Ask people to describe "church" and you will get a variety of answers. For some, church is more of a place than a fellowship. For others, the association between church and a place is never made because, for differing reasons, they must meet in a wide variety of locations. Still others will tell you that their church is their life and all their activities revolve around the events scheduled for each week. Then there are those for whom church is reserved for special days and occasions, a theological icing on a celebratory cake.
Members of God's Kingdom Family speak of the Church (capital "C") as the Bride of Christ, comprised of all the redeemed who will one day be caught up to heaven to spend eternity with Him. In the meantime they realize that their church (lower case "c") is the local representation of the Body of Christ. Members of their church are each uniquely gifted by the Spirit of God so that, in fellowship together, their community can experience Christ at work among them. They realize that their church is worthy of their "faithful attendance, diligent service, generous and God-honoring giving, and loving cooperation." Though often confronted with what's wrong with their church, they are more focused upon what's right with it. Look at the list of things that are certainly "right," and I think you will be impressed as well.
The Integrity of Our Master
Take a trip with me back in time to the days following Christ's ascension. Jerusalem is buzzing with news of the incredible events of Pentecost. The church in Jerusalem is expanding exponentially. The staid Jewish community along with its leadership has been turned on its ear and is now in a defensive mode. Now word has reached them of a miracle in which a man, lame from birth, has been healed. A crowd has gathered and Peter is preaching again, this time emphasizing Christ's resurrection. The Sadducees, longtime foes of the resurrection, wade into the fray, and after their first night in jail, Peter and John find themselves standing before the council. Filled with the Spirit, Peter speaks eloquently about what's right with the church. Listen in as he addresses the integrity of the Lord Whom they serve:
Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him does this man stand before you whole (Acts 4:10).
Notice the impressive credentials of Peter's (and the Church's) Master. He is:
Jesus ... The Deliverer
Christ ... The Anointed of God
Of Nazareth ... therefore, the "prophesied One"
Crucified ... having died for our sin
Raised ... having conquered death and been raised to eternal life
This man stands before you whole ... He is the Great Physician!
But in addition to these impressive credentials, Peter offers this important commentary:
This is the stone which was considered useless by you builders, which has now become the head of the corner (Acts 4:11).
Peter's audience understood this terminology in both the practical and the theological sense. They knew, for instance, that the "chief cornerstone" was the first stone laid in a construction project. It would become the point of reference for all that followed. They also knew that it was designed to join together two important, load-bearing walls. All in all, they should have understood from the Scripture exactly what Peter was saying. "Jesus came first. He is the point of reference. He is the One who joins together and makes sense of the two great walls: The wall of the Old Testament, built upon the foundation of the prophets and the wall of the New Testament, built upon the foundation of the apostles" (See Ephesians 2:20).
Recently I watched as, under intense verbal fire, an adherent of a non-Christian religion was forced to admit that his leader and founder of the faith had "made some mistakes." That can never be honestly said of Christ, our "Chief Cornerstone." Throughout eternity, His integrity, though under constant fire, has never been faulted. This is the Lord of the Church comprised of members of His Body, His Kingdom Family.
The Importance of Our Message
The singular message of each local church is the most important message any person will ever hear:
Neither is their salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby you must be saved (Acts 4:12).
This is an exciting word which the world is desperate to hear. Occasionally I hear someone lament just how difficult it is to share the faith. In reality, this is a message that is bigger than any difficulty we might encounter in order to share it. People scarcely think of the difficulties encountered when warning others to flee a burning building or seek shelter in a storm. The significance of the message is reason enough to share it. Besides, more often than we imagine, people are eager to hear how they may have eternal life.
For years I have made it a habit when dining in a restaurant to ask this simple question of the waiter or waitress: "When I pray, thanking God for this food, how may I pray for you?" Only rarely have I been refused an answer. Sometimes the individual returns to express gratitude and clarify the request. On other occasions they have literally pulled up a chair and opened up their heart. And in more instances than I can recall, this simple question has opened the door for a witness which subsequently led to a decision to trust Christ! People want to hear this exciting, good news!
But our message is more than an exciting word. It speaks of an exclusive way. Neither is their salvation in any other ... there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. This adds supreme significance to our message. Christ is not simply a way to heaven, nor even the best way, He is the only way (see John 14:6)! This means that as you proclaim the message of Christ, you are speaking of an issue that eclipses any discussion in a science laboratory, a hall of government, or battlefield. While those deal with temporal issues, you are speaking of an issue of eternal significance. And this is the message of the Church, God's Kingdom Family! It is in cooperation with members of your local church that this message is shared most effectively where you live ... and around the world.
The Impact of Our Ministry
The message of the gospel is a message of life-transforming power. When you and other members of your church begin sharing this message, it makes a phenomenal impact, explainable only in terms of God! This is the ministry of your church, a ministry which leaves the world with nothing of similar comparison. A ministry that often overwhelms any criticism and shuts the mouth of the skeptic.
Ours is a ministry that makes somebodies out of nobodies. That's what the Sanhedrin concluded as they sized up Peter and John.
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Peter and John were, to put it mildly, out of place in Jerusalem. As rough fishermen from up north, they were unaccustomed to city ways ... not to mention a trial by the religious big shots of their day. Yet they had seized control of the trial and now it was their accusers who were in a panic. Where did this boldness come from? In the words of the Sanhedrin, "they had been with Jesus." That's the impact of our ministry!
Once, while visiting on a college campus where I served as trustee, I was encountered by a winsome, bright-eyed coed, an American of African descent. "Brother Tom, do you remember me?" she asked. Looking into her face, a flood of memories almost overwhelmed me. Yes, I did remember her. I remembered when our bus ministers found her in an abusive home with alcoholic parents. I remembered when she asked for an onion from a Thanksgiving display because "me and my brother have had nuthin' to eat." I remembered her mischievousness at church...and later at camp. I remembered when she had trusted Christ and then followed Him in baptism. Oh yes, I remembered her!
But I was unprepared for what came next. "Brother Tom," she said, "do you know I am about to graduate from this school right up at the top of my class!" Through Christ, here was someone destined to become a nobody, who had become a somebody. She was a perfect illustration of the impact of our ministry!
The church also shares a ministry that enables broken lives to become beautiful lives. This was what really perplexed the Council.
And beholding the man who was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it (Acts 4:14).
As a friend of mine says, "The person with the argument is always at the mercy of the person with the experience." Here was a man with an experience. Through the ministry of these two ordinary men from the church in Jerusalem, a broken life had become a beautiful life.
The Inspiration for Our Mission
As members of a local church, Kingdom Family members are inspired to participate in a unique combination of ministry and missions. It is more than a matter of obeying Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations." They operate from an inner compulsion which springs out of their own personal experience with Christ. They cannot help but share the Good News because it has meant so much to them.
This was what the council discovered as they questioned and then threatened Peter and John. Their inspiration did not spring from selfish purposes. It was from on high ... the work of God's Spirit in their lives!
But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, What shall we do to these men? For that indeed a notable miracle has been done by them is manifest to all those who dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it spread no further among the people, let us immediately threaten them, in order that they, from now on, speak to no man in this name. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to God more than you, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:15- 20).
Their actions were inspired by both the command of the Lord (the things we have seen and heard) and the inner compulsion of God's Spirit (we cannot help but speak).
The Imminence of Our Master's Return
Members of God's Kingdom Family live with the deep conviction that Christ's return is on the horizon. We eagerly anticipate that moment when He calls the Church, His Bride, unto Himself. We know that, in the meantime, we are to heed the example of Christ, who said, I must work the works of Him Who sent me while it is yet day: for night comes when no man works (John 9:4). Like Christ, we are on a mission — His mission — and our time is limited.
Peter and John could recall an incredible moment only a few days earlier. It was an event which set the stage for their ministry and defined the urgency of the hour. Christ had spoken to them, assuring them that the Holy Spirit would come and enable them to fulfill His commission.
And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel: And they said, You men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven will return in the same fashion as you have seen Him go into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).
The imminence of Christ's return is worthy of both our reflection and our resolve. We should often reflect upon the fact that Christ never breaks a promise. Just as He has fulfilled all others, He will fulfill this as well. He is coming. His coming will be with startling and surprising immediacy. It should not catch us sleeping, inattentive to the work assigned us. Our resolve should be as His, a resolve echoed in the hymn Work for the Night is Coming.
Worth Your Faithful Support
While reflecting on the things that are "right" about the church,
• the integrity of our Master,
• the importance of our message,
• the impact of our ministry,
• the inspiration for our mission, and
• the imminence of our Master's return,
you cannot help but rejoice in the privilege of being part of your local church...the Body of Christ right where you live. It is indeed worthy of your faithful attendance, diligent service, generous and God-honoring giving, and loving cooperation. Does that mean that your church is perfect in every way? Of course not! That will not happen until our Lord calls His Church home to heaven. But Christ gave Himself for His Church ... and we should do no less!
Adapted from Tom Elliff's, Unbreakable: The Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family, Broadman &Holman, 2003. A further study of the Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family can be found in the newly released seven-week Bible study, Come Home to the Heart of God, LifeWay Press, 2003. Information regarding future Kingdom Family Conferences can be found at LifeWay.com.
Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family
Honoring God's Authority
(Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 5:21; 6:1-4)
Respecting Human Life
(Ex. 20:13; Psa. 139:13-16; Prov. 16:31)
Exercising Moral Purity
(Ex. 20:14; Job 31:1; Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 6:18-19)
Serving My Church
(Matt. 16:18; Eph. 4:11-16; 5:25; Heb. 10:25)
Using Time Wisely
(Deut. 6:6-7; Psa. 90:12; Luke 18:16; Eph. 5:15; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Practicing Biblical Stewardship
(Gen. 1:28; Prov. 3:9-10; Mal. 3:8-11; Luke 6:38; 12:48; 1 Cor. 4:2, 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:7)
Sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ
(Matt. 28:19-20; John 4:38-39; Acts 1:8; Rom. 1:16; Rev. 22:17)
Tom Elliff is pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Oklahoma and chairman of the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life.