Our Life in God's Church
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, February 26, 2012
Copyright © 2012, P. G. Mathew
Beginning with Romans 12, Paul applies the gospel to the practical life of the people of God. The word of God must always be applied. The evidence of salvation brought about by the mercies of God (Rom. 12:1) is a life of sacrificial love to God and to God’s people. Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and [above all] with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). He also declared, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:34). John said, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love [his brother] remains in death” (1 John 3:14).
The gospel renews our minds and transforms our lives. It changes us from glory to glory. The purpose of the Son of God’s incarnation was to bring many sons to glory. So a Christian is not proud; he is humble and thinks realistically in keeping with God’s gift of faith to him. He knows he is only one member in the body of Christ. He must depend on all the other members, and all the others depend on him. As part of Christ’s body, he is to honor others above himself and gladly share what he has with God’s people who are in need.
A Christian’s life in God’s holy church is based on the biblical understanding of ekklêsia (church). We are living at a time when autonomy and antinomianism reign not only in the world but also in the church. Church is seen as a gathering of individuals with no vital relationship to God or to one another, a gathering of people for selfish purposes, not for worshiping the living triune God and to hear his holy word.
Romans 12 speaks about life in God’s holy church. Let us then look first at the nature of the church and second at the nature of church life.
The Nature of the Church
The Bible uses various metaphors to describe the nature of God’s church. We will look at five that demonstrate how each believer is built in relation to Jesus Christ and to every other believer.
1. THE TEMPLE OF GOD
The church is compared to the temple of God, the place where God himself dwells. In the tabernacle, God was present in the Holy of Holies, in the glory cloud above the ark: "Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). This was also true in the temple of Solomon: "When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the [glory cloud of God’s presence]” (1 Kings 8:10-11). This is also true in God’s church, which is a building of living stones, consisting of God’s holy people. Jesus said, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18, author’s version).
Elsewhere Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst” (Matt. 18:20, author’s version). So the church is where God himself dwells and where each believer is built in relation to Jesus Christ and every other believer.
Christ’s church is recognized by many things:
Expository preaching of the word of God (sola Scriptura). John Calvin was one of the greatest preachers of the word of God. Professor John Murray called Calvin’s Institutes the magnum opus of Christian theology. Calvin was especially known for expository preaching, which we also practice.
Biblical administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Community life, governed by sacrificial love.
Biblical government and discipline, which ensures the holiness of God in the life of every believer. God says, "Be ye holy, for I am holy.” Each Christian lives a relational life, loving God and loving God’s people. Therefore, a believer is a living stone built into the building called the church. But when someone goes away from a church of God where these marks exist, we can deduce that such a person has been rejected by Christ. He is not a living stone. John writes about such people, "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19). It is impossible to leave God’s church if God has made us living stones and built us into his church.
God’s temple is holy. The holy God dwells there, so a true believer must strive to live a holy life. And if we don’t, the church must exercise proper discipline. Peter says, "As you come to [Christ], the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4–5). Peter continues, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare [by your life and by your words] the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Paul asks, "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Elsewhere he states that we are "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:20–22). Note the relation to God and to one another.
An unholy church is a church where God’s word is not preached. God does not dwell in such a church. It is a synagogue of Satan, where autonomous individual gather to do what they please.
2. THE FAMILY OF GOD
God’s church is also called the family of God. "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18). When the mother and brothers of Jesus came looking for him, Jesus asked, "Who are my mother and my brothers?” He then pointed to those around him and remarked, "Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35) Paul calls believers "members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).
In the family of God, God is our heavenly Father and there is love. There is intimacy of life and reverential access to the Father. We pray to him, and he hears our prayers and provides for us. Our heavenly Father always knows what we need. We are his children by adoption. We are heirs of God and joint–heirs with Christ. He is pleased to give us a kingdom, which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. And because he is our Father, we love our Father in heaven and all his children born of God. This spiritual family of God is eternal and infinitely superior to natural family of unbelieving people who, according to the Bible, are children of the devil.
3. THE VINE AND BRANCHES
The church of Jesus Christ is also compared to a vine and branches. Jesus is the vine, and every believer is vitally united to him so that the life of Christ flows into every branch to produce much fruit for the glory of the Father. A false believer is a fruitless branch that will, in due time, be cut off, thrown out, gathered up, and burned. Those who go away from God’s holy church are not united to Christ. If they were in Christ, it would be impossible for them to go away. Those who go away have no life of Christ in them. They are arrogant, lifeless, and graceless. Only those who are united with Christ can say, "I can do all things through Jesus Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13, author’s version).
4. THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
The church is also called the bride of Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of the union of a man and woman in marriage. Then he says, "This is a profound mystery, but I am speaking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). Elsewhere he tells the Corinthian church, "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Cor. 11:2).
The bride of Christ is unlike the great prostitute, Babylon the Great, which is the apostate, unholy church. The bride of Christ is holy. Paul declares, "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph. 1:4). Paul then says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27).
The bride of Christ is a pure virgin, holy and glorious. She loves righteousness and hates wickedness. So we read, "‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)” (Rev. 19:6b–8). John writes, "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). As the bride of Christ, we aim daily for greater holiness and greater sanctification.
5. THE BODY OF CHRIST
The church is also called the body of Christ. Paul says, "So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all others” (Rom. 12:5). Paul uses this metaphor of a body many times in his epistles: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ… . Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body… . The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ … Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:12, 14–15, 21, 27).
Autonomy is not possible in God’s holy church. The church is not a collection of disconnected eyes and hands and legs floating about. It is one body consisting of many members, all of whom are related to Christ and to all other members. So each member belongs to all and is related to all. It is impossible to separate oneself from the one body. Legs need eyes, and eyes need legs. There is no independence, only inter-dependence in God’s church. Our God-given gifts are to be used for the common good, for the edification of the church. I depend on your gifts, and you depend on mine. We are one body, each member belonging to all others. And in sanctification, we aim for greater dependency and service of love.
Notice, then, in all these metaphors, one thing is clear. Each true believer is vitally related first to Christ and then to all other believers, as is true of the human body. So if a person is a loose stone not built into the building, like a member of the body not vitally placed in the body, he is a false believer who in time will fall away. He is a selfish person, serving himself, not Christ and his church.
If we are born of the Spirit, if the Lord who builds the church added us vitally to the church, and if the Holy Spirit baptized us into the body of Christ, then we will live the life the apostle counsels.
The Nature of Church Life
Having considered the nature of the church, let us now look at the nature of the life we live in God’s church. The people of God are connected to God and therefore necessarily to one another. Therefore we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We live in harmony with everyone and associate with people of low position. And we refuse to be arrogant and proud and conceited.
"Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (v. 15). We can obey this apostolic command because we have a new divine nature. We have the life of God in the soul of man. And we have the Holy Spirit teaching, guiding, empowering, and permanently dwelling in us. What God commands, we are now able to do by grace.
We are living stones, built into God’s temple. We are children in God’s family. We are members in the one body of Christ. All of us make one bride of Christ. We are branches vitally related to Christ. We are a community. So we love one another and lay down our lives and possessions for one another.
The unbeliever weeps when others are happy. The false Christian rejoices when others are weeping. Only a child of the heavenly Father weeps when his brother or sister in Christ weeps, and rejoices when a brother or sister rejoices. We do so because we are spiritually related to each other.
Why do some people weep at funerals and others do not? Because the one who died is one’s father or mother or son or daughter or brother or sister or husband or wife. Relationship is the reason for weeping as well as the reason for rejoicing. It is that way in the body. When your toe hits a stone, your whole body feels the pain. The same applies to the family. When a child achieves at school or at work, the whole family rejoices. So also when your brother or sister in Christ is blessed, the whole church rejoices. When he or she suffers, the whole church suffers.
Jesus is our sympathizing high priest: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are—yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Therefore we also sympathize with our brothers and sisters. "You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions… . Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 10:34; 13:3). Peter says, "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (1 Pet. 3:8). And Paul tells us, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26); "Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:29).
Jesus himself spoke of this: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger; you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… . The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matt. 25:34-36, 40).
When Peter was put in prison, the whole church prayed for him (Acts 12:5). When Paul was in prison, he asked the church to pray for him: "Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19). Paul raised money to support the poor in Jerusalem. Believers in Jerusalem sold their land and other possessions to feed and clothe their poor brothers and sisters (Acts 2:45; 4:34–35). In the same way, in this church we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Recall that Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). He was not weeping out of despair, like many around him; rather, he was weeping out of his sympathy for those he loved. He is our sympathizing high priest.
Weeping is a part of this present life. Yet, thank God, we do not weep every day. There are days of rejoicing also. We read in Psalm 30, "For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (v. 5). In the same psalm the psalmist declares, "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever” (vv. 11–12).
In this life, there is both weeping and rejoicing. But in the life to come there will be only rejoicing forevermore. Note God’s description of the new heaven and the new earth: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
There was not only the death of Jesus Christ, but it was followed by his glorious resurrection. So we weep but we also rejoice because Jesus Christ is risen and he lives forevermore. So we rejoice in the Lord, Paul says, "even in tribulations also.”
"Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:15). We are to think the same thing toward one another. We read in the book of Acts several times that the church continued in one accord, with one mind and one purpose in one place. When the Holy Spirit fills each believer, he lives in unity with every other believer. We have the mind of Christ and pursue the purpose of Christ. (PGM) We do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. Rather, we think realistically and clothe ourselves with humility.
So we make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There cannot be any division in God’s holy church because of the seven unities that characterize Christ’s church: one body, one Holy Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all his children, who is over all and through all and in all. It is impossible for God’s people not to be united.
There are no hypocrites in Christ’s holy church. There are hypocrites in the visible church, but they are false brothers who seek their own interests. So we read in Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! … For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”
It is a great sin to destroy the unity of the church. Paul says, "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). He also writes, "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple [by division], God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16–17). A person who causes division in the church will be destroyed by the Lord and Head of the church. It is a severe and serious matter.
Paul continually calls believers to unity: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6); "Finally, brothers, goodby. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11); "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27); "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). The person who causes division is a false brother exhibiting selfish ambition (see Phil. 2:34).
When one’s mind is controlled by flesh, there is self-seeking and disunity. When a mind is controlled by the Holy Spirit, it is set on what the Holy Spirit desires and what the holy Scriptures direct. Paul says in Romans 8 that the Spirit-controlled mind is life and peace. Such a mind submits to God. Such a person pleases God. The church where the Scripture is preached and where the Holy Spirit rules is the place of spiritual harmony and unity.
"Be willing to associate with people of low position” (Rom. 12:16). If the church is the one temple of God, the one bride of Christ, the one family of God, the one body of Christ, and the branches united to the one vine, then there cannot be any class distinction or snobbish exclusivism in the church. There will be no Brahmin/pariah distinction, no high church/low church separation, no churches for the rich and churches for the poor, no "color guards” stationed at the door to keep away people of different racial or ethnic heritages.
Jesus Christ was a friend of sinners and social outcasts. The tax collectors and "sinners” gathered around to hear Jesus, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2). Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners”’” (Matt. 11:19). Elsewhere Jesus instructs us, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13–14). He also said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).
The church of Jesus Christ receives as brothers and sisters without sinful distinction all who repent and believe in Christ. And each one, whether rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, master or slave, is given the gift of grace for building up God’s holy church. If we do not associate with the lowly, we are impoverished. Paul says, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26–29). He also instructs, "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7) and "To each one of us, grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Eph. 4:7).
If we do not like to fellowship with people of low position, we should recollect who we were when we were called to salvation. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world, and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Ro. 1:26–29).
Every believer has been made by Christ; in Christ, every believer is a king and a priest. Jesus has made us all sons of glory; therefore, we respect all the people of God and fellowship with all of them. When I was nine years old, there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in India. I remember going with our pastor and my father to a pariah’s hut, a place we would never have entered before. But the Holy Spirit destroys all such distinctions. We went into the hut, sat on the floor, and prayed and worshiped God with these fellow believers. Then they cooked something and we ate it, just like Peter did at the house of the Gentile Cornelius. All distinctions are gone when the Spirit of God is poured out.
"Do not be proud” (Rom. 12:16). Proud people are those who do not see God, because we cannot remain proud if we see God. Isaiah saw God and cried out, "Woe unto me! I am undone!” (Isa. 6). John saw Christ and fell down at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17). When Saul of Tarsus saw the glorified Christ, he also fell to the ground, confused and blinded (Acts 9). A vision of God makes God’s people humble. And God gives grace to the humble.
Proud people do not read the Bible. Therefore, they see themselves based on their own standard. But the humble see themselves in the mirror of God’s standard, the holy Scripture. Pride is the nature of the devil himself. The proud man is an idiot, one who refuses to listen to God. He is the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God” (Ps. 14). In the Bible’s view, every unbeliever is an idiot, a fool, and a narcissist who loves and worships himself. But we believe in and worship the true and living God who has given us eternal life and opened our blind eyes.
Proud people are wise in their own eyes (Prov. 3:7). They are independent and self-sufficient. They think they don’t need God. Pride is the biggest enemy of unity in God’s church. Paul frequently spoke of such people, "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22); "If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3); "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
Of his pre-conversion days Paul says, "I indeed consulted with myself that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9, author’s translation). Paul "consulted with himself.” I have seen many arrogant people who consulted with themselves and told God to get lost. But Paul warns, "Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise are futile’” (1 Cor. 3:18–20).
Life in God’s Church
How then shall we live in God’s church? We should be clothed with humility, which is the mark of a God-fearing child of God. Paul says, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death of the cross!” (Phil. 2:3–8). The way of the cross is the way of life for every Christian.
The church of Jesus Christ does not consist of independent individuals. Christ builds his church with living stones of people who have been born of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and are regulated by the gospel. The church is the family of God, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the temple of God, the branches united to the vine, Jesus Christ. So there is vital relationship between the church and the triune God and with all true believers everywhere in the world. Therefore, we love God with all our heart, and we love the household of God as ourselves.
If we belong to the family of God by God’s miraculous action of regeneration, then we will live to practice the biblical ethic. We will persevere to the end by divine grace. We will rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We will think soberly and biblically and live in unity with God’s people. We will associate with those who are of low position because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. We will not live by our own standard or consult only ourselves or be proud, foolish narcissists. Rather, we will live in the light of the gospel, in humility and full of grace, because we are followers of the One who said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24–25); the One who said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29).
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Copyright © 2012, P. G. Mathew
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