“The mystical body of Thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” So our Prayer Book describes the church universal. But what is its earthly form?
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, which deals with the church as the mystical body of Christ, we learn something of the eternal and heavenly character of the Church. In 1:23 it is described as the “fullness” of God, and the measure of Christ’s pre-eminence over all created things; in 3:9-11 it is the expression of God’s manifold wisdom demonstrates to the hosts of heaven, as it lies at the heart of God’s eternal purpose which he purposed through Christ Jesus our Lord.
These are outstanding words. Yet this is the church of Christ, “His new creation,” which transcends time and space and against which the gates of Sheol itself shall not prevail.
Who Belongs to this Church?
“All the elect people of God”; “all faithful people”; “all saints”; to quote three Prayer Book expressions. That is, all those elect of God, redeemed by Christ, called, justified and glorified, from the beginning of the world to the end: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and the saints of the Old Covenant, and God’s children from every age and nation until the consummation of the age.
The Fathers had a saying, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “no salvation outside the church.” This is indeed true. “The ark of Christ’s Church” is the only place of security for men from eternity to eternity. There is no salvation except for those whom Christ has incorporated into His holy Church. No man has ever seen this church, but its reality and its holiness in Christ are revealed truths of scripture, and so when the Apostles’ Creed came to be formed in the second century men affirmed: “I believe in one holy church.” It is an article of faith, not of sight. This church is a heavenly, not an earthly reality, and it is already complete and glorified in the purposes of God. It is “the church of first-born sons whose names are written in heaven.” (Heb. 12:23.)
The Earthly Form of this Church.
The Earthly form of this church began with Abraham whom God called out to be the father of a nation which should be God’s people. This earthly form became more definite at the time of the Exodus. Here we find that the church (a) had its basis in the covenant which God made with them; (b) was bound by that covenant to give obedience to God; and (c) was to live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Moreover, these features were given outward expression by clear and direct ordinance of God. Circumcision and the Passover were signs of the covenant; the whole sacrificial system and the laws of holiness were given by God to be a means whereby the people expressed their thankfulness and obedience and devotion to God; the whole law or Torah was given to order the life of the people. Thus, the character of the church was expressed in Exodus 19:5, 6: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation.” The outward cult gave expression to this character.
The visible form of the church was the nation of Israel, with its covenant rites, sacrificial cult, national feasts and other ordinances. It had a coherent organisation and a visible centre. It was capable of actual assembly, at least in the persons of its representative males, and it was called “the congregation of Israel.” The most significant addition to the form of the church after the entry into Palestine was the anointing of a king who was to be the “shepherd and bishop” of Israel’s souls. (Ps. 78:73.)
This Earthly Form was Destroyed by God.
God smashed it in pieces like a potter’s vessel. He dispersed the nation, allowed its kings to be taken away, and let prophecy cease. After the exile only a fraction of a fraction of the “people of God” returned to inhabit Judah again, and the effort even of these to “restore again the kingdom to Israel” was short-lived. Domination by Egyptians, Selencids and Romans was a constant reminder that the church was a broken church, a fragment living under the judgment of God.
This was the position when Christ was born. Some said, “Hath God forgotten to be gracious?” But others, as the gospels testify, “waited for the consolation of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:25 and 38.) Indeed, two convictions kept hope alive for these righteous and devout Jews. First, the conviction that God had not and would not forsake the covenant which He had made, and secondly, the conviction that through a “holy remnant” God would yet bring about the restoration of His people, so that they would be again a nation, a holy people, a royal priesthood. God would, through this remnant, this stock or sprout or branch of the tree which had been felled, reverse the exile and build again the church which had fallen.
The promise that the church, the congregation of Israel, would again be built was given by Jesus Christ Himself: “On this rock I will build my church,” be assured Peter who confessed Him as God’s anointed. This has reference to O.T. promises like that of Amos 9:1 I : “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen. . . and I will build it as in the days of old.” Dr. F. J. A. Hort says: “The congregation of God, which held so conspicuous a place in the ancient scriptures, is assuredly what the disciples could not fail to understand as the foundation of the meaning of a sentence which was indeed for the present mysterious. If we may venture for a moment to substitute the name Israel, and read the words as “on this rock I will build my Israel,” we gain an impression which supplies at least an approximation to the probable sense. The Ecclesia of the ancient Israel was the Ecclesia of God; and now, having been confessed to be God’s Messiah, nay His Son, He could to such hearers without grave risk of misunderstanding claim that Ecclesia as His own” (The Christian Ecclesia, p. 10, 11.)
When Jesus told the Jews that in three days He would build a temple, he spoke, says John, of the temple of His body at His resurrection (John 2:19-22.) Not without significance is the church of God called the body of Christ. In the next article we shall consider the form of the church in the New Testament, after the resurrection.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 2 February 1956.