Note: In Defining Church (part 1) I said that the first chapter of the book, The Gift of Church by Jim Samra, “radically altered my view of church” and “began to help me define “church.”" Much of what I say here and in the remainder of this series is owed to that chapter which is entitled “God in Concert.” It is one of the best books I have read on church and I recommend that you read it.
While the English word “church” first appeared around 300 AD, one must go back thousands of years earlier when defining church. In fact, the definition of church has its origins long before any Christian church ever existed.
If you were to open your Bible to the book of Exodus you would find an incredible story. God, through a series of miracles sets the Jewish people free from oppression and slavery in Egypt. The story is well worth reading (or watching), but for the purposes of defining church I want to pick up the story 50 days later in Exodus 19. Near the beginning of this chapter God says to Moses (the leader God used to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt), “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (NIV). Later in the chapter God says to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” Moses did as the Lord commanded. Then, in Exodus 19:16-19, we read, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” At the end of chapter 19 God called Moses up the mountain to remind him not to let any people come up. Moses returned to the people and relayed the message. At the beginning of chapter 20 God speaks to the people. His words? The Ten Commandments. The presence of God is so thick and powerful that we read, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.””
Through chapter 31 the majority of the narrative is God giving Moses the rules (the header image (above) is of the top of Mount Sinai) and regulations to govern the people – the people who become the nation of Israel. Moses spends 40 days on the mountain with God and when he comes down he finds the people worshiping an idol made of gold and shaped like a baby cow (Exodus 32). God is angry. At the beginning of chapter 33 we read, “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (italics added). For many these would have been awesome words of encouragement. God is telling the Jewish people – the people who have just built and worshiped a false God – that they still will receive the beautiful and abundant land he has promised to them through their ancestors and that he will remove the current inhabitants of the land. It sounds like a good deal, especially in the moments following such blatant disrespect and disobedience. But, the people don’t respond with joy. Instead, “they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.” Why do the people respond this way? Moses conversation with God a few verses later is telling and begins (as we will see later) to help us understand what church is. “Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
Moses and the rest of the Jewish people recognized that the only thing that made them special was God’s presence in their midst. God’s presence had provided guidance (Exodus 13), food (Exodus 16), and law (Exodus 19) for the people, but it still it is striking that they recognized that it was the defining characteristic in their nation so quickly (only 90 or so days after being freed from Egypt). What is even more staggering is that God’s presence remains an important distinction throughout the history of Israel – God’s chosen people.
How does an ancient story about the nation of Israel connect to a modern definition of church? My complete answer to this question will be the key component of my next post (or two). But, for now, 1 Peter 2:9 begins to reveal the connection. It says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” There are two important things to note about this verse: 1) It is written to a group of churches. 2) It is an intentional duplication of what God said about the Israelites at the beginning of Exodus 19 (see above). What does this mean? When defining church we must begin with God’s people and God’s presence. How and when does God manifest his presence? To this question I will turn my attention in the next post.