Last week, I left off the biblical argument just before I got to Paul. The argument, in case you are new to the series, is that the Old and New Testaments, contrary to our usual reading, don’t think of the church as a means to an end (i.e., the church’s purpose is missional, to make the world a better place). This was another misunderstanding of one otherwise thoughtful writer, who suggested I’m arguing that the church is an end in itself. I can see how my argument could be read that way. Instead, to be more precise, the church’s end is God and our fellowship with one another in God. Anyway, on to Paul:
I find it interesting to see how Paul adapts the prophetic concern—for righteousness among the people of God—to the local situation in Ephesus. In this epistle, he is clearly concerned first and foremost about the quality of life of the people of God.
For example, what, in Paul’s mind, are we supposed to do once we have been incorporated into the family of God? Note one summary that comes at the end of that classic passage on grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8–10, NRSV throughout unless noted).
From beforehand—which again reverberates with “before the foundation of the world” in chapter 1—God prepared us, called us, saved us to do “good works.” In chapter 1, we saw that those predestined works were summarized like this: “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” and to “live for the praise of his glory.” Not holy and blameless in some abstract way, nor holy and blameless in morality in general. But to be holy and blameless in one specific thing: before God in love.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth … were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:11–16)
Right after the line about good works, Paul begins talking about the new and amazing fact on the ground, that the people of God includes both Jews and Gentiles. Though formerly hostile to one another, that dividing wall between them has been demolished in Christ. Paul is anxious for his readers to see this utterly new situation: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:18–19).
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (4:1–3)
To summarize his argument: We all have been saved by grace. Through grace we are now called to live a life of good works, to be holy and blameless in love in the presence of God. Specifically, that means we are to learn how to live in love and unity in the body of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles together, as we glorify God. We are to live with one another in humility and gentleness, with patience and bearing one another in love, and to make every effort to maintain this unity in peace. These are the specific “good works” that we are called to perform.
Since the church’s destiny—its very reason for being—is to be a people that basks in the pleasure of being united to God in Christ and to one another so that Christ fills all in all, then right now, before that promise is fulfilled, we are called to live into that destiny. That means first and foremost learning to live in unity and love with one another as we praise his glory together in worship. This, it seems, is the equivalent of the prophetic call for the people of Israel to live righteously together.
We should note how this is the call of Jesus to all those who believe in him. Note his prayer at the end of his earthly life. It is the climax of his prayer, the destination of his prayer, what is most important for him to say at the end. He’s not merely praying for his disciples (soon-to-be apostles) but everyone who will come to believe in him:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20–23)
The church’s main horizontal “mission” (if we want to call it that) before the parousia is to live together in peace, to love one another, to do good works for one another, to be holy and blameless in love before God and one another, bridging the classic divides between Greeks and Jews, male and female, slave and free—and all in the context of worship, living for the praise of God’s glory.
My conclusion after surveying this biblical landscape is this: The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose are to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory. That, in fact, is the destiny of all humankind, no matter what corner of the globe they come from.