The Biblical Theology of the Church (1/4)
Edmund P. Clowney
Do Christians need to think again about the doctrine of the church? Many would answer, 'No!' Mention the church and they begin to smell the musty odour of churchianity. It rises from the crypts of institutional religion, and permeates the seat-cushions of formal traditions. Martin Luther thanked God that even a child of seven knows what the church is. 'Let the church focus on the gospel, preach Christ and him crucified, and the church will become part of the answer instead of the problem'. That is the way Luther's point is often made today.
Others would add that Luther's child of seven has had plenty of help in the last few years. If the teaching of the Bible about the church has been neglected in past centuries, that neglect has certainly been more than remedied. Few cathedrals have been constructed in the last half century, but theologians have launched a building boom of their own. The publishing skyline is full of books about the church.
Not all of those books are theological, to be sure. Some writers assume that we cannot expect Scripture to answer the problems of the computer age. The Apostle Paul did not have to face Marxism nor deal with the problems of colonial exploitation and its aftermath. He was not troubled with the internecine warfare of rival denominations and non-denominational agencies. Nor did he have to plant churches in a tribal cultural setting. He worked within his own culture and could ordain as leaders, even in the Gentile churches, men who had been instructed in the Scriptures as adherents of the Jewish synagogues. With such considerations the contemporary ecclesiastical pundit eases the Apostle to the Gentiles into his place back in the Hellenistic age. He is then free to display his own grasp of sociometrics, group dynamics, structuralist anthropology, and political hermeneutics.
It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that the behavioural sciences should be set over against Biblical understanding. In applying the teaching of God's Word, we must surely understand as fully as we can the circumstances to which it is applied. Yet even in that understanding, we seek to manifest the mind of Christ. Certainly we cannot begin our understanding of the church with sociological analysis. We must begin with the teaching of the Bible, and return to the Bible again and again to deepen and renew our understanding. Theology is reflective; we do understand God's revelation better as the context of our own experience widens and varies our perspective. But the church rests upon the foundation of apostolic teaching. The authoritative words of the inspired witnesses chosen and endued of the Spirit communicate to us the full and final revelation of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:39-42; Heb. 2:2-4; Rev. 22:18, 19).
The doctrine of the church is not the most fundamental doctrine of Scripture. J.C. Hoekendijk may be right in saying, 'In history a keen ecclesiological interest has, almost without exception, been a sign of spiritual decadence...' At the Third World Conference on Faith and Order held in Lund in 1952 the conferees acknowledged: 'In our work we have been led to the conviction that it is of decisive importance for the advance of ecumenical work that the doctrine of the church be treated in close relation both to the doctrine of Christ and to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit'.
Indeed, the doctrine of the church is not only closely related to the doctrine of the Trinity, it flows from it. The promise of God's covenant is, 'I will... be your God, and you will be my people' (Lev. 26:12; 2 Cor. 6:16). God's people are his own possession, those whom he has formed for himself that they might set forth his praise (Is. 43:21). The focus of Scripture is on the living God, of whom, through whom, and unto whom are all things, not least the people he has redeemed and claimed as his own.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Biblical doctrine of the church is directly related to God's revelation of himself. As we trace the history of redemption recorded in the Word of God, we find that the church comes into view as the people of God, the disciples of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Yet these views of the redeemed do not simply succeed one another; far less do they exclude one another. The Apostle Peter, writing to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, calls them 'a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God' (1 Pet. 2:9). To be sure, they were once 'not a people', but now they are 'the people of God' (v. 10). The language that described the calling of Israel in the Old Testament Peter applies to the New Testament people of God. On the other hand, Christ is central for the Old Testament as well as for the New, and Paul, reflecting on the experience of Israel in the wilderness, affirms that 'the Rock that followed them was Christ' (1 Cor. 10:4). That same leading of Israel through the desert is ascribed by the prophet Isaiah to the Holy Spirit (Is. 63:9-14).
To gain the richness of biblical revelation, we do well to trace the unfolding of the theme of the church through the history of God's saving work. In doing so we are instructed by the transformations of that theme as well as by the underlying unity of the purpose and work of God. To focus our consideration, we may reflect on the calling of the church. The church is called to God, called to be his people. By that relation to God the being of the church is defined. The church is also called, by that very relation, to a bond of life together. It ministers not only to God, but also to those who make up its company. The church is also called in the midst of the world. Its ministry is therefore threefold: it ministers to God in worship, to the saints in nurture, and to the world in witness.
In systematic theology the doctrine of the church is often presented under the rubrics of the Nicene Creed: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Yet these attributes of the church flow from the more fundamental teaching of the Bible regarding the nature of the church as it is related to the Lord himself. Ecclesiology is part of theology. We gain the clearest light on the issues that the church now faces when we reflect on the calling of the church by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This trinitarian approach to the doctrine of the church may then be structured in relation to its calling to minister in worship, nurture, and witness.
I. THE CHURCH AS THE PEOPLE OF GOD
A. God's Worshipping Assembly
Matthew's Gospel reports the words of blessing that Jesus spoke to Simon Peter in response to Peter's apostolic confession. Jesus then said, 'And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Mt. 16:18). Matthew uses the common term for 'church' in the New Testament, the term ekklesia. It was once the habit of critics to question the authenticity of Matthew's report. Jesus spoke of the kingdom, and knew nothing of the church, they said. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls there has been a belated acceptance of the genuineness of the saying. The scrolls are full of the concept of the community, understood as the congregation of the saints awaiting the coming of the Lord. Further, the thought of the congregation being established upon the confession of the truth is also prominent in the Dead Sea writings. So is the figure of the rock, and of the building established upon it. The parallels between the language of the Dead Sea sectaries and the words of Jesus do not, however, indicate that Jesus was dependent upon the Essenes. The background to both is the Old Testament.
1. The People of God Constituted as God's Assembly
The concept of the people of God as assembly has its Old Testament roots in the gathering of Israel before the Lord at Mount Sinai. God had demanded of Pharaoh, 'Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert' (Ex. 7:16b). That service was to be a specific gathering for worship ('a feast unto me', Ex. 5:1). Of course there were further implications of that demand. Pharaoh regarded the Israelites as his slaves, subject to his own divine claims. His lordship was directly challenged by God's claim. The worship, the service of the Lord on the part of Israel, would mark them as his people, his sons (Ex. 4:22, 23). It would be a covenant-making ceremony in which the claim of God upon his people and the claim of the people upon God would be ratified in worship.
The term ekklesia describes an actual assembly, a gathering of people together. The same is true of the Old Testament term qahal that is translated by ekklesia in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. The words themselves do not have the restricted meaning of our word, 'church'. Yet, when Jesus said, 'I will build my church' (whether he spoke Greek, or used in Aramaic a word that could be so translated), he was not simply saying, 'I will bring together a gathering of people'. Rather, he was using a well-known term that described the people of God. The 'assembly in the desert' (Acts 7:38) was the definitive assembly for Israel, the covenant-making assembly when God claimed his redeemed people as his own. In Deuteronomy it is spoken of as 'the day of the assembly' (Dt. 4:10 LXX; 9:10; 10:4, 18:16).
The key to the meaning of 'assembly' is found in God's command to Moses: 'Assemble 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' (Dt. 4:10). The assembly is a gathering to meet with God. God declares, 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself' (Ex. 19:4). God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt is indeed an act of liberation. God strikes off their yoke and enables them to go upright (Lv. 26:13). But liberation from slavery in Egypt is not the final purpose of God's saving work. God brings them out that he might bring them in, in to his assembly, to the great company of those who stand before his face. The Lord who assembles the people to himself is the Lord of hosts. His heavenly assembly is composed of the mighty ones (’elohim), the holy ones (qedoshim), the sons of God (benei ha’elohim) over whom he reigns as King (Jb. 1:6; Ps. 82:1; 1 Ki. 22:19; Dn. 7:10). When the Lord descends at Sinai, the tens of thousands of the heavenly holy ones are assembled with the congregation that is gathered at his feet (Dt. 33:2; Ps. 68:17). The earthly assembly, too, is composed of the saints of the Lord (the same term can describe saints or angels). The Dead Sea community had a vivid awareness of this Old Testament panorama. Those who were added to the community became members of God's eternal assembly. They gained a place with the holy angels (1QS 2:25; 11:7-9; lQH 3:21; 11:11, 12).
God's assembly at Sinai is therefore the immediate goal of the exodus. God brings his people into his presence that they might hear his voice and worship him. 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me' (Ex. 20:2, 3). Standing in the assembly of the Lord, hearing his voice, the people gain their identity from the self-identification of the Lord.
The assembly at Sinai could not remain forever in session, however. It was succeeded by other covenant-making assemblies. Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, provides the account of the renewing of the covenant in another great assembly before the death of Moses. When Joshua brought the people into the land, he convened a great assembly between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings and curses of the covenant from the law (Jos. 8:34, 35). David convoked an assembly to secure the succession of Solomon (1 Ch. 28:2, 8; 29:10, 20). Jehoshaphat, Joash, and Hezekiah summoned assemblies of covenant renewal (2 Ch. 20:5, 14; 23:3; 29:23-32; 30:2-25).
After the exile, the great assembly under Ezra and Nehemiah was gathered to hear the Word of God (Ne. 8). This assembly was regarded in later times as the prototype of the synagogue. The reading of the law in the synagogues and the prayers that were offered found their precedent in this post-exilic assembly.
In addition to these assemblies of renewal on historic occasions, there were other assemblies of Israel. The law required that the people gather three times a year at the appointed place of worship (Lv. 23). These were festival assemblies: the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. At this last feast every seventh year the law was to be read and the covenant renewed (Dt. 31:9-13).
To be a member of the people of God was to have the privilege of standing in the great assembly before his face. To be sure, worshipping Israelites could rejoice in fellowship with one another as they assembled together. They could sing, 'How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!' (Ps. 133:1). But even that joy is a blessing that flows down from above, like the dew of Hermon, or the ointment running down the beard of the high priest (Ps. 133:2, 3). Israel is bound together as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). Israelites are a nation formed for worship, called to assemble in the courts of the Lord, and to praise together the name of the Most High.
The Future Festival Promised
Israel failed woefully in this priestly calling. The unity of worship was broken when Jeroboam set up the image of a calf at Bethel to bar the pilgrimage of the northern tribes to worship at Jerusalem. In the temple at Jerusalem, the whole purpose of the assembly was shattered by idolatry. And so in judgment God scattered the people in exile; yet he did not forget his calling to a priestly nation. The prophets proclaimed a new assembly of the people of God. It would come in the glorious future when God would again manifest his presence. Isaiah pictures a great feast, spread on the mount of God, to which not only the remnant of Israel but also the remnant of the nations would be gathered in (Is. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; 49:22; 66:18-21; cf. Jer. 48:47; 49:6, 39). Zechariah sees a new Jerusalem, transformed into a holy city by the presence of the Lord (Zc. 12:7-9; 13:1, 9; 14:7, 8, 16-21).
Jesus promised that he would build his assembly by his death and resurrection. After he rose from the dead, he commanded his disciples to remain together in Jerusalem until they received the promise of the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift was poured out as they were assembled together. It was at Pentecost, and the theme of the feast of Pentecost was fulfilled. Pentecost was the time of the first-fruits, the beginning of the great harvest of redemption. Peter preached the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel. The Spirit had been poured out, the worship of the new age had been ushered in. The church, the assembly for worship, was praising God. The great eschatological feast had begun. Jesus in his parables had spoken of the feast prepared, and of his mission as the Servant of the Lord to call to heaven's feast the host of poor and. broken sinners who filled the byways of the earth (Lk. 14:15-24). Now the ingathering had begun.
The gospel call is a call to worship, to turn from sin and call upon the name of the Lord. It is no accident that the New Testament church is formed by the coming of God the Spirit in the midst of an assembly gathered in praise. The church in any city is composed of those who 'call upon the name of the Lord' in that place (Acts 9:14; 1 Cor. 1:2). Peter writes that the church is the people for God's own possession, 'that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light' (1 Pet. 2:9).
The Assembly on Mount Zion
The picture of the church as a worshipping assembly is nowhere more powerfully presented than by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (ch. 12:18-29). He contrasts the worship of God at Mount Sinai with the worship of the New Covenant. The worship at Sinai was an overwhelming experience. Even Moses said, 'I am trembling with fear' (v.21). Yet the fear of Moses was inspired by merely physical phenomena - a fire that could be touched (v.18). In contrast, the church of the New Covenant comes to the full reality: 'our God is a consuming fire'. If Moses feared the earthly manifestation of God's presence, how much more should we be filled with reverence and awe? We do not come to Mount Sinai in our worship, but to Mount Zion. That Zion is not the earthly, but the heavenly Zion, the sanctuary of the eternal city of God. For the author of Hebrews, this is not a figurative way of speaking. The heavenly Jerusalem is not a Platonic abstraction. It is as real as the living God, as real as the risen body of Jesus Christ. In our worship in Christ's church we approach the throne of God the Judge of all. We enter the festival assembly of the saints and the angels. We gather in spirit with the spirits of just men made perfect. We enter the assembly of glory through Christ our Mediator, and the blood of his atoning death. For that reason we must hear and heed the word of the Lord, and 'worship God acceptably with reverence and awe' (v.28).
Just as the great assembly at Sinai defined the covenant people of the Old Testament, so does the heavenly assembly define the church of the New Covenant. The principle is the same, the saving purpose of God is the same. Moses and the other heroes of faith described in Hebrews 11 are among the 'spirits of righteous men made perfect' who gather with us in the heavenly assembly. Yet they without us could not be made perfect (Heb. 11:40). We now enjoy with them the worship for which they longed by faith.
Does the tremendous reality of that heavenly worship make our earthly behaviour irrelevant? Can we think, 'Since nothing can stop the heavenly hallelujahs, our feeble little gatherings on earth are of no consequence'? That argument has often been advanced. 'Since the church invisible is one, earthly divisions are not too serious.' 'Since the heavenly church is holy, we need not worry much about either personal holiness or church discipline.'
The author of Hebrews draws the opposite conclusion. Precisely because we do approach the heavenly assembly in worship, we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25). Precisely because we have the faithful promise of the city of God, we are to provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24).
Reverent corporate worship, then, is not optional for the church of God. It is not a form of group behavior to be accepted just because of its long tradition or its acceptability in many cultures. Rather, it brings to expression the very being of the church. It manifests on earth the reality of the heavenly assembly. The glory of God is that to which and for which the church is called.
The Word in Worship
We may not lose sight, either, of the importance of God's Word in the assembly of worship. The description of the heavenly assembly in Hebrews 12 comes to a focus in the admonition to hear him who speaks. God spoke from Sinai; the worship of the people responded to the Word of the Lord. In the assemblies of the new covenant, the Word of God is no less central. God is not only present in the midst of his people. He speaks. The ministry of the Word of God in worship partakes of the solemnity of the occasion. Solemnity does not mean joylessness, for the Word calls to praise. Yet the authority of the Word of the Lord remains central for Christian worship. This is the Word of him who speaks from heaven (Heb. 12:25). God spoke in many different ways to the fathers through the prophets, but now he has spoken finally and conclusively through his own Son. It is that word of the Lord that 'was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will' (Heb. 2:3, 4).
Another consequence of the definition of the church as a worshipping assembly is the extreme flexibility that the New Testament shows with respect to its use of the term 'church'. On the one hand, the term is applied to the church universal. This is the church which is the people of God and the body of Christ without qualification (Mt. 16:18; 1 Pt. 2:9; Eph. 1:22,23). It is the church as God alone can see it, the whole company of those who have been, are now, or ever will be gathered to God in Christ. Some who perceive this New Testament concept have gone on to deny that any local gathering can be called in a full and proper sense the church. Such a gathering may form a congregation of the church, no doubt, but the church by definition must be the church universal. On the other hand, there are those who isolate what the New Testament teaches about the local church. Paul does speak of the church at Corinth as the church of Christ. In the book of Revelation, Jesus addresses letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Congregational theologians have therefore limited the church by definition to the local assembly. Anything beyond the local assembly, they say, should not be spoken of as the church, but as an association of churches.
In the New Testament, the question is further complicated by the fact that local churches are spoken of in more than one sense. At least, local churches come in surprisingly different sizes. The church in Laodicea is a city church, but apparently there was also in Laodicea a house church, meeting in the house of Nymphas (Col. 4:15). So, too, Paul can in one breath speak of the churches of Asia and of the church in the house of Aquila and Prisca (1 Cor. 16:19). The Westminster Divines noted the house churches that existed along with city churches in the New Testament and argued from this evidence for a presbyterian system of government. The city church corresponded to the presbytery, and the house church to the local congregation. This line of reasoning recognized smaller and larger gatherings of the church, and further recognized that one could exist within another. The presbytery, however, was a gathering of the ministers and elders, not of the whole membership of the city church. Another difference emerged from the development of congregational structure in the cities. Village churches were swallowed up in growing metropolitan areas. They became parish churches - gatherings of a size that was larger than the house church, surely, but perhaps smaller than some of the city churches of the New Testament.
We may ask, however, if the full flexibility of the New Testament view of the church is adequately recognized today. Because the church is defined by the heavenly assembly for worship, there is no one size of assembly on earth that is ideal or normative. Those who call upon the name of the Lord together may do so in larger or smaller assemblies. Such a recognition does not mean that smaller assemblies may be disorderly, or that assemblies at any level exist apart from the exercise of gifts of teaching, ruling, and diaconal service. But it does suggest the possibility of fuller expressions of the worshipping assembly in large city gatherings, as well as the recognition of the important place of the house church, not as a rival form of organization, but as an expression, in a more immediate setting, of the fellowship of those who call upon the name of the Lord in one particular place.
2. The Church as God's Dwelling
The picture at Sinai of the people of God as a worshipping assembly is heightened by God's provision of the tabernacle. God not only met with the people as they were assembled before him. He also came to dwell among them. In the wilderness where they lived in tents, God's house would be a tent, too. When they entered the land and had fixed dwellings, God would put his name in a place, and sanctify the temple of Solomon as his dwelling. The figure of the tabernacle made the presence of God more immediate and permanent.
The immanence of God's presence with his people is a continuing theme in the Pentateuch. The Lord who walked in the garden of Eden to talk with Adam and Eve continues to address the patriarchs in the land to which he called them. The altars that they built witnessed to the presence of the Lord. This is particularly dramatic in the case of Jacob at Bethel, where God descends the stairway of Jacob's dream to repeat the sure promises of the covenant to the exiled patriarch. (Genesis 28:13 should be translated, 'And, behold, the LORD stood over him...' See Genesis 35:13, where the same preposition is used, 'Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him'.) In the morning Jacob marvels at the presence of God: 'Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven' (Gn. 28:16, 17).
How important for the people of God is the dwelling of God among them? Moses gives an eloquent answer in a time of crisis before the tabernacle was built in the wilderness. While he was in the heights of Mount Sinai receiving the law of God and the plans for the tabernacle, Israel at the foot of the mountain committed idolatry before the golden calf. When Moses came down from the mountain and was confronted with the sin of the people, God proposed another plan for his relation to Israel (Ex. 33:1-3). God was too holy and the people too sinful for God to dwell among them. His presence was too great a threat. Surely, as the Holy One, he must consume them in a moment to remove their iniquity from his presence. God proposed, therefore, that the tabernacle not be built. God would not dwell in the midst. He would go before Israel in the angel of his presence, drive out the Canaanites from the land, and give them the inheritance he had promised. But instead of living among them, he would meet with Moses in a tent set up outside the camp (Ex. 33:7-11). The elaborate plans for the tabernacle would not be necessary, since God would not have his dwelling among the people.
The reaction of Moses to that alternate plan shows how crucial the dwelling of God in the midst of Israel really is. Moses was distraught with grief. He mourned, and Israel mourned with him. Moses cried, 'If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here!' (Ex. 33:15). God's presence among the people was the whole point of the exodus deliverance and of the inheritance of the land. Significantly, Moses prayed for God to reveal his glory. What Moses asked was the very blessing that the alternate plan would have removed: the immediate presence of the living God and the vision of his glory. God did appear to Moses, and proclaimed his covenantal Name (Ex. 33:17-34:7). Although Moses was permitted to see only God's back, he did see the glory of the Lord. His request was granted. God did make his dwelling among Israel, and Moses could pray that God's presence in the midst would bring not swift judgment, but the forgiveness of sins. He could pray, too, that God would not simply give the people their inheritance in Canaan, but that he would take the people as his inheritance, claiming them as his own (Ex. 34:9).
Moses' prayer was answered and the tabernacle was built. It symbolized both the threat of God's dwelling in the midst of Israel and the grace by which God's immediate presence was possible. The tabernacle was a dwelling in which the presence of God was both screened off and revealed. The curtains of the holy of holies, of the holy place, and of the tabernacle enclosure screened off the Holy One from the camp of sinful Israel. The curtains insulated, as it were, the holy presence of God. But the plan of the tabernacle also symbolized a way into the holiest place, an avenue to the throne of God. After the blood of atonement had been shed at the sacrificial altar, the priest could wash at the laver, enter the holy place, and present the prayers of the people. Once each year, on the day of atonement, the high priest could enter even the holy of holies to sprinkle the ark of the covenant with blood.
Christ the True Temple
The New Testament presents the fulfilment of this symbolism in Jesus Christ. He is Priest, Sacrifice, and Temple. 'Destroy this temple', he said, 'and in three days I will raise it up' (Jn. 2:19). The temple that he spoke of was his own body. 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth' (Jn. 1:14). The outward picture of God's dwelling among his people becomes a reality in the incarnation. Further, since God is present in Christ, and Christ is present among his people, they, too, become a dwelling for God. Christ, who promises to prepare a dwelling place for his disciples, promises also that both he and the Father will come and take up their dwelling with the disciple that loves him (Jn. 14:2,23). Both the individual believer and the church are spoken of as the temple of God because of the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:1; Eph. 2:13-22; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:5; 2 Cor. 6:16).
The coming of the Holy Spirit fulfils the promise of the Father and makes actual the presence of God. The spiritual relationship portrayed by the temple figure includes permanence as well as intense immediacy. The epiphany of Pentecost was not a passing phenomenon, but the advent of the Spirit, no less central for the understanding of the church than the advent of the Son. Through the finished work of Christ the hour came when neither Mount Gerizim nor Jerusalem were holy places any longer (Jn. 4:21). In his words to the Samaritan woman, Jesus does not deny the legitimacy of the temple at Jerusalem. Salvation, he says, is of the Jews. Nor does Jesus simply state that because God is a Spirit, he cannot be worshipped at a holy place. Jesus cleansed the temple, called it his Father's house, and violently affirmed its sanctity. What changed everything was the fulfilment of the temple symbolism in Jesus himself. Worship in truth could begin. It would be 'true' worship in the sense of being real, unobscured by the shadows of symbolism, as the Jerusalem temple worship had been. The coming hour of which Jesus spoke was the hour of his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. True worship is not temple-less: it is worship at the true Temple, the One raised up on the third day. Because the reality has come, the symbols are fulfilled. Worship is now spiritual - in the Holy Spirit (the living water promised by Jesus). Worship is now true - in Jesus Christ the Truth (Jn. 14:6).
B. God’s Chosen People
1. The Election of Israel
The church, then, is both the assembly of God and the dwelling of God. God leads his people from the convocation at Sinai to the land of their inheritance, where God will dwell in the midst of them. In addition to these great figures, God speaks directly about the people as his own. The covenantal affirmation 'I will be your God, and you shall be my people' makes explicit this relation. The prayer of Moses, 'Take us for your inheritance', is inspired by the Lord who claims Israel for himself. 'The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession' (Dt. 7:6). God purposes to make his people 'in praise, fame and honour high above all the nations he has made' (Dt. 26:19).
God's election of Israel follows upon his election of the patriarchs. It is God who calls Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees; it is God who chooses Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau (cf. Rom. 9:11-13). Yet God's choosing was not only an expression of his purpose of blessing toward his elect. God promised not only to bless Abraham, but to make him a blessing. In him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gn. 12:3). The table of the nations in Genesis 10 prepares for the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. So, too, Israel is called to be a light to the nations: 'May God be gracious to us and bless us... that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations' (Ps. 67:1, 2).
It would be a serious mistake, however, to deny the status of Israel in order to affirm the mission of Israel. Israel is called first to fellowship with God, to be his treasure people; and only as that people does Israel witness to the nations, that they, too, might be drawn into the worship of the true and living God. God does not choose Israel just in order to use Israel. Certainly Israel is not chosen for its utility. 'The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers...' (Dt. 7:7, 8).
Election in Love
Here is the language of love: 'The LORD set his love upon you, because... the LORD loves you'! The Lord pours out his love for his people in rich language. Israel is God's son (Ex. 4:23; Ho. 1:10; 11:1-3; Is. 45:9-11), God's bride (Ho. 1-3; Is. 50:1; Ezk. 23). God's consummation joy over Israel will be like the joy of a husband over a bride (Zp. 3:17). Israel is God's vineyard (Je. 12:7-9), the apple of his eye (Dt. 32:10). They are a people near to him (Ps. 148:14), borne on his shoulders (Dt. 33:12), engraved on the palms of his hands (Is. 49:16).
Yet God's delight in Israel is of his sovereign good pleasure, the 'favour of him who dwelt in the burning bush' (Dt. 33:16). God's people are chosen, not choice (bachir, not bachur).
Sadly, the chosen people prove themselves unworthy of God's favour. God's judgment is immeasurably more severe because of the privilege that Israel despised and forfeited. The adulterous wife will be stoned (Ezk. 16:40); the rebellious son will be cast out (Ho. 11:1, 8; 12:14; 13:1); the pleasant vineyard will be laid waste (Is. 5:5, 6); the planted vine will be uprooted and burned (Ezk. 19:10-14; Ps. 80:12-16). Redemptive history in the Old Testament is full of the realization of these dire predictions. The temple itself, where Israel had worshiped idols, is destroyed by the armies of Babylon. The people are carried into exile. Ezekiel sees the hopelessness of the exiled nation in his vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezk. 37).
Grace in Judgment
Yet that same vision is the Lord's message of hope. 'Son of man, can these bones live'? Well does the prophet answer, 'O Lord Jehovah, you know'. God's promises will not be void, his purposes will not be frustrated.
Two great principles are given to the prophets: first, the destruction is not total. God has preserved for himself a remnant. Even if the remnant is as hopeless as dry bones in a valley, or as the scraps remaining from a lion's kill (Am. 3:12), a remnant nevertheless it is. The second principle is that of renewal. To the dry bones life will be given. If the glory of Israel is like a cedar that has been felled by the axe of Gentile powers, nevertheless a stump is left in the ground. God promises that the stump will send forth a shoot; that shoot will be an ensign to which the nations will be gathered (Is. 10:33-11:5).
The remnant will be the faithful people of God, the true Israel. By God's renewing grace, their hearts will be circumcised. They will know the Lord. God will make with them a new covenant (Je. 31:31-34). Paul explains this theology of the prophets. As the doctrine of the remnant shows, there is an election within the election of Israel. 'For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel' (Rom. 9:6). The true and spiritual seed are the heirs of the promise. Further, the new Shoot that grows from the felled cedar is the Messiah. He is God's servant Israel, in whom God will be glorified (Is. 49:3). In him the mission of Israel will be fulfilled and the status of Israel will be established in a way that surpasses all imagining. Not only will he restore the remnant of Israel, he will also be a light to the Gentiles, 'that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth' (Is. 49:6). The prophets describe the ingathering of the preserved of the nations along with the remnant of Israel (Je. 48:47; 49:6,39; Is. 66:19-21). Paul explains how Christ fulfils the ministry of the circumcision: 'For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy...' (Rom. 15:8).
Jesus Christ indeed comes to gather the remnant, the 'little flock' of God's good pleasure who are given the kingdom (Lk. 12:32). But Jesus is more than the Sent of the Father. He is the Son of the Father. He is the Vine as well as the Shepherd, and he brings salvation in himself. The people of God are claimed at last by God himself, coming in the person of his Son. He claims them by joining them to himself as their Lord and their life. Both the status and the mission of the people of God are therefore now defined in Christ. In his Sonship they are made sons of God; as the Father has sent him into the world, so Christ has sent them into the world (Jn. 17:18).
A brief preliminary bibliography accompanies this essay (pp.303-4). See especially D. A. Carson, ed., Biblical Interpretation and the Church: Text and Context (Exeter 1984).
In spite of his wealth of analysis and perception, Gibson Winter's prescription for the church is sociological, not theological: The New Creation as Metropolis (New York 1963). So, too, Marxist presuppositions shape the view of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll 1973).
J. C. Hoekendijk, 'The Church in Missionary Thinking', IRM 41 (1952) 325.
Oliver S. Tomkins, ed., The Third World Conference on Faith and Order Held at Lund, August 15th to 28th, 1952 (London 1953) 22.
Alfred Loisy, for example, said that 'Jesus announced the kingdom of God, but what appeared was the church'. L'Evangile et l'Eglise (Paris 1902) 11. See the account of the change in scholarly opinion in Oscar Cullman, Peter (Philadelphia 1953) 166-167. See also the essay and literature cited by Gerhard Maier, 'The Church in the Gospel of Matthew: Hermeneutical Analysis of the Current Debate; in D. A. Carson, op. cit. 45-63.
1QS 5:5; 8:1, 2, 5-10; 9:3; 11:8. Ps. 18:17, 32. See Otto Betz, 'Felsenmann und Felsengemeinde . . .' ZNW 48 (1957), 49-77. See also E. P. Clowney, The Biblical Doctrine of the Church (Phillipsburg, N.J. 1979) 87-107.
George Johnston, The Doctrine of the Church in the N. T. (Cambridge 1943) 36 n.2. J. Y. Campbell, 'The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of the Word ECCLESIA', JIS 49 (1948) 133.
See the discussion of Presbyterianism and Independency in James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh 1868) ch. 5, pp. 296-331. See also, for the view of congregational independency, Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God's Program (Chicago 1972) 114-119.
The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, and of Ordination of Ministers; Agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, etc. (Philadelphia 1745; reprint, New York 1880).
E. P. Clowney, 'The Final Temple', WTJ 35 (1973) 156-189.
This essay first appeared in The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, D. A. Carson (ed.), (Baker/Paternoster, 1987, 1993), 13-87, 303-07 and is used here with permission. No part of this essay may be copied or transmitted in any form without the permission of the publishers.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
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- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature