What Is the Local Church?
The local church is a community of Christians who live as the on-the-ground expression of the supremacy of Jesus by advancing his gospel in distance and depth.
This is a basic definition for what the local church is. Both the beginnings and the ongoing life of the local church are an extension of Jesus’s supremacy. We only exist because of who he is, and we only persevere because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Everything that we are — our foundation, center, and goal — is focused on Jesus. He is God’s revelatory word, making the Father known to unworthy sinners (John 1:18) — this is how we got here. He is God’s redemptive word, transforming enemies into sons and daughters (Romans 5:10) — this is what’s happening now. He is God’s restorative word, creating the new world for which we wait, the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13) — this is what’s to come.
We are his people — a people so outside of him we’re called his creatures, and yet a people so intimately connected to him we’re called his masterpiece, stretching from eternity to eternity, growing out of the flourishing fellowship that existed in the Trinity before the ages began. The church is the real deal, and it matters that we sense her seriousness — that we understand the centrality of her role in the reality of Jesus and in what it means to follow him.
Because, to be sure, when we see that the church is not a mere footnote in history, we won’t be able to quarantine her off as an extracurricular activity in our lives. She is really important. There’s even a whole story to prove the point — a story that expands the claim that the church is intrinsically about the advance of the gospel. It starts in a Garden.
The Story of the Church
There in the Garden are Adam and Eve, created in the image and likeness of God, which means they are reflecting and enjoying the radiance of God’s glory, and they are given a commission: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This commission is another way of saying advance what you have here, extend this, reproduce it. So we ask, what would have happened had not sin ruined things, and our first parents actually completed this mission?
If Adam and Eve, who are in the image and likeness of God, are fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, it means we have a whole world full of God’s image-bearers, people who reflect and enjoy the glory of God. Basically, you have what God himself first mentions in Numbers 14:21: “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.”
But sin does come, remember, and it trashes everything, but God promises that the seed of a woman will crush the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Adam failed to complete the mission, but by God’s grace, there will come another. Here begins in the biblical storyline what we might call “the drama of the Son.”
The Drama of the Son
We see it in the birth of Noah, which was a huge event in those days (Genesis 5:29). Then there’s Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Then God sets apart Shem’s line, including this pagan named Abram in the Ur of the Chaldeans whom God takes and makes the most fascinating promise: You are going to have a son through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:3).
Then the drama intensifies because Abraham and Sarah can’t have children, but then God works a miracle and gives us Isaac (Genesis 21:1–6). The drama intensifies once again when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, which of course God eventually intervenes to stop (Genesis 22:11–14). Then, if this promise is going to be fulfilled, Isaac needs a wife, which becomes its own amazing mini-drama when Isaac meets Rebekah (Genesis 24:12–14). That leads us to Jacob and Esau. God chooses Jacob. Jacob has twelve sons. Those sons become twelve tribes of Israel. And then, the commission given to Adam first is now given to Israel as a nation (Genesis 35:11–12). Of those twelve sons, God chooses Judah, and from Judah there comes a line and a prophecy (Genesis 49:8–12). But high drama resurfaces — once again related to “the son” — when Israel is captive in Egypt and Pharaoh wants to kill all their male children (Exodus 1:16). But then comes Moses, who survives and God raises up to set Israel free (Exodus 2:10).
And then from Judah’s line there comes Boaz, an old man who providentially meets this beautiful girl named Ruth whom he marries and impregnates, which gives us Obed, and from him comes Jesse and his strapping sons. Then one day the prophet Samuel comes to his house looking for the next king of Israel, passing over seven of Jesse’s sons until he asks if that’s all there is. Jesse says Yeah, except for “the youngest” (1 Samuel 16:11) — which is the Hebrew word eton, a word we might translate “the little runt,” or literally “the insignificant one.” But when Samuel sees this little guy, God says that’s him, and the little guy becomes King David. And it is to King David that God later makes the most astounding promise: One of your sons will be king forever (2 Samuel 7:16). But that son isn’t Solomon, nor his son nor his son’s son, and for a good stretch of time all we see is one king after another not living up to David, all of them dying as the kingdom is divided and foreign powers demolish Jerusalem and take the people back into captivity. At this point, the prophets come onto the scene to call the people to repentance and envision a future day — a day of peace that will come through the stump of Jesse, a day when kids will play with cobras, because
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:8–9)
Or as Habakkuk puts it,
The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)
And that’s where history seems stuck, waiting for this day, looking for this promise to become reality. There is a return to Jerusalem, for sure, with Nehemiah and Ezra, but the exile remains in some sense and darkness pervades until we come to a little town of Bethlehem and see this son named Jesus, the son who comes, as Matthew tells us, as the great light, as God with us come to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21–23; 4:16; Isaiah 9:2).
Then Jesus chooses twelve apostles, like the twelve tribes of Israel, and establishes a new people of God. Adam and Israel had both failed in their mission to multiply image-bearers who reflect and enjoy the glory of God, but now there is Jesus, the Last Adam, the true Israel, and he has come not just to set things right, but make them better than ever before, which he does by creating a new humanity (Ephesians 2:15) — a people for God’s possession to proclaim the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9) — a people called the church.
When We See Her Beauty
And Jesus speaks to his church this grand commission: Go, and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). Or, another way we might say it: Advance what we have here, extend this, reproduce it.
In all our little, local manifestations spread out across the world, this is what we do. This is who we are. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), his bride (Ephesians 5:25–27) — his flock, vine, temple, building, exiles, priesthood, salt, the elect lady — and we are given a commission that will not fail. We will be fruitful and multiply. We will make disciples until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, until, actually, we find ourselves in another Garden, an eternal garden-city (Revelation 22:1–5).
When we see this — when we understand that the church is how God demonstrates his power to a watching world — we’ll no longer make her just an accessory to what our lives are “really about.” She won’t be something to just tack on or fit in when it works, but instead, because we see her true beauty, and her centrality in God’s universal plan, we’ll begin to realize that our incorporation in her just might be the most important thing about us.