THE ORIGIN AND NATURE OF THE CHURCH
These are my notes for teaching the Cornerstone Bible Study on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Have you used one of those DNA test kits? Last Christmas it was one of the popular gifts - what do you give someone who has everything? A DNA test kit. Why are they so popular? Because people want to know where they come from - their origins. All kinds of heartwarming stories have resulted. Separated twins reunited. Long lost relatives found. Family trees completed.
So, what about the origin of the Church? What is our ancestry and DNA? From the Gospels and the Book of Acts, we know one side of the story. After his ascension, Jesus poured out his Spirit on the group of believers in Jerusalem and the Church was born. In the first century, the gospel spread rapidly and churches sprang up all over the Roman Empire. Today, there are millions of churches all around the world. That's a very exciting story of the origin and nature of the Church.
Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus offers another side of the story of the origin and nature of the Church. It reveals what I call the inner workings of our beginnings. Ephesians shows us God's mind, and his design for the Church, and how he got it done.
Let's take a look.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CHURCH
A. The Church Originated in God
The church is not a human invention. Just as Israel was formed by God, so now the church. There are at least four major indications of this:
The believers are called saints or holy ones (1:1), a term that reflects their relationship to God - we are the people who belong to God, his possession, 1:14. God is holy and everything that is for his use becomes holy; for example, the temple and its furniture and so on. In particular, Israel was God's holy people:
(Exodus 19:3-6) Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites (Also Leviticus 11:44; 19:2).
This same language is used of the church in the NT:
(1 Peter 2:9-10) But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; (See Romans 9:26; 2 Corinthians 6:18).
(Revelation 1:5-6) To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
The church exists as a result of God's prior decision and for his praise and glory:
(Ephesians 1:4, 6) For he chose us in him before the creation of the world ... 6 to the praise of his glorious grace ...
(Ephesians 1:11-12) In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
(Genesis 12:2) “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
(Deuteronomy 7:6-8) For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7 The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors
The church has been adopted by God to sonship, just as in the case of Israel. God is our father in the sense that he is our source/genesis/originator. The origin and nature of the church parallels Israel's experience and, as we saw above, the same language is used of both.
(Ephesians 1:4bs this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?
(Exodus 4:22-23) Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.”
(Deuteronomy 32:6) Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?
The church is also a work of the Holy Spirit who binds us in covenant with God.
All the blessings that identify the church as God's people are received in the realm of the Spirit and guaranteed by the Spirit:
(Ephesians 1:3) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
(Ephesians 1:13-14) When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance
B. The Church Originated in Christ and His Work
In Christ or its variants, in him or in whom, occur eleven times in the paragraph, verses 3-14. All of the spiritual blessings that identify the church as the corporate people of God are mediated to us IN Christ: spiritual blessing, chosen, adoption, redemption/forgiveness. "IN" implies that Christ is BOTH the source of these blessings AND it is in our union with him that we receive them. We are incorporated into Christ and that is what constitutes us as God's people. We are sons because he is. We are chosen because he is. We are free from the power/condemnation of sin because he is.
No Christ, no church, no people of God.
The global church, then, originates in God. It is his people, his nation, his priesthood, joined to Jesus and blessed in him through the Spirit.
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
A. The Church is a Corporate People
Church and Israel - Parallel Ecclesias/Nations/People of God. In light of the parallels with Israel, we might say that the church is a nation made up of people from all nations. Israel was baptized in the cloud of God's presence. Similarly, the church is baptized into Christ.
Just as God chose and fathered Israel, called them his son, sealed covenant with them, blessed them, redeemed them and so on, so now the global church.
Ephesians was originally written as a circular letter to several local churches in Turkey (Asia Minor). It was addressed to the Church as a whole. It was not meant to be read individualistically. It is us, we, you, plural.
B. The Dangers of Reading Ephesians Individualistically
If we read Ephesians individualistically, we will misunderstand it:
It was written to link Christ and his church to the long arc of salvation history - God's story. We're not the first, we're the latest. If we read it individualistically, we strip it of its context in the OT history of God.
It was written to unite all God's people in one great mission to broadcast the manifold wisdom of God (3:10-11). If we read it individualistically, we will not be able to fulfill that purpose and the focus will shift from God to me and mine.
It was written to focus on what God has done and is doing, but we'll make it all about our blessings and we may isolate from people and privatize our faith
It was written to teach us how to live together as the church. It's a very relational book and it is a book that elevates the church. If we read it without the corporate and collective lens, we will be tempted to live a churchless faith.
It was not written to introduce complex and disagreeable theological details, but if we read it individualistically, we'll focus on questions and details that Ephesians never intended for discussion; for example, election. The church as a whole is chosen; the individual can only speak of being chosen by God in the context of corporate election. For example, "I am part of the global church that belongs to God and has been chosen by him to be his holy people." That, it seems to me, is the context and emphasis of Ephesians 1:4. It's not about who is elect or why isn't everyone elect? It's about assuring people that God is partnering with the church today just as he did with Israel in the past. The difference is that the church is a "nation" with people from every nation, not just Israel.
C. The Church IS ...
From: NIV ZONDERVAN STUDY BIBLE NOTES
Although “church” generally denotes a local assembly or congregation in Paul’s earlier letters (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1), the term in Ephesians always has a wider reference and designates the universal church to which all true believers belong.
Paul describes the church using several metaphors:
A body. Organically, the church is a body whose head is Christ (5:23). As a body, the different members of the church are dependent on one another (4:12-16) and exemplify the necessity of unity in diversity. As the body of Christ, the church depends on Christ for its growth (4:16) and submits to his headship (5:24). This introduction of Christ as the head of the church is a distinctive contribution of Ephesians (and Colossians).
A temple. Architecturally, the church is a holy temple filled with the presence of God and built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (2:20-22).
A commonwealth. Politically, the church is a commonwealth that embodies the reconciliation of two former hostile ethnic groups (2:11-22) and that battles evil spiritual powers (6:10-20).
A household. From the perspective of social structures, the church is a household unit in which God is the Father (1:3,17; 2:18; 3:14; 4:6; 5:20; 6:23) and believers are adopted as his children through Jesus Christ (1:5; 2:19).
A bride. Drawing on the OT depiction of Israel as the bride of Yahweh, the church is also portrayed as the bride of Christ (5:23-32). He cares, feeds, and sanctifies the church in order that he might present it to himself as radiant, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (5:27). As his wife, the church submits to Christ.
If anything good has come out of the COVID crisis, it is this: we know by experience what Ephesians teaches by precept: we need each other because we belong to each other because we are one people/nation. We are God's people in many of the same ways as Israel was God's people.
Do you need to make an adjustment to your theology or your lifestyle to incorporate the corporate nature of the church? We'll look more closely at the implications in the weeks to come.