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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHURCHIN 12 LESSONS
By MAX ANDERS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1997 Max Anders
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is the Church?
I was born in the little village of Inwood, Indiana. It is about a half hour south of the golden dome of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, but you'll be lucky if you find it on a map. There were only about thirty homes, sheltering perhaps one hundred people, with a gas station, a small grocery store, a post office, a grain elevator, an elementary school, and one church. We lived just a block from the church, which was a large, stone-block building with stained-glass windows, solid mahogany pews and altar, and many friendly people, all of whom lived within walking distance or a short drive from the church. Sunday school began at 9:00 A.M., and at 8:55 A.M. a bell in the steeple began ringing, calling all the townspeople. Our family emerged from our house like little ducks headed toward the pond, and a few minutes later, we were in our place in church.
My earliest memories of church were warm and comforting. My family was there—not just immediate family, but aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother. I remember all these and other people singing songs that everyone knew by heart, and before long, even I knew some of them. Occasionally the hymns would have an echo as part of the song. Sopranos, tenors, and basses would sing the stanza, and then the melody line would be echoed by the altos. Most of the altos were timid souls, but not my grandmother. Annabell Anders, matriarch of the Inwood Methodist Church, belted out the echo as though the songwriter had written it especially for her. Years later, after she had died, I was in the church again, and another alto sang the echo. I was offended! Who was this interloper singing my grandmother's part?
I attended church every Sunday until I was tall enough to look my mother in the eye. My three older sisters had left home by then, and my two older brothers had quit going, so I did, too. I didn't know why I quit. I was just going along with what everyone else seemed to be doing. Plus, my increasingly late Saturday nights made early Sunday mornings more and more difficult.
I became a Christian in college, then went away to seminary, got married, and entered the ministry. I have only been back a few times since then, but my memories of the big stone church are good ones.
Today, the church looks largely unchanged. They built it well. The stone blocks haven't aged. The stained-glass windows are as colorful as ever. The wooden pews are as beautiful and uncomfortable as ever. And friendly folk who have known each other for a lifetime still find their way into the pews each Sunday.
From my earliest days, if you were to ask me what the church is, a large, gray stone-block building would flash into my mind. That image would be followed by memories of red and blue light from the stained-glass windows falling across the hardwood floors, giving a soft glow to the interior. The rich wood tones of the pews, pulpit, and altar rail finish the timeless look of it all. That was the church, in my mind.
It came as a bit of a surprise to me when I learned many years later that, biblically speaking, that was not the church. The church was not a building. The church was people. We don't go to church. We are the church. In fact, there are Christian groups who don't call their building a church. They call the building a "meeting house." They call the people the church. In the truest sense, they are right.
It is difficult to get an accurate concept of and appreciation for the church. It is like many things in life. It is greater than it initially seems. I remember when I saw the Washington Monument for the first time. I took it for granted. It is a tall, thin, white stone pillar sticking way up above the rest of the city, the height of a fifty-story building. Building that memorial so that it wouldn't fall over in a stiff wind was a stunning achievement. If you have ever tried to stack children's blocks and had them fall over, you can imagine how difficult it would be to build the Washington Monument. Had I built it, it would be lying on its side now.
Or, in another example, take Mount Rushmore. Each of the presidential faces on that staggering monument is the size of a six-story building. Yet they really look like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. If you have ever had any trouble getting a sand castle to look the way you wanted, imagine the difficulty of blasting a granite mountain with dynamite and having it turn out to look like real people!
Finally, if you have ever had trouble closing your eyes and touching the first fingers of both hands out in front of you, imagine how difficult it was when the French and British dug a tunnel under the English Channel, each country starting from its own shore, and meeting in the middle under the water. Left to me, they would have passed each other in the rock and would still be digging a tunnel around the world, wondering where the other guy was.
Monumental human achievements such as these are easy to take for granted until we try to figure out how we would do them if they were our responsibility. Suddenly we realize what amazing feats they are.
The church, by comparison, is a tremendous divine achievement. It is also easy to take the church for granted, thinking less of it than we ought to because of our lack of understanding. The church is a big deal to God, and we must try to expand our understanding and appreciation of it until it is a big deal to us.
What Is the Universal Church?
The universal church is made up of all true Christians everywhere, past, present, and future.
In order to gain a fuller understanding of the universal church we will look at some of the things that the universal church is, and some of the things it is not.
The Church Is Not a Building.
People can become understandably confused about what the church is. Like me, some people are misled into assuming that the church is a building or an organization, rather than a collection of people. In the original language of the New Testament, however, the Greek word for "church" helps us clarify our understanding. Ekklesia, translated "church," means an assembly, or a group called together for a meeting. Ek means "out from" (like exit), and kaleo means "called." Together, the two words mean "called out" and assembled together. The same word would be used whether or not the meeting was a religious one.
For instance, in Acts 19, the town clerk of the city of Ephesus was concerned that a riot was going to break out over the apostle Paul's preaching. He urged his fellow citizens, who had gathered to discuss the matter, to remain calm and file legal charges against Paul, rather than resort to violence. "And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly" (v. 41). The word "assembly" is ekklesia.
The word later came to be used of Christians, people who had been called together spiritually to follow Jesus. The word as used in the New Testament usually refers to a local congregation of Christians. But it also refers to the universal church, the spiritual gathering together of all true Christians: "[God] put all things under His [Christ's] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church (ekklesia), which is His body" (Ephesians 1:22–23). In the Bible, the church never means a building where people meet, but rather refers to the people themselves.
The Church Is People.
The people who are part of the universal church are those who have received Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Earthly membership in a local congregation, however, is no guarantee of being a part of the spiritual universal church. Someone has said that going into a church building doesn't make you a Christian any more than going into a garage makes you a car, or going into a barn makes you a cow. It is not what happens on the outside that matters, but what happens on the inside.
Even in the Old Testament, merely being born into the nation of Israel did not make a person one of God's people, spiritually. The apostle Paul wrote,
"A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Romans 2:28–29 NIV).
The same is true of Christians. Using similar words, a person is not a Christian if he/she is one merely outwardly. No, a person is a Christian if he is one inwardly; and becoming a member of the universal church is the result of what has happened in the heart, not of getting one's name on the membership register of a local church.
The Church Is a Divine Creation.
The church was first mentioned by Jesus when He said, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades (Hell) shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). There is some question as to what He meant by that statement. What is the rock upon which Jesus will build His church? The Roman Catholic position is that the rock refers to Peter. Their understanding is that Peter was the first pope, and all other popes over the church are in direct succession to Peter's office and authority.
However, the traditional Protestant interpretations differ, based on the context of the statement and Jesus' choice of words concerning the "rock":
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?"
So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter answered and said "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:13–18).
In this context of Peter's having just declared Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, the rock could be Christ, Himself. Also, the Greek word for "Peter" is petros and means a stone or boulder. But the Greek word for the "rock" on which Jesus says He will build His church is petra, which means a mass of rock, not a detached stone or boulder that might be thrown. Or, the context could mean that the confession of Jesus' being the Christ could be that rock upon which Jesus would build His church. Either one would be consistent with Scripture and history.
There are differences of opinion as to when the church actually began. Some believe it began when God began redeeming His people. Many people connect it to the New Testament and Jesus' ministry in particular. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus seems to suggest that His church was still in the future ("I will build my church"). The word for church is used again in Matthew 18:17, but since the word can refer to any assembly of people, and since there were no Christian assemblies yet, it could easily have been referring to the Jewish assembly, or synagogue.
The next use of the word for church is found in Acts 2:47, shortly after the day of Pentecost, and subsequent uses of the word clearly refer to the church. Therefore, there is strong support for concluding that the church came into existence in early Acts, probably on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. This reinforces the concept of the church being "people," since the emphasis in early Acts is on people beginning to believe in Jesus.
Bible students are also divided as to when the church will cease, but we can say, generally speaking, that when the events of history culminate, the church will also culminate. History as we know it will end and eternity will begin. At some point during those dramatic events, the universal church will be complete.
How Is the Universal Church Pictured in Scripture?
The universal church is pictured in Scripture by a body, a building, and a bride.
The Bible gives a number of word pictures of the church, images which help us understand more of the nature of the universal church.
Doctors tell us that, because of the continuous dying and replacing of cells in our body, we get a new body every seven years. If that is the case, in my first three bodies, each new one was better than the last. However, I have gotten three bodies since I was twenty-one, and in those cases, each one has been worse than the last! I cringe to imagine the next three. Even with the limitations of our earthly body, however, we can imagine a heavenly body—a body without defect—and this helps us to understand more fully what the church is.
The apostle Paul's favorite picture for the church was the body. It is a word picture communicating the fact that Christians on earth are the hands, feet, and tongue of Christ, that we are to labor, travel, and speak what Christ would if He were in our shoes. Jesus is the head of the body, and each of us makes up our part of His spiritual body on earth. We each have different functions, different abilities, different callings, and different locations. Romans 12:4–5 reads, "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (NIV).
We do not become the body when we agree to work together in harmony. We are automatically the body, regardless of whether or not we decide to work together in harmony. The question is only whether we will be a healthy body or an unhealthy one. We are not a member of the body when we decide to join a local church. If we are Christians, we are already members of the body. We are not added to the body or subtracted from the body by our choice. If we belong to Christ, we are members, and we belong to each other because we are all in Christ.
If Christians ever came to understand and appreciate that truth, it would make us more tolerant of those who are different and more aware of our need for others with diverse abilities. Just as a human body could not function if all its members were the same, so the body of Christ could not function if we were all the same.
One of the grandest buildings in Washington, D.C., is the National Cathedral. It is a huge stone cathedral with stunning architectural lines, magnificent stained-glass windows, lovely altar, and beautiful grounds. When I visited it the first time nearly thirty years ago, they had been working on it for many years. It was open to the public, but parts of it were still not finished. We went out to a construction area where we saw stone carvers, some of the last such craftsmen in the world, still chipping away at ornate blocks of granite. Today, the cathedral is still not complete. It will be complete one day, but the task is so huge that the construction life of the cathedral exceeds the life of anyone working on it.
So it is with the universal church. A second picture of the church is that of a spiritual building. The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, "You are ... of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (2:19–22).
We can imagine, in our mind's eye, that huge cathedral having a name on each of the stones. Figuratively speaking, one of those stones is Bill, one is Susan, one is James, one is Katherine, and—glory to God—one is Max!
There are three truths about the church that are presented in this passage, as well as a companion passage in 1 Corinthians 3:10–17. First, the church has an eternal foundation of the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone of which is Jesus Christ. The foundation is secure. It cannot be removed or replaced. It ensures that the building that rests on it will be secure.
Excerpted from WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHURCH by MAX ANDERS Copyright © 1997 by Max Anders. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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