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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Hymn 4
Readings: Romans 10, Ephesians 1:1-12, Belgic Confession Article 27
Text: Lord's Day 21, QA 54
When we confess that we believe “a holy catholic Christian church,” there are at least two potential problems right from the start. The first is that people don’t really get the meaning of the words “church” and “catholic.” So, right at the beginning here, let’s make it clear what those words mean.
We often use the word “church” to refer to the building where we have our worship services and other activities. That’s fine, but we should be aware that in the Bible the word “church” is never used for a building. In Scripture, it always refer to the people of God, either in general or in a certain place. The English word “church” comes from the Greek word kuriake. In that word you can see the roots of another Greek word, kurios, which means Lord. So, kuriake or church means the people who belong to the Lord. There is another word for church in the New Testament, ekklesia, but we’ll talk about that more in a few moments.
Then there’s “catholic.” There are many people who have a problem with that word because of its associations with the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic is often used as shorthand for Roman Catholic. The result is that many Christians have a problem with the Apostles’ Creed. They say that it’s a Roman Catholic thing because see, it says “catholic Church.”
Admittedly, the word “catholic” is not found in the Bible, but it is a word with a long history among Christians. We find this word being used very early on in the New Testament church. Despite the way many people use the word today, “catholic” has nothing to do with the Pope or priests, bishops and masses. It simply means “universal.”
So, that takes care of the first big problem. The second big problem is that some people just don’t care very much about the church today. They view the church as optional or they view it is a society or a club of people with a similar ethnic background. And just like if you don’t like the gym you’re going to, if you don’t like the church for some reason you just cancel your membership and you go somewhere else. In all this, some show with their words and actions that they think the church is something that doesn’t matter too much. Perhaps they’re excited about being Christians, but they could care less about the church.
However, we say that we are Reformed people. Reformed simply means that, time and again, we go back to what Scripture teaches. Reformed is just another way of saying “Biblical.” And if we really follow what the Bible says, we have to care about the church. In Ephesians 5, Paul draws a parallel between marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church. In verse 25, he says that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. He still loves her. And if we love the Lord Jesus, shouldn’t we also love the things which he loves? Shouldn’t we also love the church, beginning with the local congregation where God has placed us?
The church belongs to Christ. The church is of paramount importance to him. Throughout the history of the world he has been gathering his church, calling her out of darkness and into his wonderful light. We can see that truth captured with the New Testament word for church, ekklesia, from which we get such English words as “ecclesiastical.” Ekklesia literally refers to those who are called out, those who are being gathered. The Catechism captures this in QA 54 when we confess that Christ “gathers defends and preserves for himself…a church chosen to everlasting life.” In other words, the Son of God is building his Church. That’s our theme as I preach God’s Word summarized in the church’s confession about the church here in Lord’s Day 21.
We confess that the Son of God has been building his church “from the beginning of the world….” There are people who teach that the church is a New Testament creature, as if there was no church of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. They make a rigid separation between the church and Israel. To be sure, there are differences. For instance, Israel was a nation and a political entity; the church is entirely spiritual. But to make a rigid separation, as if they have very little (or even nothing) to do with each other – that’s simply not right.
In Article 27 of the Belgic Confession, which we also read a few moments ago, we confess from Scripture that “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” This is a tightly reasoned argument. Let’s unpack it a little bit. I don’t think anyone will dispute the fact that Jesus is an eternal King. It’s taught in many places in Scripture – Luke 1:33 just being one of them. Eternal king – that means that he has always been a king and always will be. Now by definition a king has subjects. So, the Lord Jesus has always had his people under him. Right from the beginning, there has always been a people of the Lord, a kuriake or church. And he will always be a king, always having subjects. There will always be a church. So, we can know for sure that no matter how bad things get in the world, the Lord Jesus will always be building his church, just as he’s done in times past.
And this is part of what it means when we confess that the church is catholic or universal. When we sing the Apostles’ Creed or recite the Nicene Creed, we confess that we believe a holy catholic church. Note that we do not believe in the church. We believe in God, but we believe a catholic church. Believing a catholic church means that we believe that the church has always been around. We are not the first people to be Christians. Literally millions of people have gone before us. With the word “catholic” we confess the importance of having a sense of historical consciousness.
So, catholic refers to time. But it also refers to place. It means that God’s people are found all over the world. We can see that in what we read from Ephesians 1. The letter to the church at Ephesus was written by Paul about 30 years after Christ ascended into heaven. When Christ left his disciples, most, if not all, of the people who believed in him were Jewish. But before he ascended, he gave them what we call the Great Commission. He told them that they were go and preach the good news, not just in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, but in all the world. Led by the Holy Spirit of Christ, that’s exactly what they did. So it came to pass that a church of Jesus Christ appeared in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor (which today is Turkey). Paul passed through on his second missionary journey and then on his third, he ended up staying for two years. From Christ’s letter to this church in Revelation 2, we know that it was a fairly strong and healthy church. So, and this is the point, already in the time of the apostles, the church was spreading over the face of the earth and the church at Ephesus was just one example of that.
That process has continued until today. Each year we get a mission calendar. You, including all the kids, you can look through that calendar and see believers from all over the world. They live in Brazil, in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and elsewhere. Lately we hear more reports of what Christ is doing in places like China. All these people are part of Christ’s catholic church.
So, the Son of God builds his church over the whole earth and from the beginning of the world to its end. But how does he do it? In the Catechism we confess that he does it “by his Spirit and Word in the unity of the true faith.” In other words, Christ uses his Holy Spirit and his Holy Word to build the church.
We can see that most clearly in our reading from Romans 10. Here Paul is writing about the Jews of his day. Remember that Paul was a Jew himself. He earnestly desired to see his fellow Jews believe in the Lord Jesus and so be saved from the wrath of God against their sins. He looks around and he sees people who say they believe in God. Verse 2 says that “they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Their zeal gets them nowhere as far as getting right with God is concerned. Why not? Because they look to their own good works to be saved. They think that by their own effort they can go up and pull salvation (Christ) down from heaven, that they can “climb Jacob’s ladder.” The same way of thinking still exists today and we’re prone to it as well.
Paul challenges this way of thinking. It’s not us climbing up and pulling Christ down from heaven that saves us. It is Christ graciously coming down to us with his Word who saves us and brings us into his church. The only way people come to faith and salvation is through the preaching of the gospel. Romans 10:17 says, “…faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” The word of Christ is the same word of faith that Paul says he was proclaiming in verses 8 and 9: “…if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” When the gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit is there working to create faith in the hearts of God’s elect. When they have faith in the Saviour, they belong to the Lord, they are the Lord’s people. So, we can say that the Son of God builds his church with his Spirit and Word.
And once we believe, we need the Spirit and Word to continue working in us. We not only need preaching to believe, but also to maintain us and to help us grow and increase. In 2 Peter 3:18, believers are told to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just like a baby needs food to grow, all of us need God’s Word to grow as Christians. We need to read the Bible and to study it personally, but we also need to listen to preaching and do so as a community of listeners and followers of Christ. We find the official preaching of God’s Word in the church, here in this local church where God in his providence has placed us. God’s Son will build his church by the preaching that’s done here each and every Sunday, morning and afternoon. When we gather in worship, God is here blessing us in a special way through the Word and Sacraments. Public worship is not just another program in the Christian community. It is God’s preferred way of blessing us. In that respect, let me share something that a colleague wrote some time ago:
God is present everywhere, of course, but the Bible teaches us that
He is also specially present at certain times and in certain places and with certain people.
So when the guy says to you, "God is everywhere. So I can meet him
on the golf course just as well as I can in church," your answer
might be, "Yes, God is present everywhere. He's present in hell,
too. But He isn't present there to bless anyone, and you have no
promise that He'll be present to bless you on the golf course. You
want Him present to bless you? Come to church with a heart set on
This fellow pastor has a point. When you’re not in church and not availing yourself of the means of grace, when you’re off doing something else, you’re robbing yourself and your family. Loved ones, you belong here where God is present to bless you, his church, with his Word and Sacraments. He blesses you here like nowhere else on earth. There is no program, no conference, nothing which can compare.
That whole section of Ephesians 1 that we read is basically about one thing: giving praise and glory to God. You find it right away in verse 3, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You find it in verse 6 which speaks about God choosing us for the praise of his glorious grace. You also see it in verse 14 where God choosing us for his people is for “the praise of his glory.” The Lord Jesus simply builds his church so that she will make much of God and lift him up.
The church exists first and foremost for the glory of God. When we understand that truth and it grips our hearts, it drives us and motivates us as church members. It motivates our service to God and our neighbour in our daily walk of life. It motivates us as a church when we seek to reach out to those around us who are lost. And, of course, it also certainly motivates us as we gather for worship each Lord’s Day. In all these ways (and many more), the church is about giving glory to God. We want his name to be praised and valued because of the church, because of this church.
Loved ones, God’s church is something special. We can never say that the church is not important. She is the bride of Jesus Christ. The day is coming when he will come for her and if we’ve distanced ourselves from her, the Lord Jesus will keep his distance from us too. A true church of Jesus Christ can be found here. This is the true church where God has called you and placed you as a member. If you long to be at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then now is the time to love not only Jesus, but also his church, the bride represented here with this local congregation.
Let us pray:
Our God and Father,
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
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