After Easter — The Ascension and The Purpose of The Church

Title: After Easter – The Ascension and The Purpose of The Church

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Time: May 1st, 2011

We’ve just finished the Easter season for 2011. We had a meaningful Good Friday service and then we had a wonderful Easter Sunday church service. I feel good about how we remembered the season, because we certainly were bearing witness to the fact that Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead. But today I’d like to conclude the season by speaking a little about Christ’s ascension into heaven after 40 days, and then get into the Great Commission he left the disciples.  This commission Christ gave is essentially the point and purpose of the church. People often ask, “What’s the purpose of church?” And there is some confusion on this question. Why gather together on Sunday and at other times as Christians? Jesus in his Great Commission to his disciples gives us the point and purpose of church – what church is or should be about. He explains it all in Matthew 28:16-20 (read). What we see in this short passage is how Christ left the earth – and as we know from later passages, how Christ will come back again, in the same way. He proceeds up and away from them into the sky, just as he will come again in the future, down and towards the earth from the sky. But what’s interesting is that as the disciples gather, it says that some doubted. What does this mean? Doesn’t it mean that they could hardly believe their eyes? It means that although for some, one part of them believed but another part didn’t believe that here was the risen Christ before them. But notice the utter lack of concern Christ has for these doubts. In other words, doubting from time to time is no big deal for God. It doesn’t have to be a crisis of faith or anything else. Some people think, “Oh no, I have a doubt!” But God’s attitude is, “Don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Just carry on with the faith you do have. The doubts will come and go depending on the circumstances and your moods. Don’t let it trip you up.” Remember that. If you ever get to doubting some aspect of the faith or the Bible, don’t think you’re the first one. Don’t panic. Carry on as best you can and put the doubt on the shelf, then quietly, little-by-little address the doubt issue as best you can. Usually the doubts fade or we find answers to the questions we have. Usually, working through our questions, thinking deeper about them, actually strengthens our faith, as we find that God is trustworthy. But then Jesus leaves the disciples with their marching orders. He reminds them that he has the authority of heaven, so they can trust his instructions above anything else. As we examine Christ’s commission to the disciples and also to us Christians today, we don’t have to ever wonder if they lack authority or legitimacy. They come from the risen Christ and represent his last will and testament before leaving. He expects us to take his instructions seriously and not get sidetracked on other things, even other good things. In Christ’s instructions we see the point and purpose of the Christian church. What is the work we are supposed to do here at New Life Chapel? Here’s what our agenda is, according to the highest authority, Jesus.

First, the Christian church is supposed to make disciples. Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” What is a disciple? Well, in the Greek language of the New Testament, the word mathetes means “learner.” The church is to make “learners” of any and all persons. What are these people supposed to learn? They are supposed to learn how to follow Christ. And so we see the first purpose of a church is to gather people together and make them ongoing learners of how to follow Christ. Now here’s the problem – how can we help people learn to be followers of Christ if he isn’t here on earth to follow? In other words, the disciples followed Christ by, well, literally following Christ. But today, we can’t literally follow Jesus Christ because he isn’t physically here on earth anymore. So how do we teach people to be disciples when we don’t have the physical Christ anymore to point people to? We have to teach people the Bible and teach them to follow the spiritual Christ. Now that doesn’t mean that we only teach people the red-letters of the New Testament, it means we teach people the whole New Testament and the whole Old Testament – although not everything, of course, applies to us Christians that is found in the Old Testament. For example, not everything God teaches to the nation of Israel applies to us today as individual Christians or even to the Christian church as a whole. But much or most of the Old Testament does still apply to us today, although it takes careful instruction and teaching to communicate what parts do and what parts don’t apply today. That’s why we need church – to help instruct us in the truth. So when we think of church today, the first purpose is to make disciples. We need to make disciples of others and ourselves. Some people think the purpose of a church is to grow, but that’s getting the cart before the horse. It isn’t enough to grow, because that doesn’t say enough about what is supposed to grow. Not everything in a garden should grow. We want the crops to grow, but we don’t want weeds to grow. It’s the same in a church. Ideally all churches should grow, but we have to make sure that what we are teaching is the truth or else we’ll grow a church full of weeds. There are churches, for example, like Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness, that are growing, but they have a weed problem. They are not producing true spiritual fruit. Our goal should never be just to grow big, but rather to make followers of Jesus who produce good spiritual fruit. There are lots of large and growing churches, but sadly not many are producing spiritual fruit in the lives of the people. They are only growing weeds. What is the real purpose of church? To raise up true Christian disciples, not just fill the seats or pack the pews. There are too many of those kinds of churches, and they have nothing to do with Christ’s great commission.

Second, the Christian church is supposed to baptize converts. Matthew 28:19, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here’s a reference to the Trinity. If you ever talk to a Jehovah Witness at your doorstep, take them to this verse and ask them, “If the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity, how come it mentions Father, Son and Spirit here?” See how they answer that one. No, the Bible does teach that God is a Trinity, but let’s not get into that teaching this morning. I’ll get to that another time. The real point I’d like to underline today is that Christ teaches the church to baptize converts. So what this implies is that another key purpose of the church is to make converts. What is a convert? It’s someone who isn’t a Christian who then repents of his or her sins and trusts in Christ for salvation. Now church members or those who are already converted need to be witnessing to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and others, so that through the proclamation of the gospel people might hear and believe. Before a person believes the gospel, they have to hear and understand the gospel. So we need to be out and about telling and explaining the gospel, so that they might “get it” and believe it. Are you a witness where you live? Do you ever explain the gospel to others? On a minimum we should be trying to convert our family members. Parents definitely should be witnessing to their children. But we should all be looking for opportunities to share the gospel with everyone in our life. In addition, we try to bring them to church because the gospel is talked about and explained here as well. So between our own personal witnessing and the witness of the church, people get saved or converted. But it isn’t enough to simply make an isolated decision for Christ somewhere at some time. That’s the problem with much evangelism – often it isolates the individual from the Christian community or church, so that someone might think, “I made a decision from Christ, so I’m fine on my own. I don’t need church.” The problem is, people need the church to validate their decision. For example, during a membership class, someone who has made a decision for Christ learns what it means to be a Christian. They learn the importance of baptism, which is essentially taking an internal profession of faith and making it an external act, after a time of instruction, visible to all. That way a person isn’t deluded or confused as to what a “decision for Christ” means. There is context for spiritual decisions; they aren’t just isolated apart from the Christian community of faith. So our purpose as a church is to reach people with the gospel, get them converted to Christ, bring them into the church, instruct them in baptism, and assimilate them into the Christian community. But there’s more.

Third, the church is supposed to teach people to obey through membership. Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Without the church community it is really pretty near impossible to make disciples of converts because we all need encouragement and accountability. Today, churches typically major on encouragement and forget about accountability entirely. But if we obey Christ in teaching people to obey God and God’s Word, then we need to do both – encourage and hold accountable. What does the church encourage in its people? Not what goes around typically today in contemporary churches. That is, today encouragement is usually defined as “helping people fulfill their own dreams in life.” But that isn’t what true Christian encouragement means. The sad truth is, as selfish and sinful people, we need God’s Word and instruction as to what is legitimate and what isn’t legitimate. I remember talking to a young couple all excited because they had the dream of taking insurance money they collected and opening a rinky-dink bar in New York state. When I tried to discourage them from investing their money in such a way they got offended. “Who are you to judge me as to how I spend my money?” was their reaction. But many churches and church pastors basically give a blanket encouragement to anything anyone come up with. A real church not only encourages Christians, but also holds them accountable for living the Christian life. That’s what I was trying to do with this couple, but they didn’t like it. Sure, nobody likes to be told something they are doing is wrong, but the church must be a place where we speak the truth in love.  It’s not just one person’s opinion versus another person’s opinion, but rather it’s God’s Word instructing us all on the right way to think and live. Of course, not every decision is addressed directly in the Bible, so there’s plenty of freedom of choice in the church. But on things God has spoken, on things the Bible clearly teaches, we need to encourage one another to obey and discourage one another from disobeying. We need to encourage people to confess their sins, not continue in them. We need to encourage people to obey God, even when they are tempted to disobey.

The reason membership is essential in a church is that if a person isn’t a member it’s easy or probable that when he or she is confronted or held accountable for sin, they’ll just leave or refuse to listen. That’s typical. Some people make it a policy to never join a Christian church, just attend, because they don’t want to feel obligated to follow any of the requirements of the church. Of course, we can understand that some churches have absolutely petty rules and requirements that don’t come from the Bible but just from the leaders or old-fashioned tradition. But a truly biblical church will hold its members to obey what God instructs in the Bible. When Christian members fall or sin, they are encouraged to repent and rededicate their lives to Christ. Apart from the church few people will confront themselves in their own sins. But in the context of a truly biblical church Christians can count on their fellow believers to hold them accountable to the teachings of God found in the Bible. Even so, it’s not always something welcome – receiving accountability or being confront in our sins – but it’s something that members realize is good and so accept it as from God. But without membership, it’s nearly impossible to hold Christians accountable or truly disciple them in the Christian faith. That’s why, the church’s purpose is not only to convert people from unbelief to belief, not only baptize them, but also to bring them into solid church membership, so that they can be encouraged and held accountable to the faith. In this way, disciples are made and grow and learn to become mature in their faith. If we look around at the Christian community today we see a lot of immaturity. If we believe the polling statistics, Christians don’t act very much different than unbelievers. Why is that? It’s because they aren’t being solidly converted from unbelief to begin with or they are being rushed into conversion to quickly. Some are processed into church membership without proper instruction. They aren’t encouraged to obey God’s Word, nor are they confronted and held accountable when they fall into patterns of sin. All of this and more contribute to the problem of carnal or immature Christians. In some cases, people who call themselves Christians aren’t really. So when we go about our task of fulfilling the Great Commission Christ gives us to do, we need to make sure we aim to make disciples not just grow in numbers. We need to have enough faith to believe that as we go about pursuing our spiritual calling as a church, God will provide the resources to continue, financial and human resources.

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