Those who love Christ ought to love His church deeply because the church is the object of Jesus’ own love. Church-centeredness is thus one way in which Christ-centeredness ought to find expression.
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”. (Eph. 5:25-27)
Notice in the above verses the clarity of Christ’s love for the church – He gave Himself up for her (sacrifice) – the object is to cleanse her with the Word and to present her holy and spotless to Himself (as a bride).
The church that Christ loves and sustains is the key feature of God’s plan for both time and eternity, and care for the church’s welfare, which is what love for the church means, is an aspect of Christlikeness that Christians must ever seek to cultivate. It is right to have the church in our hearts; we should be wrong not to. To love Christ also means to love His church.
What this means: If we say we love Christ and we do not love His church, something is drastically wrong! I am personally very burdened to see many of my Christian brethren in leadership in various Christian organisations not involved in any way in the church, and some even find the church irrelevant and seek to keep away. Some even ‘look down’ on the church and see themselves ‘above her’, thinking of themselves as spiritually more mature than many in the church. Another burden is to encounter various believers who believe in being ‘lone-ranger’ and individualistic in their faith – they think they do not need the church of Christ at all to develop their Christian life.
Take note also that Christ’s love for the church and His plan for His church is central in His eternal purpose; Christ did not just come to save us and allow us to remain as we are, but He intends to mould us and transform us into a beautiful, holy and unblemished bride for Himself. He gave Himself in love for her, and He is determined to preserve her and make her ready for her eternal home and her place of glory with Him in eternity.
So if do not love the church and if we find her irrelevant for our Christian life, we are in fact taking ourselves out from God’s eternal purpose.
Of course, the church as God sees it is invisible to men – the realities which make the church are themselves invisible. The church becomes visible as its members meet together in Christ’s name to worship and hear God’s Word. But the church visible is a mixed body. Some who belong, though orthodox, are not true believers – not true members of the church as God knows it – and need to be converted (hence the church has the ‘wheat’ and the tares’). Visible church membership saves no man apart from faith in Christ!
The church invisible, the true church, is one already. Its unity is given to it in Christ; and Christ loves the true church. If we see the local churches advocating wrong doctrines and teaching; living improper lives before God and manifesting some of the negative features described in Christ’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation, true believers ought not to ‘abandon’ the church, but to ask God to guide them and enable them to contribute positively to her and to correct the ‘wrongs’ and nurture the ‘rights’ and positive values given by the Holy Spirit. When Christ comes again, He would separate the sheep from the goats and also separate the tares (weed) from the wheat. In the meantime, God’s people have a role to fulfil in God’s eternal purpose and Christ is the head of the church, His body, His temple, His flock.
Christ’s building of the church is a matter of his so changing people on the inside – in their hearts – that repentance, faith and obedience become more and more the pattern of their lives. Increasingly, they exhibit the humility, purity, love, and zeal for God that we see in Jesus’ call to worship, work, and witness in his name. And this they do, not as individuals but as fellow siblings in God’s family, helping and encouraging one another in openness and mutual care, and in brotherly love (Heb. 13:1).
And the church has certain responsibilities in fulfilling the above. God willing, we shall look at this subsequently.
The church is the object of the redemption which the Bible proclaims. It is to save the church that the Son of God became man (incarnation) and died. God purchased the church at the cost of Christ’s blood. It is through the church that God makes known His redeeming wisdom to the hosts of heaven. It is within the church that the individual Christian finds the ministries of grace, the means of growth, and his primary sphere for service.
So it is clear that God (the Father) and Christ love the church; God’s eternal purpose, which even amazes the heavenly hosts, centred on the church, and God is redeeming a people for Himself in, and through, His church.
The church is strictly not a human organisation; it is a divinely created fellowship of sinners who trust a common Saviour, and are one with each other because they are all one with Him in a union realised by the Holy Spirit.
The church’s real life, like that of its individual members, is for the present “hid in Christ with God’, and will not be manifested to the world until Christ appears.
All ministry in the church is in reality Christ’s ministry to and through the church. All its members, having access to God through Christ’s mediation, are a ministering people (priestly people), and all of them are holding in trust gifts of ministry (service) from Christ, for the edifying of the one body. Within the context of this universal ministry, Christ calls some specifically to minister the gospel, giving them strength and skill for the task and blessing their labours. As representatives of Christ, they teach and apply His Word, exercising His authority. Yet, (this is very important), they are always to remember that, as individuals, they belong to the church as its servants, not the church to them as their empire. The church is Christ’s kingdom, not theirs.
Because this is forgotten, many so-called servants of God embark on building their own ’empires’ and directly or indirectly are guilty of ‘declaring’ that the church belongs to them. They ‘lord it over the believers’, putting themselves on the pedestal, and imply that they could do no wrong. Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that the Apostles themselves are stewards and servants of God – they may plant and water, but it is God who builds the church and it is to Him that all the glory belongs.
We see here that, in the purposes of God, the church is glorious. Yet on earth, the church remains a little flock in a largely hostile environment. Many believers might feel disappointed, disillusioned, when they look at the church in various local contexts, and observe the poor spiritual quality of its members as well as the precarious state they are in.
But we need not fear. Christ Himself, the KIng who reigns on Zion’s hill, is its Saviour, its Head, its Builder, its Keeper. He has given His promise: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
But that does not mean that individual believers and various local churches can remain indifferent, ‘cold’ (losing their first love), lukewarm, and irresponsible as stewards of God (not defending the truths of God and compromising their holy calling and succumbing to the ‘world’ and its godless values).
And here we need to focus on the ‘responsibilities’ and ‘priorities’ of the church of Christ:
The church should be regarded as a true church when the Word of God is rightly preached, taught, and the sacraments (ordinances) of Christ are rightly followed.The right preaching of the Word of God is the formative discipline which shapes the church (as opposed to corrective discipline, which includes measures like excommunication). The ministry of the Word therefore is central and defining. To distinguish between a true church and a false church is to ask whether the church’s public worship consists of right preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the sacraments.
We need a faithful reading and preaching of God’s Word that through it His living voice is heard, addressing His people. We need such a reverent and expectant administration of the Lord’s Supper that there is a Real Presence of Jesus Christ, not in the elements but among His people and at His table.
In the preaching and teaching of the Word, faithfulness is the key word. We have to accept the discipline of exegesis, that is, of thinking ourselves back into the situation of the biblical authors, into their history, geography, culture and language. To neglect this discipline or to do it in a half-hearted or slovenly way, is inexcusable, for it expresses contempt for the way God chose to speak. We need to be conscientious and meticulous in studying the words of the living God and also be open to others who can contribute to our right understanding.
As we study the text in the Bible, we need to ask, ‘What did it mean?’ and ‘What does it say?’ In posing these two questions, our concern begins with the text’s original meaning, when it was first spoken or written, and then moves on to its contemporary message, as it addresses people today.
Meaning is not to be found above the text, behind it, or in the interpreter. Meaning is to be found in the text. It is the language of the text that determines what meaning God intends for us to have;; his is because words have meanings.
The preacher or teacher who has penetrated deeply into his text, has isolated and unfolded its dominant theme, and has himself been moved by its message, will bring it home effectively in his conclusion. Notice the word ‘dominant’ theme. Some expository sermons, offer little more than scattered comments based on words and phrases from a passage, making no attempt to show how the various thoughts fit together. The preacher ended up with comments on the words, phrases in the passage with subthemes and major themes and individual words all given equal emphasis. When the congregation goes back into the world, it has received no message by which to live since it has not occurred to the preacher to preach one. Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept. Ideally, a sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from from one passage or several passages of Scripture.
This also applies to teaching of a text. The study of a text should stick to what the text means and what it says, and how it applies to the believers. It does not help to ‘go all over the place’ when an unrelated idea, word, or phrase, in the text, causes various ones to stray away from what the Holy Spirit desires to communicate to His people.
We have been considering the importance of preaching and teaching God’s Word rightly in the church.
It is in fact an enormous privilege to be a biblical expositor, that is, to stand in the pulpit with God’s Word in our hands and minds, God’s Spirit in our hearts, and God’s people before our eyes, waiting expectantly for God’s voice to be heard and obeyed.
The pulpit is not the place to ventilate our own opinions, nor is it a place to ‘put down’ certain individuals in the congregation in a sarcastic manner. The preacher must remember that he is given the privilege to speak on behalf of God as he expounds the Scripture; to treat it irreverently is to take God’s grace for granted, and to stumble some sincere believers in the process.
The pulpit should not be used to talk about ‘almost anything under the sun’ except the Biblical text before the preacher. By just slotting in some Scriptural verses, which are often irrelevant to the text, does not make the sermon a biblical one – in fact, it may even cause the wrong understanding and application of the subject at hand for many in the congregation.
We need to reiterate the importance of Scripture as a revelation from God in written words which we humans can understand (thanks to God condescending to speak to us in our language); we also need to acknowledge afresh the role of the Holy Spirit as the Author of Scripture and as One who illuminates the Scripture for our understanding. This is especially so in the outworking of God’s church as well as in churchlife (which includes community living and the fulfilling of responsibility of each member of Christ’s body).
Worship of God is essential for every believer – but how can we worship God unless we know both who He is and what kind of worship pleases Him? Without this knowledge, our attempts at worship are almost certain to degenerate into idolatry. To worship God is to ‘glory in His holy name’, that is, to revel adoringly in who He is in His revealed character. But before we can glory in God’s name, we must know it. Hence the propriety of the reading and preaching of the Word of God in public worship, and of biblical meditation in private devotion – these are the foundation of Worship.
The Christian life is a life of faith. But what is faith? It too is a response to the revelation of God. We can no more trust a God we do not know than we can worship an unknown God. If worship is to glory in God for who He is, then faith is to ‘trust’ Him because of who He is. Faith is a reasoning trust; it rests on knowledge, the knowledge of the true God and His character.
Jesus calls the disciples to a life of obedience, as well as worship and faith. But how can we obey Him, unless we know His will and commandments? Once more, the BIble is seen to be indispensable to Christian maturity and discipleship in the context of the church,
But what is most disturbing is to find out that many believers in the church do not give priority to read and study the Bible. They shun Bible study in small groups in the church; they hardly pay attention to the sermons and teaching sessions (if they do attend), and yet, they are ‘very active’ in service in the church context and they are almost everywhere as far as ‘service’ is required. This is not to belittle their enthusiasm; but perhaps, there is a need to understand that service is an outflow of a relationship with God, and there can be no deep relationship with God if there is no knowledge of Him from the revelation in Scripture. So the question needs to be asked: ‘do we know who we are serving?’ Is He pleased with our service if what drives it on is only our own enthusiasm, apart from our love of Him, springing from our knowledge of Him and His character?
Submission to the authority of Scripture is the way of personal Christian humility. Nothing is more obnoxious in us who claim to follow Jesus Christ than arrogance, and nothing is more attractive and appropriate than humility in Christian service. And an essential element in Christian humility is the willingness to hear and receive God’s Word. Perhaps the greatest of all our needs is to take our place again humbly, quietly and expectantly at the feet of Jesus Christ, in order to listen attentively to His Word, and to believe and obey it. For we have no liberty to disbelieve or disobey Him – we must return to a humble submission to Scripture as God’s Word and Jesus Christ as Lord.
And certainly, this is most essential in the church and its outworking in God’s eternal plan and purpose. To ignore it is to ignore what God has to reveal to us and what He requires of us as a church.
We have looked at the importance of the Bible, God’s revelation in His written Word, for believers and the church. There is much that has been written about the significance of the Bible, but perhaps, a brief overview, covering some major areas, may be helpful and serve as a reminder for many of God’s people.
The Bible presents to us the truth about God, the great Lord of our destiny. It displays His power and majesty; it describes His plans and decrees. It demonstrates that His purposes determine the world’s course and our individual story, that His are the promises that count and that He has the decisive say in all that goes on. It declares, moreover, that God is for us and that He has chosen us for good – not for any good in us, but to receive good from Him.
It tells us that God has spoken. He is not a silent deity, leaving us to guess His mind and will, but the personal God who reveals Himself. He uses language, the gift He gave when He created man and woman, to tell us what He is like, and what He seeks from us.
The Bible defines the truth about ourselves. It unmasks what we are actually like, why we are as we are, what we can and cannot do, and what we are responsible for. It gives us the only totally reliable understanding of ourselves, because it sets us before our Maker and Creator.
The Bible also reveals the truth about Jesus Christ, telling us the facts about His coming in history and what those facts mean. More importantly, it shows Him as the embodiment of God’ unprecedented love for us. He is the one who sacrificed Himself in our place, turning away the just judgement and wrath of God by accepting the penalty of our guilt. The Bible portrays Him as rescuing sinners of every kind – people of every class and colour, from all over the world, from everyone of the hastening centuries. It reveals His eternal purpose to create a people for Himself. It guarantees to all who trust in Christ the experience of new life and total pardon from God.
The Bible opens up the truth about how God works in us, how He turns rebels into friends, aliens into children, lovers of self into lovers of God. From the burnt-out ashes of our lives, God can reconstruct a temple in which He is happy to live. It tells us how God does this by His Holy Spirit’s gentle welcome and powerful entry into our lives. The Bible tells us that He does all this work in us within the company of His people. It stresses the fact that we walk the pilgrim way and bear our living witness along with all those who call on His name.
Lest we are fearful about the future, it offers a preview of the end. We may have doubts about whether we will make it to the goal of the journey, or wonder what will happen if we fall and disappoint Christ, so the Bible announces that one day, the saints will go marching in to their eternal home, bloodied in the battle, but unbowed. And the Bible promises that Christ will return and He is the author and finisher of our Christian race; He intercedes for us from the Father’s right hand, He rules the universe from this exalted position, with everything under His feet, and He would bring to pass all that He promises to His children and His church.
The nature of the Bible leaves us the responsibility rightly to interpret the God-given Word. We can take up that task assured that God has given a clear word, and that He wants us to arrive at an understanding of what He has said – especially on important core values and truths as the Bible enshrines. That assurance rests also on the fact that God has given His Holy Spirit to help our understanding and obedience. We surely want to appeal to the original Author to help us see what He meant and the Spirit willingly gives His help when we ask Him – a help that may come directly to our minds as we pray and ponder the text, or though preachers and teachers God anoint for His church.
The Christian faith must be both well and wisely taught and well and truly learned! All worshipers of every age must be grounded in the truths Christians live by and in the ways Christians are to live by these truths. There is also a need, not just for initial grounding in these truths, but also, this must be followed by regular revisiting and deepened explorations of them.
Notice that what is shared above about the Bible and its truths is the basic territory of Christian evangelism and discipleship. “To make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that Christ has taught” means the need for lifelong Bible study, the value of Bible study groups for everyone, and the necessity of expository preaching, attention to doctrines (in one sense every Christian is a theologian) and truth-in-life study. The church cannot do this without the members grounded in living knowledge of God’s truths, revealed in the Bible, and illumined by the Spirit.