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GOD'S GLORIOUS CHURCHThe Mystery and Mission of the Body of Christ
By Tony Evans
MOODY PUBLISHERSCopyright © 2003 ANTHONY T. EVANS
All right reserved.
All of us are familiar with the story of Humpty Dumpty, the figure from the children's nursery rhyme whose world was shattered after he had a great fall. He called on the best his world had to offer to address his problem-"all the king's horses and all the king's men." We would say today that Humpty had the White House, the Congress, the military, and any other human power or authority you can think of coming to his aid in his brokenness.
But the tragedy of the story is that none of these human powers could put Humpty Dumpty's life and world back together again. Apparently Mr. Dumpty had no biblically functioning church available to help him, because if he had he would not have had to call on the king in the first place.
Now it's one thing when a nursery rhyme character cannot find the help he needs to repair his shattered world, even when his problem is being attended to by the highest authorities the culture has to offer. But it's another thing altogether when real people in the real world discover that all the king's horses and all the king's men-human institutions of power and influence-can't fix society's deepest problems and address people's deepest needs.
This is where the church comes in, because the church is the most important institution on earth. The church, and only the church, has been commissioned by the sovereign Lord to be His representative agency in history. It has been given sole authority to unlock the treasures of the spiritual realm so that they can be brought to bear on the realities of earth.
Thus, as the church goes so goes everything else. God designed the church to be the epicenter of culture, and the church's strength or weakness is a major determining factor in the success or failure of human civilization. When the church is strong, the culture is impacted positively-even if the "powers that be" in a particular place don't realize that impact and seek to marginalize and persecute the church. But when the church is weak, its influence deteriorates and so does the culture.
One example of the church's impact, both positively and negatively, is the institution of slavery in America. Many segments of American culture condoned and sanctioned slavery, even though it served as the catalyst for a civil war that cost thousands of lives and helped produce ongoing cultural upheaval. And Christendom at large helped provide justification for slavery, even leading some to find a basis for slavery in Scripture. But, in the end, it was the strength of the true church bringing its influence to bear that helped lead to the collapse of slavery.
It is important to understand the church's importance for cultural reasons, since Jesus called His people to be salt and light, a city on a hill. But understanding the church's nature and mission is even more important for spiritual reasons. That's because the church has been given the assignment of growing all of its members into mature believers who can disciple others and maximize their spiritual potential.
When the church is strong, its members recognize their eternal purpose and the church moves forward. But when the church is weak, its members tend to wander around in confusion on their spiritual pilgrimage. My purpose and prayer for this book is that it will contribute to our understanding of the church, so that instead of being Humpty Dumptys lying in ruins with no one to help us, we will become dynamic followers of Jesus Christ and contributing members of His church.
Talking about the church may bring certain verses from the Bible to your mind. But I want to begin our discussion of the church in what seems like an unusual place-not in the words of Jesus or the writings of Paul, but in an obscure Old Testament passage in which we find a God-sized problem that will help us answer the question of why the church is so important in God's plan today.
Before we go to this passage, let me give you a foundational principle for this chapter and this book, which is simply this: Everything that is physical and visible-the world and life around us-is controlled by things that are invisible and spiritual. This has always been the case, in fact. We need to get this order straight because the only real way to fix what is wrong in the visible and physical realm is to make sure that the invisible and spiritual realm is working right. Until the invisible is operating properly, the visible cannot be addressed in any lasting and effective way. This is why society can go on for years and even centuries without seeing very basic and destructive problems being solved, no matter how much clout and money we throw at those issues.
A Time of Great Chaos
Keeping this principle in mind, I want to deal with our passage, 2 Chronicles 15:3-6, where the writer looks back to an earlier period in Israel's history. The prophet Azariah was urging King Asa of Judah to continue the reforms he had begun. To reinforce his message, Azariah reminded Asa of the sad condition God's people were in during an earlier age, which many Bible commentators believe was the period of the judges. If so, Azariah was speaking of Israel's low point spiritually when he said, "For many days Israel was without the true God and without a teaching priest and without law" (v. 3).
Verse 4 refers to those times when Israel sought God during that period, but in verses 5-6 the prophet summarized those days of chaos and God's judgment: "In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for many disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. Nation was crushed by nation, and city by city, for God troubled them with every kind of distress."
Several things from these verses are worth noting. For instance, the description of a society in the grip of violence, crime, and conflict between nations sounds like our world today, so we know there's a lesson for us here. Like the world of ancient Israel, our culture is also in chaos and confusion.
But what ought to grab your attention is the statement in verse 6 that this all came about because "God troubled" the people. We might have expected Azariah to say that this mess was the result of satanic activity and influence in the world. According to the prophet, however, God was the author of this confusion among the people, although He was not in any way the author of their sin that provoked His judgment.
In other words, these problems that were tearing apart the fabric of society had a spiritual cause. So to address the lack of peace on a social level, try to deal with violence and crime through more law enforcement, or settle conflicts between governments at the bargaining table would not be sufficient because the people's problem was with God. And when God is your problem, God alone is your solution.
What was it about this period of Israel's history that caused God to "trouble" His people with distress at so many levels? The root of the problem is found in 2 Chronicles 15:3. Three key elements that are necessary to keep God's people on track spiritually were missing.
A Lack of True Knowledge
The first of these elements was the lack of "the true God." This does not say that God had withdrawn Himself from Israel so that the people forgot who He was or could no longer find Him. Even in the days of the judges, there was religious service going on in Israel. People were offering sacrifices to God. But it was not the kind of authentic religion that pleased God or produced the right kind of response from Him.
We could say that the Israelites had forgotten the kind of holy God they were serving, so they thought nothing of going off into idolatry or mixing with pagans or violating His law in a dozen other ways. Israel was living as if it couldn't tell the one true God from the many false gods around it. Spiritual activity was going on, but it wasn't true to God's requirements.
A Lack of Biblical Teaching
What could have caused God's people to get all confused about the nature of God and start mixing the true with the false? In the case before us, the second phrase of 2 Chronicles 15:3 gives us a large clue. In those days, "Israel was ... without a teaching priest." We would say today that the nation had a very serious pastoral problem -a mist in the pulpit that became a fog in the pew, as we'll see later.
Notice that the text does not say that Israel had no priests. The problem was that the priests were not carrying out their function of teaching God's law so the people would know the true God and what He expected of them. The priests were doing an inadequate job of providing a divine viewpoint through which the people could interpret all of life and make God-honoring decisions.
Now don't misunderstand. People are responsible for their own relationship to God and their obedience to His revealed will, especially in a day like today when we each have a copy of God's Word and the ability to read it. But I'm talking about a systemic spiritual failure at the heart of Israel's spiritual leadership that kept the people uninformed and ill-informed about their responsibility before God and the consequences of failing to meet it.
A Lack of Correct Application
The third problem mentioned in 2 Chronicles 15:3 follows as a natural consequence of the first two. Because the people didn't know their God intimately and were not hearing His Word taught, they were "without law." That is, they didn't know how to apply God's law to the situations they faced. The divine rules weren't being applied, so people made up their own.
The last phrase of the last verse of the book of Judges illustrates this problem perfectly: "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Everybody had an idea of what to do, but nothing worked because God's government of His people was not being upheld and enforced.
We hear a lot today about the separation of church and state. They ought to be separate because they are two distinct institutions with two distinct jurisdictions. But what cannot be separated is God and His role in society, because people will always live by some governing principle, whether good or bad.
The people of Israel didn't know how to bring God's truth to bear on their world, and the practical result was that they lived as if no divine framework existed at all.
Look at our nation today. How can we have all of these churches on every corner with all of these preachers and programs and facilities, and yet still have such moral and spiritual chaos in our culture? It's because we, as God's people, aren't bringing His Word and His power to bear on the world around us, so people are living as if God doesn't exist. But that's another issue, and we'll come back to it later.
A GOD-ORDAINED SOLUTION
Since the basic realities of spiritual conflict and the superior power of the spiritual world haven't changed since the days of the judges in ancient Israel, we see the same principle of the visible world being controlled by the invisible world at work today. Paul gave us one of the clearest statements of this reality in Ephesians 6:12 when he said, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."
This is also a great statement of why the church is central to God's plan. God has always had a vehicle or an agency on earth to make His presence manifest, carry out His will, and bring what is invisible and spiritual down to the world of the visible and the physical.
Israel's system of the law, the sacrifices, and the priesthood was God's agency to accomplish His program on earth in the Old Testament. Today that agency is the church and only the church. Now that doesn't mean God cannot reveal Himself to someone apart from the visible presence of a church. But the Bible is clear that the church is the entity that brings the realm of heaven into history and brings the values of heaven to bear on earth. To put it another way, the church is the answer to Jesus' prayer, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).
Jesus' Promise of the Church
We can make this statement because Jesus Himself revealed His future plan in a crucial discussion with His disciples that took place early in His ministry. The first time the Bible mentions a subject is very significant, and the first time the church is mentioned is on the lips of Jesus in His time with the disciples (Matthew 16:13-19) as He prophesied the church's coming. The Greek word Jesus used here is ekklesia, which means "called out ones." It was also used of an assembly, so the idea is that the church is a special assembly of people called out from the world to become part of God's family This definition is critical for our understanding of the church as people instead of just an institution or a collection of buildings.
My purpose in looking at these familiar verses in Matthew 16 is to focus on Jesus' teaching concerning the church and the authority He gave the church to carry out His plan. Jesus had taken the disciples and traveled north for a time of retreat to get away from the crowds. It was while they were alone that Jesus raised the all-important question, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (v. 13). Then He asked, more specifically, "But who do you say that I am?" (v. 15, italics added).
Before we get into this text, I want to point out that both of Jesus' questions (vv. 13 and 15) were directed to the Twelve as a group. It's not obvious in the English text, but the word you in verse 15 is plural in the Greek. This fact is important for what Jesus was about to say concerning the church.
The disciples offered several names in answer to the question of what the people at large were saying about Jesus (v. 14). His ministry did have features in common with John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah, so the people weren't completely off-base. But the important thing was who Jesus' disciples believed Him to be. So Peter stepped forward as the leader and spokesman and declared, "You are the Chrisr, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). The clear implication is that the other eleven disciples agreed with him. Peter was saying, "Lord, we've just been discussing this and have come to the conclusion that You are Israel's promised Messiah and Savior."
Excerpted from GOD'S GLORIOUS CHURCH by Tony Evans Copyright © 2003 by ANTHONY T. EVANS
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.