What do we mean by “Church”? What is the Church? Do we “go to church” or are we the Church…or both? In this two-part series, I would like to lay out the vision of the Church from Scripture and show how this relates to God’s ultimate purpose for creating humankind.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people went to meet Him in a dwelling place: a tent, a tabernacle, and finally in a temple. They would call it the “house of God.” But was this actually God’s house? Solomon, when dedicating his great temple, said that both heaven and earth cannot contain God, so who was he to think he could build a building that could contain Him (1 Kings 8:27). This wasn’t just high-sounding hyperbole but revelatory insight. Isaiah brings picks up this theme at the end of his prophecy, which Stephen cites in Acts concerning temples made with human hands:
47 But Solomon built Him a house.
48 “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:
49 ‘Heaven is My throne,
And earth is My footstool.
What house will you build for Me? says the Lord,
Or what is the place of My rest?
50 Has My hand not made all these things?’ (Acts 7:47-50; cf. Isa.66:1-2)
Stephen’s point for bringing this up was to answer the High Priest and explain this “Way” that was later dubbed “Christianity.” Stephen was explaining why Jesus and why us.
The revelation of Jesus Christ
The writer of Hebrews brings out this same theme when explaining that Christ is greater than Moses:
3 For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house. 4 For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God. (Heb.3:3-4 *)
Indeed, Jesus Himself said He will build His church and even the power of the grave could not prevail against it:
18 So I tell you, you are Peter. And I will build my church on this rock. The power of death will not be able to defeat my church. (Matt.16:18 ERV *).
You may be familiar with the original Greek word for “church.” It’s ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Contrary to popular modern opinion, it doesn’t simply mean “called out ones.” Ekklesia means “a congregation of called out ones, an assembly of the saints of God.” In other words, we are not the “church” by ourselves. We become the “Church” in the context of the universal body of Christ and whenever we meet with other believers. We will come back to that next time.
We have one more passage to consider from the Old Testament. When Jacob had his dream of a ladder going from heaven to earth and angels ascending and descending upon it, he said afterward:
16 “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Gen.28:16-17 *)
Which Jesus alludes to with Nathaniel in John’s gospel:
51 And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51 *)
Jesus was deliberately connecting Jacob’s dream with something about Himself that was quite remarkable. But it wasn’t just about Jesus, it was ultimately about us, too!
You live in two places at once
Then Jesus says something rather strange a little later in this same Gospel:
13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. (John 3:13 *)
So, was Jesus telling Nicodemus that He was actually in heaven at that moment while He was physically on the earth talking to him? Yes. Jesus was basically saying He was in two places at once.
Side note: the historiography of this verse is interesting. It seems some manuscript copies leave out the last phrase “who is in heaven.” One theory is that the scribes deleted it because they didn’t know what to do with it. What’s interesting about this is that while it didn’t make sense to them, we can actually make sense of it now with quantum mechanics!
Why would Jesus say something that wouldn’t make sense to Nicodemus? I believe because He was saying something about us. Jesus’ incarnation was the prototype of the New Creation (Col.1:15). And now we are His body, His Church:
18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. (Col.1:18 *)
Heaven is not just our destination, it’s our orientation. We’re to live now from heaven to earth. This heavenly-earthly reality is what Paul brings out in his teachings.
9 For in Him the whole fullness of Deity (the Godhead) continues to dwell in bodily form [giving complete expression of the divine nature].
10 And you are in Him, made full and having come to fullness of life [in Christ you too are filled with the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and reach full spiritual stature]. And He is the Head of all rule and authority [of every angelic principality and power]. (Col.2:9-10 AMP *)
When you put it all together it becomes clear. It wasn’t just what Jesus did for us on the cross, but what He did to us with His death and resurrection. When Jesus died, we died. When He was raised from the dead and ascended to heaven, we ascended with Him (see Rom.6:4-6; 2 Cor.5:14; Gal.2:20).
As Jesus predicted and Paul affirms, we’re now seated in heavenly places in Christ in God; our citizenship is in heaven from which we wait for Jesus Christ to return, we have come to Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (see John 14:2-3, 18, 23; Eph.2:6; Col.3:3; Phil.3:20; Heb.12:22).
We exist both in heaven and on the earth. How can this be? Because we’re much more than our biology. We have a spirit that exists in the heavenly realm as well as a body that exists in the physical realm.
God answers His own question
The living Church is the answer to God’s question, “Who will build a house for Me?” We are His dwelling place where “heaven is His throne and earth is His footstool.” We are His “temple “made without human hands,” the “gate” between heaven and earth:
19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (1 Cor.6:19 *)
One final note here. King David said his one desire was to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life (Psalm 27:4), but God’s desire has always been to dwell in our house all the days of our life.
We will look at the function of the Church next time.