Some people have come to the conclusion that Christianity is not very important, especially in the 21st century. Our society is dominated by humanistic, materialistic, hedonistic philosophies that are much more in tune with what people believe and with how they are convinced they are supposed to live their lives. And to be completely fair, if we consider what passes for Christianity today, we must concede that it offers little to convince people of its value as opposed to the accepted way of thinking. Indeed, far too many who consider themselves to be Christians are much more “into” the accepted thinking of the age than they are “into” the Bible.
Consequently what is seen as “the church,” (broadly speaking), has little influence in society. It has become nothing more than a hollow echo of popular culture with nothing to say to the world and no legitimacy to say it if they tried.
What is the church supposed to be? What does God intend for it to be? Can we even discern the true picture of God’s people and their God-given role described in the Bible?
Paul, in writing to the Ephesian Christians reminds them of what God’s intention for the church was when it was brought into existence in the 1st century.
“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:1-6).
The Bible talks much about mystery. In this text, Paul is speaking of things that were for a long, long time hidden by God from the eyes of us human beings. He speaks of a mystery with which he had been entrusted – entrusted to tell to the world.
If we momentarily eliminate the modifying phrases and parenthetical explanations we can better understand what he is saying here. He wants them to know “how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” According to the revelation Paul had been given, the thing God had not previously revealed to men was the acceptability of the Gentiles with the Jews in the “same body,” the church.
We might think, “Why is that such a big deal?” It is a big deal because humanity was deeply divided. As long as people are divided from each other they will not and cannot work together to accomplish God’s purpose on the earth. According to his earlier statement in Ephesians 1:8-10, God’s plan for the ages was that…
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
This uniting of all things in Christ is tied in with redemption and the forgiveness of sins, with the grace of God and the wisdom of God. This uniting – this cosmic act of bringing heaven and earth together “in Christ” was first accomplished on earth with the uniting of the Jews and Gentiles in the church.
It is difficult for us to perceive what an earthshaking event this was. There was a rigid separation of humanity, not only by the Jews refusal to have anything to do with the Gentiles, but within Roman civilization there were deep divisions. There were masters and slaves. Slaves were very important to Roman society. In order for the masters to maintain their lifestyle of opulence and ease, it was necessary to have slaves to do all the work. When a person was sold as a slave he was a slave for life. It is thought that as many as 25% of the people in Rome were slaves.
The Roman political authorities hated or feared this message because they believed it would throw the empire into upheaval. Rome did not want to see all people united. As long as they were divided, she could control by intimidation. As long as people are divided, they are weak.
Another reason was that if the Gentiles, pagan idolaters that they were, should begin to worship the God of the Jews, the whole empire would be far more difficult to control. This is not because Christians would foment insurrection, but because a moral people are a continuing reminder to the corrupt worldly regimes of this world of their moral bankruptcy and of the evil of their oppressive control tactics. Anyone who stands against an oppressive government draws people to them who are tired of being used and abused by the authorities. This is why the gospel spreads faster among the poor, the abused and the downtrodden people of the world – something that is evident in the world even to this day. And when there is a combined and growing presence of a people like this in a nation, dramatic change cannot be avoided. This change is the natural expression of people who learn what real freedom is – the freedom of the spirit given to them in Jesus who is the Messiah, the true ruler over all of God’s creation.
We will continue our look at “The Value of the Church” tomorrow.