In Romans 8:28 Paul famously assures us that “all things work together for good.” This is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood verse. Here it is in full:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
One way this verse is misunderstood is to turn it into an indefinite assurance that “everything that happens has a purpose”; things will work out well for everyone, eventually. But this promise is given only to “those who love God.” Those who do not love God have no such assurance.
But this still leaves a question: What is the “good” that will come to those who love God? Expanding on what I shared in my sermon opening today, I’d like to share three answers.
All Things Work Together for What?
First, there is the “prosperity gospel good.” Many professing Christians—perhaps even most in places as diverse as America and Africa—believe that if a Christian has enough faith God will eventually shower them with material blessings. For example, consider this:
God takes pleasure in blessing you, and it’s His will for you to be prosperous… It’s His plan for your life to have enough to take care of all your needs and be a blessing to others, too! To be able to take your family out for a nice meal, to live in a good home, to drive a great car, to go on a nice vacation, and to be able to bless others as you have been blessed… Believe God for a little extra to give, and a little extra to enjoy, and speak His promises of abundance over your life. As time passes, your faith will increase as well as your ability to receive abundance in your finances… Declare that He supplies all of your needs according to his riches in glory, expect His prosperity in your life, and thank Him before you see any change because you know it’s coming!
There is a lot of truth in those words, but also enough serious error that my employer, which sells Christian books, does not plan to order any more of this title for our shelves. I won’t unpack here all the problems with prosperity gospel thinking. Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully should see that for many of Jesus’ most faithful servants, faith in God meant “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11), not nice vacations!
Seeing the errors of the prosperity “gospel,” many Christians look closer at the context of Romans 8 to see what “good” Paul had in mind. They note verse 29, which comes next:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
This leads to a second option: the “character-development good.” What good does God want us to enjoy? He wants us to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” What does that look like? Quite naturally, many readers think of moral qualities. What is Jesus like (WIJL)? What would Jesus do (WWJD)?
In this reading, God uses every circumstance of our lives to deepen our character. Suffering is his special way of filling us with more of his Spirit-fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. Suffering teaches “those who belong to Christ Jesus” to “crucif[y] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24). The end result is that, as we go through all the joys and especially all the sorrows of life, we look more and more like Jesus.
What earnest Christian would not rejoice at this news? This is indeed good! And, unlike the prosperity “gospel” interpretation above, it is also true, as many Bible passages prove.
But is this the “good” that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:28?
I don’t think so. A closer look at context suggests a third option, something we might call the “glorification good.” And I think it’s important to hear what Paul is saying.
Notice the final clause in verse 29. Why does God want to conform us to the image of his son? “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Elsewhere in the New Testament when “firstborn” language is used about Jesus, it consistently refers his exalted position–over angels, over creation, and especially over death (Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5 and Luke 2:7 uses it to refer to Jesus’ natural birth order). That speaks of glory.
Similarly, in the one place where the same term is used to refer to Christians, we read of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). That, too, suggests glory.
Back to Romans 8. Does our linguistic clue fit with Paul’s flow of thought? Consider verse 29, which comes next:
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This verse brings Paul’s thoughts to a climax. In many modern translations it is the end of a paragraph, with the next paragraph transitioning to wide-angle reflection on all that has been said before (“What then shall we say to these things?”). The “punch-line,” then, of Paul’s thought in this entire pericope (“puh-RICK-uh-pea,” fancy biblical studies language for “literary unit” or “section”) is the word “glorified.”
The ESV translation provides the heading “Future Glory” for verses 18 through 30. This is fitting, for the word “glory” is important in the entire pericope. Working backwards, this is what we find:
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21)
Notice here that the glory spoken of belongs to “the children of God.” Talk of “children” foreshadows the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.
The first sentence of this pericope also mentions our glory:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)
And, in the verses that lead into this entire pericope, we find this:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)
Notice here the focus on our position—like Jesus—as “children of God.” Again, this closely matches the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.
In fact, the whole pericope from verses 18 through 30 function as an elaboration and proof of the claims in verses 16 and 17, and glory is at the heart of it all:
Verses 16 and 17: Paul claims that we who have the Spirit are Jesus’ brothers and will someday inherit the glory that he has inherited, provided we are willing to first suffer with Jesus.
Verses 18 to 30: Paul moves from “groaning” to “glory,” detailing the suffering we experience, assuring us of the Spirit’s help, and promising that our glorification is as good as done (“glorified”—past tense).
In this context, there can be little doubt: When Paul told his amanuensis to write “all things work together for good,” the “good” he had in mind was the future glorification of God’s children.
Why does this matter?
First, if you believe the “prosperity gospel good” interpretation of Romans 8:28, you will be sadly disappointed. Your faith is likely to be crushed beneath the persistent sufferings of this life. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” you may “fall away” (Matt. 13:21). Or, equally bad, if you actually do enjoy prosperity here and now and pin your hopes on it, you will lose your life when you inevitably die. Make no mistake; the prosperity “gospel” is deadly.
But second, if you believe the “character-development good” interpretation of this passage, you are also in danger. As “all things” that bring suffering into your life “work together” and unrelentingly bear down upon your soul, you may grow weary of God’s refining fire. Being good may pale in comparison to being comfortable. I know it does for me sometimes.
Paul claimed that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Taking up your cross and denying yourself is no fun. That’s why Paul said what he did. I don’t care how much you end up sharing Christ’s character, cross-bearing is a really, really bad deal for you unless you believe the incentive of eternal reward. In fact, it is such a bad deal that you probably won’t be able to psych yourself into keeping it for long.
Not even Jesus could bear his cross without focusing on “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2). Thus Peter urges you, too, to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
In short, you need to set your hope on being “glorified,” not merely on being “good.”
When you read Romans 8, never stop at verse 28. But never stop at verse 29, either. It sounds super spiritual to focus on suffering to become like Jesus. And you will indeed need to suffer if you are going to become like Jesus. But don’t try to be more spiritual than Jesus. Just aim to be with him and like him—good, yes, but also glorified!
For, one day, the two will be perfectly one, with suffering no more.
I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for some glory. And yes, in another “moment” or two (2 Cor. 4:17), it will come. There is indeed “Such a Thing as Glory”!
Close your eyes. I will say a word, and you tell me what you see. Ready?
Hey! You didn’t close your eyes!
Okay, that game doesn’t work well in print. But the question remains: What do you see when you hear the word church?
The answer to your question will shape your answer to a lot of other questions. For example: Who belongs to the church? Who runs it? What should it be doing? How should it relate to unbelievers, relate to one another, grow, make decisions, and spend its time and resources?
Ferguson begins this chapter by re-emphasizing the centrality of Christ:
The characterizations of the church in the scriptures bring it into relation to the deity: some to God the Father…, some to Jesus Christ…, some to the Holy Spirit… Furthermore, all the principle descriptions of the nature of the church give prominence to Jesus as Lord over the church… If the church is the people of God, it is the people of God in Christ. If the church is the community of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is the gift of the resurrected Christ… The church is the assembly of God’s people gathered in Christ’s name. (pp. 71-72, bold added)
He then discusses the nature of the church under seven headings—which I’ll list here as hyperlinks, so you can read this long post in several installments, if you wish:
(Again, each of these headings has enough meaty content that you may wish to read this in installments. I could have broken this into multiple blog posts, but decided to share only one post per chapter.)
1. Ferguson first discuss “the people of God”:
The combined expression “I am your God” and “you are my people” (Deut. 26:17-18; 29:12-13; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 31:33; Hos. 2:23) served as something of a covenant formula to describe the intimate relationship between God and his chosen people… To be the people of God carried the promise that he would live among them. (pp. 73-74, bold added)
This language is applied in the NT to the church, both Jew and Gentile, in passages such as 1 Peter 2:9-10:
The idea of “people” permeates the passage. In English, the word “people” is used for an aggregate of individuals: “How many people are here?” Or, it applies to human beings as such: “People will be people.” In the Bible, “people” customarily means a single corporate whole, a nation or a race viewed as a collective entity… We approximate this meaning when we speak of “the American people”… (p. 74, bold added)
Ferguson recognizes the importance of church leaders. But here he notes a more basic reality:
The word in Greek for “people” is laos, from which English derives the word “laity.” The word “laity” has been debased in modern speech from the noble conception of laos in the Bible. In modern usage we contrast the laity with the professionals (as in law or medicine) and particularly in religious language with the clergy or priesthood. Not so the Bible. In the Bible the laos is the whole people, not a part (not even the largest part)… The people is a priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), not contrasted with it. Indeed, the people (all Christians) is also the clergy (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12). The English word “clergy” derives from the Greek klēros, meaning a lot, a portion, a possession, or something assigned. According to 1 Peter 5:3, the spiritual shepherds are not to lord it over “their charges” (klēron), that is, the people allotted or assigned to their care. By a curious (in view of modern usage) but not unusual semantic development, those who had a “charge” or “assignment,” a klēros, became themselves the klēros or “clergy.” (pp. 74-75, bold added; forgive the bold ē inserted by my blockquote feature)
After noting Paul’s use of Hosea 2:23 and Hosea 1:10 in Romans 9:23-26, Ferguson adds some pregnant observations:
What is involved in being “not a people” is indicated in Deuteronomy 32:21, “So I will make them [Israel] jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation.” A pagan nation is not truly a “people” in the full biblical sense, because it is not chosen by God, follows the ways of idolatry and immorality (“foolish”), and so has a false center of unity… To return to 1 Peter 1:10 [actually 1 Peter 2:10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”], which also quotes Hosea 2:23, the parallelism of Hebrew poetry indicates that to be made a people is to obtain mercy. To feel a sense of oneness and community requires God’s mercy. The reverse is also true—to obtain mercy is to be made a people. Only by God’s calling and grace can individuals form a true community… We find our identity as persons only in community… God’s work, his “mercy,” is to gather a people, not just to save individuals but to create a community. Indeed, on an adequate understanding of human nature, “saving individuals” requires the “social wholeness” of a reconciled community. (p. 76, bold added)
(For some of my own musings about finding identity in community, our need for mercy, and our reliance on being chosen by God, see my recent poem, “How Do You Know Me?”)
Since in the NT the people of God is now the church, other OT language originally used of Israel is also now used of the church. Ferguson discusses some examples:
(1) Israel of God… [Ferguson cites Rom. 9:6-8; Matt. 3:9-10; 1Cor. 10:18; Phil. 3:3; and, possibly, Gal. 6:16.]
(2) Royal priesthood… [1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6]
(3) Holy nation… [1 Pet. 2:9]
(4) Righteous remant… In the progressive narrowing down of God’s people, the remnant was reduced to one man—Jesus, the righteous One (Acts 3:14). Even his disciples fled at the end. In his death and resurrection, the people of God died and rose again, and so there was laid the foundation of a new people of God. [Also Rom. 9:27-28; 11:1-5]
Ferguson next has an extended (13-page) discussion of election. I do not feel equipped to adequately evaluate his understandings, and he does not often directly wrestle with alternative interpretations, such as Calvinistic ones. Yet I will say that I think he is correct to root concepts in their OT backgrounds, and I do find his emphasis on corporate election helpful. Here are a few excerpts to tantalize you (minus the exegetical support Ferguson provides):
Most of the references in the Bible to God’s election have to do with the choice of a group, corporate election… In these cases—Abraham, Jacob, Levi, David—the choice of an individual was the choice of a group, the descendants of the person chosen. (pp. 79, 81, bold added)
The choice of a group in the Old Testament did not guarantee the inclusion of all individuals in that group in the blessings for which they were chosen. There was a progressive narrowing down of God’s choice… God’s choice within Israel finally focused on the One Person… Jesus Christ is God’s Chosen One. He is the fulfillment of God’s choice of Abraham, Jacob, and David. (pp. 81-82, bold added)
All who are in Christ are included in his election… God continues to choose a category, a group—believers in Christ. Christians are in Christ as Jews are in Abraham and humanity is in Adam. (p. 82, bold added)
It is not said in scripture that God has chosen Christians individually. He has chosen those in Christ; he has not chosen who will be in Christ. God elects a community, and the community he chooses now are those in Christ. A person may reject Christ and refuse the election. (pp. 84-85, bold added)
(Here is where I wish he would wrestle with verses such as Act 13:48: “…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”)
God in special circumstances chose individuals for a specific task… These were chosen for ministry, a service, not for salvation. Individuals chosen for a task could refuse… Election to salvation, in contrast to election of individuals for a ministry, is “in Christ” (Eph. 1:4). (p. 85, bold added)
Ferguson discusses Romans 8:28-30:
The plurals in this passage should be given their full force. The corporate body of believers is being talked about… “Those who love God”… echoes Deuteronomy 7:9… and is an expression for the corporate people of God… Although there is an apparent temporal sequence in the order of items, that is not the main idea. All the verbs are aorists; the presence of “glorified” indicates that all should be seen as timeless aorists. (pp. 87-88, bold added)
Ferguson ends this section by noting some implications of being the people of God (each worthy of meditation):
(1) The church must be separated from the conduct characteristic of the world…
(2) To be the people of God gives an sense of importance and purpose to life.. [yet also] removes any basis for pride…
(3) The church can never be merely a free association of like-minded religious individuals…
(4) There are false (and potentially sinful) principles of unity around which people organize themselves… (pp. 90-91)
2. Ferguson’s second topic is “the body of Christ”:
There was a “people of God’ from the call of Abraham; there is a “body of Christ” only after the resurrection. (p. 91)
The “body of Christ” is more than simply a figure of speech or image, but expresses a real relationship… The body finds its wholeness in Christ, and Christ has his fullness in his people… The church, according to Paul’s language, must never be separated from Christ; nor must it ever be confused with Christ. (p. 94, bold added)
Ferguson notes that in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 “Christ is… compared to the whole body, not to a part of it” (p. 95). But Colossians and Ephesians “call Christ ‘head’ of the body” (p. 96). However:
In Jewish corporate personality, the head stood for the whole. That provides the link between the language of 1 Corinthians and that of Colossians. (p. 96)
Yet “head” also implies additional concepts:
Christ is the principle of authority for the church (Ephesians) because he is its creative source (its beginning point and origin—Colossians). (p. 98)
Significantly, in all four letters Paul uses “body of Christ” language to underscore the unity-of-diversity that the church possesses (and must promote) in Christ.
Ferguson notes three “titles shared by Christ and his body”: chosen, holy, and beloved. He notes that for all three there is a “pattern of using the singular for Christ and the plural for his people” (p. 99). This helps lead him to several deductions:
To summarize the significance of these terms for understanding the nature of the church: (1) they emphasize the collective concept of the church—these things are true of the people, not as individuals but as part of the group; (2) they emphasize the relation to Christ—they are true only in union with him as the source of the status; and, (3) following from this fact, they show the derivative nature of the church’s status—it is the result of God’s grace in Christ. (p. 101, bold added)
Ferguson briefly discusses the term “Christian”:
“Christians”… occurs only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Pet. 4:16)… [It] occurs primarily in contexts having to do with legal relations with outsiders… The means by which the name “Christian” came into use in Acts 11:26… is disputed, but Luke’s use of the verb often used for a divine oracle… may indicate that he wanted to suggest that… its use carried divine approval or authorization. (pp. 101-102, bold added)
Ferguson ends this section by listing ten “implications of being the body of Christ,” from which I’ll share a few quotes:
The church is where Christ is, where he is preached and confessed, where he is working and obeyed… There is only one body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1Cor. 12). This means that within the body there is to be unity and no discord… Nearly all the references to the church as a body have the theme of unity… Even as one cannot understand the human body by starting with the individual parts, so one cannot understand the church by starting with the individual Christians. (pp. 102-103, bold added)
In his discussion of the body of Christ, Ferguson doesn’t focus on some of the church polity questions that tend to preoccupy us. For instance, he doesn’t directly answer the question of whether we should talk about a “local body” or “local church membership,” let alone how we should define such. However, given his strong emphasis thus far on the church being those who belong to Christ, it seems to me that he is assuming throughout that there is only one body of Christ—what we often term the “universal church.” Perhaps this is so axiomatic to him that he did not think to clarify the point. Nevertheless, here are a few excerpts that provide hints of his understandings:
In some passages “in Christ” becomes virtually the same as “in the church.” (p. 92)
The act of “baptism into Christ” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27) provides a basis for the identification of those baptized with the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), so much so that the church can be identified with Christ (1 Cor. 1:13). (p. 93)
The church is where Christ is… Christ is greater than the church… He is not necessarily where a “church” is. Christ is the only indispensable “part”; indeed, he is the whole… The church is made up of those who take their life from him… There is only one body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1Cor. 12)… Each member has a contribution to make to the growth of the whole (Eph. 4:16). (pp. 102-103)
While discussing Christ’s role as head of his body, Ferguson writes, “Wherever God acts for salvation of human beings, there is the church” (pg. 97). These excerpts suggest that Ferguson understands the NT’s language of the “body of Christ” and its “members” to refer to the universal church—an understanding I affirm. (Of course this also has implications for local congregations, but we will wait for Ferguson to develop those questions later.)
(3) Ferguson’s third topic is “the community of the Holy Spirit”:
Common participation in the Holy Spirit brings people together in community… Various experiences or common interests or shared principles may create human communities… The church, however, is a community, a fellowship, through the divine spirit. Hence, in its very essence it is a divine creation, not a human product. (pp. 103-104, bold added)
“At the risk of being overly precise,” Ferguson writes, “we may make two distinctions” between the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old and New Testaments:
First, in the Old Testament, there were Spirit-filled leaders but no Spirit-filled community… [Secondly,] when the Spirit came to individuals under the old covenant, the visitation was temporary. (p. 105)
After discussing the Spirit in the life of Christ and the relationship between these two members of the Godhead, Ferguson draws an implication for the church today:
From the beginning, the church has had trouble from those claiming to act and speak from the Holy Spirit and so has had need to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). That passage proceeds to offer an important criterion for testing the spirits: they are to be evaluated by conformity to the apostolic message… (1 John 4:6)… The description of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John 16:13-15 provides a foundational test… If a spirit is indeed the Spirit of Christ, it will always work in harmony with the ministry of Christ. We know the life and teachings of Jesus fully from the Gospels and the writings of his apostles. This may not answer all problems that arise, but Christ himself does given an objective criterion for testing the spirits. (pp. 106-107, bold added)
“The Spirit is the life of the church,” as Ferguson explains:
Possession of the Spirit indicates membership in the people of God… The church… was not first a body into which God poured the Spirit as the living content. No, it was the coming of the Spirit that created the church… As Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit, so was the church. (p. 107, bold added)
Ferguson again emphasizes the corporate nature of the Christian life:
This indwelling of the Holy Spirit is both individual and corporate… The Holy Spirit is in the community because he is in the individual members, but it is also true that the Spirit is in the church and one receives the Spirit through connection with the Spirit-filled community. (p. 108, bold added)
Here I am reminded of Jesus’ promise to be present wherever “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20), or Paul’s command to the church at Corinth: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 5:4). It is easy for me, adopting the individualistic mindset of our age, to forget that God’s Spirit is uniquely present when his people gather.
“The Spirit is present in and energizes many activities in the church,” Ferguson writes. Citing Scriptural evidence, he lists baptism, sanctification, Christian growth, love, joy, morality, serving God, worship, prayer, preaching, leadership and ministry, guarding the truth, enduring suffering, creating unity, and spiritual power (pp. 109-110).
Ferguson is no Pentecostal, however. He rightly notes that “only in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 are the charismata [“grace gifts”] brought into relation with the Spirit”; usually the term is used for other things such as deliverance from spiritual or physical death or even the power to live a celibate life (pp. 110-11). And the Holy Spirit is most often mentioned in connection with other topics:
When Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit apart from problems associated with claims to possess the Spirit, he gives prominence to the ethical role of the Spirit. Human attention, however, tends to focus on the more spectacular ecstatic and miraculous manifestations of the presence of the Spirit. (p. 111, bold added)
I track with Ferguson to this point, but think he later leans a little too close to cessationism (the doctrine that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing ceased at the end of the apostolic age).
Ferguson ends this section by drawing eight “implications of being the community of the Holy Spirit.” Here are a few highlights—with the second paragraph being one of my favorites in this entire chapter:
Legal, political, or institutional unions are ineffective without the unity of the Spirit…
The church as the community of the Spirit preserves individuality while denying both individualism and collectivism. Individualism that has its roots in selfishness is destroyed; individualism rooted in possession of particular gifts and graces (1 Cor. 12) is developed as long as these are used for the common good. Much of modern individualism does not distinguish self-consciousness from the Holy Spirit, and collectivism absolutizes the group at the expense of both the individual and the Holy Spirit. Under the guidance of the Spirit, the individual develops for the service of the whole…
The church as the community of the Spirit has but One Teacher (Matt. 23:10)… All human “teachers” must appeal for verification of their message to the same Spirit who resides in those taught (1 John 2:27). (p. 113, bold added)
Perhaps more than any part of this chapter so far, this section on the Holy Spirit makes me aware that the church is a miraculous creation. I am left hungry to know more of being part of a Spirit-filled community.
(4) Ferguson next examines the church as the “family of God”:
Since the church is a family, we must correctly identify the various members of the family and their respective roles. Ferguson notes several Scriptural patterns:
“Household” appears to be the primary imagery for the church in Hebrews. [Ferguson also cites 1 Peter 4:17, Ephesians 2:19, and Galatians 6:10.]… According to this family imagery, God is the Father over his house… In the description of the church as a household, the overseers of the church function as stewards (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:5…), administering its affairs on behalf of the Father, who is head of the household. (pp. 114-15, bold added)
Another use of family imagery is to describe the relationship of God with his people as that of husband and wife… Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. (p. 115, bold added)
Ferguson notes that this imagery expresses Christ’s loving lordship, our submissive desire to please him, the purity of the church, and our expectation of consummating our relationship with Christ when he returns.
A different use of the family imagery is Paul’s reference to himself as a “father” to his converts (1 Cor. 4:15), whom he cared for like a father (1 Thess. 2:11…) and whom he described as his children (1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4). This is descriptive language. Jesus forbade the use of “Father” as an official designation or honorary title for human beings (…Matt. 23:8-9). (p. 115, bold added)
This, to my knowledge, is the closest that the NT comes to the idea that church leaders function as parents over other Christians. In these texts the idea is used of Paul in his role as evangelist and apostolic steward of the gospel. It emphasizes (a) the gentle way he exercised his authority, (b) the bond of love he enjoyed with his converts, (c) his diligence in training them, and (c) the reasonableness of his desire that they imitate him. This imagery is associated with admonition, exhortation, encouragement, urging, charging, and the thread of “a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21; cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-17; 1 Thess. 2:11-12. See also 2 Cor. 6:13; 12:14; Gal. 4:19.).
John uses similar imagery when he calls his readers “little children,” an address that conveys affection, and also perhaps John’s senior age and his expectation that his readers will obey him.1
In contrast, Paul urges Timothy, a younger leader, to treat those in his care as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters—with no mention of treating others as “children” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). In fact, Timothy is to consider older men as his fathers. This suggests that merely possessing an office does not make one a “parent” in the church.
In 1 Timothy and Titus an elder must “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3:4), a clause which may suggest that elders also serve as fathers over their congregations. But, as Ferguson noted above, these passages actually cast elders in the role of stewards, not fathers. Note the contrast Paul emphasizes in his parallel phrases:
For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:6, bold added)
Before we use the imagery of parents to describe the role of local church leaders, we should ask several questions: To what extent do elders today carry a similar authority over their converts that Paul and John carried as apostles specially entrusted with the initial proclamation of the gospel? If I as a father appoint a steward over my household, how does his authority differ from mine? To the extent that a fatherly aura may surround a leader, is it a natural result of his senior age and past spiritual care, or is it something “pasted on” merely through receiving an office?
We should also consider the NT balance between (a) acknowledging that too many Christians act as spiritual children and (b) urging them to become spiritual adults. (See 1 Cor. 3:1; 14:20; Eph. 4:14.) What approach to church leadership will best help believers become and act as spiritual adults? It seems clear that the dominant NT pattern is the language of brotherhood, not parentage, so in most cases it will be wiser to think in terms of brother-sibling relationships, not father-child relationships.
Ferguson next takes a closer look at Christ as Son and Christians as both children and brothers and sisters of Christ:
Christ is the Son over his Father’s house… “Son of God”… is one of the important titles that Jesus shared with his people. (1) Sometimes the imagery used is that of adoption… (2) Sometimes the imagery is that of becoming children of God by a spiritual birth… (3) Or again, to follow the imagery of the body of Christ explored above, through incorporation into Christ his people become what he is. (p. 116, bold added)
Whether by adoption or birth, “Jesus’ people become children of God by the Holy Spirit” (p. 118). Interestingly, unlike Paul, John reserves “Son” for Jesus, calling Christians “children.” (p. 116-17).
“The brothers” (the plural includes “sisters”) became a common designation for the Christian community… [This was] Luke’s favorite designation for the church [in Acts]… The religious use of “brothers” in the plural for the new spiritual family of God surfaces in all the remaining books of the New Testament except Titus, 1 Peter (which has “brotherhood”…), and 2 John. (p. 119, bold added)
“Firstborn” was a designation of Israel as the people of God (Exod. 4:22…) and of the Davidic king (Ps. 89:27). God’s predestinating activity in Christ was so that “he might be the firstborn among many brothers”… (Rom. 8:29). Thus his people are called the “firstborn ones” (Heb. 12:23). (p. 120, bold added)
(5) Ferguson next briefly addresses two “agricultural images”:
First “the vine and the vineyard,” an image rooted in OT descriptions of Israel:
The thoughts of solidarity and union between Christ and his people… which Paul expresses under the image of the body, the Gospel of John expresses under the image of the vine (John 15:1-11)… “Branches” perhaps says too much; we might better translate “twigs.” Jesus is the whole; his disciples are part of him. (p. 121, bold added)
Then “the sheep and the sheepfold”—another image led out of the OT:
As God owns the vineyard in which Jesus is the vine (John 15:1), so God owns the sheep for whom Jesus is the shepherd… The description of people as sheep is not at all complementary, but the point is not to describe human nature but to affirm something about God. As a shepherd cares for his sheep, so God cares for his people. (p. 123, bold added)
I am not entirely convinced that “the point is not to describe human nature,” for Jesus mentions how prone sheep are to being scattered (John 10:5, 12) and other NT passages build on that point, connecting it to our need of a leader who can truly save us (cf. 1 Pet. 2:25). As OT history clearly showed, human leaders alone do not suffice. Therefore:
According to the Johannine paradox, the Lamb will shepherd the redeemed (Rev. 7:17)… The theme of unity is also connected with the imagery, for there is to be “one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-18)… By following Jesus the sheep are gathered into one flock. (p. 123, bold added)
Other NT passages present human leaders as shepherds serving under the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4; cf. John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28-30), but Ferguson does not develop that point here.
(6) Next up for Ferguson is “an architectural image”:
Unlike modern English usage, the word “church” in the Bible does not refer to a building but to a people. The church, however, is compared to a building. (p. 124)
Jesus promised to “build” his church (Matt. 16:18), and Paul likewise calls himself a “skilled master builder” (1 Cor. 3:10). The church’s foundation is also variously identified:
That the imagery of the foundation can be applied to Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11), the apostles (Rev. 21:14), and the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) is a reminder that illustrations can be used in different contexts to teach different lessons without being contradictory. (p. 125, bold added)
“The building to which the church is most often compared is the temple,” Ferguson writes. This is developed in several ways:
Christians are not only a building but a body of functioning priests within the temple [1 Pet. 2:5]…
The significance of temples was that they were the house of the deity…
The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the new temple…
First Corinthians 3:16-17 refers to the local church as the temple of God… The church is now the dwelling place of God [2 Cor. 6:17-7:1]. The holiness resulting from this relationship requires separation from idolatry and all defilement…
The climactic statement on the church as the temple of God is Ephesians 22:19-22… Now the church is viewed as universal, not local…
The passages on the church as a temple emphasize that it is God’s. (pp. 126-29, bold added)
(7) Ferguson’s last topic in this chapter is “the meaning of ekklēsia“:
After briefly explaining how the Greek word kyriakos (“the Lord’s”) morphed into Kirche (German), “Kirk” (Scottish) and “church” (English), Ferguson contrasts this with the Bible’s word for “church”:
The use of the word “church” for a building is proper in English, but this is not true for the Greek word it translates. (pp. 129-30)
Ferguson challenges a popular definition:
The Greek word translated “church” is ekklēsia. Its basic meaning was “assembly,” referring to what was done and not where it was done. The popular etymology deriving the word from “called out” (ek + kaleō) is not supported by the actual usage of the word. The emphasis was on the concrete act of assembly, not a separation from others. (p. 130, bold added)
Next he discusses Greek and Jewish usage of the word:
Its primary use in classical Greek was for the assemblies of the citizens of a Greek city. In the direct democracy of the Greek city-states, many decisions… were made in meetings of all the citizens… In Acts 19… the mob gathered in the theatre is called an ekklēsia (Acts 19:32, 40). The city clerk contrasted that irregular gathering with the “regular assembly,” the lawful, duly called meeting of the citizens (Acts 19:39).
The Jews adopted this Greek word to describe the assemblies of Israel [as seen in the Greek translation of the OT]… Ekklēsia was used exclusively to translate the etymologically equivalent Hebrew word qahal, but was not the only word used to render that Hebrew root. Another word used to translate qahal was synagogē… In the separate development of Judaism and Christianity synagogē became the Jewish word and ekklēsia the Christian word for the gathered people, but in an early Jewish Christian context both words could be used without difference of meaning (James 2:2; 5:14)… It would seem that the word [ekklēsia] did not have a technical sense for the “people of God”… Nevertheless, ekklēsia was a noble word from its political use in Greek civic life. (pp. 130-31, bold added)
Ferguson suggests that Paul uses ekklēsia in a range of ways, referring to (a) an actual assembly of Christians, (b) the people who assemble, and (c) the people, whether assembled or not—the latter usage showing that the word had become a technical term for Christians.
The great majority of instances of the word are in reference to a local church… Less frequently, ekklēsia is used ina universal sense for all believers (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18)… Whether the local or universal sense came first is in some respects a false alternative. Although Paul’s usage for the local assemblies occurs first in our surviving literature, the Jerusalem church presumably referred to itself as ekklēsia, so from the beginning the first local church was itself the universal church. (pp. 131-32, bold added)
Even the universal church includes the idea of an assembly, Ferguson suggests, given the promise of our being “gathered together” to Christ at his coming (2 Thess. 2:1; Matt. 24:31).
Ferguson suggests that “the word ‘assembly’ in itself says nothing about the nature of the assembly” (thus often “descriptive phrases are added,” referring to geographical areas, the nature of the people who make up the assembly, or God and Christ). This point is disputed by theologians. Some argue, for example, that the Greek use of ekklēsia to refer to regularly-summoned political gatherings provides a pattern for Christian churches: every person should have the right to speak and propose matters for discussion, and decisions should be made by consensus. On the other hand, the Jewish use of the term for gatherings of other sorts challenges this interpretation, affirming instead Ferguson’s argument that the word simply implies an assembly of people.
Without studying the matter further, I would suggest both sides should be cautious here. It is probably illegitimate to draw too many conclusions about church decision-making directly from the Greek city-state ekklēsia model. However, even the basic definition of “assembly” suggests that important decisions, however they are made, should ideally be made when as much of the church as possible is gathered together, rather than by a smaller group intentionally secluded from the full body. This fits with Jesus’ use of the word ekklēsia as well; he could have used the more Jewish word synagogē to describe his followers, but instead he used ekklēsia and then described this ekklēsia as a decision-making, verdict-rendering body (Matt. 18:17-20).2 I think we see this pattern in some other places as well, such as with the church gathering described in Acts 15.
This conclusion also fits with some of Ferguson’s final words in this chapter:
The designation ekklēsia calls attention to the importance of meeting together for the nature of the church… The church, by definition, is an assembly. It is the people who meet together on a regular basis… When it comes together, the church exemplifies that it is indeed the church, an assembly (1 Cor. 11:18). (p. 133, bold added)
Ferguson’s third chapter (our post 4) is about salvation and church membership. We’ll also discuss some related topics like baptism. One quote to whet your appetite: “To be a Christian is to be a member of the church.” See you there!
Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!
Yarbrough, Robert W. 1-3 John. BECNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 71-72. ↩
I am borrowing some here from Steve Atkerson, who adds that “it is important to note that the church, in its decision making role, should be judicial rather than legislative,” this being a difference from the ekklēsia of the Greek city-states. Steve Atkerson, ed. House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural (Atlanta, GA: House Church Reformation Fellowship, 2008), 75. ↩
Christmas is a very Old Testament sort of thing, and so is the church. When you read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, the theological climaxes are found in the speeches of the main characters—the angels (Luke 1:13-17, 30-33, 35; 2:10-14), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), and Simeon (Luke 2:28-35). These speeches are knotted with strange lines like “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:33), “a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69) and “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).
We like to think of Christmas in much simpler, more self-centered terms: Jesus was born to save me from my sins. We feel good if we remember to connect Christmas forward with Cross and Resurrection. We rarely even think about tracing it back to Israel. When was the last time you praised God that Jesus was born that Israel might be saved from her enemies (Luke 1:71)?
The same is true of how we usually picture the church.But in the first chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, he spends 67 pages rooting the church in the Old Testament. This chapter is entitled “The People and the Messiah: History and Eschatology.” (See also the Introduction to my series on this book.)
I must confess: I found much of this chapter a little dry, at least at first. I also tend to find Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1 a little dry, too. To my shame, I am a child of my time and place who too often forgets my debt to God’s people in the past. I am a Gentile, after all. I stand in need of the warning Paul issued to his Roman Gentile readers: “Do not be arrogant… remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:18). But if I push past the dryness, brush the dust off the past, and feel the family of Abraham like a granite foundation under my feet, boredom turns to worship. What a merciful God! I can only exclaim with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33).
Just as you really won’t understand very well who Christ is without reading the Old Testament, so you won’t understand the church as you ought if you only read the New Testament. The very first time that the word “church” appears in most English translations of the Bible is in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church.” But even more important than the word church in this passage is the word Christ. Christ—or Messiah. It is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament who still today builds his church. “Your” church. The church you belong to today is the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Ferguson discusses these matters under four main headings in this chapter: Covenant, Kingdom, Christ (Messiah), and Community.
This first chapter offers an exploration of some topics from the Old Testament and Jewish background which are important for understanding the Christian church and then a discussion of the New Testament development of these themes. The concepts of covenant, kingdom, and messiah provide the framework for the New Testament understandings of history and eschatology and so of the place of the community of the Christ in God’s purpose and plan…
These topics emphasize something of the theological perspective important for understanding the biblical doctrine of the church. God initiates the covenant relationship in calling a people [covenant]; God rules the affairs of human beings for the redemptive purpose of saving a people [kingdom]; God anoints (selects and empowers) his chosen representatives to lead his people [messiah]; and God’s goal is to build a community of people who acknowledge him as their God [community]. In the New Testament, these items are related to Jesus Christ. The new covenant is in Christ; the authority of kingship is now given to Christ; he is the anointed king [messiah]; and the church is the community of Christ. (pp. 1-2, bold added)
Under “Covenant” Ferguson first traces the meaning of that concept, God’s sequence of covenants found in the Old Testament, and the promise of a new covenant. “The essence of the promise of a new covenant is the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” (p. 8).
Ferguson then addresses the topic of covenant in the New Testament. Here are some highlights:
Paul connects the Christians’ relationship to God with the Abrahamic covenant, in contrast to the Mosaic covenant…
Unlike the note of continuity sounded by the New Testament about the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, the Sinai [Mosaic] covenant is placed in contrast to the “new covenant” in Christ Jesus…
For the Christian, the Old Testament remains the “word of God”…, but the basis of the relationship with God now is different—what God has done in Jesus and the new covenant of forgiveness in him. The Old Testament as a system of religion does not regulate the activities of the church, that is, the people of Christ…
One way of expressing the relationship of the two parts of the Christian Bible is to say that the Old Testament is still authoritative for God’s people in its theology but not in its institutions. (pp. 9, 11, 14, 16).
Ferguson ends his discussion of covenant by emphasizing that “inherent in the idea of a covenant is a community” (p. 17). Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt and formed a covenant with them, so “in the death and resurrection of Christ God did for humanity what we could not do for ourselves… Based on this mighty and gracious act of God, a covenant is offered and a people gathered” (p. 17).
Under “Kingdom” Ferguson discusses the meaning of kingdom, then relates it to Israel, Christ, the church, and the future. First, the meaning of kingdom:
In Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the primary meaning of “kingdom” is “kingship,” that is, royal power or kingly rule. The words more often refer to the “reign” than to the “realm” in which the rule is exercised…
Of course, kingship does not operate in a void, so the word “kingdom” is often used in close connection with the people or territory living under a given reign. That usage gives the secondary meaning of “realm”…
The kingdom of God refers to his majesty and activity, more often than to his people… But God’s rule does involve a people. The rule of God presupposes a people of God in whom it can be established… (p. 19-20, bold added)
Since God had already manifested his kingdom through Israel (p. 21), “Jesus… was clearly not introducing a new concept” (p. 22) when he proclaimed the “kingdom of God.”
The newest or most puzzling thought for me in this section was Ferguson’s assertion about the end of Christ’s kingdom:
The kingdom of Christ that began at his resurrection will come to an end at the general resurrection… When Jesus comes again it will not be to set up a kingdom but to “deliver up” or “hand over” an already existing kingdom (his kingship). Jesus reigns until death is destroyed. That occurs at the general resurrection. Then his rule is returned to God, the one who subjected all things to him (1 Cor. 15:27-28). The passage not only does not refer to a millennial or interim kingdom of any duration between the return of Jesus and the final consummation, but the sequence of thought positively precludes it… The reign of Christ is concluded at his second coming. “The end” and the handing over of the kingdom to God the Father follow the resurrection at his coming (1 Cor. 15:23-24). That resurrection marks the subjection of the last enemy and so the end of his reign, not its beginning. (pp. 27-28, bold added)
There are mysteries here! On the one hand, Paul clearly states that “then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor. 15:28). On the other hand, John sees “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” (Rev. 7:17) and records that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever” (Rev. 11:15). Perhaps Ferguson is overstating things a little when he says “the reign of Christ is concluded at his second coming”? (If he defined “kingdom” in this passage as “realm” rather than “reign,” then the Son could “deliver the kingdom to God the Father” without losing all function of reigning.) Perhaps the subjected Son can still share the Father’s reign?
What is the relationship between the kingdom and the church? Ferguson explains:
The relation of the kingdom and the church has been expressed all the way from a complete identification of the two, so that the church is the kingdom, to a complete separation of the two, as expressed in the quip of the French scholar Loisy, “Jesus preached the kingdom, and the church came.” If the kingdom is defined primarily according to the word study above as the “rule of God,” and the church is defined as “the people of God”…, then a basis is laid for explaining the difference yet the interrelationship of the church and the kingdom. The church may be defined as the people who come under the reign of God…That makes the church one manifestation… of the kingdom of God, the kingdom in the secondary sense of realm, the sphere in which kingship is exercised. The church is not the kingdom but is closely related to it. (pp. 28-29, bold added)
Ferguson notes that “three passages bring the kingdom and the church into proximity with each other”:
Matthew 16:18-19 — “I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom.”
Hebrews 12:23, 28 — “The assembly [church] of the firstborn” receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
Revelation 1:4, 6, 9 — John, who “shares… the kingdom” with his readers, writes “to the seven churches,” whom Christ “made… to be a kingdom.”
Further, Ferguson notes that terms such as salvation, grace, redemption, righteousness, and life–realities which are all fulfilled in the church—are also associated in Scripture with the kingdom of God. Further, the central new covenant ideas of forgiveness of sins and indwelling of the Holy Spirit are also associated with the kingdom. To experience God’s saving grace is to enter both Christ’s church and his kingdom. To be in the church is to be under Christ’s rule.
This leads us to Ferguson’s next theme.
Under “Christ (Messiah)” Ferguson first discusses the meaning of messiah:
In the Old Testament prophets, there are many passages about God bringing deliverance and blessings to his people in the future. Frequently there is a human leader involved as the agent or representative of God in accomplishing his purposes. Several different designations of this deliverer or leader are given…, but it is notable that there is no clear case where Messiah is the term chosen. (p. 37, bold)
Yet as Christians called Jesus the Messiah (Christ), the term become loaded with new layers of meaning far beyond the basic meaning of “anointed one.” Thus, “the whole Old Testament expectation of ‘a good time coming’ has been called the messianic hope” (p. 38):
All these figures have come to be subsumed under the category of the messianic hope, because Christians accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of them all: Son of David, king, priest, prophet, Son of Man, and God acting directly…
In the Jewish expectation, the center of attention was the blessings of the coming age. The emphasis was on the “age to come” itself, what has come to be called the “messianic age.” The Messiah, when he was mentioned, was to be part of the “furniture” of this new age. For the Christians, on the other hand, the important feature was the Messiah himself. (pp. 38-39, bold added)
Ferguson gives special attention to two Old Testament figures from Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel 7:
The New Testament usage of the images of the Servant of the Lord and Son of Man for Jesus is problematic from the standpoint of the Old Testament texts, for a good case can be made that in each instance these figures have a collective sense in their original context, being simply ideal figures that personify the people.
Ferguson takes a “both-and” approach and solves this dilemma by noting that both the Servant and the Son of Man represent and personify the people of Israel:
The New Testament affirmation is that Jesus as an individual gives concrete expression to these Old Testament representations of the people. He was the embodiment of the true Israelite, so that what was said of the nation of Israel was applied by Christians to him (cf. the use of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15). Jesus was seen as synthesizing three figures out of the Old Testament heritage: Messiah (Son of David), Son of Man, and Servant of the Lord. All three carry with them an association with a people. The Messiah rules over a people; the Son of Man embodies the saints of the Most High who are given the kingship; and the Servant of the Lord suffers for the people and embodies their role of serving the Lord. Hence, we are prepared for the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus as promising to found a new community. (p. 46, bold added)
This brings us to Ferguson’s discussion of Matthew 16:13-23. He argues more convincingly than I expected that “the rock is the faith confessed by Peter, not Peter confessing the faith” (p. 49). I would have said it was Peter, but now am agnostic. However:
Whatever interpretation of the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 is found persuasive, whether Peter or the Messiahship, the decision on this question should not obscure the most important declarations made in the verse, namely that Jesus is the builder and the church is his. The church belongs to him, whatever functions others may have in it. The church is Messiah’s people, not Peter’s people. (p. 51, bold added)
Regarding the keys of the kingdom promised to Peter, Ferguson argues thus:
Peter was to declare the terms of admission to the kingdom of heaven, that is, give access to the rule of God over people’s lives, which meant the forgiveness of sins. Such an understanding corresponds to the function Peter performed in the beginning of the church. He preached what people must do to obtain forgiveness of sins or to be saved, both Jews (Acts 2:37-40) and Gentiles (Acts 10:43; 11:18).
An aside: While I have heard this passage and the similar verse in Matthew 18:18 used as evidence that church leaders have authority to make final decisions in the local church, in neither passage are any church leaders besides Peter mentioned. Rather, in Matthew 18:18 it is the whole church (or perhaps even any two or three gathered in Christ’s name) who are entrusted with binding and loosing. Of course, we are given instructions elsewhere about the importance of leaders in the church; my point here is simply that the Scriptures never speak of the “keys of the kingdom” as having been given specially or uniquely to local church leaders. In fact, if we take Ferguson’s understanding of the definition of the keys, then each of us can participate in using the keys by proclaiming to others the terms of salvation.
Ferguson concludes his discussion of Matthew 16 and Messiahship:
The central points of Matthew 16:13-23 are clear: (1) Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the Anointed One, with a royal position over a covenant community. (2) Immediately upon the confession of his Messiahship is the promise of the church. We may say that the existence of the church is implied in the confession that he was the Messiah. (3) The church is the Messiah’s. (4) The authority of the apostles (in this case Peter) is delegated. (5) Messiahship means suffering.
The death and resurrection of the Messiah prepares for the next unit of this study, the community of the Messiah… The very concept of a Messiah makes sense only in the context of a people. (p. 56, bold added)
Under “Community” Ferguson begins with precedents from the Old Testament:
[It was] the church’s appropriation of the concept of being God’s people, of being truly the Israel of God, [that gave] it a sense of historical identity, a strong sense of solidarity, and a sense of ethical responsibility.
It is significant for the understanding of the church that God’s purpose was to call a people and that he dealt with individuals in relation to a people and individuals came to him as members of the chosen people…
An important part of the prophetic hope, in keeping with God’s goal of unity, was the reuniting of God’s people…
[Yet] God’s concern was not limited to Israel and Judah. The prophets anticipated a time when the non-Israelites would worship the Lord…
The second half of Isaiah is full of such predictions. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD… Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa. 56:6, 8). “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…” (Isa. 60:3-4). These passages in the Greek translation [the Septuagint] use for “gather” the same word that is used for the assembling of the church (on earth—Heb. 10:25; eschatologically–2 Thess. 2:1)…
According to Paul’s analogy of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24, the Gentiles are branches from a wild olive tree grafted contrary to normal practice into the cultivated olive tree (Israel). This is the basis for the application of the language of the people of God… to the church. (pp. 57-59, bold added)
Next Ferguson identifies some prerequisites for the church. He begins again with the image of the church as a new Israel:
Jesus’ calling of twelve disciples (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13) as a symbolic prophetic action made clear allusion to his mission to all Israel (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24) and implied the founding of a new Israel when the former Israel rejected him (Matt. 19:28). Indeed, there was implicit in many of Jesus’ teachings and actions, such as the giving of an authoritative interpretation of the law (Matt. 5-7), the formation of a community. However, before the promise of Matthew 16:18 could be fulfilled, certain things had to happen…
(1) The crucifixion was necessary for Jesus to be the foundation of the church… The prophets voiced the hope of a fully forgiven people (Jer. 31:31-34). The new covenant of forgiveness of sins required the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:16-17, 22)…
(2) The resurrection was necessary for Jesus to be head over the church… At the resurrection and ascension, Jesus was exalted above all other authority and dominion and made “head over all things for the church” (Eph. 1:20-22)…
(3) The Holy Spirit had to be given as the life of the new community… Important for our purposes here… is John’s observation [John 7:38-39] that the fullness of the presence of the Spirit as a living reality within believers had to await the glorification of Jesus…
(4) There had to be a commission to give the church a mission. There had to be a message for the church to proclaim… The proclamation of Jesus as Messiah and of his forgiveness and blessings called a church into existence… (pp. 60-63, bold added)
According to Ferguson, despite all the Old Testament gestation discerned by exegetical sonogram above, the actual birth of the church of Christ occurred at Pentecost:
According to Acts 11:15, the events of Acts 2 marked “the beginning.” The beginning of what? Several items occur for the first time in Acts 2. These together mark the occasion as the beginning of a new age, the gathering of a new community, the beginning of the church.
(1) The beginning of the age of the Holy Spirit…
(2) The beginning of the public proclamation of Jesus as Christ…
(3) The beginning of the preaching of the gospel…
(4) The beginning of the offer of forgiveness in Jesus’ name…
(5) The beginning of the new covenant…
(6) The beginning of the gathering of a church…
(7) The beginning of corporate life and worship. (pp. 63-67, bold added)
The birth of the church was the beginning of a new age, an age that is known as the “last days”:
Early Christians expressed the conviction that they were living in the “last days,” and therefore the church was the eschatological [end times] community… Those who are Christ’s people are those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
The phrase “last days” does not necessarily indicate the nearness of the end… The emphasis is not on the word “days,” which simply indicates an indefinite period of time, but on the word “last.” The reference is to God’s final act on behalf of humanity (Heb. 10:26-27)… The phrase describes the last dispensation…
The covenant brought by Christ is permanent (2 Cor. 3:11) It has made all previous dealings of God with people obsolete (Heb. 8:13) and is the “eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20)… This covenant is the covenant of the “last days”…
The church is the eschatological community, the remnant gathered by God to be saved in the overthrow of the world, the people of the End time. They are enjoying the eschatological blessings of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the present, but they await the coming again of the Son of God and entrance into the final completion of God’s purposes. This dual dimension of present and future, already and not yet, influences other aspects of the church to be considered in subsequent chapters… (pp. 67-69, bold added)
The phrase “last days” also, of course, is meaningless unless there were also “former days.” And so we come full circle: The church—and Christmas, which brought to earth the church’s Christ—cannot be fully understood apart from the promises and patterns of the Old Testament.
The physical and national nature of the promises given to Abraham and David remind us that the salvation that Jesus offers is no mere “spiritual” matter, and the church is not merely an invisible reality. Although the New Testament fulfilments telescope the Old Testament promises far beyond what their first hearers could ever have imagined, the fulfillments are always more, not less. And so even today we, as the church of Christ, eagerly await with Zechariah the day when we will “be saved from all our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71).
And, as Ferguson reminds us, “those who share the kingdom now will be those to participate in it in the future” (p. 35).
Ferguson’s second chapter (our post 3) is about the nature of the church. We’ll discuss election, some powerful images of the church such as “the body of Christ” and “the family of God,” and zero in on the meaning of ekklesia. See you there!
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