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The Building of God


By Ted Schroder

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." (Acts 17:24,25) God, who made and supervises everything in the universe, cannot be captured in human shrines which human beings have built. Any attempt to limit or localize the Creator God, to imprison him within the confines of manmade buildings, structures or concepts is ludicrous. God sustains our lives, we are dependent on him for everything. We do not make God. God makes us. God makes us to bear his image, and to be his dwelling place on earth.

"You are God's building. Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you. " (1 Corinthians 3:9,16) The tabernacle, and later the temple, was central to Israel's worship. Even Jesus when on earth upheld the temple as the father's house. The woman of Samaria, raised the age-old question of the correct location for worship. Jesus primarily answered by saying that the time was coming - and it did come on the day of Pentecost, after he ascended to heaven - when even the temple would have no real relevance to worship. Instead, the true worshippers would worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:7-24)

We must worship, not simply outwardly by being in the right place and taking up the right attitude, but in our spirit. Jesus is pointing to the need for complete sincerity and complete reality in our approach to God. God is seeking such to be his worshippers. He is actively seeking us out to worship him in this way.

This new kind of worship would mean that we would no longer need holy buildings in order to worship the holy God. Instead we ourselves would be made holy by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The sacrifices which were made in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple would no longer need to be made, since Christ had made the supreme and final sacrifice, and since Christian believers would be offering their daily lives as living sacrifices. (Romans 12:1) The offering of ourselves is holy and pleasing to God because it is our spiritual act of worship. Who we are, what we do, how we relate to God and one another, is part of our worship.

A building is no longer the temple or house of God: it is God's people who are now so called. A building is not to be a holy place; rather God's people are called to be a holy people. Wherever God's people gather, that place is holy. Certainly, from a purely practical point of view, buildings are necessary for a meeting place of God's people, but they do not replace them.

When we look at the Old Testament, it seems that God deliberately chose a tabernacle as the symbol of his presence among his people because of its mobility. For forty years God's people moved when God moved, and the tabernacle was carried easily with them. From the very start, God intended that his dwelling should be in the midst of his people (Exodus 25:8); but because of the sin and rebellion in their hearts, his habitation had to be symbolically expressed in the tabernacle. Therefore the design of the tabernacle was given in great detail by God to Moses. Even the ark of the covenant, the special symbol for God himself, was essentially mobile: "You shall put the poles into the rings on the side of the ark, to carry the ark by them." (Exodus 25:14)

This emphasized the fact that everything about their lives was temporary. Every time they moved they had to put up their tents and then take them down again. Every time they wanted to worship they had to set up and take down again. This mortal life is a time of change, of moving from one day to another. Nothing is permanent. Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Henry F. Lyte)

In his book, People-Centered Evangelism, John Havlik summed it up like this: "The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray. A structure of brick or marble can no more be a church than your clothes of serge or satin can be you. There is in this world nothing sacred but man, no sanctuary of man but the soul." (p.47)

For the first two centuries, the church met in small groups in the homes of its members, apart from special gatherings in public lecture halls or market places, where people could come together in much larger numbers. Significantly these two centuries mark the most powerful and vigorous advance of the church, which perhaps has never since been equaled. The lack of church buildings was no hindrance to the rapid expansion of the church; instead, in comparison to the situation after AD 200, it seemed a positive help. Argentinian pastor Juan Carlos Ortiz closed his church building for a month to see if the church could survive under times of persecution. It continued to flourish in the numerous small cell groups within the congregation, and more money came in during that month than ever before.

When a congregation goes through times of dislocation due to a building program it can be the opportunity for growth. We discover whether we are truly excited about the Gospel rather than the building. Do we invite people to visit our worship because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, or do we say to them to wait and come when we are in our newly renovated quarters? Is the focus on the content of our faith, or on the external meeting place?

Christ is both the architect and builder of his church (Matthew 16:18). Each church therefore needs to come humbly to Christ to ask his guidance and direction, and not just to copy the developments of another place. Although the basic principles should be the same, the detailed outworking of those principles will naturally vary. In particular, Christ's timing is all-important. What does Christ want us to be and to become at this stage of our lives, and the life of our congregation?

Christ is described as the cornerstone, on which the whole building depends (1 Peter 2:4f.). The Church rests on the total unique Event of which Christ is the center. As soon as a church moves away from the centrality of Christ, it at once ceases to be God's dwelling place. It is Paul who made it quite clear to the Corinthians that he was 'resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.' (1 Corinthians 2:2)

All true believers are being built into a holy temple, "for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:22) The presence and activity of the Spirit is indispensable before the church can ever be a place where God himself dwells. This is one of the greatest needs in the church today. A failure to see this will lead to constant frustration. We may adopt new structures, introduce new services, work hard on new plans and construct new buildings; but unless we are constantly experiencing the new wine of the Spirit, all will be in vain.

The first Christians did not start to share their goods in a free and full manner till after the bomb of the Spirit exploded in their souls at Pentecost. Before then, they would be morally incapable of this free and joyful sharing. You quickly lose interest in the church if you have nothing invested in it.

It may be helpful to remember that most buildings under construction look a terrible mess, at least to the untrained eye, until the last stage is reached. When our kitchen was recently renovated it seemed almost impossible that we would be eating and cooking there again.

The same is true of the church. The dust and dirt, chaos and confusion, of church life may make it hard to believe that a congregation could really be the temple of God. Yet if we have faith and patience, the architect and builder is hard at work, and knows very well what he is doing. On this earth we can never claim to have 'arrived'. The apostle Paul was well aware of this in his own personal life. 'Not that I am already perfect... but one thing I do... I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 1:12-14)

As a community of believers we can never afford to stand still. We can never be complacent. We recognize that the present is temporary, and serves as a preparation for what lies ahead of us. Our mortal bodies are dwelling places of God, yet they are impermanent. We are nomads on a journey. We are here today and gone tomorrow. What keeps us going and making life worthwhile is the knowledge that what we do matters eternally, and that we are going somewhere important. There is a purpose in our journey.

We have a clear destination and a compelling reason for traveling. Paul, the tent-maker, puts it this way: "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Corinthians 5:1-5)

To our minds this present existence is solid and real, whereas our coming existence seems shadowy and insubstantial. Paul teaches us that the reverse is true. The life which is to come - our destination - is strong, permanent and real; the present life is lived among the shadows. To assure us that this is so, we have been given the Spirit, to dwell within us. The presence of the Spirit within us is signified by our longing to arrive in our permanent home, where we can unpack for the last time and enjoy what God has planned for us in his presence. The Spirit is the down-payment of what is to come, like an engagement ring, pledging and guaranteeing the wedding day.

Abraham, who lived in a tent, once 'looked forward to the city which had foundations, whose builder and maker is God.' He and others 'all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar... Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.' (Hebrews 11:10,13,16)

(I acknowledge use of material from I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH, chapter 8, The Building of God, by David Watson, Eerdmans, 1978)

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