Talk 1 - A Heavenly Perspective
‘A Heavenly Perspective’
an earthly perspective of church
Three pastors got together for coffee one day and found all their churches had a bat-infestation problem. ‘I got so mad’ said one, ‘I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling, but did nothing to the bats’. ‘I tried trapping them alive’ said the second. ‘Then I drove 50 miles before releasing them, but they beat me back to the church’. ‘I haven't had any more problems," said the third. ‘What did you do?’ asked the others, amazed. ‘I simply baptized and confirmed them’, he replied. ‘And I haven't seen them since’.
When the world looks at the church is doesn’t see much splendour. On the verge of World Youth Day and the arrival of the Pope the media confront George Pell with embarrassing allegations designed to degrade the Catholic Church and by implication every Christian church. The Australian National Secular Association timed their conference to coincide with the events of World Youth Day. Their director, Dr Max Wallace, was reported in the SMH on 9 July as saying, ‘MORE Australians would tick the "no religion" box on the Australian census form—if only they could find it’.
William Temple spoke of ‘the vast chaos which for us represents the church, with its hateful cleavages, its slow moving machinery, its pedantic antiquarianism…it’s indifference to much that is fundamental, its age long ineffectiveness, (and) its abundant capacity for taking the wrong side in moral issues’.
If you were writing a news report on this church, how would you report us? When the newspaper reports on churches it’s usually about how numbers are dropping off dramatically and how church is for old, eccentric people living in a by-gone era. Newspapers like to report that the age of clergy is increasing, immorality amongst the clergy. Schemes and scandals—it’s only ever bad news that you find about the church in public conversation. Even people who attend church often don’t have good things to say. The church is seen as old and worn out—the very word ‘sermon’ means ‘sleep’. The glory of the church is veiled to this world who measures it by its own self-indulgent, self-centred and often self-contradictory standards.
There are some notable exceptions on the reporting of churches. The mega churches. But even when these churches are written up, its usually with fear and hatred and persecution. Mega churches are always treated with a deep suspicion by the media. Whilst the church used to be the meeting place for people—now it’s the Leagues club, the sporting arena and the pub.
the heavenly perspective of church (Eph 3:20–21)
Please turn with me to Eph 3:20, ‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him (God) be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen’. This outpouring of praise lifts the church to unimaginable heights. We expect that God is glorified through his Son, but God glorified through the church! Do you think it a little odd that Paul refers to the ‘glory in the church’?
Some of us having been going to church for a long time—some of us became Christians and started coming to church as adults. Most of you can tell me what’s good about this church. No doubt others are willing to say what’s bad about this church. I’ve been here six years now. I can tell you lots of things about our people, about the way we run ourselves and the challenges of church life. Do you think it a little odd that Paul speaks about the glory of God in the church as well as his glory in Christ Jesus?
What place does church have? What is the purpose of church? What is God’s purpose for church? We are a group of people that own property, we come together and do funny things that other people do not do. What is church? And why is church? Must I go to church? Why do I do what I do in church? What am I supposed to get out of church? What am I supposed to give to church? Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life, every Sunday, in this place?
Here in Eph 3:20–21, the glory of God is prayed for in the church as it is in Christ Jesus. The word ‘glory’ means ‘splendour’ or ‘magnificence’. The glory of Sydney is the Opera House, the Harbour, the beaches. What is the glory of God? What is the splendour of God?
We see the splendour and magnificence of God in the Old Testament in his character. The Almighty God is full of grace and truth, he is slow to anger and full of goodness. The glory of God is seen in his marvellous generosity toward his people. It’s a character that you can rely upon and trust because God is so kind and merciful and good to us. Here is the glory and splendour of God.
In the New Testament we see the glory of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. We have seen his glory as the one who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Jesus was so kind and loving and generous that he died on behalf of us so that we sinning, rebellious people might be forgiven. We see the glory of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And we see the glory of God in the church. That is what Paul is praying in Eph 3, that the glory of God will display itself in the life of the church. That somehow you’re supposed to see the glory of God in the church. The church is the place where the glory of God is seen on earth. How can this be? Had Paul been to a Presbyterian Church when he wrote about the glory of God in the church? The Bible has an extraordinarily elevated view of church. The New Testament has a heavenly perspective of church which seems so far away from our earthly experience of church.
the promise of a glorious church
the ‘scattered church’ (Gen 11: 1–8)
What is ‘church’? What are some synonyms for the word ‘church’? Any thoughts? Church is a ‘gathering’, an ‘assembly’, a ‘meeting’ of people. It’s when people ‘congregate’ together—a congregation. Church is the coming together of people. To appreciate what this means it’s help to look at the opposite of church. The opposite of ‘assembly’ is a ‘scattering’.
This takes us back to the early pages of the Bible where we learn that scattering is judgment. God judges his people by scattering them. Come back with me to Genesis 11. A short story—I’ll read it for us: ‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city’.
See the judgment of God in verses 8 and 9, the Lord scatters men all over the earth so they can no longer plan to occupy heaven and make themselves god.
The judgment of God is the scattering of people. In Deut 28, on the edge of the Promised Land, blessings and curses upon Israel are listed in some detail. And at the end of the list of curses—in verse 64, is the climatic verse, ‘Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known’. Israel’s punishment for disobedience is many—significantly it is a scattering amongst the nations.
As the history of Israel moves beyond Deut 28, it is a tragic one for the people fail to love God—they fail to be his people. And in the 8th cent B.C. the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken by the Assyrians. The Assyrian method of conquest was to take people from one part of their empire and put them in another part. To mix the defeated people into their culture and force intermarriage between people. The Assyrians Diluted a defeated nation by scattering them all over the world for this was an effective way of avoiding an uprising.
But there were still two tribes remaining in the south of Israel. About 200 years later the Babylonians plunder the tribes and many go into exile—into captivity. They scatter them for scattering is the judgment of God.
the gathering of the nations (Ezek 36:22–32)
Salvation is the coming together of God’s people. The reconstitution of the people of God. Salvation is the gathering of God’s people back into the land. In Ezek 36, written after the scattering of the northern and southern tribes, God promises to bring his people together again. Ezek 36:24, ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather (assemble) you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land’. And the reason God is going to do this is for the sake of his holy name (v.32). When the age of salvation comes, God will be bring his people back into the land for the sake of his holy name. And God when God does this he will ensure the permanent holiness of his people, verse 26:
‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’. This is rebirth—regeneration. The promise of a new church.
the ‘scattered church’ (Acts 8:1)
With this in mind, turn to Acts 8:1. Stephen has just spoken, and we know that the Jews understood what he said because they stoned him to death (a good test for knowing that you’ve been understood). And Acts 8:1 reports that ‘Saul was there, giving approval to Stephen’s death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’.
When God’s people are scattered throughout the earth, from an earthly perspective they are defeated. When Saul persecutes the church, they are scattered throughout the region. The church is momentarily defeated because it is entangled by the actions of sinful man. Yet not all is lost, for God had another plan for his church. The main thought for is that scattering is judgment is and salvation is the ‘coming together’ of God’s people through the reversal of the curses of sin as promised by prophets such as Ezekiel. The New Testament church—our church—is not the final word on church. We come together, and yet we are scattered. We await the return of Jesus when scattering will be no more.
the day of the church
There’s one more point for us this morning, and I hope by now you’re not transitioning from ‘sermon’ to ‘sleep’. When did the first church come into existence? When did God’s people assemble for the first time? The first meeting of God’s people was at Mt Sinai and the word used to describe their meeting is ‘church’. As Moses, on the verge of the Promised Land, as he reflects upon Mt Sinai, he uses he Hebrew word for ‘church’. The references are Deut 4:4–8 and Deut 10:4.
Remember that the first tablets with 10 commandments on them were broken. The episode of the Golden Calf. Referring to the second tablets, Moses says in Deut 10:4, ‘The Lord wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly’ (on the day of the church). The word ‘assembly’ is the word for ‘church’. If you want to understand what church is, go to Mt Sinai, because that was the first day of the church. The next day of the church will be when the Lord Jesus returns and takes us to be with him.
What did the people do at Mt Sinai?
They assembled—they churched—they came together to hear God’s word. They assembled to hear the gracious news of the gospel. Fundamentally we meet to hear the word of God in order to lovingly obey the word of God. The church is the gathering of God’s people—the gathering of those who are saved by the word of God to hear the word of God. Church is a meeting of people who are determined to continue living by faith in the Lord Jesus who speaks to us by his Word—even in the face of opposition and persecution, disappointment and distress. Especially in the face of all the things that life can throw at us.
We Christians live in this split world. We live in heaven—in the assembly of God’s people who are born again and who inherit eternal life. And we live on earth—and the true church is the earthly expression of the heavenly church. If you don’t understand the heavenly church and what church is all about there, then you will not understand the earthly church and what church is about here. We come together to hear the word of God. If you don’t understand that church is about listening to the word of God, then when we do get together we’ll do everything under the sun except read the Bible and listen to the word of God.
If we don’t listen to the word of God: we’ll fight against one another—we’ll say unkind things to one another—we’ll run others down—we’ll major on the minors and minor on the majors. We’ll lose our cool easily, forgetting that God has forgiven you. We’ll think that property is more important than people. Will think that church is no more than personal therapy or a good place to hear popular psychology. We’ll treat church like a club and even think clubs more important than church. And when we meet we’ll do all sorts of fancy and funny things: light candles and ring bells, wear strange clothes, treasure tradition over people. We’ll be offended if someone sits in our seat—and we may even ask them to move.
No friends, when we church together, we do so to hear the words of the gospel—we’re forgiven—we have given eternal life—and we need to hear this time and again as we go through the struggles of this world. As we fight the fight, as we stand firm, we need to keep hearing the great gospel word from heaven spoken to us. Stand firm. The Lord Jesus has paid for all your sins. Stand firm. The Lord Jesus has risen from the dead and he rules over all. Stand firm. Jesus will return and when he comes we will rise to be with him. Stand firm. What ever you’re going through—stand firm.
But if you’re not going to church, where are you going to hear the words of life? And what kind of Christian will you be? Someone once wrote, ‘When you were born, your mother brought you to church. When you were married, your wife brought you to church. When you die, your friends will bring you to church. Why not try coming to church on your own sometime?
It’s a profound stupidity to be a citizen of heaven but you never actually attend heaven on earth. So do not neglect to meet together as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another, and even more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:25). We must have a heavenly perspective on church. At the moment we still meet in our little churches, scattered all over this world. We still live in a world under judgment. But we belong to the heavenly church, and we need keep reminding ourselves that we belong to the heavenly church. ‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen’.