Saturday, May 18, 2013

What is Church?

Pentecost Sunday, a couple of thousand years ago, was the birthday of the Church. I thought it might be fun to explore what this means. Ive written about church before as what it means and does for me personally, inspiring Spiritual Patriotism and assuring God's Immanence. I now approach it from quite a different and academic angle. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed researching.

When: Pentecost meaning fifty (Leviticus 23.16) was celebrated by the Old Testament people as Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16.10), Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23.16) and the day of firstfruits (Number 28.26). The Book of Acts is our definitive source for this great event. This year, Pentecost falls on May 19th, tomorrow.

Where: Jerusalem

Who: Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James, son of Alpahaeus and Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James, and the newly chosen Mathias (to replace Judas - Acts 1.23-26). Joined together and praying with them were women (probably the wives of the apostles and those ministering to them, and Mary, the mother of Jesus), and Jesus' brothers (including James who later became a leader in the Jerusalem church). About 120 believers. Acts 20.16 mentions Paul: Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.

What: Pentecost is the anniversary of the day the Church was born. The map to the right shows how the Gospel spread along the Mediterranean during the Apostolic Age (from around 30 AD to 65 although some extend it to 100 AD and grew from ~120 to 3000 on Pentecost Day and to many thousands more by the end of the Apostolic Age; from Jesus ministry of ~100 miles N-S and 50 miles E-W to 700 N-S and 2000 miles E-W). On this day (~27 or 30 AD), the believers were gathered together in one place, when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2. 2-4. Peter preached the Gospel of Jesus and asked the crowds that gathered to repent, believe in Jesus, and be saved. About three thousand were added their number that day. Acts 2.41. Acts 2.42-47 reports the fellowship of believers, the most dramatic features of which (to me) are the daily meetings in temple and homes, and the voluntary sharing: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people." Acts 2. 44-47. A human society - an association of Christians - had become filled with heavenly life. From the very beginning this was called ekklesia meaning church. Three distinct uses of ekklesia in the New Testament are: local assembly or congregation of Christians, house church, and heavenly gathering.

Today, there are two distinct concepts - catholic and evangelical - of church. The extreme form of the first, catholic concept of church, is expressed in the Douay Catechism definition of Church as the "congregation of the faithful under Jesus Christ, their invisible head, and his vicar on earth, the Pope." The evangelical (or reformed) concept of Church is that it is "the general assembly of the church of the first-born." This church does not have perfect existence in visible form or unity on earth; rather, it exists as many different churches - associations of men, women and children, societies of Christians, (denomination and non-denominational churches) who publicly praise and follow Jesus Christ. The catholic church claims divine inspiration to discern truth while the evangelical church, completely dependent on God, nevertheless recognizes human fallibility. Above these two, the "Church Invisible" - the whole people of God - towers and continues to this day. The "Invisible Church" is present whenever two or three meet in Christ's name; it is one and undivided because the indwelling Spirit of Christ is indivisible. While it may have some who are not truly born-again, only the Lord knows who are not his. All members of the Church, as Christians, are holy. God is the Lord of our conscience and it is to God, not the church, that Christians are accountable 

How? Coming together is an essential part of ekklesia/church. Church is an act of gathering together of the children of God.

Why Church?  Even today many Christians wrongly believe that the primary reason we gather together is to worship God. That is not so. We are to worship God in every sphere of life, not just an hour on Sundays. Paul has made this clear in many of his letters. We gather together, as church, for reasons beyond worship. These include: 

1) Gathering together to be edified (instructed). Through the ministries of the Word (sermon, adult education, Sunday school) believers are prepared for full maturity when they meet with our Lord Jesus. "When Christians gather together to minister to one another the truth of God in love, the church is manifested, maintained, and advanced in God's way." (Peterson. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,1993. p. 214.).

2) Meeting with Christ. When the whole congregation meet together to be instructed, they meet with Christ himself. This coming together is a foretaste of life in heaven (this is what I shared in Picture This). Fellowship is not a means to an end, it is the end itself, an expression of the heavenly gathering around Christ. As we gather together, we look upward instead of inward or outward. Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude fulfills the command to let the Word of God dwell among us richly Col. 3.16, Eph. 5.19-20.  

3) Build each other up. We are to offer prayers, praises and thanksgivings so that they are not merely private activities. When others are present, these are expressed in clear ways so as to build up the body of Christ. It is in building up each other - the congregation - that God is worshiped and glorified.


This is quite a different view of church, isn't it? I love the picture of an ideal church that Paul has given us in Romans 12; there is no ruling class, no ministerial class, no laity, only servants within it. Every true Christian worker performs a ministerial duty, and every believer encouraged to cultivate gifts. These gifts are from the Spirit and Paul is very clear that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is given to everyone.

May there be a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit and growth as the Body of Christ as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday in our churches. Amen.

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