For a great many years, I have worked with churches. I have served them in many capacities and in many ways. It has always been a great privilege for me to do so. I do not mean to say that it has always been easy, as any who are involved in some position in a church know by their own experience.
It has always been a privilege for me to work with churches, but I would be less than truthful to say that it has always been a pleasure. There are some hard times, and there are some frustrating times, but we should never lose sight of the fact that it is a great honor and privilege to be a servant of the church.
The Apostle Paul also worked with churches. As it is for us today, there were also some difficult times for Paul. In some of his writings, Paul breaks down his exterior and allows us to see his heart:
“I have been on frequent journeys,” he says, “in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:26-27 NAS).
These are hardships. These are things that any soldier must endure. I thought of these verses one night as I sat alone for long hours in an airport in Colombia waiting for the morning. I had just been robbed of my passport and most of my money.
“I have been on frequent journeys,” I said to the empty chairs surrounding me, “dangers, dangers, dangers.”
There is no diminishing the physical hardships that a worker in a church sometimes must endure. However, these are things that we can define and confront. But there are other things—things that are more difficult to describe and thus, more difficult to endure:
“Apart from such external things,” Paul continues, “there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29 NAS).
Few really understand this level of concern. I do not think that I fully understand it. One could never understand what it is to be in real danger in the wilderness and from robbers unless he has also had to fear for his life. Neither could one understand what it is to hunger and thirst without food and lying sleepless in the cold and exposure without having been in that same situation. In the same way, neither can one understand this concern of Paul for the churches with whom he worked without having gone through it himself.
It is that feeling one has when he hears of a situation that is tearing a church apart. It is that feeling when the people of a church are living unfaithful lives. This is the “intense concern” for the churches. This is that weakness in your stomach and the weight you feel in your chest. This is true heartache.
How then, after saying what he did about the difficulties, could Paul also say this? “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Colossians 1:24 NAS). How could he rejoice in the fact that he had to suffer for the sake of the church?
He could say it because Paul knew something that we often forget. He knew that no matter the nature of the suffering that he had to endure, his work was not in vain. He knew this, because he knew that the church is not just another organization like those of the world. The church is not a club or a social society with its list of spoken and unspoken expectations. We make a mistake when we liken the church to these things.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” Paul says, “and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24 NAS).
Do we see that? Do we understand what it is to serve the church? Paul calls it the very body of Christ. This is a deep subject, and I acknowledge that I do not understand the full meaning of what he is saying. It is dangerous, of course, to take this too far and step into heresy, but neither should we diminish the impact of these words. In fact, Paul tells the church in Ephesus: “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23 NAS).
“I pray,” Paul says, “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18 NAS).
We have not yet seen the true glory of the church. Some years ago in this church, I preached a series of sermons based on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. That book of the Bible is full of images of the church that we do not and cannot yet understand fully, but one thing we do know: Christ has chosen to work through the church and has prepared for his church wonders that enter into realms beyond description. The church is the very body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Do you see why I love to work with churches? We should not see a group of imperfect humans thrown together to try to hash things out in an attempt to make things work. We should not see the politics of trying to push through an agenda that one faction may have. Certainly we must admit these things are sometimes there. Nevertheless, there is something else. There is the beauty of the body of Christ.
To serve the church is as close as we are able to come on this earth to physically serving Christ himself. The church, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is the presence of Christ on earth today.
That is why I have fallen in love with the church.
We have seen how Paul’s letter to the Ephesians teaches us many things about the church. As we continue to read in his letter, Paul goes on further to develop the image that he gives us of the body of Christ. In some ways, what he says almost seems to be more than just a mere image—more than an analogy.
To a certain degree, it is somewhat understandable how the church could be called the “body of Christ.” The church does represent the physical presence of God in the world today. Christ is no longer on earth in a physical form, but as he promised when he was leaving, the Holy Spirit came to inhabit the lives of believers. It is through this indwelling of believers by the Holy Spirit that Christ is still present.
The life of Christ, then, is manifested in the life of each believer. We all, as individuals, in some way represent and reflect Jesus Christ. However, when Paul speaks of the “fullness” of Christ, it is in relation to the church. Christ gives different ministries and gifts of service to individual believers, and it is when these are used in harmony with others do we see the fullness of Christ in the church.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 (NAS)
This follows the theme of the body. Paul speaks elsewhere of the need of every part of a body to function as a complete organism (1 Corinthians 12). Just as our own physical bodies need every part: eyes and ears, hands and feet, to perform fully, so each member of the body of Christ must fulfill his role in order for the fullness of Christ to be manifested. Also, just as our physical body matures and develops, the church must also grow in maturity.
…Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. Ephesians 4:15-16 (NAS)
From these words, we see how the church is to operate. By understanding how the church as the body of Christ shares some similarities with our own physical bodies, we can gain some understanding into the body of Christ. These are good things to study and good things to apply to the church. Using and studying these applications leads us to understand how the church should function, just as studying physiology gives us an understanding on how our human bodies function.
However, as we have mentioned before, merely knowing how the body of Christ is to function is not adequate to further our appreciation for how the body is to grow in its understanding of God. We are missing the greater wonder.
Paul uses yet another image to give us a clearer understanding of the relationship between Christ and the church. This image involves the most intimate of family relationships—that of a husband with his wife.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also 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, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:25-27 (NAS)
We often discuss these verses concerning their relevance to our own family life and use them as an example of how we, as husbands, should love our wives. Again, these are important applications of these verses, but if we take them only that far, we are missing a great deal.
By seeing how Christ loves the church, we can indeed better learn to love our wives, but we must also see if we can better understand this love of God for his church. We must try to come to a deeper appreciation of this love. If we can better understand the depth of Christ’s love, we should also come to love the church more.
Paul gives us a little idea of the depth of the love of Christ for his church by something that he said in the beginning of his letter to the Ephesian church: “…Just as He chose us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:4 NAS).
As you can see, in our viewing the several aspects of the church, we have come full circle. What we are saying now is a reconsideration of what we had said in the beginning. Despite all that we have read about the church, we must still say that there is more in this image of the church than we are able to understand. We do not know how it was possible for Christ to choose the church before the very foundations of the world were laid. From our knowledge, we, as the people of God, were not yet even in existence at that time. Yet that is what is said.
I think I am not being trite and disrespectful when I say it was at that time, before the foundation of the world, when Christ fell in love with the church, even before we were a church. I think I am not being irreverent when I compare it to the time when I first saw my wife, even before I had formally met her. I will not say that it was at that time that I chose her, or even that it was love at first sight, as we sometimes hear.
Nonetheless, when I saw this young lady who would one day be my wife, something stirred within me. I think that when Christ first saw the church, something stirred within him. Before the world had its foundations, Christ chose the church.
What Christ had in mind when he chose the church will astound us: “…That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27 NAS).
Twice in this book of Ephesians, in referring to the church or the people of the church, Paul uses the phrase “that she should be holy and blameless.” In practice, we of the church often look upon this as a goal we should seek to attain. It is a worthy goal, but by thinking that we will reach this through our own efforts, we do not go far enough.
We need to understand that this perfection is not something to which we are able to accomplish in ourselves. It is something that Christ means to do in us and that he will achieve in us once we put ourselves in his hands. Jesus Christ loves his church. He has worked for our good, and he alone sees what his church will become.
Christ has fallen in love with the church.
“For this reason,” Paul writes, “a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31 NAS).
I have long pondered over what it means to “become one flesh.” It is difficult to understand. Indeed, as we have seen, Paul himself says, “This mystery is great.”
A husband, Paul says, ought to love his own wife as his own body. For a man to love his wife is to love himself. In doing this, a husband nourishes and cherishes his own flesh, just as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church. We do this because we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:28-30).
I have thought much about my relationship with my wife, the same lady who first made my heart stir and whom I still love greatly. However, I know that the love I have for my Vivian falls far short of the love that Christ has for his church. Nevertheless, this is the most perfect picture we have of this love. As inadequate as it is, there must be something here that we can learn. I must admit that I do not think that I have come to even the most basic understanding of this love, but the best that I understand I will share with you now.
To “become one flesh,” must involve, before anything else, a matter of completeness. So united is this bond of marriage that it simply cannot be severed. Such is the sadness in the church today when we so readily accept the option of divorce. I know that there are harsh realities in our world today, and it is not my purpose to shift the subject of this sermon into what might be the acceptable conditions for divorce.
However, I do wish to say that the easy acceptance we have given to divorce in the church has all but destroyed our ability to understand the love of Christ for his church. We have almost lost the ability to see that it is impossible for Christ to divorce himself from the church. The bond is simply too strong.
“For this cause,” Paul says, “a man should leave his father and his mother and hold fast unto his wife.” The two form a new union—they become one flesh.
For what cause? What is the purpose of this new union? What is the reason Paul is speaking about? Is the cause so that there will be a happy marriage? Is it so there will be stability in the home and contented children?
These are all beneficial results of a husband holding fast unto his wife, but they are not the primary purpose that we are to take this union so seriously. The reason of which Paul is speaking is that which he mentions in the previous sentence: “Because we are members of His body” (Ephesians 5:30).
With this realization comes the beginning of understanding why God considers the union between husband and wife a holy covenant. “What God has joined, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6).
It is true that we today see divorce permitted under certain circumstances—we recognize this fact. However, with that recognition we must also take into account this statement of Jesus: “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:8 NAS).
To begin to understand the love that Christ has for the church, we must understand the holiness of the marriage union. When we see a man who loves his wife as he does his own body, it is because he realizes that they are no longer separate individuals. And when we see that man who realizes that in so doing, he is nourishing and cherishing even his own flesh, it is only then we can begin to see the depth of love Christ has for the church.
As a husband, I will not endure anyone who would criticize my beloved wife. Any threat to her would be met by my strong challenge. In the same way, let us be very cautious in criticizing the church. I will not pretend that there is nothing in the church that we might criticize, but should we do so, let us realize that we are touching the beloved of Jesus Christ. If criticisms come, let them come with the same motive as Christ also has, “That He might present to Himself a church in all her glory, without any spot or wrinkle, or any such thing.”
On the other hand, let us realize that in serving the church, we are serving the beloved of Christ. This is the great honor that has been given to us. For me personally, it is an honor I hold in very high esteem. As I have said earlier, on this earth, it is the closest that I can come to serving Christ Himself.
Despite the difficulties and despite the dangers and heartache, Paul served the church out of the great love of Christ. For him it was an honor. May it equally be for us.
May we all learn to love the church of Jesus Christ.
I am now going to speak quite frankly about our own Log Church. I am sure some of you will be offended by what I say and I am sorry about that, but if so, you might want to ask yourself why you are offended.
I do not think we in the Log Church have learned to love the church of Jesus Christ. We have treated our relationship to the church as we would any worldly organization. If we do not like or agree with something that our church is doing, we get angry and leave. Even though our church is a small one, I have seen it many times in my 8 years here.
“Somebody said something to me in church”—that family never returned.
“When I was young, I was offended by how the church treated me when I acted up”—that person has never again attended church.
“During Covid, our church bowed to government pressure and wore masks. I am not going to that church again!”
“During Covid, the people in our church took their masks off too soon during the pandemic. That was the last Sunday that I went to church!”
At the time when we in our church were talking about getting a video screen for the church, I heard from more than one person, “If we get that video, I am never coming back to church!”
We get angry about some incident, and then just leave. There is never any discussion, never any resolution, never any asking for forgiveness, or giving forgiveness. We simply get offended and leave.
In the past, when someone has left our church, I tell Vivian, “It’s the Tripoli way.”
Or we may not leave entirely, but we withdraw. We do not involve ourselves with the church as before and we come attend the services only on occasion. There are people in every church like this, but never before have I been involved with a church where such a high percentage of the people of the church attend maybe only once a month, or once every two months! Some we see only once or twice a year! Since I have been in this church, I have seen people who once were very regular attenders suddenly drop out completely for months at a time.
And now I am seeing it again. There are currently some very small differences of opinions in our church over certain issues that should be very minor ones, but about which some are responding in the “Tripoli way.”
“I do not like the music that the music committee is putting together for the new song book!”
“I am offended by what the garden committee is doing to the landscaping of the lawn!”
We get offended, and we leave. Or we may not leave entirely, but we come to church only on occasion and we withdraw. Like little children, we pout.
Shame on us! Do we not realize that we are spurning what God has established?
You may think that you are so spiritual that you do not need to attend the church services, but I have news for you—God has not chosen to establish His kingdom through you as an individual. He has chosen to establish His kingdom through the church!
“I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”
If Jesus was with us in physical form, would you not serve Him? He is not here in this form, but he is here in what He calls His body – the church.
I will repeat this phrase that I mentioned earlier: On this earth, serving the ministry and needs of the church is the closest that I can come to serving Jesus Christ Himself.
Do you have no patience or time for the church? How then, do you expect that when all is complete that Jesus should have any patience or time for you? You may want to think about that the next time you have an unhealthy criticism of the church.
Instead, may we all learn to love the church of Jesus Christ as Jesus Himself loves the church. Take this to heart and live!