Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What is the Church? - A Prophetic Sign

And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, “This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the Prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.” Luke 11.29-30. Think about that for a moment. Jesus was a sign to His generation; a prophetic sign, because like Jonah He too is a prophet. I contend that the church is a prophetic sign to this generation of the reality of Jesus. It is a prophetic sign to the Nations that Jesus is Lord.

Paul tells us some amazing things about Jesus in the book of Colossians. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, Col 1.18-19.

Col 2.9 is even more explicit. “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” The NIV correctly renders Godhead as Deity from the Greek word Theotees. God was fully expressed in the person of Jesus. This is why Jesus could challenge His disciples, “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘show us the Father?’ John 14.9. To Jesus the question made no sense.

All the fullness of God dwells in Jesus and He stands at the head of a new creation. He is both the firstfruits and firstborn over that new creation through the resurrection. In Genesis we have the account of creation. Over six days God made the heavens and the earth. The first three days were forming the earth, the next three were filling it and in the end He made mankind. Humanity stands at both the peak of creation and the climax of it.

To Adam and Eve God said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen 1.28. Notice how the first couple were invited to participate in what God had been doing through creation, ‘forming and filling’ it. They too were to shape the earth and fill it with people – like them, made in God’s image.

But after the fall of Gen 3 we see children born to Adam and Eve that now bears Adam’s image, a tainted version of the original creation, Gen 5.3. Filling would indeed take place through the populating of the world, but the corruption of the human heart that had turned away from God became, over time, a deep grief to God. By Noah’s day the imagination of the human heart was only evil. Within ten generations the depth to which humanity had fallen was clear.

Forming continued too as populations grew and civilisation developed. But as culture developed so did the structures for how society functioned. And over time these very structures became oppressive and enslaving. It wasn’t long before children were sacrificed to idols, poor people were enslaved and women were dominated. As kings emerged the law was whatever they said it was. Men built their kingdoms that conquered, killed, dispossessed, oppressed and enslaved millions.

We saw the kingdom of Egypt that killed the firstborn and enslaved the Israelites for 400 years. God liberated them so that they could experience what it was like to live under His law; a law based on justice and equity, limiting the power of evil in the human heart. For the first time in history a slave could go free after 7 years of service, Ex 21.2. A slave wife had to be fed, cared for and given conjugal rights or set free without having to pay for her freedom, Ex 21.10-11. This was radical given the practice of the surrounding nations around Israel.

But over time Israel did not live up to these laws. They were too costly, morally and economically. It required faith to leave a part of your field fallow every seven years, trusting God for sufficient from the rest of the crops, Ex 23.10-11. It required a generous spirit not to go over the harvest a second time to get what the reapers had missed but instead to leave them for the poor and stranger in the land, Ruth 2.3. So Israel forsook the Lord. As a consequence they went into captivity – back into civilisations that did not know God or follow His ways. It was hard. It was humbling. It was painful.

They experienced the kingdom and power of Assyria, then Babylon. Then came Persia, under whose authority a remnant returned to rebuild the temple, followed by Greece with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Finally the full force of the Roman Empire bore down on Israel. And during all those oppressive years they held on to the words of the prophets; men who saw that God would raise up for them a Messiah, one like unto Moses, a deliverer. His Kingdom would know no end. He would usher in the Kingdom of God.

So when we get to the Gospels Jesus begins to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel (the good news)”, Mark 1.15. Jesus challenges their way of thinking. God wants to do much more than set them free from Rome. He wants to undo the power of the curse from Genesis 3. And so in Jesus God deals with sin – the source of all human corruption. Not only that, Jesus is raised to life, but not like Lazarus. He died again! Jesus is raised as the head of a new humanity. Just as Adam was the peak and climax of the old creation God reverses the order. Instead of creating new heavens and new earth He creates a new man – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus then ascended to heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit on His followers. The future has invaded the present through the Holy Spirit. God’s Kingdom is about God’s rule. This is why we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”, Matt 6.10. Wherever God’s will is done we see a manifestation of His Kingdom – His rule. This was Jesus passion, Heb 10.5-7; John 4.34; to do the will of the Father. Now, through the Holy Spirit, through the new birth, we have the power to overcome sin. We are not just forgiven and acquitted; we are empowered to live differently.

You see in Jesus is the fullness of deity. But through the resurrection Jesus has been given to be head over all things to the church, “which is His body the fullness of Him who fills all in all”, Eph 1.23. The church is now the fullness of Jesus! If you want to know Jesus, you have to get to know His church. We cannot experience the fullness of Jesus outside of the church. To say you can be a Christian without going to church is like getting married to a head only! It’s nonsense. It’s incomplete. Nobody does that. He is the head, we are the body. Jesus challenged Saul of Tarsus with this question, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Acts 9.5. Notice it is in the present tense. To hurt the church is to hurt Jesus. To hate the church is to hate Jesus. To love the church is to love Jesus, 1John 4.20.

Our lives, together, become a sign to this generation. God is up to something. It won’t always continue like this. This man who went back to heaven is coming again. In the mean time He is building something – the church. You see the real issue is not, ‘Where will you go when you die?’ It is ‘Where will you go when you are raised and stand before God?’ Will it be participation in His Kingdom or banishment – forever? God has not scrapped His creation, He has redeemed it. He has begun by redeeming men from all nations, but all of creation is groaning. It is pregnant, longing to give birth to something new – a new heaven and a new earth. And it will come!

So what now? Well Paul has good theology for us on this issue. Take your body. One day it will be fully renewed and changed. It will be like the resurrection body of Jesus, incorruptible, honourable and glorious, 1Cor 15.35-53; Phil 3.20-21. That means it is the seed of the future. So Paul says glorify God in it now! Greek thinking is dualistic. Plato has influenced many, even in the church today. To him only thought was good. Anything physical was bad, less than spiritual. The Corinthians tended to live this way, continuing the practice of sleeping with temple prostitutes. After all it was only the body! Paul disagrees. We are whole beings. We are joined to God in spirit. We are one. Live differently to show this truth.

So given that the Kingdom of God has broken in with the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we need to carry on with the creation mandate of forming and filling the earth in redemptions power, calling people to repent, to think differently about Jesus, about the future, about themselves, about sin, about judgement, about the structures in society that continue to dispossess people, kill them or enslave them. And where we can, we make a difference. We bring God’s rule to bear in every part of life. Jesus called this being salt and light – a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. And this is prophetic.

We need believers in every arena of life to bring about Kingdom thinking and living. Daniel did this as the Prime Minister of Babylon. Babylon was a corrupt and oppressive Empire but a righteous man was steering its destiny – at least for a season. And through him God touched the heart of its King, Dan 4.34-37. Banks need insightful analysts not profiteers. Medicine needs wise doctors who understand the complexity of life and how to steer a nation into healthy and righteous legislation. Politics needs men of integrity. The law needs men committed to justice more than their commitment to only consider what is legal.

This is also why Jesus left us with two important practices that speak powerfully of Him. We call these the sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Both have a way of pulling the past and the future into the present, becoming a prophetic sign to our generation. When we do them we are speaking. There is a message to be heard and understood, first by us. Then we can articulate it to the world.

Take Baptism. Paul has this to say; “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, (that’s the past), that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we should walk in newness of life, (that’s the present). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”, (that’s the future), Rom 6.3-5.

Isn’t that amazing? Every time we have a baptism service we are testifying to the Jesus of history and pulling His death and resurrection into the present, for we too have experienced forgiveness of sins and a new birth. Resurrection has happened to us in part. For we also testify to a resurrection we shall be participators of that is still future for us. But He is the firstfruits from the dead, 1Cor 15.20-23, the guarantee that we too will have a body like His. And so we pull the future promise into the present by declaring in faith, “Jesus Christ is Lord and is risen from the dead”, Rom 10.9.

Here and now, in the present, we walk in newness of life through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. That is what we have to offer people now. It is a new heart; one open to God. But we are a prophetic sign that points forward and back. Back to the death and resurrection and forward to the coming of the Lord when all men in history will be raised and face judgement.

Communion is similar. Again listen to Paul; For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night as He was betrayed took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me”. In the same manner He also took the cup after supper saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes, 1Cor 11.23-26.

Twice Jesus said we do this ‘in remembrance’ of Him. Communion brings the past into the present through remembrance. Our faith has a foundation. The new covenant has a beginning and like all covenants its power and force continues to the present. No covenant in the Bible was ever made without sacrifice. Blood was always shed. This is the wonder of the cross. What, to many, was a shameful way to die became God’s victory over death and sin, removing the enemy’s power to control human destiny any longer.

We look back. We remember. We prophetically enact the breaking of his body for us. We eat bread and drink wine – His blood. It is a full participation. It all becomes part of who we are as we swallow and digest the elements. And we continue in this act, repeating it ‘till He comes’. For we also look forward to His return and as we do we pull the future into the present. He is coming again. “Assuredly I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God”, Mark 14.25. There is a hope, a celebration we look forward to; the marriage supper of the Lamb.

For God is getting ready to come to us. That’s right. You were not made for heaven, heaven was made for you. The New Jerusalem descends out of heaven. It comes down, Rev 21.2. And the goal of history is proclaimed with a laud voice, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself shall be with them and be their God”, Rev 21.3 (emphasis mine). Notice the emphasis. It’s not that we are with Him but that now, in the new creation, He can be with us.

Communion is a prophetic sign to this truth. We feast on it – now. We celebrate it – now, in anticipation of a bigger party in the future. You see the meek don’t inherit heaven; they inherit the earth, Matt 5.5. It’s what we were made for! It is what is coming – soon. In the mean time we live differently. It’s more than just a different set of values, its being subject to a different Kingdom, a different king.

Finally John is reminded that, “...the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy”, Rev 19.10. The more we hold to the testimony of Jesus the more we are being true to our prophetic calling. It will cause lines to be drawn for and against the truth. This is the role of the church. We provoke the status quo. We unsettle every expression of injustice and we affirm the good, the noble and the true, wherever we find it. This is the only sign the world will be given. Let’s be true to our calling. Let’s be true to our King. Let’s be true to our destiny. Let's be church.