What is the Church?

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:11-22


I’d like you to consider a visual aid. What I want you to do is identify what is wrong with it.

Remember this?

“Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.”

That ditty is so sweet. And it is so wrong.

Really? What is wrong with it?

It gives the impression that the church is a building. But the church is not a building; it is a people. The church is not a Sunday event we go to; it is a family we belong to.

The church is not a Sunday event we go to; it is a family we belong to.

The English word “church” in the Bible is translated from the Greek word, ekklesia, which means assembly or gathering. This is why the study of the church is called ecclesiology. Ekklesia-ology.

Ekklesia is a compound word formed by the Greek preposition ek (out of) and the verb kaleo (to call). This compound word for church teaches us that the church is a group of people from all tribes, nations, and languages who have been “called out” from the world to be disciples of Jesus.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, being part of God’s “called out” people was never merely an individual experience. It was always communal. Therefore, in the Old Testament, God’s people were members of a huge, extended family called Israel.

In the New Testament, individual believers were gathered as members of God’s new Israel, the church, not an ethnically defined family, but a spiritually defined family — defined by each member’s profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

What I have noticed in my years as a pastor is that there are many genuine Christians who see the church as an optional part of their lives.

Maybe it is that western culture is far more individualistic than eastern cultures.

Therefore, we tend to think of Jesus primarily as a personal Savior rather than the Savior of a specific, defined group of people. Jesus is certainly a personal Savior. But he is much more than that when it comes to his role as Savior and Lord and Head of the Church.

My desire in this post is for us is to develop a view of the church that stirs your passion for what it would look like for the church to maximize its potential in a local community.

To that end, let’s start with understanding…

 

THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH

Let’s start in verse 11.

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

What stands out to me in these verses is the contrast between “formerly” in v. 11 and “but now” in verse 13.

This sounds a bit like being in a fraternity or sorority, doesn’t it? I remember the day I got a bid to join a fraternity at Ole Miss. I was so excited. They wanted me? They wanted me! 

There was a day I wasn’t in. Then I was.

The gospel is a bid into the family of God. Can you believe it? God wants you to belong to his family!

1 Peter 2:9-10, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

If you are a believer, you belong to this chosen people — chosen not on merits, but by grace alone—a people of grace who live to praise and honor Jesus.

The essential nature of the church is a redeemed community of grace, where the common testimony is: “Formerly, but now…”

And with the “but now” comes hope.

They formerly were (in verse 12) “without hope and without God in the world.”

Isn’t this what the world is longing for? We read the news and despair. Sometimes, we look at ourselves and feel hope-less. What a gift we have to offer the world!

1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Peter assumes that believers are a hopeful people. Of course, the reason for hope is not religious sentimentality, but the historical, literal, bodily resurrection and present reign of Jesus as King. He is sovereign. In him, we are forgiven, with the promise of eternal joy before us. Of course we have hope!

The church, as a community of hope, has been designed by God to function and thrive in an atmosphere of grace (v. 13).  I cannot overemphasize this.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

Notice the verbs. We have been “brought near.”

In school we all learned the difference between an active very and a passive verb, right? An active verb describes an action we do; but a passive verb describes an action done to us. Something we receive.

“Brought near” is passive, indicating that we didn’t find out way to Jesus on our own. It was not our intellect or moral superiority or spiritual sensitivity.

God found us in our sinful, condemned, spiritually dead condition and brought us to himself, near, not to condemn us, but to rescue us from the judgment our sin deserves.

Thus, the reference to “the blood of Christ, where Jesus was condemned upon a cross in our place so that we could be forgiven, cleansed and reconciled to God as beloved sons and daughters.

Therefore, the essential nature of the church is a people of hope who live by This is grace, which is the defining truth for the church.

We do not belong to the church because we are good, but because we have received the mercy and grace of God in Jesus.

This means that we will not unbelong when we blow it! This is such good news!

Grace is the spiritual air we breathe because we are recipients of this work, not participants. If we live on oxygen physically; we live on grace spiritually.

The reason why I want to emphasize the dynamic of grace in the life of the church, because…

  • When grace is diminished, the weeds of legalism, hypocrisy, gossip, and conflict are given freedom to grow like kudzu.
  • But when grace is magnified, the fruit of honesty, humility, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation… and unity begin to grow.

In addition to the nature of the church as a people of grace whose testimony is “formerly, but now,” we need to see the importance of the unity of the church.

 

THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH

What we are going to see is that unity is experienced through the cross and in the context of diversity.

However, before we address unity we may need to address the apparent lack of unity in the church. Not only are there divisions denominationally, but on a local level, there is often disunity and conflict among Christians — disunity that has led to a great deal of disillusionment among Christians and has opened the church to the charge of hypocrisy from the world.

This is why Paul emphasizes the point that unity is experienced through the cross.

14 For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

 

Five years ago, The Washington Post ran a story about Chris Simpson. Simpson was a white garbage collector and former Marine whose life had been dominated by racial hatred. Until his family saw the movie Courageous and began attending Sunday services of a nearby church. Soon, his racial hatred was overcome by the love of Jesus. The article was about how he was having tatoos removed from his knuckles that read PURE HATE.

The cross torn down the hostility and replaced hatred with peace, unity and love.

Paul knew that human hostility and animosity was largely due to our propensity to defend our self-righteousness, something to which we look that we believe gives us a name in the eyes of the world.

The racism we see expressed in fringe groups such as the KKK and Neo-Nazi movement is just a warped form of self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness can be racial, it can be religious and moral. It can be secular, where we achieve a name through vocational success. Or through academics. Or athletics. Or just being right.

But the cross destroys self-righteousness.

And in having our self-righteousness destroyed, we are able to receive the gift righteousness that Jesus offers.

This is the impact of Paul’s use of the Greek word katagresas in verse 15. This word is translated “to invalidate” or more strongly, “to abolish.”[1]

What was abolished by the cross was the measuring stick that the Jews had used to feel superior to Gentiles — the law.

Paul says, “[God’s] purpose was… to reconcile both [Gentiles and Jews] to God [the same way]… through the cross.”

The cross utterly and absolutely destroys the measuring sticks we use to compare and rank each other. Morality, material wealth, worldly prestige, race or denominational affiliation.

In leveling the ground before the cross, we are able to experience peace. The only boast we can make is in Jesus and HIS righteousness.

The gospel is our unity. Not sentimentality, but grace.

With such a gospel foundation, it is not surprising that unity in the church is to be experienced in the context of diversity.

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

 

Have you seen those license plates that have UNG and Georgia Tech on opposites sides, or Florida and Tennessee, or Auburn and Alabama? The tag line reads, “A House Divided.”

In the church this will apply to socio-economic diversity, ethnic, gender, generational diversity. Every kind you can imagine!

Yet, with such diversity of background, temperament, and the remaining sin nature, it is not whether conflict is going to happen in the church, among roommates, or in marriage.

The question is how we are going to handle it?

If we slide back into self-righteousness there will be increased conflict. But if we can keep the cross of Jesus front and center, there is hope of repentance, forgiveness and genuine reconciliation.

Because it is the gospel that enables us to live at peace and live on mission together.

 

THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH

From this passage, I simply want you to see how the mission, or purpose, of the church is to grow and glow. Let me explain.

We are to grow in three ways. To describe this growth, Paul uses a building metaphor.

We are to grow relationally.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.

Now, as family members together, we probably will want to get to know each other! What I think is really cool about growing closer with those in the family is that your worldview will begin to align with other believers and you will begin to see the world from the same grace perspective.

As that happens, you will be growing relationally, as long as the implications of the cross remain central, which is why…

We are to grow theologically.

20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

When we become part of the family of God, we have unlimited riches of grace to explore. So, when we talk about Bible study, we are not talking about merely an academic reading of an ancient text. We are mining the biblical text for the gold of more and more grace, whether justifying grace, sanctifying grace, or sustaining grace.

The longer you are in the family, the more you will come to understand and appreciate the grace foundation of the church, but you will want to know more about it and share it with others, which leads to a third way we are to grow, which is…

We are to grow missionally.

21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.

Here the church as the people of God is compared to a physical building, playing off of the dwelling of God in the Old Testament being the physical temple.

Just as the Temple then had to be built, brick by brick, so is the church as a family built believer by believer. As new people are added the family, the building “rises.”

As we grow relationally, theologically and missionally we will fulfill the second purpose of the church, which is to glow.

22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

_________________________________

In February 1954, a navy pilot named Jim Lovell set out on a night-training mission from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Japan. It was a cloudy night. Pitch black.

Not long into his flight, his instrument panel suddenly short-circuited, burning out all the lights in the cockpit. He couldn’t see the sea or the sky. He had no visual markers to let him know which way to fly.

In his own words, “The blackness outside the plane had come inside.”

Nearing despair, he looked down and thought he saw a faint blue-green glow trailing along below the airplane. His training had prepared him for this. He was seeing a cloud of phosphorescent algae called “bioluminescent dinoflagellates” glowing in the sea that had been activated by the heat from the engines of his aircraft.

The glow produced from the algae provided enough light for him to find his way back to the carrier.

Jim Lovell would go on to become an astronaut and commander of the famous Apollo 13 space mission around the moon.

His life was saved because of glowing algae!

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates. What a great picture of what the church is to be for the world! Glowing. Showing. Leading people to Jesus.

In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said,

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds… and glorify your Father in heaven.

 

Our mission is to grow in grace and glow with grace— reflecting the light of the gospel to a dark world.

But in order to glow, like the algae, we must be activated, not by the warmth of an aircraft engine, but by the warmth of God’s love expressed to us in the cross of Jesus.

Has your heart been warmed? Has your faith been activated? Are you ready to grow and glow?

Maybe you feel far from God? Unworthy? Weighed with guilt?

2:13 Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

You job is not to do anything. It is simply to receive by believing. And in believing, you become part of God’s family, the church.

_______________________________

What is the Church – Review and Discussion Guide

  1. Discuss this statement: “The church is not a building or a Sunday event we go to. The church is a family we belong to.”

 

  1. Why do we say that the church is “a people of grace?”

 

  1. How is the church the hope of the world?

 

  1. Why is unity such a vital aspect of God’s design for the church?

 

  1. Describe how God has designed the church to be “the light of the world?”

 

  1. How does the cross destroy the self-righteousness that undermines (1) Christian unity and (2) Christian witness?

 


[1] Werner Foerster, “Εἰρήνη, Εἰρηνεύω, Εἰρηνικός, Εἰρηνοποιός, Εἰρηνοποιέω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 400–401.

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