The church’s foundation

‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’ (Eph 2:19-20).

Jesus said he would build his church (Matt 16:18). But what is he building his church upon? There have been many so-called churches that have not been built on the correct foundation and so have been found not to be true churches at all!

What is the foundation Christ is building upon? ‘The apostles and prophets’ (Eph 2:20). Who are these apostles and prophets?

While in one sense all Christians are apostles of Jesus, when it is used in its more formal, specific sense it refers to the 12 who were directly chosen by Jesus (Judas Iscariot replaced by Matthias), and also Paul (the exception to the rule, one ‘untimely born’ (1 Cor 15:8)).

In one sense all Christians can also be called prophets; ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Rev 19:10). Obviously there are prophets in the Old Testament. But in Ephesians, prophets always refer to a specific group of Christians, gifted to speak new revelation from God to guide the church.

Are there apostles and prophets (with those specific definitions) today? No. They were the foundation, bringing direct revelation from God to lead God’s people. Now the foundation has been laid, and is being built upon.

Jesus is building on their testimony, as recorded in the New Testament. This is why we are devoted to God’s word – a true church is not built by attraction or motivational speeches, but by God’s word. Specifically, God’s word about Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. He builds his church as she calls people to repentance and faith in him.

Are you under a curse?

‘For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them”’ (Gal 3:10).

Not many people in the church today are tempted to think, ‘I need to keep the Old Testament law of circumcision to be saved.’ ‘I need to trust in Jesus and make sure I’m following the Old Testament food laws for God to accept me.’ So it looks like, on the surface, we know that we don’t need to keep the law to be saved.

My fear, though, is that in practice many of us still try to follow the law to be saved. We don’t call it ‘law,’ but that’s what it is. It’s the law of being a good person. Instead of looking to the Old Testament for the criteria required for us to be accepted by God, we determine for ourselves what is required.

Charitable giving, voting patterns, church attendance, bible reading, time in prayer, community involvement, a general sense of how nice we are – all these things and more are used by us to try and ensure we are acceptable to God.

We know we need Jesus. But we think there’s more to it. ‘To be saved, I need to believe in Jesus and…’ Whatever you use to complete that sentence is the law you are trying to be saved by. When you believe Jesus is not the only thing saving you, you are believing that you can save yourself (with some help from Jesus).

If you believe this, you are under a curse. Christians do good works because we are saved, not to earn our salvation. Don’t put any reliance on yourself. Trust in Jesus alone.

Is it true?

‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ’ (1 Timothy 2:5).

We live in a society that has moved beyond the idea that, in the realm of spirituality/religion and morality, there are absolutes. Everything is subjective: “If that’s what you believe, I’m happy for you – just like I’m happy for that other person who believes the complete opposite to you.” There is an aversion to telling someone their belief is wrong – as long as it works for them, that’s all that matters.

There are interviews where some people take this to the extreme. Students at a university are given a scenario: “I believe that if, just before I die, I say Oprah’s name three times, I will spend eternity with Oprah in a mansion, enjoying the greatest products she’s showcased on her show. Do you believe I’m right?”

Guess what these students say? Usually, something along the lines of, “it sounds strange to me, but if that’s what works for you, that’s fine.” This is post-modernism at its finest. They don’t actually believe it’s true, but they’re unwilling to say it’s false.

But the Bible won’t allow that kind of avoidance of reality. Repeatedly it claims that Jesus is the one we must come to if we want to be at peace with God. The Bible refuses to allow people to avoid the issue – either this claim is true, or it is false. Either there is one God, or there isn’t. Either Jesus is the only mediator between God and us, or he isn’t. There is no middle ground.

This is not an arrogant claim. It’s a truth claim. Like all other truth claims, it divides the world between those who believe it, and those who don’t. Who are you?

God with us

God being with his people is a common biblical theme. You can trace it through Genesis, with mankind enjoying God in the garden, then being cast out. Exodus begins with the people enslaved, and ends with God dwelling in the middle of the camp.

But God being in a tent is one thing. The rules and procedures to get through to him, the one man who could approach him – God living in a tent, and then the temple, was only a glimpse of life in the garden.

And finally, we hear the promise longed for since the man and the woman were cast out of the garden. Through Isaiah, God speaks to the wicked king Ahaz:

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14).

In this child to be born, God would be ‘Immanuel’, meaning ‘God with us. In this child to be born, once again God would walk with his people. We wouldn’t be separated from him by veils or altars or priests. He would be with us, walking and talking with us.

And finally, the child was born. God in the flesh, walking among an unclean and sinful people. Yet he won’t break out in judgement. Instead, he’ll show them mercy.

This God in the flesh will show compassion to the poor and sick. He’ll preach of the coming kingdom, and will raise the dead. But most importantly, he will go to the cross. Rather than coming in judgement on us, he’ll face the judgement of his Father for us.

And because of his death and resurrection, those who trust in him are guaranteed an eternity with God. Everlasting life, with our everlasting God. Because of Christmas, and Easter, those cast out can be welcomed back into his presence.

The Bible in a nutshell

The art of summary takes much practice to perfect. Journalists must regularly sift through all the facts of a situation and decide what is necessary to include and what is not.

What would your answer be if someone asked you to summarise the Bible? If they just wanted the guts of it? If this was my one chance with someone I would eagerly explain that Jesus came to save us from God’s judgement for our sin – though that leaves so much detail to fill in.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC), attempts this monumental task in this way:

WSC Q3: What do the Scriptures principally teach?

WSC A3: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

No doubt every summary could be improved upon, but this is a good effort! If we are to ‘glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ (WSC A1), we must know who God is and what he wants from us!

This sparks further questions (some which will be asked in the following 104 questions!). And what is painfully clear is that though God’s requirements are spelled out in God’s word, we cannot do it. We stand condemned for sin.

But praise God! One thing we learn about God in his word (and in the catechism) is that he is full of mercy. And in mercy, he sent Christ to save us. ‘God, being rich in mercy … made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved’ (Eph 2:4-5).

How good is our God, that he not only gives knowledge of himself (John 1:18), but because he knows us so well, provides a Saviour! And more, he then gives us his Spirit, so we can now please him as we live lives of obedience.

The way to God

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Pet 3:18).

There are many opinions on how people can come to God. The more religious opinion is that you must work hard to balance the scales between your bad and good deeds. Every day is spent striving to be better than the one before, and spent worrying about the sins you committed. Whether you’re Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, or anything else, coming to God is based upon our works. Tragically, because it’s based on our performance, there can never be any assurance that we have done enough.

The more secular, or loosely religious, opinion (if they accept a God), is that coming to God is easy. It’s the belief that God will accept us (almost) no matter what we’ve done. His standards aren’t so high as those religious fundamentalists always suggest, he knows we’re not perfect, and he accepts us as we are.

But neither opinion is helpful, because both misrepresent God’s standards and our ability to reach them. God is holy, and he expects his people to be holy. He will accept nothing less than moral perfection. Despite what the secular/loosely religious thinks, God will not just brush off our sin like it’s nothing. This is a standard none of us can reach. We are all sinful, and a lifetime of good works will never outweigh one sin.

But there is a way, not earned by us, but provided by God. In his mercy he sent Christ who suffered for sins. By his death on the cross he bore the punishment for sin. He died for sinners, the unrighteous. Coming to God is a gift for those who trust Christ. This is a revolutionary message for us to proclaim.

Will you believe?

‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36).

The Bible presents all people with a stark choice between two options. Only two. Will we believe in the Son, or not? Will we obey him, or not? And this choice divides humanity.

Of course, this choice isn’t what the world around us is insulted by. It’s the stated outcome of each choice that gets people up in arms. Believing in Jesus results in eternal life, but disobedience to the call to believe results in God’s wrath, judgement and hell.

This is unacceptable to our society, and illogical to a world that is increasingly moving away from believing in a binary, believing things are either A or B, and there is and nothing in between.

There were numerous times when I was in university ministry, presenting this verse to people. I would ask them which they were – were they believing in Jesus, or not? Were they living God’s way, having trusted in Jesus, submitting to him as King, and repented of sin? Or were they living their own way?

Repeatedly, people would say they were in the middle. They could see that the preferable option from this verse was to believe, because that resulted in life. But they were convinced they could have life without submitting to Jesus. So, they thought, they were in between. Not trusting in Jesus but getting life instead of wrath.

When we present the truth of the gospel to our neighbours, this is one belief we must undermine. You can’t be half pregnant. You either are or not. Binaries exist. Truth exists. You either have Jesus, or you face God’s wrath. What an important message we have.

Death or life

Death. It’s an event that fills people with fear, uncertainty and grief. Many around us are desperate to shut their eyes to it. While we include it in movies and TV shows to attempt to lessen our fear, we avoid thinking seriously about it as much as possible.

The way we deal with death is vastly different from our past. Death has been placed in the hands of the funeral industry. Caskets are closed. Funerals are a celebration of life but no longer also a time to mourn their loss.

But, as always, the Bible refuses to let us hide from the truth. Death is not merely a tragedy. As Paul says in Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death.’ No matter how far we run, death is coming. It is the judgement of a holy God against sinners. All of us have rebelled against this life-giving God, which led to the entirely appropriate judicial sentence of death.

This is why we fear death. We know it is wrong, an intruder on what should be our experience of this world. We have an innate sense that we should live forever, which expresses itself in beauty products and medical technology.

Death is the wages that all of us are owed and will one day pay. But Paul continues in Romans 6:23, ‘But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Here is our hope. This is what a world full of people ignoring the realities of death need to hear. We all deserve death, but we can escape it. God in his mercy has provided a way. In Christ he died our death, so we could have life. But only if we are in Christ. What a story we have to tell the nations.

The only answer

Anyone who’s spent more than a second really thinking about life in this world knows there is something wrong. Live long enough and everyone’s experience is full of pain and heartbreak.

After recognising this pain, our question becomes, ‘how can it be fixed?’ We look to education and we wonder, if it were better would all the ills within society and me be eradicated?

One of our society’s greatest problems is that we don’t stop long enough to really consider what the cause of our problem is. This means that the ‘solutions’ will never be appropriate.

We must turn to the Bible to understand what the cause of our pain and heartbreak is, because it is there that God speaks and reveals what we would prefer hidden. And in the Bible, we find that the cause of our problems is sin; our own and others’.

And because we are the problem, we can’t be the solution. Anything we do will only continue to exacerbate the problem. More education only results in smarter sinners. Technology relieves some pain but is used to inflict other kinds of pain. We need someone else to deal with the cause (our sin) so the symptoms (our suffering) can be alleviated.

And that’s what God did. The whole of the Old Testament was promising and leading up to the solution, until finally we see Jesus on the cross. Taking our sin upon himself he cries, ‘It is finished,’ (John 19:30).

It could be said the cross was stage 1 of the inoculation; stage 2 is Christ’s return, when not only is sin forgiven but is completely removed along with its ill-effects. For those desperate for a world free of suffering we have an important message; ‘come to Jesus.’ He is the only solution to our problem.