The Church: Back to the Future

“We cannot experience the transcendence of God anywhere like we can in church when we’re gathered together for worship.”

worship churchMy pastor made such a statement in his sermon yesterday. It’s not true. Yes, the church is the body and temple of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus is in the midst of believers who gather together in his name (Matthew 18:20). Real unity, however, is spiritual rather than physical. Just because believers and nominal Christians come together on a Sunday morning doesn’t mean that the transcendent Shekinah glory of God will show up. Most of the time, he doesn’t.

God is a spirit (John 4:24). He reveals himself to us by his Holy Spirit, who’s like the wind (3:8)! We can’t put wind in a box. Neither can we limit God. Heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool (Isaiah 66:1, Matthew 5:34-35, Acts 7:49). God does not dwell in any building made with hands (Acts 7:48). He’ll reveal himself to anyone, anywhere, at any time. One day God will show up in a church or prayer closet with believers, the next day in a hospital with sick and dying sinners. There is no prescribed place or person where the Shekinah glory cannot appear.

  • Adam and Eve felt the presence of God in Eden. (Genesis 2-3)
  • Cain tried to escape God’s presence after he killed Abel. (Genesis 4)
  • Abraham met God at his tent door and on Mount Moriah. (Genesis 18, 22)
  • Jacob met God in a dream, calling a desert place the “house of God” (Genesis 28:11-22). He later wrestled all night with God and his life was preserved (Genesis 32:24-30).
  • Moses met God on Horeb and Sinai, mountains in the desert. (Exodus 3, 19-31)
  • Joshua met the Captain of the Lord’s host near Jericho. (Joshua 5:13-15)
  • Elijah heard the still, small voice of God on Mount Horeb. (1 Kings 19:11-18)
  • Elisha saw Elijah leave on a chariot of fire near the Jordan River. (2 Kings 2:11-12)
  • Ezekiel met God by a river in Babylon and in a valley of dry bones. (Ezekiel 1-3, 37)
  • Daniel met God in a den of lions, in dreams, and near rivers. (Daniel 6-8, 10-12)
  • His friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked with God in the fire. (Daniel 3)
  • The heavens opened after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3:13-17)
  • Healing power flowed from Jesus to a sick woman on a city street. (Matthew 5:20-22)
  • Three disciples saw Jesus transfigured on a mountaintop. (Matthew 17)
  • The Holy Spirit filled 120 disciples in an upper room. (Acts 2:1-4)
  • The apostle Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-7)
  • Peter had a vision on a housetop in Caesarea. (Acts 10:10-16)
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ came to John on the isle of Patmos. (Revelation 1-22)

isaiah angel anointingAll these transcendent experiences took place outside tabernacle, temple, and church walls. God did reveal himself in his temple as he said he would (Exodus 25:22). He appeared in a cloud above the mercy seat during the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). God also appeared to Isaiah on a throne (Isaiah 6:1). Yet the life of Ezekiel tells us an important truth about God. When his people forsake him, he leaves. Ezekiel described the Shekinah glory of God leaving his own temple (chap. 8-10). It’s a sad sight. Yet Ezekiel saw God by a river in Babylon (1:1-4). Imagine God appearing in a heathen nation! Clearly he has no limits.

Jewish priests in the days of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel thought they knew God. They believed he could not see the idolatry of their hearts, but they were wrong. Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed as a result of their faithlessness.

jesus christ pilate ecco homoThe Pharisees thought they knew God. They idolized the temple and tried to please God with public displays of worship. Yet they killed Jesus and persecuted the church. Jerusalem and its temple were later destroyed.

Catholic priests during the Reformation thought they knew God. They idolized the cathedral and made themselves the arbiters of faith and law. Yet the persecuted church flourished underground as the power of Catholicism was destroyed.

The lesson here is simple. Whenever the visible church acts like the bridegroom rather than the bride, the people of God are in trouble. Whenever the visible church limits God with rules and unbelief, God himself will break those rules just to show them who he really is.

If we want to understand the future of the church during earth’s final hours, then we must return to her beginning. Just like in the days of the first apostles and Protestants, formal worship by unbelievers will die while true worship by true believers will flourish underground through persecution. It is only in true worship that we experience the transcendence of God (John 4:23-24). Jesus died for our sins outside the city gates (Hebrews 12:12). Let us join him (12:13).

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