What is the Church? Ephesians 2:19-22
In the West, where individualism reigns supreme, we have privatized almost everything, including the Christian faith. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, as we look at Paul’s words here in Ephesians 2, that one of the overriding concerns of the cross is to bring people together. The reconciliation that was accomplished on the cross, doesn’t just reconcile people to God – though that is the main thing – it also reconciles man to man. And it doesn’t stop there, it brings men and women into the community of the church. We are not meant to live out the Christian life in solitude, cut off from other believers. We are to live together in the fellowship of those who have also been called out of darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ.
And yet, despite the clear importance of the church, there is a lot of confusion as to what the church is. Too often, I think, church is equated with the meeting that happens on Sunday morning. Though this event is certainly necessary and very important to the life of the church (we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Heb. 10:25), this is not the church. If what we do on Sunday morning is the sum total of what defines us as a church, then we need to think a little more carefully as to what we are about. Not too long ago, I heard a prominent voice in the Christian community say that he didn’t think the church was up to the task of confronting the rising secularism of our culture. His statement frankly alarmed me. How can you have so little confidence in God’s institution? If change doesn’t come from the church, where would it come from? And then I realized that he was thinking of the church as a group of people who do no more than meet together to watch something once a week, if that often. Yes, I agree, that will not change society. Because that is not the church!
On the other hand, some people think that church is just getting together with other believers, in any context. This is closer to the truth, but it is still far from the Biblical reality. They emphasize fellowship, which is important, but they stop far short of what the Bible describes as Christian fellowship. They balk at the notion of a “service,” and will ascribe such things to legalism and formalism. For such people, a church service is no good; they would rather go to the park and talk theology over hot dogs. Fellowship among Christians is truly in short supply, and ironically our technological society has begun replacing Biblical fellowship with media. And yet, the NT church is much bigger than talking theology over hot dogs.
Others think of the church purely in terms of programs. Again, I want to say right off the bat that I’m not against programs. But secular organizations run programs. Doing stuff together is not what really defines a group of people as the church, no matter how impactful such efforts might be.
What then, is the church? Well, we can give a functional definition. When one looks into the NT, one sees that the church is the community of God’s called-out people (ekklesia) who worship together (Eph. 5:19,20), pray together (1 Tim. 2), disciple one another (Rom. 15:14), submit to spiritual leaders together (Heb. 13:7, 17), hear and respond together in faith to Spirit-filled preaching (2 Tim. 4:1-5), who hold one another accountable (Gal. 6:1-5), and who share with each other (1 Tim. 6:17). All these things can be illustrated by definite examples in the book of Acts. And this is not a complete list. All the “one-anothers” of the NT go here as well. And it thus becomes immediately clear that limiting the church to an event, to a program, or to theology over hot dogs, is far, far from all that God has for us in the church.
However, the problem with purely functional definitions is that they beg the question, why? Why do we do all these things together? And why these particular things and not others? And so on. That is why it is also very important to get down to a more ontological definition of the church. What I mean by that is, what is the church before it does anything? What is the essence of the church? Because if we understand that, then we will have a better grasp on what we are to do. And I think this is especially relevant for our church in this season. As we consider what God would have us to do, we need to always go back and measure such goals against what we are.
And here in our text, the apostle Paul helps us. Though the word “church” itself is never used, we know that is what the apostle is talking about here. For the imagery he uses he applies elsewhere to the church. Paul describes his readers as belonging to the household of God; in 1 Tim. 3:15 he says that the house of God is the church of God. In 1 Cor. 3, Paul describes the church as a temple, just as he does here. In Eph. 2:19-22, we have a description of the NT church.
In describing the church, the apostle uses three metaphors: kingdom, family, and temple. The first two are found in verse 19, and the third is expounded in verses 20-22. So as we ask the apostle Paul what he thinks the church is, he would say that the church is the community of those who belong to the kingdom and family of God, and who are being incorporated into the temple of God. This morning, I want to try to unpack what is implied in these metaphors. And hopefully, as we go forward in our vision-casting we will look back to what we are in Christ in order to determine how to look forward in our service to him and his kingdom.
The church is the community of those who belong to the kingdom of God.
Now I recognize that the church and the kingdom of God are not strictly synonymous. God’s kingdom rules over all (Ps. 103:19), and the church is not a universal community. It has always been, and will always be a minority community in the world. Nevertheless, the church consists of those who have bowed the knee to Jesus as their King and who find their identity as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This is what the apostle is saying when he writes, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints.”
This is in contrast with the description of their former state in verse 12. “At that time” they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.” Remember that before Christ came, God’s rule among men was most closely connected with the nation of Israel. Israel, in its most glorious state under the rule of Kings David and Solomon had been a theocracy; the true God was the acknowledged ruler. The Gentiles were for the most part alienated from this visible expression of God’s rule upon the earth. But now, this is no longer the case. In Christ, God is forming a new community upon the earth, the church, and this community is now the visible expression of God’s rule upon the earth.
Of course, the citizenship celebrated here is more than just belonging to the church here on earth. It means that we are citizens of heaven, as Paul reminds the Philippian believers: “For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:20, 21). The kingdom of which we are now a part has no borders and it has no end. It is a kingdom which will find its ultimate fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth.
As such, the church is connected to the saints in every age. “Fellow citizens with the saints.” The saints are those who in every age, from Adam until now, who have embraced with faith the rule of God over their lives, who have bent their knees to the sovereignty of God over their plans and choices and desires. It is a truly global and timeless community.
There are at least three implications for the church that arise from this metaphor. First of all, we need to be constantly reminded that it is vain that we claim to belong to the kingdom of God if we are not willing to submit our entire lives to the lordship of Christ. Though it is true that our works can never inherit eternal life, and though it is gloriously true that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, that does not mean that works have no place in the life of the Christian. Faith is necessary, but faith without works is dead, as James put it. We are saved by grace unto good works (Eph. 2:9-10). The fact of the matter is that you cannot truly have put your trust in Christ without repenting of your sins. Christ does not present himself to you merely as a Savior, but as Savior and Lord. You must have the whole Christ; he does not come to you in pieces for you to pick and choose as you like.
That is why any healthy church is going to be a place that promotes holiness and discipleship. Healthy churches are going to be places where church discipline is practiced. They are going to be places where sin is lovingly confronted, not conveniently ignored. Of course that does not mean that we are to be harsh or unkind. It does not mean that we are to be inflexible or self-righteous. But it does mean that we follow Christ. We embrace the sinners with love and with the same love call them to repentance.
There is also another implication from this description of the church that we need to hear: since the church is borderless and timeless, we need to be careful that we don’t just define our mission purely in terms of our own locality. From Paul’s epistles, we know that in the first century, churches in Greece sent money to help churches in Judea. Christians had a global mindset even then, and we need to have the same. To the extent that we can, we should be willing to help churches in other parts of the world. This is an often overlooked responsibility of the church. We are sometimes so focused on helping those who don’t know Christ in other parts of the world, that we forget about those who do.
And then the third implication is that we are to be concerned about world missions. We cannot belong to the kingdom of God and pray, “Thy kingdom come,” without wanting to see the saving rule of Christ embraced by more and more people in every part of the world. This is why Paul was in prison; he was in prison because he had made it his mission “to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery” (Eph. 3:9). May God bless our church to be a part of God’s world-wide mission.
The church is the community of those who belong to the family of God.
In Christ, we belong to the family of God. It is why when we pray, we call God, “Father.” Christians are people who embrace God as their Father through Christ and who receive one another as brothers and sisters. We belong to “the household of God.” One commentary notes that the world the apostle uses here “implies a close intimate family.” God does not welcome us to his family like David welcomed Absalom back from exile; rather, God embraces us with open arms into the intimacy of the fellowship of his family.
This is one of the reasons, by the way, why we have to be careful that we don’t define church so narrowly as to exclude members of God’s family from it. Unfortunately, the need for denominational commitments has led to a very unbiblical view of the church. For some, the church is defined primarily in terms of externals like baptism and ordination. But here, in our text, the apostle describes the church as the household of God, as he does in 1 Tim. 3:15. That does not mean that we give up certain denominational commitments, but it does mean that we are willing to recognize that the church is bigger than our own local fellowship or denomination. We all know how dreadful it is when siblings exclude each other; how much more horrible must it be when sons and daughters of God exclude each other from mutual fellowship!
Just as the metaphor of kingdom speaks to the need of holiness in the church, so the metaphor of family speaks to the need of love in the church. “Home is where the heart is” is a message we see displayed in many homes, and it should certainly be true of the church. The community of the people of God should be a place where we feel at home. It should be a place where we can let down our guard, so to speak, where we can feel vulnerable. It should be a place where we can be honest with each other without getting our heads bitten off. The church should be a community of people who want to serve each other. It should be a place where washing the disciples’ feet is lived out in many practical ways. Remember what our Lord said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn. 13:35). “Bear ye one anothers burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
And by the way, kingdom and family are not mutually exclusive categories. Paul put both the need for holiness and the need for love together in Eph. 4:15, when he wrote, “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” We grow in holiness through the embrace of truth in our hearts. But truth is most convincingly embraced when it is received in love. It is very unfortunate that some people don’t know how to be zealous for holiness without being ugly about it. How unlike our Lord that is! There was no one on earth more zealous for holiness and the glory of God than Jesus Christ. And yet there was no one on the earth more gentle and loving than he. I love how the prophet describes him: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench” (Mt. 12:20, quoting Isa. 42:1-3). It was he who said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:29).
The church is the community of those who are being incorporated into the temple of God
The third metaphor Paul uses, and which he spends the most time developing, is that of the temple. He writes: “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together growing unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (20-22).
There are two words for temple that are used in the NT. One word is used to refer to the totality of the temple precincts in Jerusalem: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, and the court of Israel and the priests. The other word is used to refer to the inner sanctum, the temple proper, where the priests would offer sacrifice and burn incense to God. It is this word that the apostle uses to describe the church. The church is the place where God meets with his people in grace and salvation. The church is the “habitation of God through the Spirit.”
It is true that the individual Christian is the dwelling place of God through the Spirit. Paul teaches that in 1 Cor. 6. But in 1 Cor. 3, when Paul refers to the temple of God, he is not talking about the individual believer, but as here he is talking about the church of God as a corporate reality. We must not miss the significance of that! In a day when people are adopting drive-thru churches or resorting to the Hour of Power as their weekly encounter with the church, we need to be reminded that God reserves a special blessing for the church as the gathered community of his people. We are meant to be together, and God blesses his church when they meet together.
You see that in the imagery that Paul uses here. He says that in Christ the building is “fitly framed together.” Today, it really doesn’t matter as much how the bricks are shaped because we use mortar to put them together. But in Paul’s day, they didn’t use mortar and so there was “an elaborate process of cutting and smoothing the stones so that they fit exactly next to each other.” The idea is that God is shaping us and smoothing us so that we will fit perfectly into the temple that he is building. But that means fitting exactly next to other believers! This is a beautiful picture of the harmony and unity enjoyed by believers who before their conversion were at each other’s throats. We need each other for the temple that God is building.
A wonderful illustration of this comes from the ministry of the Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. There was a witch in the town where he was preaching who was on her way to take her own life, when she passed by the church building and heard the service in progress. For some reason, she went in – and as she entered, she said that she felt a power, not a dirty power which she had known through witchcraft, but a clean, holy, wonderful power. And it changed her! God was working in the gathering of his people! We need to make sure that we don’t miss the great blessing of the church. God didn’t ordain the internet, he ordained the church. He didn’t ordain parachurch ministries, he ordained the church. God is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. If you really want to experience his blessing, you will get in on what God is doing: and what he is doing is building his church. To abandon the church is to forsake your own blessing.
In describing the church, Paul talks about its foundation. This is very important. One of the sad things about the church is that through history it has often been mistaken about its foundation. Paul says that the foundation of the church is “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” The apostles and (New Testament) prophets are foundational in the sense that the church’s beliefs and doctrines are grounded in their teaching. God communicated his truth to the church through the apostles and prophets. And this was done once: “are built upon the foundation…” God is not still laying the foundation. That has been done. As Jude put it, we are to contend earnestly “for the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). And we are not to add to that foundation.
The contents of this foundation are to be found in the NT. It is not found in the tradition of the church fathers, nor in the traditions of our grandfathers! It may be illuminated by them, but it is not defined by them. This is why I am so thankful for the Reformation emphasis on sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” With Martin Luther, we ought to boldly proclaim, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have often contradicted themselves; my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
And Jesus is the “chief cornerstone.” Ancient builders laid the cornerstone first. It was the most important stone in the foundation because it determined how the other foundational stones would be laid. “It is that stone by which every other stone in the foundation and the superstructure must be measured.” Christ is the measure of the church. The message of the church is Christ and him crucified. The life of the church is the abundant life purchased by him on the cross. Everything about the church is to point to Christ as our Savior and Lord and Brother and Friend. We witness to the fact that those who rest their lives upon him will never be disappointed.