"We . . . [are to be] growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love" (Ephesians 4:15-16, New Living Translation).
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 (Ephesians 5:23).
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.
The members of His Church, while 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" (Ephesians 5:26-27). Nothing is more miraculous or awe-inspiring!
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 principal 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 those who would come after them in the future) regarding their mission: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15, NIV; see also Matthew 10:7; Matthew 24:14; Mark 1:15; Luke 9:2; Luke 9:60; Acts 28:30-31).
And He further commanded them: "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; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Timothy 4:2).
It also means attending to the spiritual needs and sometimes the physical needs of God's people with comfort, encouragement and a helping hand (Matthew 25:31-46; 1 John 3:16-18).
But beyond proclaiming and teaching Jesus' message, the Church was also intended to be a body in which members would help one another in growing in godly character.
A community of love and encouragement
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 incommon"(Acts 2:44). 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 the "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, NIV). 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, 1 John 3:16).
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; Romans 8:29).
Every member is at a different point in his or her spiritual progress. Sometimes problems arise just like those we read about in the Bible. But we know that God expects the people He has called to His Church to not only work on themselves, but also to love, forgive and encourage others as well.
Contact with God's people vital
Let's expand on this oft-neglected factor that's critically important for our spiritual growth. Using this tool, I have seen people undergo remarkable spiritual growth and transformation in their lives. I've seen them faithfully grow from spiritual and biblical novices into mature, converted Christians who have increasingly become more like God.
On the other hand, I've also seen many well-intentioned people start off with great zeal for learning the Bible and imitating the life of Jesus Christ. But they eventually lost their spiritual enthusiasm and vitality. They effectively withered and died, like an uprooted plant, falling far short of fulfilling God's purpose for their lives.
What was the difference? It was this: Those in the first category fully committed themselves to using the spiritual tool of Christian fellowship—interacting and communicating with other members of God's Church. They recognized the Church as priceless and eagerly sought to be an active part of it. They knew the people in the Church are far from perfect. In fact, that is partly why we all need God's "workshop"—to learn God's ways and practice them together! Miraculous change and growth can take place when God is at work in and among us.
Meanwhile, those in the second category never fully appreciated or eventually lost their appreciation for the wonderful blessings and benefits of membership and active participation in the Church of God, and their spiritual growth stopped.
The Church is a major part of God's plan for mankind. His Church is a spiritual organism headed by Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18). If we are called to Christ, we are called to His Church because His Church is His "body" (Colossians 1:24; Romans 12:5).
Paul described how every Church member is important to God, and how every member should appreciate, love and function with other members as individual parts of that one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). We do this through spending time together with one another—again, fellowship. This fellowship with one another is actually an essential part of our fellowship with God the Father and Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9-10; 1 John 1:3, 1 John 1:6-7)—as the Father and Christ dwell within all the members of the Church through the Holy Spirit.
Some, due to such factors as health, age, geographical isolation or even the culture in which they live, are simply unable to meet regularly with other believers. But whenever and wherever we are able to attend Church services, we should not neglect this God-given opportunity.
We need each other
Let's delve deeper into a passage we just touched on, Hebrews 10:24-25: "Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."
These two verses reveal several crucial truths.
First, God knows that we need one another. He didn't design us to be alone; that's why we naturally crave relationships with others. Some have to give up friends and family for God's truth. But Jesus promises He will give us far more friends and family (Mark 10:29-30) through His Church.
Of course, we avail ourselves of this wonderful blessing of companionship only through getting to know others in this extended family God has provided.
Christians who are sincerely involved, engaged, immersed and active in a congregation are spiritually healthy and growing.
Second, God knows that the right kinds of friends will encourage and strengthen one another in the right way, spurring each other to "love and good works." On our own, it's all too easy to neglect these Christian responsibilities and make excuses. But true friends—and who could be truer friends than others whom God has called to be part of His Church alongside us?—will encourage one another in Christian growth, providing positive peer pressure to help us succeed.
The ministry of the Church plays an important role in teaching and encouraging. Yet those among the general membership also instruct and motivate one another, helping to keep each other on the right track (compare Galatians 6:1-2; Galatians 6:9-10; Proverbs 27:17).
Third, God knows that we need "the assembling of ourselves together"—or, as the New Living Translation puts it, "let us not neglect our meeting together." Sad to say, those who willingly choose to go it alone place themselves in serious danger. A lone believer is a much easier target for Satan's attacks. And being isolated from others, he or she lacks the encouragement and support Jesus Christ provides through other believers.
Coming together on a regular basis enables the companionship, instruction and exhortation already mentioned. Besides spiritual learning, weekly Sabbath services provide a regular venue for praise and worship of God. This helps participants to face the coming week with a renewed spiritual zeal and focus.
Fourth, God knows that we all need encouragement and support—and His Church is intended to be a powerful support group in hard times. It's a miserable feeling to go through trials and difficulties all on our own, with no one there to help, offer encouragement or sometimes simply listen. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:25-26: "The members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it."
At times we all need encouragement to hang in there, to "endure to the end." As Paul said in Acts 14:22, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God." Jesus Himself described this way of life as narrow and difficult (Matthew 7:13-14). Satan would like nothing more than to discourage and distract us from Christ's coming Kingdom, and all the more so as it draws ever nearer. Encouraging and supporting one another are absolutely crucial for our spiritual health.
God, through Jesus Christ, gives much of His spiritual nourishment, guidance and encouragement through His Church, "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Much of this comes in the form of sermons and Bible studies on Christian growth and living, emphasizing how to apply God's Word to all aspects of our lives.
Don't choose life on the edge!
God does not call people to be independent of contact with other believers. An animal that has strayed from its herd is at much greater risk. That's why a "good shepherd" searches for the sheep that has strayed (Matthew 18:10-14). "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). We need each other!
Generally, even crops growing at the edge of a field do not survive and thrive as well. The plants are apt to get less fertilizer and irrigation, and they are more exposed to wind, foraging animals and infestations of pests. All of nature teaches this truth: Being alone or on the fringe can make one vulnerable to many dangers.
Spiritually, this is especially true. Christians who are sincerely involved, engaged, immersed and active in a congregation are spiritually healthy and growing (Ephesians 4:11-16). Together they have the joy not only of continually growing to become more like Jesus Christ, but also of doing the work of God as they help prepare the way for Christ's second coming!
In a prophecy in Malachi 3:16-17, God takes special note of those who practice Christian fellowship and the other spiritual tools covered in this booklet, promising them future protection and reward: "Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name. 'They shall be Mine,' says the Lord of hosts, 'on the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son, who serves him.'"
Be sure to seek out and maintain fellowship with God's people. You can learn more about God's Church in our free Bible study aid The Church Jesus Built. And for more information about the Church organization that publishes this booklet, see "The Church Behind This Publication".
The next and final chapter in this booklet 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."