The Joy of the Whole Earth? God's Purpose for the Body of Christ
- Thursday, July 17, 2008
Any theology of the Church must begin in a consideration of God’s purpose for the Body of Christ. What did God have in mind as He sent His Son to redeem His people, call them together, equip and commission them, and send them into the world?
To get God’s view on this question we must take into consideration everything that He has revealed on the subject throughout the Scriptures. A mistake common among many pastors and theologians is to consider that the Church is strictly a New Testament development, and to take their cues on the nature and purpose of the Church only from that part of God’s Word.
But the New Testament idea of the Church is clearly grounded in Old Testament images and institutions. This is clear, first of all, from the fact that the very word church (Greek: ekklesia) is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament (the preferred version of New Testament writers) to translate the Hebrew, qahal, “the assembly” of God’s people. When New Testament writers wrote of the Church, their readers, especially Jewish readers, would have made a natural connection between the gathered people of God in the Old Testament and the new congregations beginning to appear in cities throughout the Roman Empire, now incorporating both Jews and Gentiles.
Second, the New Testament is not the least bit shy in borrowing on Old Testament images and institutions to help its readers in establishing their identity as members of the Body of Christ. Thus Paul describes the Church as the “temple” of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:20-22), and the writer of Hebrews teaches his readers to think of themselves in terms of Mount Zion, Jerusalem, and the gathering of saints and angels in holy festival (Hebrews 12:22).
So we’re on safe ground by looking to a passage like Psalms 48 to help us in thinking about the Church, what aspirations and expectations God holds out for her. What do we discover here?
First, God thinks of the Church as reflecting His own beauty before the watching world (v. 2). The Church is elevated to the eyes of all and, because of the beauty she projects in every facet, is regarded as “the joy of all the earth.” Her neighbors are delighted and enthralled by the manifest presence of God in her midst, emanating the strength and beauty of holiness and love (v. 3).
Her enemies and detractors, meanwhile, head for the high ground, fleeing from the presence of God in the midst of His people (vv. 4-8). The members of that beautiful city of God sustain themselves by assembling to contemplate and celebrate the steadfast love of God, and to rejoice in the truth of His Word (vv. 9-11).
The Church, in God’s mind, is a strong fortress—of holiness, truth, and love for all men—so closely identified with God Himself that the two can hardly be separated (vv. 12-14). When the New Testament describes the Church as the “Body of Christ,” it is therefore on solid ground in making such a close identification between the incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning God and the people who have surrendered in faith to Him.
The psalm closes with the writer inviting the generations that are to inherit the Church to consider her strength and beauty, and to receive as a bequest this glorious institution where God is present, His glory radiates throughout, and His power turns away enemies even as it draws new adherents from every nation, tribe, and tongue (cf. Micah 4:1-5).
Is this the Church we are preparing to leave to our children? Are we so busy thinking about what our churches should be doing to meet our needs that we have forgotten to seek the Lord concerning His vision for the Church? The Church will never be the joy of the whole earth, and thus fulfill God’s intentions, until we begin to seek the Lord for a clearer and more compelling vision of what He has in mind for the Bride and Body of His Son.
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily e-mail devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.
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