I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours . . . I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one . . . As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world . . . My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me . . . Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. — Jesus (John 17.9-26)
The Gospel, the Church, and the Nature of the Godhead.
This week, we are beginning a series on what I consider, when properly conceived and practiced, to be the most powerful proclamation to the world of God’s character of Love as revealed through the person of Jesus Christ that we have been given. But, just as our understanding of “God” is turned on its head when we encounter the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, so does our understanding of this. What am I referring to?
I’m talking about the Church. BUT I want to be quick to add that just as so many have misconceptions of the character of God, we have just as many misconceptions of the character of the Church. For now, let it suffice to say, that when I use the term “Church,” I am most likely referring to something completely different than what many think of when they hear the word church.
Let’s begin here:
The Church was conceived within the Godhead and given birth on the day of Pentecost.
I want you to take a moment and meditate on that sentence.
When I use the term “church,” I am not speaking of a particular denomination, nor an institution, nor an organization. The church is not an organization; it’s an organism. It is referred to in the New Testament as the body of Christ, with Christ as its Head. (We’ll speak more about this in a moment.)
I also strongly recommend, as a foundation for what we will be covering in this series, the material in chapter 3 “Eternal Longings” in my book Finding the Father.
You also may wish to listen to Discovering Your Purpose (or Finding Your Purpose, depending on which version of the series you are listening to) from the newly updated Life Unlimited series that we have online. You could also listen to the presentation “Repenting of Religion” from The Jesus Dialogue series that is online as well.
Although the Church is never explicitely defined in the New Testament, many images are used to try and depict Jesus’ vision for the church, including:
The New Man
All of these reveal, again, that the Church was never intended to be a dry, hierarchical, corporate organization, but rather a living, breathing, organism!
Some have objected to this idea by saying that not all images of the church in the New Testimant are organic (with this term, I am simply referring to the church as a living organism). There is one image that is not a living breathing organism, and that image is the church as the Temple. But I would like to quickly point out that even that image (and that image is the only possible exception), even that image is not really an exception at all. Please note how the image of the Church as a Temple was understood:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4, 5
Yes, the image of a temple is used. But it, too, is a living temple, made up of living stones.
Why is this idea so important?
All life forms carry a certain resemblance to their “parents” with them. (Science refers to this as DNA, but for the sake of simplicity and a sincere desire to show that this is truly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Himself, we will not be using this modern term.) When it comes to the living, breathing organism of the church, there is no exception to this principle of “resemblance” to “parentage.”
Notice the following statements made by Jesus.
Matthew 10.25—It is enough for students to be like their teacher, and servants like their master.
Luke 6.40—Students are not above their teacher, but all who are fully trained will be like their teacher.
John 15.18-20—If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’
These statements of Jesus find no greater application than Jesus’s words in John 17 above. Again, the church was conceived within the Godhead itself. And we are to resemble it. Follow closely.
A person’s heritage largely determines his or her “traits.” A person’s parentage does not necessarily determine who that person will be, but it does determine what obstacles or advantages he or she inherits on the journey to becoming whoever he or she chooses to be. When this idea is applied to the “church,” the whole concept of the “church” is revolutionized. This week, I want to begin this series by actually taking a look at the nature of the Godhead itself and seeing what it whispers to us of what the nature of the Church itself was originally intended to be.
The followers of Jesus uniquely proclaim a triune God.
Matthew 28.18, 19— Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .”
Paul also ended his second letter to the Corinthian church with these words:
2Corinthians 13.14— May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
God’s triune nature means that God is social or relational—some have said that God is the “social Trinity.” For this reason, we can say that God is “community.” God is the community of the Father, Son, and Spirit, who enjoy perfect and eternal fellowship.
For years, I have given teachings on the doctrine of the Godhead. But I never found any practical application of these teachings to my life. I found even my own studies on the Godhead highly abstract and impractical. Later, I discovered that understanding the activity within the triune God was the key to grasping everything, from start to finish, in terms of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a part of His Kingdom—including the church.
Let me share with you, in addition to the chapter I referrenced in my own book, the following statements that others have made:
“The Trinity is the most comprehensive and integrative framework that we have for understanding and participating in the Christian life.”—Eugene Peterson
“The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for the Christian life.”—Catherine LaCunga
“The triune God stands at the beginning and at the end of the Christian pilgrimage and, therefore, at the center of Christian faith.”—Miroslav Volf
Jesus’ teaching of the Godhead is not an exposition of the abstract design of God. Instead, it teaches us about God’s nature and how we too are to operates in a community that is endeavoring to follow Jesus. The Godhead should not be relegated to the position of some abstract doctrine that we simply attach to a dry statement of beliefs or as an endnote to the gospel. Rather, it should shape our communal lives as we seek to follow Jesus together. We are to do life “together” in the same way that They do life together. Jesus’ teaching on the Godhead is most likely the single greatest model that we have to inform us of His idea regarding the practices of His “church” that we have been given.
Let us begin by pondering these two statements made by Jesus alone:
“Father … you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).
“The world must learn that I love the Father” (John 14:31)
From these alone, we learn that a mutual love was flowing within the Godhead, even before the foundation of the world.
In the opening chapters of the Genesis narrative, we discover that there is also fellowship within the Godhead:
“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26. Here we see the triune God taking counsel and planning.)
Of all of the Gospel proclaimers, John teaches us the most about the nature of the community of the Godhead.
The Son lives by the life of the Father (5:26; 6:57).
The Son shares and expresses the glory of the Father (13:31–32; 17:4–5).
The Son lives within the Father and the Father lives within the Son (1:18; 14:10).
The Son lives in complete dependence upon the Father (5:19).
The Son reflects the Father in His words and deeds (12:49; 14:9).
The Father glorifies the Son (1:14; 8:50, 54; 12:23; 16:14; 17:1, 5, 22, 24).
The Son exalts the Father (7:18; 14:13; 17:1, 4; 20:17)
Within the Godhead we discover mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community. In the Godhead, there exists an eternal, complementary, and reciprocal interchange of divine life, divine love, and divine fellowship. Amazingly, through Jesus, this same relationship has been restored, passed on from the Divine into the human once again. This communal mutuality has moved from the Father to the Son, from the Son to THE CHURCH! (John 6:57; 15:9; 20:21). It has moved from the eternal Godhead in the heavens to THE CHURCH here on earth. For the Church is simply the body of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The church is to be an extension of the triune God themselves. The Church was conceived in Christ before time (Eph. 1:4–5) and was born on the day of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1.). Properly understood, the Church is a gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it on the earth. Put another way, the church is the earthly image of the Godhead, the character of God, put on display for all others to see. (Eph. 1:22–23; 3:10). It is to be the natural expression of what God is, not just in its beliefs, but in its practices as well.
What does all of this mean?
It means that when a group of Jesus’s followers actually submits to its spiritual “parentage,” its spiritual “genes,” so to speak, the members of the group will gather in a way that matches the mutual life of the Godhead itself—for they possess the same life that exists among and is possessed by the Godhead. (While we as followers of Jesus, collectively, are by no means divine, we have been called to be “partakers of the divine nature”—2 Peter 1:4 NASB.)
Consequently, the church is to be marked by the very traits that we find in the Godhead, particularly mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community.
“The ultimate basis for our understanding of the church lies in its relationship to the nature of the triune God Himself.” —Stanley Grenz
“[The] model on which ecclesiology should be formulated. On this premise, the inner life of the divine Trinity provides a pattern, a model, an echo, or an icon of Christian communal existence in the world.” —Kevin Giles
“The Godhead is the paradigm for the church’s native expression.” —Frank Viola
“The oneness of God is not the oneness of a distinct, self-contained individual; it is the unity of a community of persons who love each other and live together in harmony.… They are what they are only in relationship with one another…. There is no solitary person separated from the others; no above and below; no first, second, third in importance; no ruling and controlling and being ruled and controlled; no position of privilege to be maintained over against others; no question of conflict concerning who is in charge; no need to assert independence and authority of one at the expense of the others. Now there is only fellowship and communion of equals who share all that they are and have in their communion with each other, each living with and for the others in mutual openness, self-giving love, and support; each free not from but for the others. That is how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related in the inner circle of the Godhead.” —Shirley Guthrie
Look again at the triune God. And notice what is absent. There is an absence of command-style leadership. There is an absence of hierarchical structures. There is an absence of passive spectatorship. There is an absence of one-upmanship. And there is an absence of religious rituals and programs. Command-style relationships, hierarchy, passive spectatorship, one-upmanship, religious programs, and the like were created by fallen humans. And they run contrary to the LIFE of the triune God as well as LIFE of the Church. Sadly, however, after the death of the apostles, these practices were adopted, baptized, and brought into the Christian family. Today, they have become the central features of an “institutional” church.
Pay close attention to the “mutual” nature of the Church in the New Testament. (We’ll be unpacking more about this in upcoming parts.)
1Corinthians 14.26— What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
Romans 15.14— I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.
Colossians 3.16— Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Ephesians 4.16— From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Hebrews 10.24,25— And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Matthew 20.25-26— Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Matthew 23.8-9— But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
The open, mutually participatory nature of the New Testament Church, again, was conceived in the Godhead itself and given birth on the day of Pentecost. In the early church there were no Clergy. There were no Laity. There WERE gifts. And each of those gifts were exercised by each person present. What we see in the early church is a priesthood (or pastorhood) of all believers, mutually living the 52 one anothers of the New Testament together in community, just like the Godhead. (We’ll be exploring this more in the upcoming weeks, but for now, go back and reread the beginning passage from John 17 again with these glasses on.)
Does this resonate with you? It does with me, too! This week, we will be sending out a news email (make sure that you are signed up not just for our eSights, but for our Ministry Updates as well) announcing an exciting new opportunity for Renewed Heart Ministries that we are thrilled to offer all of you. Keep your eyes open. We will be announcing this new opportunity in just a few days.
Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, loving like Christ. And keep enlarging the Kingdom.
I love you guys,