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The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
We now turn to a consideration of the church. Let us think about the church under three heads: the origin, the nature, and the purpose of the church.
I. The Origin of the Church
The origin of the church rests entirely in God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The New Testament refers to the church as "the church of the living God" (1 Timothy 3:15). Jesus Christ speaks of the church as "my church" (Matthew 16:18). Throughout the book of Acts it is the Holy Spirit who inspires the church and fills it with power and wisdom. Truly in the words of our familiar hymn, "She on earth hath union with God, the Three in One." The church is the church of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This fact is important to stress because of a prevalent view that the church is essentially a human institution, one of the many forms of human association. Of course, the church is made up of people, but according to the Scriptures, for all its human composition, the origin does not rest in man but in God and His purposes.
In a certain sense the church began in Old Testament days. To be sure, the word church does not occur until the New Testament; however, the New Testament in looking back does speak, in one instance, of "the congregation in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38-in the King James Version the translation is "the church in the wilderness"). The word church is the translation of the Greek ecclesia, which means basically an "assembly of people" or a "congregation." Thus it can refer in the Old Testament to the people of Israel, those chosen by God to carry forward His purposes and promises in the world.
The Old Testament concept is that the whole nation of Israel was actively devoted to the worship of God, that they as a people were a divine congregation to meet in assembly to hear the divine commands, to proclaim to the world His eternal promises. This was "the church in the wilderness"-and in some sense the church later on as a nation. They were the Israel of God.
Hence, even in the Old Testament the ecclesia originated in God; the Israelites were a chosen people. Moses speaks in Deuteronomy: "You are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth" (7:6). Chosen of God, the ecclesia belonged to Him, and as His possession they were to keep His covenant and be a blessing to all mankind.
Unfortunately Israel as a nation failed to keep God's commandments, to maintain His pure worship, to love Him and their neighbor. They were finally given up by God to punishment and captivity. Only a remnant of Israel returned, but few remained faithful-until Jesus Christ came to create a new ecclesia, a new assembly, a new fellowship, not circumscribed by race, as with the Jews, but containing all people who truly believe in Him. There is continuity with the ecclesia of the Old Testament, since Jesus of the flesh was an Israelite, but the new church rapidly broadens out to include all people.
Hence we may say that the church did not come truly into existence until the New Testament; therefore the English word church does not properly occur anywhere in the Old Testament. Even as Israel of the Old Testament was God's chosen people, so the church of the New Testament is His choice through Jesus Christ.
Let us now note the first occurrence of the word church in the New Testament, Matthew 16:18-"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it."
Note the personal nature of this statement. Not "the church will be built," but "I will build my church." The church will belong to Christ, and He will be the builder.
Moving on with the New Testament, only one other specific reference to the church is made in the Gospels (see Matthew 18:17). Christ does not refer to it again by name. So do we come to the book of Acts wherein the first mention is in 5:11-"And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard these things."
These words confirm that the church is now a reality. Referring back three chapters to Acts 2, we find the story of its coming into existence, even as Jesus had foretold.
It happened on the Day of Pentecost, the day on which the Spirit of God came as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire, the day on which fearful, weak disciples found themselves with new power and wisdom, the day on which about three thousand others were baptized and received the gift of the Spirit. It was the birthday of the church-"my church"-before prepared by God the Father, founded by God the Son, and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.
The church then, in origin, is entirely of God. Man neither planned it, nor founded it, nor built it, however much man may and must be a part of it. The church is the church of the living God, the church of Jesus Christ, the church of the Holy Spirit.
C. S. Lewis in his classic Screwtape Letters, purportedly written by an important official in Satan's "lowerarchy" to Wormwood, a junior devil on earth, gives advice on how to destroy a young Christian's faith. In one letter Screwtape says:
One of our greatest allies at present is the church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our
boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.
How often true. Even members of the church sometimes do not see that the church is more than a human society made up of more or less good people doing this and that. The church, and only the church, is "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners."
So lift up your eyes afresh, fellow Christians, and rejoice your hearts, for we are members of the only divine institution on the face of God's earth-one that, coming from God, is destined to outlive the universe.
II. The Nature of the Church
We have noted the origin of the church in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let us now pass on to a consideration of what the church is like. How is the church to be described, indeed to be identified?
In the popular mind the church is usually thought of as the building on such and such a street, or in such and such a town. The First Presbyterian Church is that red brick building on the corner of Park and Main. "Is there a church nearby?" someone asks, and invariably the answer is in terms of a building labeled Methodist or Baptist or Catholic, and so on.
Let it be underscored, however, that until later than the first century there was not a single church building. The church was not a building: it was rather the ecclesia, the assembly, of those who had believed in Jesus Christ, had been baptized in His name, and had received the Holy Spirit. They went to the Jewish temple for prayer, they met in peoples' homes for worship and breaking bread, and they shared their earthly possessions. Many signs and wonders were done in Jesus' name. They were a company united in praise, study, fellowship, and service.
Thus when Acts says "great fear came upon the whole church," the reference is to the believing, baptized, Spirit-receiving company of people. They were those who had called on the Lord and were "being saved" (Acts 2:47). They were people who had received new life, and in the excitement and wonder of it were witnessing to everyone of what Christ had done for them and how He could do it for all who would likewise believe in His name.
One more remark about the church and a building. Nothing said has been intended to disparage church buildings. If nothing else, a building is a necessity for shelter in Christian worship and fellowship. The early Christians for all their lack of distinct buildings did meet in the temple and homes; they were not without the use of buildings. But the point here is that, building or no, the church is still wherever there is a coming together of Christians.
In speaking of the nature of the church let us return to the point that the church is the fellowship of people who believe in Jesus Christ. This means that the church stands constantly in a living relationship to Christ. How is the church to be recognized or identified? It is by observing a fellowship of people whose total lives, their worship and their work, are sustained by the living Christ.
The Apostle Paul uses three vivid images of the connection between Christ and the church in Ephesians. First he speaks of Christ as "the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (1:22-23). The church's Head-its Leader, Guide, and Mind-is none other than the exalted and risen Christ. The church is the extension of the incarnation, the embodiment in time of Christ's eternal purposes. The church exists to carry on the work He began on earth and now directs through His Spirit. Neither pope, priest, nor preacher can be the head of the church. There is but one: He who said, "I will build my church." The church, the ecclesia, must exist for nothing else but to carry out the living Christ's will-to be for Him His hands, His feet.
A second figure Paul uses is that of the church as "the household of God"-the church as a growing spiritual building with Christ as the chief cornerstone, and all people being built into it. "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord" (2:19-21). The church by nature is the only place where all mankind can dwell together in harmony. This is where Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor find themselves one; for, whatever outwardly may separate, in the church all are built and joined together with Christ as cornerstone. There can be no longer any strangers or sojourners-all are at home with Christ.
The third picture is that of the church as the bride of Christ. In Ephesians 5, against the background of Paul's injunction to husbands to love their wives, he adds, "as 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, that the church might be presented before him in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (verses 25-27). Christ loves the church beyond any husband for his bride, for not only did He give Himself up for her, but also He ever seeks to purify her, make her holy. Hence love-the love of Christ for us and our love for Him-is the tie that binds. The church is the place where love should reign supreme, where love is to be the motive for every action. As the church day by day fellowships with Christ, she grows in strength until the consummation when she will sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
To review: Christ the head of the church, the church His body; Christ the cornerstone of the church, the church His building; Christ the husband of the church, the church His bride. The true church then is the church that is bound together with Jesus Christ: the body to carry out His work, the building to house all people in unity, the bride to do all things in love.
How is the church to be identified or described? The answer again: it is a fellowship of baptized, believing, Spirit-renewed people for whom Christ is in all such ways the living Lord.
III. The Purpose of the Church
Finally, the purpose of the church is far greater than the mind of man can conceive. The church exists to proclaim "the manifold wisdom of God." As Ephesians 3:8-11 puts it, "To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord."
And what is this "manifold wisdom of God" that is "according to the eternal purpose realized in Christ?" The answer is given specifically in Ephesians 1:9, 10-"For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
The "manifold wisdom of God," to be proclaimed by the church, is that all things shall some day be united in Jesus Christ. For God has highly exalted Him "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10, 11).
Thus shall all things be united in Christ and in Christ alone: this is the mystery made known to the church. This is the sure end; some day the kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, all the universe shall be united in Him.
And how is all this to be achieved? It is to come about through the church ever proclaiming "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Colossians 3:8). The church has but one message, and that message is Christ-that "in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Ephesians 1:7), that "in him.we have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:11, 12), that "in him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:13,14).
What manifold, what glorious wisdom of God-"through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross!" (Colossians 1:20).
The message of the church to the world is that Christ crucified and risen is the wisdom of God and the power of God, that to believe in Him is to find sins forgiven and new life begun, and to become a joyous part of that vast throng which rejoices to live ever to the praise of His glory.
The church then has a message triumphant and glorious, for it proclaims to a warring, disunited world that some day all things will be united in Jesus Christ. We may seem far distant from the goal, but the goal is as certain as are the promises of God in heaven. So, sad world, lift up your eyes and behold Jesus Christ; He is the final answer!
How does He do it? Through the strange, wonderful, and mysterious plan of God He does it by a victory already won at the cross. For at the cross evil was struck a mortal blow, and when the eyes of men and nations look back to a cross-crowned hill, there salvation from sin is found, the dividing walls of hostility break down, and Christ becomes our eternal peace.
The church exists to proclaim this amazing, this victorious, this "manifold wisdom of God." This is the proclamation of everyone who believes in Him. We are all His body, His building, His bride to witness to others of His unsearchable riches, that they might likewise become a part of the company on earth that shall dwell with Him forever.
Let us then summarize: the origin of the church is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; the nature of the church is that she is the body of Christ, the building of Christ, the bride of Christ; the purpose of the church is to make known "the manifold wisdom of God." What a heritage, what a nature, what a destiny!
Is the church, for you, all that? If you are a member-baptized, believing, Spirit-gifted-is it your greatest concern in life to do His bidding, to tell others of His unsearchable riches? If you are not a member, will you delay longer, standing on the sidelines and missing the joy of sharing with others in growing together, serving together, and witnessing together?
The time is short. Let us all more forward under the banner of Jesus Christ to the end that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father!