Bible Lessons On-Line
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
What is the Church?
The word translated church in the New Testament is from the Greek word ekklesia which means an assembly or congregation. It does not refer to a building rather it refers instead to people. In the New Testament, it generally refers to believers Jew or Gentile who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and have received the Holy Spirit following Pentecost in Acts 2. It may refer to a local assembly such as the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:1) or the universal church of all believers in Jesus Christ in this age everywhere.
Metaphors for the Church
Metaphors are expressions of figurative language that are used to communicate truth through analogies. There are several metaphors that are used in reference to the church, which helps to define what the church is and how it functions. The first is that the church is the body of Christ. There are two good passages that teach this; both of them written by the Apostle Paul: 1) “He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church,” (Col 1:18) and 2) “The husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body” (Eph 5:21-22). As a physical head directs the physical body so also Christ directs the church. The body of Christ' image also communicates our connection to Christ and to each member of the church. We are members of the same body and joined together. When Paul was persecuting Christians and on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him. Jesus didn’t ask Paul why are you persecuting Christians or the church? Rather he asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Christ is so connected and identified with the church that a persecution against the church is directly equated to a persecution against him.
A second metaphor of the church is the description of the church as the bride of Christ. John writes in Revelation: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints)” (Rev 19:7-9). The imagery of a bride communicates both intimate relationship and purity.
A third metaphor is that the church is a temple. “So then you are . . . members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19-22). In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where God dwelt among the people of Israel (Exod 40:34-35).2 The church as a temple then would communicate that holy God indwells it and even individual members of it (1 Cor 3:16).3
Fourthly, the church is also referred to as a royal priesthood. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once, were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:8-9). Royal suggests the idea that the church rules or will rule, while priests suggest that those in the church are God’s ministers or servants.4
Lastly, the church is referred to as a flock. Paul tells the Ephesians elders: “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). Sheep imagery for God’s people is seen in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. Ps 23; Is 53:6). Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that his sheep follow his voice (John 10). Sheep communicate the need for a shepherd who will lead, feed and protect. Sheep are vulnerable and one could say dumb animals which need steady care.
When Did the Church Start?
While some people define the church as God’s people of all ages, there are strong implications from the Scriptures that the church did not begin until after the death of Jesus in conjunction with the inauguration of the New Covenant and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. There are several passages that one can point to that support this view. First, Jesus spoke of the establishment of the church as a future event in his life. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:18-19). The term key suggests that Peter would open up the kingdom in the form of the church, which he did at Pentecost in Acts 2. Secondly, the church was “obtained” by the finished work of Christ on the cross. In the verse that we looked at above the church of God is said to be “obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). This also implies the church was not in effect until after the death of Christ.5
Lastly, the church is defined by the “body of Christ” and members of the body of Christ are placed there by the baptism of the Spirit. Paul states, “For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13). This baptism of the Spirit was predicted in the Old Testament (e.g., Joel 2) but occurred in Acts 2. The formation of the body of Christ formed by the baptism of the Spirit can be supported by the following verses. John the Baptist stated that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). This was predicted as a future event. Jesus later stated that the baptism would take place “not many days from now in Acts 1:5. The Holy Spirit descended in Acts 2. In hindsight this event in Acts 2 is referred to as the “baptism of the Spirit” by Peter. Peter states, “Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:15-16).6 All of these are good reasons to see the start of the church after the death of Jesus and specifically in conjunction with the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.
The Purpose/Function of the Church
The purpose or function of the church can be summarized into three broad areas: worship of God, edification of the church itself, and evangelization of the world. The worship of God is the highest calling of man. God created us for this purpose and failure to do so will leave a God shaped hole in our lives. Jesus stated, “But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). The early church shifted the day of worship from Saturday (= the Sabbath) to Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) most likely to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on the first day of the week (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
Secondly, the church as the body of Christ is to edify itself in the community of faith. Luke records this basic practice of the church in Acts. “They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Paul supplements this idea: “It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature” (Eph 4:11-13).
Thirdly, the church is to evangelize the world. Two passages illustrate this well. The first is referred to as the Great Commission. Matthew is one gospel that records it: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). Luke also gives Jesus’ instructions to the disciples just prior to his departure to heaven called the ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Whether worship, instruction, or evangelism, the overarching purpose of all that the church does is to glorify God (1 Cor 10:31). It’s not about us but it is about him!
The Ordinances of the Church
Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also referred to as Communion) are two mandates that Jesus gave to the church. The Catholic church and some Protestants refer to these mandates as well as others as sacraments. The word sacrament is used due to the Catholic church’s teaching that participation in these ceremonies will convey grace to the participant with or without faith on the part of the participant.7 Other Protestants have emphasized that the performance of these mandates should be referred to as ordinances and are merely are acts of obedience. Also, they are not grace bearing or meritorious in regard to one’s eternal status of salvation in any way.8
The purpose of water baptism is to identify with Christ and his message. Symbolically, in baptism there is identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6:3-4) as well as purification and cleansing (cf. Acts 22:16). Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). While the church has had differing practices on the modes of baptism (sprinkling, immersion, etc), the practice of infant baptism is hard to substantiate from the practice of the early church as seen in the New Testament. People were baptized after they believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of the Lord’s Supper (also known as communion) is to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. This is also a mandated practice for the church. Paul tells the Corinthian church. “[T]he Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11:23-25). Like baptism, there are different views on the nature of the Lord’s supper. Referring to the bread, “This is my body” and the wine as, “This is my blood” historically led to debate on what “is” means during the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic View is termed Transubstantiation, which means that the elements turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus. The Lutheran View (i.e., Martin Luther) is termed Consubstantiation, which means that Jesus is with, in, under and around the elements but they do not actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus. The Reformed View (i.e., John Calvin) is termed the Spiritual Presence View, which means that Jesus is spiritually present during the ceremony. Lastly, the Memorial View (i.e., Huldrych Zwingli) sometimes called the Remembrance View, is that the Lord’s table is simply a symbol used for remembering Christ’s death.9
The Organization of the Church
One thing that most people are aware of is that there are different kinds of churches. Some differences relate to the history and doctrine of the church. Other differences relate to different types of church government. When Christ ascended, He took His whole ministry mantle, divided it, and gave it in five parts to men and women. All five are needed to perfect, mature and equip the saints “till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of… the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The function of these gifts, also sometimes called equipping or ascension gifts.
The Five-Fold Ministry
Ephesians 4:11-13 advises, It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
It is therefore of uttermost importance to get a biblical understanding of the five-fold ministry, so that our churches will be healthy and functioning according to the will and plan of God. But while we will focus on these five, we must not forget that Paul is not giving us an exhaustive list. In 1.Corinthians 12:28, he is saying, in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Only three of the five in Ephesians are repeated here again, while Paul adds other kind of people and functions. Surely would we not equate an apostle with an administrator, yet both are in the same list, and there is no reason to assume a hierarchy, or that one function has more value than another. On the contrary, those who speak the Word of God, who preach and teach, which is all part of the five-fold ministry, are held to higher accountability, and their goal is not to serve themselves, but the flock of God, so that they would attain all the fullness in Christ (see Eph 4:12-13). With the visibility comes the responsibility, and with the responsibility the higher accountability. God has set His leaders in place for His church to function, and those truly called into these places will have been tested and proven, having gone through the fire of preparation, and they display true humility and Christ-likeness, not desiring a position, but wanting to serve their King any way He wants them to.
While there are many different ideas in the body of Christ today about each one of these five offices or functions, the remainder of this paper seeks to present a biblical viewpoint of each one of them.
2. Apostles Govern
“When it comes to a study of the five-fold ministry in the New Testament, prophets are mentioned a few times, the evangelist is specifically mentioned a couple of times, pastors and teachers are referred to occasionally, but apostles are mentioned often.”
And yet, apostleship is the most misunderstood of all of them. How can that be? Over the centuries, the term “apostle” disappeared from word usage, until a recent new awakening of interest over the past two decades. That does not mean that apostles did not exist – they were often called “missionaries” or “pastors” – yet the dispensational belief that the Holy Spirit had stopped moving with the end of the apostolic age, also meant that all apostles had to have disappeared. Today, many are trying to get a biblical understanding of what an apostle is supposed to look like in our day, in the course of their pursuit to restore the church to the normative of the first century. Unfortunately the result has often been an unhealthy elevation of the office of an “apostle” which is feeding into people’s need for power and recognition, and an abuse that seems to justify dispensational concerns of apostleship being unscriptural today. However, their theological concern results from a lack of distinction between the first twelve apostles and the office of an apostle. They overlook the many other apostles listed in the book of Acts as well as the Epistles. And those in favor of apostleship yet abusing it seem to have overlooked that Paul calls himself a servant and a father, and that he paid a price none of them would be willing to pay:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (2.Cor 11:23-28)
Jim Goll (2001:290) defines an apostle as “one called and sent by Christ to have the spiritual authority, character, gifts and abilities to reach and establish people in Kingdom truth and order, especially through founding and overseeing local churches.” An apostle has “a burden to build something that didn’t exist before” (Kim Terrell 2002:17). They lay the foundation of new local churches and see to it that they come into full maturity. That is the church that person will be the apostle to – which means he/she will not have any authority as an apostle in other churches, which is what many today claim. Paul himself wrote to the Corinthians, Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord (1.Corinthians 9:2).
Apostles have a burden to ground their church in solid biblical teaching, an example of which we can see in Acts 11, when Paul and Barnabas spent two years at Antioch, teaching and equipping them. Apostles have the desire to train and raise up church leaders who will come into full maturity in the church, to release them, and then move on to plant another church. Making themselves “redundant” is their greatest reward, as they father their spiritual children into adulthood.
Let us remove the mysticism from the term “apostle”, seeing it for what it really is. Dick Iverson (Scheidler 2001:205) states in an interview, “But no, you don't find “Apostle” written in large letters on my door. I would rather say that I do apostolic work. It isn’t just a title, it’s work, W-O-R-K.”
3. Prophets Guide
“A man or woman who represents the interests of God to the people. Having stood in the council of God, the prophet releases a clarion call to the people of what is in God's heart at the moment.” (Goll 2001:294)
Prophets reveal God's heart to His people, giving guidance to individuals and the body, giving revelation, as well as often interpretation, application and timing. We see several examples in the book of Acts, e.g. Philip’s daughters and Agabus. In Acts 21, Agabus is a good example of where prophecy can be rightly interpreted, yet applied wrongly, as Paul was urged not to go to Jerusalem, escaping the predictive prophecy of his fate. In this case, we see prophecy as fore-telling, yet it is also forth-telling which is often neglected by those who run after prophetic words. With the new acceptance and recognition of the office of a prophet over the past twenty years, believers turning them to them as fortune-tellers has become a real problem that has driven many to the total rejection of prophets. God has established prophets in His church, and we will not be complete if we reject their ministry out of fear. Many pastors live in fear of prophets, feeling threatened by what they might say to the church or to himself, and at times rightly so since too many prophetic people exalt themselves and the words they speak instead of being humble servants to the body, allowing leadership to weigh their words and judge them as commanded by Scripture.
4. Evangelists Gather
An evangelist carries a great burden for those who are not a part of the kingdom of God yet, and an anointing to preach the gospel to them that comes with great conviction and draws them to the Lord. They will often have signs and wonders following them to confirm their message.
The prime example of an evangelist in the New Testament is Philip. He was one of the men chosen to serve the widows in Acts 6, and he is the only one specifically called an evangelist (Acts 21:8). In Acts 8 he obeys the Holy Spirit and brings the Ethiopian eunuch to a believing knowledge of Christ.
“Evangelists create converts, while apostles create disciples” (Kim Terrell 2002:22). Their foremost desire is to see people come into the kingdom, then leaving the discipling to others. They love teaching others how to win people, and never feel like they are actually doing enough and accomplishing their task. While they are grieved to see believers’ indifference regarding the lost, they do have an anointing to impart God's broken heart to the body. Evangelists are absolutely crucial for numeric growth in the local church and the kingdom of God.
5. Pastors Guard
The pastor is the heart of the church; who is a shepherd who deeply cares for the sheep, ready to lie down everything for them. The pastorwants them to be fed, to grow, to be equipped, to develop their giftings and step into the calling of God for them. In the local church they are the bridge between the different offices and functions, listening to all sides and restoring calm and order where necessary. Jesus, the supreme Shepherd, taught a lot about shepherding and the sheep, giving us a great example of what a pastor should look like. The pastor’s greatest concern is always the well-being of his sheep and his body, not only bringing training, but correction and protection where necessary.
The office of the pastor is the one most recognized today of all five. Because of a lack of understanding of the other four, those called by God to these other offices have often had to become pastors, therefore filling shoes that were not theirs, and creating tension in their churches because they could not meet their sheep’s need. It is time for the church to allow evangelists, teachers, apostles and prophets to be what they are called to be and take their rightful place in the church.
6. Teachers Ground
Teachers teach and edify the church, imparting divine life and anointing to their listeners who become more hungry for the Word of God, as the teacher illumines Scripture and brings forth truth never seen by their listeners before. While prophets reveal the heart of God, teachers reveal His mind. Prophets and teachers balance each other in the church, which can also create a tension. Prophets have revelation of hidden things in the future, while teachers of the hidden things in the Word. Teachers reveal the specifics of the revealed truth, while prophets reveal the spectrum. While prophets possess foresight, teachers have insight. While prophets are risk takers, teachers move by understanding and are planners. And the list could go on. Teachers are very essential in the body of Christ, to give the sheep a good foundation of the word of God – something many charismatic churches seem to lack today. How come there are so many excellent teachers in non-charismatic churches, yet too many charismatic churches focus so much on the Spirit that they neglect the Scriptures?
The Lord has called some to be apostles, some as prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and some pastors. Today, He is restoring a biblical understanding of what these roles and callings mean, so that His bride can come into the fullness of what He has for her, getting ready for her Bridegroom’s glorious return. The church has come a long way over the past few decades, even though there is still a lot of wrong conceptions and rejection due to abuse prevalent in His body. However, apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers start taking their rightful places, having been proven and tested, as humble servants to bring the body into maturity.
The Distinction between Israel and the Church
How do we distinguish between Israel and the Church? Or should we? In short, the Bible indicates that while there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church that needs to be maintained, there is also a relationship that needs to be understood. One can start to examine this issue by comparing basic definitions. The church is both Jew and Gentile in the current age who believe in Jesus and are baptized into the body of Christ. This baptism took place with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. Israel (used 2515 times in the Old Testament and 68 in the New Testament) refers ethnically to the descendants of Abraham that came though Isaac and Jacob. Sometimes the concept of circumcised of heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Rom 2:29; Phil 3:2-3) or the phrase Israel of God (Gal 6:10) is used to reflect the idea of saved ethnic Israel. There is no place in the New Testament or entire Bible where the term Israel refers to or means the church.16 The distinction between Israel and the church is also seen in statements that contrast them after the establishment of the church.17 One good verse for this is 1 Cor 10:32 which states, “Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God.” Here the “church of God” is distinguished from “Jews.”
In regard to the church’s relationship with Israel, Paul states that Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree (= a symbol for Israel) to participate in blessings while natural branches (= unsaved Jews) are broken off (Rom 11:17). God told Abraham that “in you” all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). The promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant. In line with this covenant as Gentile members of the church we are a part of the blessing God gave to “all nations” though the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul also states that we are “sons of Abraham” by faith (Gal 3:7). It is important to understand though that Israel was under the provisions and requirements of Old Covenant while the church is under the New Covenant. The Old Covenant included: animal sacrifices, prescribed festivals, dietary laws, Sabbath keeping which included meeting on Saturday, moral laws and penalties for violation. The church on the other hand is under the provisions of the New Covenant and directly stated requirements for it are included in the gospels and epistles. There is both continuity and discontinuity in the relationship of these covenants to each other, that is some requirements of the Old Covenant are carried into the new while others are not. Paul clearly states that Christians are not under law as a system of requirements but under grace (Rom 6:14).
Lastly, there is a future for national Israel in which all the remaining Old Testament promises that God gave to them will be fulfilled: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:25-29). This does not mean that Christians have to agree with everything that modern day Israel does but it does mean that God has not abandoned his commitments of a future political and spiritual restoration of the that nation.
Importance of Fellowship in Church
Reasons that we should go to church:
- The church is God’s ordained organization for spiritual growth in this age.
- We were made to worship God.
- We need to learn from God’s Word.
- We need to use our spiritual gifts to help others.
- We need to be encouraged by others in our relationship with God.
- We need to set an example to our families and friends and provide for their spiritual welfare.
- We need to give financially so our hearts will not be ruled by greed.
- We need to have an eternal perspective and not a temporal one.
- We need a break from our normal daily routine of work.
- We need to set an example to the world that Christians love one another.
The author of Hebrews says, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). Penguins are one of the few warm blooded animals that live in Antarctica during the winter. They can even breed in temperatures of -22°F and winds of 125mph.18 How can they survive in such harsh conditions? One of the main ways is that they huddle together, sometimes with thousands of penguins. Those on the outside of the circle as soon as they are faced with freezing to death move in toward the center while those in the center work their way to the outside. It’s only by sticking together that they survive. Any penguin that gets isolated will die. Is there an application for Christians? I think so. God designed us to survive and thrive spiritually by the encouragement we gain from each other.
- What are some things the church is doing that is not part of its mandate and what things is it not doing that it should be doing? How about the local church that you are in?
- Is there a difference between a church ordinance and a church sacrament? If so, what is it?
- How is the modern church different than the early first century church? How much should the modern church adapt to its culture?
- What are some reasons that some Christians give to not go to church? What are some biblical responses you can give to these reasons?
- How can the church better connect with society?
- How can I be more involved in the life and ministry of my church?
- How should our view of the Bible affect our views on national policies toward Israel?