Concerning the Church

  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: Ephesians 2:19-22
Ephesians 2:19-22

19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

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We pray, Lord, that we may be taught of the Spirit, our minds illuminated and instructed by that anointing which we have received. We pray we may be receptive and responsive to it, obedient to the truth. In the name of Jesus. Amen

Next week I will be at Dallas Theological Seminary speaking to the student body there, and in my place, teaching Articles VIII and IX in the Doctrinal Statement, will be Brian Morgan (Rabbi Brianovitch). We’re grateful for the rain tonight. Perhaps we should have opened with a passage from Isaiah where the Lord says his Word is like the rain and the snow which come down from heaven and water the thirsty ground.

Article VII of the doctrinal statement concerning the Church:

Concerning the Church

“We believe that the Church consists of all who have been regenerated by the Spirit, and finds expression as local churches, operating under the direction of Jesus as Lord and Head of His body, through elders, pastor-teachers, and evangelists, who equip the saints to fulfill the work of the ministry as described in the Scriptures given by the prophets and the apostles.”

The PBC Doctrinal Statement of Faith

I suppose in some ways this is a most difficult subject to teach because it is so familiar to us. If there is any one truth that PBC is known for around the country it is the ministry of the saints, what we call “Body Life”. By the way, you might be interested to know that that term was invented here. I find it widely used all over the evangelical world now, but in the seventies when we first began to experience thekoinonia, the fellowship of the early church and bearing one another’s burdens, sharing and ministering to one another and using spiritual gifts—in order to use a kind of shorthand to cover it all we invented the term Body Life. Somehow it has caught on and is being used as part of the language, so you got in on a little piece of Church history if you were here at that time.

There is a lot compacted together in this paragraph which we will try to comment on tonight. First is the statement, “We believe that the Church consists ofall who have been regenerated by the Spirit…” That is almost a truism. If you know anything at all about the Scriptures you know that you have to be born into the new life, born into the Body of Christ. We saw that last week regarding the work of Spirit—that he baptizesallbelievers into the Body of Christ. We are joined into one body by the Spirit. That is referred to by various symbols and metaphors in Scripture that are tremendously illuminating.

I think one of the first things we need to understand is that the Church is a remarkable institution. It’s the most exciting thing taking place on this planet at the present time, and has been ever since the Lord began the Church through the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It’s God’s tool by which he controls and works through the history of the world.

One of the burdens I feel when I speak to pastors and churches-at-large, is to try to re-capture for them if I can, some of the tremendous excitement of belonging to an organization so unique as the Church. There are a lot of strange ideas about the Church. I think if you talk to the man on the street you would find people regard the Church as almost an anachronism, a useless residual remnant of something that once had purpose, but in the modern world hardly has any place at all. This shows the confusion the world has, and it is because it doesn’t understand the nature of the Church. What bothers me is that neither do a lot of Christians seem to understand it and grasp the wonder and marvel of what the Church is sent here to do. We tire of the church and its functions, and are well aware of its failures and weaknesses. You know the parody on “Onward Christian Soldiers” you sometimes hear:

 “Like a mighty turtle moves the church of God. Brothers, we are treading where  we’ve always trod. We are much divided. Many bodies we. Strong in faith and doctrine. Weak in charity.”

There is truth in that, isn’t there. The outward church is faltering, weak and ineffectual, oftentimes riddled with corruption and politics. It is very disheartening, and all of us have had experiences of church meetings that were dull and stodgy and we couldn’t wait to get out of them. All of that comes because of a failure to understand what the Church is, but I’m hoping tonight we can enter into the mystery of it. By the way, the Church is called in Scripture a “mystery”. Ephesians 5 is a passage that really deals with the subject of husbands and wives in marriage, and which is frequently quoted at weddings, but in it the Apostle says:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleaning her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as aradiantchurch (that’s how the Lord sees the church) without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself (they are one person; you can’t love your wife without loving yourself and you can’t mistreat your wife without mistreating yourself. But that’s another subject). After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body… This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

So the Church is difficult to understand. We can only do so from the viewpoint of Scripture. That is what tells us what the Church really is. That is why it is so important to know this from the Scripture to bear in mind when you run into some of the difficulties within the church.

Another reference to the Church as mystery is Ephesians 3:6:

“This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

The Church is a mystery. Why did God call this body into being? The answer is: it is God’s way of creating a new humanity. The Church is a different body of people. When we enter the Church by regeneration of the Spirit, we become part of a new humanity, a new world, new life, new age that God is bringing into being right in the midst of the collapse of the old civilization. And he is successful in his program. The Church is not failing.

I often try to think of the Church as a beautiful building with a lot of scaffolding around it. We see the scaffolding and think it is part of the building. The scaffolding keeps rotting and collapsing, falling apart, doesn’t last very long, is rather chintzy and feeble. But the building is not falling. It remains the same. All we look at in the visible church is the scaffolding the world sees, but the real Church, the Body of Christ, is gradually building, expanding throughout the centuries, growing together.

Paul has a wonderful description of this in Ephesians 2:19-22:

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (or family), built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Now that is the fundamental element and nature of the Church. It is the dwelling place of God. Just as we live in our bodies, so Christ lives in his body, which is the Church. You may recall a couple of decades ago there was a theological movement called “God is dead.” The reason people thought God was dead was they simply lost his address. They didn’t know where he lived, because God lives in his body. You look for him in the world and he is not there. Tonight on the news we were listening to the revelations now made about Stalin and his terrible murderous excesses in the former Soviet Union, and how literally millions of his own people, with no cause whatsoever, were massacred.

When you see those kinds of things you have to ask “where is God?” People ask what kind of a world is this? You say God made it, well where is he? The answer, of course, is he in his body, and he is operating through his body to relate to the world. He announces to it that the old creation that began in Genesis one and fell in Adam, has been falling apart through the centuries and will continue to do so. We are in the midst of a collapsing civilization, but in the midst of the decay God is creating a new organism, a new humanity, new body. Ultimately, the curtain will be raised in a most dramatic scene on the day of what Paul calls “the manifestation of the sons of God.” What has been happening all along will suddenly be revealed to the whole world, and the universe will stand in awe at what God has been creating all this time. You don’t see this except by faith. When you believe the Scriptures you begin to understand what it is to be a part of the Church. If we hold this in mind, it will help a great deal as we struggle with some of the surface problems of the church and realize what we are a part of.

In another passage Paul is writing to Timothy who is apparently getting discouraged with the church. Paul encourages him with a wonderful word that gives us an idea what the church is supposed to be. I Timothy 3:14-15:

“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

Think about that: it’s in the church you find support for the truth. A pillar is that which upholds or supports the roof. The pillars along the wall there are supporting the beams that hold up this building. The foundation, of course, under girds everything. This passage says that in the Church you will find support of truth, the foundation of all reality, and the pillars which display it for all mankind to see. That is the work of the Church.

The Church, therefore, is made up of Jew and Gentile alike, without distinction of persons or race or color, creed or sex. The often-quoted passage in Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So in the Church you have the whole of humanity brought to one level and incorporated into this wonderful new organism.

It strikes me as strange that we know so little about the Church, yet God has given us a living visual aid to carry around with us all the time that tells us what the Church is like. What is it called? Yes, your body! You are living in a body. The Church is Christ’s body, and just as your body responds to the directions of your head, so the Church is to respond to the direction of its Head. Christ is called the Head of the Body. Ephesians 1:22 sets that term forth very clearly. So it is his life that is being manifested in the Church, and we are functioning as instruments and agents of our Lord. It’s by him by his Church that the Lord works in the world today. We’ll see more of that when we come to the work of the ministry.

There is another distinctive figure used of the Church in the Book of Revelation. We had a reference to it in Ephesians, but it is primarily developed in Revelation. The Church is the Bride of Christ. He loves the Church, we are told. He gave himself for her, and Revelation opens on that note: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (1:5b) The Lord values the Church as the husband would value his bride.

There is another figure distinctive about the Church used in Hebrews 2:10-11:

“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” (So we are the family of our Lord as well. This includes sisters as well as brothers).

So you see no one figure can do justice to the Church. It is a mystery, and we must not ever think of it as just another human institution. It is a strange organization that exists in the world as God’s instrument of working, and therefore has enormous influence upon human events.

We have already looked at the term Paul employs in Ephesians about the Church, which is the dwelling place, the temple of God . That is in I Corinthians 3:16 as well, and in II Corinthians 6 the Church is a holy temple unto the Lord. All of these are ways of describing what the Church is like. Peter with his practical sense has a very instructive word about the Church. I Peter 2:4-5: “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (that’s the temple again) to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” He develops it a bit further in v. 9:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, (and here is the purpose) that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

All of this gives rise to what our Lord taught about his people. Remember he said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” I think it is very helpful to bear that in mind when you come to church or have anything to do with God’s people. Regardless of all the difficulties you may run into, you are dealing with the salt of the earth.

Salt is a preservative and a flavoring element; therefore without the Church conditions here and all over the world would be impossible to live with. The presence of God’s people on earth is what makes life habitable on this planet. If it were not for the Church, evil would so rampant and vicious and cruel, we would not dare to meet together like this. To walk the streets would be to take your life in your hands, and it is getting almost like that anyhow. Think of what it would be like if the salt were removed. And we are the light of the world, the source of truth, where truth begins to break through and people begin to understand themselves and what life is about.

Don’t minimize the Church. It is a fantastic organization. It was created by God. He thinks highly of it. He brought it into being by means of the Spirit, and it serves an enormously important function in the world.

Now to the second statement: “All of this finds expression in the local church.” We can imagine the whole Church all over the world consisting of every believer who is born of the Spirit. Whether or not they are members of a local church, they are a part of the body of Christ. There are a lot of people who are members of the Church in that biblical sense who are probably not members of a local group, or perhaps don’t even attend meetings regularly. They will be weak and ineffectual to some degree because of that lack. But just joining or attending a local group does not make you part of a church. What makes you a member of Christ’s body is being born of the Spirit.

Yet each local church must think that in some sense all of this is true of us, the ones who attend this local assembly and the ones down the street and scattered through the Bay Area. Each one thinks of itself as a microcosm of the whole. And what is true of the whole Church is true also of the local church, as Jesus said to his disciples after the Resurrection in the Great Commission:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

He is talking about the whole sweep of the Church from his first coming to his second. And all the members of it, wherever they are, scattered all over the earth, he is with them. Now that finds practical expression in his words in Matthew 18:19: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” So we can think quite properly of the Lord as Head of this church, and functioning as its director and initiator, planner and its empowerment, as Scripture encourages us to do.

This I think is one of the great lacks in churches today. There is such a lack of the sense that Jesus is Lord of this local church, that he is in our midst and he is planning all kinds of fascinating programs, encounters, adventures and dangers for us as we penetrate the community around us. Just as he sent his whole Body into the world, so he sends this local body into the world. This is why it is such a mistake for a Christian church to have the idea that the way to escape the pressures and problems and corruption of the world around us is to gather in a tightly knit lifestyle that is virtually monastic, excluding yourselves from contact with any non-Christians, sending your children to Christian schools or teaching them at home without allowing them to encounter the world in any way, and you try to keep them from the world.

That is a violation of what the Lord has told us the Church is for. It is to be saltin the world and lightof the world; therefore there must be contact with it. I think there is nothing more exciting as an aspect of the doctrine of the Church than our Lord’s words to his disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” (Matthew 10:15) I come from Montana where there are a lot of sheep, and I’ve seen a lot of sheep herders, but I have never seen one that sent his sheep out in the midst of wolves. That’s a dangerous place to be, isn’t it. Wolves can handle sheep very quickly. One slash of their jaws and a sheep is ripped wide open in seconds. A sheep is virtually helpless under a wolf’s attack.

But here is a shepherd who sends his sheep among wolves. That is the position believers are to be in today. They are to be in touch with the world and know that they are in danger. They are under attack, imperiled. And the only safety is they recall the fact that the Shepherd is with them, to empower, guide, instruct, teach, encourage, comfort them when they fail and restore them. This is what makes survival possible among the wolves. But it’s exciting too, isn’t it? This is one reason so many young people, young Christians particularly, get discouraged with the church, when you have a rabbit-hole mentality in which you hide, and pop up occasionally to see that there is no enemy, then scurry across to another hole. People with that mentality live their lives in their rabbit holes without any sense of danger. That’s boring, isn’t it! We need danger and exposure. We need to be tested.

This is what young people, particularly, call out for. It’s a great mistake to run programs that all center upon keeping the group happy within itself and to lose that sense of outreach, of moving out to touch lives around you and of being in contact with non-Christians, because that is what gives the flavor and verve and excitement to Christian living.

(Class Comments) I don’t know whether you are referring specifically to a new movement in the field of theology today, but there are recent thrusts in the evangelical world with various titles, such as “Dominion Theology”, “Reconstructionism”, etc. This is an attempt to view the Church as the instrument of change in the world, but with the idea that we are to utilize the standard approaches of politics and legislature, the judicial system, etc., put Christians in all these positions and thus control government and accomplish Christian goals that way.

That is a partial attempt to oppose the idea that Christians are just to withdraw from the world, and quite properly so. But what it lacks is what the Scriptures also teach which isGod’s way for the church to work, which is to lose your life to serve people. Not to seek for power to control, but to recognize that God can use feeble exploits and weakness, and even in humble ways will employ people doing things that don’t look very impressive, never gains attention or is heralded in the newspapers, and doesn’t require an election to office to do it. He can change a whole institution or community in that way. This is the way God loves to work. Usually he doesn’t work in those obvious ways.

There is nothing wrong with a Christian being involved in politics, etc. What I am challenging in this concept is the idea that this isthe way to do it—that God’s way is to put Christians into office. You don’t find that in Scripture. In fact we are told quite the opposite, that God oftentimes chooses the obscure, the weak and forgotten, the rejects of the world to do his work. So it isn’t wrong to seek and serve in an office as a Christian, but we need not think this is the way God plans to do his work.

(Class Comment) Yes, I intended to comment on that if a question was raised about it. Years ago when we first started we had a membership. We had people sign what we called a “Covenant of Fellowship”. It was an expression of what it meant to be a Christian that anyone who wanted to be a member could sign. They met with the elders and then were presented to the congregation, and much as many churches in other places do, we accepted them as members.

It kept bothering me and I think some of the other elders, because I have never been able to find any place in Scripture that reflects a membership other than by means of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. We talked it over at great length, and finally decided it was a lot of struggle to keep up the list, with calling on people, and checking on people who didn’t show up regularly, etc. And we said, “Look, God’s got a recording angel. Let’s let him handle all that.” We’ll just recognize people on the basis of profession of faith and the demonstration of their lives, and if that is in accord with Scripture, then they are a member of this body and we will treat them that way. It has been a great relief!

(Class Question) I did not mean to attack home schooling as something wrong at all, because it can be right. The original basis of teaching children was in the home. If parents feel it wise for a period of time, that’s fine. I don’t object to that. I just think it unwise to have that be the entire education your children receive because it separates them from contact with the world around, making friends with non-Christians, etc., and this is a very vital element. Our Lord never let his disciples just hang around with one another in a little private club. He sent them out, as he said, among wolves. He sent them out two-by-two, and they had a great time and came back all excited from seeing God work so wonderfully on those witnessing tours. It’s very clear from Scripture that the Lord wants this for us.

(Class Question) How do you handle accountability? The Scriptures say we are all accountable to each other. Any Christian has the responsibility to reprove, rebuke, exhort or admonish another, and we are accountable to encourage and comfort one another. You can list scriptures as long as your arm that exhort us to this kind of ministry of bearing one another’s burdens.

When our Lord in Matthew eighteen speaks about discipline in the church, he says: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” That is accountability. But he doesn’t say haul up the head of the club and have him examined by a ruling board. However, when the one-on-one discipline is refused there is another step, and finally it is to be told to the whole church in the regular assembly. We have had to do that several times here. It’s very distressing and painful, but it has been very profitable, and there have been dramatic recoveries resulting from that. I think this is a part of the ministry of the church that has suffered today and because of that the church is very weak.

However, be sure that if you are involved in that sort of ministry, you do it in accordance with the Scriptures. If you don’t you are liable to be hauled out into a law suit, as reported in some newspapers, where people being disciplined in harsh and unscriptural ways reacted by suing the church and its leadership for considerable sums of money. I examined these carefully and found that in every instance what they did was really unscriptural. They did not go about it according to the Scriptures, but instead followed the traditional pattern of the church, and that is what got them into trouble.

But if discipline is done in a loving way without severity, as Jesus teaches us in John thirteen in the washing of the disciples’ feet, this is the way of cleansing another person. It is a difficult and humiliating task. It takes a great deal of personal humility to do it, and it is not always welcomed. Dr. Ironside used to say the temperature of the water that you use makes a great deal of difference. Some present a basin of ice water and roughly command “stick your feet in here”. In other words, their attitude is so cold and forbidding and stern no one wants to be washed that way. Others are so upset and angry and yelling, it’s as though they had boiling water, and no one wants to get into hot water either. But if you come as Paul puts it, in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself, that you also can be tempted, then people will allow you to wash their feet.

Now we will consider chapter four of Ephesians. By the way, this is the section which I developed mostly in the book “Body Life” that I’m sure most of you are acquainted with. I would like to begin with verse four of this chapter. The Apostle is talking about believers. He says:

“There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given…” (This is not the grace of salvation. That is another term for spiritual gifts. They are also called “graces”, because (1) they are freely given and (2) they are graceful. They look good when you are doing them. Just as a graceful person is attractive to watch. For example, ice skaters are beautiful to watch; we call that graceful. “...grace has been given as Christ apportioned (measured it out, divided) it.” “This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’”

(Class Comment) You were debating who the captives were? I take it this is a reference to our Lord’s parable of a strong man who keeps his goods under control, then a stronger one comes and binds him, takes his goods away and releases them. Satan is the strong man who holds the world in captivity. When Christ, stronger than Satan, came he bound the strong man by means of the cross, as Paul says in Colossians, and he delivers, frees us. Paul says in Galatians that for freedom Christ has made us free. Not only does he free them and lead them in his train, but he gave gifts to them.

Paul puts in a theological parenthesis here:

“What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.’”

There has been a good deal of controversy over that, as to whether this refers to what the Apostles’ Creed says, that when our Lord died on the cross he descended into hell (“the lower earthly regions”). I don’t read it that way. I do not believe Jesus descended into hell. I think it is rather a reference to the grave. He came from heaven unto earth and became obedient unto death, then was buried in the grave and from that ascended into the heavens to give gifts unto men. However you take that, it is clear in verse eleven that the gifts he gave were men. He gave the leaders and the men to the church:

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

It’s clear than that the Lord himself gives the leadership to the church. First of all, he appoints apostles and he instructed them they were to bear in mind all that he had said to them. The Spirit would help them in that. They were to write this and teach and instruct the church, and of course this is where the New Testament came from. The New Testament is basically apostolic, and has authenticity because it comes from the Apostles, or, as in the case of Timothy, Titus and others, those closely associated with the Apostles. Luke would be a case in point. The Lord is the one who sent them out.

Then he appointed evangelists and some pastor-teachers. I read that as a hyphenated term, not two words. They are men who shepherd, guide and guard the flock, to prepare God’s people for the work of the ministry. You know, I’m sure, that the issue of that passage is that the ministry is to be done by the people, not the pastor-teacher or the evangelist or apostles. These were necessary to instruct the people about the work of the ministry. And the gifts God gave are the spiritual gifts every believer has.

What I would like to ask, and what I find few people asking these days, including preachers, teachers and pastors, is what is the work of the ministry? Just what is it that we are supposed to do? (Class comments) Good answer: When they asked him, “What must we do to do the works of God,” Jesus replied, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28,29) That is a good clue, because what he is saying is that the work of the ministry is the work Jesus came to do. We are now carrying on what he began.

Remember how Luke begins the Book of Acts:

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesusbegan to do and to teach.”

He began it, but who is doing it now? The Church is doing the work of the ministry. What was Jesus’ ministry? Luke 4:16-20 records a fascinating event in our Lord’s ministry shortly after he began:

“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the  place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

He is quoting from Isaiah 61 where it is predicts the Lord’s ministry, and Jesus quotes it and applies it to himself. Look at the elements of it.

First it is to be a Spirit-filled ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me…” So the work of the ministry is to be done in the power of the Spirit.

Second, it is to preach good news to the poor. The poor are often the most receptive because they have so little worldly goods, but this certainly doesn’t exclude the rich, does it? Many rich become Christians, although it is more difficult as Jesus himself said. But what is the poverty referred to here? It’s the attitude, isn’t it? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who feel bankrupt, without resources with which to cope with life, inadequate to handle things, life is overwhelming them, having a need of strength and support, deliverance, etc. These are the candidates for the Gospel. So the work of the ministry was to preach the good news to the poor. Tell them there is a way to be accepted before God without having good works and prestige in the eyes of the world. That is evangelism, isn’t it.

Then “he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners (or captives)”. Who are the captives? Do you know any captive people? Yes, bound by habits—drugs, alcohol, bitterness, lust, sexual perversion—people trapped in their own habits and weaknesses. What are we to do? Proclaim freedom to them! This is to be the message of the Church to people in the world. It is sometimes difficult to say this, because people want to justify their weaknesses, claiming they can’t help themselves, that they are made this way and there is no possibility of change.

This is widespread; maybe some of us have done the same thing. Have you ever said, “Well I can’t help it if I lose my temper—I’m Irish.” Or after all, I’m Italian, what do you expect? We justify ourselves and say we can’t be changed, but the good news is to proclaim freedom: “for freedom Christ has set us free.” It’s the work of the ministry to tell people that. I think this is the teaching ministry of the church. We instruct them that there is a way out, they don’t have to live this way. Through the gospel and the understanding of how God works they can be freed and don’t have to give way to these habits.

The third element is the recovering of sight to the blind. Do you know any blind people? Isn’t amazing how people will injure themselves and never seem to realize what they are doing, making terrible decisions and thinking they are doing the right thing though it’s the most destructive thing they can do. I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t encounter someone who has messed up their lives thinking they were doing right all along.

Today this is widespread as people live with one another without marriage. You suggest this is harmful or hurtful to them and they look at you wide-eyed and say, “we’re not doing anything wrong.” They are blind to see they are destroying something vital in their lives and hurting themselves severely. The fabric of society is coming unraveled as a result of things like this, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 5:6 “…for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” God’s wrath is the consequences of evil that result from such choices. So part of the ministry is to help people see, to open their eyes through teaching and through prayer for them. Prayer is powerful to help people understand and see things rightly. Oftentimes when you pray for someone you find their attitude begins to change and they see things in a different light. So this is part of the ministry of the saints.

The next element: “to release the oppressed.” That sounds like freedom to the captives, but there must be a difference. What is the additional element here in the word “oppressed?” Yes, there is an oppressor. There is a demonic element here. The oppressed are being held in bondage by demonic spirits.

A father and son came to see me this week and told me a very dramatic story about how the son had gotten into the occult world, and his girlfriend had gone much deeper. She started with a ouija board, then into tarot cards, then she began to hear voices and finally when the boy’s father had a chance to bear witness to her she acknowledged she needed help and was miserable, but she said “I can’t accept Jesus. They won’t let me.” He pursued it and found out she was under the control of an evil spirit. He took her to the Scriptures and showed her the promises of Jesus and asked if she wanted to be freed. She said she did, so he prayed with her and had her pray, and she was physically, right before their eyes, freed up, delivered, and she felt a great sense of freedom. Now she is growing in the Lord, studying the Word, and she and the boy are reading the Scriptures together. There has been a tremendous sense of freedom and deliverance.

That’s the work of the ministry. All Christians are to be able to do that. This was a ministry of a layman, someone whose name you would recognize as one in this church with his family. He is not a pastor, he is a businessman. But he knows the Scriptures, and he is able to help someone in such a situation. It’s a wonderful ministry—how exciting it is to see God in this day and age set someone free right in front of your eyes. It gives you a sense of being an instrument of the Almighty.

The last element of this ministry is to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (the acceptable year of the Lord.)” Let’s look back to Isaiah 61:1 and see this very remarkable thing. This is the passage Jesus read:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted (that phrase, by the way, is left out in most of the New Testament versions, but I think it should be included because it is certainly part of the Isaiah passage and it means a ministry of comfort.) …to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (but that isn’t the end of the sentence, is it?  – and the day of vengeance of our God).”

It is interesting that Jesus stopped in mid-sentence, at a comma, closed the scroll and gave it back to the attendant saying “today this scripture is fulfilled.” But he didn’t read the last phrase. Why not? Because it hasn’t yet come. “This is the day of the Lord’s favor.”

“Today is the acceptable time”, Paul says. “Now is the day of salvation.” So what the believer is to do is to reassure people when the times are frightening and the world seems to have gone mad, and it seems to get worse every year. I remember years ago I was in South America and saw the Spanish words (which struck me as funny) on the marquee of the theater of what was then a well-known movie: “El mundo es loco loco loco loco”. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. People are terribly frightened today. They go to bed with a strange feeling in their stomachs, not knowing what is happening. We are to reassure them that this is the day of the Lord’s favor. He’s in control, and he has held open the door of salvation so it’s not too late; you can come to God yet today. We’re not in the Great Tribulation. This is not yet the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Though that will come, we’re not there yet. All of this is proclaiming the acceptable year, explaining the times to people. Now that’s a great ministry, isn’t it! And all of us can have a part in it. That’s the glory of it.

Now where do you perform this ministry? Do you have to have a pulpit or a classroom? No, you do it over the water fountain, the back seat of a car, over a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, in your living room with a small group, when you’re swimming or lying on the sand at the beach. Wherever you are, that’s where ministry is to take place. That’s the way it was with our Lord, and that’s the way it is with us. And when the church participates in that kind of ministry, you can’t believe how exciting it can be. I’ve had people call me at 2 o’clock in the morning so excited to tell me what the Lord was doing, how a life had been changed and they just had to tell somebody. That’s the exciting work of the church.

Before we open this up to general questions I’d like to read a paragraph from my little book on Body Life:

“Have you ever noticed that the really important figures of the New Testament are not the priests and monks. They are shepherds, fishermen, tax gatherers, soldiers, politicians, tentmakers, physicians, and carpenters! These are the ones who occupy the center of the stage. So it must be again today. You can tell the good news of God at work around a water cooler in an office if the occasion is right. Or to another, over a lunch bucket. You can heal a hurting heart as you’re going home in the carpool. You can teach the truth that liberates people over a cup of coffee in a kitchen or the back fence. You can pray the prayer of deliverance beside a sick bed. You can interject Christian insights into business transactions or governmental problems—and the insights you share may mean the difference between conflict and strife, hope and despair, or even heaven and hell for the person whose life you touch!”

No wonder the Church is called the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This is the ministry God has given us.

(Class Questions and Comments) Spiritual gifts are scattered throughout the body. There are many pastors who are not full-time ministers. Here in this church there are many who have a pastoral gift, many teachers and evangelists. I think about ten percent of a congregation would probably have the gift of evangelism. If they begin to exercise it interesting things happen. They are always bringing people to Christ. I could name some in this congregation. When you have the gift of evangelism you like to talk with people and you can make the gospel clear to them. There is nothing wrong with sharpening your skills by learning approaches and verses of Scripture to use, etc., and classes can help with that. Anybody can be a witness. You don’t have to be an evangelist to take a class.

We’re all to be witnesses, which means we tell what has happened to us and what the Lord means to us. We’re all expected to do that. Others may have unusual gifts and can contact non-Christians and delight in doing so. The good thing about a gift is, you enjoy doing it. If you have a gift you will enjoy exercising it. It will be something you very much want to do, whether teaching, preaching, evangelizing, or whatever.

(Class Comment) You’re right. Words without a life to back them up are very empty and ineffective. As a case in point, Jimmy Swaggart preaches the gospel I think quite correctly, but his life gives it a lie. People don’t believe him anymore because of his reputation. It’s true you will find your words have impact when your life backs it up. James is a great book for teaching the relation of behavior to belief.

Someone asked me a question about traditions like popes and archbishops. These are extra-biblical ideas, originating in tradition rather than the Scriptures. There is no pope in the Scriptures. Peter was not the first pope, regardless of what the Roman Catholic Church claims, because he had no position of ascendancy over the other apostles. Paul rebuked and corrected him in that famous scene recorded in the Epistle to the Galatians. Our Lord had to correct him, and he proved wrong on occasion. He was married, and all these things mark him as not being the first pope. Likewise, there is no such term in Scripture as archbishop. Bishops are simply pastors or elders, and the terms are interchangeable. A bishop is an elder and vice versa. Elder refers to the man and the maturity of the man; bishop refers to his work. It’s really the word overseer, one who oversees the work of others, helps and trains them, etc.

Hierarchy of any sort, I am convinced, is unbiblical, either in the local church or in the Church at large. Since we Protestants believe it is wrong to have a pope over the whole Church, then it’s no improvement to have one in every church, yet that often happens. A pastor may become a little tin god , the final authority, and his word is law. He settles all arguments and tells the board where to go and what to do. There is a description of such a man in III John where he says Diotrephes loves to have the preeminence among you, and when I come I’ll take care of that.

(Class question about Christ descending into hell.) That’s an interpretation based upon certain passages which I think are speaking of other things. That was not a part of the original Apostles Creed. It was added probably in about the third century. It was a result of a mistranslation of the word “grave”. He was buried in the grave and that was translated he descended into hell. That’s how it got in the Apostles Creed.

The Lord said about the Church: “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Gates are stationary in a city wall, and it’s a picture of hell under attack from the Church, not the Church under attack. The Church is the instrument of God to attack the city of hell and its gates cannot prevail against it. God can reach in and snatch the captives out of hell itself. That’s the picture.

Title: Concerning the Church Author: Ray C. Stedman
   Date:1989
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