The predominant picture of God that we get as we read the Old Testament is that of an all powerful, awesome, unapproachable God who communicates to His covenant people through His selected intermediaries, such as Moses (Exodus 19:10-25). The concept of God as a personal father was largely unknown to the Jew, even though there were a few hints in the Old Testament.
It remained for Jesus, as the God-Man, to reveal fully, first, the fatherhood of God toward Jesus Himself, and then toward all His people, individually. Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, the personal love of God for each of His children, that we discussed last week, was a recurring theme of Jesus’ teaching (Luke 15:1-7,11-32; John 3:16; 17:24-26), and John emphasizes it in his first epistle (1 John 3:1; 4:7-11,16,19).
The Bible teaches that the ekklesia, the church, the second of God’s kingdom institutions after our physical families, has been called out of the world in this life to be gathered into, first, a family of brothers and sisters (the term used in this family context is “adopted”), with Jesus Christ as its elder brother (Romans 8:29). God’s desire was that Jesus be “the first-born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). God the Father is our “Abba,” or “Daddy” (Romans 8:15). He has picked us out in eternity past to be His children and even His heirs; indeed, we are joint heirs with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:16,17). Our complete identity is never what we do but is always in our Father; we are called by His name (Revelation 14:1), and we carry His eternal life within us (1 John 5:11,12).
These ideas have tremendous implications in the local church context. The church members are not just acquaintances or associates with a similar interest, but brothers and sisters in the same family, sharing our “spiritual blood.” There may be disagreements and intra-family squabbles, but we are forced to work out all problems because we belong to one another. We are brothers and sisters, in the same family, identified together by the same family name!
When my younger son Jason and daughter Ramah were approximately 10 and 6 years old respectively, they bickered and fought constantly. Ramah could push Jason’s buttons at will, driving him into a rage that generally caused him to retaliate physically in some way. Jill and I rarely saw Ramah’s provocation, only Jason’s retaliation; and he would suffer the consequences. Ramah’s look of sweet innocence during it all would only serve to make Jason more furious. He learned some difficult lessons.
The love they had for one another as brother and sister was very difficult to see over those years. We hoped and prayed that it was “down in there somewhere.” (We knew it was because Ramah, in discussing her two brothers, would say, “Adam [her older brother] is so nice to me, but Jason is so much fun to play with!”).
Years later, as single adults (Adam was already married), Jason and Ramah became best friends, working out together, traveling together, attending conferences together, and bemoaning their singleness together. Ramah planned Jason’s social calendar for him, making sure he didn’t miss out on all the fun things in life as he worked long hours finishing his master’s degree in architecture.
I share this story, not only to give those with squabbling siblings hope, but to illustrate life in the church. We don’t get to choose our immediate brothers and sisters, either physically or spiritually. Ramah and Jason were stuck with each other. They had to work out their relational difficulties, no matter how impossible it seemed, and no matter how long it took (and it took years!).
One of the beautiful things about the church is that it takes all comers. All who have been “called out” to be “gathered in” to be in the family are welcome. The contrived “cultural diversity,” that is now so often mandated by law in the world today, is an external attempt to force what God does naturally in His family.
Not only do my brothers and sisters come from every nation, tribe and tongue, but from every socio-economic level, every family background, every checkered past with accompanying emotional baggage. His children range from every level of success in every area of life, from high school dropouts to PHD’s. They are all my brothers and sisters, and, yes, I will learn, over time, to love them all.
Paul brought the runaway slave, Onesimus, to the Lord while both were in prison, and sent him back to his owner, Philemon, a member of the church in Colossae. Paul told Philemon: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:15, 16).
If I were God, maybe I would not have chosen the ones He chose to adopt into the family to be my brothers and sisters in our local church. I am sure Philemon wouldn’t have chosen Onesimus. But praise God, I am not God! I don’t get to choose. That is a responsibility I don’t have to carry. I get to learn to love those that He chose to be in the family, “bearing with (putting up with) one another in love (because you love one another)” (Ephesians 4:2).
So, the church is first of all a family, whose members have been called by our Father, and who have responded to His call by coming home to be under His protection, care and authority.
The second biblical representation of the church, after family, is that of the body of Christ. Jesus is seen to be the Head, seated on His throne at the Father’s right hand in heaven. The body, however, made up of the ekklesia, remains here on the earth (Ephesians 1:20-23). The application to the local church is, again, a very interesting one that is chock full of meaning. We will investigate next week.