Sign and Outpost

Why the Church matters so much.

Parameters of Encouragement (6)

And He Himself gave some
to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ… Ephesians 4.11, 12

But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all
… 1 Corinthians 12.7

Say what?
In Matthew 13, Jesus regaled His disciples with a dizzying barrage of parables about the coming Kingdom of God. As we have seen, all believers have been conveyed into that Kingdom by the grace of God, and we are all called to seek that Kingdom and the glory of God that characterizes it as our highest calling and priority in life (1 Thess. 2.12; Matt. 6.33).

We can only imagine what the effects of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13 might have been on the disciples. That teaching was then reinforced by their helping Jesus feed the 5,000, seeing Him walk on the Sea of Galilee, being with Him as He healed multitudes (Matt. 14), and marveling as He extended grace to a Gentile woman (Matt. 15.21ff). These episodes surely must have brightened and reinforced those powerful teachings about the Kingdom. All who would have heard would have been greatly encouraged and eager for the coming of this glorious and powerful realm.

Think of their surprise in Matthew 16, after Jesus commended Peter for rightly identifying Him as the Messiah, and telling him that such knowledge comes only by the grace of God the Father (Matt. 16.13-17), when He announced His plan to build His Church, rather than His Kingdom.

I wonder if the disciples were looking around at one another, with that “Say what?” look on their faces? Build His Church? What’s that? An assembly? You mean like a synagogue? What happened to that glorious, precious, powerful, all-encompassing Kingdom? The disciples were all ready to assume their places as rulers in the Kingdom of God. Yeah! Bring it on. But now Jesus says He’s going to build a synagogue? A “church”?

The Greek word we translate “church” – ἐκκλησία, ekklesia – translates the Hebrew word for “assembly” and was used for a large gathering of all God’s people or for smaller, local gatherings – like a synagogue. The disciples surely had a little air taken out of their enthusiasm when Jesus declared His intention to use Peter and the rest of them to build an “assembly.”

Indeed, they may have been so busy being disappointed and confused that they only barely heard Him say that the “keys of the Kingdom” would be given to them in that context (Matt. 16.18).

Church and Kingdom
For the rest of the New Testament, the Church seems to become the focal point of discipleship and Christian life. The book of Acts describes the church in Jerusalem as the launching pad for Paul’s church-planting efforts in Asia Minor and Greece. Paul’s epistles are addressed to churches and pastors of churches, while his specific mention of the Kingdom is sparse in comparison. Jesus wrote letters to churches in the book of Revelation, and these seem to have been His primary concern.

What happened to the Kingdom? Was it abandoned for a more tangible and more practical entity? One with which the followers of Christ would have had at least some experience? Or has the Kingdom simply been postponed until the return of the Lord?

No. The Kingdom is still the dominant vision throughout the New Testament, though it receives but scant mention. Believers have been conveyed into the Kingdom, and the Kingdom is their primary and defining calling in life. Paul declared that all his preaching was Kingdom preaching (Acts 20.25). In all Paul’s work, and that of the other apostles, Jesus was giving His promised Kingdom to the saints, even in the face of great persecution, and with the promise that they and His Kingdom would ultimately prevail (Dan. 7.18-27). The Church, as the temporal Body of Christ, possesses the keys to the Kingdom – the power to open the Kingdom and the power to shut it, to proclaim the Gospel and excommunicate gross offenders. Jesus is building His Church as His Body on earth, the agent of His grace, bearer of the Good News, and sign and outpost of the Kingdom.

The Church is the sign that the Kingdom has come. The Kingdom comes with the Holy Spirit and His power to make all things new. He converts the lost, gives gifts to every believer, and employs them in the work of building a new community where righteousness, peace, and joy are the defining characteristics. The Church is the sign to the world that eternity has broken into time, heaven is coming on earth, if only imperfectly, and the reconciled world is in process of being restored for the glory of God.

The Church is also the outpost from which the Kingdom advances into every area of life. As believers grow in their discipleship, embrace their heavenly calling, and seek the Kingdom and glory of God in every area of life, the reality of Christ’s rule comes to light in how they live, work, relate, and grow. The Gospel of the Kingdom – the Good News that it is here and can be received through faith in Jesus Christ – shapes their priorities and animates their conversations. Their personal spheres become staging-grounds for the progress of the Kingdom.

Gifted for building
Every believer has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit of God. Those are to be used, first of all, to build-up and encourage other believers as disciples with a heavenly calling. As we work thus to encourage and edify one another, we strengthen the church to grow strong in the Lord, increasing in unity and maturity as the loving and serving Body of Christ in its community.

As we practice the discipline of encouragement, we must keep the church in mind. Jesus is building His Church, and so must we. Local churches grow as individual members are equipped for works of ministry, beginning with those good works of love that strengthen and encourage our fellow believers (Eph. 4.11, 12; Gal. 6.10; Heb. 10.24). As believers grow in their discipleship and take up their heavenly calling, their churches become more visible as the Body of Christ (the sign of the Kingdom) and more active, consistent, and effective in proclaiming and embodying the Kingdom (the outpost of the Kingdom).

All believers are members of the Body of Christ. However we seek to be encouraged, and however we hope to encourage others, we must remember that each of us has a contribution to make to the unity and maturity of the Church. Healthy, growing churches nurture healthy, growing church members, and contribute to the visible increase of the rule of King Jesus in their communities. Let us be encouraged and let us encourage others to join with Jesus in this Kingdom-building effort.

For reflection
1. In what sense has the Church been given the “keys of the Kingdom”?

2. How would you explain the relationship between the local church and the Kingdom of God?
3. How does the Kingdom of God come in and through local churches?

Next steps – Transformation: Seek the Lord in prayer daily, that He might show you how you should help your church to fulfill its calling as sign and outpost of the Kingdom of God.

T. M. Moore

Resources for the Journey
If you missed our ReVision series, “We Would See Jesus,” you can download all four installments by clicking here. Our newest book, What in Heaven is Jesus Doing on Earth?, can help you to “see Jesus” as He continues His work at the right hand of God. Order your copy by clicking here. For a sweeping study of the unseen realm and the world to come, order our workbook, The Landscape of Unseen Things, by clicking here. And you can learn how our Celtic Christian forebears saw Jesus through the 28 days of meditations in Be Thou My Vision (click here).

Thanks to our Lord!
Will you join us to give thanks to God for His faithful support of our ministry, and to ask Him whether you should participate in this opportunity? If the Lord moves you to give, you can use the Contribute button at the website to give with a credit card or through PayPal, or you can send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 360 Zephyr Road, Williston, VT 05495.

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore