The Story of the Church - extract from Salvation, the Church and Escatology module
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This extract from Crosslands Seminary’s Doctrine module on Salvation, the Church and Escatology summarises the story of the church, from creation to new creation.
The church is not a peripheral activity that we ‘do’ on Sunday mornings. Nor is it simply a useful context for discipleship and co-operation. The Bible story is the story of God saving a people who will be his people. We become Christians when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died. Church is our identity.
When God first creates humanity, we read: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness …’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27) “Let us” God says. Not “Let me,” but “Let us”. The one God is plural and communal. And what God says to himself, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, is “Let us make man in our image.” We are made like God: communal and relational. We are made for community – with God and one another, male and female. To be truly human is to live in community. “It is not good for man to be alone.”
In our culture, we often think we ‘find ourselves’ by going off and doing our own thing. But this is not true. Does God the Son ‘find himself’ by doing his own thing? Of course not. The Son is the Son in and through his relationship with his Father. It’s the same for all of us. I am the husband of my wife, the father of my children, a member of my church. These relationships make me unique – no-one else shares this combination of relationships. But they also connect my identity with other people. I am who I am through my relationships. Relationships are what give me my identity – supremely my relationship with the triune God.
But when, at the Fall, we reject God, community fractures. We used to walk with God in the garden, but now we hide from him. Adam and Eve blame each other. God says they will now live in conflict and mistrust. The first child to be born into the world murders the second child. We’re still made in God’s image, and so we still yearn for community and belonging. But now God’s image in us is twisted by our sin. Our selfishness corrodes families and communities: either we oppress or we fragment.
But then God promises Abraham a people, a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). God repeatedly tells Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and as numerous as the stars in the night sky. His name is changed from Abram to Abraham which means “father of many”.
When we get to the book of Exodus, we find this promise has been fulfilled. “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). The family has become a nation.
But they are an enslaved community. They’re not free and, in particular, they’re not free to worship God. So God comes to liberate them. He promises: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:2-7) They’re not just set free from something – from slavery. They’re also set free for something – to be God’s people. This promise – “I will be their God and they will my people” – runs all through the Bible story.
God is with his people as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire to protect and guide them. God’s “tabernacle” or “tent of meeting” – the symbol of his presence – is always at the front of God’s people or in the middle of their camp. When they get to the promised land, we read: “The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). The promise to Abraham is fulfilled (Genesis 22:17; 32:12).
But it’s short lived. Soon after, God’s people divide into two nations and both nations turn from God. The people of God refuse to be his people, refuse to follow him, refuse to know him. So the northern kingdom ends up destroyed while the southern kingdom is dispersed into exile in Babylon. There’s a poignant postscript. The few people left in Judah assassinate the Babylonian king. “At this,” we’re told, “all the people from the least to the greatest, together with the army officers, fled to Egypt for fear of the Babylonians” (2 Kings 25:26). After all the years of freedom and nationhood, we end up back in Egypt.
But God promises a new beginning: “‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” (Jeremiah 31:31) The Prophet Zechariah describes a faithful remnant within God’s people who will be God’s people (Zechariah 13:7-9). He says two-thirds of the people will perish, but one third will be saved. They will call on God’s name and be his people.
And so we come to Jesus. Jesus is “Immanuel” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” says John 1:14. It’s literally “tabernacled among us”. The tabernacle was the symbol of God’s presence with his people. Now God himself is with his people.
But Jesus is not only God. He is also God’s people. He is the representative of God’s people, the true people of God. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah had said God’s people were like a vineyard that God himself had tended (Isaiah 5). But when God looked for fruit, there was none. In contrast, Jesus says: “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). In other words, Jesus is the true people of God. He is the One who bears the fruit that God desires (John 15:5). Or consider Zechariah’s promise of a remnant. Jesus himself quotes that promise when his disciples abandon him when he’s arrested (Matthew 26:31). On that night, the faithful remnant comes down to just one person, Jesus. He alone is the truly faithful people of God. We’ve all abandoned God. But the faithfulness of Jesus means those he represents can call on God’s name and be his people.
Jesus dies separated from God and cut off from community so that we can be united to God, so that we can be family.
Now the people of God are all those in Christ, people from every nation, united by grace. We’re reconciled to God and we’re reconciled to one another. The cross breaks down the dividing walls of hostility between us (Ephesians 2:11-22). The cross makes us family. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) Consider Mark 3:20-21, 31-35:
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind” …
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
“My new family, my true family, my priority family,” says Jesus, “is not my biological relatives, but those who do God’s will.” Many Christians know this experience. Choosing to serve Christ has created conflict with their biological family.
We still belong to those old families and we still have a responsibility of care towards them. But now our main identity is as a child of God. My priority family, my place of belonging, is now our church community. “Here are my mother and my brothers” – those who do God’s will.
The climax of the story is a new humanity, people from every nation, gathered together around the throne of the Lamb, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. In John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, the voice from the throne says: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3)
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