Lesson 8 The Disciple's Vision For The Church

The Apostle Paul was concerned that believers grasp God’s great vision for His church. “I pray that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling …” (Eph. 1:18a). God wants His people to know the exalted role and responsibilities to which He has called and saved them. He has prepared us “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man …” {1 Cor. 2:9-10). Certain mysteries were revealed to and recorded by the apostles, including that of the formation of the church. As fellow heirs of Christ, we need the Spirit’s enlightenment and spiritual vision in order to properly understand God’s truths. God would also have us marvel at “what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18b). God deems Himself to be exceedingly wealthy as the possessor of the saints. When heaven and earth are discarded, like a well-worn garment, those things which God values will shine forth in glory, including this vision for His church. The disciple should have this same high vision.

Paul’s prayer for the readers of the Ephesian epistle (Eph. 3:14-21) strikes this chord. He petitions the Father on behalf of his readers. Having just written of the “mystery of Christ,” meaning the incorporation of believing Jew and Gentile jointly into the body of Christ, he prays that Christ might dwell in our hearts so that we might be in a position to fathom the four-dimensional expanse of the mystery of Christ and His church (Eph. 3:14-18). Feeble and often self-centered hearts need the inward strengthening of the Spirit in order to receive what God wants to reveal. “The breadth” reminds us of the insurmountable chasm existing between Jew and Gentile. Those “who were formerly far off have been brought near” in Christ (Eph. 2:13-14).

The “length” may express the boundless blessings of God’s church, being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be shown the surpassing riches of His grace in Christ in the ages to come (Eph. 1:3-4; 2:7). Oh, to what unsearchable “height” has God’s assembly been raised! Joined to Him “who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things,” we are “seated in the heavenlies” in Christ (Eph. 2:6; 4:10).

But to which unfathomable “depth” did our Savior descend as He “gave Himself up” for the church, His bride, redeeming her through His blood (Eph. 5:25; 1:7)? In the middle of this four-dimensional reality stands Christ, in whom the purpose of the ages was carried out (Eph. 3:11). Oh, that God would grant us a strengthening of heart to gain a vision for Christ and His church!

The Church, Universal and Local

The church or assembly is a term describing the totality of believers called out of Judaism and from among the nations. These believers have been baptized in the Holy Spirit to become a spiritual body, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13). This process began at the time of Pentecost and will continue until the rapture, or translation, of the church to be with the Lord in glory (John 14:1-3; 1 Thess. 4:15-17). We sometimes call this body the universal church, as there is only one church in existence, which is made up of all true believers. Believers gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus in various locations were called the churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16), churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16), and churches of the saints (1 Cor. 14:33). New Testament letters were addressed to such bodies bearing the name of their respective cities: Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica and Philippi. Therefore we term them local churches. These serve as outposts of heaven in a hellish world. The Lord Jesus promises every group of believers, regardless of group size, the power of the Name of the Lord Jesus and Heaven’s authority in dealing with sin (Matt. 18:15-20).

Christians read the Scriptures and make applications in a highly individualistic way today. The Bible emphasizes the community aspect of spiritual life and addresses believers corporately. The local church is seen as both competent and responsible to correctly interpret doctrine.

The Centrality of the Church

The assembly of Christ is not an afterthought. We’re corporately “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3-4). God’s eternal purpose remained a secret, hidden deep in His heart, until He chose to reveal the mystery of the Church to the apostles and the New Testament prophets (Eph. 3:2-11). Although God’s plan remained concealed, great events often cast their shadows before them. God hinted time and again at His mystery. He provided the first man with a bride, suitable to him, one taken from the man’s pierced side (Gen. 2). This theme keeps building through both Testaments, up to its climax. This is when the Bride is to be presented to the second Man, Christ (Rev. 21:2; Eph. 5:25-32). It has been said that the Old Testament is the history of a people for whom a man called Messiah was to come. The New Testament is the history of that Man and of the spiritual woman formed out of His pierced side—His Bride, the Church of Christ. The theme of the coming hallelujahs in heaven at the marriage supper of the Lamb will be the readiness of the Bride (the Church) and not the solitary individual. The importance of the church is to be found in its relationship with the heavenly Bridegroom in the heavenly places with Him. The beauty of the church cannot be seen by examining the flaws of its earthly manifestation. God views the Church in accordance with its destiny, “chosen in Christ … holy and blameless before Him in love” (Eph. 1:3-4).

The Exceeding Worth of the Church

The worth of anything is measured by the price anyone is willing to pay for it. God placed great value upon His flock at Ephesus. This is evident because He purchased it with the precious blood of His own Son (Acts 20:28). Believers have often overlooked the fact that Christ died not only for their own personal sins, but “that He might also gather together into one (assembly) the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52). We hear the good Shepherd saying that, “He would lay down His life for the sheep,” meaning the Jews (Ezek. 34:11-16). He added, however, “and I have other sheep, which are not of this fold (the gentiles). I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice: and they shall become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:11,16). The shepherd died and now lives to unify His flock, the assembly of God (John 10:17)1

The 24 elders representing the Church sing out, “Worthy art Thou … for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Oh, what inestimable value God places upon the church!

The Son of God came into our world like a merchant seeking fine pearls. Where we may have seen weakness, failure and unseemliness, He found “a pearl of great value,” the church. So great was His joy at the prospect of possessing the pearl, He willingly sold all that He had and bought it! That joyous prospect sustained Him through all the shame men could heap upon Him, as well as through the judgment of the cross (Matt. 13:45-46; Heb. 12:2). “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), and there is no greater love than this self-sacrificial love (John 15:13). His love extends to each local church as well as the universal Church.

This is seen in Paul’s sharing Christ’s jealousy for His fiancee, the local assembly in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:2-3). Christ Himself views His Bride in terms of the outcome of His labor of love. It will be redeemed, sanctified, cleansed and presented to Himself, “having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:25-27). We, as His disciples, would do well to adopt His perspective. His constraining love should cause us to view His people, especially His local assemblies, in terms of what we actually are, His new creation (2 Cor. 5:14-17).

The Importance of the Church

1. The Early Church And Apostolic Practice. The first local assembly evidenced a distinct sense of community (Acts 2:44; 4:32; 5:12). They were well aware of the importance of life together in the church. Upon conversion, these early disciples were baptized and demonstrated the reality of their conversion by continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (John 8:31-32; Acts 2:41-42). This holy company of believers was admired by the public, who nonetheless feared to come in and associate with them. Still, God added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:47; 5:11-13).

Being aware that they gathered in the Name of the Lord Jesus, and that they represented Him on earth, the local churches exercised godly discipline, thus maintaining their holy testimony (Matt. 18:17-20; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:6-7). Congregations of believers, who carry on in this way today, are churches legitimately representing the Lord. The local church is the principal unit of God’s people on earth and has been since its inception.

2. The Ministry Of The Apostle Paul. Paul certainly shared Christ’s vision of the church. He longed after the church in Philippi “with all the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Weakness and dissension among God’s people gave him no cause to criticize it in some detached way. The concern for all the local assemblies should impress itself upon the true disciple of Jesus daily (2 Cor. 11:28). The welfare of the local churches was his life (1 Thess. 3:5-10). He labored and struggled on behalf of local churches he had never seen personally. He deemed his anguished suffering as a contribution to “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” on behalf of His Body (Col. 1:24; 2:2). Not thriving on the acclaim and gratitude of men, he even wrote the unthankful Corinthian church, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” (2 Cor. 12:15).

Paul conceived of himself as one of God’s fellow-workers. The Lord Jesus had promised to build His church and Paul was a wise master builder working according to his Master’s plan (1 Cor. 3:9-11; Matt. 16:18). Paul’s missionary journeys were intended to visit the new assemblies, strengthening them in the faith and preaching the gospel in the regions beyond. He thus laid the groundwork for more churches. Wherever Paul labored, churches were planted (Acts 15:36; 16:4-5). Paul gave himself to the training of men who would in turn train others, thus providing leadership of the churches (2 Tim. 2:2).

Timothy, unlike many Christians, shared Paul’s vision and burden for the churches (Phil. 2:19-22). The letters to Timothy and Titus are largely concerned with assembly life (1 Tim. 3:15) and adequate leadership and care of the churches. Other Pauline letters are a form of pastoral work, by extension, being addressed to the churches.

The Lord’s Disciples in the Local Church Today

1. The Disciple's Commitment To Fellowship. As we have seen, every believer is introduced into the Body of Christ through baptism in the Holy Spirit. They were added to the local church and were seen taking their place in the local church fellowship, devoting themselves to the church and its gatherings (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 12:12-28). They were subject to the leadership of the local elders (1 Pet. 5:5; Heb. 13:17). Working in specialized ministries or Christian organizations is no substitute for involvement in what God has established as the Biblical functioning unit, the local church. Lip service to the universal body of Christ, without constructive involvement locally, should not be acceptable to the disciple of Jesus.

2. The Disciple’s Ministry Center. Wherever the Word of God grew according to the New Testament account, it left local assemblies in its wake (Acts 12:24; 16:5). There is no evidence of a “great commission movement” alongside the local churches in the New Testament. Next to the church today, we can observe myriads of these “parachurch” organizations. This is an idea foreign to the Scriptural record. The disciple of Christ should examine his own ideas relating to the issue and rediscover how God designed discipleship in its relationship to the church. Literally thousands of parachurch ministries have sprung up in the U.S. alone in the past few decades. While disclaiming being local churches, they often carry on specialized ministries to groups of people, which local churches have often neglected. The majority of these works could, and should, be carried out by local churches. Will disciples with the Master’s vision take up the challenge?

The Lord Jesus gave the church such great men as the apostles, prophets and evangelists to equip His saints for the work of the ministry of building up the church (Eph. 4:11-16). Each member of Christ’s body has a gift entrusted to him to be employed in the service of the other members of the body (1 Pet. 4:10-11; 1 Cor. 12:12-27).

3. The Disciple’s Training Center. Both our Lord and His apostles devoted a considerable amount of time to the training of workers. These would become the leaders of the churches. The manner of training was both “to do and teach” (Acts 1:1; Mark 3:14). Neither the Master nor the apostles seemed to have employed the typical, academic style of training familiar both to the rabbis of that day or to the modern college or seminary. Much Christian training is now modeled after the secular, academic world rather than according to the pattern of our Lord and the apostolic company. Life and ministry in the local church provides many training opportunities. Spiritual and experienced men are required to carry on this much needed ministry.

4. The Multiplication Of Local Churches. The Book of Acts tells of the spread of the Word and the multiplication of churches. Existing local churches ought to provide assistance in the formation of other local churches. Paul’s work in Ephesus resulted in the spread of the Word through the whole Asian province. New churches were established in Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1:6; 4:13). The Biblical base for the expansion of God’s work is in the local assemblies, not in independent organizations or boards.

Conclusion

Such a vision for the church might seem unusual for many Christians. They tend to understand salvation in a purely individual sense. Many Scriptures that seem to communicate in the individual sense actually refer to the people of God corporately. Christians sometimes think too much in terms of “me” and too little in terms of “us”!

Alan Stibbs, in his book God’s Church, expresses our concern in this way. “It is God’s unmistakable purpose to have a people of His own and by His amazing grace it is the utterly undeserved privilege of all who belong to Christ to belong to this community, the people of God. How could we possibly share the Master’s vision and yet view the local church as a secondary matter or an embarrassment? What could be more nobler than the church, of which He is Head?” “Christ loved the church”… and the churches … and still does. Do you?

Lesson 8 The Disciple’s Vision For The Church

1. Write a definition for a local assembly.

2. Sum up how the Lord Jesus Christ feels about His assembly (Eph. 3:14-18; 5:25). Considering weakness and failure often seen in the assembly, what is the basis of His attitude?

3. “I don’t feel that I need to go to church. I read my Bible and pray. I have a personal relationship with God.” How would you reply to this statement?

4. What response/Scripture would you give to someone who mentions that he has spiritual fellowship in home study groups, campus groups or by visiting various churches to hear speakers and meet other believers? (Include also those who watch/listen to the “electronic church” [i.e., T.V./radio] and listen to tapes of outstanding preachers at home.)

5. “If the local church was doing her job, our (parachurch) organization would not be needed.” Defend or challenge this statement.

6. a) If you were going to a new community, how would you select a local church? What criteria would you use or suggest to others that they use? If possible, cite Scripture.

b) How and for what reason could you Scripturally leave a local church?

7. What must be present in a local assembly to provide in a basic way the training necessary to equip fresh leadership? List what is available or lacking in your home assembly?

8. If God laid it on your heart to go with others into a new area to start an assembly, what would you need to get started? What would be your objective within five years?

9. Has this lesson effected how you view the assembly? If so, in what regard? How will you apply what you have learned?