Friday, July 4, 2008
"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? And he said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And he said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'" Acts 9:4
When Paul (at that time known as Saul) was knocked to the ground by Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus he was persecuting Christians - rounding them up, throwing them in jail and even participating in the murder of Christians. Paul was doing violence to the people of God, His treasured possession, the people over whom God will sing and exult (Zephaniah 3:17). It seems pretty straight forward at first: Jesus is upset that Paul is persecuting His friends, His people and His Church. But this text in the book of Acts, along with many texts dealing with the Church of God in the New Testament, reveals to us a mystery concerning the Church - the Body of Christ.
When Jesus appears to Paul He doesn't say: "Why are you persecuting my friends?" or "Why are you persecuting my people?" Instead, Jesus asks: "Why are you persecuting me?" and "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus does not charge Paul with doing violence against the people whom He loves (though, we know that Jesus does love His people). He charges Paul with doing violence against Him. So what does all of this reveal to us concerning the Church? It reveals a profound mystery and a glorious truth concerning the people of God - a truth that should fill us with awe and absolute wonder at the love that Jesus has for His Church.
Now for those who don’t yet know Jesus I want to mention a quick disclaimer. The church is not a “club” or a loose gathering of like-minded people. It’s certainly not a place where everyone simply agrees on everything. No, the church is a family – a family that is closer and more intimately connected than any earthly family. The church is not connected because of what we believe (though every member of the church does hold to certain foundational truths concerning Jesus Christ), it is connected because of the One to whom we belong. All who are in the church belong to Jesus and love Him, worship Him and follow Him. Jesus is the head of this body and the church is the body of Jesus Himself Who is one with us, just as He is one with God the Father. This is part of the mystery that is the gospel.
Let's start our journey toward understanding this mystery by looking at Ephesians 5.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their own husbands. Husbands love your wives, as Christ 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, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." Ephesians 5:22-33
This text is a favorite of many conservative, reformed, evangelicals. Some men love it because it affords authority, respect and leadership to men. Other men, however, love this text because it reveals to us the profound mystery that is the gospel. The former relish in their "need" for respect being met; the latter see the unfathomable extent of Christ’s love for the Church and sense the conviction to love their wives in the same way. But what is the mystery of the gospel that is being revealed to us in this text and how does this relate to our text in Acts?
First of all, notice Paul's language concerning Christ being the head of the church, "his body." Think of the human body. It's composed of a head, shoulders, a neck, a torso, legs, hips, feet, arms, fingers, elbows, organs etc. The head is at the top and decides what every part of the body should do. If I want to move my legs, my legs obey my brain and move wherever I decide for them to go. What Paul is trying to explain to us is that Jesus is the figurative "head" and the church is the figurative "body" and that he decides where and how the body will move. But this text goes beyond this. The church is Christ's body and there is a mystery here that we will not see fully until we see Him face to face. We will see more of this in Colossians later. Nonetheless, Paul sets up the analogy by describing Jesus' relationship to his own body, the church.
Now, take a look at what Paul says concerning how husbands should love their wives. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. In other words, the husband is the redeemer of his wife. But what should really get us thinking here is the fact that Paul says: "In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body." Hopefully you see the point Paul is trying to make. Jesus loves the church as if it is His very own body - as He loves Himself. Wow! Jesus loves us as He loves Himself. The love of Christ which surpasses all understanding is beginning to come into view and our verse from Acts makes more sense now.
Whenever any part (individual) of the body is hurting or being hurt, Jesus is hurt and counts it and feels it as He Himself is hurting or being hurt. If any one individual is sad or depressed, Jesus feels it. If any individual in the church is slandered, Jesus is being slandered. If any individual in the body is being sinned against, Jesus is being sinned against. When we speak words of anger or hatred toward any member of the church we are literally (not just figuratively) cursing Jesus Himself. This ought to fill us with fear and trembling. You cannot love God and mistreat a member of the church without being in profound sin. You cannot consider any individual in the church expendable or replaceable because the body of Christ isn’t expendable or replaceable – it’s His body. If we view a person in the church this way we are literally saying that Christ Himself is expendable and replaceable and I would not recommend committing this sin.
If you struggle to see this, and I am speaking to men now, think of your wife. Do you consider her expendable or replaceable? Would you willfully abandon her, curse her, or hate her? Would you willfully mistreat her or hurt her? If you answer yes to any of these questions may I suggest that you consider the fact that you are abandoning, hating, mistreating, cursing and hurting yourself? That is what all men do when they sin against their wives and don’t love them as Christ loves His church. And since she is also a part of the body of Christ Himself (assuming she is a believer) you are also abandoning, hating, mistreating, cursing and hurting Jesus Christ Himself.
This is all very sobering for me because I have long struggled with having sincere love for some people in the church. Sure, I perform the obligatory handshake and smile and I even do nice things for these people from time to time. But, a sincere and Spirit-filled love for certain people in the church does not come naturally. I always have an excuse. “They irritate me!” “We just don’t click and are not naturally drawn into friendship!” “That person sinned against me!” The excuses go on and on. But I am in the process of repenting of this and the Lord has filled me with His Spirit and His love for His body so that I not only see this more clearly but I am also filled with sincere love for the church – the body of Christ Himself.
Let’s look at another verse as we continue our study of this wonderful truth.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” Colossians 1:24-26
This verse has perplexed me for years, to be honest. I simply could not understand what Paul meant by “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” I would get confused because I know that Jesus died for sin once and for all to redeem His bride – the Church so what could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body? This verse doesn’t make any sense until you realize that the Church is literally the body of Christ in the sense that He feels and experiences whatever the individuals in the body go through. Jesus suffered and died for sin once and for all – there is nothing lacking in His sufferings in the sense that anyone can add anything to what He has already done for the salvation of His church. But what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is the display of those afflictions to the whole world. Sure, the sufferings of Jesus are proclaimed in the Bible and anyone can read of them there, but there is something of a personal and intimate witness of the sufferings of the body of Christ that is missing and that the world cannot see. This is put on display by God through the body of Christ. As the people in the Church suffer (and suffer like Jesus did by enduring and absorbing injustice) the world can see the humility, love, and joy with which we suffer. They see our unwavering commitment to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. They see our faith, our love and our hope in our suffering and this is a testimony to them from Jesus Christ. As they witness our sufferings they are witnessing the sufferings of Jesus Christ Himself because He suffers with us and in us.
Not only do the sufferings of the Church display the truth about Jesus Christ to a dying world, but His love does the same thing. My last post dealt with the fruit of the Spirit – the fruit that is borne by Jesus in us. This love is another testimony both to those in the Church and those outside of the Church. When Christ is in us and we bear the fruit of His love for those in the church, the members of His body are encouraged and assured. They see and experience the love that God has for them through another brother or sister. This love is from God, it is through God (Who is in every believer, bearing the fruit of love) and it is to God as He alone is glorified and worshipped as the source of this love. The world sees this kind of love and sees Jesus Himself.
The same holds true of our love for those in the world. As we love them with Jesus’ love for them they witness and experience the love of God for them. Jesus intends to show His love for people through His own body and this love is instrumental in people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. This happens specifically through the body of Christ and is again, from God, through God and to God.
“To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:27
The Church is the mysterious manifestation of Jesus Christ Himself. Don’t treat the church, either the local expression or the global expression, as if it’s anything other than Christ Himself. When dealing with a member of the Church realize that you are dealing with Christ Himself and not just people. The Church is made up of people, this is true, but those people have Christ in them and therefore, the way you treat them is the way you treat Jesus Christ. If you don’t love the people in the Church with the very love that Christ has for them, then you are blaspheming the King of kings and the Lord of lords. (In a future post, I will address how we can have sincere love when it does not come naturally.) If you think that a member of the Church is replaceable or expendable you would do well to realize that you think Jesus Christ Himself is replaceable or expendable. This is all very serious and I would argue that life and death, heaven and hell hang in the balance on this very point.
“But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” 1 John 2:11
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” 1 John 3:14
Posted by Kristian