Some, misunderstanding God's overall plan, also misunderstand what the Church is to do. What is the Church's overall mission?
"Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15, NASB). "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . . 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 Christ gave His Church—this body of spiritually transformed believers—a responsibility to carry out. The Church's mission is to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God and make disciples throughout the world, teaching them exactly what Jesus taught (Mark 16:15; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19-20).
The work of the Church continues; it did not cease when the original disciples died. At first the job of the apostles, the Church's mission has passed to each generation of God's people. Jesus promised to be with His followers as they accomplished that work until He returns at the end of the age (verse 20).
Notice the purpose for which Jesus Christ sent the apostle Paul to people in the world: "to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (Acts 26:18).
Paul also said: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). The gospel is God's message of how salvation will be brought to mankind—starting with His Church.
The Church plays many roles in bringing salvation to the world. It stands as the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). It is the household or family of God (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 4:17, NIV). It is the mother who nurtures God's sons and daughters (Galatians 4:26). It functions as the "pillar and ground of the truth" in a spiritually confused world (1 Timothy 3:15).
Let's look at the multifaceted responsibilities Christ gave His Church, His special people.
Must the Church save the world?
Paul describes the Church's responsibility as "the ministry of reconciliation" because "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
God's ultimate purpose is to gather—to reconcile—all mankind to Himself. The Church plays an important role in that worthy effort. God has commissioned it to preach how that reconciliation will occur. It is to baptize those who believe that message.
When will that reconciliation take place? A common misperception is that Jesus has commissioned His Church to save the world in this age. But that is not what the Bible teaches and is not what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 5.
The Church's ministry of reconciliation is only the beginning of a much greater phase of God's plan for reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus Christ.
God has commissioned the Church to proclaim salvation to the nations. But proclaiming Jesus' teaching about salvation is vastly different from bringing mankind to salvation. The latter will necessitate bringing the entire world to repentance and conversion. Only Jesus Christ can convert the world; that task will have to wait until He returns.
Why Christ must bring Israel to repentance
At His return Christ will begin God's reconciliation to the world by bringing the descendants of Jacob—Israel—to repentance.
At that time, Paul explains, "all Israel will be saved." How? "The Deliverer [Christ] will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob" (Romans 11:26).
Then, as soon as the restored people of Israel learn obedience as a nation, many peoples will come and say, according to the book of Isaiah, "'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.' The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3, NIV).
Zechariah tells us, "In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you'" (Zechariah 8:23).
Humanity will begin to realize that the law God gave to ancient Israel must still be observed. Mankind will shed its prejudices and even begin keeping the biblical festivals, which God gave to ancient Israel (listed in full in Leviticus 23).
Those who remain unrepentant will soon find themselves in dire circumstances because God will humble them by withholding rain from their crops until they change their attitude: "Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles [one of the biblical festivals]. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain"(Zechariah 14:16-17, NIV).
Since Christ knows human nature, He will do what is needed at that time to change the thinking of people—to bring them to repentance. But that is to occur in the future after He returns.
Even though the Church is to proclaim a message to the world that includes a call for repentance, Scripture tells us that relatively few people will truly repent before Christ returns. Thus, bringing the world to repentance is not the Church's role for this age.
A small group: the light of the world
To the contrary, Jesus said to His disciples, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). He also said: "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19).
God's people have never been a popular or powerful force. Jesus describes their lot in life: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, NRSV).
Yes, only a few are willing to follow all the teachings of Jesus Christ once they hear and understand them. Jesus comforted His disciples, "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). God reveals that His people would be a little flock in this age. He is calling only a few to be the living examples of His way of life to the rest of world.
Jesus says to His true disciples: "You are the light of the world...Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).
God commissioned the Church to set the example of His way of life to the world. God is exposing humanity to His ways through the Church. Peter exhorts the members of the Church, "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge" (1 Peter 2:12, NRSV).
The Church: God's firstfruits
During "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), the Church of God consists of only the first small part of God's great harvest of people to eternal life.
James calls Christians "a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18). They are "redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb" (Revelation 14:4).
The biblical usage of the term firstfruits was readily understood by members of the early Church. "In acknowledgment of the fact that all the products of the land came from God, and [in] thankfulness for His goodness, Israelites brought as an offering to Him a portion of the fruits that ripened first, these being looked upon as an earnest of the coming harvest" (Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, 1967, "First Fruits").
The firstfruits were the first part of the harvest, which the Israelites set apart for God. After they gathered them and dedicated them to their Creator, they harvested the rest of the crops. The apostles and other members of the early Church understood that, as firstfruits, the Church is the first part of God's harvest of humanity for salvation. The vastly greater portion of the harvest will not take place until after Jesus Christ's return.
Those whom God calls in this age will participate in the saving of the world—but not at this time and not as human beings. At the return of Jesus Christ they will be fully transformed into immortal spirit beings.
God will resurrect them to eternal life as the firstfruits of His harvest, receiving immortality at Christ's return (1 Corinthians 15:20-53). They will then serve as kings and priests in the Kingdom of God (Revelation 5:10).
As the immortal, resurrected children of God, they will assist Christ in teaching God's way of obedience to the world for 1,000 years: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6). The resurrection of these faithful servants of Jesus Christ to eternal life at the beginning of that 1,000 years is only the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4-6).
All the dead will be resurrected
At the end of the 1,000 years, God will resurrect all others who have ever lived throughout human history to stand before Him in judgment (Revelation 20:11-12). This is far larger than the first resurrection; it is the resurrection of "the rest of the dead" (Revelation 20:5). At that time God will raise from the grave people from all nations, along with the people of Israel—all resurrected together (Matthew 11:20-24; Matthew 12:41-42).
"Do not marvel at this," Jesus said; "for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [or, rather, judgment, as other versions translate]" (John 5:28-29).
Those who rise in this general resurrection—the resurrection of judgment —will live again as mortal, flesh-and-blood human beings (compare Ezekiel 37:1-10). Then they will learn God's ways, acknowledge their sins and receive His Spirit. Then they, too, can receive immortality.
Ezekiel describes the resurrection of all Israel at that time: "Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves...I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,' says the Lord" (Ezekiel 37:12-14). (For more information on this vital topic, download or request our free booklet What Happens After Death?)
Christians are the firstfruits of the redeemed. They live in a deceived world, and they must strive to be "blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [they] shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:15).
The Church: the Body of Christ
We have already seen that Jesus Christ told His followers to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations and teaching people God's way of life. This takes cooperation and organization. To effectively describe the organized functioning of the people of God, the apostles used the analogy of the human body.
"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues [or languages]" (1 Corinthians 12:27-28, NIV).
Directing the work of the Church as its living Head is Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18). To emphasize how dependent the Church is on His leadership and inspiration, Jesus compares Himself to a vine: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). The success of the Church is dependent on the power and inspiration it receives from Jesus Christ.
Functions within the Body of Christ are established by Him "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12, NRSV).
Paul tells us that "there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, NRSV).
Spiritual leadership in the Church
Among the gifts Christ gives His Church are gifts of spiritual leadership—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). They are entrusted with the responsibility of preaching the gospel and of teaching, nourishing, protecting and building the Church. Godly character and exemplary spiritual qualifications are required of those entrusted with spiritual leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-10; Titus 1:5-9).
These are to lovingly shepherd God's flock (John 21:15-17) so that all members of this spiritual body may "come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).
They are to lead the people of God to work together in unity—to love, respect and support each other: "But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other" (1 Corinthians 12:24-25, NIV).
Those who are led by Jesus Christ recognize a common Spirit in each other—the very Spirit of God, which makes them the people of God. It should lead them to work together in unity to accomplish the mission Christ gave the Church and its ministry of preaching the gospel to the world and helping the spiritual growth and development of those who become fellow believers.
The Church Jesus built is that special body of people who, led by the Holy Spirit, obey God's commandments and are zealously committed to accomplishing the commission Jesus gave them.