THE BRIDE OF CHRIST.
First and foremost, if we follow the sequence of teaching in the word of God, the church is the bride of Christ. We find this truth in the opening chapters of the Bible. That which God was going to do through the death and resurrection of his Son on Calvary, he prefigured through the creation of Adam and Eve. Out of all the creation that God had made there was no suitable companion found for Adam. So God put Adam into a deep sleep. While Adam was in this deep sleep God took out of his side a rib, and from this rib he formed Eve who was to be his wife. When Adam saw Eve he said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called ‘woman’ (Hebrew ‘isha’) because she was taken out of ‘man’ (Hebrew, ‘ish’).” The Hebrew word for ‘man’ is ‘ish’, and the Hebrew word for a ‘woman’ is ‘isha’. So even these two words themselves show us that woman was created out of man. In God’s creation of Adam and Eve we have a perfect reflection of God’s eternal purpose to provide a wife, a bride, for his Son, Jesus Christ. How wonderful the Bible is! The Bible is the word of God; it is inspired by his Holy Spirit!
When the soldiers came to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, they found that he was already ‘dead’. But to make sure this pay thrust a spear into his side, and out of his side poured blood and water! Blood and water are the elements by which Christ’s church has been redeemed and cleansed!
“This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood.” (1 John 5:6).
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word. “ (Ephesians 5:25-26).
“feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28).
We could quote other verses but I think the truth is clear! As Eve was formed out of the side of Adam so Christ’s bride would be formed by that which flowed out of his side! The word of God makes this link between Adam and Christ very clear because in that same chapter of Ephesians Paul quotes Adam’s words about Eve and applies them to Christ and the church, “For we are members of His body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” (Verse 30). Paul then goes on to quote another statement in Genesis that followed the creation of Eve, and again applies them to Christ and His church in a most amazing way, namely he quotes, “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh,” but then Paul amazingly adds this, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
God’s eternal purpose to create a bride for his Son is made clear from these verses. We find this truth throughout the new Testament. In two Corinthians chapter 11 Paul says this, “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his cunning, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2 Cor.11:2-3). Here again, we have a clear picture of a bride being prepared for her bridegroom – for her husband. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells a parable about 10 virgins who go out to meet the bridegroom. It is clear from the parable that Jesus identified himself with the bridegroom and that the wise virgins represent his church who are ready for him at his appearing on that great day. When asked about why his disciples don’t fast, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom who was present with his disciples at that time. Similarly, in another parable in Matthew chapter 22, Jesus talks about those who are invited to a marriage feast and he makes it plain that it is only those who truly respond to the Gospel that will take part in that great day of the wedding feast. And we read about the fulfilment of this in the book of the Revelation, “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteous acts of saints. And he said unto me, Write, Blessed are they who are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev.19:7-9)
In Revelation chapter 21, John writes this, “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… And there came unto me one of the seven angels… and talked with me, saying, Come here, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he… showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and its radiance was like unto a stone most precious.” (Revelation 21:2, 9-11). We know that the church is the dwelling place of God through the Spirit and that Christ has conveyed his glory to his people (Eph.2:21,22; 2 Cor.3:18). And now in Revelation chapter 21, the church is described as a bride prepared for her husband and as the new Jerusalem, in which the Lord God Almighty and the lamb dwell; and it is the glory of God that shines in it and gives light!
This truth is not limited to a future time! Spiritually, we are already a part, and also take part in this one church of Jesus Christ. Writing about those who are born of God’s Spirit, Paul says in Galatians, “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4:26). In John 3:3, Jesus says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The word ‘again’ also means ‘from above’! We are born from above, by God’s Spirit sent from Heaven! And we have access to into the presence of God in the heavenlies – Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Hebrews 10:19. Let us also read the following tremendous verses, “But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24). These are amazing verses. They are a revelation to us of the reality of the great things God has done in us and for us!
Can you see how our understanding of Christ’s Church needs to be based on, and fed by God’s own word so that our understanding rises above what is just natural, earthly or of the flesh! Our appreciation and understanding (and experience) of these things needs to be deepened and expanded by God’s Spirit!
The church of Jesus Christ is nothing less than what we have read above! The church is his bride, his dwelling place for all eternity! To this end Adam and Eve were created! It is God’s glorious eternal purpose to save you and me and make us the bride of Christ! Who is the Bride, who is the Church? It is those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and who have been saved by the grace of God through the salvation that is in Christ alone; it is those who were born ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’
We are saved by grace through faith. However, there are other scriptures that exhort us to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). So we find at the end of the parable of the ten virgins, the Lord Jesus exhorts us with these words, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of man comes.” (Matthew 25:13) Christ gives this warning because in the parable half of the virgins were not ready to meet the bridegroom and were refused entrance to his presence. When speaking to the seven churches in the book of the revelation, Jesus says to each church that the promise of sharing in his eternal kingdom is to those who overcome. The promise is to those who persevere to the end and keep themselves ready – in their relationship with the Lord – for His return. Christ gave Himself for His church,
“that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:27).
THE BODY OF CHRIST.
So this truth that the church is the bride of Christ is found throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. We could say that being the bride of Christ emphasises our relationship with Christ.
However, there is another truth. The scriptures also speak of the church as being the body of Christ. We could say this expression emphasises the life and function of the church.
“And has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) .
“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12).
This is another great truth. If we have been born again of God’s Spirit then we share the life of Christ – we are in Christ and he is in us! We are one spirit with Him! (John 14:20; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:17; 13:5). Christ himself is our life! (Philippians 1:21; Galatians 2:20).
“For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” (Colossians 2:9,10).
Through our union with Christ in the Spirit we partake of the fullness that is in him! We are his body.
The word of God teaches us that the body functions and grows by that which every member of the body supplies, and that God gifts each member according to his wisdom and will. This is the teaching of one Corinthians chapter 12. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man for profit.” (1 Cor. 12:7). To what extent this truth in chapter 12 is realised and practised will depend on the local church or denomination you belong to! Many, if not most churches fall short of God’s intended purpose in this matter. In fact, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul reveals that the church makes increase or grows unto the edifying of itself in love when every member of the body is effectually working according to the measure of the grace of God. (Ephesians 4:15,16). The health and growth of the body into the stature of the fullness of Christ is so important that Paul states that all the ministries that God has given to the church are for this purpose, namely, for the increase and growth of the body into the fullness of Christ, who is the head of his body. This is so important that I would like to quote the whole passage here,
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we from now on be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, by which they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body being fitly joined together and knit together by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
[Unfortunately, churches have developed a system where the pastor controls or directs the meeting from the front, and to a great extent – apart from the singing – the believers just sit and listen with little participation. This is a departure from what we read in the New Testament where Paul says, “How is it then, brethren, when you come together? Every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying… If anything be revealed to another that sits by, let the first hold his peace. (1 Corinthians 14:26-30). In the early church many participated in the church meetings (and at other times) according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were given! Read 1 Corinthians 12:4-12 carefully. However, we cannot pursue this subject here!]
When we talk about His body, we are not talking about a formal structure but a company of people, whom the Bible calls ‘living stones, a spiritual house, and a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God’ (1 Peter 2:5), where every part and member is important for the healthy functioning of the whole body, and where the members have the same care for one another (1 Cor.12:25)! We can already see from this that the church of Jesus Christ is not an organisation, it is not an institution! It is a body. It is Christ’s body, where God’s grace and Spirit works through every member for the benefit of the whole body. Christ did not shed his blood for an institution or a denomination or an organisation. Christ died for men and women so that he could baptise them into the one body by the one Spirit. (1 Cor.12:13). And he is the supreme head of his body.
CHRIST, THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH.
“And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” (Colossians 1:18).
“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” (Ephesians 5:23).
And here we have a very clear truth. It is not man’s church. It is the church of God. It is Christ’s church with him as its head. This truth needs to be deeply recognised by every member and by every pastor. The church of Jesus Christ is not a place where men build their own kingdoms, where men rule and manage others as they do in the world.
The church of Jesus Christ is not a business, it is not run like a business.
“But Jesus called them to him, and said unto them, You know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their leaders exercise authority over them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever would be great among you, shall be your servant: And whosoever of you will be the first, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).
This is very different to the world, isn’t it? The church of Jesus Christ is not built by the schemes and cleverness of man. It is not built on the professional organisational and administrative abilities of men! Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18). If we look at the actions of some men today, we could think that they had completely forgotten that Jesus had said this! God uses those that are submitted to him, called by him, gifted by him and who walk in the same spirit of meekness and service as Christ himself did.
The apostle Paul didn’t have a personal ‘vision’ or set up a scheme for planting churches. We find him as a prophet and teacher in the Antioch church where he was fasting and ministering to the Lord with others. He was a man submitted to God, serving God, and then the Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2). There are few men who will live in such a spiritually disciplined way before God. Many get impatient or even frustrated with the ways of God and end up creating their own schemes and plans of how to advance the kingdom of God. Others just want the power and authority that comes with being a so-called leader in the church. But the kingdom of God is not truly advanced by such men, but rather by men who are submitted to God, who serve him and wait on him and who genuinely have a heart to serve the church. It is through such men that Christ builds his church.
Many men seek their own benefit, such as money, position and power. That is why Paul said, “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy shortly unto you, for I have no man like minded, who will genuinely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philippians 2:19-21). What an amazing statement! Many of the preachers or ministers that Paul knew did not truly serve God’s people – they were just seeking their own benefit! Jesus said that the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep, he lays down his life for the sheep. How many pastors have this heart and display this in their lives? Even though many at Corinth didn’t accept Paul as an apostle and criticised his ministry (2 Cor.10:10), nevertheless he didn’t seek to dominate them or control them but was willing to love them more and to pour out his life for them! (2 Cor.12:15). He didn’t come like a village chief, like a boss, commanding people what to do and expecting them to obey him like his servants! He said, “Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am humble among you, but being absent am bold toward you.” (2 Cor. 10:1).
This is a man who served God’s people, who loved God’s people genuinely, who laid down his life for them. He is someone who got close to his brothers and sisters in Christ and they could get close to him! He says, “Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, but we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherishes her children: So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because you were dear unto us.” (1 Thess. 2:6-8)
The church needs servants like this today! Why do many pastors put large impressive chairs to sit on in front of the believers in churches? Do they not know they are creating an image – but it is not an image that reflects the nature of Christ! They are creating an image of self-importance, of being ‘higher’ than others; an image of dominance and control. They are creating an image of someone who is in control, who cannot be questioned – like a village chief or president – and expect immediate obedience to their every command – otherwise he or she will be expelled from the church! They expect believers to act as their servants. Many pastors and leaders are creating a false image of Christ and His church! And many believers accept this false image into their hearts and minds, and submit to this false image of ‘leadership’ as if it is something normal in the church of Jesus Christ. It is not normal! It is alien to the nature of Christ! Yes, it is right that we should show respect to one another. However, it is sad and contrary to the nature of the church of Christ that God’s children should live in fear of the pastor as if he were the village chief or witchdoctor! Something is very wrong here!
Christ is the head of His church and we are all to submit to Him and to serve Him by serving one another.
Did the apostles establish a denomination? Did they set up a denominational structure? No, they didn’t. There was no formal structure. The apostles and others preached Jesus Christ and many were converted through their ministry. The churches that were established through the apostolic ministry quite naturally wanted to continue under the care and teaching of the apostles. This would be particularly true since it was the first time that salvation through Christ had ever been preached in the world and the apostles represented the source of this teaching. It was also natural that the apostles and those that worked with them wanted to continue to care for these churches and provide them with teaching and caring oversight. However, no formal structure or organisation was established. The apostles followed the instruction given to them by Jesus Christ. Let us look at the verses again since they are of fundamental importance,
““But Jesus called them to him, and said unto them, You know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their leaders exercise authority over them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever would be great among you, shall be your servant: And whosoever of you will be the first, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).
Even though they were apostles nevertheless their ministry was to care for and serve the churches, not to control the churches or have dominion over them. We see this as we read through the Acts of the Apostles. It was through the apostle Paul that the Corinthian church was established – they had come to Christ through his preaching. He says that he had begotten them through the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15). However, in dealing with the problems that they had, he declares to them that he does not have dominion over their faith, “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith you stand.” (2 Corinthians 1:24). This is a remarkable statement. We see this attitude throughout the letters of the apostle Paul. In the Corinthian church there were many who didn’t recognise Paul’s apostolic ministry, and even though he had founded this church he did not force himself upon them in the name of his apostolic ministry, he did not seek to control the church by chasing away those who didn’t recognise him, he didn’t try to establish himself as their leader and ruler, he did none of these things. Yes, he taught them, corrected them and even rebuked them when necessary, but he did this with a servant heart and he was willing to serve them and love them to the end! This itself is a big subject, and it is not always easy to find a healthy balance between ‘pastoral care’ and ‘pastoral control and domination’. Unfortunately, the tendency is mostly towards control and domination. Let us give the last word to the apostle Peter, who puts it very well, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3).
THE GLORY OF THE LORD
It is written that God has chosen the ‘weak’ and ‘base’ things of this world so that “no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Corinthians 1:29). And this is how it is to be in the church. It is not a place for man to exalt himself, to glory in, or show off his abilities. For God has said, “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another.” (Isaiah 42:8). In Revelation chapter one, John sees the Son of God standing in the midst of the seven golden lampstands! The lampstands represent the churches, and Christ is the focal point and glory of His Church!
We have noticed that the churches are represented by lampstands, and what is the purpose of a lampstand? It is to hold up the light for others to see. The purpose of the lampstand is not decoration, the lampstand is not there to show off itself, to show how wonderful it is; it is to hold up and give light, and that light is Christ! He is the glory of His Church. So, whether it is preaching or singing or anything else in church, we are to do everything to the glory of God. This means that we should do everything in a way that reflects God’s nature. As I said above, pastors having large expensive chairs at the front of the church does not represent Christ!
Some men when they come up front and begin to preach change their voice and become more ‘formal’. Why do they do this? It is not necessary. It can sound fake. Others think that shouting loudly or even jumping around represents the power of God on them. It does not. Although we may raise our voice in preaching at times, the idea that you have to shout loudly or jump around in order to show that you are ‘under the anointing’, is completely wrong. Many men shout because they lack the presence of the Spirit. We are to speak according to the ability that God gives. There is a wonderful verse in Acts that says, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ordinary men, they marveled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).
What the church needs is not primarily men with degrees or PH.D.’s, or who have been to Bible college. The church needs men who spend time with Christ, waiting on Him, learning from Him, reading His word, praying to Him – not someone who is always busy acting like the manager of a company, or giving most of his time just preparing notes for his sermon for Sunday. The church needs pastors and preachers who they can recognise as men who have been with Jesus, who speak to them the word of God which they have got by waiting on Him and being taught by Him through His word! Peter and John were unlearned and ordinary men! What a wonderful thing this is! We need men who are willing to go through spiritual disciplines in their life so that they are men who know God! Education is of little or no value compared to this. Peter was not interested in administration! He said, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). It is sad and wrong for us to think that a man is better able to preach the word just because he has a very good education! Education is not wrong but it can never be a substitute for going through the spiritual disciplines of life which lead a man to know God.
The apostle Peter puts it very clearly, “If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man ministers, let him do it as of the ability which God gives: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:11).
In all things we are to glorify Christ. Another area where many ‘glory in the flesh’ these days is in singing. People come out to the front of the church to sing. They say they do it for the ‘glory of the Lord.’ In many cases this isn’t true at all. They do it because it pleases them to sing in front of people. They sing as the world sings. They ‘perform’ in front of the church just like it is done in the world. They want to show off their singing ability and impress people. How can we believe, how can we trick ourselves into thinking this is being done to the Glory of God? Yes, I have heard people at the front of the church and they sing because they love the Lord and it is an act of worship and blesses the believers. But what is common today is that pastors are allowing young people to use the church to promote themselves and their singing. It is one of the worst examples of ‘glorying in the flesh’ that we have in Tanzania today. And it is the pastors and leaders, not the young people, who bear the responsibility for this! Pastors and leaders are failing to give true spiritual leadership these days. Why? Because they don’t want to be unpopular.
Things are even worse now because pastors are allowing young people to sing and dance in the meetings. They come forward in a large group and dance very vigorously in front of the church. These believers spend a lot of time practising their dance moves. Do they spend as much time together praying that the Lord will bring His word and bless people in the meetings? You know the answer to that question if you live in Tanzania. They say they are doing this for the glory of God! This is clearly not true in all the cases that I have seen. It is another clear example of what it means to ‘glory in the flesh’. They dance because they are happy to copy the world and perform in front of the church. It gives them great pleasure to do so! It is clearly wrong to think that they are doing it for the benefit of the church! They dance for up to 20 minutes till the sweat runs down their bodies and then they sit down exhausted! This is church? Does this glorify Christ and present Him to believers? And what are the people who look at them thinking? Does it make them think of the holiness of the Lord?! Does it lead them to love Christ more? Does it edify the church? Of course it doesn’t. But pastors and leaders have not got the courage to direct their young people according to the word of God in a way that will cause them to grow in Christ as solid Christians. Instead they are allowing these things more and more – and then they wonder why sexual sin is becoming such a problem among the young people in the churches!
It is the same problem with the music and amplifiers! Young people are allowed to dominate the singing and worship with such loud music that you cannot hear your own voice. But of course the young people love the opportunity to be able to copy the world and perform like this in church! I was in a church in Dar where the pastor asked the person who controlled the volume of the music to turn it down. He asked him twice but he didn’t do it so the pastor had to go there for the third time and turn down the music himself! Yes, I love the young people. In fact, it is because I love them that it grieves me so much that pastors are ruining them spiritually.
I said that the church is not a business. Another sin that is widespread is forcing and pressurising people to give tithes and offerings at church, and threatening them with curses or expulsion if they don’t do it as the pastor commands. This certainly does not glorify the name of the Lord nor does it represent his Church! Generally speaking, it is no one’s business how much you give every week in the general offering! It is between you and God. The church has no right to ask you what your salary is, nor does it have a right to know how much you give.
It is Jesus Christ who stands in the midst of the churches, whose eyes are as a flame of fire looking right into the true motivation and condition of our hearts and seeing every hidden thing, and who proves the true value of what he sees! And he does not always evaluate things as we do! He tells one church that unless they repent, he will take away their lampstand, which means they will no longer be his church! (Rev.2:5). Another church which thought they were ‘rich’, He calls them wretched and poor and he is ready to spew them out of his mouth (Rev.3:15-17). And it is so today. ‘Believers’ can meet together in a building and call themselves a Christian church but Christ does not recognise them as his church! They do not shine with His glory. They have substituted the glory of God, which is the nature of God, with something that is of man!
Can you see the picture? When we come together our focus is to be on Christ. He is to be magnified and glorified in our midst. There is to be no envy or competition. We don’t come for our own enjoyment! We come to give Him praise and worship and to let Him speak to our hearts! Everything we do we should do for His glory alone, not for ours! Everything that is said and done is to please Him, not us. It is Christ who is to be manifested and ‘seen’ in our midst – His grace working through every member. It is not a place where we seek to demonstrate our ‘abilities’ in playing instruments, singing, (dancing) or preaching! The attention of the Lord’s people should be directed to Christ Himself. We should have worshipful hearts that bow before Him, not wanting to rob Him of his glory by getting people to admire us and what we do! Our reverence for Jesus Christ and the Father should fill our hearts, and Christ should so be adored by us that no flesh glories in His Presence! He stands in the midst of His church! Do we really want His presence and His glory? If so, it means the death to all self-promotion!
The apostle John saw a Lamb, as though it had been slain, in the midst of the throne of God! (Rev.5:6).
Do we want the Jesus Christ to be in our midst? Are we making room for Him in our hearts and lives? He stands as a Lamb that had been slain, as He who does not seek His own will but lays down His life for the Church – and we are to do the same! He who loves his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life shall save it! If you love to have position and to be seen of others in what you do, you will lose your life, you are not serving the Lord but yourself. If churches today are to be counted as His church, then many churches will have to make radical changes – which will undoubtedly include repentance.
A SPIRITUAL CHURCH: The ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ church?
There is, of course, a spiritual dimension to the church. We have already quoted Ephesians where it says that the church is the habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph.2:22). It is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that has set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). According to Ephesians chapter 2, we are risen with Christ and seated together with him in the heavenly places. And because of these things, we are to be a spiritual people in our daily living (1 Corinthians 3:1). The apostle Peter declares, “You also, as living stones, are built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5). I have also quoted other verses that refer to the spiritual nature of the church and its members earlier in this article. There are many more, but these are sufficient for the purpose of this study.
However, just because the church has a spiritual dimension, this doesn’t mean that the church is invisible. Nowhere in the new Testament is the church (on earth) described as being invisible. The expression ‘the invisible church’ does not exist in the Bible. Nor does the expression ‘the visible church’ exist in the Bible. The word of God does not make this distinction anywhere. So where did these expressions come from? This teaching was created much later, after New Testament times, when churches became much more formal and developed into various denominations. Men introduced this teaching because it was clear to see that in many churches and in the different denominations there were those who were Christians in name only, or they were false Christians seeking their own benefit for one reason or another. Also, these denominations and their leaders did not always behave in a Christ-like manner, in fact, some of them, quite the opposite! So for these theologians, it was a problem to speak of ‘the church’ as representing all who call themselves Christians, because they knew that in many churches there were those who were not converted and therefore were not really part of Christ’s body at all, and moreover, many Christians didn’t always behave as they should. So when talking about the ‘church’ they didn’t want people to think that everyone who went to church was a true Christian or that the bad or sinful conduct of some so-called Christians represented Christ. As a result, they invented the terms ‘the visible church’ and ‘the invisible church’. The ‘visible church’ is meant to refer to the churches and the denominations that we see all around us. The ‘invisible church’ is meant to refer only to those who are truly converted throughout the world in the many different churches. And because you can’t physically ‘see’ these believers as one group together, the term ‘invisible church’ was created. So this language can serve a purpose in trying to explain something, but we must remember that the word of God does not make this distinction between a ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church.
Now, I think most of us will easily recognise that there are many who go to a church but are not truly converted and that they are Christians in the name only, and that many Christians don’t always behave as they should. However, if you are a true believer and there are false Christians in your church, this does not make you invisible, dear friend! Just because there are those who are not true Christians in churches this does not make the true Christians invisible! The Bible has no such teaching. One reason for this is that God does not ‘recognise’ denominations; He recognises His people as His people wherever they are. There is just one Church, one Bride, one Body (Ephesians 4:4). Although it has a spiritual dimension, Christ’s true church is nevertheless very visible on earth – and it is meant to be so!
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14).
“That you may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” (Philippians 2:15).
“Having your conduct honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12).
These verses will suffice to make the point, although many others could also be quoted. Were there false Christians in the new Testament? Yes there were! “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” (1 John 2:19. Also, 2 Peter 2:1). In New Testament times were their Christians who behaved badly and sinned? Yes there were! Just read the first letter to the Corinthians!
So we see that in the new Testament there was the same problem, but in their teachings the apostles did not create the idea of there being two churches – one visible and one invisible – to explain this, and neither should we. We should not do this for the simple reason that the word of God does not make this distinction. Secondly, we do not need this language to explain that which is clear to most of us, if not all of us.
The other argument for creating the language of an invisible and visible church, they say, is that it is impossible in every case to discern who is a true Christian and who isn’t. If this is true, this is no reason to call all the true Christians ‘invisible’! Moreover, Jesus Christ foreknew what kind of problems there would be and he told us to use our judgement and discernment – Matthew 7:15-19. Also, in John’s first letter, where he warns the Christians about false teachers and false believers, he tells them to test the spirits to see whether they are of God or not. John also gives them other teachings to help them distinguish between a true believer and a false believer. So again we see that although the same kind of problems existed in the early church, the apostles did not create this language of a visible and invisible church to explain these problems. Instead, they fed the believers with good teaching and solid advice to help them to distinguish who is a true follower of Jesus Christ and who is not, in order that they should know how to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God! (1 Timothy 3:15).
God does not have two churches on earth – a visible church and an invisible church. He does not say, ‘I have one church which has a mixture of true Christians and false Christians and another church of just true Christians’! When Christ returns he will return for he is one church. He did not die and rise again for a denomination, an organisation or an institution! When he returns he will take his redeemed people to him, not an institution nor a denomination.
If I am born again of God’s spirit and in fellowship with the Father and the Son, then I can have fellowship with any other true believer in the world irrespective of what denomination they belong to! And I have found this to be true.
So although we can see that this language is an attempt to clarify things that are clearly true, it is unnecessary language because these things were clearly true in the early church where they didn’t create this language. And since the word of God does not use this language neither should we, lest in our attempt to clarify things we actually cloud over what the word of God actually teaches! What I mean is this, there is much in the denominations that has nothing to do with God’s design or God’s will for his church. We can give a false validity to these structures of man by including them under the umbrella of the term ‘the visible church’. In so far as it is within our power to do so, it is far better that we recognise what is wrong with our structure, what is not according to the pattern as we read it in the word of God, and to humble ourselves and to follow God’s pattern as we have it in the new Testament.
THE ‘HOUSE OF GOD’ AND THE ‘ALTAR’?
“But if I tarry long, that you may know how you ought to behave yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Let me just go into a bit more detail about something that some people are confused about. We are now in the New Covenant. All the outward things of the Mosaic Law were given in order to teach us about Christ, about what his death, sacrifice and resurrection would accomplish. Now that Christ has died and is risen again, there is no need for the outward symbols of spiritual realities to continue; in fact the outward symbols are now done away with because what they symbolised has been fulfilled with the coming of Christ! This is what the book of Hebrews so clearly teaches us – Hebr.7:11,12,19,22; 8:3-8; 9:11,24; 10:1. There is no more tabernacle! We, the saints, are the habitation, the building, the temple in which God resides by His Spirit! “Now therefore ye are… fellowcitizens with the saints, And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together grows unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
So, if anyone says that the building, or room where Christians meet on a Sunday is the ‘house of God’, or ‘Welcome to the house of God,’ they are misrepresenting the great truths of the New Covenant. It is wrong, and they are teaching believers wrongly – they are making them think that these powerful spiritual realities are just outward things like brick and mortar! WE are the church. WE are the temple of God by the Spirit! Where God’s people meet, that is where the church is – even if it is under a tree! In the New Testament, many ‘churches’ met in houses! (Romans 16:5, 1 Cor.16:9, Col.4:15, Philemon 2.). The ‘house of God’ is the church, and the church are God’s people (1 Tim.3:15). The meaning of the word ‘church’ has become unclear because of translations. In the original Greek, the language Paul wrote in, the word is ‘ekklesia’. This means ‘those who are called out’. It is used for a group of people who meet together for a special purpose, normally a religious purpose. The important thing for us to realise here is that the word refers to people, not to a building where they meet!
There is no longer a priest or priesthood between us and God – because WE have been made a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5,9) and Jesus is our great High Priest (Waebr.4:14), and He alone is the mediator between us and God (1Tim.2:5). On earth, we, the church, are God’s temple; by Christ we have access into the presence of God, into the ‘holy of holies’ in heaven (Hebr.4:16; 10:19)!
(In the Old Testament the priests wore special clothes that related to their work as priests. These clothes were also a symbol of their consecration to God and to their work as priests – they wore ‘holy’ garments. In the New Testament we have been sanctified not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of Jesus and have been all made into a holy priesthood. Therefore, in the New Testament, we don’t read of a pastor or an apostle wearing any special clothes to distinguish him from other believers – and neither should this be a custom among us! Wearing such clothes destroys or confuses that which is at the very heart of Christ’s work on Calvary, where by his blood he has sanctified us all and has brought us all into the presence of God without the need of any other mediator or priest. To honour what Jesus Christ has done and to uphold the truth of what he did on the cross, no one should wear a special robe or special collar, as if this was God’s will or God’s choice for his church!)
For anyone to say that a building is ‘the house of God’ is quite wrong. For anyone to say that there is still an altar on earth which Christians must come to is a complete deception! To say that there is some kind of physical altar where Christians meet together is a denial of the New Covenant. In Matthew 5:23,24 Jesus is speaking about bringing their gifts to the altar – but he was speaking to the Jews who still lived under the Law! Just as Jesus told the man whom he healed of leprosy to go and offer a gift of two birds to the priests, so Jesus is speaking to the Jews in Matthew 5 in terms of the system they understood and under which they still lived! And just as a person who is healed of leprosy today doesn’t have to go to Jerusalem to find a Jewish priest to offer two birds for his healing, so today there is no physical alter to which we come! To teach people this is to deceive them and rob them of a true knowledge of God! Yes, there were Jews who were still offering at an altar under the Mosaic Law. The writer says that they who serve at such alters have no right to eat of the altar that believers take part of!
“We have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” (Hebrews 13:10-15).
Basically, the writer is saying here that believers have nothing to do with the outward physical objects nor the ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. Paul says that we are to go ‘outside the camp’, which means we have nothing to do with the altar and temple of the Jewish law where sacrifices were made! Jesus has taken us away from such things by his death and we are to follow Him ‘outside the camp’. What does ‘outside the camp’ mean? Well, in the next verse he explains: “…here we have ‘no continuing city but we seek one that is to come.’ The place we are brought to is not some earthly altar but the spiritual reality of heaven, that’s why Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). We have been born from above, that is why Paul declares that Jerusalem which is above, is the mother of us all! (Gal.4:26). God has raised us up with His Son Jesus Christ that we should ‘sit in heavenly places’. It is there that God has blessed us with all spiritual blessings. (Eph. 1:3; 2:6).
God, by baptising us in His Holy Spirit, has made us a spiritual people (John.4:24; 1 Cor.2:15; Gal.6:1). God is making us into ‘a spiritual house…to offer spiritual sacrifices’ (1 Peter 2:5). We are God’s temple, God’s dwelling place (Eph. 2:22) and we have access into His presence at any time (Hebr.10:19). We do not use religious statues or pictures to help us pray or to help us consider spiritual things. This is idolatry! There is no temple of building made of bricks that we can call the ‘house of God’. This is a false and superstitious idea! Likewise, there is no physical altar, or table of showbread, or altar of incense, or any such thing! To create such things is to misunderstand the Gospel and the New Covenant, it is to create a false religion that takes us back into the Old Covenant, which is what Paul warns us so strongly against in his letter to the Galatians!
But let us return to that verse in Hebrews 13, where the writer says, “We have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle.” Here the writer is saying that we have an altar which they who follow the Mosaic Law have no right to eat at! The writer talks about the altar as a place where we eat, and this is absolutely true! Yes, animals were sacrificed at the altar, but the priests ate a portion of those sacrifices – they were ‘partakers of the altar’! That is what the writer is talking about here. This truth is also mentioned in 1 Cor.9:13. So tell me, what altar do you eat at? And what do you eat? The answer is clear. Jesus Christ was offered for our sins, and we partake of Him, we eat of Him – as Jesus said in John chapter 6, “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whosoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56). Now, many of the disciples couldn’t understand these words of Jesus. They found the meaning so difficult that they actually turned away from following Christ!
We know that Jesus wasn’t speaking about physical flesh and blood, because flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. I believe these words of Jesus refer to our spiritual communion with Him. He died that we might share in His Life! This is made very clear by various writers in the New Testament: “we are made partakers of Christ… Christ who is our life…he that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit…that you might be partakers of the divine nature.” (Hebr.3:14; Col.3:4;1 Cor.6:17; 2 Peter 1:4). This spiritual life of having Christ within us (Col.1:27) is maintained by our communion with the Lord. Speaking of the bread and the cup that we drink of, Paul says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor.10:16). The blood and body of Jesus speak of His Life, they represent His Life. Do not try and visualise drinking blood – that is not meant here! What is meant here is partaking of His Life, of who He is. This fellowship with Jesus must be something that happens daily in our lives.
Just as we need food and drink to survive physically, so we need to spend time fellowshipping with Jesus Christ, in prayer, in worship, in love, in communion with Him, in order to ‘survive’ spiritually, in order that our lives are strengthened spiritually. Listen to what John says, “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7). You see, it is only as we fellowship with Christ that we are able to walk in the light – and in this fellowship the blood of Jesus is effectual in keeping us clean from all sin! Partaking of the bread and the cup is a representation of this spiritual fellowship that we should be partaking of constantly in our lives. John says in th same chapter, “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son”, and Paul declares the same truth in 1 Cor.1:9: “God is faithful, by who you were called into fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” It is in this fellowship that we are changed and renewed in the spirit of our minds, as Paul says, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor. 3:18). We are changed into the same image as we fellowship and ‘behold the Lord’. This means we are to consider Christ, look to Christ, to love Christ and to let ourselves be transformed as we give ourselves to Him in faith, obedience and love. And which image are we changed into? We are changed into the image of the Lord!
Do you know something of this communion in your life?
So this altar that he speaks about in Hebrews 13 is the place where we give ourselves to Christ, where we fellowship with Him and partake of Him. This is the place where He communes with us and transforms us spiritually. This is the place where we offer the sacrifice of praise! Our lives are given to God in thankfulness, devotion and dedication. God gives us a wonderful explanation or illustration of this in Exodus chapter 29. God commanded that every day, morning and evening, a lamb should be offered as a burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice.
“Now this is that which you shall offer upon the altar; two lambs of the first year, day by day continually. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning; and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening…for a sweet aroma, an offering made by fire unto the Lord. This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD: where I will meet you, to speak there unto you. And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory.” Exodus 29:38-43.
This is not a sin offering here but a whole burnt offering. Burnt offerings were to be offered by free choice of the worshipper (Leviticus 1:3) and they were to be a sweet aroma unto the Lord, representing the full dedication of the worshipper to God. Notice what God says! This is the place where God will meet with us! He meets with His people at the place where they willingly offer their lives without conditions and without reservations. But let us also remember that the lamb is representative of Jesus Christ. In other words, God is expecting to ‘smell’ the ‘aroma’ of the life of His Son from our offered lives! As we have seen, this is a place of offering and a place of fellowship with God, where our lives become as His life here on earth – and this is well-pleasing unto God.
Paul refers us to this wonderful truth in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, “Now thanks be unto God, who always causes us to triumph in Christ, and makes manifest the fragrance of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet fragrance of Christ, among them that are saved, and among them that perish…and who is sufficient for these things?”
Do you see how wonderfully the scriptures fit together? Without doubt Paul was thinking of Exodus 29 when he was writing 2 Cor.2! And can you see how wonderfully Romans 12 fits in here,
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:1-2).
Here is the truth. There is no physical altar. There is no physical place where we need to go to in order to approach an altar. There is no human priest whom we need to go to.
We are to offer our lives a living sacrifice to God (continually) so that we might know Him, and know His will, and be transformed into the likeness of Christ, so that we can be an aroma of Christ in this world. This is your altar – it is the place where you offer yourself to God, where you fellowship with God, where God fellowships with you, where in times of trial and difficulty you choose not to give in to the devil, choose not to give in to the flesh, choose not to follow your own way and your own preference, but you choose willingly to offer yourself completely to God to direct and lead you and to fill you with Himself!
A final word. Now if anyone says to you that you must bring all your offerings (of money) to the place where you meet on Sunday because that is where the Lord’s altar is, then they are teaching error. There is no altar of any kind in any building of the Lord’s church on earth! Such a thing is not taught or mentioned in the New Testament. In fact, such a teaching destroys the teaching of the New Testament as we have seen from the verses above. Also, such a teaching turns church into a business. Although it would be normal for most of your offering to be given to, or through the hands of the church, there is no teaching in the New Testament that ALL the money that you want to offer has to be given to the church.
If someone quotes Deuteronomy 12:4-8 or Malachi 3:10, and claims that this means you must bring all you offerings to the place that God has chosen or to his altar, then according to these passages, let him go and take his offering to Jerusalem because that is the place that God had chosen (Nehemiah 10:38) – but he will not find an altar there! Nor will he find an altar that is chosen by God in any village or city in any country on earth!
© David Stamen 2016