Church on Purpose – What is the Church?
Matthew 16:16–18; Acts 1:6–8; Acts 2:22–23, 32–33, 36–39, 41
A few weeks ago, we defined church membership, and I gave you a list of main points of what a church member is and what the expectations designed by God, not the church or by man, are. Now for the next several weeks, we’re going to take some time to look at these closer.
An Attending Church Member, A Serving Church Member, A Giving Church Member, Praying Church Member, Witnessing Church Member, Unifying Church Member
But before we get into all of that, we’re going to stop and take a look at what the Church is.
If you are not currently a member of YSGMC, you may be thinking great this isn’t going to have anything to do with me. Or maybe you are a visitor today and you think you came on the wrong Sunday and we’re talking about something that won’t involve you. Oh, but it does. If you are a Christ follower, then it involves you. If you haven’t committed to this particular part of the Church, the hope is as you grow in Christ, you will commit to some part of Christ’s Church because that is how God designed us.
Church is not an extracurricular activity. Church is an important and vital part of our faith journey. And that’s because the journey to grow in Christ is taken through the local church. Please listen carefully when I say this. The New Testament talks all about the Church, and it does not have a plan for growing us as Christians outside of the local church. Scripture leaves no doubt that God wants local congregations to be at the center of Christian ministry.
And let me just say this to be real clear. Our main focus in this part of the Church is not on numbers just trying to build up our membership so it looks good on paper. Although numbers do help to measure if we are healthy church, that is not our main focus. Jesus is. And next to that, we are interested in saving souls, making disciples for Him and walking the faith journey together in support and love all done in the name of Jesus.
Think about it, what is the next step after being saved by Jesus Christ, after you give your life to Him, surrendering to Him? According to scripture, its connecting to the Church. A part of the body where you can be filled and blessed by the gifts of others and where you can find out what gifts the Lord has given you and how you can use them per His design for His kingdom.
I personally love the Church, especially our part of the Church. I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear the word church, but chances are, the image that we all have of church is, are a far cry from what the Church first looked like in the first century. And that’s because from the very beginning, the Church has been a movement launched around one event in history. It didn’t begin as an institution. It didn’t begin with liturgy or tradition. There weren’t any bibles, buildings, pews, or hymnals.
The church was simply a gathering of people who came together around one belief: that Jesus is the Risen Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead for our sake, for His glory, for His Kingdom. And it was the testimony of eyewitnesses to that event that launched the Church. That was all they had and that was all they needed. The Church was a movement. And it got a big start on the first day.
So as we begin this series, I want to give you a little background about the whole idea of Church. My goal today is for us to begin to rethink church, and maybe redefine in our hearts what the church is all about. Because at the end of the day, the Church launched as a movement – and the Church is actually still moving.
Now, here is something fascinating you may not have known. In the New Testament, the Greek word that’s translated to church is….Ekklesia. Let’s just say it together because it’s fun to say. Ekklesia literally means a gathering or an assembly, a congregation. When Jesus launched the Church, He launched it as a gathering around one simple idea with a simple mission and with a very simple focus. It was a movement.
But as time went on, there was a shift from the movement to a location, from a gathering around an idea to a hierarchy. If you know any church history, you may know that pretty early on around 300 AD there was a misunderstanding of the term “church.” The little Greek word that couldn’t be any clearer, ekklesia, was transitioned into an entirely different word.
It was transitioned into a German word, kirche. It’s from this German word that we got our English word for church. It literally meant in 300 AD, “the lord’s house.” It was a German term for any gathering in a holy, ritual place. It didn’t have to be Christian. It just meant a gathering place for people of a certain faith.
So within just 300 years, the idea of a gathering, a movement, transitioned to this idea of a location. So throughout your English New Testaments, the little Greek word ekklesia, which means gathering and movement is translated to church.
In fact, this was a throwback to the Old Testament idea of a temple. Because in Israel, the people of God gathered in the temple, and God lived in the temple. This horrible language transition resulted in some terrible theology. Before long, the Church was located in a building, and whoever controlled the building, controlled the church. Whoever controlled the building, controlled the scripture. Whoever controlled the building, controlled the people. In some parts of Europe, whoever controlled the building, the scripture, and the people, even controlled the government.
Over time, what began as a movement of distributing truth throughout the world became a very inward focused ritual, and in some cases a pagan, destructive, and unethical movement that had absolutely no reflection at all of what happened in the first century when church was first launched. What came as a result of this change from a movement to a location, still affects us today as some people still think of church as they did in 300 AD.
But that’s not what Jesus taught that the Church is. In the book of Matthew, Jesus gathers his disciples together and He asks them a question that you really shouldn’t ask your friends because you may get information you’re not fond of. But He gathered His group together and He asked them, “Hey, what’s the word on the street about me; who do people say that I am? When people talk about me, what do they say?” And His disciples said, “Well, some people think you’re a reincarnated John the Baptist. And um, some people think you’re a reincarnated version of some Old Testament prophet.” But Peter said this, “I’ll tell you who people think you are. I’ll tell you who I think you are. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then Jesus said this:
Matthew 16:17-18 NIV
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this [this statement that you made that I’m the Messiah, the son of the living God] was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my [and there’s our word—I will build my ekklesia…not church building, not gathering place, I will build my ekklesia, my gathering, my congregation, my movement.] church, and the gates of death, [or in some translations it may say hell, but a better idea is death] will not overcome it.
Which meant that no matter what, Jesus’ Church would continue forever and ever because the Church was birthed as a movement of people around a simple message and around a simple idea. It was not about a building. It was and continues to be a movement.
Not too long after this conversation, Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. He then spent about forty days with His followers. At the end of the forty days, He gathered them on a hillside, and He gave them His final instructions. In Matthew 28, we call it the Great Commission. But in the book of Acts, the version of Jesus’ final instructions says a little more. He again predicts the beginning of the Church.
Acts 1:6-8 NIV
6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
See they weren’t thinking in terms of a growing gathering that we would call the Church. They were thinking that Jesus was going to establish a kingdom.
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
We don’t know exactly what they thought, but surely they thought, power? Power is a good thing. We’re going to get some kind of a special power and what are we supposed to do with this special power? He says this as a result of that power….
8 you will be my witnesses [someone who will testify and accurately represent] in Jerusalem, [which was where they were] in all of Judea, [which was the broader area] and Samaria, [which was an area they didn’t even like to go into] and to the ends of the earth.”
Now again, we don’t know what they thought, but if we can just try to imagine, you’re standing with a man who Rome crucified, the religious leaders hated, and He says, “Hey, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to take the message of me, my teaching, the fact that you are eyewitnesses of the resurrection all over.”
And they’re looking at each other going, okay Jerusalem. We can do Jerusalem. Judea. Okay. Samaria. Okay, even though we don’t like to go there. But the rest of the world. No doubt they looked at each other and thought, “The rest of the world? Jesus—timeout— do you know how big the world is?” To which Jesus could have said, “You don’t even have a clue. All you know is the Roman world, but this message, this movement, this gathering, this momentum that we’re creating is going to touch every single part of the world.”
Which is exactly what has happened. This is one of the most significant prophecies in the entire Bible. And then Jesus departed, and this little group went back into the city of Jerusalem and they began to pray together. About two weeks later, something amazing happened. Two weeks later was the Jewish celebration called Pentecost, a little bit like Passover, when thousands of Jewish people from over a dozen different regions would come and worship as required on God’s law.
The Scripture tells us that while Jesus’ followers were meeting—that would have been the apostles, and Mary, Jesus’ brothers, a few other men and women—and their praying together, suddenly on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit showed up in their midst in a powerful way just as Jesus had predicted. And suddenly the apostles were able to speak the language of all these different people who had gathered in Jerusalem. Over 12 different languages.
They went out into the city and they began to talk to these people from all over the world in their very own languages. And the people from all over the world that had come to celebrate this feast looked at these Galileans and said, “How is it you can speak my language?” Then they recognized another Galilean was speaking to somebody else from a different region of the world in their language.
And all of a sudden there’s all this energy and excitement and conversation of how is it that these Galileans are able to speak our languages, and what is this strange and mysterious thing they are talking about—that the Messiah has come, that He was crucified, that He was raised from the dead. Suddenly there’s a huge stir in Jerusalem. The significance of it all though, was not that the apostles could speak all these languages, but that it was just as Jesus had predicted.
And as things ramped up and people began to gather and talk and wonder—some people thought they were drunk, and others are going, “They aren’t drunk, he’s actually speaking my language. He’s not just babbling.”
And Peter decided it was time for the very first sermon in the Church. Jesus predicted it; Jesus described it; it was going to be a gathering —it was going to be an ekklesia. And now they are all gathered together and Peter stands up where people can see him, and he begins to preach the very first sermon on the very first day.
This was opening day of the church, and he draws back to an Old Testament context that many of these Jews could understand, to say this thing that’s happening amongst you was predicted in the Old Testament, and you shouldn’t be surprised. God predicted that one day the message that had been given to the Jews would be expanded and would be a message for the entire world. Then he launched into this part of the sermon.
Acts 2:22-23 NIV
22 “People of Israel listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
Now, Peter is recalling some very, very recent history here. This moment is only about two months after the crucifixion, so when he says Jesus of Nazareth, many people in that audience said, “Oh yeah, I saw Him drag His cross down the middle of the city. Oh yeah, I was on the outskirts of the crowd during one of His sermons. Oh yeah, He healed a friend of mine; I know who you’re talking about.” This isn’t distant history. This was two months ago. Peter continues:
Acts 2:32-33 NIV
32 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”
These first century believers were not simply teaching what Jesus taught. Christianity has never been about embracing a teaching. Christianity, from the very beginning, has always been about embracing an event in history. And these people are witnesses of that event. And now, the people hearing the message are witnesses of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:36-39 NIV
36 “Therefore, let all of Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.
Now it’s getting kind of personal. He’s pointing his finger. Some of you were there, some of you accused him, and some of you walked away and didn’t defend him. And a hush fell over the crowd in Jerusalem. Then finally somebody cried out.
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and they said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. [Here’s the promise.] And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 The promise [this gift of the Holy Spirit] is for you and your children [And this is so cool—if you haven’t been paying attention, you have got to tune back in. Look at this part.] and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Do you know who the “all who are far off” is? It’s you and me. It’s our children and grandchildren. This was Peter’s way of saying this isn’t just a Jerusalem thing, an us here and now thing. This thing that has begun in our midst, this movement is something that’s going to reach beyond our lifetime. Because remember Jesus said, “And the gates of hell (or the gates of death) will not stop it.”
This is an event that’s going to touch people who are far off, people who haven’t even been born yet, in places that we don’t even know about yet. And then they had their first altar call. There was so much passion and so much conviction, that here’s how the crowd responded:
Acts 2:41 NIV
41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
In the very city where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, over three thousand people said we believe, they were baptized and joined the church on day one. Do you know how long it would take to baptize three thousand people? The apostles were probably in every body of water they could find for days and days baptizing people for repentance of their sins. WOW!
And just like Jesus predicted, two thousand years later, here we are. Do you know what connects Christians from every culture around the world in the name of Jesus? Do you know what the common denominator is?
It’s that we believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God, that He rose from the dead, and that His death paid for the sins of the entire world. The Church was not about a location of a building because there wasn’t any. The Church wasn’t for “church people” because there weren’t any! It wasn’t about a tradition or a style or a way of doing anything because there was none of that. But there was a movement from the Holy Spirit and the witnesses of an event that changed the world forever.
Here’s what’s so cool: Since day one there has always been a remnant. There has always been a group of people that understands that this is a movement that must keep moving, that this is a message that must touch down in every single region of the world, in every single culture of the world, and every single language of the world. And since day one, there have been missionaries, Bible translators, evangelists, Bible smugglers, preachers, people who have served in Jesus’ name.
For every generation there has always been a remnant, a group of people who have understood that since the birth of the Church on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is available to every single human being who embraces the message of Jesus Christ—and therefore God dwells in you. There has always been a group of people that know when we gather in Jesus’ name, we are a part of this thing that we call the Church that has the momentum from that very first day in Jerusalem.
There have always been people who have gotten that. And you know what I love about our church? It’s that you get this. That’s why when someone is baptized or when someone joins the church you cheer. This is why when you meet in groups, when you to serve the poor, you understand you are moving as the Church.
There has always been and there always will be a remnant of people who understand that it is not location, it is not style, it is not approach. It’s about gathering around this one simple idea that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that this is a message for the entire world.
So I don’t know what comes to your mind or what you feel when you hear the word church, but I hope as a result of today, it may be a little bit different. I hope as a result of today, we will understand that the church is a movement with extraordinary momentum. Church, ekklesia, doesn’t happen until we are together.
Matthew 18:20 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
When we show up, attend church, serve, give, witness, pray together, we are being the church. Christians are not consumers. We are contributors. We don’t watch, we engage. We give. We sacrifice. We encourage. We pray by laying hands on the hurting. We do life together. We move. We are the Church, a Church on purpose.