What does a local church actually do? The Bible is not silent on the function of the local church, as it provides both prescriptive commands for the church and moving examples of the church in action. In this session of Secret Church 9, Pastor David Platt gives the key functions of the church as prescribed by scripture. By rightly understanding the function of the church, Christians can better serve their local church in accordance with God’s Word.
- Description of The Church
- Devotion to The Church
- The Church Evangelizes
- The Church Baptizes
Description of the Church
So, we’ve looked at a definition of the church. Now, I want us to dive in and see a description of the church; just these multiple images that we see, and how they come together in some different ways. So, sometimes when the Bible’s talking about the church, it’s talking about it one way, and other times it’s talking about it in a totally different way, so we are flying through this here.
The church is universal and local. This is important. We see both in the church. We see the church meeting in a house. We see the church meeting in a city. We see the church meeting in a region. The church in the world, and so we see both of these pictures in Scripture, universal and local, but I want to make sure to emphasize that the dominant emphasis in the New Testament is on the local church. Out of the 114 times “ekklesia” is mentioned in the New Testament, at least 90 of them refer to specific local gatherings of believers.
So, almost all the time the New Testament’s referring to the church, it’s talking about local churches. The local church is a clear expression of the universal body of Christ, and we’re going to talk about that in just a moment, whether or not it’s important to be committed to one local church, or if it’s OK on just being a part of that universal church. We’re going to talk about that in a moment, but feel the weight of this right here. The dominant emphasis in the New Testament is on local churches, so the church is both universal and local.
The church is both visible and invisible. What I mean by the invisible church: the church as God sees it from heaven. “The Lord knows who are his,” 2 Timothy 2 says. So, that’s all true believers. The reality is though, the visible church is the church as we see it on earth. So, we identify ourselves in different churches, but the visible church includes some false believers. You see Paul warning about this in Acts 20. He’s talking about this in 2 Timothy 2, about how false believers who come in who are not truly followers of Christ were a part of the church. Augustine said, “Many sheep are without and many wolves are within.” So, the picture is that only God really knows who is in. I’m talking about the universal church here. We come together in churches, and it’s important that we guard what we say or who we say is in the church. We’re going to talk about why that’s important in a moment, but still it’s not going to be perfect.
The church includes both the New Testament believers and Old Testament believers. Now, some would debate this, and I think part of it would be semantics, but when you take the definition that we’re using for church – the church as the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify Him by serving Him in this world – that would include both New Testament and Old Testament.
We see evidence of Old Testament gatherings even referred to in the New Testament, and we see examples of Old Testament faith. You say, “Well, what about about being called by God’s grace through faith in Christ? Did Old Testament believers believe in Christ?” Well, look at Hebrew’s 11:26 talking about Moses. Moses “considered the reproach of Christ,” or suffering for Christ, “greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt.” That was Moses linked here to Christ. The rest of Hebrews 11 and Hebrews 12 talks about how Old Testament believers were looking forward. The key difference here is Old Testament believers trusted in the coming Christ. Sure, they didn’t know all the details, and they didn’t know all that we know now, but they were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise that had been given all the way back in Genesis 3:15. So, they trusted in the coming Christ. New Testament believers trust in the crucified Christ, looking back to the cross. They were looking forward to the cross; we look back to the cross.
Old Testament believers are ethnically distinct. In other words, for the most part with a few exceptions, Old Testament people were the Jewish people, the people of Israel. New Testament believers are ethnically diverse. So, we see that’s one of the huge things that we see all over the New Testament letters and in the book of Acts: the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles into the church. Old Testament believers lived under their own government with God-given laws. New Testament believers live among the rulers of the nations.
The reality is we’re not a theocracy anymore like we see a theocracy in the Old Testament, a rule under God-given laws. The Old Testament people of God have God as their king, and God designated kings. That’s different in the New Testament. We live among the rulers of the nations. Old Testament believers were required to circumcise their male offspring. New Testament believers are required to baptize all believers. So, there are some key differences there and key distinctions, but there is some continuity there between Old Testament and New Testament believers which we’ll talk about it in just a moment with Israel.
We just talked about this, but the church includes both Jews and Gentiles brought together, and that was a picture of the gospel. It was the mystery of Christ bringing Jews and Gentiles together. The church is unified and diversified. We’ve talked about that. We work for unity in the local church. We see unity, and we see that prayed for by Christ, and that longed for all over the New Testament. It’s the agony in Paul’s voice in 1 Corinthians 1 when he’s saying, “Oh, you’re so divided,” and division is dangerous. Paul says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions.” (Romans 16:17-18) They’re “devoid of the Spirit,” Jude 19 says.
Division is dangerous, and division is deadly. Listen to this: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions…” Like, you see that it’s listed with “…envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these. I warn you…those who do those such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Now, there’s a picture of which we stand on truth, and if falsehood is being proclaimed in the church, then we’re responsible for standing up to that and not tolerating that, which we’ll see in Galatians 1, but the reality is we need to promote the unity of the church. Division is dangerous and deadly. We work for unity in the local church and universal church.
What about the church and its relationship to Israel? This could be a whole other Secret Church right here. Maybe one day we will do that, but think about the church and the Israel of God. In Galatians 6, Paul uses this phrase “upon the Israel of God,” and in Romans 2, he talks about how the Jewish people were not Jewish by outward circumstances as much as by inward faith. So, I want you to think about how the church is referred to in relationship to Israel. We are descendants of Israel’s father, Abraham. This is in Romans 4 and Romans 9. So, we’re descendants or Israel’s father, Abraham. We are heirs of Israel’s promise. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to his promise.” (Galatians 3:29) The promise that was given to Him is passed on to us. Romans 4 is an incredible passage right there.
We’re recipients of Israel’s blessings. We’ve already referred to this passage a couple of times in 1 Peter 2, but he uses so much imagery that was used for Israel in the Old Testament. For example, “priesthood,” “sacrifices,” “living stones,” “chief cornerstone,” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” “people for the possession of God,” talking about the New Testament. So, the reality of the story of the church ultimately begins with Israel, with the Old Testament people of God. So, there’s not necessarily this perfect, exact identity between the church and Israel, but there is clearly continuity between what we see in Israel, and then what we see happening in the church. There is more that we could talk about there, and maybe one day we will.
The church and the kingdom of God. Is the church the same as the kingdom? The answer is, “No,” the church is not the kingdom. Church and kingdom are not synonymous in Scripture. They’re very closely related but not synonymous. You look through these passages that I put there in Acts. You would not put church where you see kingdom here. They don’t preach good news about the church of God. They don’t persuade them about the church of God; “proclaim the church will see my face again.” It’s not the picture. So, what we see in the New Testament is the kingdom creates the church. As the kingdom of God is proclaimed – the reign of God, the rule of God and the people under His reign and His rule – we come into the kingdom of God, and the church is created.
That’s the picture we see, and I put some references there from Jesus’ words in Matthew. In turn, the church ends up proclaiming the kingdom then. So, the kingdom creates the church, and then the church proclaims the kingdom. This gospel of the kingdom is preached from the church. The church is the instrument of the kingdom. The kingdom is advancing through the church. The church is the guardian of the kingdom. When Jesus is talking to His disciples, and especially to Peter in Matthew 16 about the kingdom of God, he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is the picture of the church being entrusted as the guardian of the kingdom.
Two closing truths about church and kingdom: Jesus will return for His church. The king is coming back for His church, and when He does, He will consummate His kingdom. His kingdom, His rule, and His reign will be asserted once and for all and finally. So, that’s just a brief description of the church. Some things that I think are important to the conversation. We didn’t spend a lot of time on these truths.
Devotion to the Church
Now, devotion to the church. What is Scripture saying about how much or how little Christians should devote themselves to the church, and should we devote ourselves to a local church, or is it enough just to be devoted to all Christians everywhere in the universal church? One of the most common questions here is, “Is church membership necessary?” I was on a plane the other day with a guy who said, “Church membership is nowhere in the Bible. I’m not a member of a church.” This guy said, “I’m a follower of Christ, but not a member of a church because membership is just a man-made thing,” and this is where I would grant clearly that membership in a local church is not biblically commanded.
You won’t find anywhere in the Bible where the words “church membership” are even mentioned, and you won’t find a command for believers to become a member of local church. So, for many people that just seals the deal. We need to be careful. There’s also not a place where Jesus explicitly says the words, “I am God.” There’s also not a place where we see the Trinity specifically outlined in Scripture in the kind of terms that we’re looking for here, so let’s not throw it out the window just yet.
I would put before us that membership in a local church is biblically implied and understood. Now, I want to be careful here, even with this word “membership.” I think it’s the best word. I don’t know a better word to describe it because what we’re talking about is a body, and there are parts and there are members of a body. Now, people say, “Well, yes, we’re just members of the universal body of Christ,” but I want you to think about four ways that the Bible implies church membership in a local church, and why it’s important. Number one: membership is implied by church gatherings. When we see this word “ekklesia,” “the church of God in Corinth,” “the church that meets in Aquila and Priscilla’s house,” 1 Corinthians 16, that’s where 90 of the 114 references to “ekklesia” come in the New Testament. The word refers to a gathering, to a place, and followers of Christ belong to one of those gatherings.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, it’s a certain defined people. Although, obviously, much of what is written to the church in Corinth can be applied to our churches today, this is a letter written to a local church in a specific time and a specific place, a specific gathering of believers. So, it begs the question, “As a Christian, what gathering are you a part of? With what church do you gather?” Membership is implied here. You are a part, a member, whatever you want to call it, and you are identified with a gathering of believers. Some people say, “Well, I gather with all kinds of churches. I go to a different church every Sunday, so I get all the different letters, and it’s all the better. I’m in this church and this church.” Well – OK.
Second, membership is implied by church discipline. Now, we’re going to talk about church discipline later on, but when Jesus talks about confronting a brother in sin, listen to how He relates it to the church. He says in Matthew 18:15-17, “If he refuses to listen to the them, tell it to the church.” So, you confront a brother in his sin. If that doesn’t work, you take two or three others along, and then if that doesn’t work, if he refuses to listen, tell it to the church. So, who is the church there? A universal body of Christ? “My brother over here is unrepentant in his sin, so announce it to the entire universal body of Christ that this guy is unrepentant.” No. This clearly tells us to tell it to a gathering of believers, the local church.
Go to 1 Corinthians 5, which we’re also talking with church discipline, and basically Paul talks about excommunicating someone from the church. We’ll talk about what’s going on there in a little bit, but the reality is, in order to be excommunicated, taken out of the church, you have to be, first, in the church. You have to be a member of the church, and apparently, it was a big deal to not be a member of the church, to be, basically, kicked out of the church; sent out from among them. How would it be possible to do what Jesus and Paul are talking about here if you weren’t defined as a member of the church in the first place? If you didn’t identify it with a gathering?
Third, membership is implied by church leadership. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” That’s a command for Christians in the Bible. Now, again this is something we’re going to talk about later, but think about this for a second. Leaders will give an account. So, leaders in a church will give an account for those whom they lead. So, I’m a pastor of a church; who do I give an account for? Every person in the universal body of Christ? Am I responsible for pastoring, shepherding and accounting to God for every single Christian on the face of the planet or in all time? No. I’m responsible for the church that I pastor, the gathering of people.
Now, obey your leaders; submit to them. That’s a command. So, followers of Christ are commanded to obey the leaders in the church. Now, who does that mean that you obey? Every single Christian that’s out there? If you turn on the television, and you’ve got some pastor on there, and whatever he says, I have to do it? No. You obey the leaders of the church that you’re identified with. This whole accounting language, shepherding over a flock in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 implies this. The reality is you’re not supposed to obey just any Christian leader. We’re going to talk about what obeying leaders, submitting to leaders means in a moment. I’m not supposed to be accountable for every single person in the universal body of Christ. That totally implies a local church.
Next, last implication of church membership is implied by church accountability. You look at these passages below in your notes, and you see God holding the church accountable for choosing leaders. In Acts 6, they’re supposed to choose leaders among them. The church is accountable for preaching the gospel in Galatians 1. If somebody is not preaching the gospel, the church is accountable for shutting them up. The church is accountable for identifying members. That’s the picture in 1 Corinthians 5. It’s interesting the church is the one that defines who’s a member in 1 Corinthians 5, not the individual. The church is accountable for sending missionaries in Acts 13.
So, if you put all these passages together, they beg the question from every follower of Christ in this room: Are you an accountable member of local church? Now, I’m not just saying is your name somewhere on a roll or do you attend somewhere. I’m saying, who is your life committed to? What body, what gathering of believers are you committed to being with, spurring on, and holding fast to the hope of God with? This is in Hebrews 10. Who are the leaders that your life is in submission to, who are accountable for your spiritual growth? If you can’t answer that question, the reality is you are living contrary to the pattern of the New Testament. I know that’s not particularly popular today, but it’s what’s in Scripture. Ladies and gentlemen, this is important. God has designed the local church this way, for all these different reasons, for our good and for His glory. We don’t shop and just hop around from church to church, and we certainly don’t ignore the church altogether. That’s not an option.
There are no believers in the New Testament who are not associated with a church, with a local gathering of believers. So, my encouragement is, if you are going through this study, and you are not committed to a local gathering of believers, that you would walk out of here with a firm commitment to make that a priority in your Christian life, to leave your ways behind and follow His ways. This is a commitment of your life to a gathering of believers. That’s church membership.
What about a church covenant? That’s a discussion. We have a church covenant at the church I pastor. Again, this is not in Scripture. There’s not a command to it. There’s not a prohibition against it either, so we have asked, “Is it valuable?” Definitions: a secular definition of covenant: a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action.
So, a church covenant defined. This is a David Platt definition, not one laid out in Scripture. A church covenant is a clear expression of a church’s covenant to love one another as a community of faith. Basically, we’ve said as a church here, that we want to remind ourselves clearly and biblically of what it means for us to be really committed to one another and celebrate with one another. There’s so much in Scripture from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, about what it means to be the people of God, and we want to remind ourselves of this. It’s not some legalistic code that you have to abide by. It’s just us saying, “Hey, we want to love one another in these different ways.”
I think we see foundations for that in the Old Testament. You look in Nehemiah 9:38, “Because of all of this we make a firm in covenant in writing.” This is not on the level of the Mosaic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, and New Covenant. “Now, I’m adding another covenant or adding a covenant,” not at all. This is just the relationship with one another, and you look in Hebrews and Nehemiah 9, and we’re not going to spend time here, but the church is a community grounded in the Word of God.
So, this doesn’t, in any way, replace the Word of God by any means. The Word is central. It forms the foundation for our commitment to love on another. The church is a community sustained by the grace of God. You see that in Nehemiah 9, and it’s a confession of the people of God of their need for God. The church is a community promoting the good of one another. The whole covenant that they affix their names and seals to is for how they’re going to spur one another on. How they’re going to love one another, and the church as a community demonstrating the glory of God.
What I did at the end of that section in your notes is I put, as an illustration, our church covenant at the church I pastor. Feel free, if that’s helpful to you in any way, to use it however you want, but it just is a picture of what I mean when I talk about church covenant. I don’t think that it is essential because we don’t see it commanded anywhere in Scripture, but I do think it’s valuable, especially when it comes to this.
Summary of the Church
What is the church? So, we use this definition: the church is a body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify Him by serving Him in this world. What is a local church? The local church is a local body, a gathering of believers in Christ covenanted together to glorify God by serving Him in this world. Now, here’s why I want to emphasize that. By that, I don’t mean in order to be a local church, you have to have a church covenant, but I just don’t know a better word to describe when you have a gathering of believers, and they have identified themselves as a church.
So, this is why the interpretation of Matthew 18 – “where two or three are gathered there, then you’ve got a church. As long as you have Christians in the plural, you have a church” – is a total abuse of Scripture, and it misses the point. The church is a gathering of believers, but not just sitting down having coffee together. The church is a gathering that is committed to one another; that is committed to loving each other and caring for each other and spurring each other on towards Christ and doing all the activities we’re about to walk through. They do them together, they identify themselves as a church, and they align themselves with what God’s Word says is the church.
So, you see in Acts many instances of local bodies of believers gathering together. We see instructions in Acts and the New Testament letters. As believers gathered together, they identify themselves with each other, and they commit to each other, and they grow together. They give themselves to the mission of God together. They worship together. They’re baptized together. That’s what’s happening in a local church. That’s what I mean by covenanted together.
So, Christians and local churches, as followers of Christ, we commit our lives to one another as a member as a part of a local church for the good of ourselves. If you try to live the Christian life apart from the local church, you will starve spiritually, and you will live contrary to the New Testament. It’s not good. The New Testament knows nothing of Christianity disconnected from local churches. God says it’s a priority. Now, it’s not perfect. Obviously, local churches aren’t perfect, and the reason why they’re not perfect is because you’re in it, and I’m in it, and that’s why they’re not perfect. It’s not going to be perfect when you get there. It’s going to be worse because you’re a sinner, and you’re adding one more to the more mix, but God is gracious. That’s the whole picture of the church. That’s why this is the announcement of His glory. Only God could take that group of people and make something good out of it. That’s the point.
For the good of ourselves and for the good of other Christians. You need other Christians, and they need you. They don’t need to just sit next to you in a worship service either. They need you to commit your life to them. You say, “Well, what about people outside the church if we’re all committed to each other.” This is the beauty. We join the church. We’re part of a local church for the good of non-Christians, because God’s design in the church is to create a loving community that will be a public display of the gospel to the world. A community that shows the difference that Christ makes and that draws people to Christ by our love for one another. The world is not drawn to Christ by seeing casual, anonymous church attenders everywhere. That doesn’t do it. The world is drawn to Christ when they see people sacrificing their lives in love for each other and committed to each other in a way that they don’t see in any other place in the world. That’s God’s design. So, do that for the good of non-Christians, and ultimately, for the glory of God.
Let me just ask this question, and hopefully, if you’re not convinced, this will convince you. How will we display the glory of the one who died for the church if we devote nothing to the church? Do it for your good, and for the good of others who need you, and the good of the lost who need to see Christ in the church, and do it for the glory of God.
What Does the Church Do?
God’s Design for His People
So, what does the church do? God’s design for His people. What I want to do is I want to define seven core activities of the church, and set up this passage, Acts 2:38-47, as a foundation. So, I want to read this. This is right after Jesus has died on the cross. He’s risen from the grave. In Acts 1, He ascends into heaven, and in Acts 2, at Pentecost, He sends the Spirit. Peter starts preaching, and you get to the end of the sermon:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
This is the picture we’ve already talked about.
And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
This is the inauguration of the New Testament church:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
So, I want us to take that one passage, and I want to show you seven essential activities of the church. I am going to try and look at this biblically and try to throw aside traditions and preferences. The church evangelizes, baptizes, teaches, nurtures, worships, prays and multiplies. The bulk of the rest of our time together is spent on those seven. I’m just going to walk through them one by one.
What Does the Church Do: The Church Evangelizes
So, let’s start with the church evangelizes. This whole reality starts in Acts 1. It all starts when the church beholds the glory of Christ, and really not just Acts 1, but the Great Commission text in Matthew and Mark and Luke. Acts 1 says Jesus is with them, and they thought He had died. He rises from the grave, and I think “Yes!” but here in Acts 1:9, it says, “When he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of our sight. And while they were gazing in the heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” Well, clearly, that’s rhetorical question. You’ve just seen a man launched into the sky, and you look up.
Here’s the promise set up by the rhetorical question, “This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” So, this is where it all starts. They see Jesus. He’s the risen Savior, the exalted Lord, and the coming King, and this vision – don’t miss it – is going to drive them from here on out through the rest of the book of Acts, and should drive the church today until He comes back in the same way He went into heaven. Passion for the kingdom is fueled by passion for the king.
The church is fueled by passion for the king. This is what I love about Daniel 7, which prophesied that the Son of Man would come, be given authority, dominion, rule and reign, and then you get to Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He’s being stoned, and he looks up, and he sees glory of God, and Jesus is standing at right hand of God. Stephen gives his life because he’s gripped by the glory of the king, and this is it. This is why we do what we do in the church. This is why we evangelize.
Now, I know that’s not a popular word, but this is why we tell the good news. This is why we proclaim the gospel. This is why everybody in the church proclaims the gospel. Because there are people all over this city and people all over the cities and communities where you live that do not know Jesus is Savior and King, and He deserves every single one of their glory. That’s why we tell them, and it’s why we don’t stop there. It’s why we go to Africa, because there are 3,000 animistic tribes in Africa that are worshipping all kinds of different spirits and gods, and there’s only one King who’s worthy of all their worship. So, we go tell them in Africa, and we go to Japan and Laos and Vietnam because there are 350 million Buddhists in those countries who are following Buddha’s rules and Buddha’s regulations, and Buddha’s not king.
Jesus is king, and He deserves their praise, and this is why we go to India and Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Maltese and Nepal, because 950 million Hindus in those countries are following more gods than I can even fathom, and not one of those gods is true. There’s only one King who’s true, and He deserves all their praise. It’s why we go there. It’s why we go to communist nations like China or Laos or North Korea or Cuba because there’s over a billion people in those nations that have grown up in atheistic philosophies that completely deny the existence of God, and there is a God.
His name is Jesus, and He reigns as king, and they know that. This is why we go to the tough places in world. This is why we go to 1.3, some say 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, because they’re fasting and giving alms, making holy pilgrimages to Mecca and praying five times a day to a false god, and Jesus has died on the cross. He’s risen from the grave. He’s coming back, and He’s the only one who deserves their praise, and when the church believes that, then we will give our lives to make this gospel known.
When the church believes that, then we won’t sit back and say, “Well, I want more comforts.” No. We’ve got a King who deserves praise from every people group on the planet, so the church says, “Yes, we give our lives to preaching the gospel. We’re not silent.”
The church proclaims the gospel of Christ. We behold His glory, and we proclaim His gospel. “The Spirit will come upon you,” Jesus says, “and you will be witnesses.” The key word is “witness.” To witness is to speak, to testify, and to proclaim. People say, “Well, I witness with my life.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Well, it sounds cute, but it’s not true. You can’t preach the gospel just by being nice. Jesus didn’t say, “The Spirit will come upon you, and you will be able to be kind.” Well, yes, be kind; hopefully it’s a given. If you’re a witness, you speak. Our brothers and sisters are not in prison right now in Central Asia because they went out smiled and did a good deed. They’re in prison in Central Asia because they’re preaching the gospel.
So, let us not sit back and say, “Well, I just witness with my life.” It undercuts the whole point here. We have to move on, but this is key. “I witness when the Holy Spirit leads me.” OK, there’s a grain of truth to that. Yes, we want to be led by the Holy Spirit, but here’s the deal: when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be a witness. This is good. So, you can now consider yourself led. If you have the Spirit of God in you, then this is great. You don’t have to wait for a tingly feeling to go down your spine and some weird feeling to come up on you. No. You live with the supernatural in you, and He’s in you for one purpose: to be a witness. So, speak because He has led.
That’s what happened. When the Spirit came down, they started talking. They started talking in all these different tongues and languages, and Peters stands up, and he preaches to the church, “Proclaim the gospel in the power of Jesus’ presence.” Oh, I love this. Who’s preaching the first Christian sermon? It’s the disciple who seemed to say all the wrong things in the Gospels. It’s Peter. He always said the wrong thing. So, Jesus, in Luke 24:46-49, said, “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” It’s almost like Jesus was saying, “Peter, the last thing this world needs is you going out there without my Spirit in you, so just stay put until my Spirit comes on you, and then, when you’ve got me in you, just talk all you want.”
So, he does. He preaches. Think about it. This is not just Peter but us. He is with us. This is the promise in the Great Commission. He dwells in us. It’s why we do, John 14 says, “greater works than Christ.” Are we really going to do greater works than Christ? Yes. Think about it: Christ was one man on the earth anointed and filled with the Spirit of God, and He ascends to heaven, and He sends the Spirit to anoint and fill all of His followers. So, right now all over the world, the Spirit of God is empowering the proclamation of the gospel in different countries and different villages, and people are coming to Christ. People are being delivered from sin and struggle right now because the Spirit is at work. When we leave this place as believers who have gathered all over the world to study this, and the Spirit is in all of us, He enables our obedience. He has promised this in Ezekiel 36. “I will put a new Spirit in you.” “I will give you life,” Ezekiel 37, and He empowers our proclamation. We announce the good news.
What Does the Church Do: Preach the Gospel
The reality is the church doesn’t just speak; the church speaks a certain message. The just and gracious God of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful men in their rebellion, and He has sent His Son, God in the flesh, to bear His wrath against sin on the cross to show His power over sin in the resurrection, so that everyone who believes in Him, trusts in Him as Lord and King, will be reconciled to God forever. So, when we speak, we tell people, what I call, gospel threads.
It is the character of God. We tell people about who God is. We tell people about the sinfulness of man. Now, that’s not popular. You give a cup of cold water; you get applauded in the world. You tell men they’re sinful and condemned before God, you don’t get applauded by them anymore. So, give the cup of cold water but don’t deceive them by keeping the truth back as well. The sufficiency of Christ. We talk about His life and His death and His resurrection and the necessity of faith. We call people to trust, and the urgency of eternity. We tell people to turn and trust in Christ.
Eternity is dependent on these gospel threads and gospel testimonies in the context of our lives. 1 Peter 3 says, “Be prepared to tell about the hope that is in you,” and when the church proclaims that gospel, God awakens peoples’ hearts. I love Acts 13. This is just one example of many. In Acts 2, people were cut to the heart when they heard Peter preach. Acts 13, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord and as many as are appointed to eternal life believed.” You see the passive there again. They were appointed to eternal life. God was doing this.
A short time ago, I was in Southeast Asia, and I was on the largest unevangelized island on the earth preaching the gospel. One night, I was preaching in this gathering. It was mostly followers of Christ, but some non-believers had come, and so I preached the gospel, and I’ll be honest. I preached, and when I was finished, I thought, “Well, that was definitely not my best performance.” It never felt like it connected, and they’re going, “Well, you preached the gospel, and three people trusted in Christ in this small gathering.” This gospel is good. It’s not dependent on how good we are or how well we can do. I just preach it, and the Spirit will awaken the hardest hearts, and they’ll be changed for eternity.
The church proclaims the gospel in light of Jesus’ purposes. This sums up what we’ve already talked about here. We are worshippers, and we are witnesses and just to emphasize and kind of press in on this picture: that witness is proclamation. The Spirit is in us, so that we would speak. Well, turn to Acts 2. I want you to see Acts 2:18, so pull out your Bible. When you see these places in the Old Testament, the prophets and others, when the Spirit is on them, they speak. “The Lord is on me to proclaim…” is a common phrase in the Old Testament.
That’s what the Spirit comes to do, and then you get to Joel 2, and you see that much of Peter’s sermon comes from Joel 2. So, in Acts 2:14, Peter stands and lifts his voice and addresses them. He starts to preach the first Christian sermon, and he gets down to verse 16, and he says, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” and then he starts to quote in verse 17. Now, look in your notebook and kind of keep them side by side. In your notebook, you have Joel 2:28-32, which is where he starts quoting from. Now, what I want to do is I want us to do a little sermon evaluation of Peter. I want us to see if he got the quote right.
We’ll start with Peter. Acts 2:17, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” All right, let’s pause for a moment. Did he get it right? “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” (Joel 2:28) Yeah, pretty close. “And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17) OK. He got that right. “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men…” (Joel 2:28-32)
So, he mixed those up a little bit, but, let’s give him credit. You know, it’s his first Christian sermon, so he mixed them up. In verse 18, he says, “Even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Acts 2:18) “Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-32) Wait a second. At the end of verse 18 Peter says, “And they shall prophesy,” and at the end of Joel 2:29, we don’t see “they shall prophesy,” and then he picks up “wonders in the heavens above, blood, fire comes.” OK, so Peter just added a phrase.
Peter, you blew it. The first Christian sermon, and you missed it, and it is written down for us to talk about for centuries, but what if this is telling us something there. When Peter says, “They shall prophesy. In those days, I’ll impart my Spirit on my people, and they shall prophesy.” Is there a difference between Joel 2 and Acts 2? Think about it with me. In Joel, in the Old Testament, only a few people were prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and others had the responsibility to proclaim the Word of God.
In the New Testament, the Spirit comes down in Acts. “I’ll pour my Spirit on all people,” and in the New Testament a lot of people are prophets. All the people that have trusted in Christ are prophets. Oh, this is good. Do you realize that the privilege that was reserved for Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel and a few people like that in the history of the Old Testament is a privilege that every single one of us have as Christ followers?
We are prophets. Now what does that mean? Does that mean we go out with some orange neon crosses into the city and preach a turn or burn message? No. What does a prophet do? A prophet speaks for God, and every follower of Christ in this world has the Spirit of God in you, and He has entrusted you to speak for Him, to tell people in whatever city/community you’re from, and tell people in the nations, “I come with the Word of God. Jesus has died on the cross. He has risen from the grave. He has paid the price for sin. Turn and trust in Him and be saved.” You can speak with the full authority of God, with the full Spirit of God, and see the Word bring fruit. Yes! That’s the whole purpose.
So, what I put in your notes are eight different passages here in Luke and Acts. If you remember, Luke wrote both Luke and Acts, and you can go back and look at them. You see the phrase “filled with the Spirit.” Every single time you see the phrase, “filled with the Spirit,” it is connected with the proclamation of the Word. The Spirit is in us. Yes. He’s in us to comfort us. Yes. He’s in us to give us gifts. The Spirit’s in us to do a lot of different things: convict us, guide us, lead us. Don’t miss it. The Spirit is in you to empower you to speak about Jesus, and so this is the whole purpose of the Spirit in us.
Oh, God, forgive us for the way we’ve almost tried to go back to an Old Testament picture! Oftentimes, the way we do church is we say, “Well, the pastor’s the preacher. We have a few people who are the speakers, so let’s bring them all to hear that person.” No. No. The way the gospel is going to spread in your city is not by a bunch of people coming into this building to hear it from a pastor.
The way the gospel is going to spread in your city is when every member of your faith family, empowered with the Spirit of God as prophets of God speaking on behalf of God, scatters throughout the city telling the people about the good news of Christ, and the way the gospel is going to go into your community, and the way the gospel is going to go to the nations is not by a select few pastors or missionaries and showing them on a video, putting them on a hologram if we’re really inventive and creative, then they’ll do the job. No. You’ve got every single person, if you’re in this room, who knows Christ, then you have the Spirit in you.
You have the Spirit in you, so this is not just somebody else. God has put you where you work and where you live for a reason, so you’re speaking for Him. This is how the gospel goes to the ends of the earth, and that’s the picture. The church proclaims the gospel in obedience to Jesus’ plan. “You will be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) That is an outline that unfolds over the rest of the book.
In Jerusalem in Acts 6, the gospel begins to go to Samaria. In Acts 8, the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria is at peace and being built up. In Acts 9, it’s in Rome. The end of Acts 28, it is going to the ends of the earth. So, in the Old Testament, God had promised His blessing for all nations. That was the picture in the tower of Babel. All these different languages are created. Then, in Genesis 12, God says, “Abraham, I’m going to call you out, and you’re going to be a blessing to all these different peoples in all these different languages,” and the reality is, from what we see in Acts 2, is that just coming to fruition. All these different languages are here, and the gospel is going to be proclaimed in every people group, and there’s coming a day when every tribe and people and language will gather around His throne and sing His praises because the church is evangelizing. That’s what the church does. It tells the good news. (New Testament: God’s gospel preached to all nations…)
What Does the Church Do: The Church Baptizes
Second, the church baptizes. So, what happens after the good news is proclaimed and people believe, and they’re called out by God’s grace? The church baptizes. “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41) We see this throughout the rest of the book of Acts. They were “commanded to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:48)
Every single follower of Christ in the book of Acts was expected to be baptized as part of their identification with Christ. This is the foundation. We talked about this. We are recipients of a new covenant, and baptism is a declaration that we belong to Jesus. You look back up in Acts 19 and Acts 10, and they were “baptized in the name of Christ…in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The language is, literally, identifying us with Christ, and I love this quote from John Stott. It is just simple but so true, “Being a Christian involves a personal, vital identification with Jesus Christ, and this union with him is dramatically set forth in our baptism.” This is why I would say clearly and as bluntly as I can to any follower of Christ hearing these words who has not been baptized: you are living contrary to the pattern of the New Testament.
This was initial. This wasn’t something you grew into. “Repent and be baptized.” Those who were received were baptized. It would make no sense to say, “Well, I don’t want to baptized.” How can you be a Christian and not want to be identified with Christ, and especially, in light of our brothers and sisters around the world? It was my first time with house churches in Asia, and I was teaching on baptism, and two of the believers had not been baptized. They came up to me and said, “We’ve not been baptized.” I said, “Well, OK. You need to be baptized.”
So, they said, “OK,” and so we arranged it. So, these house churches gathered together, and we were about to baptize. So, I had taught them about baptism, and I thought, “OK, I’ve taught them well on baptism,” but I learned a lot more in the next couple of minutes. When they brought those two men before the house church, and they asked them about their confession of faith, they shared about their trust in Christ, but then they asked them both a question: “Are you willing to be baptized today knowing that it may cost you your life?” The first guy was a teenager. He said, “No matter what it costs, I want to be baptized.” The second guy, an older guy, said, “I’ve already sacrificed everything to follow Jesus Christ. I want to be baptized.” So, these two are baptized, and we don’t need to treat baptism flippantly. This is important.
It’s our identification with Christ but not just with Christ. We talked about how we’re members of new community, and baptism is a declaration that we belong to each other. I want to show you that baptism is core to what it means to be a part of the church. It’s a core function and activity of the church to baptize. It’s something that the church does, and it’s something that the church is: a body of baptized believers.
Now, there are a variety of questions about baptism. We don’t have one passage that gives us just a systematic treatment of baptism, so I have put five questions here in your notes that I want to just run through and say, “All right. Here’s where Scripture teaches about baptism.” Number one: we follow the example of Christ. In Matthew 3, this is what Jesus did. He shows us in a powerful way His identification with us even though He had no sin. Baptism was a picture of repentance, so we follow the example of Christ.
We obey the command of Christ. The book of Acts tells us to repent and be baptized. It was a command. Jesus says, at the end of the book of Matthew, “Go…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” How are you going to do that and tell others to be baptized if you’ve not been baptized? How are you going to obey the Great Commission when you’re disobedient to what you’re going to tell others to do? That would make no sense. It’s a contradiction.
This is an obedience issue, and third, when we’re baptized, we unite with a body of Christ. Look down in Ephesians 4:4, “One body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one lord, one faith, one baptism…” Now, some scholars don’t think that’s talking about physical baptism, and maybe it is; maybe it’s not, but here’s the point. In the Gospels and the book of Acts and in all these letters, everybody who followed Christ was baptized. It wasn’t even a question. So, it was there. So, an unbaptized believer is like an oxymoron.
There is no such thing in the New Testament as unbaptized believers, so that’s why we’re baptized. Jesus’ example, His command, and we unite with the body of Christ. This is the church saying, “When somebody is baptized, we see that this is somebody who’s trusted in Christ, and we affirm that we celebrate with them,” and they say, “Yes, I’ve trusted in Christ. I’ve been called out, too.” This is good.
What is the meaning of baptism? First, and this is key, it is a celebration of the grace of Christ. Roman 6 is the picture of baptism. This is talking about how Christ died on a cross as our substitute, and He rose from the grave as our Savior, and this is our identification with Him in baptism. It’s an illustration of the Gospel of Christ. Baptism is not your salvation, but it’s a picture of your salvation. This is very key. If called by God’s grace through faith in Christ, we’re children of God, and we are baptized as children of God. It’s an illustration of the gospel of Christ. When we go into the water, it’s a picture of identification with His death. When we come out of the water, it’s a picture of participation in His resurrection. When you’re baptized, you don’t go in and stay underwater because Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. He’s out, so you’re out. That’s the picture that is displayed every time somebody is baptized. It’s the gospel.
It’s a celebration, an illustration, and it’s a proclamation of the glory of Christ. This is Colossians 2:11. It’s a great picture of how Christ has taken away our sins. He made a public spectacle of sin and triumphed over sins on the cross. It’s a declaration in the church and beyond. That’s the meaning of baptism.
How are Christians baptized? This is where you’re going to get different answers in different churches, and I imagine there’s different answers represented among people doing this study. The reality is there are great heroes of the faith in my own life who would disagree with me on these things. So, I want to humbly put this before you. I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t think it was what Scripture is pointing us to, but at the same time, this is one of those places where there’s certainly room for different opinions. This is not an issue over which Christians would say, “Well, either you’re a Christian or not whether you believe this or not.”
So, I’m convinced in answering how Christians are baptized that the most biblical mode of baptism is immersion. That Greek word, literally, “baptizo” means to emerge, to submerge, to dunk. That’s how John got his name. John the Baptist, that’s what he did. Look at this on a few different levels. We saw it in Matthew 3 and Mark 1. He “was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water…” He was not sprinkled, not a cup over the head; He was in the water, and He came up out of the water. The pattern of early church leaders in Acts 8. An example is the Ethiopian eunuch. “What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip doesn’t go run down and get a cup and bring it back up. They go down in the water, baptize, then come up out of the water.
So, that’s the picture of the gospel. That’s the illustration of the gospel. We identify with Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s the picture that’s there in immersion. I am not claiming to have the corner of truth on this. At the same time, I think there’s good biblical precedent to rest on here. The biblical mode of baptism is immersion.
Who should be baptized? This is another area where we would differ some, particularly, with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. I believe Scripture clearly teaches that the only people who should be baptized includes everyone who has been born again. The key word being “again” not just “born.” That’s, obviously, where the distinction would lie. Where you put the period is key.
Again, this is where I have heroes in the faith who have advocated infant baptism on a variety of different bases, and I don’t think I could accurately represent a picture of infant baptism, but the reality is that I think the testimony of Scripture is clear that baptism is a declaration that you belong to Christ, and that your heart has been changed and regeneration has occurred. I put Colossians 2 there in your notes. Even though parallels with the old covenant and circumcision are often used as a basis for why infant baptism takes place; that baptism is like circumcision in the old covenant and how those relate. I think the reality is, in the old covenant, yes, circumcision involved physical birth into a physical community.
Where I think the parallel is, and I think this is what Paul refers to, is that new covenant baptism follows spiritual birth into a spiritual community. Baptism is a reflection of spiritual birth, and that happens by the sovereign work of God’s grace in the gospel in our hearts. Spiritual regeneration precedes physical immersion. External demonstration follows internal transformation.
This is when our hearts have been changed which, obviously, cannot happen in an infant. When our hearts have been changed is when we are baptized. I do think, obviously, it’s good and healthy for parents to say, “We want our child to be raised in the nurture and care of the gospel of Christ from the very beginning.” So, I wouldn’t say that’s not healthy, but I do think that we confuse the picture of baptism when we don’t do it after somebody has trusted in Christ.
When should Christians be baptized? That’s the picture: as soon as they trust in Christ for salvation. I put all these instances from Acts in your notes. Believers were baptized soon, and the picture is, first of all, it’s not something you do over and over again. You are baptized, and then you don’t get re-baptized. You get baptized once. If you were “baptized,” or you were immersed or had water poured or anything else, or you were not a follower of Christ, and then you were immersed later; the reality is you just went for a swim that time; this is baptism.
So, the other thing here that I want to add, and I know this is totally on shaky turf, and I will admittedly put it out there from the very beginning, that I don’t have a Scripture, necessarily, to point you to this. So, that should set all kinds of yellow flags off in your mind. So, I’ll put them out there for you, but I would add as soon as we can most wisely testify to our salvation, we should be baptized. Here’s why I put that, because I perceive a potential danger in our cultures and cultures like us that are more predominantly Christian. Every specific instance that we see in the New Testament of baptism in all those passages in Acts involves an adult.
Admittedly, we do see households being baptized, but we don’t see specific ages. However, every specific instance involves an adult in a non-Christian context where it was risky to do this. I think we need to be really careful in our culture and cultures like ours when it comes to children who, in an area where it is socially acceptable and socially suggestible to be baptized, that we don’t give children a false hope of their salvation. It’s a way of getting approval, even in society, to be baptized, and it’s easy, especially in the way we so often do children’s so-called “evangelism,” where we use unbiblical terms in it.
You can get children to say a variety of different things, and I think it’s wise for us to be discerning as pastors, and for parents to be discerning when it comes to a culture where baptism is accepted and common, and even encouraged. However, with a child who may not yet fully understand the gospel, and that’s tough to define, we need to be careful. I just think there’s room for some wisdom there, and I think Scripture would point us to that kind of wisdom.
We have this picture of baptism. When you think about baptism, think about a wedding ceremony. I remember my wedding ten years ago. I’ll never forget the moment when I saw my wife’s face for the first time on our wedding day, and I just realized, “Yes, she’s mine.” This is the picture, and a whole host of people were also there to say, “Yes, she’s yours.” It was testifying to everybody that she’s mine, and this is what baptism is. It’s a public picture designed to be a public picture. It’s not a private thing as the church baptizes. The church baptizes because this is the church saying, “Yes, he belongs to Christ; she belongs to Christ,” and it’s you saying, “Yes, I belong to Christ; He’s mine. I’ve identified with His death. I’m dead to sin, and I’ve identified with His life, His resurrection, and I’m alive in Him,” and the church celebrates together. Why would we not make that a priority in the church? That’s good. We need to do this. That’s why it’s a non-negotiable, essential functional activity of the church.