(Preached on January 29, 2023.)
I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
There is a stark contrast between Christ’s view of his church and the view we would get if we paid attention only to polls, cultural trends, and deconversion stories. Christ declared that the very gates of hell would not prevail against his church. Yet we hear that church membership across the United States has fallen to historic lows, and that the acid of expressive individualism is disintegrating the fibers of nearly all social communities, including local churches. Many churches are their own worst enemies, as we hear of sexual, financial, and bullying scandals within these congregations.
Although there is much here to lament, the rock of common sense ought to dull the blade of pessimism. To begin with, the polls tell us that church membership is declining, but they tell us little about the kind of individuals who are leaving or the strength of the churches they have left behind. Numbers are important, to be sure! The book of Acts, after all, is careful to tell us of the thousands who turned to Christ during the first few decades after Christ’s resurrection. Yet people have always joined, then left the church for various reasons. In his first epistle, John writes of some who “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). As for the deconversion stories, there are many unanswered questions here as well. In the few but prominent cases I have heard of, it is not entirely evident to me that the “Christianity” these people were leaving is Christianity as the New Testament presents it. The Apostle Paul writes of people “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). As for the scandals within churches, these are unquestionably worthy of our indignation and grief. But the very fact that these sins are being brought to light provides a glimmer of hope. Sin grows best in the dark. But when it is exposed, it is seen for how terrible it is. “It is time,” writes the Apostle Peter, “for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17). Church leaders who hide sexual misconduct and financial fraud will, sooner or later, know that Jesus was serious when he said that “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2).
Besides applying a dose of common sense to our pessimistic malaise, let us also apply some historical sense. At one point in the church’s history, all she had to boast about was a few fearful peasants huddled in a locked room, thinking that Jesus was dead. Today, hardly a region on the globe exists where the name of Jesus is unknown. Most surveys tell us that Christianity is growing most rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.
But these considerations are merely for our encouragement. They are not the foundation of our hope. Even if the church were driven underground by persecution and reduced to a handful of elderly widows kneeling in a dark basement somewhere, its strength would be just as great as if it numbered in the billions! This is because the strength of the church does not lie in numbers, but in its Savior. It is Jesus himself who said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This is how God views the church.
I long for Christians to see the church as God sees the church. If we did, I believe, we would value it as he values it and find a greater and more joyful confidence in what he is doing in and through the church. To gain this God-perspective on the church, consider these three pictures he gives us of the church: it is his home, his body, and his bride.
1. God sees the church as his home.
“We are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
We know how much our homes mean to us. Home is where we long to be when we feel tired and worn out. It is the place we seek to make beautiful, pleasant, and comfortable. Our most precious people and prized possessions are in our homes. Most people spend more money on their homes than on anything else. In light of what we know about our homes, to be told that we are God’s temple—God’s own home—is amazing indeed! Consider this in light of who God is. Unlike us, he doesn’t need a home for rest, comfort or protection since he never feels tired, worn out, or threatened. In fact, he is uncontainable. King Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of his temple confessed, “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built”(1 Kings 8:27). Notwithstanding, God has decided to make us his home. This is amazing not only because of who God is, but because of who we are. When a builder wants to make a strong building, he chooses quality materials—the best lumber, concrete, and steel girders. But what kind of material does God use to construct his home? He looks at us—scattered bricks, decaying wood, bent nails—and says, “That is what I will use to build my home.” To God, it matters not how broken the brick, how rotten the board, how bent the nail. He gathers them all, mends the broken, restores the decaying, straightens the crooked, and fits them together to make them his breath-taking palace—a structure he calls his very own home.
But the picture of the church as God’s home is a stepping stone along a path of logic in this passage. The Apostle Paul is exhorting his readers to holiness: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Holiness is not a popular concept because many people think of it as hypocritical legalism, but it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it springs from the awe-inspiring awareness that a person belongs completely to God, and that everything he or she has is to be for God’s glory. Holiness is aptly expressed in the prayer—
Take my life and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in endless praise.
If we saw the church as God’s house, we would strive for holiness even more ardently than we would strive to keep our own homes clean. If your toilet backed up and spilled sewer all over your floor, you’d be cleaning it up, and on the phone with the plumber as soon as possible! Should we be any less concerned about the sewage of lust, bitterness, gossip, and greed spilling across the floor of our lives? Yes, we should feel this conviction, but we should also know the comfort this brings. The fact that God sees the church as his home means also that he will not abandon it. He will not allow it to stay dirty, and neither will he pack up and leave. No, he has made us his home, and this is a promise he will not break. The reasoning here is not: “Make yourself clean so that God will make you his home.” Quite the opposite! It is, rather: “God has made you his home. So become what God has called you to be. Be the kind of home he deserves!” In this logic we find that perfect blend of comfort and conviction that keeps us motivated without a hint of doubt or pride.
2. God sees the church as Christ’s body.
Here is another picture of the church that both amazes and motivates us: God sees the church as the body of Christ. In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul depicts Christ as the head, and his church—those who believe in him—as his body. We find this amazing because it shows us the security of the connection between Christ and his church. You would never willingly allow your body to be severed from your head. How much less will the Heavenly Head allow his body to be severed from him! Besides that, we are amazed by the unevenness of this connection. There is a vast disproportion between Christ and his body. Christ our Head is mature; we are immature. He is strong; we are weak. He is stable; we are unstable. Despite this asymmetry, Christ still maintains this connection to us as his body!
But this picture is meant also to motivate us—first, to obey Christ. The head is the vital command center, the region from which decisions flow to the rest of the body. So it should be with Christ and us, his church. We should carry out his desires, feel what he feels, and long for what he longs for. No healthy body ignores the impulse of the head, nor does it act on its own. Likewise, the church should move at the “impulse of his love.” Jesus felt compassion for people because they were like “sheep having no shepherd.” Do we feel such compassion? Jesus was stirred with righteous anger when he saw the temple being perverted into a place of financial gain. Are we likewise stirred to fiery indignation when things that belong to God are being put to destructive, selfish use? Second, this picture motivates us to grow in unity. This is, in fact, Paul’s main emphasis in this passage. Individual members of the church, like parts of a body, ought to function in harmony: “From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). The way in which this unity is achieved is not by pursuing unity as an end itself, but by orienting ourselves toward Christ our Head. This is the meaning of “speaking the truth [about Jesus]” in love”: as we remind ourselves who Jesus is—our living Lord and Savior—and lovingly apply that truth to each other’s lives, we will grow in unity. If we saw the church as God sees it, we would be so much more grieved by the dismembering of his church! Our hearts would ache for each member to prize Christ above all, and in so doing, to forge stronger connections with each other. We would echo the plea of Christ himself when he prayed that “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Finally, this picture of the church as Christ’s body motivates us to be visible. This is a clear inference from this head-body metaphor, that although our Head has ascended to heaven, we his body remain here on earth to represent him to others.
For good or ill, the world forms its conclusions about Jesus based on what they see in us. Naturally, then, we want to be careful about what we do as scattered individuals throughout the week. But an often overlooked application of this truth is the importance of the testimony of Christians in their gathered worship. You and I, as individuals, can bear witness to Christ, but there is a heightened power when we bear witness to Christ as a gathered body. I heard of a man who was on his way to church and along the way stopped to help a neighbor. After helping him, the man and his neighbor got to talking so long that the man missed church. He did something similar the next week, and made it known to others that he felt that was a very Christian thing to do—prioritizing being a witness for Christ rather than going to church. It is lamentable that anyone would think that these two ways of bearing witness for Christ—as a helpful individual and as a worshiping community—should be set at odds against each other. Why not help the neighbor and say: “Friend, let me show you something more useful than a repaired tire. Come with me and let me show you a group of people who once were lost but now are found, who once were blind but now can see. Let me show you how they prize above all else this Shepherd who found them, this Healer who healed them. Let me introduce you to the Lover of your soul!” A violin makes a beautiful sound, but that sound is enriched when it plays in harmony with a viola, cello, and double bass. So it is with the body of Christ. There are depths of Christ’s character that I, on my own, am inadequate to show to others. This is one of many reasons why Christians must prioritize the regular gathering of the church. As Christ’s body, we make him visible to others when we gather. As unbelievers find themselves in our midst, may they see Christ’s body, and from there raise their eyes to behold our Head!
3. God sees the church as Christ’s bride.
This image of the church as Christ’s bride is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In exhorting husbands to love their wives, he sets Christ as the preeminent example: “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:25-26). Paul was not being inventive; he was drawing upon a metaphor the Old Testament prophets often used to describe God’s relationship with his people. We find this metaphor most poignantly in the prophet Hosea, who was called to marry a woman named Gomer who would become a prostitute. Abandoning Hosea, Gomer pursued “lovers” by whom she bore children, but who abused and abandoned her. Finally, she found herself on sale as a slave. Hosea, undeterred by his wife’s unfaithfulness, purchased her again, not as a slave, but so that she could become his wife. So it was with God and his people. They had abandoned him: still he loved them, pursued them, and sacrificed to make them his own again.
This picture amazes us by highlighting the contrast between our unworthiness and his worth, our unfaithfulness and his loyalty. We are amazed also at the price he paid to have us. When I proposed to my wife, I offered her a diamond ring that cost me nearly everything I had at the time. When Christ made the church his bride, it was at the cost of his own life’s blood.
The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word.
From heav’n he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.
What if we had this view of the church? What if we saw ourselves as the bride for whom Christ sacrificed everything? It would refresh our view not only of ourselves, but also—and more importantly—of Christ himself. It would move us to love him who first loved us.
There is a haunting vision given to us in the book of Revelation of Christ standing at the door of a church and knocking, asking to be let in. The thing that makes this scene so powerful is the fact that a church should be a place where Jesus is inside, yet this church had grown lukewarm in its love for Christ. They had become an empty shell, mere hollowness. They gathered to dine with a guest they had neglected to let in. This could be us, but it doesn’t need to be. May we gain a fresh vision of how God views the church so that we, his church, might know how to view him!