Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. (Eph. 3:2-9 NIV)
In the above text, the Apostle Paul told the Ephesians that he had been given revelation from God about a mysterious thing. That mysterious thing about which Paul was given revelation is the Church. Though not the only person who wrote about the Church in the New Testament, Paul seems to be God’s official revealer of Church truth. So, it’s only natural that we turn to Paul to ascertain the genius that is the Church.
Today, some 2,000-years post-Paul, the Church is becoming an increasingly more mysterious and misunderstood thing. I’m not talking about the physical manifestation of the Church that we know as the local church, but about the bigger entity we know as the Church – the capital C Church.
As we give consideration to the genius of the Church, it is imperative to remember that the Church is a mysterious thing but is God’s most important asset in this age.
If pastors and local church leaders are going to lead their congregations to enjoy maximum church health, it is essential that they understand the genius that is God’s Church. Two formative questions need answering in order to lay the groundwork for maximum local church health. The first is “What is the Church?” The local church cannot function as it ought until its leaders know what the Church is. The second question is inseparably tied to the first, “Where did the Church come from?” This sounds silly but it’s not. If local church leaders fail to understand where the Church came from then local church will inevitably miss out on who it ought to be and what it ought to be doing.
What is the Church?
Asking this question leads me back to a core biblical truth about the Church.
The Church is a definitively spiritual organism.
This point cannot and should not be overlooked as it is foundational to everything the Church was designed to be. The Church is a living thing, not merely an organizational entity. As such, the Church is Christ’s body.
Scripture bears out this truth repeatedly throughout the New Testament corpus. Paul, the foremost declarer of ecclesiastical truth, referred to the Church as Christ’s body on more than one occasion (Eph 1:22-23; 5:23-25; Col 1:18; et. al.). The unbeliever becomes part of the Body of Christ upon the moment of his conversion when he is immersed into this Body by means of Spirit baptism and the Holy (1 Cor 12:13; Rom 6:3 w/8:1-2, 5-6; Eph 1:13-14). Jesus spoke of the Spirit coming to baptize/indwell His followers as a future thing; something different that was not a present reality in His earthly ministry (Matt 16:18; Jn 7:38-39; 14:16-17, 20, 23; 16:7; Acts 1:5). The coming Holy Spirit which inaugurated the Church occurred first on the Day of Pentecost. Thus, everyone who has come to personal faith in Jesus Christ since Pentecost has been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ and is part of the Church (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12, 18, 27; Acts 9:4-5).
Because the Church is a spiritual organism – the Body of Christ – it is unique in that it is spiritually interdependent. There are types of relationships that are unhealthy for us to have. Independence, full self-sufficiency is unhealthy. Those who approach others from the perspective of “I don’t need anyone else to be complete” typically isolate themselves from healthy human relationships; therefore suffering from poor relational health themselves. On the other end of the relational spectrum are those who are codependent. These individuals are so dependent on someone else for validity and value that they are willing to lay aside their own well-being for the sake of the relationship. They suffer poor relational health so that others in their lives might succeed.
The Church, however, was designed by God to be interdependent. Those in the Body of Christ enjoy a spiritually symbiotic relationship of mutual support and nurturing. They very much need each other in order to function in full relational health. This spiritual interdependence means that believers need each other in order to be both spiritually healthy (Rom 14:19; 15:14; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11; 1 Tim 2:1; Heb 10:24; 1 Cor 11:33; Rom 12:10, 16; 1 Pet 4:9-10; 1 Jn 1:7; 1 Thess 3:12; Gal 6:2; Eph 4:32) and to function properly as an entity (1 Cor 12:11-14, 20).
What is the Church? It is a definitively spiritual organism comprised of Spirit baptized believers who are mutually spiritually interdependent. Much like the human body, the Church is a compendium of many persons joined by their mutual bond in Christ who need each other in order to live and function at maximum spiritual health.
Where did the Church come from?
There are various ways one might approach answering this question. To be sure, there are differences of opinion on this parcel of ecclesiology. I will present my interpretation of what I believe to be what Scripture teaches. Understand, that no matter whether you agree with my interpretation here or not, your answer to the question will impact how you view the Church and its mission and will determine what course you employ to achieve maximum local church health.
The Church is has a qualitatively unique origin.
The Church is unique in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Because the Church is unique, it did not exist in the Old Testament. There are several biblical truths that lead me to this conclusion. Acts 7:38 and Hebrews 12:23 use the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in the technical sense referring to a civil assembly and not a spiritual organism. Since there are no Old Testament prophecies specifically about the Church, the nation of Israel had no concept of a people of God outside of the nation. This is why early Jewish Christians had a hard time with the inclusion of Gentile believers who were not also becoming Jewish proselytes.
Furthermore, the New Testament routinely distinguishes the Church from the Jews. 1 Corinthians 10:32 references “Jews, Gentiles, and the Church of God” as 3 distinct groups. Thus, no one loses their ethnic or cultural identity when they become part of the Church. The Church is something new and different from Israel (Gal 3:26-29 w/6:15-16). Some might object here by saying that the Church is called “Abraham’s seed” by Paul in Galatians, but Paul’s context should be noted. Paul is not equating the Church with Israel. Rather, he is saying that just as Abraham was justified by faith, so are all who come to Christ believing. Thus, just as Abraham was justified by faith and not works, so are all who come to Christ. In that way, metaphorically, we are children of Abraham. Add to this the truth that Paul goes on to say that the rite by which one is admitted into the nation of Israel – circumcision and uncircumcision – mean nothing, only the new creation; namely the Church. In the same passage, Paul wishes blessings of peace and mercy on all who follow this rule he’s established and specifically mentions Israel as a distinct group. Given this information, it can be concluded that the Church is a unique institution separate from Israel.
If the Church is different from Israel, then the Church does not share Israel’s purposes or responsibilities. Israel’s origin is as a racial and geo-political entity. God’s calling Abram from Ur to Canaan to make from him a distinctly new nation gave Israel her ethnic and racial identity. The Exodus and giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai transformed a ragged people group into a political entity. Being a political and earthly entity, Israel’s purpose is specifically earthly and political; fulfilled through her national and political framework (Ex 19:6). Israel’s spiritual and political responsibilities were inseparably intertwined. Additionally, Israel’s destiny is largely earthly as the head of the nations in the earthly Messianic kingdom (cf. Isa 61:5-6).
Contrast this with the Church which is a completely new organism distinct from national Israel. As Israel was given a racial/ethnic and national identity at specific historical points (Abram’s call and Sinai), the Church was birthed at a specific historical event – the Acts 2 record of the Day of Pentecost. Both John the Baptist (Matt 3:11) and Jesus Christ (Matt 16:18; Acts 1:5) promised a future coming Holy Spirit and coming Church; not one present in their lifetimes. Paul said that for the Church to exist Jesus had to die, be buried and resurrected (Eph 1:20-23). Both the promised Holy Spirit along with the completion of the redemptive work of Christ had come to pass by the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4, 33 w/ 11:15-16).
Because the Church was founded wholly differently than Israel, it can be expected that her purposes and their fulfillment are unique as well. The Church’s purposes are spiritual and fulfilled principally in a personal sense. The believer’s citizenship is spiritual and heavenly, not earthly or national (Phil 3:20). Thus, the Church has no political mandate and is not intended to be a social watchdog group in any sense. Rather, Christ tasked His disciples, and by extension the Church, with a mandate that is gospel-centered and spiritual in nature (Matt 28:18-20).
When it comes to destiny, unlike Israel, the Church’s destiny is spiritual in nature as well. She will be raptured to heaven, joined to Christ in marriage at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and be enthroned as co-regent with Christ in His kingdom (Rev 19:6-16).
Too often American believers confuse going to church with being the Church. When the local church forgets that the Church is a spiritual organism created and ordained by God for a specific purpose is when it gets off-mission and becomes something God never intended. When Christians confuse who we are with Israel we become earthly focused and try to fulfill a role God never intended us to have.
The Church is comprised of all believers in Jesus Christ who have been saved from the Day of Pentecost until Jesus returns to rapture us. By nature, we are a spiritual organism that is expressed in local, organizational groups. But, we are not a distinctly or firstly an earthly organization with earthly goals and purposes. We are unique and distinct from Israel. Israel is God’s chosen people, a national and ethnic group with a specific origin, purpose and destiny that is different from the Church. We cannot and should not confuse ourselves with Israel. We are not the New Israel.
As Paul so eloquently put it, the Church is a mysterious thing, but God’s most important asset in this age.
We will be most effective in being the Church – experiencing maximum local church health – when we understand who we are and where we came from.