A Display of God’s Glory by Mark Dever 2001
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a wonderful letter to read and meditate on if you want to understand more of what life together as a church entails. What you find there is that we as a church are to be marked especially by Holiness, Unity, and Love.
Why is the church to be like this? Because the character of the church is to reflect the character of God. We are to be holy and united and loving essentially because God is like all these things. We are to be holy because God is holy. We are to be united because God is one. We are to be loving because God is love.
First, we are to be holy in the sense of being strange to the world, but special to God. We are to be pure. Holiness is to be an attribute which marks the church. It is to be a trademark; it is to be common among us, and typical. When someone considers our particular church, they are to think, “That is a holy community.”—not meaning a bunch of self-righteous, prudish people, but a community that in our conduct holds out hope of a better, more humane, more God-honoring way of living. That’s why all these matters of membership and teaching and discipline are important. We are to be holy because God is holy.
Also, we are to be united because God is One. It’s very interesting in I Corinthians chapter 1, when Paul begins with the ill report he had heard of the various divisions and factions in the church, that the apostle deals with the issue theologically. Look at the question he poses to them in light of their divisions in I Corinthians 1:13: “Is Christ divided?” What a fascinating question! When you think about it, no local church has any other basis for being. When Paul looks at the divisions in the church and then turns to ask, “Is Christ divided?” the powerful theological
assumption behind it is that the church is the body of Christ. That idea reminds us of the serious responsibility we have to reflect God. Our divisions take on an added seriousness because, as with any unholiness or blame, they reflect on the One whom we are to image. Our disunity is really a lie about God and what He is like.
As Paul said in I Corinthians 12:27, “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Where do you think Paul got that idea? I think he got it in the very hour he was converted. In Acts 9 when Paul is stopped in his tracks by an appearance of the Risen Christ, he was on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus. What did Christ say to him? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Christians?” No. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the church?” No. He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? ” This is how closely Jesus relates to His church. He views it as His body, and us as members of that body!
One of the main reasons that we are called in I Corinthians to “get rid” of those committed to their sins more than to Christ is because we are to be united. Unity was supposed to be one of the hallmarks of the church. This unity was to transcend the old divisions of Jew and Gentile (I Cor. 7:19) , along with every other worldly division. This is why Paul was so upset by the report of divisions in the church. Even at the feast of the their unity—the Lord’s Supper—they were divided. When churches divide for carnal reasons, we start being about other things—we are the church of modern music, or of this pastor, or the church of the home-schoolers, or of the Democrats, or the church of the blue carpet. All of these unities are different from true Christian unity. The church is to be united.
Finally, we are to be loving because God is loving. The only way that we can be united is in love. In I Corinthians 8:1, Paul writes that “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” This becomes Paul’s basis for his large excursion in chapters 8-14 on letting love and consideration for others be the governor of what we should do. Paul had a love for God’s church at heart. So he wrote in 14:26, “All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” And in verse 31, “so that everyone may be instructed and challenged.” Paul was quite sensitive to the church’s health, wasn’t he? No wonder then, when you look at 15:9 and remember his history, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the
church of God.” Surely we can see why God would use such a man to teach us, as he says in 16:14, “Do everything in love.”
Consider the love that Christ has shown by pouring out his blood and by offering up his body for us (I Cor. 11:23-26). Christians have known this from the earliest times. So we read in I Corinthians 15:3-5, a sort of early church creed. And in 15:3, “Christ died for our sins,” (cf. Rom.5:6-8; Gal. 2:21; I Pet. 3:18).
One particularly interesting part of that love is the concern for other churches which they had and which Paul called for. From the very beginning of the letter, they could not help but be reminded of this: Paul writes to the Corinthians “together with all those everywhere,” (I Corinthians 1:2). Paul, too, had behaved in this way toward them. So in I Corinthians 4:17, we find Paul sending his beloved Timothy to them. Then in the last chapter, in 16:1-4, Paul wrote to them “about the collection for God’s people.” These early Christians were, in love, trying to find ways to help others. Is our church marked by such love? The church is to be loving because God is loving.
The church is to be the display of God’s love in the midst of this messed up, sinful, selfish world. Are we that? Do we as a church display the character of God?
This is the kind of exalted language we find in the New Testament about the church! We read in Ephesians 5:25 that “Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” Acts 20:28 teaches us that God gave Himself for His church; He bought His church with His own blood. If we are His followers, we too will love the church for which Christ gave Himself. Why does God so care for the church? Because He wants to glorify Himself through it.
One of the most intriguing statements in the New Testament to me is I Corinthians 15:19, in which Paul says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” This is an important statement for wrongly-satisfied Christians. Too many churches today present a version of Christianity in which all sufferings are made up for, all sacrifices rewarded, all mysteries explained, in this life. But this is not the gospel that Paul taught; in fact, this is not the gospel of our Lord Christ. And this must not be the gospel of our churches. If you evaluate a Christian’s life this side of eternity, it will not add up. Christ’s didn’t; Paul’s didn’t. Ours shouldn’t either.
Finally, you see, Paul did what he did for the sake of the gospel
(see I Cor. 9:23). Is that why our church does what it does? If we are to be the kind of congregation that God desires, and that brings God glory, we should be a congregation that is oriented to this final hope in everything from our gospel message, to our lives of sacrificial love toward each other. Only by being so will we be faithful representatives of our great God!
You see, this is what God is doing in the church! In I Corinthians 1, Paul said in the (1:28-29) that God “chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not, so that
no one may boast before him.” Do you know why God chooses to use people like you and me, things as apparently weak as this church? Because He doesn’t in any way want to obscure Himself!
At a conference I attended a couple of years ago, I heard Mark Ross of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina make the point that, “We are one of God’s chief pieces of evidence.” He continued, “Paul’s great concern [in Eph. 4:1-16] for the church,” he said, “is that the church manifest and display the glory of God, thus vindicating God’s character against all the slander of demonic realms, the slander that God is not worth living for. God has entrusted to His church the glory of His own name.” And, “The circumstances of your life are the God-given occasion of your displaying and manifesting the attributes of God.”
If we’re not careful, our individualism can be used to harbor a sub-Christian holiness which tolerates sin. Our selfishness can lead us to a sub-Christian unity which papers over disunity about the gospel, and unites around other, lesser things. Even our flesh can know a sub-Christian love which is mere sentiment, having a family feeling because we’ve all been together so long. But friends, none of these things should characterize our church primarily because all of these things lie about God. They misrepresent His character. True holiness will include discipline. And true unity will be only around Christ—and the diversity of the church will give evidence to this. True love will go deeper than sentiment, beyond natural bounds. It will go out to the stranger for Christ’s sake. This is how God’s glory is displayed in the church. This is the only way a church will truly prosper.
So how do we display God’s glory? By organizing our churches after the pattern He has shown us in His Word. By living for Him, with a life of holiness, unity and love. This is what the church is devoted to. Are you?