I hope that you have gotten a chance to join the in-person gatherings at FBC over these last few weeks! For Ashley and I, they have been so refreshing even with the extra restrictions and precautions due to the virus. But, that prompts a question. Why is it so refreshing to gather in person? I could have stayed home and heard the same sermon and sung the same songs from my living room. That would have been more convenient in a sense. I wouldn’t have to get ready and drive to church, and I wouldn’t have had to wear a mask. Yet, I would have been missing something. We’ve all sensed this since we haven’t been able to meet in person over the last couple months. We realize that the livestream is not the same, and we’ve been eager to be back in person together. Why is that? What have we been missing?
"We are designed to glorify God and manifest His presence to the world as the local church."
I believe that God’s Word gives us some answers. We often don’t appreciate what we have until its gone, and this virus teaches us many lessons about the nature of Christ’s Church if we take the time to learn them. Before looking at some of those biblical lessons, I do want to take a moment to say a hearty, “Thank you!” to those who have worked so hard to adapt to the livestream environment over the past few months. Seth Weber, John Gardner, and many others deserve our utmost gratitude for the labors they have put in. Make sure you thank these folks when you see them. They have brought us as close as possible to the gathering of the local church during these days, and the efforts of all those involved have blessed us spiritually. Yet, the livestream is not the gathering of the local church, and we know we are missing something. What does the Bible say that “something” is?
I would argue that what we have been missing fits under the biblical category of temple. What is the temple in the Bible all about? It’s about the concentrated manifestation of God’s presence on earth. God is not spatially contained to a specific time and place, but He does manifest His presence differently in different places. All earthly temples in the Bible are working models of the heavenly reality of God’s reigning presence (Hebrews 8:5; cf. the descriptions of God’s throne room in Revelation). Throughout salvation history, there has always been a temple. Eden, where man dwelt intimately with God’s presence is the foundational manifestation of God’s temple on earth. The tabernacle and Solomon’s temple used architecture and patterns that communicate a reminiscence of Eden (e.g. Cherubim, trees, and fruit) while at the same time communicating that this temple is the manifestation of God’s throne room on earth. When the eternal Son of God became incarnate, He was the temple on earth (John 2:18–22). When Jesus ascended to heaven, He sent God the Holy Spirit to indwell all true believers so that they now are the manifestation of the temple on earth (Acts 1:5; 2:4; Romans 8:9). Individual believers are temples because the Spirit dwells in them (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), but corporately believers in the Church form the temple on earth (1 Corinthians 3:10–16; Ephesians 2:19–22). Even this corporate manifestation seems to have two levels: the local church as temple (1 Corinthians 3:10–16) and the universal Church as temple (Ephesians 2:19–22). Note that believers individually and corporately are temples because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in them and among them.
In Ephesians, the Church as temple is in the forefront of Paul’s mind, as already noted above from Ephesians 2. Another way you can see this is heavily on Paul’s mind is through his use of the word “fullness/be filled” in Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:23, the Church is described as Christ’s body, the fullness of the one filling for himself all things in all things (author’s translation). The Church is supposed to be the full manifestation of Christ’s presence on earth. In 3:19, Paul ends a request for the Ephesian church so that they might be filled with all the fullness of God. Again, the prayer is that the Church might manifest God’s fullness, His presence on earth. God’s full earthly presence is manifested in the temple. In 4:10, Jesus is said to have ascended to the heavens to fill all things, and in context, Paul is speaking about Jesus’ filling His Church as His body.
The last usage of “fill” is used as a command in 5:18–21. While not denying individual implications, this command is best construed as a corporate command for the Church. Why? First, in the original language, the command is in the plural. Second, “one another” in verses 19 and 21 indicates the whole local church is being addressed. Based on the grammar, the best way to interpret 5:18 is that Paul is commanding the local Ephesian church to not get drunk by means of wine but to be filled by means of the Holy Spirit as the local manifestation of the temple. Then, Paul describes what being filled by means of the Spirit looks like as the local manifestation of the temple. It looks like (1) addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (19a). Keep in mind that early believers did not have their own Bibles and theology books. How did they learn and remember sound teaching? By the gathering in the Church to hear the pastor preach and teach and by singing songs rich with biblical truth such as those found in Philippians 2:6–11 or Colossians 1:15–20. This was a way to teach and admonish one another in the truth as the parallel passage in Colossians 2:16 indicates. This singing, like the Psalms used in the Old Testament temple, taught rich truth for the community. Being filled by means of the Spirit as the local manifestation of the temple also looks like (2) singing with your heart to the Lord (19b). The emphasis in (1) was singing for the benefit of fellow believers. The emphasis in (2) is praising God Himself. Again, one can think of all the Psalms sung at the Old Testament temple to exalt and enjoy God. Being filled by means of the Spirit as the local congregation looks like (3) giving thanks for all things in the name of Christ to God the Father (20). Praising God for what He has done and is doing as a congregation together is one of the ways that God is exalted in His temple. Finally, being filled by means of the Spirit as the local church looks like (4) submitting to one another in reverence of Christ (21). Other believers are to be valued, loved, and served with our gifts. God’s presence is manifested when a naturally selfish sinner serves someone else as more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3–4).
These texts in Ephesians highlight, I believe, what we are missing when we are unable to meet in person with our local church. We are missing being the temple with other believers. We are designed to glorify God and manifest His presence to the world as the local church. When we do not gather in person, God’s temple is not visible as separate from the world, and we cannot benefit one another as we can when we gather and participate in the fullness of the Holy Spirit together. We miss a means of God’s grace by not gathering in person together. This ties in with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism allows us to see the addition of another member to the local temple. The Lord’s Supper allows us to see all the members of the local temple. The two ordinances allow us to see the boundaries of the local church, so that we know with whom we are manifesting God’s presence as the local temple. This is also why the weekly in-person gathering is not primarily about what we receive from that gathering (though God in His goodness uses this gathering as a means of grace for us), but it is about what we are accomplishing together, displaying God’s presence to earthly and spiritual realms (1 Corinthians 14:24; Ephesians 3:10).
If you have the opportunity to join the in-person gathering of Faith Bible Church, taking all due health precautions, I encourage you to do so. Even if you disagree about masks, etc., take the opportunity to manifest God’s presence on earth with your brothers and sisters in Christ as the local temple. Come benefit your brothers and sisters and glorify God gathered together! Enjoy this unspeakable privilege!