The Visible Church (I)

Audio Player

The Visible Church - Article 19

If you had an appointment with God what would that mean for you?

Would it be the most exciting thing that ever happened to you?
Would it frighten you?
Would it bore you?
Would you ink it in the calendar and be careful to make sure you were there, or would you be looking for an alternative??

Why am I asking? Because this morning our topic is the church – and our big idea is that we gather at church to hear God speak to us – church is a weekly appointment with God.

And to unpack that idea I've got three points for us this morning…

One – Church is God's people gathered to hear God speak; &
Two – the true church seen is wherever God's word is preached truly

First we start with the question what is the church? And article 19 helps us to see that the church is God's people gathered to hear God speak. That's point one:

Church is God's people gathered to hear God speak

Or, article 19 of the Anglican articles of faith puts it like this,

The Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments are duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

It's almost like the Anglican reformers had this morning's bible reading's open in front of them as they wrote this. And they might well have, because our readings this morning - Hebrews 12, and Deuteronomy 4 describe the church in just those terms.

Both Deuteronomy 4 and Hebrews 12 look back to the classic 'church' passage in the Old Testament: the day that God gathered his people to hear the law at Mt Sinai. That's Exodus 19-34, fifteen chapters, which is why they weren't our reading this morning.

Let me summarise: God rescued Israel from Egypt and then gathered them at Mt Sinai (also known as Mt Horeb) where He met with them. The people were warned to prepare themselves, and not to even touch the mountain, or they would die. God came down on the mount in a cloud of smoke with lightening and fire. And Moses went up into God's presence. And God spoke – he spoke out loud, they heard his actual voice, thundering from the mountain as God declared the 10 commandments … and the people were so terrified that they begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking or they would surely die!

You might not recognise that as the pattern for our church services – but the Bible does. Four times in Deuteronomy this is called 'the day of the church' – Deut 4:10, 9:10, 10:4, 18:16; Stephen calls it the day of the church in Acts 7.38 and Hebrews 12 makes the comparison explicit.

Deut 4.9 sums it up for us:

"Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb (that is Sinai), when he said to me, "Assemble (that's the word translated 'church' – church –) the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children."  You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire."

Notice God's stated purpose in this: he gathered them there so that they could:
1. hear his words;
2. learn to revere him; and
3. teach his words to their children.

God gathered them to hear God's covenant word – with an ongoing purpose, so that that covenant word would be remembered, so it would be lived by, and so that it would be passed on to the coming generations, so they could live by it too.

This Day of the Church was designed as a defining event: God's Covenant Word defined who they were and how they lived for God. So this gathering is the highpoint of the Exodus, even more significant than the Exodus itself. This is the point of the rescue – God brings them out so they can be his people and he can be their God.

But of course there's a deep irony: God gathered them to listen to his word, but they begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking! The word of God—being the word of God—calls for a response. It demands that its hearers listen to it, pay attention to it, and receive it; that they respond with obedience and trust, but they couldn't bear to hear it.

As the pattern for our church gatherings this tells us what church is about –church is God's gathering his saved people to hear his word by which they are to live. God gathers them together, and God gives them life through his word.

So we see a great gulf open up between church and all other gatherings or associations. Our social institutions – the labour club; the football club; the knitting circle and mothers meeting – they're about us getting together with people with shared views or interests; we opt in, or the members of the club can opt to include us if it's that sort of club. But church doesn't come from us, it doesn't flow from our needs, agendas or interests, it's from God for his agenda, his word. Church is God's doing, we're caught up in something much bigger than ourselves, like the Israelites standing at the foot of Mt Sinai watching the whole thing blazing with fire and shaking at the sound of the very voice of God.

So the first application is this – we are called out – distinct from the world around us, deliberately so; we're called to belong to God, to live under his covenant. That means we live to a different set of standards, but more than that, it's about belonging: we still belong to our family and our country and our facebook circles; but now we belong more fundamentally to something bigger and more significant, to God's church, God's people – he is our God and we are his people – this is the most fundamental and important thing about us – we remain where we are, but we're fundamentally changed.

The second application is that God's word is absolutely central to our meeting together. God's word is the absolute fundamental. Christians can gather for all sorts of things – but if the word of God is not central, then they are not church. If we gather to sing, but not to listen to the word of God, it's not church. If we gather for religious rituals and to hear some thoughts on moral issues but don't listen to the word of God then it's not church. If we put on a great show with spectacle and mystery but don't listen to the word of God it's not church. If we teach that the bible's not God's word, just man's views about God, it's not church. If the bible is carried around and treated as a religious artefact, but not opened and listened to; if religious behaviour and moral teaching are everywhere, but the word of God is absent – then it's not church.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Many gatherings call themselves church but they're missing the fundamental thing, God is not there because they do not listen to his word. The Word of God is central to the very existence of the church, it is the life of the church, hearing it is our central aim and purpose as a church, because it gives us life, and it sustains our life.

So the first thing we need to know about church is that it is the gathering around God's word. But there's more. So we move on to our second point.

Church is the Universal, Heavenly Gathering and the Local Gathering

'Church' in the New Testament primarily refers to the church in heaven, gathered around God's throne, and to each individual local church as an expression of that one eternal heavenly church. There are many earthly congregations, but they have their source in the heavenly reality of which they are all manifestations.

All of this is spelt out clearly in Hebrews 12, so let's make a detour there…

Pick it up at verse 18:

"For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear."

This is Mt Sinai being described, But "you have not come to that" he says:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly [there's our church] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

We've been gathered together at the Mountain of the Lord: not Sinai, but Zion—the heavenly Zion. We've come to a gathering of all the saved, and to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very centre. Coming to Jesus we come to the mediator of a new covenant that speaks a better word than the word of Abel (remember Abel's blood cried from the ground for vengeance, and God heard it; Jesus' blood does not cry out for vengeance, but for mercy!).

Like Exodus we're gathered to hear God speak. But we're hearing a better voice: the voice of the new covenant in Jesus' blood, which speaks mercy, pardon and forgiveness. That is the voice we've come to, the gospel voice of salvation through Jesus Christ. So when we gather as the saved to hear the word of God, the word of God that we hear is the word of our salvation, the gospel word that saves us. We are warned to listen to this word and not reject it; we're to respond to it with trust, repentance and obedience.

So the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly – church – is the gathering of all God has saved and redeemed in Christ who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may live by it.

So where does our church fit into this picture? We gather here on earth in our small assemblies not to find our way to God but because God has already found us and gathered us to himself in Christ.

How can we get our heads around this? I'm sure we've all seen a royal court – if not in reality in film or on TV. A royal court is designed to reveal and reflect the majesty and power of the sovereign. Everything centres on the royal throne from which authority flow and rule is exercised. And earthly courts are modelled on the heavenly court where God rules from his throne. That heavenly court is far, far greater than any we might lay eyes on in this life – greater even than anything we can imagine in films or fantasy. Nothing can compare with God and his glory. There he sits on his mighty throne, high and exalted. And around him bows rank upon rank of mighty angelic being, so much greater than us they're terrifying to look at. And as they proclaim him praise the very earth shakes – this is the picture we get in the bible – and these are just his servants. And he glows with perfection, holiness and mighty power – he's like the sun. And like the sun we can't look directly at him, but must bow our heads.

And the remarkable thing is that we, his church, his people, sit with him in that heavenly court.

All this means our highest and greatest identity is fixed here, our closest allegiance is to Jesus and his church, not to home or family or people, let alone to clothing brand or sports team. By faith in Jesus we are transported into the heavenly realm, already seated with him there – included in him: where he is, we are! And our humble little church is a part of all of that – when we meet on a Sunday we are doing something far more than we can see on the surface, we meet in Gateshead, and we meet in the very throne room of God. In that sense all churches are humble and little, even the greatest, most impressive church pales into insignificance beside the heavenly gathering of all God's people.

How does this affect what we do in church? This is what stands behind all that teaching in 1 Cor about the church needing to accurately reflect God's character – we meet as God's people, in his name, around his throne. Don't do anything that would be unacceptable in the crown court of heaven, because that's where we are! Our energy and enthusiasm not only linked to the people around us, but to the heavenly court – to the saints who have gone before, to the angels, and to God himself who meets with us, speaks to us, hears from us. All we do in church is done in his presence… so sing heartily, pray fervently, praise with all our might etc. not just for us here, but for God himself.

And finally see how this affects our significance. All of us in life want to be part of something bigger, something wonderful and powerful, something that will last. Here significance is staring us in the face. It's here, it's right here, in this moment as we meet around God's word and listen intently, as we work at submitting ourselves to him, as we try and encourage each other to live for him, and as we pray for each other, as we pray for this world and declare Jesus' goodness to our friends – these are the moments of eternal significance.

We need to learn to see and to feel the weight of eternity, right here in our church, the local manifestation of God's heavenly, eternal gathering.

We've seen that the bible defines church as the gathering of God's people around his word; and that it meets locally and also around his great throne in heaven. But there are many churches – how can we know which local congregations are truly part of that heavenly congregation? That's the point of our article, and it's our third point this morning:

The Church becomes visible where the true word is preached

How can we distinguish a church that truly belongs to Christ from one that is false? This was one of the big questions at the time of the reformation – after all the Roman Catholic church claimed to be the sole representative of Christ on earth – but it condemned the preaching of the bible and executed those who preached it and translated it into English.

Today there is seemingly less at stake – no one has even threatened to burn me for not being Catholic – and yet, if we can choose freely between churches we really need to know how to tell the one where we meet with God from the one which is a sham, don't we?

So this article is designed to help us to see which of the visible churches belongs to Christ – it says the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered. Visible here means which of the local congregations which we can see, as opposed to the one true heavenly church which is not yet visible to our eyes.

Which local congregation is truly the church of Christ? The one where there is active faith in the congregation, and where God's pure word is truly preached.

See a knitting club is characterised by knitting – it may well do other things, like talking and eating and drinking, that facilitate being a group, but if they do not knit they have lost their purpose, they're just a social group. In the same way we are characterised by these two things that mark out who we are – God's people (faithful men), listening to God's voice (the pure word of God preached and sacraments administered) We will do many other things that facilitate and reflect our love for God and each other, but these things make us a church.

Do you see how this works? When we meet we see faith in action as we pray and as we sing and as we listen. There is no church if there is no faith. But more than that, as the preacher preaches, if he preaches truly from God's word, somehow, in his mercy God speaks to us, just as surely as he spoke to the gathered people from the mountain all those years ago. God comes and goes to work in us by his spirit through his word as it is preached. God's living, powerful, active word works even as weak, fallible preachers speak.

So when do you expect God's spirit to work in our services? As we sing? He might… as we pray? He might… as we preach – he promises that he will! Isn't that extraordinary? Our bible teaching isn't just for information, but to give life; So listen carefuly. As Psalm 95 says today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts – God is speaking, are you listening to obey? Or to critique? To grow or to judge?

Out time is gone, what have we learnt?

First God has called us together around his word. If you had an appointment with God, a sit down in a café say, what would it take to break that appointment? But God himself calls us to meet and to sit at his feet and listen to his word. This is the first appointment in our week, the highest priority, the most significant thing we do.

Second we meet with a very clear purpose – that we might listen to God so that we can live for God. What we hear is the command of the living God, the covenant word that teaches us how to live. Our lives must be shaped and transformed by this word.

Third we don't just meet with the people in the room, we meet with God, and with all his people and his angels gathered around his throne. Church has a glory and significance far beyond what we see. We need to be reverent, and to adorn ourselves with good deeds and with love and joy and peace and patience and all the fruit of God's Spirit at work in us. And we pray knowing that he hears us and gives all we need.

And so if you're looking for a church, look for this. If you're praying for church, pray for this. If you're leading church, aim for this: that as you meet God's pure word would be preached and the sacraments duly administered so that there would be life, faith, in the congregation. So that as we meet it might not be to hear from men, but to listen to the very voice of God as he speaks to us by his word.

Back to top