Paul Blackham is the true author of this piece - there is little here that he hasn’t said first. I am massively indebted to Paul for his teaching and preaching, and the time he has spent sat with me helping me think through Church. If there is anything here that is confusing or unclear - that is totally down to my poor writing and inability to communicate a great idea. Anything that you recognise to be brilliant in here is 100% pure Blackham.
What is Church?
We want to share with you some of what we have been thinking through as a launch team. The first question I wanted to answer at our first ever launch team meeting was: ‘What is Church?’ Now - happily - no one in the launch team was actually asking this question! But really - isn’t this a question we should be continually asking, and making sure we have clear in our minds? What is church? What is our mission? Who are we, what are we meant to be doing?
Too often we can get into a rut and a tradition that sees us bobbing along happily doing the same thing week in week out, without noticing that we’ve strayed from God’s pattern for the church. Never realising that we haven’t changed anything for the past 20 years, and so we’re not longer effective in displaying the glory of God to an unbelieving world. And so this is a question I want to keep asking and answering - not just as we plant, but continually, throughout the life of Hope Church Halifax.
What follows is essentially what we covered in our first ever launch team meeting. I pray you will be blessed by it as we have been.
Life and Help from Jesus
There are perhaps a number of legitimate answers we could give to the question, ‘what is church?’. We could talk about it being the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, God’s covenant people - and all that is true. But as we think about how we ‘do church’ let’s answer that question in relation to the church’s purpose and function: What is church? Answer: Church is the where we get life and help from Jesus.
That is what we all need right? Life and help from Jesus. And the good news is - if we know how to cry out for help, then we know how to get help from heaven through Jesus. Jesus not only rescues us from a lost eternity, but he also rescues us from a lost life here and now - a message that is too often missing from our reformed pulpits, because we’re worried we are going to sound like prosperity preachers.
But Romans 1 shows us that Jesus knows what we’re like - He gets us! We might think that no-one could ever understand us, or that no-one would want to know us if they knew our dark secrets - but Jesus does! He can explain all the messed up things in our lives, He sees us and all our mess with absolute clarity - nothing is confusing or unknown to Him! And so we may feel helpless, but He has all the power of almighty God - He can fix every mess and bring hope to our deepest darkness. And he does this through the church.
And so - if church is where we get life and help from Jesus - in theory - a church plant should be very simple! It is a *new* place where people can get life and help from Jesus!
We plant churches to reach new people with the life and help that Jesus gives. Sometimes the legal, financial and practical considerations - as necessary as many of them may be for modern church planting - can make planting a church seem like an impossible task. But when everything is stripped back - planting a church is about planting a new place where people can get life and help from Jesus. And so if we love God, love people and know the good news about Jesus - people will get that new life from Jesus and the church will grow.
While there will be the need for programs and systems - particularly as a church grows - first and foremost we want to organise church according to the simple pattern of the bible - because we believe that the Living God knows how to present the good news better than any human theories.
The Tabernacle: the simple pattern for church
Almost half of the first 5 books of the bible are about the tabernacle: how to build it, and what to do with it. In fact it’s so important, the instructions for building it are given twice!
As Paul Blackham says: the tabernacle is the LORD God’s multi-media presentation of life the universe and everything
Reading about the tabernacle we can fall into the trap of overcomplicating what it is about. But God is not being unclear in his presentation of life the universe and everything - in fact he is being supremely clear. In it he shows us the simple truth that heaven and earth is separated - but Jesus brings them together in the church!
So how does the tabernacle show us this?'
The Tabernacle Furniture
There were three pieces of furniture the old testament church had to make to go in the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, the table of presence and the oil lamp. Meticulous instructions were given for each of these pieces of furniture, because they each had a very important purpose in God’s presentation to his people. The ark was like a throne that represented God the Father, the table of God’s Presence represented God the Son, and the seven-branched oil lamp represented God the Spirit.
As the furniture was laid out in the tabernacle we are given a very clear picture of what there was before the creation of the world: God the Father giving life to his Son. We see that at the foundation of everything is the triune family of God, united in life and love.
The tabernacle was built as one room - not two rooms. The tabernacle was built and the furniture set out - but then this one room was divided into two parts by a heavy curtain. The square inner part represented heaven, and the outer part represented earth. The heavy curtain represented the division that has happened between heaven and earth.
We can’t see the heavenly realms because of this division. Cut off from the life of God our life quickly runs out and we turn back into dust. And so we search for life - looking in all the wrong places - straying further and further away from the source of all life.
The incense burner
But the good news is that an incense burner was placed right next to the heavy curtain. As the High Priest burned the incense on the altar, its smoke wafted into the inner part of the tabernacle. The incense burner represented the church and the incense represented her prayers.
And so what we see is that although heaven and earth is separated because of the fall, the church sits at the very boundary of heaven and earth! By Jesus the high priest, the church is connected to the glorious life of the Father in heaven - and so it is only in church that we can experience heaven on earth.
The church is present in this world - this world that is disconnected from the heavenly realm - but it is pressed right up against the curtain, it is the closest place to heaven on earth! As Jesus the High Priest tends to us we taste the glory of heaven, and we are heard in heaven as our prayers are carried through the curtain!
The church sits at the very centre of the concern of the trinity, bathed in the light of the Spirit, receiving the bread of life from the Son and being heard by, and represented to the Father by the Son!
The High Priest
The whole life and working of the tabernacle depended on the High Priest. Once a year the High priest - covered in oil and blood - would go through the curtain into the inner part to cleanse the tabernacle and all the people. The High Priest represented Jesus - the one covered in atoning blood and filled with the Spirit without measure, who passed through the curtain to redeem all creation and atone for His people.
The Centre of Church - Jesus
Jesus is the centre of everything in heaven and earth. He alone makes sense of everything- he alone connects heaven and earth - he alone can bring us all the help and life of heaven, regardless of how broken, lost or lifeless we may be.
He is the perfect High Priest and the perfect sacrifice, only he can take the blame and consequences of all our mess and evil. This is what we are to proclaim as the church! We are the place that help and life can be found for all of life’s troubles - because it is the place that Jesus the High Priest tends and cares for. It is the place that the life of heaven is shown on earth!