Church Weekend Away
The Church: What is it all For?
Talk 2: The Purpose of the Church
In this talk we try and answer the question: 'What is the church all about, what is it for?' Let me give you some options - is it:
• A social club?
• A spiritual gym where Christians do a spiritual work out to build spiritual muscles?
• A safe harbour where we shelter from the storm?
• A bit of 'me time' to refocus?
• A re-fuelling depot for when we're running low
• A respite before we go back into battle with sin, the world and the devil?
• A field hospital to repair damaged Christians?
• A briefing room where we get our missions?
• A hothouse for accelerated growth, or a nursery for establishing the spiritual seedlings?
• A school room for learning the truth about God and the world?
• A mission station for reaching the lost?
The answer is 'Yes' – Church is all those things; but a surprising and mind blowing answer in Ephesians – the church has a greater reason and purpose than all of those, a higher purpose and dignity, the church, according to Ephesians exists to reveal God's glory as he restores all things through it – a new humanity ushering in a whole new creation!
We're going to look at that under two headings (and a couple of subheadings!)
God's Eternal Purpose: a Whole New Creation under Christ
God's Trophy Cabinet: Displaying his Wisdom, Power and Glory
Point 1: God's Eternal Purpose – a New Creation under Christ
There is so much that is simply staggering in this short passage that we could mine it's depths for hours and still only scratch the surface – and the richest seam focuses on God's plans and purposes being worked out in us, his church!
Have a look at verse 3:
1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 1:5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--1:6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Notice when God's plans and purposes were formed – verse 4: before the creation of the world – he had all this planned out before everything, even before the creation (think about that – God planned the church even before the fall…).
His plan was to be unfolded when the times will have reached their fulfilment – look at verse 9:
1.9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.'
Those times have now come. God's plans have now been unfolded in Jesus through his life, death and resurrection. God's purposes focus in on Christ, he is the pivot, the turning point, the essential centre of God's' work in the universe. But notice how his work goes forward from that time till now – verse 10 again.
10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.' 1:11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,1:12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.1:13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,1:14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.
God is bringing all things under Jesus as their head. That includes Paul and the Jewish believers, and it includes the Ephesians who have also been chosen and included in Christ. And it includes us, and all Christians everywhere. God's plans and purposes now centre on the body of Christ, his church – all those who are included in him for the praise of his glory.
Think about the implications of that with me: from before the first word God spoke at creation – 'let there be light' – all history looks forward to Jesus and his death and resurrection. He is the climax and focus of God's work and plans, all history turns on him.
And from Jesus onwards history is moved forward not through politics, not through war, not through great men or movements, or philosophies or science … but by God's church, Christ's body - us, and all God's people around the world.
We are what history is all about. Did that sentence scare you a little? It should: I said we are what history is all about. From the fall the whole universe has been disconnected from God by human sin; and in Jesus the very universe is brought into right order again. And the church is the beginning of that, the start of his reign that will eventually stretch to cover all the earth, the first fruits of the harvest of the ages, the forerunners of eternity! First us, then the new creation when everything is set to rights!
Right here in this room, this little gathering we're making history … now we're not miserable, feeble and pathetic, not quite. But we're a long way from glorious and world beating aren't we? Not one of us features in any lists of the great and the good, we're not on the rich list or the Queen's honours, we're not being recruited for the Apprentice, and we don't expect to feature in the history books. And yet God makes us the focus of his work in the world. God says that we're what it's all about. God is working out his eternal purpose for this great vast universe in and through us, his church. We are the outworking of his eternal plan, we have been caught up in the great work of God himself, we are significant in his plans for the very creation itself.
God is working to a plan that goes from conception to completion – God has drawn up the eternal blueprints and he is executing that plan.
So let me try a little compare and contrast. Australia and England are just about to start the next round in one of the longest running international sporting rivalries – the Ashes cricket tests. If you don't know you've been doing rather well of late, and Australia not so well. But we've been working on a plan… after the last series – won 3-1 by England in Australia the Australian Cricket Board said enough's enough, and commissioned a plan to get Australia winning again. It was published in Aug 2011 with key, measurable milestones, clear objectives, recommendations and outcomes. Since then we've won a couple of series and gone close in others; but we've also lost to New Zealand (New Zealand!) we've lost 5-0 in England and 4-0 in India. This month we surrendered our last global trophy without winning a single game. And on Monday the cricket board fired the coach, just 15 days before the start of the next ashes series.
So much for the plan then.
The problem is that God isn't on the Australian Cricket Board – there's no one on that board with the power to improve our cricket team.
What a contrast with God's plans in and through his church. We make our plans, but God makes things happen. Only he has the power to bring things into being, he's the creator. And only he has the power to plan and to execute absolutely - there are no contingencies that worry him; no road blocks to stymie him; no competitors to derail his campaign. Nothing and no one can thwart his plans.
And his plans aren't small scale, he's not working on a five year cycle or looking to improve 10% per annum… his plans encompass everything there is and run for all eternity. And that's the plan featuring us right in the middle. We've been caught up in something so far beyond us that it's beyond comprehension. But it's true. God is at work bringing all things under the headship of Jesus through his church – us.
That means that church has a dignity and power that is astonishing. We don't look much sitting here in our civilian clothes. Dress us up in uniform and get us marching on parade and we still wouldn't look much! But church has an influence that we can barely imagine. Under God's power and direction the church is building into something eternally significant. It's influence isn't limited to Westminster, or Washington, it's not carried by pollsters or lobbyists, nor by armies; but it's power extends even over the powers and principalities that govern the universe. Those great powers will fall before God's church, all history will wilt before it – eventually God's church will be all in all: History will end, but the church goes on; Power and influence fade, but we will rule with Christ.
His church for all it's weakness and insignificance is nothing less than God's plan for the future of the whole universe, being worked out in conformity with his purpose and will. The new creation is coming, and it's already started in us. Point one, the Church is key to God's eternal purposes, the beginning of the new creation in Christ.
And there's more,
God's Trophy Cabinet – Displaying His Wisdom, Power and Glory
If the church is God's plan and programme in the world we do well to ask what is the purpose of that plan? What is it that God is achieving in and through us?
The answer we have already seen is that God is bringing all thing under one head – even Jesus. But Ephesians reveals three additional specific aspects of that plan. In bringing all things under one head God reveals his amazing character – in us he reveals his wisdom, his glory and his power.
The Church Reveals God's Wisdom:
Eph 3.9-12 'His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord'
In his great wisdom God has done what no one could have predicted. At the fall it looked like God's design for the universe had been ruined. God made the world good, everything in order under his loving rule. But things unravelled spectacularly. Satan questioned God's goodness and love, Eve took the bait and Adam followed. In one fell swoop creation order was reversed and chaos unleashed. God's creation was scared by God's own curse; death entered the world, and with it pain, frustration and toil. God's good character was no longer reflected in the universe he made. God's own creation lived in rebellion against him.
But what would God do about it? What could God do about it?
He could just start again. He's God, he created out of nothing, why not return it all to nothing and start over – after all that's what the potter does when the clay goes wrong.
But what would that mean – that God was foiled, that God was just as fallible as a potter at his wheel – he might get it right sometimes, but he might not, he needs a practice go to get it right. Does that sound like God?
And what's to say things would be different second time round? If sin and death could come into God's good creation once, they could do it again. The threat of them would hang over any repeat creation just waiting to fall.
No, the only way was to win back this creation.
But then how? Justice demands he punish rebels, God could hardly fail to be true to himself, far be it from God be unjust. And how could he possibly undo the effects of sin and death so that hurts could be healed? How could what was wrong ever be made right again?
But God's wisdom overcame all that. He sends his own son as a man and his son takes the punishment for us. Justice is satisfied. And Jesus, a man like us, is resurrected and elevated to rule at God's right hand. Jesus takes the place we were designed to take – he rules the universe as God's perfect image. So he fulfils God's plans and purposes for humanity. And God includes us in him, so that all that belongs to him becomes ours, as it was designed to be from the beginning. And so through him this cracked creation is restored and renewed and will be made perfect. When Jesus returns he will reign over a redeemed humanity ruling over a new creation, all restored to even greater glory than at creation, all things in harmony with peace and joy reigning.
And what's more, as we read in Rev 21, in that new creation there will be no more death or sadness – all wrong done away with; but more than that there will be no more mourning – even the past wrongs, even the scars will somehow be set right so that we don't cry anymore – even past hurts redeemed.
Finally there will be no death there and no threat that sin might enter back in because sin and death have been decisively defeated so there is possibility of a second fall.
This the wisdom of God, evil is completely undone in a new creation. The riddle of justice and the stain of sin and the wiles of Satan all overcome. And all this is displayed in us as we've been redeemed and made what we should have been. And this leads us to the second aspect of God's Glory Revealed in us:
Alongside God's glorious wisdom the church also reveals the extent of his mighty power. That's the second aspect of God's glory that is highlighted for us in Ephesians:
The Church Reveals God's Unlimited Power
Eph 3.20-21 'Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever, Amen.'
This is one of those passages that we might miss if we're not paying careful attention. Did you notice again that Paul ascribes glory to God in the church, and in Christ Jesus. We've noticed this already, but it's striking to see it so black and white – through out all ages for ever and ever God gains glory from us, through us, in us. We are for his glory.
What is added here, and it's one of the themes of the letter, is that we show the immense power of God as it is at work in us. This is the power that raised Jesus from the dead, as Paul reminded us in Eph 1.18ff:
18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Again we see the connection between God's power at work in Jesus and his power at work in us. God's power raised Jesus from the dead. And that power is for us – God uses it to build the church. The church is established by Jesus' victory over sin and death, and the church grows as Jesus exercises his rule from his throne in heaven.
And the full extent of his mighty power is revealed in our weakness – as we who are small and humble inherit the earth.
Remember Gideon? He faced a vast army, and mustered a tiny force by comparison. But God says your army's too big: it might look like you won by your own strength, cunning or strategy. So God has him send away all but 300 men so it's beyond dispute that the victory came from the LORD. And those 300 men, I'm afraid, are a picture of us. We're not a vast army. No one could think that that we overcome strongholds and transform societies and even nations by our own strength. But God works all those things through his church. And our manifest weakness reveals his profound strength.
God has placed his church in space and time, feeble little sinners in the middle of a cosmic battle, seemingly helpless. None of us could stand on our own against sin, the world and the devil. Even together we can't stand against those enemies. Our collective strength is pathetic by comparison. But God shows his strength by sustaining us against all the powers and principalities ranged against us. After 2000 years Christ's church still stands, still grows, still prospers. There is some pruning, there are those going astray and those under Gods disciplines, but here we are and the gates of hell have not prevailed against us. And the church moves forward, we see it's progress in China, Latin America, in Africa and South East Asia – even in Muslim strongholds; and yes, even in Europe where the church long ago seemed to lose it's way…
There's a clear implication for us – since God's power is at work in us – the very same power which brought the universe into being, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead – then we can trust God to hold on to us, we can really trust him, absolutely trust him. Remember Jesus last words to his disciples following the great commission – he says 'I am with you even to the very ends of the age' (Matt 28.18-20) and when Peter made the great confession he says 'I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it' (Matt 16.15-18). God's power is greater than anything. By his strength we can stand, and we will stand, if we stand on him, in confident assurance of his mighty power (not in confidence in our relevance, or our leadership, or our learning, or even our humble submission to him – in confidence is in him alone).
A further implication is that we are free to take risks for God – as William Carey said we can 'expect great things from God' and therefore we can 'attempt great things for God'. Interesting hearing from Matt and Kerry about Dr Sasa. Dr Sasa's plans for Burma have become ever more ambitious – from providing health care to rural villages to transforming the shape of his whole province with health care and education and who knows what else. If you suggestion that he might be taking on too much he throws it back to God – how can he try any thing less than everything if he is doing it for God, if he is doing it in God's strength, for God's glory. If God wants it to be done is he too small to do it? Is he to weak to accomplish it? Can he only do one thing at a time? Sasa knows that God is big enough to make a whole new Burma if he wanted to, that he holds the whole world in his hand and has unlimited power, unlimited resources. For Sasa to try to do 50% of what is needed is to say that he thinks that God is only good for 50%, but Sasa knows God's power – he expects great things from God, so he attempts great things, and God has been more than faithful so far!
So God reveals the vast reservoirs of his wisdom, and his unlimited power in us. Finally we see he reveals his glory in his grace.
The Church Reveals God's Glorious Grace
2:1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,2:2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.2:3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.2:4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,2:5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.2:6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,2:7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—2:9 not by works, so that no-one can boast.2:10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
This is where it gets very personal: we're included in this, because God's grace has come to us. Do you see the connection here, how we reveal the depths, the extent, the glorious reach of God's grace? God's grace is so great because it reaches even to us, to draw us near to God. Why is that so extraordinary? Because we are those who are by nature objects of wrath: In and of ourselves we deserve wrath from him.
Of all the things that the Bible teaches us about ourselves this might be the least palatable for us, and the hardest for us to fully grasp. We're not that bad are we? Yes we are.
I want you to imagine God's heavenly court again. Like before take any royal court you've ever seen and just magnify that by thousands and thousands. God is infinitely powerful and wonderful and glorious and infinitely worthy of praise. If an earthly King is glorious for ruling, what is God who not only rules but gives existence itself to all things? So picture in your minds eye that glorious heavenly Court where God sits on his throne and exercises his rule. Surrounding that throne are the thousands upon thousands of servants who do his bidding – angels and seraphs – magnificent creatures, terrifyingly powerful and mighty, bowing down and praising God in unison. When they speak the very ground shakes, and these are just his servants. And from his throne God speaks and everything in all creation obeys, absolutely. Matter itself recognises the voice of it's master and does his bidding. That's how it is, that's how it should be. God speaks and creation obeys.
Now insert yourself in that picture. Imagine the scene when God speaks and nature itself bows and obeys, and the angels fall down and cry out 'glory' and 'worthy is the lamb' and 'holy, holy, holy' – but you say 'eh, maybe, maybe not, actually, no God'. Just that, that alone is enough to disrupt the very fabric of reality – how can that impertinence stand in heaven, where God's throne is, where God's power and glory are fully seen and recognised. You've questioned God's right to rule, called his glory, his dignity into question. You've challenged him as if you were somehow on an equal footing with him. You might as well try and storm the throne and take a seat there, push God aside saying: 'Thanks God, you've done a great job making the universe, but I'll take over now, I think we both know who'll do a better job'.
Rebellion against God is such profound silliness, and so grossly offensive to God's glory. The universe itself gags at our rebellion. The universe owes nothing to you, but it owes God everything, and so do you, and so do I. In keeping with his great power and dignity it is entirely appropriate that we be removed and dealt with. We've pretended that counts for nothing, we've lived as if God isn't important, and what he says doesn't really matter, and for that reason we're objects of his wrath – we deserve destruction; and destruction must come if God is to retain the honour and dignity that are due to him.
That's what we are by nature, but God doesn't leave us there, despite our manifest unworthiness, despite our disgraceful ingratitude and our pitiful rebellion, despite all we've done to invite God's wrath: verse 4, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved – and God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Extraordinary! - despite all we've done we will stand in heaven for all eternity: and that is testimony to his magnificent grace. In the coming ages, for all ages, all heaven will know just how generous God is, because we'll be there, his church, his redeemed people, forgiven rebels, adopted children, we who should have received wrath, but instead receive heaven itself.
Now and for all eternity the church exists for God's glory, to display God's grace in his kindness to sinners who, though greatly unworthy, sit with him in the heavenly realms in Christ throughout the coming ages.
In this way the church is like a gigantic trophy in God's trophy cabinet. That sounds a bit trite, but think about it. What does a trophy represent? It represents the triumph, the great achievement of success over adversaries and opponents. Somehow it symbolises so much more. As an Australian I desperately want us to win the ashes – the trophy is inconsequential, only inches tall – but it represents a great triumph over you. How that works I don't know. Somehow we feel it represents some sort of inherent superiority. The winner Lords it over the loser until next time we meet to compete for the trophy. And in that sense it's all a bit ridiculous isn't it? Australia winning the trophy doesn't really say anything about me as a person, just as much as England (or should that be England, South Africa, Wales and Ireland) winning the trophy says anything about any of you, be you English, Welsh, Irish or South African!
But we, the church, the great trophy of God's grace, very much say something about God – because he has won us fair and square in a great contest. And it was all him, and the contest and the manner in which it was won says a great deal about God and his character, not just his power – he didn't just muscle his way through – and not just his wisdom – he didn't just outthink his enemies – but supremely about his character: he is the loving and gracious and kind God, the forgiving God. As the hymn says 'No more we doubt the, glorious prince of life' – we did doubt God, that's the whole point, we rejected him. But he has demonstrated beyond all doubt that he is God, and that he is good. And this is his glory, the great boast that he makes in all eternity – us, the demonstration of his goodness, his kindness, his grace. How do we know what God is like – look how kind he's been to us, he gives us heaven itself, though it costs him everything, his very son. What a God he is.
In case you haven't realised this yet, this says to us is that God's grace sufficient: enough for us and for all sinners. When we stand in heaven we will see just how startling it is that God himself should pay the price for our rebellion. And we will sing and shout in awe and wonder. And for all eternity our presence will shout his grace. Why wait till then? Rejoice in it now, revel in it, shout about it. Don't just tell me about it, or the rest of the church who already know about it. This is too big to keep to ourselves, we need to shout God's glory from the roof tops – for everyone to hear about, for everyone to know. God's grace reaches to each and every sinner, there is no one too bad to be saved, no one too rebellious, too settled in their ways. God has done all this so that his glory can be seen, and we have our part to play in making it visible. His glory grows with each sinner redeemed and sat with him in those heavenly realms. And it is God's job to redeem sinners – but our task to tell them about it, that's our purpose for all eternity, let's get started now.
As we finish, what have we seen this morning? Richard Coekin summarises: 'We've seen in Ephesians that the purpose of the heavenly church, and every local church expressing it, is to demonstrate in the heavenly realms the success of God's plan to unite everything under Christ. As we maintain the unity of our community life in the Spirit by our loving behaviour submitted to Christ's instructions through his Word, our purpose is nothing less than the glory of God: 'Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.'