God's Body Building Program
Written by: Swindoll, Chuck Posted on: 01/06/2005
GOD'S BODY BUILDING PROGRAM
by Charles (Chuck) R. Swindoll, (from his book "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE")
A typical American family was driving home from church one Sunday. Dad was fussing about the sermon being too long and sort of boring. Mom said she thought the organist played too loudly during the second hymn they sang. Sis, who was a music major in college, said she thought the soloist sang about a half a note off key during most of her song. Grandma said she couldn't hear very well - since they were sitting toward the back. As they pulled in the driveway, little Willie, who had listened to all of this, started to fuss about the woman who sat in front of him with that big hat. Then he paused, nudged his dad, and said, "But, Dad, you gotta admit, it was a pretty good show for a nickel."
To more people than we would dare admit, attending church is a lot like watching a show. The better the entertainment, the more they enjoy coming. But the less they like what they see and hear, the more they grumble and complain. Let the "show" get really bad, and there's no way most people are going to see it through. Yet, we've got to admit that the "price of admission" is still pretty hard to beat. Compared to what the public is willing to pay for live theater or a professional ball game, it's still "a pretty good show for a nickel."
All of this is true, of course, until you get serious about this business of "the church." Things change when you do. You feel less like seeking entertainment. You feel less freedom to fuss and complain. You feel more like investing your time, your treasure.....your very life.
As a matter of fact, it isn't long before you realize that this is one of the few involvements you mess around with that has eternal dimensions on earth. And when you really get hooked, you discover there is not one other single involvement more important then the Lord's whole-world outreach.
When you stop and think about it, God is involved in only two worldwide construction projects. The first is called evangelism, where He stretches His big arms around the world to reach and to win the lost to Himself. He uses all different kinds of people and many different methods, but in every case His objective is to offer the good news of His Son, Jesus Christ, to those who have yet to respond. The scope of God's world program is limitless; it reaches across the street, across the States, and across the seas.
The second worldwide program God is involved in is the Church. I think of the Church as God's Body-building program. Do you know the materials He uses for building the Church? That's easy to figure out, isn't it? He uses those He recruits in evangelism. So these two programs work in sync with each other. The lost are found as they respond positively to the good news of Christ. Then they begin to be built up in Christ and become personally involved in God's world program. The Church's mission is a never-ending project, drawing its manpower (should I say person power?) and its funding from those who have caught the vision.
You need to understand that I am not writing about some local church per se or some denomination. I don't have any geographical location in mind either. Or color of skin or nationality or culture or language. I'm referring to the universal Church when I mention the Body. I must admit, the more I study God's plan and program for the Body, the more I believe in it, the more I admire what He has done and is doing, and the more I want to be involved.
When I meet folks who bad-mouth the Church or see little significance in its existence, I pity that individual rather then feel offended. I realize he or she simply doesn't understand. It's a little like attending a symphony with someone who has no understanding of or appreciation for classical music. The whole event seems a waste of time and energy when, in actuality, the problem lies within his or her own mind.
Before I go any further, I should come up front and say that my desire in this chapter is to elevate your appreciation for the Body of Christ, if by chance it's been sagging a little lately. In case you've gotten burned or had the edge of its significance dulled or you've begun to question the necessity of your involvement in His projects, I want to come back to some basics and help you gain both a fresh perspective and a new appreciation.
It is no secret that I am a "satisfied customer" when it comes to the Body. I am involved in it up to my ears. I'm not ashamed to confess that I think of it in the daytime, dream of it at night, and pour all of my creative energies into its mission and message. Because of my wholehearted belief, I seek to "sell the product" everywhere I go.
Ah, but be careful! Once this passion gets hold of you, you'll be addicted. Not only that, you'll realize that you haven't the time to be absorbed in the petty stuff so many superficial "churchy" folk focus on.
I notice that people who look upon the Church as "a pretty good show for a nickel" spend a lot of time thinking about the clothing they wear and what kind of car they drive or how they look or the color of their skin or the mess they've made of their former lives - horizontal issues, petty matters, small-picture stuff. Now that's a waste of time and energy! The longer I live and the better I understand the big picture, the less I even notice those petty things.....the less I care about horizontal hassles. That's not the Church, that's man-made religion, designed to consume our energies and keep our vision out of focus.
Well, if that's not the Church, then what is?
A BRIEF HISTORICAL SURVEY
Let's learn a little history together. Rather than listing numerous dates and dozens of people, I'll make this quick 'n easy. Ready?
The Church is the first century - in its most pristine condition - was the object of God's attention and affection. It was purified by persecution, which caused its influence to spread like a flaming wheatfield in Nebraska. Its contagious momentum impacted every little nook and cranny of the known world. People all across the Roman Empire, much to the embarrassment of its emperor, began to buy into it. And before long there were pockets of believers in villages, towns, and cities, none of them with ornate cathedrals you understand, but all of them with a heart for God. Their leaders walked with Jesus and taught His truth. Most of them ran the race until martyrdom. Many of their followers were handed the mantle and became the new leaders of the Church. They, too, were martyred.
This fervent, often bloody chapter of history continued into the second, third, and fourth centuries. But during the latter part of that era, something strange happened in the Body. Church became a formal thing. Christianity ultimately became an "official religion." It took upon itself the marks of an organization. Its leaders increased their roles of authority finally shifted to unquestioned power, and soon there emerged the voice of the Church. Worshipers, kept ignorant of the Word of God, became increasingly more manipulated and intimidated.
Predictably, the Church lost its way as its divine power was replaced with human authority. Zeal and excitement drained away. The shadow of the Dark Ages edged across the religious landscape. The Church's authoritative guide-the Bible-was chained to the pulpit, with its message now hidden in the secret language of the clergy. Great edifices were built that pushed people away from the up-front leaders, holding them at bay. The common people remained in the dark-stone ignorant of the Scripture. It is hard to imagine the darkness of those decades. There were exceptions, but for the most part, God's truth was silenced. The Church, like a bloated whale, lay awkward, enormous, lifeless atop the swells and waves of historic events. Its leaders existed in their private world - inaccessible and unaccountable.
That condition could endure only so long. By the fourteenth, fifteenth, and into the sixteenth century, a growing band of straight-thinking, tough-minded men emerged from obscurity. These "reformers" courageously stood against the uncontested power bloc of the official Church and had the audacity to bring back the authority of Holy Scripture. As they broke with tradition, they spoke for God. Vital doctrines were rethought, restated, and reintroduced to the common people so that they could understand them and apply them to their lives. As you would expect, many of those reformers became martyrs....but their vision caught on. The fiery movement had gained too much momentum to be stopped. To the frowning dismay of the prelates of the Church, these "protestants" became such a sizable body of people, they could no longer be swept aside and ignored. A spiritual revival flamed across Europe and into England, igniting the Great Awakening that ultimately spanned the Atlantic to America.
The rest is familiar history. God's Body-building program was again on the move. No power was strong enough to shut it down.
We have the Reformation to thank for the development of two major doctrines - soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church). The two are inseparable as we shall learn in the balance of this chapter. I agree with theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer who said, "Next to salvation truth, it is vitally important for the believer to know the Bible doctrine of the Church."
SOME ESSENTIALS ABOUT THE CHURCH
Down through the centuries, God's program has been like a massive crescendo mark on a musical score. From the Church's beginning point on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came (Acts 2), right up to the present day, it is ever expanding, ever enlarging. To represent its future growth we could add an extended dotted line, because the Church, Christ's universal Body, will continue to enlarge. The Church is larger today then it was yesterday. It will be larger tomorrow than it is today, because God is forever reaching people with the good news of Christ and bringing them into His Body.
Not only was the doctrine of the Church developed late in history, even the mention of the term "church" appears late in Scripture.....never once in the Old Testament and not until Christ is well underway in His ministry. Jesus mentions the Church towards the end of a dialogue between Himself and His disciples. Matthew records the conversation in the sixteenth chapter:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and other, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" (vv.13-15).
Jesus is asking that question to the whole group - the "you" is plural in verse 15. Now the reason I mention the plural "you" is because the whole group doesn't answer.....Peter alone answers the question. We take a lot of shots at Peter, and he is often criticized for his weakness and failures; but the man stands tall at this moment. His answer is right on target!
And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16).
Jesus offers a threefold response: first a blessing, then a promise, and finally a prediction.
.....Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven (v.17).
"You've been talking with My Father, Peter - good for you! That came right from heaven. What insight!" That's the idea here. He continues:
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 (v. 18).
Now look carefully at Jesus' promise, "I say to you that you are Petros." My, that must have been wonderful for Peter to hear! We can't appreciate it, because we don't speak that language. Actually, Jesus gave him a nickname. All of his life Peter had been known as Simon, which, if you pressed it to the limit, would mean "vacillating one, shifting, moody, changing." But Petros meant "Rock." In effect, Christ says, "Good job, Rock. That's the way to go. That's the right answer. Peter, you're like a rock."
Then, drawing on that nickname, Jesus makes some promises: "And upon this Petra...." Petra is not quite the same word as Petros. Some have taught that this means Jesus built His Church on Peter. No, had that been the case, He would have said, ".....upon this Petros - on you, Peter," but He didn't. Jesus built His Church on the rocklike truth Peter had just uttered. Matthew caught the significance by recording Petra "....Upon this rocklike truth." And what is this truth? "You are the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God" - the very truth Peter had uttered when answering Jesus' opening question. And then Jesus predicted:
....and upon this [truth] I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it (v. 18).
Stay with me for a minute while we snap on a telephoto lens and focus in closely on this crucial prediction: "I will build My church."
Note first to whom the Church belongs - Jesus. "I will build MY church." It is not pressing the issue out of bounds to emphasize the Church is not the work of some pastor or priest or body of elders or some other governing hierarchy. It is Jesus who builds it. The Church is solely His. He doesn't have to clear His decisions with Rome or London or Wheaton or New York or Minneapolis. The Church is not owned by some denomination. Or group of clergymen. Or some official religious organization. Or the Pope himself. To use today's terms, Christ is our Boss, our final authority. If I used a first-century term, Christ is our Lord, Kurios, and we are His servants; our Despotes, and we are His subjects. That has never changed, though in the passing of centuries all sorts of philosophies and governments have dictated a different plan than that. The Church was and is His genius..He originated it. He alone is its Master.
Let's zero in even closer. "I will BUILD." The dictionary say to build means "to form by uniting materials by gradual means into a composite whole, to construct." Another definition, "to develop by a definite process." That is going on right now in Christ's Body. Always has been since the first century. His Body-building program will never stop until Christ comes for His own. He's the Groom and He will come for His bride.
Sounds a little humorous to say it this way, but the bride is getting heavier every year, waiting for the Groom to come. She's enlarging her size. Every day she's getting bigger and bigger, waiting for His arrival. And the Groom will someday come and say to the bride, "You're mine. Come home with Me," Until then He remains in the building process. And the building is made up of all nations, all cultures, all creeds, all languages, all colors. In fact, the Church in the First World is fast becoming the minority as His Body is being built up to an even greater degree in the Second and Third World countries.
Earlier we learned a little history, now let's learn a little Greek. This word Church is translated from the Greek Ekklesia, which comes from two words. The first is ek, a prefix particle meaning "out from among." The second is Klesia, a derivative from the verb Kaleo, "to call." Combining the two, Ekklesia means "to call out from among." To render Jesus' prediction literally, "I will build My called-out ones."
What a wonderful thought! Since the beginning of the Church, our Lord has been reaching down into the ranks of humanity, selecting, choosing, calling out, drawing people to Himself. These people are men, women, boys, girls, teenagers, older folks, all different sizes with all different personalities, from all different nations and tribes. He continues to "call them out" from the full spectrum of humanity, from busy urban centers to distant jungles. And He places them.....where? He places each one of them in His Body. Because each one comes the same way, each one enjoys the same benefits.
Remember the little chorus:
I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God
I've been washed in the fountain, cleaned by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod.
I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God.
Every one of us who is in the Family of God can sing that because we've all come the same way. That means the Body is exclusive - and I mean that in the right sense. The only way you become a member of this Body is to place your total trust in Jesus Christ. This Body is comprised of only believers in Christ. If you're a believer, you're in.
How permanent is it? Is it going to face the threat of extinction as time passes? We're back to the same scripture for our answer. Christ said, "The gates of Hades shall not overpower it." In other words, if all the wicked forces were unleashed from the open gates of Hell itself, the Church would not be hindered in its growth. Nothing could ever destroy the Church. It's a permanent building process that will never be crippled by some outside force, never be rendered obsolete, and never be stopped by any power, person, or plan. Period.
Explanations are essential for clarification. There is nothing like a definition to pinpoint the meaning of terms. I suggest this definition for Church: The ever-enlarging body of born-again believers who comprise the universal Body of Christ over whom He reigns as Lord. I believe that covers all the essential bases. The Church is ever-enlarging, it is universal in scope, it is continually in process, it is exclusive in membership, and it is impervious to destruction.
Let me ask you: Can you think of anything more worthy of your time and treasure?
Not too many weeks ago, I had a moving conversation with an engineer who had recently decided to change his whole career in midstream. I'll bet you can guess why. He had gotten excited about God's world program. His decision was prompted by his local church. We had met at a conference where he shared his vision with me. He had made quite a decision regarding his future as he stepped away from the familiar into another realm.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked him.
"Well, Chuck," he said, "I'll be honest. I finally faced the fact that everything I was designing and building was some day going to wind up under a layer of dirt or ashes. Every project I was involved in had a termination point, while God's project is eternal. When that thought grabbed me, my whole mentality turned around."
Obviously, God does not lead everyone that way. He led the engineer that way when he got a fresh perspective of the Church. When people begin to realize that Church isn't just "a pretty good show for a nickel," but rather a passion for living with eternal dimensions, it revolutionizes their whole frame of reference. Their world suddenly enlarges from this tiny speck of time and circumstances to a worldwide, invincible project over which Christ serves as Lord.
RAPID GROWTH OF THE EARLY CHURCH
Let's observe how rapidly the Body expanded in its earliest years of existence. As the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, He ignited a small body of people with enthusiasm and holy zeal. They poured out into the streets of Jerusalem and fearlessly declared their faith. "Petros" became their spokesman, and the immediate results were nothing short of phenomenal!
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).
Think of it! Three thousand brand new believers. There they stood in the streets of Jerusalem. I love the thought of this!
They had no church building.
They had no pastor.
They had no "church constitution" (which is probably the reason they got along so well).
They had no board members...no handbook...no promise of what the future held for them.
Then what did they have? They had Christ! They had the unhindered, boundless joy of Christ's presence in their inner beings. They also had each other. The ties of love held them closely together. And what did they do?
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (v.42).
They involved themselves in those four objectives - teaching, fellowship, the ordinances, and prayer. To this day those same four objectives are still the essentials of a church - teaching, fellowship, the ordinances (baptism, communion), and prayer.
Immediately this body of believers began to grow. The momentum grew as well.
And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number (Acts 5:12-14).
Observe that the Lord kept His Word - He was building the Body. That building process continued, in spite of hardship.
And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).
Look at that breakthrough. All these months the priests must have been wondering and thinking, "What's with these folks? Who are they? Why are they so happy, so confident, so closely connected to each other, so unintimidated?" Unable to ignore the movement, the priests became curious and began to listen. And then they got involved. And then, of all things, these formal, religious leaders tore away their masks of religion and committed their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. Talk about revival!
Finally, because of persecution, the growth of the Body extended beyond Jerusalem:
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord, for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-24).
We've seen televised pictures of volcanoes that have erupted, causing molten lava to pour over the lip of the crater and run down the crevices and on into the valley and villages below. Wherever the lava flows, it leaves its mark. I think of that when I think of those early years of the Church. The heat of persecution drove the Christians into new regions, leading to further growth.
Just as Christ had predicted, the "gates of Hades" did not overpower the Church. On the contrary, "considerable" numbers were "brought to the Lord." But the growth didn't stop there. It continued on into Greece and European regions. Lives were changed drastically as Christ's message penetrated and permeated. We see this clearly when we read of the events that transpired in Ephesus, a metropolitan center in western Turkey.
And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; nd fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing Acts 19:17-20).
What a remarkable account! How can it be that pagan people could be changed so completely? Surely it involved more than simply "joining a church." Indeed! These changes occurred because Christ had invaded their lives. Let me explain.
CHANGES THAT OCCUR WHEN WE BELIEVE
When you trusted Christ Jesus as your Savior, many things happened to you. Two are crucial enough to mention.
1. Something happened within you. According to 2 Corinthians 5:17, you became an entirely new creation within.
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
You gained new motivation, new interests. Your mind was no longer blinded to the truth of Scripture and held in bondage to fleshly lust. Your interests began to shift from yourself to others....from the things of the flesh to the things of God.
And a new group of people appeared on the horizon of your life.....other Christians. You began to be more vulnerable, more open, more willing to confess the wrongs of your life. Your desire to hide from God changed to wanting to spend time with God. Why? You had become a new creature within.
2. Something happened to you. You were automatically and instantaneously placed into the family of God. You didn't necessarily feel any different. You didn't hear angelic choirs. You didn't see flashing light or falling stars. But something happened to you the moment you believed. You became instantly related to God's forever family. And this new family relationship opened to you an entirely new realm you never before realized was in existence.
Those two same things happened to people in biblical times. They became new creatures. They joined God's family. And those two factors never change!
VITAL SIGNS OF A HEALTHY CHURCH
Sometimes people ask, "Do I have to join a church to become a Christian?" My answer is, "No, but God always joins you to the Church." No, you don't have to join some local church in order to become a Christian. He wants you to be connected with a local church, ultimately, but that's a separate issue from becoming a Christian. But you automatically become a member of the universal Body, His Church, when you believe. No problem there. But if we do encounter problems regarding the Church, it will be when we cast our lot with a local church. It need not be an unhappy experience, but it often is. Why? Because the vital signs of health and wholeness are missing.
I remember when my mother died early in 1971, my father called me on the phone. He spoke very briefly and quietly as he told me he thought my mom was dead.
"Sis is on her way," he said. "Can you come?"
Of course I jumped into my car, and by the time I got there they had already covered my mother with a blanket as she lay lifeless on the sofa. She had died a very quick, painless death by heart attack.
As I arrived I said to my father and sister, "Have you called the doctor?"
"Well, no, we haven't" they replied. " We didn't really know what to do."
I grabbed the phone immediately and called her physician. He said, "Now, Charles, there are some vital signs you need to look for. Let's make absolutely certain - while the paramedics are on their way - that she is, in fact, dead." So he gave me four or five signs to check. We did exactly as he instructed us. They removed all doubt. The vital signs were missing. When the paramedics arrived, we stepped back and watched as they went through the same basic procedures. It was clear to all of us that she was gone.
When we think about a healthy body, the vital signs are important. I want to mention six vital signs of a healthy church. I find each one either mentioned or implied in 1 Corinthians 12.
First, the presence of unity and harmony.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ (v. 12).
The first time I read that verse, it seemed like a tongue twister. Yet the longer I meditated on it, the clearer it became. It helps to change word "member" to "organ," like the organs of the body. Let me do that for you, and you'll see how much clearer it reads:
For even as the body is one and yet has many organs, and all the organs of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ's Body
That's the idea here. The point I want you to see is the unity and harmony of the Body. Though the Church is comprised of many members, there is still one Body. Such unity is also emphasized in John 17:20-23 as well as Ephesians 4:1-6, which you should stop and read.
Second, another sign of good health is the absence of favoritism, status, and prejudice.
For by one spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (v. 13).
In the first-century Roman world, the equality found in the Church was much more significant then it is today. In that day there were definite castes (still familiar to the people of India, but not as much to the people of America). In those days there was nobility and there was slavery. There was the slave owner and the slave - nothing more than a human "tool" in the hands of his owner.
In another letter from Paul, these similar words appear:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
In a healthy Church one of the vital signs is an absence of favoritism, prejudice, and status. In any other earthly organization, when you draw together a number of human beings, you're going to have prejudice, emphasis on status, and a display of favoritism. But not in the Body of Christ! This is one place that has no room for "preferred customers" or second-class citizens.
A third vital sign is an emphasis on individual dignity and mutual variety. We find this vital sign in verses 14-20. I love this passage. There's a little humor in it, so don't miss it. Think of the human body as you read these words.
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body (vv. 14-15).
Feet can't go on strike. Because they are part of the body, the feet stay connected. It gets even more imaginative.
And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body (v. 16).
And now he carries the analogy to the ultimate extreme!
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? (v. 17).
Try to picture an "eye-body" - one massive six-foot eye! How useless, how unattractive. You couldn't hug it or kiss it. You wouldn't have anything to kiss with, unless you "batted each other" when you got up close. You'd get dirt in you
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