The Church: A Believing People

The term, faith based, can be very broad. But at the heart of what the church is lies the concept of faith. You are a believing people. And that faith is focused, as Paul says in Romans 10:8–13, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The word of faith is near you. There is no excuse for unbelief. As Paul in Romans 10 wrestles with the way that many of his fellow Israelites had rejected Jesus as the Messiah, he grieves over the way that they have replaced the righteousness that God provides with a man-made efforts at righteousness. He takes his hearers and us back to Deuteronomy 30 to show that God has been consistent in dealing with his people by calling them to trust him. Don’t ask, “Who will ascend into heaven?” Paul again makes his point with a quote from Deuteronomy 30:12. Moses was making the point that Israel did not need to build their way up to God in heaven (such as the tower of Babel) because God had come down to be with his people. In Paul’s day there were those who would excuse their lack of faith in Christ by denying the incarnation. They believed that for contact to take place between God and man, you would somehow have to climb up to heaven—ignoring the fact that God has already bridged that distance by becoming man in the person of Christ. Behind much modern theology is the notion that a barrier of unknowability separates earth from heaven, man from God. Or there is at least an implicit request for additional revelation beyond the Word. Don’t ask, “Who will descend into the deep?” The original source of the quote (Deuteronomy30:13) refers to crossing the sea. What is the prior reference in the books of Moses to crossing the sea? The Exodus, which is both a display of the justice and judgment of God, and the deliverance he provides his people. Paul changes sea to the deep or the abyss, a reference to the realm of the dead. He is dealing with attacks on the resurrection of Christ, that most basic of beliefs. Paul recognizes that Moses writes with an eye not only to what God had done, but what he would do when the Messiah came.

Faith is essential both for the church and for her members. As people who believe the Bible we correctly recognize that neither externals nor our own efforts can make things right between us and God. It is appropriate to call people to personal trust in Christ. Yet in this context, Paul is also concerned with the church as a corporate body. Is it composed only of those who trace their ancestry to Abraham, of can Gentiles who trust in Christ be included—without first becoming Jews? It is not either/or, but both and. The church is made up of individuals who believe, but it is also a believing body.

The just live by faith. Habakkuk wrestles with the problem of God seeming to tolerate the sinful rebellion of his people, but the answer that God will bring the Babylonians raises even more questions for the prophet. In Habakkuk 2 the Lord is responding to his prophet. Judgment will come on the wicked Babylonians, whom the Lord is using to punish his people. But even in this, there will be a righteous remnant. And they will live by faith. Paul quotes the prophet as he sets out the theme of his letter, Romans 1:16–17. Faith is not simply a one-time act—it is a continuing trust in God. And for both the prophet and the apostle it is a way of life. “Far from being an incidental statement in Habakkuk, this passage declares the profound truth of the believer’s new mode of life in Christ. He or she lives by faith. . . . Jesus Christ is the object of saving faith, for he has been faithful to establish a new covenant in his own blood, having died for the sins of his people and having been raised for their salvation.” (Camden Bucey, Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, p. 55).

Faith is receiving and resting on Jesus. Confess and believe. Paul uses an unusual expression to introduce these quotes: “The righteousness of faith says….” Righteousness is personified. The effect is similar to “Scripture says….” Paul is telling you that God’s revelation is accessible. God’s Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. In Deuteonomy 30:14 Moses may have been thinking of the song which God would have him teach Israel so that they would know God’s revelation. God’s revelation is present today. God’s Word is there in written form and it is widely proclaimed. The lack of response cannot be laid to its unavailability (anymore than a self-blinded man arguing that the sun gives insufficient light). God’s revelation is present, and it demands your response. That revelation is even present in your heart and mouth. Your conscience bears witness. Are there excuses that stand between you and confessing Jesus Christ? Are you unsure about the truth of the good news? Ask yourself if the problem lies with what God has revealed, or with your doubting. God’s revelation tells you that Christ has come, has died, and has been raised. His righteousness leaves no room for self-righteous efforts. You are without excuse before God! Belief in your heart will express itself in words. Confess! Confession is more than admitting legal guilt, more, even, than asking forgiveness. It is admitting that you believe in something. What you confess is true. The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand (you don’t need a Ph.D to be saved), but is also complex, because God is the infinite God. Your confession is that Jesus Christ is Lord. As Lord translates the Hebrew JHWH it involves confessing the deity of Christ.

Trust Jesus as your resurrected Lord. Your basic confession of faith in Christ also involves submitting to his Lordship. This is not an option or a second step in the Christian life. It includes submitting to him in every area of your life—including dealing with those secret sins that you would just as soon no one knew about. Believe! You must believe certain things—the things God has revealed. Faith involves trust, commitment to Christ. Believe in the resurrection, the absolutely crucial event in the history of redemption. Because God raised him from the dead, he is Lord, Acts 2:36. Christ’s lordship flows out of his finished work. Notice the balance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 14.2. Faith does many different things. It is active. But at its heart it involves receiving and resting upon Christ. That is Paul’s prayer and plea for his fellow countrymen. “No matter how it is said, the point is that faith does not simply look to promises. Nor does faith look to the blessings that Christ brings to Christians, such as the forgiveness of sins or the gift of righteousness. No, faith looks to Jesus Christ himself.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 191).

You will be saved. As your trust is in the Savior who rose, you are raised with him. He is the firstfruits of your resurrection. Christ’s lordship is the guarantee that nothing is strong enough to separate you from God’s love in Christ. Your salvation is both a present reality and a future hope. It is a life lived in fellowship with your Lord and his people today–while you look forward to the fullness of his work completed at his second coming. The church is a confessing community, believers and their children. It is not that the act of confessing itself saves, but it is acknowledging a trust in, a dependence on the Savior who is far more reliable than any efforts at self-righteousness.

If your hope of salvation rests on who you are or what you do, no wonder you look around for excuses! But Paul tears those excuses away one by one. He points you to the Lord Jesus Christ. He invites you, he commands you, to trust in him and confess him as your Lord.

The Church: A Repentant People

Mark’s Gospel quickly takes you right to the heart of what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about. In Mark 1:4 & 15 you notice that the preaching of both John the Baptist and of Jesus included a strong emphasis on repentance. Yet, as Psalm 51 reminds you, repentance characterizes God’s people. The church is made up of a repentant people.

The time has come for repentance. The last time has come. The time is God’s appointed moment. The public preaching of Jesus announces the fulfillment, the last time. The term has overtones of judgment, parallel to “the day of the Lord” in the Old Testament. God himself prepared the time. He sent his Son in the fullness of time, Galatians 4:4. The expression looks back over the entire Old Testament: the promise in Eden, the covenant with Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt and other deliverances, the intercessory work of the priests (including the whole sacrificial system), the prophets, proclaiming the day of the Lord, the kings—David and others, implementing the kingdom—though terribly imperfectly. Now the time is fulfilled. It has come. The kingdom is a reality. Hebrews describes the time that began with Christ’s earthly ministry as these last days.

The kingdom is near. “At hand” or “near” means close, very close, but still future. Christ can speak of it as coming, Mark 9:1, and yet also as something that has been fulfilled, that has arrived, Luke 4. You cannot think of the kingdom apart from the King. The King is present, and yet this is just the beginning of his public ministry. Who he is and what he has come to do is just starting to unfold. The presence and growing power of the kingdom will be seen in the preaching of Jesus (v. 27), in the calling of the disciples, in the conflicts with demons (v/ 23), and in the miracles of healing. The power and effects of sin are rolled back. Your life in the kingdom of God continues to have that already/not yet tension. The King has come. He has redeemed you. But you have not been snatched immediately into heaven (nor have the new heavens and earth arrived). You live and serve your King in a world that is still under the curse of sin, where the conflict between Christ and the prince of darkness continues to have ripple effects in the lives even of God’s people. Because you live in that tension of belonging to God—but not yet free from sin, you need to repent. What does not belong in the kingdom, what does not belong in your life is sin.

Turn away from sin. Hate sin—it offends God. Because the kingdom is God’s kingdom, it is characterized by his righteousness and justice. God is perfectly righteous. We are sinners—and the wages of sin is death. The news of the kingdom is a summons to repent, to turn away from sin. Repentance is more than feeling sorry for sin. It involves hating it, rejecting it, and seeking by God’s grace to turn from it. See the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 87 and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV. Certainly you ought to repent because God will judge all the ungodly, all the unrepentant. But don’t just be sorry because of consequences. Recognize that your sin is first of all an offense against a holy God, Psalm 51:4. Notice how deeply sin is ingrained in our beings. “[R]epentance contemplates our sin and the cost of it to the Saviour. . . . [P]eople being led to repentance should see and sense the danger of their sin too. . . . But sinners must not only see the danger, but also the filthiness and repulsiveness of their sins. . . . Sin is also a personal affair, for sin is set against God himself, the one to whom we ought to have been faithful.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 194–195).

Forsake sin. Repentance involves turning away from sin. John’s baptism was not the same as what Jesus commanded in Matthew 28 and has been practiced since. It was closer to Old Testament ceremonial cleansings. John called his hearers to specific, concrete acts of repentance, Luke 3:7–14. He challenged them to produce fruit worth of repentance, Matthew 3:8. Don’t satisfy yourself with a vague, Lord, forgive my sins. Repentance was a crucial element in apostolic preaching, Acts 2:38; 5:31; and 17:30. The initial point of the Christian life is a turning from sin to Christ—and that is what characterizes you every day until you are in glory.

Turn to the Lord. Believe the good news! “Repent” and “believe” go together, are mentioned together, and imply each other, even if only one is mentioned. Faith (or believing) is the opposite side of the coin of repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin. Believing is turning to God in Christ Jesus. Believe the good news. The good news is not just that God has made salvation possible. Rather, it is the news that Christ has come as the substitute for sinners. Mark’s Gospel introduced you to Jesus as he came to John, who was baptizing sinners, to receive baptism from him. That identification with sinners continues through the Gospel. He not only eats and drinks with them, shattering the hypocritical standards of the leaders of Israel, but he identifies with sinners by bearing the guilt and punishment of their sin, suffering and dying in their place on the cross. The command to believe the good news is an instruction to trust, not in yourself, not in anything you are or do, but only in the work of Jesus Christ in your place. The news is good because of what Christ has done in your place. The news is good because the great King who establishes his kingdom is also your Savior and your Lord. “[Mark’s] interest in the history of Christ indeed is not that of the modern biographer or historian. It is rather that of one who has set as his goal the aim to present the glad tidings concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . . It had to do with the joyful significance of the appearance and action of the Son of God in Galilee and Jerusalem.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 37).

Experience the mercy of your God. There is no sin too insignificant to avoid the penalty of eternal judgment. But there is also no sin too great to be covered by the death and resurrection of Christ. That gives hope to us sinners! “True repentance not only sorrows for sin but sees a Saviour. This is so important for us to grasp. As we consider what God thinks of sin, we must also consider his mercy to sinners.” (Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 195). Repentance is not some abstract doctrine that you need to learn about. It is something that you need to experience. The church is a body of people who have repented—and who continue to repent each day.

The message of Mark 1, and of the entire Scriptures, is: Repent, and believe the good news! Your King has come. He has died for you and been raised again. You have confidence before God because you are united with him in his death and resurrection.

The Church: A Body of Priests

Leviticus 9 describes God (through Moses) setting apart Aaron as high priest, and his sons as priests as well. Priests were different, set apart from the rest of the people. Hebrews 4:14–16 tells you that you have an even greater high priest, but in him you have a higher position than any of the Old Testament priests.

You have a great high priest. Your priest has ascended. The author of Hebrews has spoken of Christ as the Apostle (Hebrews 3:1)—the one sent by God with the message you are to heed. He is greater than the angels and greater than Moses. But he is also your high priest. When Jesus is compared with Aaron, Hebrews always calls him a high priest. His work includes obtaining redemption, by his death, but the emphasis here is on his intercession. He is greater than Aaron or any other priest. You need no other human priest. Aaron and the other priests were set apart by sacrifices, anointing, and an elaborate ceremony. Your priest has passed through the heavens. He is not limited to (or by) the earth, as the Old Testament priests were, but continues in the heavens today. His name is Jesus, the Son of God. He is the Savior, he is the divine Son of God. Therefore he is the most effective priest possible.

Hold firmly to your faith. Christ is the greatest high priest. He is God himself, your representative in the highest heavens. So, hold firmly to your faith. Don’t fall away, Hebrews 3:12. Hold on to your confession, Hebrews 3:1. Don’t let anything dissuade or shake you. Don’t let anything distract you from him.

Your priest is just like you. He is not unsympathetic. You might think so because of his majesty. He is God, he is the great high priest. “The contemplation of Christ’s greatness in verse 14 might lead people to have lofty ideas of Him as One who could not have any feeling for them; therefore the author goes on to assure them: ‘For. . . we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. . . .’” (Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p.102). He knows your weaknesses. We are mortal, subject to sin and to its curse. Yet Christ shared in our weaknesses, Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:7,8. There is no problem, no abuse, no suffering you face that is unfamiliar to him.

The Sinless One was tempted. Christ was tempted in every way. The temptation in the wilderness paralleled Adam’s. There were constant temptations throughout his ministry. The struggle in Gethsemane was temptation to abandon his Father’s will. He knows all your weaknesses, discouragements, temptations, and trials—and thus he is the perfect mediator. Yet he was without sin. One difference between us and Christ is in the outcome of the temptation. He was perfectly sinless, Hebrews 7:26. “The sinner who capitulates to the first solicitation to evil cannot claim to have felt the full power of temptation. It was otherwise with Jesus who experienced the anguish of temptation to an unimaginable degree, for his immaculate person was was subjected to the continuous assaults of the Tempter.” (Geoffrey B. Wilson, Hebrews A Digest of Reformed Comment, p. 58).

Come boldly to God. As priests approach the throne. This is a throne of grace. Thrones can be dreadful: Esther, Isaiah 6, Matthew 25:31ff. The Most Holy Place was the symbolic throne of God. Only the high priest could enter, and that only once a year with sacrifices. God’s people needed an order of priests to intercede for them, to act as go-betweens. But it your high priest, you have become a kingdom of priests, 1 Peter 2:9. As you come to God in Christ you find that this is a throne of grace, of undeserved favor. It is the kind of throne you can appreciate—the kind you need. Come boldly. Approach with confidence. The invitation is free to those who come through this high priest.

Obtain mercy and find grace to serve God. You need mercy, which is favor to those who deserve wrath. The all-knowing Word of God, Hebrews 4:12, 13, shows your need of it. Hebrews urges you to ask for mercy. Find grace in time of need. You need help–you are totally unable to help yourself. The fall has resulted in total inability. God provides the help you need in Jesus Christ. At exactly the time you need it, that is when God gives help. A priest in the Old Testament spent his life in serving God, offering sacrifices in the tabernacle or temple and teaching the people. When the Word tells you that you, as a New Testament believer, are a priest, there is wonderful privilege involved. You have direct access to the throne room of heaven. But you also have the responsibility of living a life that is set apart to serving God. That doesn’t mean that every believer has to seek the foreign mission field or the ministry. But it does mean that the details of your life need to be directed to the glory and honor of your God. You are set apart to serve him.

Christ knows you. He is just like you, but is sinless. Come, and keep coming, to him. You always need his grace and mercy. Come boldly, with confidence, for God is faithful to you. He has set you apart as a kingdom of priests to serve him. Live that way!

The Church: A Community in Fellowship with God

The church in the Old Testament was, with some notable exceptions, closely identified with the nation of Israel. In the New Testament it reaches out to the nations. But in common, as Exodus 4:34–38 and John 17 show you, what they have in common is that they were and you are a people in fellowship with God.

Give thanks for the presence of the Lord of Glory. The Lord blessed the completed Tabernacle with his presence. Do you remember that as Israel left Egypt, the Lord showed his presence in the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night? With the Tabernacle finally complete, the glory cloud descends on the Tabernacle and fills it. God was truly with his people. As God created, he paused at the end of several of the creation days and called his work good. In Genesis 1:31, at the end of the creation week, he surveyed the entire creation and pronounced it very good. And then God entered his rest, not because he was weary, but he entered it with the purpose of humankind also entering it. Of course Adam sinned, and instead of sharing God’s rest, instead of moving beyond the time of testing in the Garden to whatever exalted fellowship with his Creator would have resulted, he and Eve were expelled from the Garden. Some of the construction of the Tabernacle reflects the motif of Eden. Now, with it complete, God comes down in the cloud, fills the Tabernacle, and dwells in the midst of his people. It is not only a sign of God’s presence—he is truly with his covenant people.

The glory of the Lord is with you in Christ Jesus. As magnificent as that event was, you have something more wonderful as you trust in Christ. The Word has become flesh and has tented among us. In him you have seen the glory of the Father. This is not a temporary appearance. Even now, exalted to the right hand of the Father, he continues to be the God-man. Here on earth and now in heaven, he is the Lord of glory, 1 Corinthians 2:8. In John 14 Jesus is pouring out his heart in prayer to his Father in heaven. He prays first about himself (John 14:1-5), then about his disciples (John 17:6-19), and finally about those who would believe in time to come—in short, about you (John 17:20-26).

“The [experiential] know­ledge of the Father, the only true God, as our God and Father, and of the Son, the sent and sealed messenger of the Father to save and bless men as our Savior, is not only the means, but it is the sum and substance of eternal life.” (John Brown, An Exposition of Our Lord’s Intercessory Prayer, p. 65).

Follow the leading of the cloud of glory. The cloud led Israel victoriously into the promised land. When the cloud would move on, Israel would follow. When it stopped, there they camped and settled for a time. See Numbers 9:15-23 for an expansion of what Moses describes briefly in Exodus. Further, as the pillar moved, it led the people to victory over their enemies, Numbers 10:35-36. That cloud would continue to lead them until they finally entered the promised land. Redemption from Egypt and entering the promised land were all gifts of God’s grace—free, undeserved, unearned. But, to enter the land, the people had to follow the cloud. To move in a different direction would have led them away from the rest that God held out for them in the land he had pledged to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Your Lord calls you to follow him. The Lord laid down his life for you, his people. Your salvation is free, unearned. The death of Christ is not just an example for you to follow, it is the substitutionary atonement. You can never be good enough to enter heaven on your own—but Christ’s righteousness is sufficient! Yet, even as he was facing the cross where he would die as the sacrificial Lamb, Jesus summoned his disciples and you to obedience. In his high priestly prayer Jesus, who needed no sanctification in the sense that we do, progressively dying to sin and growing in grace throughout our lives, nevertheless said that he sanctified himself. He set himself apart to God to do the work given him. Now he sets you apart, both to carry out the joyful task of serving him and to die to sin daily. No less than Israel following the cloud, you need to follow the path in which your Savior calls you to walk. You are led, not by a pillar of cloud and fire, but by his Word, the Scriptures.

Look forward to greater glory. The glory cloud filling the Tabernacle looked forward to the more permanent glory of the Temple. Once Israel had followed the cloud to the promised land and had settled in it, the Lord designated the place where his name would dwell, where he would no longer be present in a movable tent, but in a magnificent temple made of stone. The Temple was patterned after the Tabernacle, but on a grander scale. When it was finished, again God showed that he was dwelling in the midst of his people, as his glory filled that building, 1 Kings 8:10-11. As promising as things appear at the end of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers describe the people sinning. As you read Kings and Chronicles, you have the tragic story of the land in which God dwells in the midst of his people being contaminated by idolatry. Something better, more permanent, is needed. The glory cloud that covered the Tabernacle looked forward, not just to the Temple, but even more to the coming of the Lord of glory. As the God-man Christ redeemed us. The successful completion of his messianic work meant his glorification. That involves you! The church is where God, by his Spirit, lives in the midst of his people, 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Cor. 3:16.

“[T]he final goal of various significant redemptive-historical episodes throughout scriptural history was God’s glory. All these events with glorious goals point to the glorious goal of the final events of history, in which God will definitively execute judgment, accomplish redemption, and establish the eternal new creation. At this time, God’s glorious presence will permeate every part of the new heavens and earth and all will exalt and glorify him for his glorious atttributes, which have been manifested through his culminating acts at the eschaton.” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 63).

Christ prayed for his glory—and yours. The night of his betrayal Jesus prayed in the presence of his disciples. In John 17 you stand on holy ground as you hear the Son pour out his heart to his Father. What does he pray for? He prays that the Father would glorify him with the glory he had with him from eternity, John 17:1 & 5. The infinitely glorious Son receives additional glory as the successful Redeemer, as the One who did his Father’s will. He then prays for the disciples present in the room. Finally, he prays for others who would come to trust in him through the apostolic message—he is praying for you. Included in his prayer is his desire to give his people his glory, John 17:20-24. Do you grasp the wonder of that? The Son shares his glory with you, his people, not just by appearing in a cloud, but by drawing you, by his death and resurrection, into the glory of the new heavens and earth. You, the people for whom he died and rose, you are part of the glory with which he is crowned. He is not empty handed, but he brings you into eternal fellowship with him and with his Father. In a real sense, you are part of the answer to Christ’s prayer that the Father would glorify him.

The Lord, descending in the glory cloud, filling the Tabernacle, is proclaiming that he is pleased with what he has had his people build. The Son, bringing you up into the new heavens and earth to share his glory for eternity, is showing that the Father is well pleased, not only with his Son, but also with the living temple, the church that he redeemed.

The Church: God’s Numbered People

How important are numbers? (Ask a sports fan!) They are important in Numbers 1 and on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:37–41). An emphasis on numbers can be superficial, but when you realize that God numbers his people, you begin to see their importance.

Respond to God’s summons. Repent and believe. Christ has poured out his Spirit on you. The Spirit comes upon the church making it his temple. In his gift of the Holy Spirit Christ is with his church. Christ and his Spirit work so closely together, that there is “functional identity” of the two. In the coming of the Comforter, Christ does not leave his church alone. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to the whole church of all time. Pentecost parallels Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation. This does not distance the Holy Spirit, or make him inaccessible, but rather makes him part of every Christian’s experience. The signs that accompanied the gift of the Spirit drew a puzzled crowd, so Peter preaches. Pentecost is the reward for Christ’s completed work. Pentecost is preceded by Christ’s humiliation, his life of obedience, his suffering and death. The glorious conclusion of Christ’s work is his resurrection and exaltation. The climax of that exaltation (short of his return on the clouds of heaven) is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter focuses on the resurrection and exaltation of Christ. The crowd begins to realize the sinful depths of what they had done a few weeks earlier when they had shouted, “Crucify him!” But God has exalted him! Now they cry out in fear. Peter’s command to the crowd echoes through history wherever the apostolic message is proclaimed: “Repent!” “The post-Pentecost activity of the Spirit, therefore, spreads through history like concentric ripples in a pool. As in the Old Testament era, so in the New, his activity is soteriological, communal, cosmic and eschatalogical, and involves the transformation of the individual, the governing of the church and the world, and the bringing in of the new age.” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, pp. 93–94).

Be baptized. God, in his wisdom, knew that we also need an outward sign. The Spirit was present and active in the Old Testament, see Psalm 51. But there is a fullness, a richness of blessing, that arrives with the completed work of Christ. Peter quotes from Joel to describe these last days, vv.16-21. The specific blessings that had been limited to the prophetic office in the Old Testament are now the appropriate possession of all of those who trust in Christ. All that was involved in God being with you is drawn together in Pentecost. Baptism is not first of all an expression of your faith, though it is that. At its heart it is God saying, this person belongs to me. It marks you as among the number of God’s people.

Who’s counting? The church is counting. We may have an idea of a primitive church, with little or not organization or structure. But even here the church is counting! See Acts 2:41. See also Acts 4:4; and 6:7; Romans 16:5, 10, 11. Having a defined membership, a defined number, is an important part of the shepherding work of the church—despite the spirit of individualism common in our culture. The church’s counting is based on something more important.

The Lord counts his people. The command for a census in Numbers 1 is given by God himself. “[I]t must be observed, that the people were not numbered except at God’s command, in order that He might thus assert His supreme dominion over them.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Numbers 1:1). How does the Good Shepherd treat his sheep? (Luke 15:3–7; John 10:14–18). He knows them, he counts them, he lays down his life for them! Don’t resist being counted by the Shepherd! And his count is perfect. The numbering here on earth anticipates a greater, more complete numbering, Revelation 7:1–9.

Live in fellowship. Live in fellowship with God. The census of Numbers 1 is followed by an ordering of the encampment of the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 2. This is not just because God wants an orderly people. Rather, notice that at the center of the camp the Tabernacle was pitched. And in the Most Holy Place was the ark of the covenant, with the mercy seat as the symbolic throne of God. What was pictured in that geographic setting has been fulfilled in Pentecost. God is living in the midst of his people, not just in the center of their land, but in the people themselves. The church has become the temple of the Holy Spirit!

Live in fellowship with God’s people. When God counts you as among his people, you are connected, not only to him, but to all of his people. Notice the interconnectedness of the church. “The three thousand who received baptism at Pentecost at once entered a new family, defined not by genetics, but by allegiance to Jesus. In his first transition summary Luke lists four activities in which believers were continually absorbed—the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. (Dennis E. Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, p. 21). The focus of the church is on her Lord. But the closer the Lord draws you to himself, the closer he draws you to the rest of his body as well.

Whether or not you think numbers and counting are important, the Lord values his church enough to count its members. He knows them here on earth, and he will count them in the new heavens and earth—because the Lord died and was raised for them. As the ascended, sovereign Lord, he has poured out his Spirit on the church, not only for her benefit, but also to increase the number of his people until they are a multitude that no man can count—but a multitude in which each one is known by God himself. Are you counted among God’s people?