The Church: God’s New Dwelling Place

Rainer Wagner

Something completely new emerged at Pentecost: the Church and the Age of Grace began. What does it mean, and what is the Church’s mission today?

Even though Jesus’ sacrificial death is the prerequisite for God’s saving action in our age (the Age of Grace), the actual Age of Grace doesn’t begin until after Jesus is no longer physically on earth. The Age of Grace is the age of peoples or nations, because it is when the Gospel is offered to all people. But Jesus was initially sent only to Israel (Matt 15:24). However, Jesus clearly says, “…I have other sheep that are not of this fold. 

I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). These other sheep were only brought in after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2).

The Age of Grace, i.e. the age of peoples, began at Pentecost. In the Old Testament, God’s earthly dwelling place was the temple. After God had left the temple in Jerusalem, He built a new temple for Himself. The stones of this new temple are living souls, and God dwells in the midst of them (1 Cor 3:16). Jesus is present in the Church through the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:20). We, the Church, are the temple of the New Covenant.

The tale is told of a rabbi who was earnestly seeking forgiveness for his sins. He researched the ancient Jewish traditions, and found faith in Jesus when it became clear to him through the Talmud and the Zohar [the chief text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism] that God had departed the old Temple at the moment Jesus was crucified. The Talmud and the Zohar describe the Jewish ordinance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The high priest only entered the Holy of Holies to offer the animal sacrifices on that day (Heb 9:6-7). He asked God for forgiveness for the sins of the Israelites. In the Zohar’s commentary on Leviticus, it says: “He atones for him, for his household, for the priests, the Temple, and the whole of Yisrael…if he came out in peace, it was known and recognized by the crimson strap that turned white.”

When the red cord turned white, there was jubilation among all the people. If it remained red, there was universal dejection, for it was a sign that the high priest’s sacrifice and prayers were not accepted by God. The Talmud reports that this great miracle of divine validation of the high priestly sacrifice, along with the forgiveness of sins, ceased forty years before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed:

“At first they would tie a strip of crimson wool to the opening of the Entrance Hall of the Temple on the outside. If, after the sacrificing of the offerings and the sending of the scapegoat, the strip turned white, the people would rejoice, as this indicated that their sins had been atoned for. If it did not turn white, they would be sad […] During the forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the strip of crimson wool would not turn white; rather, it would turn a deeper shade of red.”

The Jerusalem Talmud reports the same thing in the Mishnah of Yoma 6:3, 43c.

Earnestly seeking forgiveness, the rabbi was interested in what must have happened 40 years before the destruction of the Temple. Then he came across the information that Jesus was crucified the same year that the Christians reported the Temple curtain had been torn (Luke 23:45) and Jesus rose from the dead. This convinced him that Jesus is the Messiah. He understood that forgiveness is only through Jesus, so he accepted Jesus as his personal Lord.

God’s Missions Plan
It was God’s will that the Gospel—the good news of the forgiveness of sins—be proclaimed worldwide. Jesus commissioned His disciples to bring this message into the whole world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20).

Jesus described how the Gospel would come to mankind: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The prerequisite for missionary work, and for the life of the believer in general, is the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone who believes has been sealed by Him since Pentecost (Eph 1:13). The Spirit becomes the driving force in the believer’s life (Rom 8:14). This Spirit works powerfully by preaching the Gospel (Acts 2:14-21); convicting the world of unbelief (John 16:8-9); revealing the Lord Jesus as the One who offers forgiveness and righteousness from heaven (John 16:10); and by revealing God’s strength and Satan’s weakness (John 16:11).

The Spirit grants believers assurance of salvation (Rom 8:16)—they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves them and that they belong to Jesus. It enables believers to love God and their neighbor (Rom 5:5). The Spirit creates fruit in believers’ lives (Gal 5:22) and gives gifts that build the Church (1 Cor 12:7). It is impossible to do real missions, church building, or anything else for God without that Spirit. Such service is, at best, pious busywork.

In Old Testament times, attaining salvation was apparently dependent on the people’s ability and loyalty. But people failed over and over, and there was no way to be saved through one’s actions. In the New Testament, everything depends on God’s actions. Jesus wants to lead the world to the knowledge of the truth and to salvation, specifically through one person of the triune God: the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).

What’s more, the Holy Spirit could be understood as the church’s “elixir of life”—everything that involves service in general. God could have spread His Gospel without human participation. He could have had angels preach the Gospel. But God wants to give our lives depth and meaning, so we are allowed to participate in the building of the spiritual temple, the Church. However, this can only happen under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The best effort we can give as believers is our testimony of Jesus. That is why the disciples are told, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).

Witnesses report what they have experienced. Peter confessed, “…we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Yet only those who have experienced something with God can be a witness of Jesus. The word “witness” comes from the term “martyr” in New Testament Greek. Jesus’ disciples are called to make the Gospel of their Lord known in the world, even to the point of martyrdom.

The Church’s Development Throughout the World
In the Great Commission, Jesus announced the stages of the Gospel’s journey through the world: from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And that’s how the Gospel spread.

There was a revival in Jerusalem at Pentecost. 3,000 people found Jesus (Acts 2:41). As a result, the so-called early church, the foundation of the Church of Jesus, was created. Conservative estimates say it grew to as many as 5,000. Its members had to leave Jerusalem due to persecution, and moved into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, 4). Simple Christians, who had just lost their homes for Jesus’ sake, preached the Gospel there. Through their testimony, others found faith. There were even occasional small revivals in which many believed (Acts 8:12). And finally, God called a man to conversion, to bring the Gospel beyond Israel’s borders into the world of nations: Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:15). Although a few non-Jews had come to believe before this (Acts 8:37; 10:44-45), there wasn’t a systematic mission to Gentiles until Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the church of Antioch (Acts 13:3).

Paul himself traveled most of the world that was accessible at that time. Today’s missions mirror the tradition of these first apostles. This biblical mission strategy isn’t just a directive that church history has fulfilled, but is still of great importance to us today.

Let’s take our cue from Jerusalem, the place where the believers gathered. It doesn’t matter whether a person is nominally a member of a church or not; we owe the Gospel to everyone. When a member of our church comes to faith through the work of another and joins them, we shouldn’t be sad or upset.

Although the first Christians remained steadfast in fellowship (Acts 2:42), it’s better for an unconverted visitor to come to faith in another church and make his home there, than to remain with us and increase our numbers. Better to go to heaven with a different hymnal than to hell under our pulpit. But this isn’t justification for believers repeatedly “church hopping,” and even less, poaching members from other congregations. However, the World Council of Churches’ 1961 statement, “Christian Witness, Proselytism and Religious Liberty in the Setting of the World Council of Churches,” which forbids missions among members of another WCC church, is also contrary to the Gospel and our commission.

Today, our “Judea and Samaria,” our primary mission field is: our surroundings, beginning with our relatives and acquaintances. It’s often particularly difficult here, because they know us. But it’s where God placed us. Our unconverted relatives are just as lost, and need Jesus just as much, as distant people who are reached by missionaries in the field.

Then comes our service to the ends of the earth. This is our mandate to external missions, which remains our assignment until Jesus returns. Meanwhile, Christians in the so-called Third World, who have only heard of Jesus in recent generations, are taking this missionary mandate seriously. They’re doing missionary work in countries where faith has been diminishing, like in Europe.

The mandate to bring the Gospel to the entire world is one of the Christian’s enduring duties. The Christian’s field for work and harvest is the whole world. In our time, when large numbers of immigrants are coming to our country, we have a special assignment here: declaring the Gospel to the Gentiles in our own nation.

Midnight Call - 10/2021

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