Assembly, Body & Bride: The Transformed

The author of Hebrews identifies the church as a people caught up in what God is doing. At first, the prophets spoke of Jesus in the Old Testament, then Jesus fulfilled what they predicted, then the apostles and other early believers attested to that truth. Finally, God has continued the testimony through the church, verifying our words “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”[1]

Just how does the Holy Spirit verify the gospel we preach? There are at least three ways: 1) he transforms us into the image of Christ, 2) he brings about new growth in the church by helping us reach people with the gospel and 3) he breaks through the normal issues of life and manifests supernatural interference, i.e., miracles.

New people

When the religious traditionalists of Jesus’ day complained that his disciples did things differently than they did, Jesus responded to their complaint. He implied that we should expect his church to be different. Believers in Christ were “new wine” and could not be contained in the “old wineskins.”[2] If anyone dared to put new wine in a wineskin that had been previously expanded, it would expand again, and he would have a mess to clean up. That is why those who make wine start afresh with a new skin. And that is what God has done.

It is true that there is continuity between ancient Judaism and Christianity. Most of our biblical content is the same. Most of the spiritual principles taught in the New Testament have their origin in the Old Testament. But, the questions asked in the Old Testament that had no answer are answered in the New Testament. In many cases, the Old Testament testified to a “what” but did not prescribe “how.” The New Testament fills in its blanks.

One of those all-important “whats” is the concept of the new covenant. Jeremiah predicted this:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”[3]

The old covenant was the result of God’s grace rescuing his people from Egypt, and leading them to a new life governed by his laws in the Promised Land. There was a time when that was the new covenant. It promised the newness of freedom rather than the oldness of slavery. Yet, following it proved to be problematic. It can be stated in this way: If Gods people will follow his laws, he will keep them free and give them new hearts. We all know what happened. The people of Israel as a whole never got to the “new hearts” part.

The new covenant would reverse the process. It would be the work of the Holy Spirit, who would first write God’s laws on the hearts of the forgiven, enabling them to know him. Then, he would bring them to their new land. Instead of being attested to by the sacrifice of a lamb, this new covenant would begin with the death of Christ on a cross.[4] Once initiated, the new covenant was meant to replace the old one, making its provisions obsolete.[5] There was nothing wrong with the old covenant except that it only offered a temporary inheritance. It was designed to point us all to the new covenant, which promises an “eternal inheritance.”[6]

It is in that sense that the church today can be called the new Israel. God’s new covenant with Israel is not intended to add to one nation but to multiply through all nations. The blessing of faith that Abraham manifested is now possible for all of those who believe in Christ, no matter who they descended from. Rights to that new covenant were purchased for all through the blood of Christ.

Just as people served under the old covenant, we also serve under the new covenant. The difference is “that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”[7] We begin with grace and we end with glory. If we attempt to get to the glory by means of keeping the law, we will fail. But if we dare to walk by the same Holy Spirit who has regenerated us, we can become like Christ. We can give others a taste of that new wine.

New growth

There was a missions aspect of the old covenant. People were supposed to be drawn to God by seeing his blessings and glory manifested in loyal Israel. God wanted Abraham’s faith to result in blessings for all the nations surrounding Israel.[8] The surrounding nations were blessed occasionally, but the process was often overshadowed by the opposite effect: people ridiculing God because of the sufferings and disloyalty of Israel.

Missions was built into the DNA of the new covenant. Jesus commanded his church to make disciples of all nations,[9] to proclaim the gospel to all nations,[10] to offer repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.[11] If the old covenant could be described as “come to us,” the new covenant is best described as “go to them.” In the Great Commission text, the word “go” does not have the same weight as the imperative “make disciples.” However, the fact that Jesus was sending his disciples somewhere (in actuality, Jerusalem) was significant. It set the stage for a church that would always be going with the gospel.[12]

That role of expanding ourselves through reaching new lands and cultures with the gospel is also described by Jesus in his “vine and branches” message. He told his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit …”[13] Jesus did not simply command us to stay where we are and bear fruit. He appointed us to “go” and “bear fruit.” The word translated “go” in that text is not the same word used in Matthew 28. It is the word used for sending someone off in a particular direction for a particular purpose. The mission of reaching new lands, peoples, and cultures with the gospel is built into our new identity as branches of Christ’s vine.

The church is made of people who have found the greatest thing that could ever be found. It is therefore no surprise when we selflessly abandon all that we have for that treasure. As Jesus put it, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”[14] Here again, the words “he goes” are a form of that same mission we were appointed to by Jesus. However, the motivation for our mission is made clear in this text: “in his joy.” The church expands and permeates not because we are bound by some solemn obligation. We have good news to share with the nations. We go in our joy.

The cultural mandate is also part of our great commission mandate. Jesus told the rich young ruler to “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[15] Some people will never be able to come to Jesus because they will always refuse to go away from their possessions. The rich young ruler went away sad and unchanged because what he had was more important to him than what he could gain in Christ. There are some people who are like this with their homes and families. They will not come to Christ because Christ would require that they give up life in their comfort zone.

For believers in Christ, what we have now is his to give away through us. We embrace the cultural mandate to bless the nations with food, clothing and other things they need. We do not see this as something separate from spreading the gospel. It is a way of our divesting ourselves of that which is superfluous in our lives so that we can share him. It is also something that brings us joy. We can either give as Christ compels us, and gain joy in doing so, or we will “go away sad” as this young man did.

The mission to go does not always mean to cross geographical boundaries. Sometimes we want to go away and the Lord calls us to go home. The delivered Gerasene wanted to hop in the boat and go away with Jesus and the other disciples. Jesus would not allow him to do so. Instead he said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”[16] Sometimes abiding in the Vine means abiding in your own hometown. It is still a mission when it is responding to the “go” from the Master. It is still a mission when its end result is more people in the kingdom.

New normal

The new people that is the church of Jesus Christ is a people that is born of the Spirit,[17] has the firstfruits of the Spirit,[18] is set free by the law of the Spirit[19] and is setting their mind on the things of the Spirit.[20] Outwardly, they still look like they did when they were merely of the flesh, but inwardly, they have undergone a transformation. Normal is no longer what it was. There is a new normal, because everything believers think and do is now judged by a new standard: the image of Christ within. People without the experience of regeneration cannot understand this new disposition. The things of the Holy Spirit are foolishness to them.[21]

That original disposition toward exalting and caring for the body of flesh has now been, not removed, but challenged. Believers still want to be preserved from death and hunger and the like, but they also have a strong desire to care for and promote the welfare of Christ’s body, which they are now a part of. Just one look into the eyes of Jesus makes the born again person want to be like him, to introduce others to him and to experience his power. The Holy Spirit inside believers wants our sanctification, our involvement in evangelism, and our experience and demonstration of his miracles.

The Holy Spirit is an amazing person. Although fully equal to the Father and Son in deity, he seeks to manifest himself through mortal and imperfect human beings. He is both the key to unity in the church and the reason for our glorious diversity. He embraces our differences, and instead of causing us to suppress them, he utilizes those differences to mature us and to reach the most with the gospel. Any time the church seeks too zealously to manufacture an artificial unity, we tend to squelch the Holy Spirit’s work. He is too big to fit within our carefully constructed labels.

The Holy Spirit works within each believer individually and wants to manifest his power through each believer “for the common good.”[22] He makes each believer a gift to the group as a whole, by ministering his spiritual gifts and manifesting his spiritual fruit. He is the author of supernatural miracles, transformed character and church growth. Church traditions tend to push cooperation with him in one area or the other, but he seeks all three at the same time. To put it negatively, a believer has not yielded to the Holy Spirit unless he or she is willing to let him manifest his power in his or her life through miracles, renewed holiness and outreach.

The Spirit and the Word

The Word of God is the Spirit’s weapon – the sword of the Spirit.[23] Those who hear and believe the Word are sealed with the Holy Spirit.[24] He uses the written and spoken Word to accomplish his purposes in and with the church. He uses the Scriptures to catch us, change us, turn us into evangelists and give us faith to receive his miracles. Theoretically, one might say that the Word alone is powerless to do anything. For example, demons laugh when unbelievers attempt, apart from the Holy Spirit, to use texts from the Bible as some sort of animistic charm to ward off evil. In the church’s hands, however, the Word is backed by the power of the Holy Spirit. In that case, it is anything but powerless.

Prayer and the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is also the key person in the prayer ministry of the church. Paul encouraged believers to pray at all times, but added the explanatory phrase “in the Spirit.”[25] The prayers of unbelievers are always heard by God, but the church’s prayers are actually sponsored by God. When we pray in the Spirit, we are praying words that are not just intended to reach the throne, but words that actually originate there. Prayer by believers is cooperation with God and affirmation of what he is doing and wants to do.

Refusing to pray leads to powerless people, limited growth and hardened hearts in the church. A church can have all the right theology of the Holy Spirit in their creeds, but if they do not pray, those words are empty. The act of prayer substantiates what a person or group believes about the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is so eager to touch this world with manifestations of himself that he often uses praying people who have seriously defective theologies. This happens to the shame of many more “orthodox” churches, because they do not pray as they ought.

Worship and the Holy Spirit

One of the ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to believers, and through them, is the act of corporate worship. He is the means by which we manifest authentic worship: it is by the Spirit.[26] The apostle Paul taught that the true circumcision – that which really matters – is that which is done by the Holy Spirit, and it results in praise from God.[27] The text is a bit ambiguous about whether that praise is being received by the true Jew or given by him. It could be interpreted either way, because God honors authenticity, and authentic people give authentic worship.

One of the Old Testament predictions about life under the new covenant is that believers would be characterized by gladness and joy instead of sadness and sorrow.[28] When we worship, we celebrate the reality of this age of grace and our new status as part of that reality. Worship flows from who we are, who Christ is and what our future is because of what Christ did. The Holy Spirit within us serves as our guarantee of this future inheritance.[29] No matter what might distract us in the present, he helps us remember what we were made for: glorifying, enjoying and worshiping God throughout eternity. While we are worshiping, we are more in touch with who we truly are and will be than at any other time.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit

Jesus is the only person of the Holy Trinity who can be seen in bodily form because he is the only one who has taken on flesh. If one wants to look for the Holy Spirit, one has to look for the evidence. If you want to see the wind, you look for open sails and fast moving sailboats. If you want to see the Holy Spirit, you look for growing, maturing, gift-manifesting churches. The transformed church is his calling-card.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)


[1] Hebrews 2:4.

[2] Matthew 9:17.

[3] Jeremiah 31:31-34.

[4] Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25.

[5] Hebrews 8:8-13.

[6] Hebrews 9:15.

[7] Romans 7:6.

[8] Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4.

[9] Matthew 28:19.

[10] Mark 13:10.

[11] Luke 24:47.

[12] When Jesus gave his Great Commission, it was to the eleven in Galilee, just before they were to return to Jerusalem. It would make sense to take the participle of πορεύομαι (go) as adverbial of time, which would result in Jesus telling them that after they go (to Jerusalem) they were to make disciples. Translators usually take the participle as having a practically equal status with the imperative (μαθητεύσατε from μαθητεύω) in that text. Each case when Matthew uses the aorist participle of πορεύομαι with an accompanying verb, the stress is on the action of that accompanying verb. See Matthew 2:8; 9:13; 11:4; 21:6; 27:66. The command in Matthew 28:19 is to make disciples. Going places is incidental, but necessary to obeying that command.

[13] John 15:16.

[14] Matthew 13:44.

[15] Matthew 19:21.

[16] Mark 5:19.

[17] John 3:5-8.

[18] Romans 8:23.

[19] Romans 8:2.

[20] Romans 8:5.

[21] 1 Corinthians 2:14.

[22] 1 Corinthians 12:7.

[23] Ephesians 6:17.

[24] Ephesians 1:13.

[25] Ephesians 6:18.

[26] Philippians 3:3.

[27] Romans 2:29.

[28] Isaiah 61:3.

[29] 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14.

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