4. Church and Mission
Japan Evangelical Missionary Association, Plenary Session Address (Feb 23, 2010) © Dale Little
Since 1984 my wife Ann and I have been based in Japan, with the privilege of serving in local church settings. Our last ten years have been here in the Tokyo area. During those more than twenty-five years I have often wished that the church of Jesus Christ in Japan was larger. We all know that the percentage of Christians in Japan is low. Japan is one of the least Christian countries of east Asia. We live in a land where few people believe that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. Here in Japan, we live in a land of small churches, don’t we?
But does that mean the church is insignificant? No! The church is significant even when small! This morning, I want to focus on the importance of the church by looking at two Johannine passages about God dwelling with us.
This theme of God dwelling with us can be seen at various points in the Bible. The Old Testament begins with the narrative of God walking with Adam in the Garden of Eden. And the New Testament ends with these prophetic words in Rev.21:3 about heaven: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” The primary characteristic of our eternal future with God in heaven is that he will live with us. He will make his eternal home with us.
So the theme that God has chosen to dwell with his people is a theme repeated in the Bible. It can be said that because this teaching about God dwelling with us is found at the beginning and the end of the Bible, it forms theological book ends for the Bible. In between these book ends, we are taught that God dwells with us in two ways. Those two ways are the two points of my talk this morning.
1) God lives with us in Jesus Christ
Jn.1:14— The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
From this verse we can see that God no longer lives with us in the OT manner of the tabernacle and the temple. Nor does God live with us in some general, amorphous, nebulous, or mystical kind of way. Rather, John claims here that God lives with us in and through Jesus Christ.
Recognizing Jesus to be the Messiah of the Old Testament, to be God’s Immanuel, is a very particular way of understanding how God lives with us. God lives with us specifically in and through his one and only Son Jesus Christ. This is a very particular understanding of God’s presence. It seems to be an exclusive way of talking about God’s presence with us. That is, Jn.1:14 seems to imply that Jesus may be the only way to experience the wonderful presence of God in our lives. And in fact Jn.1:18 brings this particularity out even more clearly. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
Jn.1:18 has two parts to it. The first part is negative, and the second part is positive. The negative first part of the verse states: No one has ever seen God.
This makes us wonder how we can then possibly see or know God. It is a negative statement. However, the positive second part of the verse boldly declares: but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
So nobody has ever seen God the Father, except for when they see God the Son. And when they see God the Son, they are truly seeing God the Father.
So it is only through Jesus, the Son of God, that we know God the Father. It is only through the Son of God that God the Father is revealed to us. If we do not see the Son of God, then we do not and cannot see God the Father. If we do not know Jesus, then we cannot know God the Father. Jesus correctly interprets God the Father for us. If we want to find God, to see God, to know God, all we need to do is look at Jesus. God can be found nowhere else in a clear manner.
So if we asked the followers of Jesus in the early church, “Where does God live?” we would expect them to point to Jesus. Certainly they would answer that Jesus is the only place where God the Father has chosen to clearly reveal himself.
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, that is not what we are taught in 1Jn.4:12. The Apostle John wrote both Jn.1:18 in his Gospel and 1Jn.4:12 in his letters at the end of the New Testament. In Jn.1:18 John wrote that God is revealed in Jesus Christ and lives with us in Jesus Christ. But 1Jn.4:12 teaches that God can be seen somewhere else too.
Where is that other place? It is the church! And this brings me to my second point.
2) God lives with us in the church
In the NIV, 1Jn.4:12 begins with the very same words found at the beginning of Jn.1:18. These verses both begin with, No one has ever seen God. By repeating this phrase, John is getting us to focus on these kinds of questions: “If nobody has seen God, then where or how can we see God? Where does God show himself?”
From what John has written in John 1, we would expect John to answer this kind of question by pointing to Jesus Christ. And actually, John does this a few verses before in 1Jn.4:9— This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
Here in verse 9 John makes it clear that God reveals his love by means of his Son, Jesus Christ. So if you want to see God and his love, look at Jesus Christ. John teaches this in both the Gospel of John (Jn.1:18) and in this first letter of John (1Jn.4:9).
But in 1Jn.4:12, John teaches something else too. He states, No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
John teaches here that if we want to see God, we should look at the loving community of those who follow Jesus Christ.
So God was revealing himself in and through the small fledgling church to which the Apostle John was writing the letter of 1 John. That little church, and most of the churches of the New Testament era, were not mega-churches. They were probably small groups of believers who gathered for worship, fellowship, instruction and the breaking of bread in homes. Maybe they were like some small group meetings you might have experienced yourself.
The importance of the local church derives from this teaching that God reveals himself in the loving communities made up of disciples of Jesus Christ. This makes local churches incredibly significant!
Is it any wonder that the New Testament closely links the church with mission? For example, Jesus makes a famous mission statement about the church in Mt.16:18— I will build my church.
The mission of Jesus includes building his church because it is through his church that God’s love is revealed and it is in his church that God lives.
As we read the book of Acts, we can observe how the resurrected Jesus fulfilled this mission by means of the Holy Spirit in the early church era. In Acts we read how churches were birthed by his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even further afield. We need to interpret the birthing of these churches in Acts as the mission work of the resurrected Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
I will build my church. Jesus held church and mission closely together.
As another example, Paul writes of the mission of the church in Eph..3:10-11. That mission has a cosmic scope. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The angelic hosts of the heavenlies learn about the manifold wisdom of God by watching the church. The church shows the wisdom of God to the angelic hosts. God’s intent, or God’s mission, includes displaying his wisdom and glory through the church. So the church has a cosmic mission. What an incredibly high view of the church!
So why are local churches so important? Why is the church so important? The church is important because it is an agent in the mission of God. God is using the church to accomplish his purposes.
Do you believe that your local church is important to the mission God has given you?
I expect that in this room today, we find ourselves as missionaries engaged in all kinds of local church ministry. You may be a missionary in a church that has only a handful of believers. You may be starting a church that does not have any believers yet! We went three years in our first church planting project here in Japan before we saw anyone become a believer in Jesus. You may be leading in a small house church. Or you may be serving in a church that has over fifty members—you know, a mega-church here in Japan!
I don’t know what kind of a church you are serving in. But no matter what size your church might be, or what kind of church God has led you to, the New Testament compels us to recognize that the church is a significant part of the mission to which God has called us.
From our John 1 and 1 John 4 texts today we see a parallel teaching. (1) God dwells with us through Jesus Christ and our belief in him. (2) God dwells with us through the local church that believes in Jesus and loves as he does.
The first aspect of this parallel is quite easy for us to believe, isn’t it? Yes, we believe and know that God revealed himself through our Lord Jesus. That is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. But the second aspect of that parallel—that God reveals himself in and through the local church—might be difficult for us to affirm if we did not have 1Jn.4:12, wouldn’t it? That is, we all know the church is not a perfect community. Jesus Christ was perfect and sinless, but the church is not.
Despite the imperfections in our churches, God reminds us in his Word that he reveals himself through churches just like the ones you and I are involved in. According to 1Jn.4:12, if God’s love is evident in your church, then you can have confidence that God lives in your church and that he wants to reveal himself through your church. Your church is part of God’s mission. Can you affirm that in your heart today?
It is with Paul’s words that I want to draw this talk to a close. In Ephesians 3, Paul brings together the two truths that God makes himself known through Jesus and through the church. How about if we read this together in closing, as a way of reminding ourselves of the importance of the church of Jesus Christ to the mission of God?
Eph.3:20-21— Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
May we make it our mission to bring glory to Jesus and his church.