we want to hear God speaking, perhaps the best place to be is not always in the prayer line of a prophet, but in the pew of our local church, hungry and expectant for God to speak to us.
Ephesians 3v21 tells us that God’s glory is in the Church. This is very important to grasp. I am a revivalist, passionate about God moving in the nations and desperately longing for a greater manifestation of the glory of God in our day. It is God’s glory that changes lives, situations and communities. But it is vital to understand that God only gives His glory to His Church. The Church is the only habitation for His glory. When we talk about God’s glory moving in our cities and nations, God will not click His fingers and cause His presence to somehow hover in the skies and transform our societies. No, God’s glory fills His Church. National revival will never bypass the Church. That doesn’t mean that God won’t bypass certain groups of people or certain denominations (history sadly shows us that this often happens), but God will never bypass His corporate Church. I have even heard people preach that if the Church doesn’t want revival, God will move amongst another group of people. This is wrong and un-Biblical. God only moves through His Church. His glory is only ever given to His Church. The Holy Spirit abides in the Church. Let me clarify, I am not saying that God only moves in church meetings. A quick overview of the New Testament actually shows that very few miracles took place “in church”. Nearly every healing and miracle took place outside the four walls of the church. But the miracles were still done as the Holy Spirit worked through individuals or groups of people who were part of His Church. We desperately need the glory of God to move in our streets and communities. But God only works through His Church as it obeys the Great Commission.
When we understand that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church, this may lead us to reconsider the meaning of questions such as “Have you heard about the move of God in such and such a place?” What we usually mean by this is that in some particular part of the world, Christians are gathering and there seems to be an unusual manifestation of God’s presence. Often in these gatherings there seems to be an ease in which people are healed and a significant amount of people receiving salvation or being restored back to God. Church history shows us time and time again that in certain places there can be “spiritual hotspots”, “revivals” or special “outpourings of God’s Spirit”. I believe and fully embrace all of that. I certainly desire that in my country. However, when we talk about “the move of God in such and such a place”, there is a danger that we downplay what God is doing in our local church. Whilst there may be more of an awareness of God in certain places, the reality is that God is there whenever and wherever His people meet. The reality is that your local Church is just as much a move of God as whatever else God is doing around the globe. Your local church is just as important and as vital to the plans and purposes of God as the extended meetings that are on Christian television. Your community, town or village may be totally unaffected by the move of God that is taking place elsewhere. The answer to your community is not the move of God in such and such a place. The answer to your community is your church. The Church is God’s plan, God’s move, God’s outpouring. Moves of God come and go, but your local church, God willing, will have a place in your community for generations to come.
Excitement or Abundance?
In John 10v10, Jesus famously said “I have come that you may have life and life in all its fullness”. Many times Christians mistake Jesus’ understanding of an abundant life and think that Jesus meant an exciting life. There is no doubt that being a Christian is exciting but it is immature to think that just because something is not exciting it’s not God. Let’s be honest, the chances are that the huge conference that’s taking place next month is probably more exciting than your local church on a Sunday morning. Of course it’s far more exciting to be amongst thousands of other Christians than the handful that meet in your local church. Of course it’s far more exciting to sing along with the professional worship leader and their band, than sing along with brother so-and-so with his out of tune guitar. Of course it’s far more exciting to listen to the dynamic preacher who you’ve seen on TV expounding his best message, rather than your local pastor who you’ve heard countless times before. Just because something is less exciting, doesn’t mean it’s any less God.
It’s sad when Christians get excited about the next conference, but not about the next communion service or prayer meeting in their local church. I am all for conferences, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that somehow God is more passionate about the conference than He is your local church, or that He is somehow more God in those places than He is in your church.
Again, in our lust for excitement, we can buy tickets and fly half way around the world to visit the move of God in such and such a place. It’s exciting to do that, but I am convinced that what Jesus meant when He talked about “an abundant life” was not excitement, but fruitfulness. The best way for a plant to remain fruitful is not to be constantly dug up and moved, but to remain where it is has been planted.
I have had the joy of experiencing moves of God around the world and attend several conferences throughout the year. Whilst recommended, we can receive a touch, an impartation or a Word as much from our local church as we can from places where revival seems to be breaking out. Less exciting doesn’t equate to less powerful.
It disturbs me when Christians frequently leave their local church to experience what God is doing elsewhere. The local church needs our loyalty – and we need our local church. Give to it, tithe to it, serve in it, honour it and celebrate it! It may not always seem as exciting, but it is the only way to bear fruit and fruit that remains.