Understanding the New Testament church, as we are endeavoring to do in these blog postings, involves making the biblical distinction between its message—the new wine of the gospel of the grace of God—and the new wineskin—an appropriate church structure to hold it.
New wine will always, ultimately, produce a new wineskin, never the reverse. When someone experiences the grace of God for the first time and attempts to bring it into the old wineskin (Mark 2:22) of the traditional church, he will eventually become dissatisfied with his church experience. Furthermore, the church, if they are unwilling to drink of the wine he has discovered and undoubtedly shared with them, will be uncomfortable with him as well. The organism produced by the new wine of the gospel of the grace of God threatens the organization of the old wine.
It is always helpful in any situation such as this one, to keep in mind the big picture of the eternal plan God has for mankind. God’s plan for us is clearly delineated in Genesis 1:26-28: we are created to bear His image, to rule over the earth, to have children and fill the earth with offspring. That rule is experienced through the three institutions of the family, the church (which we are currently discussing), and the civil government.
These all function with the eternal law of God as our standard, which is how we relate to the world “beneath us.” (The application of that law, horizontally in these institutions, is the purpose of Jesus’ rule, through us—to bring all the earth under His gracious, loving law). However, it is only successful if applied by one who is walking solely by faith in his vertical grace relationship with the God who is “above us.”
Practically, how does a church like this begin? How does it function in the manner we discussed last week?
Planting a church in New Testament times was no big deal—it just happened. After the stoning of Stephen, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and they were “all (3000+) scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and they went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:1, 4). Then, as a result of this terrible, life-rending persecution, a wonderful thing happened!
“Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch . . . who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21). And new churches were planted, naturally, spontaneously, not by any “apostles” or “vocational” Christians, but by “laymen” who were just living the life that God had ordained for them. One of these, this one in Antioch (which probably was originally a “home group”) became, looking back, the church that was the home-base for evangelizing the world!
When the new wine is preached, a new wineskin will spring up to contain it. The church is nothing more than the dwelling place for God on the earth. It is the living stones, each individual Christian, being built up together to form a temple together rather than lying alone in a field. A Christian who has had an experience with God will have an insatiable desire to be with other Christians; he can’t remain isolated. After all, was it not Jesus himself who said “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20). Sounds like the beginning of a church!
As the church meets, several things will invariable happen when born again believers, who are walking by faith, come together:
1. 1 John 1:7: “But if we keep living in the light as He himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
“Living in the light” means no hiding and pretending to be a “good Christian” when with other Christians; it means not refusing to look at ourselves and then always blaming others for relational problems; it means no deceiving ourselves that we aren’t really addicted to our besetting sins, such as gossip, alcoholism, pornography, etc. “Living in the light” means getting that sin out for all to see!
2. James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Once it is in the light, and we are willing to say “That’s on me; It’s my fault,” we then confess it to our brothers and sisters in the church, so they can pray for us. That act of transparency and repentance is itself the power of the “prayer of the righteous person(s)” that sets the repentant free!.
There is an important distinction here: This does not mean confessing our problems to our brothers and sisters but our own sins! Confessing problems is a subtle way to still not face our own sin and be able to blame others for our problems (which God Himself sent to get us to open our eyes to ourselves!).
3. 1 Corinthians 14:26: “ What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” Right in the middle of Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church about how to manage spiritual gifts in the church meeting, he happens to mention what happens in that meeting. He is not in “teaching mode,” but simply stating approvingly that everyone participates. We all need everyone’s honest contribution, from the least to the greatest, and it is all toward the end of building up the body, not our own aggrandizement or reputation.
So, church meetings are always for participating, never simply observing. Watching others worship the Lord freely and confess their sins openly always invites us, as genuine believers in Jesus Christ, to jump in and be free too! There will come a time when we can no longer resist.
Next week we will wrap up this investigation of the church, by seeing the glorious promise from God of what will be the result of the functioning New Testament church!