What is the church?
What is the Church?
Acts 13: 42-52
Summerstrand 18:30 October 6, 2019
Scripture reading and preaching
My first memory of the church was in the manse of a minister. I was absent when the certificates were handed out for the first year of Sunday school at the church. I don’t remember much of that. But my mother sent me to get my certificate from Rev Leuvenink in the manse in Vredendal. Alone. Only six years old. I remember the hesitation at the gate; the awe that I felt at his length as he opened the door; the hospitality of the soft drink he poured for me; the lasting impression as I walked back down the dusty street: this is what it must be like to be in God’s presence.
After that I would have many other experiences in the church, walking a path with wonderful ministers – like MC Steyn, Jaap Weideman, André Strydom – and wonderful teachers, and wonderful members. But, that first experience stays with me.
I wonder what your first church experience was like. How was it? What people played a role? How is it today? What does the church mean to you?
Paul was a church planter of note. We usually read his letters and celebrate the impact his letters have on our teaching and life. But the letters were a result of his church planting. He traveled the world preaching the gospel and leaving congregations wherever he went. Living faith communities.
So, Paul on his first missionary journey in the early fifties of the first century went to Antioch in Pisidia (Turkey). On the Sabbath day, they preached the gospel in the synagogue – after reading the Law and the Prophets.
Paul’s sermon had four main points:
- ELECTION: Paul chose to relate the Jewish people’s history that day and give them an overview of the history from Egypt to Canaan. He emphasized God’s election of them as His people, and His tolerance for them and the gift of the land.
- SAVIOR: Then Paul talked about the leaders that God had given them and named Jesus as the one who was born of the seed of David as the savior of Israel, the expected Messiah.
- JESUS: To this he linked Jesus’ story and explained how He is the Savior that the people hoped for. But that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem condemned him to death. And though Jesus did nothing wrong, He was killed by Pilate.
- RESURRECTION: He concluded with the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to many people. These people were now his witnesses and preached the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead. Everyone is now called to believe in Him so that they can be set free from all sin, warning them not to despise God’s offer of forgiveness.
It is with this message that the gospel began to do its work in Antioch. Because, we read:
42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.
44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“ ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”
48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
The gospel goes across boundaries
This is how it works with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wherever He is preached, faith communities come into being. In fact, this is the only way the gospel can cross boundaries. If the Lord Jesus is proclaimed in this world, new faith communities are established.
The picture that one gets of the church in Acts, increasingly so here from Acts 13 with the various missionary journeys, is that the church is a movement that grows repeatedly by preaching the gospel where it has not yet arrived.
It is a message preached to all cultures, Jews and Greeks. The geographical and social boundaries that normally separate people in different nations are thereby radically crossed and relativized.
All people of all cultures are welcome in the kingdom of God.
Admittedly, the apostles first seek out the Jewish synagogue, just as they did in Cyprus. But, at the same time, the Greeks are also welcome and are actively drawn into the faith community.
Great opposition from the Jews
The initial reception of Paul’s speech was positive, and Paul and Barnabas were invited to the following Sabbath to teach more about these things. Not that the people could wait that long. Throughout the week there were conversations in which Paul and Barnabas encouraged people to accept the Savior Jesus and to trust in the grace of God.
However, the next Sabbath day there was strong opposition from the Jews when they saw the great turnout. Instead of rejoicing that so many people gathered in the synagogue to hear the word of the Lord, and seize the opportunity to listen together, they were filled with envy – as the Jews in Jerusalem also responded to Jesus – and started to interrupt Paul in his articulation of the gospel and acted very insultingly.
However, Paul and Barnabas did not let that deter them, they did not soften the message, but spelled out the consequences of their opposition. The opposition of the Jews showed, Paul said, that they were not worthy of eternal life. And he spelled out the further effects of the opposition.
God’s salvation is meant for the ends of the earth, as Jesus already commanded (Acts 1:8), and the opposition means that Paul and Barnabas were now sent to non-Jews. As Paul quoted from Isaiah that the Lord’s servant, Jesus, should be proclaimed as a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6).
Great joy among the Gentiles
The Jews were even more astonished at this and whip the leading women and the leading men of the city – who of course attended the event but were not part of the Jewish community – against Paul and Barnabas.
By the persecution that ensued, Paul was expelled from the region – only temporarily it appears, for they later return ( Acts 14:21) – and with a symbolic gesture – reminiscent of what Jesus commanded the 70 disciples (Luke 10) – they shook the dust off their shoes and departed for Iconium.
However, the Gentiles who heard the message responded in joy. Those who – as Luke says – were destined for eternal life became believers. And with Paul and Barnabas’ departure, they were left full of joy through the work of the Holy Spirit – Indicating that behind everything that happened here, the Spirit was doing the work of persuasion through their message.
Appointed for eternal life
The picture that this speech gives us about God’s work in us is insightful.
Notice that the Jews who rejected Jesus determined their own destiny, as Luke puts it, “pronounced a judgment (krinô) upon themselves”. They showed that they counted themselves not worthy of eternal life. The Gentiles who believed in Jesus again believed because they were destined or appointed for it (tassô): “All who were appointed for eternal life became believers.”
It makes one realize God’s work becomes visible in the choices people make.
In so doing, a historical glance, and not a dogmatic one, is given to a teasing theological problem. Why Israel, God’s people, stood against the gospel, and the nations accepted it. Later in the letter to the Romans, Paul would also reflect dogmatically on this (Rom 9-11).
This is the election
The image that one thus gets of the election here is that God himself gathers his church through the preaching of the gospel.
- It is his work that people believe and receive the message of eternal life.
- It is people’s work that they reject the message.
So, the election is not just a static dogmatic concept. It is a dynamic process that literally takes place in the course of preaching the gospel.
This conveys the message: this is how the church comes into being. By preaching the gospel. By the election. You receive eternal life from the hand of God.
Everyone who hears the message, is therefore part of the church. Because they were chosen.
And like Paul and Barnabas, we are also called to make sure that this message goes to every person on this earth. So that the elect can be gathered in faith communities.
That brings me to the question about the church.
What is the Christian Church?
And my answer is, among other things, based in part on this message from Acts 13:
The Christian church is chosen, protected, and maintained by God from the entire human race for eternal life.
That is what the church is. It is God’s creation. It includes all people who believe in Him. They receive eternal life from the hand of God. And God maintains the church.
How do I become part of it?
By regeneration and faith, I belong to the one, holy, common and apostolic church, the body of Christ.
The church is the gathering of the born-again believers. These are the people who believe in Christ and are connected to God through Him. Who receives eternal life from his hand.
What does God ask of us as a church?
All believers are obliged to join the local church to worship the Lord together.
God sends the church to preach the gospel in witness and service.
- All of us must do our part here in the faith community.
- All of us must continue to preach the gospel – through our testimony, and through our service.
Why are there so many churches?
Three things played a role in the development of the first congregations in relation to each other. That which we refer to as early Christianity and which formed the Christian church of the first century.
In an effort to preserve unity in the diversity of congregations, they focused on canon formation, creeds, and leadership (Gonzales, The Story of Christianity).
- First, the congregations focused on God’s Word, the canon, the authoritative Word of God. From the beginning, they accepted the OT as the authoritative Word of God. The apostles began to write letters that were also accepted from the beginning on the same level as the OT. Later, the 4 gospels were added, and later the Revelation of John. By the end of the first century AD, 27 of these books had the same authority as the OT for early Christians. Therefore, it was included in the ultimate canon. This process was completed in the 4th century.
- Secondly, the congregations focused on the creeds, the formulation of the true doctrine, the doctrine that everyone could adhere to. The first creed was known as the Didage, which played a major role in the teaching of the church. Three other creeds are over time the central truths of Christianity: The Twelve Articles, The Confession of Nicea, and The Confession of Athanasius.
- Thirdly, the congregations focused on the leadership structure. Initially it was only elders and deacons with pastors. Soon a system of bishops came into being, which ultimately came under the hierarchy and authority of a pope.
These three things succeeded in the goal of protecting unity in diversity, but of course these were also the three things that have repeatedly come under fire through the ages.
The truth was compromised
On the one hand, there was so much corruption in the Roman Catholic system that the truth of the gospel itself was compromised. Scripture had been supplemented with the traditions of the ages. They supplemented the original creeds with other statements in which the pope was given an infallible role. And the leadership structure created a strong hierarchy in which, for example, ordinary people could no longer read the Bible.
Hence the rift between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic church. They emphasized Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus.
Different interpretations began dividing the church
On the other hand, with this rift came many different interpretations of Scripture, the creation of divergent creeds and different leadership structures.
It is from this that the differences between the DRC and other churches arise. It has to do with the Bible, with the creeds and with leadership. These are the main things that are different between our churches. How we view Scripture. How we view the Creeds. How we view leadership.
To get back to what we believe about the church, let us read two articles from the Belgic Confession, one of the Creeds of the Reformed Churches across the world.
Belgic Confession 27
The Catholic Christian Church
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
This Church has been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this that Christ is an eternal King, which without subjects He cannot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes for a while appears very small, and in the eyes of men to be reduced to nothing; as during the perilous reign of Ahab the Lord reserved unto Him seven thousand men who had not bowed their knees to Baal.
Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same Spirit.
Ps. 46: 6; Jer. 31:36; Ps. 102: 14; Matt. 28:20; 2 Sam. 7:16 Luke. 1:32; Ps. 89:37; 110: 4; Gen. 22; Rom. 11; 1 Ki. 19:18; 2 Tim. 2:19; Luke. 17:21; Matt. 11:25; Acts. 4:32; Eph. 4: 4; 1 Pet. 3:20; Gen. 22:18 Matt. 16:18; Isa. 1: 9; Rom. 9:29; Joel 2:32; Acts. 2:21.
Belgic Confession 28
Everyone Is Bound To Join Himself To The True Church
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.
And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore, all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it act contrary to the ordinance of God.
Ps. 5:6; 22:23; Eph. 4:12; Heb. 2:12; Matt. 24:28; Isa. 49:22; 52: 11-12; Acts. 4:17, 19; Heb. 10:25; Rev. 17:2; Acts. 17:7; 18:13.
It is the greatest privilege to belong to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the community of faith of those destined for eternal life. Who are believing, because God worked it in their heart.
It is at the same time the greatest responsibility of your life. Nothing and no one should keep you away from the church and the role you play in this local form of the church.
And all of us together are responsible, like Paul and Barnabas, to carry the message into the world, to the cities of this world, to the people of this world, until everyone has heard the message.
Only then will we succeed in our goal, if everyone could hear the message. Only then will the end come.
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