A Living Presence, Not a Legal Pattern (Mar-Jun 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Charles Prince
March – June, 2010

PatternismThe Medieval Church placed an exaggerated emphasis on the church. Almost all the churches formed as a result of the Reformation over-reacted to that theology. As a result, those churches failed to view the church as an important part in God’s plan to redeem lost humankind. For the church to fulfill its place in God’s plan, it does not need to discover some kind of legal pattern. It needs rather to see its place as Christ’s own living presence in the world, now that he has ascended to the Father.

As we become the living presence of Christ in the various places where we live, work, play or go to school, we demonstrate visibly the gospel of God’s love. Lost people, seeing in us some likeness to Christ, are drawn into a saving relationship with God (Matthew 5:16).

In fact, Christ promised that if we believe in him, we will be empowered to do greater things than he did while he was on earth. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, NIV).

A troubling question

I can remember the first time this text caught my attention. I was about 13 years old and it was a hot Sunday night. As is true of most boys that age, I was scarcely paying any attention to what the preacher was saying. Instead I was fighting drowsiness and boredom.

But somehow these words got through the filter of my boredom and I felt a small shock of wonder. Was it possible that anyone in that somnolent audience could do greater things that Jesus did? Jesus fed the hungry. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus opened the eyes of the blind. Jesus raised the dead to life. Jesus stilled the stormy seas. What could be greater than these things?

During 15 to 20 years, as I began to focus on Jesus’ reason for making the promise, his words, “because I am going to the Father,” became the key to understanding this startling promise. What could not happen as long as Jesus was present on earth? Jesus answers this question when he says, “Unless I go away, the Counselor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7b, NIV).

In Acts 1:8, Luke records Jesus’ commissioning his followers to do greater works that he had done. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NIV). This last phrase, the ends of the earth, tells us the greater works that we, his followers, are to do.

My confusion grew out of my thinking that greater works meant works greater in power and in demonstration of the presence of God, that is, more miraculous. But Jesus used greater in a quantitative sense. The incarnated Son of God never travelled more than seventy miles from his home. He could preach to and teach only the limited number of people who could hear his unamplified voice. He could heal only sick people whom he came to know personally.

We have no such limitations. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, and using communication resources developed through nineteen centuries, we can minister to thousands, and even millions, more people that Jesus ever knew in his lifetime.

We have larger homes in which to practice hospitality. We have automobiles to travel farther in an hour than he did in a week. Every one of us has more food and clothing to share with the hungry and naked than all the Apostles combined had to share. We have medical resources at our disposal to heal hundreds and thousands compared to the small number Jesus healed.

The church is Christ’s living presence

To help us recapture Christ’s vision for his church, we examine First Corinthians 12:3-30, in which Paul called the church “the body of Christ.” But is this term only a convenient metaphor borrowed from Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day, or is it is a term that describes a spiritual entity existing in time and space.

We notice that this text introduces an extended passage in which Paul discusses the use and misuse of spiritual gifts. Paul is concerned specifically with the usefulness of spiritual gifts in the service of God (v.5) and working for God (v. 6). As a wise pastor, he is not as interested in a doctrine concerning the nature of the church as he is in the church’s doing “the good works, which God prepared in advance for [them] to do” (Ephesians 2:10b, NIV).

Instead of using the gifts of the Spirit to accomplish God’s work, some Corinthians were using them to measure their own degree of importance in the church. Paul emphasizes that the church is the body of Christ in which every member is vitally important to the proper functioning of the whole. He says in verse 12, “The body is a unit made up of many parts; and though its parts are man, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (NIV).

Here the word Christ and the word body describe the same entity – the church, and specifically the church at Corinth. For Paul, there is some kind of identity between Christ and the church. This identity is well expressed by calling the church the living Presence of Christ.

What are these good works?

The question then arises, “What are the good works that Christ expects his church to be doing (Ephesians 2:10)? I know of no better way to answer this question than to turn to Jesus’ own words. Jesus saw his mission on earth in terms of two basic activities: “to serve others” (Matthew 20:28); and “to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). This two-fold mission statement results from believing that all God’s commands can be reduced to two: to love God completely and to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself (Luke 10:27).

Most conservative churches that I know center their efforts on “seeking and saving the lost.” That’s commendable as far as it goes, but it completely ignores a great part of the works Jesus did in his earthly ministry. He not only met the spiritual needs of people he encountered; he also met many of their physical and emotional needs.

If we are to be “the living presence of Christ in our world,” we need to start taking seriously and literally what he teaches us in Matthew 25:31-46. This great vision of Christ judging mankind says nothing about correct doctrine, correct worship, or correct morals! That doesn’t mean these things are not important. They are important. It does mean that even if we if we teach correct doctrines, practice correct worship, and keep ourselves morally pure, but leave undone the “more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” — we may still be a “goat” as far as Christ is concerned (Matthew 23:23).

Based on this text, when Christ returns he expects to find his church acting as his living presence in the present age, feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, being hospitable to the strangers and aliens, clothing those who do not have sufficient clothing, tending the sick and visiting those in prison. This text gives us a motion picture of the church being the living presence of Christ in our world.New Wineskins

Charles PrinceAfter preaching, teaching and counseling for fifty-seven years, Charles Prince now serves the Oak Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, as a consultant in biblical theology, where he also teaches an advanced Bible class and Koine Greek. He studied at Rice University, Abilene Christian University and Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of The Eighth Day: Why Christianity and Science Need to Dialog to Make Sense of The Creation. [http://www.xulonpress.com/bookstore/bookdetail.php?PB_ISBN=9781607910329&HC_ISBN=9781607910329]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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