Although the church has a definite missional role and although God loves the world, the New Testament clearly demonstrates and teaches that the church, the bride of Christ, God’s holy people chosen and called out of the world, is loved by God more than he loves the world, and that the well-being of the church is more important to God than the world.

We get a glimpse of this in John 13:1 where John records: ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.’ Here a distinction is made between those who belong to Christ and those who don’t, with specific reference to Christ’s love for those who are his.

This special love that Christ has for the church is emphasised in Ephesians 5:25-27,29-30, where it is based on the unique relationship which exists between Christ and his church as a result of his sin-bearing death. Here we learn that Christ so loved the church that he gave himself up [he died] for the church; and that this death was not just an ordinary physical death, but a death by which Christ cleansed the church and dedicated the church to himself, ‘without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’.

In keeping with this we find that the focus of New Testament is overwhelmingly on the church, not the world:

  • A large portion of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels is focused on the understanding and behaviour appropriate to members of God’s kingdom, that is, the church.
  • Five entire chapters of John’s gospel [13-17] consist of care, instruction and prayer in relation to the church.
  • Jesus’ recorded resurrection appearances were in the presence of believers, not the world, and his resurrection conversations/teaching focus almost exclusively on the instruction and well-being of the church.
  • After commanding that we make disciples of all nations, the great commission then focuses on the edification of those disciples, the church.
  • Acts, even while recording the initial evangelistic thrust of the church, also includes reports of the extensive and intensive apostolic care of the church and concern for the survival of the church in the midst of both persecution from without and heresy within.
  • Every New Testament letter was written specifically to either the church corporately or to individuals within the church, with a heavy two-dimensional focus: [1] the instruction of the church to ensure accuracy of its understanding of Christ and salvation, and [2] the instruction of the church to motivate God-honouring life and practice. While missional activity was included in the latter, it is by no means a heavy emphasis in any of the letters.
  • Revelation is specifically a message of encouragement and hope to the persecuted church.

Over all, only John’s Gospel and Acts contain a dominant focus on the conversion of sinners; in John this concern is not expressed as ‘how many sinners got saved’ but in terms of whether or not a person or group of people are expressing appropriate belief in Christ [in other words, Christ is the real focus], and in Acts this concern is not ‘how many sinners got saved’ but ‘how many were added to the church’ [in other words the growth of the church is the real focus].

This fact that the New Testament is focused on the well-being of the church over and above its concern for the conversion of sinners is both instructive and challenging, and will be the focus of our thoughts over the next few weeks.

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2009