Biblical Theology Articles

The Biblical Theology of the Church (2/4)

Edmund P. Clowney


Biblical Theology: Church (PDF)

C. God’s New Nation

1. The Bond of God's Covenant

The tie that binds God's people to their Lord binds them also to one another. The bond of Israel's nationhood was not ethnic but religious. It was the covenant at Sinai that forged Israel into unique nationhood. Strangers and sojourners could be admitted to the assembly and people of God. They could gain an inheritance in Israel (Ex. 12:47-­49; 23:9). On the other hand, to reject God's covenant was to be disinherited from Israel. Not only did God judge covenant­-breakers with death; the Levites were commanded to execute God's judgment upon their brethren (Ex. 32:26, 27). If a son in Israel blasphemed the name of God, his own father was to denounce him (Dt. 13:6-11). For apostasy a whole generation could perish in the wilderness, and all Israel be driven into exile. The promise of the prophet Hosea recognizes the justice of God's disinheriting judgment. Those who once were the people of God have become Lo-­ammi, 'no people' (Ho. 1:9). If they are again to be called Ammi, 'my people', it can be only by the mercy of divine re-adoption, not by the claim of ethnic nationhood. For that reason, Paul can appeal to Hosea's language to defend the inclusion of Gentiles among the people of God (Rom. 9:24­-26). All were disinherited by sin; all were Lo-ammi. But by the grace of God in Christ, those who were no people have been made the people of God.

2. The Church of the New Covenant

In Christ the New Testament church is the new and true Israel, one with the Old Testament saints in the spiritual ethnicity that defines the people of God in all ages. When Peter calls the Gentiles of Asia Minor the diaspora (1 Pet. 1:1), he is viewing them as the true people of God scattered in the world.

The Apostle Paul in the same way claims that Gentiles are made members of the people of God. Writing to Gentiles as the 'uncircumcision', Paul says, 'At that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world' (Eph. 2:12). Note the parallels from which the Apostle argues. To be separate from Christ is to be outside the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to God's covenant. But Christ has broken down the middle wall of partition that preserved the distinctiveness of the circumcised.

What, then, is the situation of those who are no longer separate from Christ? 'But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ' (Eph. 2:13). Christ has brought them within the community from which they were once excluded by the wall of separation. In Christ they have the same access to the Father as do all the true people of God. They are no more strangers from God's covenant promises; they are his covenant people. They are no more aliens from the commonwealth of Israel; instead, they have been made fel­low-citizens with the saints of that commonwealth (Eph. 2:19).

Indeed, if the Apostle to the Gentiles had not taught this, the circumcision controversy described in the New Testament would never have taken place. Paul's Judaizing antagonists would have had no objection to Paul's organizing a church that was quite distinct from Israel. The rabbis were already making provision for the 'God-fearers' who had attached themselves to the synagogues but who did not wish to be circumcised or to become Jews. If Paul had merely been organizing such devout Gentiles, there would have been no objection from the zealous Jews. But what infuriated even many Jewish Christians was that Paul was claiming to bring Gentiles into the covenant, into the number of the people of God, without circumcising them. It is notable that Paul never dropped or lowered his high claim in order to meet Judaizing objections. He never said: 'Of course I am not circumcising these Gentiles. I am not adding them to Israel, but to the church. They are therefore being baptized into a proselyte status, but not added to the coven­ant people'.

Instead, Paul said the exact opposite: 'For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh' (Phil. 3:3). Paul could say nothing else, because of his glorying in Christ Jesus. If Jesus is the true circumcision, the heir of all the promises of God, and if we by faith are united to Jesus, then in Christ we are Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:29).

3. The Church as a People: Spiritual Ethnics

The new Israel of God is not less a nation because it is spiritually constituted. Jesus said to the Jewish leaders who rejected him, 'The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit' (Mt. 21:43). Like Israel, the New Testament church is a theo­cracy, subject in all things to the word of the Lord. But unlike Israel of old, God's people are no longer to bear the sword to bring God's judgments on the heathen, nor to defend a territorial inheritance in the earth. Jesus com­manded Peter to put away his sword, and declared to Pilate, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place' (Jn. 18:36).

To this church Christ gives, not a sword, but the keys of the kingdom. The authority so sanctioned is not less, but greater than the power that the state exercises with the sword. Not temporal, but eternal judgments are pronounced in the name of Christ. Those who are judged by Christ's word on earth are judged by that same word in heaven. On the other hand, penitent sinners who are welcomed in his name have heaven opened to them (Mt. 16:19; 18:18-20; Jn. 20:22, 23). It is because the church invokes eternal rather than temporal judgment that the sword cannot be its instru­ment. The day of judgment has not come, but the longsuffer­ing grace of God is revealed. Although the sentence of the church is so solemn, it is not final. Church discipline is to be exercised with a view to the reclamation of the offender, as well as for the vindication of the name of Christ, and the holiness of his church (1 Cor. 5:5).

4. Church and State: the Power of the Sword

The sword that is given to the state is not that which is denied to the church. That is, we may not suppose that Christ denied to his apostles the right to bring in his kingdom with the sword, but conceded that right to Pilate. Pilate is a ruler. He has authority given to him by God (Jn. 19:11). But Roman power does not continue the theocratic authority that was Israel's and which now passes in spiritual form to those who are the servants of Christ ('my officers', v.36). Nor is the church denied the sword because its concerns are more limited: the conduct of public worship, for example. God's kingdom of salvation is not administered in different departments, of which the church is one and the state another. To be sure, the new humanity in Christ is to serve him in all the spheres of human life. Christ is Lord of all; we must do all to the glory of God. But the church is the form that Christ has given to the people of God in the world. They may not reincorporate and take up the sword to anticipate his judgment or to see that God's will is done on earth as in heaven.

Worldly power, enforceable by the sword, is associated with territory. But the church is catholic, universal. It cannot be confined to any area nor defend boundaries. 'Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city which is to come' (Heb. 13:14). It is of the very nature of the New Testament church to be scattered among the nations of the world. We are pilgrims and strangers, the new diaspora of God. The relation of the church to the state therefore resembles that of Israel in dispersion. The exiles were warned by Jeremiah to realize that their captivity would be the length of a generation. They were not to look for a speedy return, but were to settle down in the land of their disper­sion. 'Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper' (Je. 29:7). The words of the prophet are echoed by the Apostle. He exhorts Timothy to encourage prayer for kings and all in high place 'that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness' (1 Tim. 2:2). He adds that this is acceptable to God, 'who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth'. As C. E. B. Cranfield has pointed out, such prayer is not only a Christian responsi­bility, but can even be said to have an evangelistic outcome.

The church, then, may not use the sword, but it is not without a weapon. Paul says, 'The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God' (2 Cor. 10:4, 5). The Word of God is the Sword of the Spirit, and the truth of the gospel can accomplish what no sword can achieve, the turning of men's hearts to God. The enemy of the church is the Devil and the spiritual hosts of wickedness. No sword can strike Satan but the sword of the Spirit.

The temptation to repeat the Crusades remains with the church. Others would create another Geneva, or gather another community in the wilderness, or perhaps even, one day, in literal world-flight, colonize another planet. Still others would seek to capture some political state and make it a new Israel, the earthly political form of the kingdom of God. It seems difficult to accept a calling for the state that is so limited: to preserve peace and order, to protect and support human life. Many rightly recognize that the expression of God's saving kingdom must go beyond per­sonal piety, and they look to the state (or to a new revolution­ary order) to crush social evil and bring in divine justice. But the state is not called to bring in the kingdom, nor to enforce the rule of God's absolute righteousness. Yet there stands another nation, the church of Jesus Christ, to be not only a witness and a refuge, but a people among whom the power of the kingdom is already at work, and Christ's final salvation already realized. Until the church manifests in corporate form the meaning of the coming of the kingdom in the Spirit, its witness will be hindered. It will not appear as a city set upon a hill. Not only will it fail to manifest the social dimensions of God's saving righteousness: it will diminish the gospel message that it seeks to proclaim.

5. The Fellowship of the Covenant

The church, then, is a 'new nation under God', and the bonds that unite it are God-given. Clearly, God did not bring Israel out of Egypt to give them the opportunity to become acquainted with one another so that the social graces could flourish. He brought them to himself, and claimed them as his sons and daughters, so that their relation to one another might be grounded in their relation to him. Hittite treaties of the period required that vassals of the same suzerain refrain from hostilities against one another. Cer­tainly the servants of the Lord, joined in covenant with him, must live at peace with each other. But the God-centered character of covenantal religion required much more. Because God was the Father of Israel, the people were also a family, a 'fatherdom' (Eph. 3:14, 15). The electing love of God made Israel his people. They, in return, must not only love the Lord their God with heart and soul, they must also love their neighbour as themselves (Lv. 19:18). They are not free to enslave their brothers or sisters; they must not hate them in their heart (Lv. 25:35, 55; Dt. 15:12; Je. 34:8-­22; Lv. 19:17). The underlying motive for that respect and affection was the joy of sharing together in the redeeming power and love of God. The Psalmist put it eloquently: 'I am a friend to all who fear you' (Ps. 119:63).

The Israelites were neighbours geographically because of their shared possession of the land of promise. Each man had his inheritance within the bounds of the tribal allotment, and the whole land was an inheritance received from the Lord. To belong to the people of God is to have a share in the inheritance (Dt. 10:9; 12:12; 14:27, 29; 18:1). The New Testament concept of 'fellowship' (koinonia) contains this same thought of sharing, of having in common the blessing, the inheritance given by God. God himself is the inheritance of Israel, the portion of his people (Ps. 16:5; 73:26: 119:57; 142:5: La. 3:24).

The prophets denounced the sin of Israel in the breach of love within the family of God's people. Those who oppress the widow and the orphan or defraud their neighbours are not merely guilty of anti-social conduct. They have broken God's covenant. No one who hates his neighbour in his heart can rightly love God. The theme that John expounds in his First Epistle is firmly grounded in the Old Testament teaching regarding God's covenant with his chosen people.

Fellowship and Separation

There is another side to the coin. The bond that joins Israel to the Lord and to one another also separates them from the nations. The people of God are not to be numbered with the nations (Nu. 23:9). They are distinct religiously, for they are to serve the Lord, and no other God. He is their God, and they are his own possession, his inheritance, although all the earth is his (Ex. 19:5). They are also to be distinct morally. They must not practise the abominations of the heathen nations around them (Lv. 18:24-30). That ethical separation is symbolized in the ceremonial distinctiveness of Israel. The motif of cleanness and its opposite enforces the separation. Sources of uncleanness are not only forbid­den foods, dead bodies, certain skin diseases, and bodily emissions, but also marital alliance with Gentiles (Ex. 34:12­-17; 1 Ki. 11:2). The geographical separation of Israel gave practical support to the concept of Israel's distinctiveness.

In the New Testament the spiritual separation of the new people of God is heightened as the geographical and ceremonial forms of separation are fulfilled and transcended. No longer are the people of God to be barred from certain foods. In the cleansing of Christ's atonement, the ceremonial pictures are realized (Acts 10:9-16, 28; 1 Cor. 8:8; 10:23­-27; 7:14). The removal of the dietary restrictions, and of the ceremonial sanctions that separated Jews from Gentiles - even more than the termination of the geographical distincti­veness of the new Israel - opened the door for the mission to the Gentiles. This was the evident effect of Peter's vision on the house-top in Joppa. He was freed to associate with the Gentile soldier Cornelius, to be a guest at his table, and also to baptize him into the membership of the church (Acts 10).

Yet the separation of the New Israel remains, and is intensified. Paul does not hesitate to use the language of separation from uncleanness in quoting from the Old Testa­ment. 'Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty' (2 Cor. 6:17-18). The religious and moral separation of Israel now has a new depth. All defile­ment of flesh and spirit is to be cleansed away as the Christian church perfects holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). The quest for holiness among the New Israel is both individual and corporate. Not only must each Christian pursue holiness: the church must grow together in the image of Christ, and must exclude from its fellowship those who are heretics or impenitent sinners (Rom. 16:17f.; 1 Cor. 5:9­-13). Paul was concerned not only to present every man perfect in Christ (Col. 1:8), but also to present the whole church 'as a pure virgin to Christ' (2 Cor. 11:2). Christ sought a renewal of love from the church at Ephesus, but he commended them for exposing and bringing to trial false apostles. Other churches are warned of the danger of tolerating the Nicolaitan heresy (Rev. 2:2, 14, 20).

The overflowing love and grace of God radically renew the community of the covenant. The church that has been purchased with Christ's blood cannot ask 'Who is my neighbour?' with a view to limiting the circle of those to whom the love of compassion must be shown. Yet the love that reaches out in Christ's name to the lost does not deny the reality of lostness. It calls men to enter the fellowship where the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, but the bond of that love can be forged only in union with Christ.

A City Set on a Hill

1. Israel's Calling before the Nations

God's worshipping assembly, his chosen nation, is also a city set on a hill. As we have seen, God calls Israel to bear witness as well as to worship and to live in brotherhood. Israel is set before the nations to make known the saving work of the living God. The whole history of Israel is interwoven with its calling to witness. God's judgments on Egypt in delivering the people from bondage are a memor­able witness to his redeeming power (Ex. 9:16). So, too, will the conquest of the land manifest to the nations the power of God (Ex. 34:10). Israel did not enter the land as invaders, but as inheritors. On the one hand, Israel was commissioned by God to execute his judgment upon the wicked inhabi­tants. The Israelite incursion was providentially delayed until the iniquity of the Amorite and Canaanite inhabitants was ripe for judgment (Gn. 15:16; Lv. 18:24-30). God's people were his avenging judges to bring the day of judg­ment, in a figure, on the rebellious inhabitants of the land. On the other hand, the land had been given by God to the descendants of Abraham; in the sight of the nations, Israel received her inheritance from God.

When Israel rebelled in the wilderness, Moses pleaded with God to withhold his judgment so that the Egyptians would not mock God's deliverance (Dt. 9:28f.). Joshua made the same plea when Israel suffered defeat in Canaan: 'What will you do for your great name'? (Jos. 7:9). When the kingdom had been established through the wars of David, Solomon constructed the temple. In his prayer of dedication, Solomon eloquently acknowledged the blessing to the nations that must flow from the place of God's dwelling on earth. 'As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name - for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm. . . hear from heaven your dwelling place. . . so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel' (1 Ki. 8:41-43).

The Nations Share in Israel's Blessing

The ingathering predicted in Solomon's prayer did begin in his reign. Indeed, the blessing of wisdom that God granted to Solomon became the catalyst for that ingathering. A passage that describes the depth and breadth of the wisdom of Solomon concludes, 'Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom' (I Ki. 4:34). The visit of the Queen of Sheba is described as a case in point. The Gentiles are drawn to the king of Israel, and to the God who so richly blessed him and his people (I Ki. 10:9). The gifts of the queen represent the freely brought tribute of the nations as they see what God has wrought among his chosen people.

2. Judgment and Blessing

From this zenith of blessing Israel rapidly drops into the nadir of apostasy and judgment. Solomon's wisdom becomes folly, for he fails in faith. To gain security and peace for Israel, he trusts not in God, but in marital alliances with the heathen nations. He builds altars for the gods of his wives: Ashtoreth, Milcom, Molech, and Chemosh (I Ki. 11:1-8). Picture Solomon standing on the Mount of Olives, his back to the glory of the temple of the Lord, dedicating the high place he had built for Chemosh, the god of Moab!

God's judgments begin. Solomon's kingdom is divided; both Israel in the north and Judah in the south refuse the warnings of the prophets, and cause God's name to be blasphemed among the nations because of their apostasy. Eventually both kingdoms are destroyed and the people carried into exile. Yet, even in the midst of judgment, God continues to make his name known among the nations. The very severity of his wrath against Israel is a sanctifying of his holy name, but God will also sanctify his name among the nations by delivering Israel, as he had done in Egypt (Ezk. 20:9, 14, 22, 39, 44; 36:20).

The Nations Blessed in Israel's Judgment

Further, the nations are blessed in Israel's judgment. When God withholds rain from Israel, his prophet Elijah becomes a blessing to a widow in Zarephath (1 Ki. 17; Lk. 4:26). Elisha heals Naaman, a Syrian general whose task it is to fight against Israel. He also prophesies that Hazael will be King of Syria, knowing well that this spells grief for Israel (2 Ki. 8:7-13). The most dramatic Old Testament account of how judgment on Israel brings blessing to the Gentiles is found in the prophecy of Jonah. Jonah's reluctance to go to Nineveh is understandable. Nineveh, under Shalmanezer III, had already subdued Israel, and forced Jehu to pay tribute. Jonah well knows that Nineveh is the great threat to the security of Israel. The message that God gives him is that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. God's wrath is about to fall on that savage military power. Only Nineveh's repentance can stop this judgment, and Jonah, knowing God's mercy, fears that his call to repentance may be all too effective (Jon. 4:2). Since Nineveh cannot hear without a preacher, Jonah flees the scene. He is willing to be accursed so that Israel might be spared. But Jonah is taught that salvation is of the Lord, and that God has determined to bring the promised blessing to the Gentiles not only in spite of his judgment on Israel, but even through it. Jonah becomes a figure of the Servant of the Lord, raised from death to proclaim repentance to the nations.

Israel Blessed by Judgment on the Nations

On the other hand, the nations, too, must be judged. God uses the nations as his axe and saw to cut down the pride of Israel (Is. 10:5, 15). But the nations are not God's obedient servants in accomplishing his will. They trust in their own might, and worship their idols. Their arrogance will be punished. God will deliver the remnant of his people from their power. In the great day of his salvation he will again set his people free (Mi. 7:14-20; Is. 10:5-27; 63:1-6). As judgment on Israel brought blessing to the nations, so now judgment on the nations will bring blessing to Israel.

Blessing Shared: Israel and the Nations

This picture broadens to a vast eschatological horizon. Isra­el's blessing will be shared by the nations. A remnant of the nations will be saved with the remnant of Israel (Je. 48:47; 49:6, 39), and in that glorious day the enemy nations Egypt and Assyria will be God's chosen people along with Israel: 'Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance' (Is. 19:18-25).

Consummation Blessing: God Comes!

Such incredible blessing can be given only because God himself will come to bring his promises to fulfilment. The vision of the prophets sees the Lord coming in glory, delivering his people by a second exodus, and so filling his people with his glory that all the nations will be drawn at last to share in the blessing. The first covenant will be transcended in a new covenant, and God will make all things new (Is. 25:6-8; 40:1-11; Je. 31:31-34; Zc. 2:11-13; 12:8; 13:1; 14:20, 21; Zeph. 3:9).

The Psalms had celebrated God's dwelling in Zion, calling on the nations to join in the praises of the Lord (Ps. 57:9; 65:2; 67). With prophetic vision the psalmists also look forward to the day when a new song will be sung, when God himself will come and the trees of the field will sing for joy before him (Ps. 96:12, 13). In that day the peoples of the earth will be gathered to be the people of the God of Abraham (Ps. 47:9). The Lord will write the names of Babylonians, Philistines, Tyrians, Ethiopians among the citizens of Zion (Ps. 87).

God's coming is associated with the coming of the Mes­siah, through whom all these blessings will be brought. He will not only gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but will be a light to the nations, that they may see the salvation of God (Is. 42:6, 7; 49:6).

The witness of the people of God will be restored by the God of their salvation. He must come to deliver them and to make his promises of glory come true.


A. The Gathering Church of Christ

We have seen the Old Testament people of God first as a worshipping assembly, then as a holy people, and finally as a witness, a city set on a hill. As we turn to the new Covenant, we meet at once the witness and mission of Christ and of those whom he calls. We will first reflect on the witness of Christ's church, then on its worship, and finally on its fellowship as Christ's body.

1. The Lord Comes to Gather

'Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord' (Lk. 2:11). The herald angel announces to the shepherds the long-promised coming of the Lord. He is not only the Lord's Anointed (Lk. 2:26); he is the anointed Lord, the glory of his people Israel (Lk. 2:32). His name is Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21). The inspired witnesses present him in the Gospels as the Lord of creation, obeyed by winds and waves (Mt. 8:27). He is Master of life and death, of men and demons, with authority not only to heal the sick but to forgive sins (Mk. 2:8-11). He is more than a prophet, for he is the Son of God, the Word who became flesh and tabernacled among us so that we might behold his glory, the light that shines in the darkness (Mt. 16:16; Jn. 1:1-5, 14, 18).

He comes to earth on a mission from the Father, so that he might gather the remnant flock, the people given him of the Father (Lk. 12:32; Jn. 17:2; 10:27-29). He looks with compassion on the people as sheep scattered, without a shepherd (Mt. 9:36; 26:31). Ezekiel prophesied that the Divine shepherd would come to gather his flock and deliver them from the false shepherds (Ezk. 34). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, undertakes that task of gathering. Although he is the Lord, he is also the Servant. He comes as the Sent of the Father, not simply to call the unfaithful stewards of God's kingdom to account (Mt. 21:37, 38), but also to summon sinners to the feast of the kingdom (Lk. 14:16-24; Mt. 22:2-14). He calls first the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt. 10:5; 15:24); when Gentiles come seeking him, he views their coming as a sign of his impending death and resurrection (Jn. 12:20-33). When he is lifted up, first to the cross, then in glory, he will draw all men unto him. The gathering work of Christ awaits the glory to be given him of the Father. The Lord who gathers calls his disciples to be gatherers with him. In a solemn saying, Jesus declares, 'He who does not gather with me scatters' (Mt. 12:30; Lk. 11:23). After the resurrection, Jesus calls and commissions his disciples to this gathering task. They are to be labourers in an abundant harvest, praying that the Lord will thrust forth yet more labourers (Mt. 9:37f.). They are to be fishers of men, called by the Lord who commanded them to thrust out into the deep, and who filled their nets to the bursting point with fish (Mt. 4:19; Lk. 5:10).

2. The Church is Called to Gather

Because Christ's church is a missionary church, the order of the church serves the order to the church to make disciples of the nations. Under the dome of St. Peter's in Rome are inscribed in Latin the words of Jesus to Peter: 'You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church' (Mt. 16:18). It is not only the church of Rome that has emphasized the building of the church in an institutional sense to the detriment of the mission of the church to the world. It is for this reason, in part, that Ralph Winter has concluded that mission is the function of the church as sodality rather than modality. The missionary orders rather than the ecclesiastical hierarchy promoted the mission of the church of Rome. Among the churches of the Reformation, mission societies rather than denominational organizations have car­ried the gospel to the ends of the earth. There is no disputing how often this has been the case, although Winter surely goes too far when he tries to represent the Apostle Paul and those who accompanied him as a kind of para-ecclesiastical missionary team. It is clear that Paul looked at the matter quite differently. He argued at length and with passion for his authority in the church as an apostle, and for his calling as the apostle to the Gentiles. In relation to the order of the church, he could not have conceived of his work more centrally. He was fulfilling the gospel, bringing to fruit the promises of the Old Testament. Paul the Apostle was a wise master-builder of the church. Through his ministry, the Gentiles glorified God for his mercy. Paul uses formal language in describing his official ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-20).

The Apostolic, Missionary Church

Indeed, the fact that the apostolic office is both foundational and missionary has abiding significance for the church. The foundational aspect of the apostles' work was accomplished in the apostolic age. They were witnesses of the resurrection, who had seen with their own eyes the risen Lord (Acts 1:21, 22; 10:41, 42; 1 Cor. 15:8). They were organs of revelation, having received from the Lord what they delivered to the church (Eph. 3:4, 5; Heb. 2:3; 1 Cor. 15:3). But they were also missionaries, sent into the world with the only Name by which men can be saved. The Gospel of Matthew joins the foundational word of Jesus to the apostles (Mt. 16:18, 19), to the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). Mission is not an addendum to the doctrine of the church. It is the calling of the church in the world. If it is neglected or abandoned, the life of the church, not just its work, is threatened.

The Father's Missionary Love

The missionary character of Christ's church does not issue only from the command of Christ. It flows from the revel­ation of the Father that Christ provided. He sends the disciples into the world as the Father sent him into the world (Jn. 17:18; 20:21). How did the Father send him? With authority, of course, but also in grace and love. In the teaching of Jesus, the astounding love of God is set forth. Jesus is the Beloved Son, but the Father has not spared him; instead he has sent him to give his life a ransom for many. In the parable of the welcoming Father, Jesus tells of the joy that his Father has in receiving lost sinners home again (Lk. 15:11-32). The story shows God's amazing grace, for­ - as the prodigal confesses - he does not deserve to be called the son of his father, or even to be made one of his servants. But the father receives him as a son and welcomes him with a feast. The older brother is furious because he knows well his brother's sin, but does not know at all his father's love. The key to the parable is the contrast between the older brother and Christ himself. Jesus told the story as one of three parables after he had been criticized for eating with publicans and sinners. In each story he shows the joy, and the feast, that accompanies the finding of the lost. 'There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents' (Lk. 15:7, 10). Jesus understands heaven's joy, and the love of the Father that rejoices in finding the lost. Jesus is the seeking shepherd of the first parable; he is like the woman of the second parable, who turned her house upside down to find a coin. The shepherd sought one sheep of a hundred, the woman one coin of ten; but the older brother would not seek one brother of one. In fact, not only did he fail to go to the far country to seek him, he even refused to eat with him when he came home. Not so Jesus. He, the true older brother, knows his Father's heart. He goes seeking publicans and sinners. He eats with them, and calls them to come home to the Father.

The gospel is the message of God's redeeming love in sending his own Son into the world. Those who understand that love will be driven to share it. They will not only rejoice to sit down with other redeemed sinners in heaven's feast: they will seek other sinners in Christ's name to call them home. As Christ was sent, so he sends them, and the dynamic of mission is the heart of the love of God. Again we see that mission is not an addendum. Rather, it is evidence that the church understands the gospel. The love that fulfils the law, as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the love of compassion, love modelled on the love of God.

Mission: Going Out and Coming In

The witness of Christ's church to the world is not expressed only in the going of Christ's disciples to the ends of the earth. The outgoing, centrifugal mission of the New Testament church does not simply replace the ingathering, centripetal movement of the Old Testament witness. The church is still a city set on a hill. Indeed, even its mission to other lands and cultures is a continuation of the task of calling the nations to worship at Mount Zion. The difference is that the Zion to which people are now called is the heavenly Zion, the Jerusalem above that is our mother (Gal. 4:26). Men and women of every tribe, tongue, people and nation are now called to join the heavenly worship described in Hebrews 12. Because we do not have a continuing city here, we can no longer call men to an earthly centre. Because we do have a continuing city above, our call goes to the whole world. The heavenly centre for the worship of the whole earth accounts for the mission to all the world. On the other hand, we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together on earth. Our local assemblies therefore become Mount Zion in miniature. Israel's calling to show to the world the holiness of the true people of God is maintained and deepened. Paul teaches this when he calls upon the church to 'Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe' (Phil. 2:14, 15). The Apostle uses language from Deuteronomy 32:5, but with an interesting reversal. Moses, dealing with the per­petual murmurings and questionings of Israel in the wilder­ness, described them as a perverse and crooked generation, corrupted and blemished. Paul urges the church to forsake the sins of the people of old and to be what Israel was not.

The holiness of the church is to be shown particularly in love for one another (Jn. 13:35). The world will be struck by the changed life-style of the Christian community, and will speak evil of it (1 Pet. 4:4). But the world cannot ignore that love that binds Christ's disciples together in a unity of heart (Jn. 17:23).

B. The Church as the Worshipping Assembly

The worshipping assembly of Christ becomes Mount Zion for those who are drawn in by seeing the lives and hearing the praises of those who know the Lord. Paul says of a well­ordered service of worship that its prophetic ministry will fulfil Old Testament promises, for the stranger who enters will fall down on his face and say that 'God is among you indeed!' (1 Cor. 14:25; Is. 45:14; Zc. 8:22, 23).

Peter emphasizes the place of worship when he writes that 'you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light' (1 Pet. 2:9). No doubt the praises of God serve as a witness to the nations. Yet praise to God is offered not for the sake of the Lord who is adored.

1. God's Glory Evokes Worship

All worship is qualified by the transcendent glory of God. The Psalms celebrate God's glory in the works of his hands. The heavens thunder the glory of God's power (Ps. 18:7­15; 19:1; 33; 147). God is also the Governor of men and nations, shaping history by his will (Ps. 145:13; 46:10). Above all God is to be praised for his work of salvation (Ps. 18; 145:7, 8, 18-21). His hills skipped like lambs when he led forth his people like a flock (Ps. 78:52; 114:4, 6). But the crescendo of praise builds toward the great work of salvation that God will do in the latter days. God will come and new songs of praise will be sung (Ps. 96:1, 11-13). Isaiah adds prophetic chorales praising the glory of God that will be revealed when all flesh shall see it together (Is. 40:5; 58:8; 59:19; 60:1).

Because worship praises the Lord himself, and does not simply celebrate his works, it moves from thanking God for what he has done to adoring him for who he is. The psalmists sing 'the glory due to his name' (Ps. 29:2). His mighty acts reveal his transcendent power and wisdom. We are called to marvel not only at his wisdom displayed in the cosmos and the ages, but at his wisdom in forming and knowing us personally (Ps. 139:1-18). Just as we praise God most for his deeds of salvation, so of all his attributes we are most overwhelmed by his saving love, the spring of our redemp­tion. There is therefore a climactic and dramatic movement to our worship. Worship spirals upward from the works of God to the attributes of God, from his sovereignty in cre­ation to his sovereignty in salvation. 'For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever!' (Rom. 11:36).

2. God's Presence Evokes Worship

The supreme heightening of worship is evoked by the very presence of God. The angels who cry 'Holy, holy, holy!' are not reciting a litany, but are responding to the ever fresh and expanding revelation of the presence of God as it sweeps over them, wave upon wave. The climax of worship is always found in the immediate presence of the Lord. We have not only heard with our ears of his wonderful deeds and his glorious attributes; our eyes have seen him, and with Job we repent in dust and ashes (Jb. 42:5, 6).

We have seen how central the presence of the Lord was for the worship of Israel: God must dwell in the midst; a way must be opened into his presence. The Psalmist longs for the courts of the Lord, not to enjoy the spectacle of worship, but to meet with God (Ps. 84; 63:1-3; 122:1). 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God'? (Ps. 42:2).

3. God's Holiness Demands Exclusive Worship

Because 'our God is a consuming fire' (Heb. 12:29), his own holy nature and will determine all of our worship. The Lord demands exclusive worship: 'Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God' (Ex. 20:5; 34:13). The forms, as well as the object, of our worship must be exclusive. God will not tolerate worship through idols, but insists that he be worshiped in the way that he has commanded (Dt. 12:30-32). All this is to say that worship is total commitment. It is nothing if not extravagant. To withhold anything is to fail to worship (Dt. 6:4-9).

4. Fulfilment in Christ

When we consider the church as the worshipping assembly of Jesus Christ, we see how all these biblical themes for worship are brought to fulfilment. Old Testament prophecy proclaims the great day of worship when the glory of God will be revealed. That climax comes with Jesus Christ. The works of God are manifested afresh in the miracles of Jesus. He shows his power over creation as Lord. But the wonder of worship overflows when the grace of God is revealed. The works and words of Jesus reveal the fulness of that grace. He glorifies the name of the Father as he is brought by the Father's love for sinners to the cross. In Jesus Christ God comes and is present. The extravagance of Mary's worship shows that she perceives his person as well as his work as he goes to Jerusalem to die (Jn. 12:1-8). Jesus shows his zeal for pure worship as he cleanses the temple, but he also announces that he is the true temple (Jn. 2:19-21). Worship in truth is worship of the Father in and through the Son.

The church with joyful worship hails Jesus Christ as Lord. Christians are designated as those who call upon his name (Acts 9:14). The church is the assembly of those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). This is a standard Old Testament expression for the worship of God (Gen. 4:26). The prayer 'Maranatha', associated with the Lord's Table, reflects the way in which the worship of the church centred on the future coming of the Lord in glory, as well as his presence in the Spirit (1 Cor. 16:22).

The worship of the church is centred on God's revelation in Christ in two ways. First the worshippers enter heaven itself, where Jesus is. The visions of the book of Revelation present the glory of the risen Lord who, with the Father and the Spirit, is the object of Christian worship. As we have seen, Hebrews 12 powerfully presents this access of worship. On the other hand, Christ is also present in the gathering on earth where two or three are gathered in his name (Mt. 18:20). The table fellowship of the upper room is continued with the risen Christ. The jealousy of God that demands exclusive worship now requires that we approach the Father only in and through the Son. The church therefore gathers in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:4). The mercy-seat in the tabernacle remained empty. No image or likeness could be placed there, because that seat was reserved for the One who is the image of the invisible God (Co. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3).

Awareness of the presence of the Lord creates in the church a longing that surpasses that of the psalmist. The fellowship that hears his Word, celebrates the sacraments, and responds to his presence in praise has always marked the true church of Christ. The spiritual mystery of his presence was not heightened but lost in the doctrine of transubstantiation, making Christ physically present in the elements, rather than spiritually present among his people. Yet the reality of the spiritual presence of the Lord has also been lost in Protestantism when social crusades, self-­improvement lectures, or camaraderie have crowded out worship.


W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1965) 113-114.
On the church and the kingdom see Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia 1962) 334-396. R. T. France, 'The Church and the Kingdom of God', in D. A. Carson, op. cit. 30-44, emphasizes the dynamic use of the term in relation to God's saving power.
C. E. B. Cranfield, 'The Christian's Political Responsibility according to the N.T.', SJT 15 (1962) 176-192. Cf. David H. Adeney, 'The Church and Persecution', in this volume, pp.275-302.
G. Mendenhall, 'Covenant', IDB 1, 714-723.
The black obelisk of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum shows Jehu doing obeisance, followed by a caravan of tribute. See R. D. Barnett, Illustrations of Old Testament History (London 1966) 48, fig. 25.
Ralph D. Winter, 'Churches Need Missions Because Modalities Need Sodalites', EMQ 7 (1971).
See R. T. France, 'Jesus, l'Unique: Les fondements bibliques d'une confession christologique', Hokhma 17 (1981) 43-44.

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.

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