By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23)
Our world is full of hurt and pain. As a pastor, I saw more than my share of heart-wrenching situations as people struggled through the pressures of life. I recall a certain couple who had joined our church, and it wasn't long before we had the opportunity to minister to their family. The husband had been an alcoholic most of his adult life. Although he had become a Christian, he still struggled to stay away from drinking. I was glad that he had chosen to join our church, for I knew he would benefit from the genuine love in our fellowship.
One day, however, the man got word that both of his parents had suddenly died. He was devastated. Sadly, he was alone when he heard the news and turned to alcohol to hide his pain. While driving home, he hit another car, but he continued to drive on without stopping. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but a citizen's arrest was made, and he was taken to jail. Some of the men in our church were made aware of the situation, and a small group of deacons drove to the jail to minister to him. They were able to secure his release and offer help through a difficult time. I drove to his wife's workplace to tell her what had happened, encouraging her that several of our men were with her husband. She wept on my shoulder and began to tremble. I reassured her of the church's love for her family and that her Savior's love was ever present in times of need. We took her home, and a group of us prayed together. The Lord was gracious to redeem fully a good man and his wife. As far as I know, he never drank again. In fact, he later found a place of service as an usher in our church.
Years later a young man approached me and told me that he was the son of this couple we had helped. He recalled the pain he endured as a young boy living in the home of an alcoholic. Then he said: "You will never know what the love of your church did for my dad and mom. You will never know what your love did for me as their son. Because of the love I saw in your church, I responded to God's call into the ministry and am serving the Lord in my own church. Thank you! I have always wanted to tell you what your church meant to my family."
God has no orphans—only family. He has provided for every child of His through the unlimited resources of heaven. No matter what mistakes we have made, God cares for those who have chosen to enter a love relationship with Him. Our world is full of hurting people who have no hope, but God made provision for their every need through Jesus Christ. He then made Christ the Head of the churches He has established, in order that He might bring healing through His people who have come to know His saving grace. That is the strategy of God's redemptive plan to touch a world.
Local churches, the gathered people of God, are crucial to God's eternal purpose in salvation and world redemption. If you are a member of a local church, by the direction and will of God, you are most fortunate. You are exactly where God wants you to be and where God will unfold to you the fullness of His salvation. And it is here that God will cause you to reach out to a lost world for His glory.
The deepest longing in a person's heart is to have a relationship with God. When we open the Scriptures, we are surprised to discover how much God desires for His people to have a love relationship with Him. In fact, the more we study the Scriptures, the more we are overwhelmed at the greatness of God's salvation and the love relationship He seeks to develop with us. God's salvation set in motion everything He intended to accomplish in us. If we do not understand the extent of God's accomplished work on our behalf, we will never experience abundant life, nor will we fulfill God's purpose for our lives. God is not primarily interested in making us successful; instead, His heart desires for us to experience the full measure of His great salvation.
This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ. (John 17:3)
When God saved us, what was on His heart? What did He do to accomplish it? How does He implement His purposes in our lives? To answer these questions is to unfold the heart of God's message in the Bible, for the Scriptures reveal God, His purposes, and His ways so that we do not miss His activity in our lives. To experience God in our lives as He intended, we must have a thorough understanding of the greatness of salvation from God's perspective.
The writer of Hebrews urged the struggling believers of his day, "We must therefore pay even more attention to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away. For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding, and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" (Heb. 2:1-3). It behooves us to respond to this challenge today. It would be tragic for people to receive the riches of the gospel and then live as spiritual paupers, to accept such great love from Christ and then resent what He asks in return. Have we neglected God's great salvation and lived our lives far below what God purposed when He chose to save us?
The greatness of God's salvation is seen most dramatically in its far-reaching and comprehensive influence. Tragically, many Christians have never been taught the all-encompassing nature of their salvation. Consequently, they are neglecting major dimensions of the Christian life and are not experiencing the incredible relationship with God that is found in His salvation. It is like living one's life in black and white without seeing the full spectrum of colors in all their beauty. Many accept the gift of salvation because they want to go to heaven when they die, but they do not understand God's total plan and purpose in salvation and the unparalleled cost to God to grant it.
I was speaking in a conference in southern California when I encountered a man who stood before me in tears. He and his wife had driven almost six hundred miles simply to say, "Thank you." They had studied one of my previous books, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, when suddenly they were overwhelmed at the greatness of God's salvation. The fullness of life that God promised to them was suddenly opened in a way they had never known. As tears ran down this man's face, he explained that he had taught theology in a well-known Bible college his entire career, but he had never understood what it meant to walk with God in real and practical ways. He also expressed the need to ask God's forgiveness for having taught many young students about God without helping them know how to walk with God. He and his wife now had meaning and purpose beyond anything they had dreamed. Now in their late sixties, they had a renewed joy and excitement concerning their relationship to God and an enthusiasm to serve Him with all their hearts. I have heard stories similar to this far too often—of individuals who were content to gather information about God and to feel secure in their eternal reward but who missed out on God's great salvation as He intended.
Salvation is always granted on God's terms, and it reflects the nature of God Himself. The most identifiable characteristic of salvation is the quality of our love, first toward God and then toward His people. Without a love relationship on both levels, vertically and horizontally, we have not experienced God's salvation. If we get this basic truth wrong, we are in desperate trouble. God's strategy to touch a world is vitally linked with these two basic relationships. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He said "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and most important commandment. The second is like it, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:37-40).
This book will take us back into the heart of God and His purpose for our lives. I hear non-Christians say, "I feel as though there is something more to life than I am currently experiencing." What they are missing is God's great salvation. But I also hear Christians say, "I feel as though there is something more to the Christian life than I am currently experiencing." They, too, are missing God's great salvation! They have not understood what God accomplished on their behalf. Their hearts have never been opened to understand what motivated God when He chose to save them from their sins and cause them to be born again into the family of God.
One of the first great truths concerning God's salvation is found in John 6:44. Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." Jesus knew that God the Father must be active in drawing persons to Himself before they would ever know the joy of salvation. Have you understood how significant this statement is concerning your life? God has called you into a love relationship with Himself through Jesus Christ. In other words, you are special. You are the object of God's calling. You did not choose Him; He chose you. You can count on it; your salvation began in the heart of God, and the love relationship that He initiated is life-transforming and all-consuming.
I was in Tampa, Florida, when I received a call from my third son, Mel. He and his wife had just received news that their seven-month-old daughter had cerebral palsy. Mel is probably the most sensitive of my five children, and I knew he was hurting. The news had caught him by surprise. He sensed something was wrong, but he had no idea what the doctor would say, and he began to weep as we spoke.
After we had talked and I hung up the phone, I felt myself in an experience that I had not been in before. I turned to the only place I knew to go. I went into the presence of the One who created that little girl. Does God know my granddaughter? He does! Does God know my son? He does indeed! As I went through that experience, I came to know the tender love of God in a way I could have never known before.
My granddaughter will never know how I have prayed for her and how special she has become to the rest of the family and me. I remember being in their home about two years later. That child has sort of taken to her grandpa. She ran to me with a slight limp in her walk, put her arms around my leg, and hung on as though her life depended on it. Everywhere I went she wanted to follow me. She would look up with a big smile and say, "I love you, Grandpa!"
Do you know why I think she has taken to her grandpa? Because her grandpa has taken to her. Do you know why we love our Lord? Because He first loved us. In fact, while we were yet sinners, God loved us enough to send His only Son to die for our sin and set us free to know and experience Him. You can count on it; when we are born into the family of God, our heavenly Father loves us dearly. In fact, the more we experience the love of God, the more we are drawn into His presence.
According to God's divine and eternal plan of salvation, those who enter a relationship with God through Jesus Christ are automatically born into the family of God. God has no orphans! Believers now enjoy an intimate love relationship with the heavenly Father and the rest of His children. Just as God designed for a baby to be born into a family to receive love and care, so He designed for those who are "born again" to enter a spiritual family that will love and care for them. There is a corporate dimension to the nature of God's great salvation that is at the heart of God's purpose for each individual Christian. Without a thorough understanding of our place in the family of God, we will experience a dysfunctional Christian life.
Unfortunately, when people are challenged to become involved with the family of God and walk with a particular church in serving the Lord, some refuse and keep their distance. I have talked with many people over the years about their relationship with God and occasionally hear the response, "My relationship with God is private." The only problem with that statement is that, though it may accurately reflect their experience, it is not biblical. Our relationship with God is personal, but it was never meant to be private. There is a clear difference between personal and private. Some, however, live as though they are the same. Salvation is intensely personal, but God never planned for our salvation to be private.
Everything in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, bears witness to the corporate life of God's children; this is by God's eternal design and purpose. "New birth" places a person automatically into a spiritual family with other believers. Here, in a local church, they are to be nourished, fed, protected, and guided toward spiritual maturity. Just as a child, when born into a physical family, has family, friends, and neighbors who rejoice in the birth, so it is the same when a person is "born again." He or she is born into a spiritual family who has prayed for this moment, and they celebrate this person's entrance into the family of God.
But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
We should not equate spiritual with invisible and private, for the Spirit-filled life is obvious to all who see it. The Bible describes Christians as the salt of the earth that makes a recognizable difference, a candle that gives light in a dark world, and a city set on a hill that all can see. Jesus did not say that we have salt or light. Jesus said that we are salt and light and will by our very nature impact everybody we encounter. The influence we exert is always the influence of what we are. Jesus challenges every believer to confess Him as Lord publicly and to live for Christ openly for all to see. Our faith is personal but never private. We cannot live our faith in isolation; that would run contrary to the purpose of God's salvation. This was true in Jesus' life and His relationship to the Father. No one in the Bible had a relationship to God in private. Rather, each had a significant involvement with God's people, for that is where God's heart is found.
Our relationship with God is personal, but it is never meant to be private.
Today many people openly acknowledge their faith in Christ, but they have nothing to do with God's people and feel no connection to them. According to God's purpose, as revealed in the Scriptures, Christians are not orphans or in some way separated unto themselves. Salvation automatically makes God our Father and every other believer our brother or sister in the household of God. Together, we are "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17 KJV). Christians cannot live unto themselves and still function as God purposed when He saved them. We are born into the family of God, and through Christ we have many "blood relatives."
Just as clearly as a child born into my family will automatically experience many things that happen only in our family, so this is true with God and His family. For example, only the Israelites experienced the joy and power of God during the time of the Exodus. Those who were in God's family were overwhelmed with the many miracles of God. But if you were not a part of His family, you did not receive the blessings of that relationship. To the family, however, God gave the Law with a great display of His power. To the family He provided manna, quail, and water. To the family He provided guidance through a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As a result, the family experienced the care of the heavenly Father. The same is true today. God places His children in His family, for there they will experience Him and His salvation. He planned it this way. The local church is crucial to the life of every believer in his or her unfolding relationship with God.
So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God's household. (Ephesians 2:19)
How do you view those who are in the family of God? Perhaps the proper questions to consider are: How does God view your relationship to those who are in the family of God? And how has He intended for you to relate to other Christians?
Let us start with a very basic Scripture: "We have this command from Him: the one who loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:21). Anyone who calls Christ Lord is now our brother or sister, and God expects us to treat him as His family. He expects us to love other Christians just as much as He loves them. How much does He love them? First John 3:16 says, "This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers." That is a powerful statement of God's love and a penetrating statement about how much we should love the family of God.
The most convincing evidence that we have received the gift of salvation is that we demonstrate Christlike love to other believers. We can claim to love God all we want, but if we are not intimately connected to the people of God, we are deceiving ourselves. First John 3:14 states, "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. The one who does not love remains in death." Do you recognize how seriously God takes your relationship with other believers? Have you made the connection? Would you pass God's test?
We can claim to love God all we want, but if we are not intimately connected to the people of God, we are deceiving ourselves.
Let me illustrate with my own family again. When our daughter was born, we already had four boys. She automatically had older brothers, whether she liked it or not. We had already been nourishing, teaching, and caring for the older boys. We loved them, invested a great deal of love in them, and were working hard to guide their lives. Our daughter, if she was going to grow and develop in our family, would have to learn to love her brothers. For if she loved her parents, she would love the other children whom her parents loved. Similarly, the rest of the family uniquely loved Carrie. Each brother would grow to love her precisely because of our love for her.
So it is with a church family. We love each member, and we are loved by each member. For God deeply loves each one and has made a significant investment in their lives. To love God, then, is to love each member in the family. Because of God's incredible love for each of His children, we now respond to God and His people in a new attitude.
And if you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one's work, you are to conduct yourselves in reverence during this time of temporary residence. For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish… . By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:17-19, 22-23)
Those who have received God's great salvation and are now in the family of God must live their lives with an awesome fear of God. After everything God has done on our behalf, we must respond with complete submission to His will. We will, and must, always see as God sees. For God's salvation came at a high price; it cost Him the precious blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. Through the death and Resurrection of Christ we now have faith and hope in God. Since we have received such love, we must now fervently love all people for whom Christ died. For a Christian consciously to refuse to love the children of God for whom Christ died is to dishonor His death and ridicule His love. But when we walk in a loving relationship with God's people, the testimony to the world is profound. John 13:35 says, "By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
God has called us to join the family gathering and enjoy the benefits of that relationship. There are things God does in, for, and through His family that He does nowhere else! We, therefore, are not living life alone. Just as biological families must interact and spend significant time together, so our spiritual family must walk together in love. In God's family we will receive strength, encouragement, and much-needed fellowship. We will grow in wisdom and maturity as we benefit from those who have walked with God for many years. We will find security in the family's watch care over our life and respond to its comfort and accountability. More than anything else, God our Father manifests His presence in special ways when two or three are gathered together (Matt. 18:20). When the family gathers, the Father is always present and active. He speaks to the family. He gives gifts in the family. He gives direction to the family. He gives His power to the family. Apart from God's family a Christian will never be pleasing to the Father. When Christians are joined with the family, the Father is free to pour out His blessing into our lives, even as He continually does to all who are related to Him.
Does your heart desire to gather with other believers in the family where God has placed you? Are you investing your life in the people of God and joining them in fulfilling God's purposes? God has no orphans! He desires for you to walk with the family. When you get close to the heart of your heavenly Father, His love for each member will be laid over your heart as well. Make no mistake—our spiritual family life is a vital part of God's great salvation.
But now God has placed the parts, each one of them, in the body just as He wanted. (1 Corinthians 12:18)
The most dynamic expression of God's family activity is found in the local congregation. The church is God's primary means of redeeming the world. The call to salvation is a call to be on mission with Him, but we cannot be on mission with Him effectively unless we are vitally connected to the church. This is God's eternal strategy to touch the world.
There is a wonderful illustration of God's eternal purpose through each church in Ephesians 3:8-12:
This grace was given to me—the least of all the saints!—to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of the Messiah, and to shed light for all about the administration of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. This is so that God's multifaceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens. This is according to the purpose of the ages, which He made in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness, access, and confidence through faith in Him. (Ephesians 3:8-12)
We have already seen how God the Father draws people into a love relationship with Christ the Savior. A critical Scripture that describes what Christ does upon receiving people whom the Father draws is Matthew 16:15-18. Examine carefully what the Father was doing and how Christ responded to the Father's activity.
When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was, Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." When Jesus heard Peter's answer, His response was significant. He basically said, "Peter, you are very fortunate, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you." Now remember, Jesus was flesh and blood. He had not made known His true nature to the disciples, but rather, the heavenly Father opened Peter's understanding and revealed to him that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
"But you," He asked them, "who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" And Jesus responded, "Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it." (Matthew 16:15-18)
This pattern of God's activity is consistent with what we see in other passages of Scripture. In John 6:44, Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." The apostle Paul describes the activity of God's Spirit to reveal spiritual truth. "Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, in order to know what has been freely given to us by God… . But the natural man does not welcome what comes from God's Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to know it since it is evaluated spiritually" (1 Cor. 2:12, 14).
Peter had insight into the nature of Christ, because God's Spirit revealed it to him. He never could have known the truth if the Father had not taught him. But as soon as the Father revealed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus immediately made the statement, "On this rock I will build My church." What was the rock? What was the foundation upon which He would build His church?
Jesus was essentially saying, "On the basis of My heavenly Father's activity in the hearts of people, convincing them that I am the Messiah, the Son of the living God, I will build my church." Now when Jesus builds His church upon the Father's activity in the hearts of people, a dramatic event takes place. It is not our ability to convince people of truth; that is the job of the Holy Spirit. The gates of hell will not prevail against that group of people, for the Spirit of God is actively drawing them and guiding them to His Son, who has come to do His perfect will.
Is it true that when Jesus builds His church the gates of hell will not prevail against it? Whether we believe it is irrelevant; Jesus said it! Now what is the next logical step in the heart of God's people? We must ask ourselves: "Has Jesus built this church? Have we built this church? Or perhaps, has my denomination built this church?" How do we know if people built our church or if Jesus built it?
Our problem is that we are capable of running a religious organization, and we have learned to do it well. But too often our standard for evaluating the success of our church is to observe how large it has become. Church growth is not the biblical standard to evaluate the health of a church. A church can grow through effective marketing, but Christ may not have anything to do with it. Jesus said, "I will build My church." Yet we run around to church growth conferences to discover how we can build a successful church. Most conferences do not tell us how to recognize the activity of Jesus as He builds His church. Jesus, in this passage, gave two criteria: (1) the gates of hell will be coming down, and (2) we will be using the keys to the kingdom of heaven to free people from the bondage of sin and bring them into the presence of God.
Later we will discover what it means for Jesus to build His church, but I want to impress upon you at the outset that God's strategy to bring down the gates of hell and to touch a world is found in the local church. So, no matter what we say, if our life is not significantly related to the people of God in a local church, we are not effectively on mission with Him as He intended for us to be. His strategy of evangelism is the interdependence of each member related to the body and following Christ as the Head.
Those who resist gathering with God's people in a local congregation do not understand that they are neglecting a vital part of their salvation. In fact, one of the evidences of salvation is that Christians love other Christians (John 13:14, 34-35; John 15:12, 17; 1 John 2:9). Those who choose to stand aloof or refuse to be involved in a church have a serious heart problem. A Christian cannot stand outside the church, mock it, laugh at it, or call it a hypocrite; it runs against every fiber of faith. Christians love the church and would give their lives for it. In fact, 1 John 2:19 says that those who leave the church and never return were not really saved in the first place. For no one who has the Spirit of God can turn away from the people of God. To love God is to love God's people. To be on mission with God is to be involved in the church, God's strategy to touch the world.
Some of the best memories God has granted me come in the context of a loving church family. I constantly express my gratitude to God for placing me in various church families throughout my life; God worked in me through His family. They were there to witness my conversion and public profession of faith through baptism. They were there to teach me God's Word as a child and pray for me as I grew through the struggles of life. They affirmed my call into the ministry and encouraged me with opportunities to serve my Lord. They first placed the passion for missions in my heart and taught me to share my faith with the lost. They helped me care for the poor and the broken as we went together to the rescue mission of our city. They taught me to pray as we gathered together in prayer meetings. They helped me appreciate music as we sang our praises to the God Who saved us.
We who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. (Romans 12:5)
They celebrated my marriage and cared for my children as God added them to my life. They wept with me during personal crisis and family loss. In short, they loved me! Actually, God was loving me through them. I know that I would not be the person I am today without God's placing me into the care of His family in a local church.
Those who choose to stand aloof or refuse to be involved in a church have a serious heart problem.
The same testimony is true in the Scriptures. The fellowship in the early church was a constant source of joy for the believers. It is recorded clearly and simply in Acts 2 and 4. Every person who received the gospel and responded to Christ as the Lord of his life was immediately baptized, and God added each one to the church. Look carefully at Acts 2:41-47 and notice the activities of the first church family that was gathering in Jerusalem.
The natural and immediate response of the first believers on the day of Pentecost was to make a public profession of their faith through believer's baptism. Then the Spirit of God united their lives with other believers so they could grow in their newfound faith. We need to hear that carefully. This was not an accident or a decision from the hearts of believers; it was according to the divine purposes of God. Salvation brings believers into a relationship with God and His people, and both relationships are crucial. As a result, the new believers grew in their faith as they were taught by the apostles, as they prayed with the apostles, and as they fellowshiped with their new spiritual family. Because they were together, each one benefited from the presence of God as He performed miracles in their midst.
The fellowship and love in this early church grew exponentially. They began to care for one another's physical needs, even if it meant selling their possessions so that a brother in the Lord could be blessed. The striking characteristic of this moment was that they could not get enough fellowship. They loved to be together, for they experienced God together. Jesus knew this when He said, "I assure you: The one who receives whomever I send receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (John 13:20). They met daily and grew to have one mind and heart. The fellowship went from the temple to the homes and into the streets. Their relationship with one another was an essential part of God's plan. As they gave God the glory, He continued to add to their number day after day. That was the result of an encounter with God; that was the result of God's great salvation.
This is a clear picture of the incredible transformation in a believer's life. Whereas sin leads to independence and self-centeredness, salvation leads to radical interdependence and Christ-centeredness. The sign of a healthy Christian, who has been set free from sin, is interdependence with other believers and commitment to function within the body of Christ. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:5, "We who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another." That is a powerful statement of our interdependence and our corporate submission to the authority of Christ as the Head of the body. Life in the church family had become their very life.
A part of the nature of God's salvation is mutual interdependence among God's people. Sin creates isolation, separation, and independence, all of which lead to utter destruction. Sin magnifies self and cuts us off from relationships that God intended for us to experience. But in God's salvation, "He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves" (Col. 1:13). His Son reigns in the life of His people, and the particular expression of His reign is found in the local congregation of believers. In the church Christ is the Head, and each member is a vital part of His body. As they follow Christ as their Lord, they are bound together for a common purpose.
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.
Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all as everyone had a need. And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47)
In the eternal and predetermined plan of God, He designed that the local church would be the primary way Christians should walk together and carry out the work of Christ our Lord. The fact that there are many local churches does not divide Christians; it unites them around a common purpose under the lordship of Christ. Children are born into the human race yet belong to a specific human family. In the same way those who have been born into the kingdom of God are also entrusted into the care of a loving church family. This is not a human corruption of sinful humanity; it was by God's design. The family imagery is common in Paul's writing to the church. "Like newborn infants, desire the unadulterated spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it in your salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Pet. 2:2-3). The church was intended to preach and teach the Word of God so new believers would grow into maturity.
The intimate relationships that are developed within a local church are significant. The more we grow in our relationship to the Lord, the more intimate and loving we grow in our relationships to one another. A special relationship develops between members of a church family. Just as the helplessness of a baby creates a bond with the ones who give care, so the babe in Christ develops a special bond with the church family that provides nurture and love. This is not only a natural response, but God also designed it that way. He intended for church families to enjoy a deep bond of love for one another.
Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18). Jesus calls people out of the world and gathers them together into a living body in which He lives and carries out His purpose. The Lord added to the church daily "those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). This is still the pattern for how God works today. Those whom He saves, He immediately adds to a local church.
God has a purpose for every person in His family. His purpose, however, is never for the individual; it has a corporate dimension. Unless the corporate dimension of salvation is understood, a person will never fulfill the purpose God had for his life when He chose to save him. From the beginning, God has chosen to work through His people. Even when God chose to go to Moses, He did not go simply to bless Moses. He went to free and bless the entire people of God. The heart of God is always turned toward all of His people, because as the people of God go, so goes the redemption of the rest of the world. Therefore, God's heart cry is always toward all of His people.
Over the last few decades, the focus has shifted away from God's people to evangelism and the lost. However, significant evangelism is a by-product of what God does with His people. If we bypass the people of God, we have shut down evangelism. But when we help the people of God know who they are in Christ and what God purposed for their lives through salvation, the world will be turned upside down. The most significant statement of the Great Commission is found in the third part: "Teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20). If God's people are not practicing everything Christ has commanded, they will be ineffective in evangelism. But those who are walking in an obedient love relationship with their Lord will naturally share the good news of the gospel with convincing power.
Whereas sin leads to independence and self-centeredness, salvation leads to radical interdependence and Christ-centeredness.
When we examine how the early apostles implemented the Great Commission, we may be surprised. The apostles were not focused on evangelizing the lost. Rather, they turned their attention to teach the people of God to obey all that Christ commanded. Acts 6 gives us another clear picture of this strategy. The apostles' priority was to devote their efforts toward "prayer and to the preaching ministry" (Acts 6:4). As a result of their decision to walk with God and invest in God's people, "The preaching about God flourished [and] the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly" (Acts 6:7).
I had the privilege of pastoring a small country church in Texas while I attended seminary. I was a Canadian city boy trying to fit into small-town west Texas cowboy country. My wife and I had a wonderful time serving the Lord in that place.
As the time drew near for us to minister in Canada, the church began the process of putting together a pastor search committee. One of the members of that committee made an interesting comment. He said, "Mel, you were an evangelistic pastor; we need to pray about the kind of pastor we should have follow you."
My response was, "Tell me what we did that was evangelistic."
"Well," he said, "we have had an incredible number of people baptized this past year; you must have been evangelistic."
It was true that many people were responding to the Lord and were baptized into the church, but I pointed out that our focus was not on evangelism. I taught and preached on three major things: (1) what it means to have a growing relationship with Christ, (2) the nature of the church as God intended, and (3) the absolute necessity of prayer. When they became excited about their walk with Christ, the community began to see a difference in their lives. When they understood the incredible potential of a healthy church that followed Christ as the Head, they found confidence to do His will. When they understood the power of prayer to transform lives, they began to cry out to God to save their friends and neighbors. Evangelism was a by-product of a people in love with their Lord.
This has always been true among God's people. When the people of God were taught how to practice the truth of God's Word in their lives, evangelism was explosive. The key to this was the condition of God's people, not just a better church growth strategy. Who can forget the promise of God in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14, "If … My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land"? The key to touching our world is for the people of God to walk in a right relationship with Him and one another.
An exciting statement of this twofold relationship with God and His people is recorded in Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17. Here is the heart of God for His people:
"I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me" (John 17:20-23).
Jesus had an intimate relationship with His heavenly Father. Though the relationship was thoroughly and intensely personal, it was not private. The Father purposed that He would be deeply involved with each of the disciples because the Father was also involved in their lives. Jesus knew how deep His relationship with the Father was, and He brought the disciples to see and experience it (see John 14:7-11). Then He prayed that the disciples would have this same relationship with Him and His Father, so that their relationship with one another would be strengthened.
When this was true, Jesus said that the world would believe that the Father had sent Him. He knew this was God's eternal strategy, and He lived it out with His disciples. Life in God's family in the local church is vital to world redemption. True evangelism is a natural byproduct of such relationships.
There is one more dimension to salvation that we will develop through this study. Salvation automatically brings us into the kingdom of God. The gospel of the kingdom of God was at the heart of Jesus' preaching. Jesus urged people to "seek first the kingdom of God" (Matt. 6:33), not the church, but He established the church as a divine institution for the proclamation and extension of the kingdom.
It is amazing how many Christians need to be taught concerning the kingdom of God. We seek to follow the teachings of Christ, but we do not realize that the kingdom was the focus of His teaching. The New Testament does not exhort people to seek the church but to "seek first the kingdom of God." Christ did not say, "I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the church." Instead He said, "He cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Jesus traveled around the Sea of Galilee preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
One of the reasons some people struggle with understanding the kingdom of God is that it appears to be beyond them and in some way out of their control. Some find it hard enough to get a handle on the local church, let alone functioning with other churches within the kingdom. The kingdom, however, is what we are all about; we are kingdom citizens serving the King of kings and Lord of lords. If all we work at is building our church to the neglect of the kingdom, we are neglecting a major dimension of God's great salvation.
The basis for Christian unity among all believers is found in the kingdom of God. All who have been born again have entered the kingdom and are brothers and sisters in Christ, living together under the rule of their King. Everyone who responds to the gospel of the kingdom has a spiritual relationship that must be expressed through mutual love. Christ prayed for unity among God's people so that the world would see God's love in them.
Anyone doing the work of the kingdom is to be encouraged and supported. Although all churches do not structurally combine their efforts in kingdom work, all churches ought to applaud other groups and not compete with or fight against them. The key to cooperation between Christians is not whether they are "like us" but whether they are doing kingdom work. The kingdom provides the impetus for brotherly love and cooperation.
How should we treat other believers who are not following Jesus exactly the way we think they should? Jesus gave a clear answer to this question. John had problems with people who were not following them but were doing miracles in Jesus' name. This incident is found in Mark 9:38-41:
John said to Him, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn't following us."
"Don't stop him," said Jesus, "because there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name who can soon afterwards speak evil of Me. For whoever is not against us is for us. And whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of My name, since you belong to the Messiah—I assure you: He will never lose his reward." (Mark 9:38-41)
This forever settles the issue for every Christian about working together with others in God's kingdom. It takes all of us together to touch a hurting world. We must not waste our time fighting with other believers when we have a much greater battle before us. We will never make a difference in our world if we cannot love one another within the kingdom of God. But when love and cooperation are present, God pours His Holy Spirit upon His people and the gates of hell will come down all around us. We will see this more clearly later in the book.