Who Are We? The Church You Can/Can’t See

exodus_8284cWhat does the church look like? Can you really see the church? Hebrews 12:18-24 points you to the church the way God sees it, to the church as it really is.

Walk by faith, not by sight. You have not come to a touchable mountain. Mt. Sinai was the place where God made his covenant with Israel, changing them from a group of slaves to his people. The scene was a revelation of the character of God. The physical surroundings showed God’s holiness: the fire, darkness, gloom and storm evidenced his majesty, Psalm 68:8. What was heard showed God’s righteousness. The trumpet and the loud voice showed God’s transcendence. The people could not bear God’s voice—they needed a mediator. The whole scene showed that God is perfectly holy. You have not come to Sinai or any other such mountain. As Israel camped there, that was the place to which you had to go to meet with God and his people. The author of Hebrews focuses on this piece of history because his readers were tempted to walk by sight, not by faith. They had too much focus on externals. They wondered if the church came off second best in comparison with the ceremonies of the old covenant, and may even have been in danger of turning their backs on Christ to trust in outward ceremonies.

There is more to the church than what you see. This side of heaven there is a contrast between the church as we see it and as God sees it. The church on earth cannot look into the hearts of its members to find out if they truly have faith in Christ. It can only hear a profession of faith and see a life that is consistent with that profession. So we sometimes speak of the church as visible (to us) and invisible (to us, but not to God). The church as visible includes those who are members of a church on earth, the church as invisible consists of those whom the Lord knows are his. Externalism can involve trust in baptism, profession of faith, a decision, or church membership. This externalism tries to walk by sight. It under-emphasizes the Lord who is central to the church. We run the danger of complacency about our growth in grace, about our relationship with God. You need to see the church as God sees her.

You have come to the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to the city of the living God. God is present in Zion. He was in the Old Testament Jerusalem. The temple was full of his glory. He is present with his people in the New Testament. “Jerusalem” becomes the name for the body of Christ, Galatians 4:26; 6:16. God is the Judge of all men, Hebrews 12:23, even more so than at Sinai. Therefore, pay attention to what he says. Don’t depreciate the glory of the church, which lies, not in externals, but in its relationship with its God. Can there be a miss-emphasis on the church as invisible? Some people claim to be Christians, but are part only of “the invisible church.” The fact that the Lord sees those who are his does not minimize the importance of being part of, being involved in, the church as it comes to expression on earth. Beware of a miss-emphasis on the idea of the church as invisible (or worse, “the invisible church”). There are not two churches, visible and invisible, but one church, seen from two perspectives. “According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the in­stitution of Christ as its Head, the church that is the body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit, consist­ing of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful and finally the church glorious, holy and without blem­ish.” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p. 236).

You have come to the assembly of God’s people. You have come to the church of the firstborn. “Assembly” probably refers to the gathering of angels, into whose presence you have come. The “firstborn” are God’s people (Luke 10:20; Revelation 21:27). As Christians you are “firstborn,” with inheritance rights. You have come to the spirits of just men. The church triumphant includes departed saints. Now they are perfected. “Note the description of the great eschatological assembly in 12:22. Thus it is affirmed of believers that they have not only joined in worship, but that they have been incorporated into the worshipping community.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 45). The assembled church today is part of the great eschatological church. Notice the focus on not neglecting the assembly, Hebrews 10:25. God treats the church as important. So should you. That includes taking seriously membership vows. It includes working on your own sanctification, getting rid of respectable sins. Encourage one another in your progress in the Christian life.

You have come to Jesus! He is the perfect mediator. He mediates, and introduces, by his life and death, a new and better covenant. You no longer need Moses to climb a mountain for you to speak with God. He has come near to you, and drawn you near to him in Christ. Because you have come to Jesus, sanctification is essential in your life, Hebrews 12:14. The more that sinful habits are removed from your life, the more the church as we see it resembles the church as God sees it. His blood speaks good things. Sprinkled blood was an essential element for forgiveness in the Old Testament ceremonial system. The reality which it foreshadowed has arrived in Christ. Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance. But the blood of Christ speaks of forgiveness.

While you can’t see the church as God does, you can see the church. And that means seeing her in Christ Jesus, her Lord and King.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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