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Many years back I came across a church magazine which was written to commemorate the church’s 100th anniversary. The members of that monumental church had written several articles in the magazine, most of which were about the church building’s ancientness, peacefulness, and attractiveness. Some of them had gone to an extent of even venerating the structure. To my utter dismay, nothing was written about the people within that building, nor was there anything written about the church as the body of Christ, a unique people of God, or people of God’s own possession, bought by the precious blood of Christ. All of those articles were about the building, with no Christ, no mention of his substitutionary and satisfactory atonement, which is the foundation of the Church. Sadly, one of the big misunderstandings about the church is that the church is a building. Is this what the Bible teaches?
What is a Church? What constitutes a Church?
While the New Testament gives various descriptions of the Church; in this article, we will limit ourselves to think about the church as the people of God (especially based on 1 Peter 2:9-10) in order to understand what constitutes the Church.
The Smith’s Bible Dictionary gives the meaning of the Church as follows: “Ecclesia (ekklessia) the Greek word for church originally meant an assembly called out by the magistrate, or by a legal authority.” It was in this last sense that the word was adapted and applied by the writers of the New Testament to the Christian congregation. In the gospel of St. Matthew the church is spoken of thirty-six times as “the kingdom.” Other descriptions or titles are uncommon in the gospels.
In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter echoes the similar language of ‘kingdom’, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
As we unpack this passage, here are a few truths that we find in Peter’s description of what the church is:
1. The Church Is The People Of God Who Have Received The Mercy Of God. (vs. 10)
We begin at vs. 10 rather than vs. 9 because vs. 10 gives us the point at which the church begins. It begins when people of different tribes, tongues and cultures receive the mercy of God in salvation. The phrase ‘have received mercy’ presupposes that the receiver was under a serious predicament without which he/she could not have survived. Receiving the mercy of God means receiving the forgiveness of God for our sins. It was because of the mercy of God that the infinitely Holy God gave His Son what He didn’t deserve and gave His chosen ones what they didn’t deserve. And what is true of Peter’s readers, is true of us; that the Church is formed of people who have received the mercy of God. This is the fundamental description of what the church is.
When we begin to grasp the mercy of God displayed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it radically changes and thoroughly influences everything that we do inside and outside the Church. This enables us to be merciful to others, to be forgiving to one another, to be compassionate to one another. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
2. The Church Is The People Of God Who Have Been Given Gospel Favours. (vs. 9)
In addition to giving His mercy, God has bestowed several gospel favours upon his children. And therefore, the church is also made up of people of God who have been given gospel favours. In vs. 9 Peter addresses his readers with four kinds of undeserving gospel favours, ‘a chosen race’, ‘a royal priesthood’, ‘a holy nation’, ‘a people for God's own possession’. ‘A chosen race’, means a people who are separated from the world, as we understand from the way God called Israel out of Egypt. ‘A royal priesthood’ means kings and priests (Ex. 19:6); kings to reign with Him and priests to offer spiritual sacrifices to Him. Although the temple is long gone; now our Lord calls us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to Him (Rom. 12:1). ‘A holy nation’ means, set apart for God. The Israel of Old was separated from Egypt by the Passover Lamb; believers in the New Testament are set apart from the world by similar means; the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. ‘A people for God’s own possession’ meaning a people who radically differ from the world. God established that in the book of Leviticus by laying down the dietary and various other laws in order to draw a line of distinction between the surrounding idolatrous nations and Israel; but now we display our difference to the world by our transformed lives.
This must generate in us a sense of gratefulness towards our Lord Jesus Christ and cause us to treasure Him. Because there was a time when we were not His people, we were not holy; we were doing all that displeased and even angered God. In Paul’s words, we were dead in our sins and trespasses and therefore we were hell-bound. We were enemies of God (Eph. 2:11ff). We were completely under the influence of the devil. What God has done in the gospel is made his enemies His friends and seated us on His table and enjoy these gospel favours just like a beggar enjoys a glorious banquet on the King’s table. A Church that is ungrateful and unaware of God’s favours received in Christ is a Church that has lost her purpose of existence in this world.
3. The Church Is The People Of God Who Are Called Out Of Darkness To God’s Marvellous Light. (vs. 9)
The next thing that falls into proper order is God’s calling of His people from darkness to His marvellous light. Peter gives the meaning of this verse in vs. 10. One commentator likens this change as being in the darkness of midnight before knowing Christ and being suddenly brought into the bright noonday. That’s exactly what happens in our salvation; a believer’s transformation is so sudden and radical that they begin to comprehend the lostness of their previous state of life and the transformation that the gospel brings about in them. Each of us who believes in the gospel can say that God’s wonderful light shined so marvellously on us that we very clearly begin to see the difference between our previous state of life and our present life. What is true of us as individuals is the experience we share as the church. This is why, along with Paul, we can give thanks to God because he “delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love” (Col. 1:13).
4. The Church is the people of God with a purpose (vs. 9)
The fourth truth which falls into place is the fact that the Church has been given a glorious purpose. Peter says, “...that you may show forth the excellencies of him...” Peter draws his readers’ attention to the fact that everything that God has done in His people is aimed for a purpose. This purpose is to proclaim the excellencies of God. Peter is underscoring that we ought to fulfil this purpose of God with an attitude of gratitude. It’s what we do, not in order to find our way to heaven; but because we already have. We have already been seated in heaven with God, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:6. The way God works in our lives completely shifts the focus from us (believers) on to Christ (the Redeemer).
On the other hand, this also means that the people of God engage themselves in faithfully bearing witness to the gospel. We bear witness to the gospel truth because our Lord through Christ Jesus has commanded us to do so in Matthew 28:19-20. Ultimately, God has saved us and made us part of his people so that he would be glorified.
May all our churches grow in the knowledge of what it means for us to be the people of God. Whether or not we have physical buildings, the truths we have been reflecting on are more glorious than the most extravagantly constructed cathedral. May we always give thanks to God and glorify Him who brought us from darkness to light and made us his people.