The Mission of God
Church Practice and God's Eternal Purpose
God did not create us primarily so He would have someone to save.
(Following are excerpts from Chapter 7 of Reimagining Church by Frank Viola)
Americans see the isolated individual as the source of all moral virtue and society as nothing more than a collection of these individuals. Evangelicism implicitly agreed. It spoke eloquently of saving individuals; but it did not take seriously what these individuals were saved into. They preached the gospel of the individuals rightly enough; but as true Americans, they did not see that God might intend to go further and make a people out of these persons. Evangelicism sought to transform people and so transform the world. They did not see that something might be missing from this vision, something their assumption of American individualism would hide from them. The true Christian vision is to transform people, transforming them into a people, and so transform the world. The evangelicals missed that middle term. They could not see the church as a foretaste of the new society; it was a club for the new individuals. The evangelicals simply dressed American individualism in Christian clothing. They ended up with the new isolated individuals, but in the old society. — Hal Miller
Behind the practice of the church stands an enormous and incredible purpose. Paul calls it the "eternal purpose" (Eph. 3:11).1 The book of Ephesians is a breathtaking unfolding of that purpose. In it, Paul puts the most sublime truths into human words.
Ephesians teaches us that the purpose of God stands far outside the reaches of redemption. From eternity, God the Father has been after a bride and a body for His Son, and a house and a family for Himself. These four images — the bride, the body, the house, and the family — comprise the grand narrative of the entire Bible.2 They are God's ultimate passion, His eternal purpose, and His governing intention. To put it another way, God's eternal purpose is intimately wrapped up with the church.
Most of us view the gospel as being primarily centered on human needs. The plotline is one of a benevolent God whose main purpose is blessing and healing a fallen world; that is, saving man's spirit/soul (evangelism) and/or saving his body (healing the sick, delivering the captives, helping the poor, standing with the oppressed, caring for the earth, etc.). But there is a purpose in God that is for God. That purpose was formed in Christ before the fall ever occurred. God did not create us primarily so He would have someone to save. The meeting of human needs is a by-product, a spontaneous outflow, of an eternal purpose that preceded our fall and is independent of it. That should lead us to ask a very incisive question: What would God have done with us if we had never fallen?
Overshooting the Main Point
Evangelical Christians have built their theology mostly on Romans and Galatians. And many nonevangelical Christians have built it on the Gospels (particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke). For both groups, Ephesians and Colossians have been but footnotes. But what if we began, not with the needs of humans, but with the intent and purpose of God? What if we took as our point of departure, not the earth after the fall, but the eternal activity in God Himself before the constraints of physical time?
In other words, what if we built our theology on Ephesians and Colossians and allowed the other New Testament books to follow suit? These two letters give us the clearest look at Paul's gospel with which Christ commissioned him. They begin, not with the needs of postfall humans, but with God's timeless purpose before creation. They also introduce us to Christ in His preincarnate state. Viewed from this perspective, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (along with the entire Old Testament), would fall into a very different place for us. And the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ and His counterpart, the church, would dominate our understanding of everything spiritual and physical.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Gospels are not the beginning point of the Christian faith. Neither is the Old Testament. Both give us the middle of the story. Ephesians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John are the introduction and the opening chapters of that story. Those writings give us a glimpse into Christ before time and what His mission is all about. His earthly life that's portrayed in the synoptic gospels must be understood against that backdrop. As DeVern Fromke says,
This which we see in Ephesians is what the Father intended to realize in His Son, and it has never been affected by sin, the fall, or time. It was this purpose which had previously been a mystery, that the Apostle Paul was now unveiling. For the Father from eternity had a wonderful purpose for Himself which of course included man. Redemption is not the end, but only a recovery program. It is but a parenthesis incorporated into the main theme.3
Tracing an Unbroken Thread
One of the easiest places in which to discover God's eternal purpose is in the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation. These four chapters describe a world untouched by sin. Genesis 1 and 2 have to do with events before the fall. Revelation 21 and 22 have to do with events after the fall has been erased. Because of this, these four chapters can teach us a great deal about God's eternal purpose. All four chapters are filled with many glorious themes that can be traced through both testaments. They move like an unbroken thread through the Bible. This continuity tells us that God has never given up on His eternal purpose. Even in the midst of the fall, He has still been working it out.
An exercise that would be well worth your time would be to identify the items common to both the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation, and then trace those items throughout the Bible. To do this thoroughly could take years, but it would give you enormous insight into God's ultimate purpose.4
Drawing It All Together
From the beginning, God wanted a bride to marry, a house to dwell in, a family to enjoy, and a visible body through which to express Himself. All of these images — the bride, the house, the family, and the body — point to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is from Him, through Him, and, ultimately, to Him (Rom. 11:36). Miroslav Volf has noted that "The church lives from something and toward something that is greater than the church itself."5 That 'something' is God and His eternal purpose.
The church is not only called to proclaim the gospel, but to embody it by its communitarian life. Gilbert Bilezikian says, "Christ did not die just to save us from our sins, but to bring us together into community. After coming to Christ, our next step is to be involved in community. A church that does not experience community is a parody, a sham."6 Unfortunately, the church in the West is dominated by individualistic and anticommunal attitudes. Its obsession with consumerism, individualism, and materialism has largely kept it from living out God's purpose.
Simply put, the purpose of the church is to stand for God's eternal purpose. It's called to live in the foretaste of Revelation 21 and 22. Whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ:
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body,
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