Just exactly what is the Church? What is its purpose? Why do you need it? The Church that Jesus Christ founded and directs can be a priceless tool for aiding personal growth.
Jesus Christ loves His Bride—the Church! He "nourishes and cherishes it"! Jesus has a close relationship with the members of His Church, describing them as "members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Ephesians 5:25-30). "Also Christ is head of the church," providing loving care and leadership (verse 23).
The members of His Church, because they are still human, are far from perfect or sinless. But for those who are submitting and committing themselves to the Master's rule over their lives, Jesus is very busy "washing" them to spiritually transform them into "a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing . . . that [it] should be holy and without blemish" (verses 26-27). Nothing is more miraculous or awe-inspiring!
What and why a Church?
The Bible describes the Church as a loving and zealous community of believers—those who commune and communicate with each other and strive for unity! God wants cooperative coworkers to work together in the gargantuan task He has given His Church.
Consider the circumstances of the early New Testament Church: "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44, emphasis added throughout). In the King James Version of the Bible, the English word together appears 484 times. God likes togetherness!
What did Jesus say would be a primary identifying sign of His followers? "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
In the Bible, love includes unselfish actions of service, not only emotions. How can Christ's disciples serve one another if they don't know each other and aren't together? Hebrews 10:25 emphasizes the need of "assembling of ourselves together . . . and so much the more as you see the Day [of Christ's return] approaching."
The preceding verse, Hebrews 10:24, stresses the need to "stir up love and good works" among one another. Through Christian fellowship with other believers, we do just that—encourage, strengthen, comfort and help one another. God knows that it's difficult to survive spiritually on our own—that we need the support and encouragement we get from being with others of like mind.
The focus of church services should be about worshipping God and learning more about His Word and how He wants us to live. Paul describes the Church as "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15, New International Version). The Church is the primary source through which God's truth is taught and learned.
But another focus of the Church is on giving of ourselves to one another. Notice this essential evidence of spiritual conversion: "We know that we have passed from [spiritual] death to life, because we love the brethren . . . By this we know love, because He [Jesus] laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 John 3:14, 16).
The most common fulfillment of "laying down our lives" is that we give of our time for our brethren.
Members of God's Church should be striving to become like Jesus Christ, but are far from that perfection. Each member is a "work in progress," endeavoring to be "transformed" by God and gradually "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 12:2; 8:29).
Every member is at a different point in his or her spiritual progress. Sometimes problems arise just like we read about in the New Testament. But we know that God expects those He has called to His Church to work on themselves and to love, forgive and encourage others.
How does one become a member?
Surprisingly, an individual cannot "join" the Church on his or her own. First, God must call or draw you to Christ (John 6:44-45). Then you become a member of God's Church when "the Spirit of God dwells in you," as Paul put it. He explains that "if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His" (Romans 8:9). "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (verse 14).
Paul also wrote, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized [immersed, inserted] into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13). That "one body" is "the body of Christ" (verse 27). Christ's "body . . . is the church" (Colossians 1:24).
How does one receive the Holy Spirit? As was explained in the last article in this series, once a person believes the Bible, has repented of his sins and has been baptized "for the remission [forgiveness] of sins," he will "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38) through the laying on of hands of God's ministry. The Holy Spirit sets apart or sanctifies the convert as a new child of God. That is why the Bible frequently refers to members of God's Church as saints (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, "For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:2). God's forgiveness cleanses us of sin and the indwelling of God's Spirit imparts God's righteousness. This is how we become saints or spiritual virgins betrothed to Christ.
At the return of Christ, the saints will be raised in a resurrection to eternal life and glory (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54; Revelation 20:6). The "marriage of the Lamb" to His betrothed Bride will then take place (Revelation 19:7). The Church of God will then become part of the Kingdom of God !
Defining the Church and its mission
Jesus said that part of His earthly mission was to "build My church," and He began by training 12 disciples and other followers (Matthew 16:18). The Greek word here translated "church" is ekklesia. This explains why the English word ecclesiastical means "relating to the church."
This Greek word means essentially "those called out to an assembly"—which indicates that someone has authority over them to summon them to the assembly. Church services are called "holy convocations" in the Bible (Leviticus 23:2). The word "convocations" means commanded assemblies, and they are "holy" because it is God who has commanded or convoked them. This means that God expects His people, whenever possible, to be in attendance when He convokes an assembly.
Jesus gave orders to His disciples (and all future disciples) regarding their mission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus summarized this aspect of the mission another way when He told Peter to "feed My sheep" (John 21:15-17). Later, Paul reminded the elders to "shepherd the church of God " (Acts 20:28). This primarily means to teach and preach the Word of God, stressing the practical application in our daily lives (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17; 4:2).
It's clear from other scriptures and the apostles' examples that the Church is also commissioned to fulfill Christ's prophecy that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14; see also Matthew 10:7; Mark 1:15; 16:15; Luke 9:2, 60; Acts 28:30-31).
The United Church of God, an International Association , publisher of The Good News, is deeply dedicated to fulfilling this twofold commission—to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God in all the world and to shepherd and nurture the members of God's Church. Our recognition of and commitment to this instruction is reflected in our logo: "Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People."
Preaching and practicing what the Bible teaches
We in United Church of God fully believe that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16). And Christ's followers must be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22; Revelation 14:12).
The Bible is full of many warnings to beware of deceitful teachers, such as those who preach about the Messenger but don't teach His message, much less the rest of the Bible (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13-15; Matthew 7:20-23; 24:4-5, 11, 24-25). Much of today's "Christianity" is syncretism, meaning a blend of ideas from many ancient religions. Jesus expects His religion to be the same in this 21st century as it was in the first century (Hebrews 13:8).
The Church as described in the Bible obeys all of the Ten Commandments. This includes the Fourth Commandment about remembering the day that God made holy at creation (Exodus 20:8-11; Genesis 2:1-3). All places in the Bible that mention the weekly Sabbath mean the same thing—the seventh day of the week, which is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
Therefore our weekly worship services are on the biblical Sabbath. This is the day God made holy. No human being can make any day holy or transfer the Sabbath to another day. And there is not a shred of evidence that God ever took the holiness from the seventh day and transferred it to some other day. (Our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest gives abundant proof that the Sabbath is still God's holy day and that God gives great blessings to those who reverence it, celebrate it and obey Him in this manner.)
We warmly invite all who are interested—and your children—to visit our Sabbath services any time. Or you may desire to talk with one of our ministers first. Contact us for the location of the nearest congregation or pastor.
The next and final article in this series will show how to use all the biblical tools to continue your spiritual progress—so that, as Paul said in Ephesians 4:15, we "may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ." GN