He reminded the Thessalonians how he and his fellow-servants had lived among them and taught them (1 Thessalonians 2:12), “To live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
Of course he was talking to individuals!
But note that he was writing to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1)—not a number of isolated individuals who just happen to have some things in common.
He urged the Ephesians in 5:1-2, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love just as Christ loved us…”
Of course he was talking to individuals!
But note he was writing to the saints in Ephesus who reflected the reconciling work of God in Jesus when he brought enemies together in one Body and so gave them access to God by one Spirit (Ephesians 2:14-16; 4:4-6).
He urged Christians in Rome to resist the world’s shaping power and have themselves transformed by the renewing of their minds (12:1-2).
Of course he was talking to individuals!
But note he wrote to people who together constituted one body in Jesus (Romans 12:4-5; 15:6-10).
The NT ceaselessly calls believers to recognize their oneness in the Lord Jesus—a purposed oneness, an eternally ordained oneness! All the metaphors and images (building, temple, body, family, colony and such) proclaim this and when Paul moves to settle a silly party-spirit he insisted that Jesus wasn’t dismembered and “parceled out” (see Moffat on 1 Corinthians 1:13).
As long as sinners are sinners there is no guaranteed cure for their getting everything right. Jesus preached what he practiced and did it flawlessly and yet he was misunderstood and it wasn’t all an intellectual problem—the problem included a sinful heart (compare John 7:17). But that doesn’t exempt those who teach us from the task of declaring the entire counsel of God, part of which is that God eternally purposed a single human family, a single covenanted community recreated in the image of the Lord Jesus.
The biblical Story is not about “individual” salvation, which thoughtless people have mistaken for “personal” salvation. The biblical Story is about God calling people in to his “kingdom”, about making them part of his holy ”nation” and his chosen “people”.
It simply isn’t true that those who are “in Christ” are saved independent one of another; it just isn’t true that those who are “in Christ” each have the Spirit independent one of another; it is simply untrue that those who have hope have it apart from their brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have these blessings and all others as one and “in Christ” or we don’t have them at all.
The God of saving love saves by bringing individuals into renewed fellowship with himself in the Lord Jesus; by bringing them into the number of those embraced in his redeeming work that climaxes in none other than the Lord Jesus. If we do not want reconciliation with God in one body we don’t get it at all!
(Those who speak of nothing but individual salvation and nod occasionally at the NT truth about the Church, the Body of Christ, are doing us no favor. In time they look around and wonder why there is no commitment to local congregational expressions of the universal Body of Christ. To announce God’s love of each individual cannot be wrong but it can be wrong to so speak that truth if it undermines our self-understanding as the Body of Christ and leaves us thinking of ourselves as a loosely connected collection of saved individuals.)
It doesn’t matter that the Church of our Lord has disappointed God and those that looked to it for guidance and help, it doesn’t matter that people have been hurt by members of the covenanted community, it doesn’t matter that numerous bored and weary preachers have joined the chorus of criticism coming from non-believers—she is still the nation chosen by God to be the Bearer of the Story. God’s Story and not her own except insofar as he has made her the living bearer of it. God will judge her for her wrongs!
When he called Israel from service to Pharaoh and made her a nation to serve him she didn’t magically turn into a sinless band. He knew better and he said so! He foretold that she would prove unfaithful but he insisted that he would not prove faithless to her. There were miracles all over the place when God brought Israel out of Egypt but there was no magic! Israel was sinful when she was in Egypt and God said she would be sinful after he brought her out.
Tragic though it is many foreigners and resident aliens must have told true stories of mistreatment at the hands of members of that chosen people and more than one prophet begged God not to forgive Israel her sins (Jeremiah 18:23 illustrates). But God reserved the right to render judgment on her and he did when and as it suited his purposes. So it is with the NT People of God. Note 1 Peter 1:17.
Let the peevish or those who easily take offense denigrate her, though they never ever lifted a hand to help her! And with more justification, let those who have been profoundly mistreated by her cry unto her God—that we can understand! But when those she nourished with a sense of Jesus-imaging righteousness and care, when they join the crowd of critics and whine about the poverty of “organized religion” we have something else. When preachers can barely ever mount the pulpit without parading her failures, beating her without mercy though they know right well that she too is sinful and weak, that she too needs a cup of cold water, that she too is naked and in need of clothing and warmth and forgiveness—when we see and hear that, we don’t wonder that “outsiders” humiliate and shame her.
And the young, the inexperienced, the vulnerable, hear all this criticism from teachers/preachers who are themselves sinful and they are unsettled. They feel the pressure of a world bearing down on them, calling them to shameful ways; they note how the Bible is no longer taken seriously and how it is used less and less in public speech, they note how a secular humanism and a religious-flavored message is promoted and commended and in their inexperience they join the crowd led by popular voices and “compassionate” people away from the Lord Jesus who lived, died, rose from the death, is now exalted and coming to right all wrongs and bring unbroken peace through redemption.
And when popular religious voices urge the Church to give heed to the self-confessed opponents of the faith and offer the words of a sinister humanist movement or the self-indulgent “wisdom” of those who’ve known tough times, when they offer that as a substitute for the unpacking of the rich God-centered Story of the Bible it only creates more “hard line fundamentalists” and no one is honored or blessed—least of all God and the world he so loves that he sent his Son to rescue it.
Make no mistake about it, the NT Church must (as ancient Israel was called to do) live lives worthy of God who called them into his kingdom. On them rests the burden of helping other humans to believe and to hope. If she is arrogant and insolent, if she is heartless and unjust, if she is cowardly and self-serving no glorious Bible or wondrous prayers or praise will save the situation or hide her shame.
An ugly, self-centered, self-serving or self-satisfied Church will demonstrate beyond even the power of articulate and sneering critics, beyond even the power of carping preachers that the Truth it proclaims is worth little or nothing to herself and if worth nothing to her who can she convince it is worth anything? Such a Church will lead frustrated people to write poignant but silly songs like Imagine.
The question the Church must ask itself is: What kind of People must she be to be the bearer of God’s Story?
Paul to the Philippians (3:20, Moffatt): “We are a colony of heaven, and we wait for the Savior who comes from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Like a colony of Roman legionnaires and citizens who put down roots in a place far from Rome and who lived to please the Emperor across the sea so there is a handful of servants of God in Jesus Christ, a colony of heaven that lives to please the Emperor across the worlds. Stumbling, pathetic and disappointing in so many ways yet she is like no other reality on the planet!
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.