CHURCH: PEOPLE, NOT PROPERTY It was not without purpose that Jesus chose the Greek word ekklesia to describe what was coming in the near future in reference to His gospel actions that would find reality on an old rugged cross. Therefore, upon the rock that He was the Christ (Messiah) and Son of God, He promised His inner circle of Jewish disciples, “I will build My ekklesia [church]” (Mt 16:18).
Those Jewish disciples to whom Jesus made this statement knew exactly what an ekklesia was in the town culture of their day. When the Jews came to the synagogue they came as a people to the ekklesia (At 13:43). When idol worshipers in Ephesus came together into their temple of Artemis, they, too, came as a gathering of people to the ekklesia (At 19:30). On this occasion when Paul was preaching the gospel in Ephesus, the ekklesia (people) in the temple became quite confused in reaction to what Paul preached (At 19:32). It was the people, the ekklesia, who were confused, not the temple structure itself. The word ekklesia was never used in the culture of the time to refer to physical structures.
So when Jesus promised He would build His ekklesia, the Jewish disciples to whom He spoke these words knew that He was referring to people, not to “church houses.” But the Jewish apostles to whom Jesus promised that He would build his ekklesia of people could go further back in their history as the people of God. It was to this nation of people (the Jewish people) to whom Stephen referred when he confirmed that before His incarnation, the Son of God “was in the ekklesia [church] in the wilderness” (At 7:38). It was this ekklesia who “were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the [Red] Sea” (1 Co 10:2). This ekklesia of people was delivered out of the bondage of Egypt because they followed the prophet Moses. They were, as a people, baptized into Moses. Jesus Christ was the Prophet to whom Moses promised would replace him as the leader of the ekklesia (See Dt 18:15-22).
Since Jesus was the Prophet about whom Moses prophesied would come after him, then people today can be baptized into the name of this Prophet, the name of Christ (At 2:38; Rm 6:3-6; Gl 3:27). Therefore, in order to replace the ekklesia of people who followed Moses out of Egyptian bondage, the ekklesia (people) of Christ is composed today of those people who have followed Christ out of the bondage of sin. The identity of the church, therefore, is first identified as people, a people who have believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and incarnate Son of God, just as Jesus had promised His Jewish disciples in Matthew 16:18:
As people believed in Moses, and subsequently were baptized unto Moses in the Red Sea, so people today believe in Christ and are baptized unto Him in order to be delivered from the bondage of sin.
• Entangled in bondage: Some people seek to identify the church by pointing out an array of legalities that must be obeyed and catechisms that should be honored. In other words, some seek to go back under a system of legal obedience similar to the Sinai law in order to construct a church that can be legally identified by either a specific name, institutional governance, or some ceremonial assembly of the adherents on Sunday morning. But if we do this, then we are ignoring some fundamental truths that are revealed in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit addressed the dysfunctional behavior and beliefs of some early disciples, especially Jewish disciples.
Some of the Jewish Christians sought to go back under the bondage of meritorious law-keeping in order to be the church of God’s people of whom it was written, “for by grace you are saved through faith” (Ep 2:10). Those who sought to walk by meritorious law-keeping failed to understand the grace by which the church is defined. And so, they walked directly into the Holy Spirit’s defense of those who had been set free from the bondage of meritorious law-keeping by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit subsequently warned those who were being influenced by these meritorious law-keepers: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1). This bondage in the Galatian letter was not in reference to sin, but a direct reference to meritorious law-keeping.
Christians should be cautious about establishing a legal identity of the church. They must not fall back into such bondage because we are not justified before God on the basis of our meritorious law-keeping, but by His grace (See Ep 2:8-10).
• Freed by grace: In seeking to walk in the bondage of perfect law-keeping, one of the basic fundamentals that identifies the church is violated. Legalistic “churchiologists” often ignore the nature of the church that is revealed in Romans 6:14: “For you are not under law, but under grace.” In other words, Christians are not under any system of law that they are obligated to keep perfectly in order to be justified before God, and thus, legally identified as the disciples of Jesus. The fact is that there is no system of law that we could keep in order to justify ourselves before God. This is true simply because we are all lawbreakers (Rm 3:23). We must remember that when we fail to keep law perfectly – and we always do – we can thank God that we are under grace, not a system of perfect law-keeping.
We must confess that those who have for years moved the identity of discipleship of Jesus into a violation of the principle of Romans 6:14 find it quite difficult to understand what the Spirit meant in this verse. So we must dig deeper.
Christians are not under the bondage of a legal system of meritorious law-keeping that they would establish to supposedly justify themselves before God. It is simply self-deception and self-righteousness to supposed that we can keep any system of law perfectly in order to be identified as the church, since we as the church are identified by our response to the gospel of Christ, not through our perfect behavior in keeping a system of law. It is certainly self-righteous thinking to assume before God that we are supposedly saved on the basis of an assumed perfect obedience to “church law.” It is Christ who saves, not His church. The church is the saved, not the Savior.
If it were possible to establish some religious system of self-justification – and it is not – then we could pick and choose an assortment of doctrinal points in the New Testament in order to construct some legal definition of the church. We could then in practice of such a legal system of identity claim that we have restored the “true church.” This is exactly what some Jewish Christians in Galatia were trying to do by intimidating others, specifically Gentile Christians, into going back under the bondage of salvational law-keeping, which was actually, according to the Holy Spirit, back into “another gospel” (See Gl 1:6-9).
The “other gospel” is the simple gospel of God’s grace through Jesus, plus numerous added catechisms and codes by which we would seek to meritoriously justify ourselves before God.
• Bondage builders: Some have gone so far as to extract favorite “proof texts” out of a biblical context in order to establish some legal system of bondage to which all adherents of a particular sect must adhere in order to be identified as faithful members of the body of disciples. In other words, there are groups that believe in the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus, but they have also added their own meritorious religious rites, ceremonies and traditions that must also be obeyed in order to be considered faithful disciples. Or, they have used the Scriptures to establish a legal system to identify the church through their own performance of self-imposed “laws.”
Again, this is precisely what some legal-oriented Jewish Christians were doing in Galatia. In doing such, they were walking contrary to the Holy Spirit’s mandate of Galatians 5:1, as well as revealing that they did not appreciate the principle of Romans 6:14. It was in this context that the Spirit reprimanded them: “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel” (Gl 1:6). Notice carefully that Paul said they were “turning away from Him [Jesus].” They were not turning away from some legal identity of the church. They were turning away from Jesus by turning to themselves and their ability to be justified before God through their personal performance of law.
By encouraging those who were faithful to Christ, Paul continued to rebuke the Galatian law-performers by stating that “there are some who are disturbing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gl 1:7). By perverting the gospel of Christ through a legal system of law-keeping by which they supposedly thought to justify themselves. In this way, some Jewish Christians were taking the Gentile disciples back into the bondage of trying to keep some system of law perfectly in order to be identified before God as His people. Unfortunately, this legal attempt of justification was a perversion of the gospel of Christ, which gospel sets us free from perfect law-keeping (Gl 5:1).
In our search for an identity of the church in the New Testament, we must be very cautious not to violate the very principle of Paul’s definition of the “other gospel” in the document of Galatians.
[From a forthcoming book. Check out indepth Bible study books at www.roger-e-dickson.org ]
JESUS’ MANDATE OF MATTHEW 28:19,20 IS JUST A CLICK AWAY! Through the new and exciting website that TRISTON JACOBSHON has recently developed, we are offering to the world a library of Bible study books. Please click the above website address and check out the Bible resources that are FREELY available to preachers and teachers around the world. If you are looking for a book to just read, we encourage you to download any of the material. You can join with us in this international Bible teaching ministry by downloading and sharing your favorite book.
Restoring today the original body of believers that was first established in the first century will not be easy. It will not be easy if we find ourselves comfortable in an existing religious group that has little or no support from the word of God. Continued compliance with the religious traditions of our fathers is often an effort to spare ourselves from any “spiritual” pain that we must endured in order to journey back to the authority of the word of God. Nevertheless, if we are to restore our confidence in the gospel and reassure our faith, we must go on this journey through the word of God. We must commit ourselves to restore the truth of the gospel and the resulting family of God that we read about in the New Testament.
We must remember that there was usually no spiritual pain when we moved into creating after our own desires or religious traditions a “church” that was pleasing to ourselves. There was no pain when we fell into the trap of meritorious* performances of our traditional religiosity that we received from our fathers. But in order to back out of any established traditional religion,** there will inevitably be conflict within our own minds, and possibly with those who have no desire to go on this restorational journey with us.
In making the journey out of traditional or experiential religion, we will better understand the misguided traditional religious paradigm into which the Son of God Himself came in the first century. Judaism was far removed from what God originally established at Mount Sinai. But because the Jews, by the time of Jesus, had created a religion after their own traditions, it was the right time in history for the Son of God to show up with some good news of freedom from religious bondage.
Every restorationist must understand that in order to restore the church of the New Testament, there will always be opposition. People simply feel satisfied to remain within the confines of their own religious (“church”) bondage. There is a sense of security there. The first thing a long-time released prisoner wants, who initially stands free on the outside of a prison, is to turn around and walk right back into the bondage of the prison. By this time in his life he has become “institutionalized,” and thus finds it quite frightening to stand free outside prison walls. Prison bars give him a sense of security. It is the same with those who have for years lived behind religious prison bars.
We would assume that those who take a stand to bring people outside the prison walls of religion will find it difficult to convince others that we must restore the authority of God’s word in all matters of faith. We must restore the gospel as the prime motivation to get us where God wants us to be.
We must never forget that religion brings us into the bondage of ourselves, and there is no freedom in bondage. After reconsidering who Jesus was, those priests of Acts 6:7 found enough courage to finally believe that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. They finally had enough courage to take the plunge into Christ through the waters of baptism. They joined the host of those who would base their faith in the will of God. Today, we can ask for no less from other religious leaders to follow their example. One may initially come to ask questions in the night. However, the brave must eventually step forward in daylight hours as Nicodemus did in order to reveal his or her loyalty to Jesus and His word (See Jn 19:38,39).
When we use the phrase “one church,” different people have different reactions, or interpretations. If a particular group of churches are networked together on the basis of a common name, some system of common government, or identifiable order or performance in assembly, then any member of one of these groups would conclude that their network of churches is the “one church.” Or, some might interpret the phrase “one church” to refer to a particular group that is unique in name, Sunday-morning ceremonies, and the autocratic control of a dynamic leader. Those who would make this definition of the “one church” would conclude that every assembly of adherents reaffirms “their church” as standing alone in the midst of a world of differing churches that are denominated from one another.
In our present religious world, the list of different religious groups – “churches” – goes on endlessly. Nevertheless, there is some truth scattered here and there throughout the present catalog of endless churches. The result of this endless religious confusion should produce at least one good motivation in the hearts of gospel-living Bible lovers around the world. We should search for some Divinely inspired Dictionary, and then go to work to discover the gospel that gave rise to the “true church” of disciples in the first century. Only in God’s word is there any hope of discovering this gospel and the “one church.”
In order to accomplish the incarnational journey of God’s love to deliver us out of this world and into His loving eternal presence, He had to demonstrate that He was from the God of love and grace. And in order to do this, there had to be a sacrificial offering to sanctify all those He would take out of this world. This sanctifying sacrifice was necessary in order to cleanse us of sin that separates us from the eternal God into whose presence the Son seeks to deliver us when He comes again. This sacrifice thus demanded His crucifixion. If we would participate in this good news, therefore, there are conditions on our part in order to be linked with His crucifixion. The benefits of the gospel journey of the Son of God was and is conditioned on our faithful obedient response to His journey into and out of this world for us.
We responded to His awesome love because we needed hope in the midst of a world of suffering and physical death. We needed the proof that only a resurrection could provide. And therefore, He delivered for this proof by His own resurrection from the dead. But still this was not enough. We needed an example of how to be delivered from this present world of suffering. This good news was illustrated by His own ascension to God, His Father and ours. Therefore, He ascended out of this world in order to reign at the right hand of the Father. This is the gospel message we needed! And thus, it was incumbent upon us to respond to this overwhelming good news journey of the Son of God.
The church is identified as a membership of people who have faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and now, the King of kings. This is the message to which people initially responded in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Therefore, any legal definition of the church would work contrary to this initial gospel message to which the first membership of 3,000 initially responded. We must not forget that the 3,000 responded to grace, not law. Any legal system of identity of the church, therefore, violates the very heart of the principle of Romans 6:14, and the foundation upon which the first members were originally established.
Since the church was originally established on the foundation of a message of gospel grace that extended from the reign of King Jesus, we must not conclude that it moved to a foundation of law that the first members successfully performed on Sunday morning. On the contrary, the foundation of the church has never moved from grace to law keeping.
The fact is that we cannot establish ourselves as the church on a supposed inerrant obedience to any system of law. This principle could not have been made more clear than when Paul publicly rebuked Peter with the following statement:
A man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, for by works of law no flesh will be justified (Gl 2:16).
This statement needs no interpretation as it is worded here. Therefore, we must dismiss our vain hopes as to establishing some legal code of law in reference to “church.” And, we must dismiss any hopes of keeping perfectly any legal code of church in order to be the church. As we can see, there are some very important concepts in Galatians 2:16, and similar passages, we must understand in order to restore a gospel foundation of the church.
• A false sense of righteousness: Seeking to be justified by our own law-keeping as the church is a direct attack against the gospel of the Son of God being incarnate in the flesh in order to go to the cross. In Paul’s statement of Galatians 2:16, some translators have translated the text in a way that would encourage a self-righteous system of law-keeping that marginalizes, if not ignores, the gospel message of grace that Peter preached on Pentecost. This is a subtle “translation” of the Greek text. But it is a translation of the Greek text that leads some to question their own faith in reference to being righteous before God. And more seriously, the miss-directed translation encourages a self-righteousness that is contrary to the very themes of both Romans and Galatians.
• Righteousness was revealed through the faith of the incarnate Son: By literally translating the Greek objective genitive, Galatians 2:16 should read, “A man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus.” In the verse, and throughout the book of Galatians, Paul was bringing to his readers’ attention a sense of security that came through grace, as opposed to the law-keeping apprehension of the legalistic Jews who were preaching “another gospel” on the Gentiles (Gl 1:6-9). We see in this one verse Paul’s argument in the entire book against the “other gospel” preachers.
So we notice that the Greek text of Galatians 2:16 should not read as many versions that introduce a sense of insecurity and self-righteousness in the minds of those who are questioning if they have enough faith to be righteous before God. The Greek objective genitive of the verse drives us to focus on the faith of Jesus Christ who had faith in the Father in order to endure the cross for us. The “faith” that is under consideration in the verse is not the faith of those who believe, but the faith of Jesus who “believed” for us.
Many translations of this verse read, “… a man is not justified by works of law,” – so far so good – “but by faith in Jesus Christ.” This is a slip in objective translation. Translations that make this slip miss Paul’s argument of the book of Galatians that is brought out in this one verse. Faith “in Jesus” in order to be saved is indeed necessary to be saved (See Jn 20:30,31). But this is not Paul’s point in Galatians 2:16. He wanted his readers to focus on the faith of Jesus Christ, not on their own personal faith, which faith is often weak.
The actual Greek text of Galatians 2:16 should literally read, “through faith of Christ,” or, “through [the] faith of Christ.” This is the literal translation of the Greek text that honors the objective genitive that Paul used to uphold his theme of the entire book of Galatians. The objective genitive presents an entirely different emphasis in reference to whose faith is involved in reference to our justification: our faith, or the faith of Christ? In Galatians 2:16, and similar verses, the emphasis is on the faith of Jesus, not our faith.
• We have faith in Jesus to have had the faith to go to the cross for our justification: Several translators have unfortunately made an arbitrary rendition of Galatians 2:16 by ignoring the objective genitive in reference to the faith of Jesus on which Paul focused. The same objective genitive is used in Ephesians 3:12 in order to turn our attention to the results of the faith of Jesus to make us righteous before God.
But the literal translation of the Greek objective genitive should use “of,” not “in.” “Faith” in the statement of both Galatians 2:16 and Ephesians 3:12 is in the possession of Jesus, not ourselves. In other words, it is our faith in the faith of Christ Jesus our Lord that “we have boldness and access with confidence through the faith of Him” (Ep 3:12). The Greek text of this verse reads “of” Him (Christ) because Paul focused on the work of Christ to reveal the righteousness of God, in contrast to our often weak faith to claim some self-righteousness.
The commentary passage of this discussion, therefore, would be a correct translation of Philippians 3:9. Paul wrote that he was “found in Him, not having my own righteousness that is from law [keeping], but that which is through the faith of Christ [also objective genitive], the righteousness that is from God by [His] faith.” This is the very foundation upon which we identify the church of Christ. The church is a membership of people who have been delivered out of the bondage of self-righteous performances of their faith, in order to be set free by grace wherein the members enjoy the righteousness of God that comes to them through the faith of Jesus going to the cross.
The preceding would certainly help us understand better what Paul meant when he wrote Romans 1:17: “For in it [the gospel] is the righteousness of God revealed from [Jesus’] faith to [our faith], as it is written, ‘the just will live by faith’ [in Jesus].” Our faith, therefore, is in the faith of Jesus Christ, through whom the righteousness of God was revealed through the cross. So now we need to carry on with His righteousness that came through the faith of Jesus, lest we try to lay claim to our own self-righteous justification that we would suppose to have worked out through some meritorious performance of acts or experiential behavior as the church.
Our faith is in the faith of Jesus who delivered us from the futility of trusting in the meritorious performance of our own faith.
• The difference between “of” and “in”: There is a vast difference between the use of the words “of” or “in” in the statements of Galatians 2:16 and Ephesians 3:12. The word “of” focuses our attention on the faith of Jesus, whereas the word “in” focuses our attention on ourselves. Specifically, the word “in” seeks to focus on the performance of our faith in order to be justified, and thus, righteous before God. This understanding is subjective, that is, we make our own determination concerning whether we have faithfully performed in order to earn our justification, and thus stand righteous before God. But this is an attack against the gospel of Jesus Christ who, through His own faith, took Himself to the cross to be God’s righteousness for us.
Now compare this to the use of the word “of” in reference to the faith of Jesus. The word “of” focuses our attention on Jesus, by whom, through His faith, we are made righteous by His redemptive sacrifice at the cross. Compare this thought to the use of the word “in,” that is, to focus on our faith. The word “in” focuses attention and our supposed righteousness in the performance of our faith, either through law-keeping, good works, or meritorious worship assemblies. In other words, “of” is gospel; “in” is another gospel.
According to Paul’s argument throughout the book of Galatians, our saving faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must move us to trust in His faith that moved Him to go to the cross for us, as opposed to our own faith to keep law perfectly.
• Righteous as a result of His faith, not ours: The church is identified by those who trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ as opposed to being zealous religionists who would lay claim to our own righteousness through the performance of our faith. We cannot over-emphasize this truth. We cannot, simply because any understanding of the righteousness that the church enjoys is totally dependent on the members’ trust in the faith of Christ whereby He took Himself to the cross to make us righteous before God.
Our righteousness is not the result of our perfect obedience to some code of doctrine that identifies the church. On the contrary, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rm 3:10). Therefore, our righteousness can never be dependent on the performance of our faith. If we assumed that our righteousness is attained through our faithful and perfect performance to some code of law, then we are supposing to be righteous on the merit of our own faith in law-keeping. If we would assume this, then we have disqualified ourselves from the righteousness of God that comes to us totally through the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul would rebuke us by saying that we are promoting “another gospel,” and thus, we stand condemned before God (See again Gl 1:6-9). “You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law [keeping]. You have fallen from grace” (Gl 5:4).
Every honest Christian is usually never satisfied with his or her own faith. For this reason, we are never satisifed with the performance of our faith. We know that we never do enough. However, we must not fear, for we are righteous before God through the faith of Jesus because He took Himself to the cross.
[If you have finished this one chapter of the forthcoming book on the one church, please be informed that this book will be released in about a month.]
INSURRECTION? During the early establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire, there was conflict between two lords. Reference to this conflict to whom the Roman citizens should pay total homage first developed with Caesar Claudius, of the early Roman Empire, who was Caesar of Rome from A.D. 41 to 54. This conflict arose when there were few or no Christians living in the city of Rome, but a great number of Jews. Because the Jews would not accept Claudius as the final lord over their lives, he ran all the Jews out of Rome. Because they were also Jews, Aquila and Priscilla were victims of Claudius’ autocratic demand for total submission. They subsequently fled to the city of Corinth (See At 18:3).
Nero later became another autocratic Caesar of the Roman Empire. After Claudius, his autocratic behavior extended from A.D. 54 to 68. He had the same problem with people of faith in a Higher Power as Claudius. He, too, did not like any citizens claiming that there was a “lord” who was greater than his lordship over the people of the Empire. Therefore, he went beyond Claudius and claimed to be the only lord of the people. Because Christians could not accept this from a political dictator on earth, Nero turned his wrath against Christians in Rome who served only one Lord.
Because Christians would not confess that Nero was the only lord of their lives, they were subsequently condemned as insurrectionists of the Empire, and thus subject to the civil penalty of death by crucifixion, or entertainment for the people by being thrown to lions in the Roman Colosseum. And if a Christian were a Jew, then he was double guilty of not giving total loyalty to government, or government officials, and in particular, Nero himself.
It is believed that Nero started a fire in the city of Rome in July A.D. 64, and then blamed it on Christians – the fire eventually consumed about a third of the city of Rome. Nero subsequently launched a personal vendetta against Christians. He unleashed horrifying forms of execution on Christians. He ordered public crucifixions. Sometimes Christians were rolled up in pitch and then set on fire to light the imperial gardens. And then some Christians were wrapped in animal skins and thrown to starved dogs to be ravaged and torn apart. Nero will always go on record as the most evil autocrat of history. Eventually, as almost all autocrats who are basically cowards, he committed suicide.
[It is interesting that by the time of then end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was composed of about fifty percent Christian. The Lord Jesus Christ was winning the battle over Roman paganism.]