[This entry follows a sermon titled "Jesus and the Church". Click on the title to find the audio, or search "Gray Road Baptist Church" on iTunes.]
This last Sunday, we started a four-week sermon series called Church Matters. We're not just doing this short series to talk about church matters but to remember that the church matters. This first Sunday, we looked at the identity of Jesus in connection with the identity of the church. The central thesis was this: "You can't fully understand the identity of Jesus without the Church, and you can't fully understand the identity of the Church without Jesus." The Scripture deeply connects the two with images such as (1) Jesus as the Head and the Church as His body, (2) Jesus as the Husband and the Church as His bride, and (3) Jesus as the cornerstone on which the Church is built.
In addition, we think about the three offices that Jesus fulfills from the Old Testament...that of prophet, priest, and king. A prophet speaks God's Word to the people. A priest mediates between God and the people. A king is the ruler over the people. When you divorce these roles from the presence of "the people," you don't get a full understanding of what a prophet, priest, and king truly are. Part of their identity is wrapped up in their role among the people. Likewise, we cannot fully understand Jesus as the fulfillment of these unless He is intimately tied to a people...to God's people...to the Church.
My purpose today is to say that this is nothing new in the Bible. God has always designed to have a people for Himself. His plan didn't change in the coming of Jesus...it was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. We see the eternal nature of His plan in passages like Ephesians 1:4-6: "...he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved" [emphasis mine].
While it is true that the "us" in these verses represents a plurality of individuals, it is not a plurality of individualists. No, it is the gathering of men and women into God's designed people...the Church. Later in this letter, Paul uses very similar language to describe Christ's work with the Church. "...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...that he might present the church to himself in splendor, that she might be holy and without blemish" (5:25, 27). So, in chapter 1, God has chosen "us" to be holy and blameless. In chapter 5, Christ gave himself up for "the church" that we might be holy and without blemish. In other words...us = the Church! God's plan from eternity past was to adopt us...His family...the Church.
This idea of God's desire for a people develops over the course of the Bible. In the beginning, God created mankind in His image...male and female, He created them. And what was one of the first commands God gave them? "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth..." Why did God want the earth filled with persons made in His image? Because God's design was to have a people for Himself...a people who would bear His image and glorify Him...a people who would live by His Word and glorify Him. However, as we know man rebelled against his Maker, and sin entered the human race. [By the way, the entrance of sin did not send God to 'Plan B.' Remember, God's eternal purpose was to send Christ to die for all who would believe and bring them into His people...the Church.]
Sin and its destructive effects were clearly passed on to Adam and Eve's children, as seen in Cain murdering his brother, Abel. Things continued in a downward spiral of sin until we read this: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:5-6). So, God would punish mankind, but out of the population of mankind, He would call...you guessed it...a people. More specifically, a family...Noah's family. The flood came, and all humanity was destroyed under God's judgment...except for Noah's family.
Still, the waters of the flood could never wash away sin, and the sinfulness of mankind continued...even in this people (i.e.- Noah's family) chosen by God. We see another climactic moment as men try to make much of themselves in the building of the Tower of Babel. In response, God confuses their language and scatters them. Then, we see God set apart an individual...Abram (i.e.- Abraham). This man would be God's chosen means through which He would bless every nation of the earth. Though Abraham, God would create...you guessed it again...a people. God's people would become a great nation, and through that nation, the other nations of the world would find blessing. The rest of the OT follows the history, the triumphs, and the tragedies of this people.
Then, with the coming of Jesus Christ, we see most fully what it means for God to have a people. Jesus even came and called twelve men (reminiscent of the 12 tribes) to follow Him and be His disciples. It was a clear indication that God still wanted a people. Through all the sin we see in the OT people of God, God still desired to have a people. And it is through Jesus Christ, Abraham's descendent, that God's blessing is extended to every nation. Jesus' death makes full and final atonement for sin, and the result is eternal life in a reconciled relationship with God. God's people will still battle sin, but because of the work of Christ, we know that our relationship to God as His people is secure.
So, God's design has always included a people. We see it through the Old Testament, and we see it full and finally in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But that's not all...after all, how does the Bible close? What is the imagery of the future? "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb..." (Rev. 7:9). Who is this that we find before the throne? It is God's people! Of this eternal relationship between God and His people, the apostle John records, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Rev. 21:3).
God's eternal design includes a people...the Church. We see this design for a people started in creation, in the flood, in the call of Abraham, and in the rest of the Old Testament. We see it in the coming of Jesus, in the work of Jesus, and forward into eternity. So, we can't fully understand Jesus' identity without the Church, and we can't fully understand the Church's identity without Jesus.