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What Went Wrong With the Church?
David A. DePra
There is something wrong with the Body of Christ today. Something terribly wrong. What is it?
The answer is not hard to discover. In fact, it is as clear as a bell. The Body of Christ has lost it's focus. It has forsaken the basic Truths of Christianity. Or, to be even more direct about it, the body of Christ has left it's first Love -- Jesus Christ -- and has become centered in other things.
What are some of these other things? Well, for one thing, the church has become focused on itself as an organization. This has been going on for two-thousand years. Another thing we get focused on is the serving we do FOR Christ, rather than on Christ Himself. And thirdly, many of us simply settle for a religion centered around Christ, instead of a relationship in Him.
God did not intend things to be this way. The early church was not like that. And if we look back at this early church, we may discover the true intention of God for His Body, and an example for us today.
The Upper Room
Two thousand years ago, a group of disciples, exhausted and frightened, huddled together in an upper room, waiting for what they were told would be “the promise of the Father.” What was this “promise of the Father?” And what impact would it have on their lives?
The last three and one-half years had seen these disciples experience possibly every emotion on the spectrum. They had, at first, curiously followed a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Later, He would specifically call them to be His apostles and disciples. What an adventure they were in for!
These disciples had seen Jesus perform miracles beyond anything they could have imagined. And His preaching! It was such a radical departure from anything they had ever heard before. Even now, they did not fully understand many of the things He had spoken to them. But rather than be a cause for apprehension, this was a source of hope. For they had come to understand the most important thing of all: Jesus was God become man. The Son of God. The Word of Life. And He had chosen them to be His messengers.
In the last seven weeks, these disciples had seen Jesus crucified, buried, and
raised from the dead. He had spent
forty days opening the scriptures to them.
And only a few days ago, they had seen Him taken bodily up into the
Even before the crucifixion they had recognized that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt. 16:18) But only now was it beginning to dawn on them what all of that meant. Only now were they beginning to see that their Messiah had come to redeem the entire world.
So they waited. They waited for this “promise of the Father,” which, said Jesus, you have heard of Me. For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” (Acts 1:4-5)
There is nothing recorded in the gospels or the book of Acts to indicate that Jesus explained to these disciples any more than that. There is no indication that they knew what to expect, or how to act. They were simply told to stay in Jerusalem and to wait. To wait for this “promise of the Father.”
It is so easy to fall into the mistake of placing ourselves in that upper room with the disciples with our frame of reference for Christianity – thinking that it was their frame of reference. But doing so is nonsense, for we must remember that these disciples had no frame of reference for Christianity. To this point, there WAS no Christianity. On the day before Pentecost, there were no churches. Only synagogues. There were no ministries. No one was preaching Christ. In fact, the Bible, as we know it, did not yet exist. The New Testament was not yet written. The Old Testament was available, but mostly in those synagogues. With few exceptions, scripture was communicated orally. Rarely were copies carried around by the common man. When they were, usually what was carried was some portion of the Old Testament, rather than the entire work.
So if we place ourselves in the upper room, we must first erase everything we know about Christianity. We must pretend we have never been to church. We must imagine that we have never read a word of the New Testament. We must forget how a Christian is supposed to act, and how a Christian is supposed to talk. We must push away every religious tradition we have learned, and we must forget every religious bias we have acquired. Our entire vocabulary regarding the things of God must be altered.
Now, of course, the adjustment we must pass through to be in that upper room involves more than just the things we must erase. There are likewise many things we must add. First of all, we must replace everything we have learned “about Christ” with something better: A personal experience with Jesus Christ Himself. After all, these disciples knew Him as a human being. They had walked and talked with Him. So instead of only believing that Jesus died and was raised, we must imagine what it must have been like to have witnessed these facts first hand.
The disciples in that upper room had seen their lives shattered, their deeply rooted religious traditions overthrown, and their Master crucified. And then they had seen it all somehow made right through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Now they were waiting for “the promise of the Father.”
Here is the question: If we could start all over again, and erase the last two-thousand years of Christian history and experience, and get back into that upper room, waiting for the promise of the Father – if we could do that – would the result of our Pentecost be something we would recognize as the Christianity of today? Or has the Christianity of today, indeed, the Christianity of the last two-thousand years, strayed so far off course, that it barely resembles what God began that first Pentecost? Would the disciples recognize today’s Body of Christ as being the offspring of the church of their day?
The Kingdom Complex
Who were these disciples? Why had they followed Jesus? Where had they come from, such that they were now in this upper room waiting for "the promise of the Father?"
Let's go back a few days to the Mount of Olives, just before Jesus ascended into heaven. As the disciples stood there, on the Mount of Olives, shortly before Jesus ascended, it is clear that they were still confused as to the full meaning of the events which had taken place over the last seven weeks. They were especially confused about the kingdom of God. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, they had heard Him continually preach about the “kingdom of God.” This was no small point of interest among these disciples, let alone the nation of Israel. If there was one thing the disciples were interested in, it was this long-awaited kingdom.
It is important that we understand where the disciples were coming from in their understanding and expectation of the kingdom of God. It will show us how radical a departure from their religious tradition it was for them to begin preaching a spiritual kingdom, ruled by the risen Christ.
Much of the confusion the disciples experienced during the ministry of Jesus is understood once we discover their concept of the kingdom of God. For the kingdom which the nation of Israel expected was not the kingdom Jesus preached. In some ways, in fact, these two kingdoms were at odds with each other.
In a nutshell, Israel expected a national kingdom; a restoration of Israel to glory among the kingdoms of this earth. This meant a nation free from foreign occupation and tyranny. And most importantly, it meant that Israel could freely worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Of course, to them, this meant the temple as the center of the universe, the Levitical priesthood, the Old Covenant, and the law -- all as interpreted and implemented through their religious and nationalistic traditions.
Of course, we must once again remember that our frame of reference for Old Covenant, as Christians, was not their frame of reference. To them, there was no “Old Covenant,” or “New Covenant.” There was only THE covenant. The idea of another covenant, even a better one, “based on better promises,” (see Hebrews 8:6) was not even in their thinking.
The concept of the Messiah which was held by Israel in that day fell right in line with their concept of the kingdom. The Messiah, according to them, would be more or less a personification of Israel. He would come to save them, and only them. A few Gentile converts would be the exceptions. The Messiah would exalt the nation Israel and subdue the Gentiles. In effect, the Messiah would be an Israeli Messiah.
Notice the theme in Israel’s concept of the kingdom: It was mostly nationalistic, physical, and traditional. But Jesus came preaching about a spiritual kingdom, which was for all men, both Jew and Gentile. Rather than come as the king of Israel, Jesus came as the Lamb of God, sent to take away the sin of the world. Jesus simply did not act, preach, or operate like the Jewish Messiah they expected. He seemed, at times, to be the antithesis of everything Israel expected their Messiah to be.
This conflict began almost from the day John the Baptist announced Jesus. John said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Israel did not expect the Messiah to come as a Lamb. They expected a King. And sin? The Pharisees did not believe in original sin. And the world? What does the Messiah have to do with the world?
Thus, right from the start of the ministry of Jesus, He found Himself at odds with the religious leaders of His day. His teaching cut across everything they demanded must be the Truth. They did not understand Him, and they did not want to understand Him. They wanted a Messiah, and a teacher, who would affirm them, and tell them how right they were. Jesus came belonging to no man, simply teaching the Truth of God.
The disciples of Jesus shared the Pharisaical misunderstanding of the kingdom of God, and of the Messiah. We see evidence of this everywhere in the gospels. Again and again, Jesus spoke of the kingdom in spiritual terms. Again and again, the disciples understood Him in physical terms. And quite frankly, one of the reasons why Christians today have problems understanding the teachings of Jesus regarding the kingdom of God is that we often try to interpret His words on a physical level. We unwittingly fall into the same trap.
Jesus could not have been more clear about the KIND of kingdom He was talking about in His teaching. We read in Luke, “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God comes not with observation. (i.e., In a way which can be observed with the eyes.) Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
Continually, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was not an earthly nation. It was not even a church. It was not heaven. It was not a place where God reigns. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was “God’s reign” over any place. Get that. The kingdom of God is the realm or reign of God. So if God’s reign is over any thing, that item is in the kingdom of God.
We must see this or we will never understand the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that no one can say to you, “Look. HERE is the kingdom of God.” They cannot say, “Lo here!” or, “Lo there!” Why? Because the kingdom does not come in a way which can be observed with the eyes. The kingdom of God is within you. It is a spiritual kingdom.
Never, during the ministry of Jesus, did the disciples understand this. Even after He had died, been raised, and was standing on the Mount of Olives, they did not understand. We know this because of what they asked Him immediately prior to the ascension. They asked Him, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
The patience of Jesus with these disciples was an example for us. When would they finally understand this? Jesus knew they would eventually grasp the Truth. So He simply said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.” There would be a kingdom for Israel. But not now. Not for a long time. In effect, Jesus was saying to them, “It is time to close the book on this issue. It is not for you to know when God intends to restore the kingdom to Israel.”
Jesus had something better in mind. For He knew that an earthly kingdom of God would be nothing but a hollow shell unless the real kingdom was first set up in the hearts and lives of people. So He told His disciples, “But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The disciples had hoped to be on the ground floor of this soon-to-come kingdom of God. They had expected Jesus to reign and rule from the temple in Jerusalem, with them at His side. They had, in fact, left everything to follow Him, expecting that kind of kingdom. But now He was leaving them. But not without direction. He was telling them what He really wanted: For them to receive power. For them to BE His witnesses.
Note that to BE a witness involves much more than to simply “witness.” It means to have the kingdom of God in my heart. It means to be in that spiritual kingdom with Jesus as my personal Lord. Then my life is a witness; I am a witness. Then I can “witness” and it will be real.
As they stood on the Mount of Olives that final day with Jesus, the disciples had whatever remained of their “kingdom complex” completely eradicated. Never again do we read of any of them speaking of the kingdom in earthy terms. And as they gathered together in the upper room, waiting for “the promise of the Father,” they must have sensed that something new was about to happen – something which none of them could have possibly anticipated.
The fact that the disciples in the upper room obeyed Jesus, and tarried in Jerusalem, proves they knew something was going to happen. Indeed, the fact that they replaced Judas with Matthias indicates that they knew there was a future. Jesus had commissioned them to go out and preach the gospel. And they intended to do it. But first they had to do exactly what Jesus told them to do: Wait and be ready.
The disciples, about one hundred and twenty of them, spent these days praying. We read, “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” (Acts 1:14) So we know they took their calling seriously, and were focused on the will of God.
One cannot but help wonder what went through their minds. They had been with Jesus for three and one-half years. Mary had been His mother. What stories they must had shared! They had seen Him crucified and raised from the dead. And then they saw Him ascend to heaven. Certainly Jesus must have revealed much to them during the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension. There must have been much discussion about that. Much illumination regarding the things which Jesus did during His ministry.
There is nothing recorded in the Bible which indicates that the disciples knew that this day of Pentecost would be special; that it would be the day something would happen. Pentecost had been an Old Covenant holy day which God had ordained for the nation Israel. It falls roughly fifty days after the feast of first fruits, depending on how the days fall during Passover week. So probably the disciples celebrated this Pentecost, expecting it to be like most others.
When Luke wrote the second chapter of Acts, he chose his words carefully. He wrote, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come…” Fully come. Or, to say it another way, Pentecost was about to be fulfilled. Everything which the day of Pentecost had foreshadowed was now about to come to pass. The “day” of Pentecost had fully come – the fullness of what intended by it was upon these disciples.
Luke tells us what happened almost
casually. He says, “And
when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one
place. And suddenly there came a
sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where
they were sitting. And there
appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
The intention here is not to examine the gift of tongues. It is not to try to figure out whether these tongues were the same as the “gift of tongues” later spoken of in the New Testament. Or whether tongues are for today. The focus here is upon the fact that these disciples had something happen to them. Something which they did not initiate or anticipate. Something initiated by God.
We must see this. Today, people are sometimes “taught” how to speak in tongues. Or taught how a person is “supposed to act” when the Holy Spirit is upon them. People learn how to act, either by direct instruction, or by observing what others do. Most of it is sincere. But out of order. These disciples had no such teachers. They didn’t have a handbook on the spiritual gifts. They never attended a seminary. They had no examples and no experience. And the parts of the New Testament which address the spiritual gifts were yet to be written. They were totally ignorant on the subject.
But stuff happened. Lots of marvelous stuff. They spoke in tongues and apparently manifested a behavior which got the attention of many people. Peter stood up and preached a powerful sermon under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it converted many, right on the spot.
How? How did this happen? How could a group of “unlearned and ignorant men,” (Acts 4:13) do this? They had no formal training. No education.
Or did they?
The apostles and the disciples DID have training, didn’t they? Yep. But not in any institution. They possessed no degrees. Instead, they have been with Jesus Christ. And that is the key. Someone who has been with Jesus, and continues to be “with Him,” is able to be used by God far more than someone who has studied about Christ in many books. These disciples had little formal education to pour into their ministry. But they had lots of Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Head of the body. Anytime Christians forget this, and begin putting someone or something else at the center, spiritual life suffers.
The small group of disciples who were in that upper room did not know how to put someone or something else, instead of Jesus, at the center of their lives. No one had yet come into their midst with such nonsense. They had only Jesus Christ. Thus, God was free to do something special; some earth shaking.
We need to see that Jesus Christ as the center was the key here for these disciples. Not the church. Not an organization. Not doctrines. Not teachings. Not gifts. Not each other. And not even the great commission. Jesus Christ. The disciples had an eye that was single upon Jesus, and were of one mind seeking the will of God.
God’s will is that we keep our eyes on Jesus, and let Him take care of the rest. This does not mean we are passive. But it does mean that we must have an eye which is “single” and focused upon Christ, and upon the will of God. The rest of what happens will be the by-product. It will be motivated by faith and obedience to God.
Ever since the apostolic age closed, however, we have acquired a better way of doing things. Instead of submitting ourselves to God, and letting the gifts operate out of this submission, we have figured out a way to by-pass submission to God, and have the gifts anyway. Or at least a substitute for the gift. Not the real thing. What we often end up with is a “form of religion” but no power. (see II Tim. 3:5) We end up with something that often looks like the real thing, but is of US, and not God.
I am here not pointing a finger at charismatic groups. Non-charismatic Christians have been guilty of this to an even greater extent, regarding some of the less controversial gifts. Instead of allowing God to give His gifts to men, and then to allow those gifts to be evidenced, many churches have shown little regard for whether the gift or calling of God is upon someone. Instead, if a person has a degree he is considered qualified to be pastor or teacher. This is not a criticism of education. But education is never the way anyone grows in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And you cannot drag down a spiritual gift from heaven by getting a degree. Education, at best, a wonderful adjunct to a real calling.
If you want to know what went wrong with the early church generally, and what goes wrong with any church today, we find the core of it here. Anytime a group of people begin to replace the Living Christ with doctrines and teachings about Him, they have Biblical religion, but no resurrection life. Anytime a church begins to make “the church” the center, rather than the Person of Christ, spiritual life suffers. And the most tragic thing of all is that those who fall into this trap usually think they are alive and well.
Today’s churches are filled with “church-goers.” But how many of us are born again believers who are walking in the power of resurrection life? How many of us are dying with Jesus Christ daily, carrying our Cross?
The first disciples had not yet learned how to play church. They had not yet discovered how to play politics in a church, or how to put on the guise of a Christian. They were just people – people upon whom the day of Pentecost had come. And they would move forward to turn the world upside down.
What does this say to us? It ought to suggest to us that the church has gotten off the track.
These first disciples did not have doctrines, teachings, and the Bible – not the way we do today. But they had a relationship with a Person. And despite the fact that we should cherish our doctrines, teachings, and certainly God’s Word, and preach them boldly, we need to get back to this basic: Christianity is a living relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ.
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