Monday, August 12, 2013

What is a Church? (Philippians 1:1-2)

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This week, a very significant anniversary in my life passed by. It was 8 years ago on a Friday night, August 5, that I first met most of you, and on Sunday, August 7, 2005 I preached my first sermon in this pulpit, after which you graciously affirmed me to become the tenth pastor of Immanuel’s rich history. As I thought about that day, I went back into my files and pulled out the sermon I preached on that Sunday, and the more I thought of it, the more I felt God leading me to revisit that text and message on this Lord’s Day as we take up the task of nominating our next group of deacon candidates. Though my official “anniversary” date here is not until September 11, I’ve spent this past week reflecting back on that first time I ever entered the sanctuary for worship eight years ago this week, and how delighted I have been every Lord’s day since to be with you. It is my earnest prayer and desire to spend many more with you. We have walked with many of you through good times and bad, and you have walked with us through our own good times and bad times, and we have never been more grateful than we are today to call you our church family and to call this place home. You all have been our church family longer than any other in our lives. So, I want you to know that at the Reaves household, when we say the word “church,” we think of “you.”       

So, what comes to mind when you think of “church”? Maybe you remember learning at a very early age a little rhyme where you join your hands together and say, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open it up and see all the people.” But that isn’t what Scripture teaches. If we were to use our hands to depict what the biblical understanding of church is, we would join them together and say, “Some have buildings, some have steeples, but if you really want to see the church, then you have to look at the people.”

The Apostle Paul first traveled to the Greek town of Philippi sometime around 50 AD. That journey is detailed for us in Acts 16. There, he and his traveling companions led three individuals to Christ, and two of those individuals saw their families come to faith as well. This small group of people became the core of the first church on European soil. This fledgling church in Philippi would become a great source of encouragement, blessing and joy in the life and ministry of Paul. Some 10 years after his first visit, after receiving an offering from that church, delivered to him at his place of imprisonment in Rome by one of their members named Epaphroditus, he is writing them to thank them, to encourage them, and to challenge them to preserve the unity that had been such a joy to him.

He begins this letter like most did in that day. He begins with his name, then he addresses the recipients, and then he gives them a word of greeting. But the Apostle Paul is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is not wasting words on small talk and the shallow exchange of pleasantries. Even his introductory greeting gives us a picture of what the church is. In these rich words, we see a portrait of the church of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that as we examine these two brief verses today, the same Holy Spirit that inspired these words will apply them to our hearts and help us to better understand what the church is.

I. The Church Should Be Understood In Regard to Its Composition

The church consists of people. But not just any people. Paul mentions here the church’s saints and the church’s servants.

            A. A Church is composed of saints (To all the saints in Christ Jesus)

When we hear the word “saint” today, it is likely to cause confusion. Most people, upon hearing this word, would immediately think of a football team in New Orleans, or of some dead Christian who is depicted in a statue somewhere. Others may think of a sweet grandmotherly type who never said a cross word to anyone (or if she did we don’t remember it) and made delicious cookies. “Now she was a real saint.” None of these reflect the biblical meaning of the word “saint.”

The word saint, as we see it used biblically, is a word that applies to every follower of Jesus Christ. These are the members of His church. It is the customary word used to describe Christians. After all, the word “Christian” only occurs three times in the New Testament – and it is never used by Paul. Paul uses the word saint some 60 times to refer to Christians—not to dead ones, but always to living ones. They are not the Christians who live in heaven, but the ones who live in places like Philippi, Rome, Colossae, Corinth, and Greensboro. In the eyes of God there are two categories of people in the world: saints and sinners, or as J. Vernon McGee says, “Saints and Ain’ts.” And the saints are the sinners who have been saved by the grace of God. Every person experiences life as a sinner; some encounter Jesus Christ and are transformed to be saints.

The Greek word underlying this word “saint” in the New Testament means “holy, separated, consecrated.” It describes someone who has been separated from sin, and set apart for God’s holy use. This is not a title that is earned by self-effort. It is bestowed to those who are in Christ. This is a positional reality for all believers in Jesus Christ. In addressing the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul referred to those who are saints by calling. The one who has turned from sin to place his or her faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – God has called him or her “saint.” This is the theological reality of justification. At the very moment one gives his or her life to Jesus, that individual’s sins are forgiven, they are declared “not-guilty” before God, and they are credited with the full righteousness of Christ. God no longer sees the justified soul stained crimson by their sins. Rather, He sees them clothed in impeccable righteousness of Jesus.

Though this is a positional reality, it is not always a practical one. After all, Paul referred to the Corinthian Christians as saints, and then went on to describe some of the sinful activity that they were engaged in. The Colossians are called saints, though Paul goes on to confront heresy that is beginning to spread through their ranks. But certainly we do not want our beliefs or practices to be the cause of one doubting the integrity of our Lord. He has called us saints; therefore we should live and believe as if we are. He has declared us holy; we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

It is interesting that saints are spoken of in the plural in all but one occurrence in the New Testament, and even that one singular use is in the context of all the members of the group. God does not show preferential treatment to those who come to Him. The old gospel song said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” At Philippi, there was Lydia, a wealthy Gentile business-woman who had come to embrace the true and living God of the Jews. On the banks of the river, she was quietly converted as she responded to Paul’s message of salvation in Jesus. There was the poor demon-possessed slave girl, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to fatten the pockets of the charlatans who marketed her on the streets. She was quickly converted as Paul cast out the spirit which was controlling her. Then there was the Philippian jailor – a working-class family man, loyal to his government, diligent in his workplace. He experienced a “quaking” conversion as the jailhouse got rocked, and he sought out those rejoicing Christians to ask them how he could be saved. There were the families of Lydia and the jailor. Different people, different stories, different walks of life, different genders, different ages, different social and economic standings – but all saints in Christ Jesus.

You see the same thing as you look at Paul and Timothy, whose names appear in these verses. Paul had been a zealous and patriotic Jew, persecuting the Christians even to death. But when he saw the light of Christ, he was knocked off his high-horse on the Damascus road, and he was dramatically converted. Timothy was the son of a Greek father and a devout Jewish mother. One writer says he was half-Jew, half-Greek, but all-Christian. His name means “He who honors God.” In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul comments on how Timothy was taught the Scriptures from a young age by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. We might say he was developmentally converted as his family members sowed the gospel seeds into his heart, before he finally came to faith in Christ through Paul’s preaching in Lystra.

But it doesn’t matter how you came to faith in Christ – quietly, quickly, quakingly; dramatically, developmentally. What matters is that you have come to Him. If you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, we stand together on level ground before Him. We are saints in Christ Jesus and members together of His church.

When we think of the church, we have to think of its composition, and that includes its saints. But also,

            B. A church consists of servants

The call to salvation in Christ is a calling to serve Christ. There is no Christian who has not been called and equipped to serve. Some serve as a vocation, and some serve as volunteers. Some are in the spotlight, some are backstage, but all are necessary. The Christian church has always wrestled with the temptation to elevate those who hold positions or titles to be more important in the church than others, but this is a misunderstanding of biblical teaching and it has crippled the church at times. All of us have spiritual gifts, and all of us have a ministry calling. Some are called as pastors and some as deacons, but these are not more important than any other in the body of Christ.

In the passage before us, Paul mentions overseers (or bishops as your translation may have it) and deacons specifically. Several New Testament passages make it clear that the overseer or bishop is the same individual referred to elsewhere as an elder or pastor. In Acts 20, for example, Paul uses all three titles (pastor/shepherd, overseer/bishop, and elder) to refer to the church leaders in Ephesus. Peter does the same in 1 Peter 5. So the overseer or bishop here is the pastor. But notice that it is plural as it is in all New Testament churches. The idea of one individual being singularly responsible for the work of the ministry is foreign to the New Testament. In modern times, it is often necessary for a church to have only one pastor for logistical reasons, but whenever possible, having a plurality of elders or pastors is more reflective of the biblical ideal.

And then there are the deacons. Their ministry began in Acts 6, when the ministry needs of the congregation threatened to overshadow the important tasks of prayer and the ministry of the word. Biblically, deacons should see their ministry as the administration of caregiving to those in need, liberating the pastors to focus on prayer and the proclamation of the word. They are not the financiers or the church administrators, but the caregivers of the congregation. And their ministry is very vital in the Kingdom of God. The first martyr of the church was Stephen, and the first missionary was Philip, and both of these men were deacons. When deacons serve well, good things happen. Pastors are able to be devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word; the needs of the saints are met in the church; and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is advanced to the ends of the earth. Acts 6:7 provides this report on the work of those first deacons: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly.”

These positions are pretty important. After all, they are mentioned here by name. But lest we get carried away, we should mark the fact that this is the only letter in the New Testament where these positions are mentioned in the address. But the most important word is not bishop or overseer or pastor or deacon. The most important word here may well be the little word “with.” The pastors and deacons are not over the saints; they aren’t under the saints; they aren’t  better than the saints. They are with the saints. Neither is more important than the other. All have a part to play in the church.

No one is allowed to pull rank on another. Look even at how the Apostle Paul speaks of himself. Here, there is no mention of his apostleship. He describes himself as a bond-servant of Christ.  We might expect him to say “Saint Paul to the servants at Philippi.” Instead he is the servant and they are the saints. He could have gotten away with pulling rank on anyone in that church or any other church since. Instead he only wants to be known as Christ’s slave. Paul is God’s property, and his life purpose is to please the Lord Jesus.

Paul is telling us in his humble introduction that position or title does not make one great. All who are in Christ Jesus are saints in Him. Therefore, though some serve in specific ministry roles with specific titles, none are more important than any other – all are bond-servants of Christ, serving one another in the church. This is the church as it is understood in regard to its composition.

But then we also find that …  

II. The Church Should Be Understood in Regard to Its Location

Last February, I visited Starbucks in four different countries on three continents in a two week span of time. I was in Starbucks here in Greensboro; I was in Starbucks in London, England; I was in Starbucks in New Delhi, India; and I was in Starbucks in Manama, Bahrain. Same menu, same coffee, different countries, different continents. It is kind of a surreal feeling to be in Starbucks in Bahrain. It’s like being in two places at one time. Well, when Paul addresses this letter to his friends, he is writing to the saints who are in Christ Jesus in Philippi. It’s like being in two places at one time.

You know, God could have arranged it so that at the moment a person is born-again, they are instantly transported to heaven. But He didn’t do that. He has chosen to save sinners, make them saints, place them in Christ Jesus, and then leave them for a little while in places like Philippi, or even in places like Greensboro as the case may be.

Philippi was built on a major highway that united Rome with the east called Via Ignatia. You can visit it today and see the ruins of the forum, the markets, its gymnasium, library, its many streets and baths. You can see the ruins of a temple built 2400 years ago for the worship of Apollo and Artemis. It was a city rich in history, associated with a Who’s Who of Western Civilization: Philip II of Macedon, and his more famous son, Alexander the Great; Julius Caesar; Antony and Octavian; Brutus and Cassius. The people of the city were an ethnically diverse blend of the native Thracians, Greeks, and Romans, living along side of those from many other places and backgrounds.

Religiously the town was very complex. Ancient Thracian cults were barbaric, sacrificing humans, worshiping animals, and carrying on in sexual perversion in the name of worship. The Greek and Roman gods were worshiped there, along side of the deities of ancient Egypt and many other civilizations, including the worship of the Roman Emperor. It is estimated that when Paul visited the city around 50 AD that there were more than forty different varieties of religious practice. Why would God leave His people in a place like that? Well, you see, these saints are not just in Philippi – they are in Christ Jesus. They are saved, sealed, and empowered by Him for the task of being salt and light in places just like Philippi. Places like that need to hear the message that the church has to announce – Jesus is Lord, and Jesus Saves!

When I think of Philippi, it reminds me of another city I know: one that is rich in history, situated on a major interstate, with a culturally diverse population, a complex religious climate. And I know if God had a purpose for a church in Philippi 2,000 years ago, He certainly has one for a church in Greensboro today. We are in Greensboro, and we are in Christ! It is like being in two places at one time. Wherever the Church of Jesus Christ is found, there is always a struggle to keep the church from being infected by its surrounding culture. But rather than being infected with Greensboro’s values, we have the privilege and opportunity to infect Greensboro with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. That is the mission of the church. That is the reason for the church’s existence. That is why we are two places at one time – in Christ Jesus and in Greensboro. That is what a church is in regard to its location.

In closing I would like to say one thing further about what the church is –

III. The Church Should Be Understood in Regard to Its Possession (v2)

            A. What the church possesses:

Typically Greek speakers would begin their letters with the word of greeting, charein. It means “joyful greetings!” Paul transforms the word to make it more significant for Christians – charis – Grace! Hebrew speakers would greet one another with Shalom, a greeting of peace. Paul uses the Greek equivalent word. Reflecting the diversity of the church – Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus Christ, Paul combines the greetings of those respective cultures and greets these saints with “Grace and Peace.” These two words – grace and peace – describe what Christians have.

Grace is the undeserved gift of God. While we were yet sinners, deserving of nothing but judgment and wrath, God demonstrated His great love for us, incarnating Himself to dwell among us – God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And He died for us, in our place, taking our sins upon Himself, so that we might be forgiven and have eternal life. We don’t deserve it – that is why it is grace.

Having received God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we have peace. Romans 5:1 tells us that because of Jesus Christ we have peace with God through Jesus Christ. We are no longer positioned against Him in sin. The good news of the Gospel is that, because of Jesus Christ, the war is over between us and God. The angels announced peace at Christ’s birth. He promised peace to His followers before the cross, and Peace was His first word to them after His resurrection. Having received God’s grace in salvation, we are now at peace with Him. That is what the church possesses: grace and peace. But notice not only what the church possesses, but also …

            B. Who possesses the church:

God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. These two statements differentiate Christianity from every other philosophy in the world. We proclaim that God is there, and that He is our Father. Among the many other religions of Philippi, deities were depicted in many ways, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it was only in the Church of Jesus Christ that God was proclaimed to be a Father. He is our Father – He can be your Father. He cannot, however, be your Grandfather. If your parents are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ, that doesn’t make you God’s grandchild. That makes you lost, unless you come into a personal relationship by faith with Him for yourself. And Jesus is the only way to have that relationship with Him because only in Christ have our sins been dealt with so that we can be reconciled to God. To them that believe, John 1:12 says, He grants the privilege of becoming the sons and the daughters of God. He is our Father. He possesses us. And that sets us apart from the rest of the world. 

And we proclaim to the world today the Lord Jesus Christ. This Jesus, born in Bethlehem’s stable so long ago, was more than just a good moral man, more than a great teacher or a noble prophet. He is the Christ – the Messiah – God’s anointed one to bring about the redemption of humanity. And He is Lord. Do you realize how radical and dangerous those three words, “Jesus is Lord” are? I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating book called The Insanity of God, written by one of your Southern Baptist missionaries writing under the pseudonym of Nik Ripken that chronicles the advance of the Gospel in hostile cultures. In describing his observations and interviews in modern-day China, he writes,

“Any religion that called for obedience and commitment to Someone (seen or unseen) who was above and beyond the government would be calling the power of the government into question. Such a threat could not, and would not, be tolerated. I suddenly realized how dangerous it would be simply to speak the words: ‘Jesus is Lord.’”

Indeed! And this has not just been true in modern China. It has been true in countless cultures throughout Christian history. That simple phrase “Jesus is Lord,” has been the cause of more Christian persecution and bloodshed in the history of the church than any other factor. Saying that “Jesus is Lord” places our allegiance with Christ over country, over king, over council, and over culture. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are declaring that He is the object of our worship and adoration, the object of our obedience and service, and the object of our complete and total allegiance. Paul tells us in Romans 10:9-10 that if we will confess with our mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. When we say He is Lord, we are establishing Him as the sole authority and King over ourselves. And when more than one person makes that declaration together and stands united under His Lordship, there the Church of Jesus Christ is found. And we belong to Him. He possesses us.

As we bring this to a close, I want to concentrate our attention on some specific points of application:

·         First, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has called you a saint. Does your lifestyle affirm that? Are you living out practically what God has declared you positionally? If not, then during our closing time today, I would encourage you to allow the Holy Spirit’s convicting work to take place in your life as He indicates to you those things He wants to change in you. I would also encourage you to really evaluate your faith in Christ. Nearly every week I speak with someone who says, “I always though I was saved, but one day I just realized I never really was.” If you are uncertain of your salvation, why not find assurance today. Whether you were ever really saved before or not—you can know today that you are by affirming your commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. The grace and peace that flows from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ is available to you today. You can possess it, if you will give over possession of yourself to Him by turning to Christ in faith.  
·         Second, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has placed you in the church to be a servant. Together today, let us give up unbiblical notions of hierarchy, power, and position, and covenant together to serve the Lord in the way that He has gifted and called us all. Yes, we have pastors and we have deacons. We need them. Today we will nominate more to serve in those roles. We need to be prayerful as we consider who those may be. But we must understand that there is nothing but level ground here at the foot of the cross. All of the saints are servants, with or without titles, and the church advances as we join together with one another in united effort to serve, worship, and proclaim Him. There can be no spectator spirituality, but there must be each one committed to serving the Lord and building up one another.
·         Third, ask yourself how God is using your life to reach this city? Why did God leave you here when He saved you? Is this city any different with you in it than without you? How about this church? Is the church doing all it can to reach the community? If not then we need not marvel at the depravity we see surrounding us. We need only to commit ourselves afresh to the task of taking the message of Christ to those who need Him.

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