Christians: What is Jesus’ relationship to the church?
Jesus’ entrance into history as a man (incarnation) was in many ways a mission trip led and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.1 Jesus’ cross-cultural transition from heaven was starker than any missionary has ever experienced. Jesus came down from heaven to live in the sinful culture. He participated in it fully by using a language, participating in various holidays, eating food, enjoying drink, attending parties, and befriending people. Jesus identified with its brokenness to bring redemption. Still, Jesus did not condone sin, nor did he himself ever sin. Finally, Jesus sent and sends Christians on the exact same mission. Christians are to be missionaries in culture as he was.
In John’s Gospel alone, Jesus told us no less than thirty-nine times that he was a missionary from heaven who came to minister incarnationally in an earthly culture.2 In his magnificent high priestly prayer,3 Jesus prayed that we would become neither syncretistic liberals who sin by going too far into culture and act worldly nor separatistic fundamentalists who sin by not going far enough into culture and acting like the religious Pharisees. We can error going too far. And, we can error not going far enough.
Jesus commands us to live in the world. We must not leave the sick and dying world in order to huddle in a safe subculture of Christian nicety. He also prayed that we would not simply go with the flow of sin and death in the culture but rather swim upstream against it by living countercultural lives like him, guided by the timeless truths of Scripture intended to be lived out by missionaries in every culture. Jesus’ commands for us to be missionaries in culture as he was could not be clearer. In John 17:18 Jesus said, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” And in John 20:21 Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
The Gospels give us the story of the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus Christ so we would know who he is. Acts gives us the story of the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus’ people, the church, who worship Jesus as God and continue his mission. As the church, we follow the example of Jesus by being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, which defines the mission of the church. This is why Luke is careful to show that the Holy Spirit descended on both Jesus4 and the church,5 empowering the church to continue the mission of Jesus in the world.
As we take the gospel to the world, churches, as communities of Jesus followers, will come together. It is essential that we never forget that Jesus and Jesus alone is:
- The head of the church.6 He is supreme. He is prominent. He is preeminent.
- The apostle who plants a church.7 There is no church that comes into existence apart from him. Apart from Jesus there is no church. Those who are caught up in the hard work of church planting must always remember that Jesus is the apostle. While we can start an organization, only he can plant a church.
- The leader who builds the church.8 Many pastors out of foolishness and pride take on the responsibility of building the church. But it is Jesus alone who ultimately builds the church.
- The chief shepherd who rules the church.9 The Bible is clear that Jesus alone is the senior pastor over the church and that all the other pastors and leaders are supposed to work under his leadership.
- Present with the church.10 Jesus is the one who says, “I am with you always.” In his exaltation, and through the Spirit, he is with us11 and we are in him.12
- The judge of the church.13 Jesus sometimes shuts churches down when they have become faithless or truthless. Such churches have lost their love for Jesus and people, refuse to repent, and are shut down because they are doing more harm than good.
Jesus himself said that he is the vine and we are the branches.14 What Jesus meant is that there is no Christian life for the church apart from him. There are many branches. Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, Baptist, Foursquare, and Independent churches are each one of many branches. What keeps every church alive, healthy, growing, and fruitful is an ongoing rootedness in and connectedness to the living Jesus Christ. Some churches, denominations, networks, and the like arrogantly act as if they are the branch and everyone else is a vine. However, when Jesus’ teaching is humbly received, we are able to enjoy being fruitful vines and rejoice in the fruit on other branches, since we are all the same proverbial tree.
What do you most appreciate about your Christian friends from other teams, tribes, and traditions?