Why is the Church Important? (part 2)

(Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the importance of the church. See also: Is the Church important?; Why is the church important?)

Scripture expects us to believe truths that seemingly contradict. God is entirely sovereign and has from eternity chosen all those will be saved. Man is entirely responsible and is commanded to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Jesus is God. Jesus is man. No man knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return. Jesus’ return will be preceded by clearly recognizable signs so that his followers will not be surprised. These truths, and others, are like parallel roads stretching on into the horizon; always getting closer but never seeming to meet. We are not told to reconcile these truths (for, indeed, friends do not need reconciling), but to live according to them. Another such set of truths is that God is everywhere, but he is only met in certain places.

God is everywhere: he is omnipresent.

Psalm 139:7-8- Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Jeremiah 23:23‑24- “Am I a God near at hand,” says the LORD, “And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
So I shall not see him?” says the LORD;
“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the LORD.

Proverbs 15:3- The eyes of the LORD are in every place,
Keeping watch on the evil and the good.

Acts 17:26‑28- And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, “In him we live and move and have our being”…

Since God is everywhere, one would think that God could be worshipped anywhere. If God is in the mountains, we can worship him in the mountains. If God is in the valleys, we can worship him in the plains. It makes sense. It is wrong.

The Bible is very clear that God is only to be worshipped in the place and ways he determines. As the nation of Israel was about to enter the promised land, God made it very clear to them that he was only to be worshipped in the place he determined. The phrase “the place the Lord your God will choose” occurs 22 times in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26; 14:23, 24, 25; 15:20; 16:2, 6, 7, 11, 15, 16; 17:8, 10; 18:6; 23:16; 26:2; 31:11). That place turned out to be the Tabernacle, and then the Temple.

The people of Israel did not obey this command and built “high places.” They built their own places of worship for God and idols. God hated this practice and vowed to judge the people for it (Jer. 17:1-4; Ezek. 6:1-7). This practice of private worship, or even public worship in the place God had not chosen, was so significant that on multiple occasions it was the criteria by which kings are judged in Kings and Chronicles. Wicked kings set up high places (1 Kings 12:31; 13:33; 2 Kings 17:9); good kings failed in not taking away high places (1 Kings 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35); the best kings removed the high places (2 Kings 18:4; 23:19). One of the key criteria by which God evaluated the kings was what the kings did about private worship and their neglect or their building up of Temple worship at “the place the Lord your God chooses.” God is everywhere, but he is worshipped where he chooses.

The blessings of the New Covenant overflow the Old Covenant. No longer must every worshipper of God go to Jerusalem three times a year or whenever else an offering is made. The temple is no more! We are free to worship God everywhere! Right?

Wrong. The truth has not changed, even if the outworking of it has. The church is important because it is the new building of God. God repeatedly claimed that he was only to be worshipped in the place he chose, the place where he caused his name to dwell in. That place is now the church- the true temple of God.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

2 Corinthians 6:16  What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For 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.

Ephesians 2:19-22  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

1 Peter 2:4-5  As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

What is the significance of the temple? The temple is where God dwells (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:22). Yes, God is everywhere. But he dwells in his temple. Wherever God dwells is where his people are to meet him. If someone does not go to the meeting of the church, they are not worshipping God in the way or place he has chosen. Peter states as much in 1 Peter 2:5 with a mind-bending metaphor. We are being built up as the temple to offer the spiritual sacrifices of that temple. During the Old Testament, God only accepted sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament God accepts sacrifices offered at the temple: the church.

Previously, we saw that a Christian “goes to church” because it is the body of Christ. A member not connected to the body dies. There is no life apart from the body. Now we see that a Christian “goes to church” because it is the building of God. As God’s temple, the church is where God is met and worshipped. Christians are stones in that temple. They are connected with everything else (i.e. everyone else) beneath, beside, and above them. God does not leave his people as stones in a field. God builds his people into the place where he is. That place is the church. If you are not in the church you are not where God is. You are not God’s building.

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The Responsibility of God’s People: Deuteronomy 5 & Hebrews 11

Yesterday, in comparing Deuteronomy 4 and Hebrews 11 we saw the blessing of God upon His people. Whereas in the Old Testament, God blessed one nation like no other nation; in the New Testament God has blessed one people like no other people. As majestic as the blessings of the Old Testament were upon Israel, the New Testament blessings upon the church are much greater.

The connections between Deuteronomy and Hebrews continue in the following chapters of each book. God does not just redeem a people to set them free from all authority. In Paul’s words, we have been freed from sin to become slaves of righteousness. Deuteronomy 4 and Hebrews 11 detail the blessing of being God’s people. Deuteronomy 5 and Hebrews 12 follow that teaching with instruction about the responsibility of living as God’s people.

Deuteronomy 5 contains the retelling of the Ten Commandments. Just as in Exodus 20, the basis for the giving of the Law was the experience of the grace of redemption:

The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said: “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “‘You shall have no other gods before me… (Deut. 5:4-7)

Because “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” therefore “You shall have no other Gods before me.” The Law was given to Israel not to make them the people of God, but to guide them as the people of God. God had already loved them. God had already redeemed them from slavery. As a consequence of his gracious loving kindness, the Lord gave instruction to the people who were already his. God did not free Israel to set the nation loose.

The writer of Hebrews begins with the very same even described in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5: the great and terrifyingly awesome appearance of the Lord upon Sinai to give the Law:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” (Heb. 12:18-21)

That is not our experience of coming to God. The church has not had such a traumatic encounter with the Eternal. The church has something better:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:22-24)

Echoing Paul’s typological interpretation of Sinai and Zion, Hebrews encourages Christians to embrace the better reality: the spiritual reality. Israel saw the terror of God’s presence at one time in history at a particular location on earth. The church experiences God’s presence continually wherever and whenever she is as she joins in the eternal heavenly worship offered to the Lord.

But is this some Elysian paradise of broad meadows and fruited plains? Hardly, for just as in Deuteronomy 5, we are given the great responsibility that comes with such a privilege:

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:25-29)

Dear Christian, you cannot have it two ways. You cannot see the blessing of the Lord upon Israel and the greater blessing of the Lord upon the church and think that such increased blessing does not carry with it an increased responsibility for God’s people. God is many things, but he is not “nice.” Do you think God’s severity against those who broke the covenant signified by blood and goats exceeds his severity toward those who spurn the covenant of the blood of his Son? If the theme of Hebrews is the superiority of the New Covenant, one of the sub-themes is the greater responsibility that comes with that New Covenant (cf. Heb. 2:1-4; 3:6-4:7; 10:28-29; 12:25-29).

We are indeed grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The boundaries of our inheritance are not defined by rivers and seas on earth: they are eternal. As long as Israel sought an earthly kingdom, it sought a temporary kingdom. A kingdom destined to the same fate of all kingdoms not Christ’s.

We have inherited eternity. We are not shut off from the mount of Sinai, we are invited to Mount Zion. But God is the same: an awe-full consuming fire. Christians do not come to God flippantly. We bring no meager offering.

How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?

The Blessing of Being God’s Chosen People: Deuteronomy 4 & Hebrews 11

For the past six months I have been using Grant Horner’s Bible reading program which has one reading a single chapter in 10 different portions of Scripture.* (It is explained in more detail here.) Reading the Bible at ten different places in one sitting often brings out connections between texts that might have otherwise been missed. Today was a case in point.

Reading number 2 was Deuteronomy 4. As Moses winds down retelling the history of the nation of Israel his heart overflows with gratitude:

For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (Deut. 4:32-39)

Israel was blessed like no other nation before or since. No other nation was freed from slavery by God’s mighty power. No other nation received its law directly from the Lord of all Righteousness. No other nation was ever promised continual existence by the One who has determined the boundaries of all nations. No other nation has been blessed like Israel.

Reading number 3 was Hebrews 11. After spending some time meditating on the blessing of Israel, I read in that chapter:

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (Heb. 11:39-40)

O Christian, do not think lightly of the Lord’s blessing. While no other nation has been blessed like Israel, no other people have been blessed like the Church. It is to us that the end of the ages has come. To Israel were the promises, but to us is the fulfillment. Let your heart swell with wonder and awe at the great accounts of redemption in the Old Testament. Then let your heart overflow in praise in the knowledge that the church has received even greater blessings.

God saved Israel by the might of his power. God saved the church by the death of his Son. God gave the law to Israel by his finger on stone. God gave his law to the church by his Spirit in the heart. God gave Israel an inheritance by driving out their enemies. God gave the church an inheritance by casting out their sin.

Moses spoke well. Christ better.

Thanks be to God!

*I have modified Horner’s schedule a little bit. By his schedule, in 250 days one would read through all the OT prophetic books once and Job-Song of Solomon 4 times. I think that is little imbalanced so I am including the Minor Prophets in the Job-Song of Solomon section.