Resurrection Comes After the Cross
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Jesus (John 16:33)
The most urgent need in the modern church is resurrection. But there will be no resurrection into the Church of the Firstborn without the cross. Rather than the road Jesus designed for us travel we have gotten bogged down in the deeply rutted paths of our secular culture. Our restoration will only begin when we return to the cross. In the words of that great hymn, “The way of the cross leads home.” We begin our return by looking at the three essential components mandated by Scripture and exemplified in the New Testament Church.
The Way of the Cross and the Disciples
The Apostle Matthew wrote half his gospel before introducing the idea of the Church. Much of Jesus’ teaching preceded His reference to the Church. By the time Jesus began talking about the Church, people had developed many conflicting opinions about Him. That context is important for us if we are to understand what Jesus intended for His Church. With all the differing opinions floating around, He asked His disciples a question.
“ ‘Who do people say the Son of man is?’ ”
They responded with some popular ideas about Jesus that were around. Then Jesus probes a little deeper:
“ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ ”
The question got the disciples to examine their personal response to the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
“Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven . . . and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not over come it.’ ”
It is crucial that we grasp the importance of Jesus’ teaching that immediately follows:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
(Emphasis added) Matthew 16:21
As soon as Jesus introduces His Church (the Church of the Firstborn) to the disciples, He follows immediately with teaching about the cross. We will see that forever, His cross and His Church are to be identified together: The Church cannot be understood apart from the cross. Nor can it function apart from the cross. In the last New Testament book where the Apostle John is describing the vision given him of the end time, we read,
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’
“Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’
“I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’
“And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ”
Revelation 7:9, 10, 13, 14
At the end of this age, the cross and the Church are still mingled. The cross of the New Testament and the cross Jesus speaks of is not the ornamental fixture now found in most of our churches. Jesus is talking about the cross as execution. In the gospels, as He revealed His immediate schedule to the disciples, He includes the words “suffer” and “killed.” While the outcome is the same, current methods of execution are mild in comparison to the agonizing death the cross imposed on the body and spirit of its victims.
Jesus’ disclosure about the cross in His life is so revolutionary it offends Peter. Peter, our true contemporary, tries to straighten Jesus out and get Him on board with the disciples’ plan for Him:
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ ”
The cross was not in the disciples’ vocabulary nor part of their agenda. To them, the cross meant absolute defeat and humiliating death. “That is just not going to be allowed! That is not a winning program in our world!” Notice the contradiction: “Never, Lord!” Peter wanted nothing to do with the cross! Yet, how did Jesus describe Peter’s attitude regarding the cross?
“Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ ” Matthew 16:23
Peter’s perspective was that of his secular culture. Jesus was revealing the cross as central to His Church. Any attempt to remove it from its role as executioner to our ambitions and programs is satanic and contrary to God’s plan for the Church of the Firstborn.
The Way of The Cross and Our Church
What comes to your mind when you you think about your church? A church structure at a certain location in your city? Its size? Cost? Beauty or lack of it?
Yet, in New Testament days, church and building just did not go together. In those days, what came to mind when one said “church” was a group of people, not a church structure. Church equaled people. But will you consider something nearly impossible today? Think of “church” in New Testament terms!
Try to think of your church without a building. What would you have? If you are thinking, “Not very much!” you may have drawn the correct conclusion. A day is coming when every church structure in the world will be flattened—yet the complete church will continue to exist, unaffected. Imagining your church without a structure allows you to see your church as intended by the New Testament.
The Apostle Peter described the day when all human structures will be destroyed:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming . . . But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (Emphasis added) II Peter 3:10-13
Does that represent the vision you and others have about your church? Does that describe the use of time and energy by people you know at church?
Yes, we all tend to think of “our church” as structure, organization, programs, services, choirs, gifted preachers, etc. Unfortunately, this leaves out the one component which made up “the church” in the New Testament: People living holy and godly lives looking forward to a totally new home, uncorrupted by the world. We must conclude, then, that a church building is not necessary to have a church. In fact, a church building may destroy what the Church of the First-born is supposed to be and how it is to function. Without church buildings, we could concentrate on what the New Testament said is the church! But, you may ask, “Is that really possible in today’s world?” No, never in today’s world.
Can we look at an example from an existing church in California how a church building can actually destroy the real purpose of the “church?” This large, influential church recently built a new worship center complete with a family life center. In the family life center is space for a gymnasium. Funds have not been available to finish the gym. So, in this church, they periodically make appeals for money to complete the gym so that the church can begin to minister to young people. They remind members, “Until the gym is finished, there are ministry related programs our church just cannot accomplish.” Neighborhood kids are being prevented from hearing the Gospel! What a pitch! This sounds very plausible, doesn’t it? By this logic, if the church had no gym space at all it could never reach out to neighborhood kids, could it?
Let’s travel to another area. In this city (Chicago), one man saw young people in need. He was not a pastor, he did not “own” a church nor even a gym. Nevertheless, he thought that what kids in his neighborhood needed was sports activity to keep them off the streets and out of trouble and jail. So he went around his part of town to see if gymnasiums were being used all the time. No, they were not. That is all he needed to know. At this writing, he has more than 1,000 kids involved in basketball leagues, using existing gyms when no one else uses them.
The difference between the well-known church in California and the man in Chicago is vision. One sees facilities as essential to ministry. The other saw people as essential to ministry. Understand that the church in California is surrounded by all kinds of gymnasiums—probably fifty or so within a ten-mile radius. Yet, they are still pressing for the completion of that gym. They can’t function without structure! That’s the paradigm of our secular culture!
Are the people from the church with the gymnasium problem bad people? Not really. Over years, however, they have become convinced that success must to be measured by today’s standards. How foolish! It may take disaster to budge them from that position.
Identity Without Structure
In our secular culture, how can we tell whether a person or an organization is successful? How do we know if they really amount to anything? What are the indicators of achievement? On both the personal and corporate level, there has to be something to look at whether it’s an office building, a home, cars or a large organization we have built or to which we belong. Today’s world requires visibility to have presence. Our world says that without structure, you don’t have identity. Can you see how close that is to our thinking about successful churches? What size building do we worship in? How much money did we spend on it? How many members? How many on the church staff? Does it have a gymnasium?
For the Church of Modernity, so much depends on our secular culture’s values that if the Apostle Paul were a contemporary pastor, we would have him rewrite the ending of several of his letters. For example, in his letter to the Romans (the book which ignited the reformation) he writes,
“Greet also the church that meets at their (Priscilla and Aquila) house.” Romans 16:5 (see 16:10-16)
Not very impressive, is it. Must have been small potatoes. Probably a hastily penned, insignificant note to such a meager congregation. How distorted is our vision.
Paul and the other New Testament leaders could focus on the needs of the church (people) rather than on the “care and feeding” of church buildings and the administration of church staffs. Of course, this enabled them to apply their full energies to what God had in mind for the church—going into all the world, “making disciples of all people groups” and bringing them into maturity in the image of His eternal Son.
Today, we say that is no longer possible. You have to have structures to do the “Lord’s work!” Do you really believe that? If so, how could the New Testament church evangelize the known world and achieve formal recognition by the Emperor in 300 years without any church buildings? In fact, we could document that the church began to decline after it received approval from the Empire and began investing in real estate. As they built larger cathedrals and the clergy got stronger, the decline of the church reached the bottom. That could be one significant difference between the Church of Modernity and the Church of the Firstborn.
But let’s examine an example of very recent times. In one country, within the past forty years there has been a better than 5,000% increase in the growth of the church. How’s that for impressive numbers on which we like to place so much emphasis? The church in that country grew from just over 1,000,000 members in 1950 to somewhere between 60,000,000 and 75,000,000 members by 1982.
Furthermore, consider that the growth of this church was accomplished with virtually no church buildings, in the face of strong, organized government persecution and with most trained professional clergy in prison or expelled from the country. That is China’s church. How could that possibly happen? It is really quite simple! Jesus Himself talked about this kind of church.
The Samaritan Woman’s Question
The Apostle John records for us the talk between Jesus and a woman from Sychar in Samaria. You may recall that the disciples has gone into the town to buy food. Jesus had opened the conversation by asking for water. The startled woman replied,
“ ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”
Jesus began this important discussion by breaking longstanding cultural mandates. The conversation gets uncomfortable for the woman when Jesus accurately identifies the sin problem in her life—adultery. Recognizing Jesus as a prophet, the Samaritan woman immediately shifts the conversation to the question we want to consider: Where is the right place to worship? Notice how she constructs her question:
“ ‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ ” John 4:20
If ever Jesus had opportunity to dictate to His Church the mode, method and location for worship, this is surely it. That is precisely what He does!
In effect, the woman’s perceptive question opens the door for Jesus to make one of His most important announcements about the Church of the Firstborn:
“Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.’ ”
“ ‘A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’ ” John 4:21, 23, 24
In one radical statement, Jesus throws out all the baggage of contemporary cultures of the ages whether Samaritan, Jewish or 20th century American: The truth and spirit of worshiping God have nothing to do with location, program or the professional priesthood.
Just how does Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman relate to gymnasiums and basketball? Everything. Jesus was here declaring the essence of eternal life. That is what He had told the woman earlier in His conversation.
“Jesus answered . . . ‘Indeed, the water I give him (who thirsts) will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ ”
As Jesus announced to Nicodemus, the Jewish Pharisee, in the preceding chapter, eternal life concerns vital relationship with God. It is not what we do for a few minutes Saturday or Sunday in a certain building specially designed for worship. Yet, like the unfinished gym, we have confused location and program with the reality of the Church of the Firstborn.
Presence Without Visibility
Our secular culture decrees that presence must have visibility. What we have built or accumulated measures success. The Church of Modernity proclaims that structures give the church visibility and credibility. How false! Culture’s values are no more valid today than they were in Jesus’ time. He wants us to recognize that the Christian life is not about where and how we worship (structure), but a vital, constant, daily relationship with the Father (presence). Let’s carry this further.
All of the church’s mandates from Scripture, expressions of the fruit of the Spirit and exercising of spiritual gifts are to be manifested as we live (and outside the walls of church structures). However, the way we have arranged things today, probably 90% or more of the church’s activities are carried on within the confines of church buildings. And as one pastor confided, “Ten percent of the people are doing 90% of the work.”
We are discussing a major problem that has turned what is supposed to be the Church of the Firstborn into the Church of Modernity. It will take a holy revolution to demolish that paradigm! In today’s church, thinking of a church without its buildings and programs is impossible. It is that thinking that binds our ability to accomplish God’s plan for His Church, announced by Jesus by the well in Samaria.
Remember the church in China that, perhaps reluctantly, put into practice exactly what the New Testament church is to look like. We must give appropriate recognition to the Far East Broadcasting Company at this point. It began an incredible radio ministry into China just as the “Bamboo Curtain” closed down the frontiers of the country. The Holy Spirit took the unvarnished Gospel message and built a church with people—without structures, without visibility, fashioned in a convincing way to be the Church of the Firstborn. That invisible work of the Spirit was upheld by the faithful praying of the 1,000 missionaries who were expelled from the China mainland.
Again, imagine if you will what would happen if your church building disappeared—forever! Then the people of your church could decide to return to the New Testament model—a Church without walls. In the church I attend, we would immediately have 500 or more home based/neighborhood churches. (That sounds novel already.)
Think of some revolutionary changes that would happen. For example—getting back to basketball—if you really believed that getting neighborhood kids off the streets and into a gym would help, how would you go about it? Would you use the California model or the Chicago model? If a neighbor passed away, would you call the “church office” and ask for a pastoral visit to the surviving spouse, or would you go yourself? Which response would most likely display Jesus to your neighbors?
You see, the house/neighborhood church (or fellowship) is rather simple if we can begin to think of the Christian faith as something alive and active where we live—not some isolated structure where we “experience” worship. That is the message Jesus announced in Samaria 2,000 years ago. The woman couldn’t worship in “spirit and in truth” no matter where she went. She was living in sin at home and that is where Jesus said her life needed to be completely changed and brought into a relationship of worship.
Listen to how the Apostle Paul expressed it to the Roman Christians:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers (folks), in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”
It is the cross in our daily lives that forms the substance of holy and pleasing worship to God. It is not the sterile, unproductive words and expressions we proclaim Saturday or Sunday. Those pious phrases of praise, unadorned by broken and committed lives are unacceptable to God no matter what the surroundings or trappings of worship.
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, Of God, you will not despise.”
Psalm 51:16, 17
Yes, the Samaritan woman asked about the correct method and place of worship. Jesus pointed her to the right way of living. While today, we fight over method and place, Jesus is still looking for those to join Him in Spirit and in Truth. That kind of life overflows into our daily routine where we live, where we work, to our families, friends and neighbors.
The Incarnation of Christian Living and Worship
Think about how we worship, all of the energy and money spent to develop a presence using ornate structures and entertaining programs. Then think of where Jesus was born and where He died. Quite different because the New Testament church had its visibility in transformed lives where everyone could see. That is how God’s presence is to be manifested.
Notice how the Samaritan woman became an active member of the Church of the Firstborn:
“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him.”
She pointed them to Jesus and what happened?
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ ”
John 4:28-30, 39
If we would move our worship from our church structures where it is insulated from the realities of life and into our neighborhoods where it would be integrated into our living, people would start believing our testimony. It would transform what being a Christian means. The fruit of the Spirit would be on display, daily. The gifts of the Spirit would be used as intended and outlined in Ephesians 4. People would observe the power of the cross every day in Christian’s lives rather than seeing the cross as a religious symbol displayed on our buildings.
It would mean turning our backs on our secular culture’s standards for success and achievement. We would be in the company of Jesus as He was being crucified. He was tempted to abandon the cross and adopt the world’s way to gain recognition. He refused.
“Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’
“In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him, ‘. . . Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.” ’ ”
The cross is a very unforgiving instrument of death for the church. We have breathed a foreign kind of life essence into our organizations from our present secular culture. We have in turn rejected what is available from “the power of an indestructible Life” (Hebrews 7:16). The church has come a long way from the simplicity of a group of people who would gather in homes to pray and study God’s Word and went out to turn the world upside down.
Yes, these are radical conclusions! We need to be shaken from the secular notion that church structures somehow represent God’s presence. The church comes to life when, like the Samaritan woman, we give and practice our testimony where we live. The more time I spend in my church building, the less motivation I see to put the church where Jesus intended it to be—“in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:15-19). If we would build the church in our neighborhoods, not in structures but in lives as Jesus directed us, we would say with incredible power, “The Kingdom of heaven is near you” (Luke 10:9). As in Samaria, people would come running to see this Man, Jesus.
The Way of The Cross and The Church Leader
If the cross is to be central to the church, what place should it have in the life of the church leader? The Apostle Paul gives us the sense of what the cross is to mean for us.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on the cross!”
Humility characterized the Son of God. Although that is the standard church leaders are to follow, even in Paul’s time, there were those who did not subscribe to that kind of life. It is with great sorrow that he writes,
“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” Philippians 3:18-20
You see, I don’t have to look at anyone else to find how the standards of this world influence my living. Paul tells us all about the “life of the Cross,” exemplified by the life and death of Jesus Christ: It is a life of self-sacrifice in behalf of others, from the perspective of eternity. Can I look at my attitude and my life and honestly say this is true of me? Are my eyes “fixed on Jesus” or on a new program at our church or, perhaps, in some other community?
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him . . . so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Hebrews 12:2, 3
The problem in the Church of Modernity is that people who do not want to submit to the cross in their own lives are leading it. As the corporate church adopts worldly standards for success about its facilities, methods and programs, we need to ask ourselves: As leaders, do we justify our own lifestyles by imposing them on the church as a whole? In other words, is the church as a whole just the reflection of the lives of its leaders? This needs serious attention since Jesus laid down the principle of greater judgment for leaders.
“Then He said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ ” (Luke 9:23) The cross was not an ornament to Jesus: It was the vehicle of death. Did Jesus really mean the cross in those terms? “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said,‘ . . . anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ ” (Luke 14:25-27)
For leaders and followers alike, Jesus expects us to display the cross in our lives. Jesus did not alter or “tone down” His message just because there were large crowds.
The cross brings death—death to self, to ambitions and to our love of this world’s stuff. Without death, we can never experience resurrection. In powerfully clear words, the Apostle Paul explains the connection between death and resurrection.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Philippians 3:10, 11
Though it is large in numbers, the weakness of the Church of Modernity is that it knows little of the cross and nothing of the resurrection. You see, we cannot have the “power of his resurrection” without “becoming like him in his death.”