"Church" is the Greek ekklesia from ek, "out," and kaleo, "to call." The Church is the called-out body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The local church is our base, the place in which we are trained, from which we are sent out to carry truth to Satan's world, and to which we retire to recuperate and find healing from the wounds of battle.
During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ had little to say about the Church. Until the last week of His life, He had only one time given the disciples a glimpse of what the Church was to be.
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. (MAT 16:15-18)
The "rock" that Jesus says He will build upon is Peter's declaration of the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus uses the future tense—"I will build"—tells us that the Church does not exist at this point, this is something the Lord intends to accomplish at some future time. The phrase, "My church," tells us that it is the possession of Jesus Christ.
The Lord says that when it is formed, the Church is to be engaged in offensive warfare, pounding against the very gates of hell. The gate in the ancient world was the place where all major decisions were made. It was the place of power and authority. The Lord is saying that the power and authority of hell will never prevail against His Church.
Not until His last night with the apostles, during the Upper Room Discourse, did Jesus shed any more light on the formation or function of the Church. On that night, He made it clear that two things would make the coming age of the Church unique: the completed Word of God and the indwelling Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is the One who forms the Church and empowers it for its mission (JOH 7:37-39 and Joh 14-16; ACT 1:4-8 and Act 2).
The two-fold mission of the Church, assigned to it by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:19-20, is evangelism and edification. First, evangelize—win people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then, edify—bring those people to spiritual maturity so that they can function as part of the Body of Christ in further evangelism and edification.
To accomplish its mission, the early church had to set priorities.
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (ACT 2:42)
The phrase "they were continually devoting themselves" means they were addicted. The imperfect of the verb "to be," plus the present participle of "devoting themselves" is the strongest possible way to show intense concentration on and commitment to the four activities Paul is about to name.
1. Teaching. The believers were dedicated, committed first of all, to the study of the Word of God. Study of the Word is the foundation of everything that comes out of the local church. If teaching of the Word is not of first importance, then the church has the wrong priority and will not succeed in the work to which God calls it.
2. Fellowship. The Greek koinonia refers to joint participation, to working together. The first thing these people in the Jerusalem church did was teach. The second thing they did was apply the teaching in their lives and in the world. They set out to fulfill their ambassadorship, to accomplish their mission, and they did it as a team.
3. Breaking Bread."Breaking of bread" refers to the celebration of the Lord's table, as a reminder that they needed to keep their focus on Jesus Christ. The Lord had given them this ritual to be celebrated regularly to remind them of His perfect life and His atoning death and the resurrection power that was theirs.
4. Prayer. The apostles—especially Peter—had learned in the Garden of Gethsemane the price of failure to be alert in prayer. Their experience must certainly have influenced these believers to appreciate the importance of discipline and endurance in prayer (ACT 1:14, ACT 12:5).
These were the priorities of the early church. They studied, they worked together, they kept reminding each other of the necessity to focus on Jesus Christ, and they spent time together in prayer. As the Church began to grow, opposition and then persecution arose. The enemy is not bothered if Christians gather together and look at the Word; but he is incensed—and terrified—when they get serious about applying it. His reaction to the early church's activity was to arouse the ire of Jerusalem's religious leaders.
And after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ." (ACT 5:40-42)
Pressure, instead of bringing discouragement, inflamed the believers with greater courage and clearer focus. They responded with joy to their suffering. Joy is not incompatible with suffering. If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we will inevitably meet suffering with joy (1TH 1:6).
They increased their study. Whenever crisis hit the early church, they always increased their study. Now the Word was being taught every day in the temple and in the houses of believers.
They intensified their evangelism. Not only were they teaching, but they were preaching. "Teaching" from didasko, is what takes place inside—instruction for the believers. "Preaching,"kerusso, is what takes place outside—evangelism, the proclamation of the good news for the unbelievers.
As the Jerusalem church continued to grow and demands on the leadership mounted, the apostles reached the point at which they had to make a decision about what they would do with their time.
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word." (ACT 6:1-4)
The event that triggered the apostles' self-examination arose out of a disagreement between Greek-speaking, Greek-oriented Jews and native Hebrews in the church. When the apostles said they did not think they should wait tables, they were not being arrogant. They did not think serving tables was below them; they simply knew it was not God's plan for them. They had been commissioned—and gifted—to study the Word and to teach. To have set aside teaching for serving tables would have been to abandon God's plan for their lives.
So, they appointed deacons. The qualifications for deacons are the same today as they were then: good reputation, evidence of being filled with the Spirit, evidence of biblical wisdom, ability to be trusted with authority.
The results of the apostles' actions here soon became evident. ACT 6:7 tells us that "the Word of God kept on spreading." It spread because the apostles knew when to draw the line. If they had allowed this kind of service to distract them from study and teaching of the Word, the Word of God would not have kept on spreading, because they would have been out of line. The other believers in the Jerusalem church deserve credit too: They were willing to do whatever they could to make it possible for the apostles to study and teach.
The Word spread, and because the apostles continued to teach and the church continued to edify, "the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith." This is historical impact.
A local church can never afford to let itself be distracted from spiritual priorities (JOH 21:15-18; 1PE 5:1-4; EPH 4:11-16). The church's first priority should always be teaching the Word, but it is also important that every person in the church find his or her place of service.
We know from MAT 25:15 and MAR 13:34 that God has given to each of us a work to accomplish and the provisions we need to accomplish it. If God has a plan for every life, then every believer's calling is uniquely his own. No two members of the Body of Christ have the same position, so there is never any reason for ambition or competition to create commotion in the local church.
Since God has a place for every believer, every believer should be involved. But, while everyone ought to be involved, some people choose not to be. They have the freedom to choose. it is always wrong to use gimmicks, coercion, or pressure to get people to work in the church. When—through the hearing and application of the Word—believers are motivated to serve, they will find their place.
Every local church is a team with a mission that comes from the authority of God. The two-fold mission—evangelism and edification—must have priority. When a church loses sight of the priority, it will suffer. When a church stays focused, it has phenomenal potential for bringing glory to God in time and in eternity.
Before we can fully appreciate the function of the Church on earth, we need to understand the destiny for which the Church is being formed by God.
The first charter of Ephesians is a catalog of incredible riches every person receives the moment he or she believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the last two verses of the chapter, Paul introduces the Church—the Body of Christ.
And He [God the Father] put all things in subjection under His [the Lord Jesus Christ's] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all." (EPH 1:22-23)
Paul is turning from describing what God did in the human body of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth to what He wants to do in the spiritual body of Christ on earth. What God accomplished in one human body, that of our Lord Jesus Christ, He wants to continue accomplishing through one spiritual body—the Church.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (EPH 2:4-7)
The phrase "in order that" in EPH 2:7 introduces the purpose that Paul has been building to all through Ephesians 1 (EPH 1:7). God gave us all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ, the sum total of His wealth through grace provision made available to us. He did not give us these riches so that we could squander our lives, so that we could live in confusion and frustration, with no purpose, no destiny, no sense of value.
His reason for raising and seating us with Christ, for placing the authority and the dominion of Jesus Christ at our disposal, has to do with "the ages to come." When he uses this phrase, Paul is looking throughout the rest of time and eternity, as far into the future as we can project—a million years, a billion years, a trillion years from now.
In all of the ages to come, from the point of our salvation on, God wants to show something. The word endeiknumai means "to display, to bring to light." It has the idea of proving, of showing beyond question. What does He want to show? "The surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
The Greek word for kindness is rooted in charis, "grace." God, throughout all the eons to come, will manifest the overflowing riches of His grace with which He "graced" us in Christ Jesus. How did He grace us? By giving us all spiritual blessings. By giving us an eternal destiny. By giving us eternal life and the opportunity to have eternal greatness beyond our wildest imagination.
If we take advantage of the grace God extends to us, we will be great throughout eternity. The entire angelic realm throughout all the ages to come will stand in awe of the Church.
God has poured out His grace in this age in a way and to a degree that He never has before and never will again. Eternity itself will never exhaust God's display of the riches of His grace which are extended to us now, in this age, and which we can apprehend by faith.
HEB 11:1 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Faith makes it possible for us—living under the limitations of time—to reach forward and grasp eternal truth. The substance Paul wants us to grasp in Ephesians 2 is that the Church is going to be the display piece of God throughout all eternity. The Church will some day reign with Christ (2TI 2:12) and will share in the glory of Christ (ROM 8:17).
If we understand the Church's destiny and if we understand that we are part of the Church by faith in Jesus Christ, then we should understand this: Wwe have provision, protection, and potential for impact beyond anything we could ever imagine.