(A message given during the Ikthus East Family Retreat last 12 April 2017 at Buenos Aires, Mountain Resort, Bago City, Negros Occidental, Philippines)
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
The church is God’s church, bought by Christ’s own blood; it is he who builds it up and who promises that the gates of hell won’t prevail against it. We are just God’s co-workers in this enterprise, but we do have a role to play (1 Cor. 3:9). That is why God gave apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, etc. to help build up his church (Eph. 4:11-13). And the church is not the building but the congregation of his people, the called-out ones.
1. God’s Church is Built Up by the Power of God’s Spirit.
The church is built up not by human wisdom, energy, activities, plans, programs and strength, but by God’s Spirit. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” (Zec. 4:6) So what we need are prayerful and Spirit-filled people who rely on God’s wisdom and strength to build up the church. That’s why being Spirit-filled is such an important requirement for being a leader in the church (Acts 6:3). A church might be externally successful but spiritually a disaster! We should not forget what the Lord said to the church of the Laodiceans, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev. 3:17) Paul told Timothy, “Give heed to yourself,” (1 Timothy 4:16, 7b), i.e., take care first of your own spiritual life, and then you will save both yourself and your hearers. Spirituality comes first in building up the church. What we need, first and foremost, is the power of the Spirit. We who lead should learn what it means to be filled with the Spirit and to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:22, 23). In this regard, prayer is necessary, because God gives his Spirit in response to prayer (Luke 11:13).
2. God’s Church is Built up by the Preaching of God’s Word.
Various programs and activities have their place in the life of the church. But when it comes to helping Christians to grow spiritually, it’s only God’s Word that can do that (Acts 20:32) That’s why preaching and teaching the Word of God is a top priority in the life of the church. In fact, this is the primary work of the ministry (Acts 6:4; 1 Timothy 4:6, 13, 15, 16). The Bible says, we should desire the sincere milk of the word that you may grow thereby (1 Pet. 2:2). 2 Timothy 3:16 says the Bible is sufficient for all aspects of the Christian life: it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. And let’s make sure that it is the Word and not human wisdom that we preach. (Col. 2:8, 3, 4) Human wisdom is valuable in its place, but when it comes to the Christian’s spiritual life it is foolishness because it has not power to transform one’s character or change the heart (Col. 2:20-23) It is the Scriptures that make us wise to salvation, i.e., salvation in its comprehensive sense: salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin. (2 Tim. 3:14-15; James 1:21). That’s why Paul admonishes Timothy, Preach the Word, be ready in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:1-2). And Jesus commanded us to teach Christian disciples everywhere everything he has taught us. (Matt. 28:18-20) “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this Word there is no light in them.” (Isa. 8:20) No matter how helpful, inspirational, and valuable worldly wisdom is, it is darkness compared to the light that Scripture gives. Therefore, preach the Word! By the way, the Word of God is the Sword of the Spirit and the early church grew when the Word of God increased (Heb. 4:12; Acts 6:7). It is the Word of God that the Spirit uses to change lives. Let’s not lose faith in the power of God’s Word. When we lose the Word of God, we lose our uniqueness and our effectiveness as a church (1 Tim. 3:15).
3. God’s Church is Built up by Pursuing God’s Purpose.
We must ask ourselves whether we are aligning ourselves with the values of this world or with God’s purpose for the church. The world has its own agenda, and it has a lot of helpful things to say about worldly success because that is its agenda. So we have books such as, How to Win Friends and Influence People. How to Be Rich. How to Be Healthy. How to Succeed in Relationships and Marriage. How to Get What You Want. When it comes to these things, the world can offer a lot of helpful advice, and mind you these are not necessarily bad things. In fact, because God cares for you, he cares about these things. But as far as his primary purpose for your life is concerned, these things are peripheral and not central. God is not primarily interested in your worldly success. Many successful people are not Christians. Many of the most troubled people in the world are Christians who are very close and very faithful to God. We mislead people when we say that if you follow Christ you will inevitably be happy, healthy, successful and rich in this life. (By the way, there’s a difference between being happy and joyful. Spiritual joy can co-exist with godly sorrow. Happy are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.) God’s purpose for his people is for them to be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. He wants them to be conformed to his character. (Rom. 8:28-29) That’s why Paul says, “I am in anguish until Christ is formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:28, 29; Eph. 4:11-13)The internal is more important than the external. (2 Cor. 4:16) That’s why Paul says, Godliness with contentment is great gain, and he rebukes those who think that godliness is a means to gain (1 Tim. 6:3-6). Paul also teaches that he he has learned to be content whatever his circumstances might be (Phil. 4:11-13). What was important was that Christ was there to strengthen him in his circumstance, whether prosperous or adverse. The internal is more important than the external, and the spiritual is more important than the material. Jesus says to the church of Smyrna, I know your troubles and your poverty but in reality you are rich! (Rev. 2:9) And James says, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will fade away . . . But blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (Jas. 1:9, 10, 12). So whether you’re rich or poor or experiencing trials or living a comfortable life, the important thing is you love God, you’re like Jesus who loved his Father and obeyed him even unto death. The important question to ask ourselves as a church is not “How can we be successful,” but “How can we become more like Jesus?”
P.S. What about the many promises about worldly success in the O.T.? “The Gospel mentions not riches, honours, beauty, pleasures; it passes these over in silence, which yet the Old Testament everywhere makes promise of. They were there then children, and God pleased them with the promise of these toys and rattles, as taking with them. But in the Gospel He has shown us He has provided some better things for us; things spiritual and heavenly.” (Thomas Goodwin) (1 Cor. 13:11; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 2:17; Heb. 11:39-40)
P.S. To be sure, even the physical and material creation will partake of the glory of the sons of God (the resurrection of our bodies), but in the meantime we groan and wait (Rom. 8:18-25).