After Israel was scattered throughout the nations as part of their punishment for rejecting the Lord, the prophets began to predict that God would restore them to himself. The scattered people would become the gathered people. God would redeem them and would call on the nations to restore them to himself:
“I will say to the north, ‘Hand them over!’ and to the south, ‘Don’t hold any back!’ Bring my sons from distant lands, and my daughters from the remote regions of the earth, everyone who belongs to me, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed — yes, whom I made!”
From that time on, the people of God began to see themselves not as a people planted (in Israel) but as a people harvested from the nations. When the New Testament era dawned, the word chosen to identify Jesus’ disciples as a group was ἐκκλησία, which had been a general term for assembly. The church is God’s gathered community, harvested from among the nations.
Jesus used the analogy of harvest to explain the work of building his church. He told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The analogy is an excellent one, because it shows both the value that Christ puts on the souls harvested and the hard work and cooperation it will take to bring them in.
After a short discussion with Jesus, a Samaritan woman went into her village and proceeded to bring them to him. Commenting on the event, Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The “others” who had sown probably implies John the Baptist, those who had brought the Scriptures to the Samaritans and the Samaritan woman herself. They had done the preliminary work so that, when Jesus appeared, the crowds could recognize him and accept him as the Messiah.
Often that passage is used to encourage people to do missions, but there is a potential problem with using it for that purpose. There are still “fields” all around the world where the hard work of planting the seeds has not yet been done. Those fields are not ripe for harvest. For some of them, it might take many more years and much more spilled blood before they move from resistant to receptive. Of course, this is not to discourage missions but to prepare those who are called to resistant areas for the difficulties that calling may entail.
Pentecost can properly be called the first Christian gathering. From that time on, it became typical for believers to gather together at various places, some public, others private. Each gathering is a kind of foretaste of the greater gathering, when all believers will be “gathered together to” Christ at his second coming. Living believers are, according to James, “a kind of firstfruits,” a preliminary harvest with a promise of that greater harvest to come. As such, we are expected to begin showing some of the awesomeness of that future harvest. That is why James transitions from the idea of firstfruits to that of demonstrating godly character. If we are part of God’s harvest, we will radiate his glory.
The church is God’s gathered community, designed to radiate his glory through (among other things) worship. When his people honor his person and praise him for his works, they help the creation to reboot. Somewhere along the line, this planet has lost its purpose. Worship is our way of revisiting that purpose.
When Jesus was clip-clopping into Jerusalem at his triumphal entry, some Pharisees (who did not have a clue what was going on) demanded that Jesus stop his disciples from worshiping him. Not only did Jesus refuse to stop them, he told the Pharisees that if they were silenced, “the very stones would cry out.” Now that our Savior has come, his worship is imperative. We all do it poorly compared to how we will do it, but we try anyway. It is as natural as breathing for us.
Worship is supposed to be “in spirit and truth,” which is simply a hendiadys for “authentically.” Its opposite would be worshiping in the flesh without a true feeling of awe or gratitude. Perhaps you remember the last time you attended a service that just seemed to be going through the motions? That is not worship. Authentic worship is a reaction to God’s felt presence and God’s manifested works. It is not an expression of our “worth-ship” but his. The worshiper does not get carried away with herself, but caught up in him. That is why the fruit of the Spirit – self control – must manifest in worship as well. Much damage has been done by confusing self-honoring frenzy with God-honoring worship.
Yet, there is something to the process of worship that at times may seem like loss of control. Paul told the formerly pagan Ephesians not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. They were to replace one kind of intoxication for another. Instead of wine causing them to abuse one another, they were to drink deeply of the Holy Spirit, which would influence them. It would result in “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
When the Holy Spirit is manifested in our gatherings, he causes us to do things that outsiders may not understand and may attribute to the wrong cause. At Pentecost, Peter had to remind the crowd that those who were receiving manifestations were not drunk; it was (after all) only nine o’clock in the morning. From that time on, “praising God” was a description of what believers constantly did.
Worship is always to be directed God-ward, but there is a side effect benefit that we who are gathered can gain from it. The author of Hebrews insisted that his readers keep gathering together for the purpose of “encouraging one another.” It is an encouragement to see what God is doing in the lives of other Christians, and we can see the Holy Spirit at work within them as they worship. While worship is not a show that we put together for one another’s benefit, there are aspects of the Christian life that are only seen in the community context. That is why the New Testament contains so many reciprocal commands: love one another, care for one another, submit to one another, etc.
The church is God’s gathered community, designed to proclaim and explain God’s Word through instruction. Jesus commanded us to make disciples by teaching each other to obey his commands. There is actual content to the commands of Christ. It is impossible to be a mere worshiping church. A true church is a discipling church, and a discipling church is a teaching church. One of the earliest criticisms that unbelieving authorities hurled at the early church was that they were teaching in Christ’s name. The apostles arose at daybreak, and started teaching.
As previously mentioned the content of Christ’s commands can be summarized thus:
- Make your choices based on God’s permanent realities, rather than the world’s temporary ones. Invest your life in eternity.
- Put Christ and his kingdom first in your life. Be devoted to him.
- Be genuine. Don’t pretend to be something you are not, and don’t forget who you are in Christ. Be what you claim to be.
- Trust your heavenly Father to take care of your needs and to win your battles. Rely on God to do what you cannot do.
- Keep in contact and communication with God through prayer.
- Concentrate on learning, living and proclaiming the truth.
- Expect the power of the Holy Spirit to make up for your weaknesses and insufficiencies. Be used by God to fulfill his will.
- Live in expectancy because the king is coming! Be alert, and ready for his arrival.
Discipling consists of bringing people to the point of commitment to Christ (baptizing) and then nurturing that commitment through a lifelong process of teaching. The gathered church is a teaching church.
The means of the church’s teaching ministry is not a creed or a set of church traditions — it is the Holy Spirit, who is continuing the discipling ministry of Jesus Christ among us. The medium he uses is the Bible, the Word of God.
… they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.
He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.
[T]he Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also …
[Paul] stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known …
[W]hen you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you …
Believers with the Holy Spirit inside them and the Word of God coming out of them are a strong force for change in the world. Jesus intends for his gathered church to not simply sit by and wait until his return. He has commanded us to “engage in business” until he comes. As Paul wrote, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” The gathered church is a teaching church.
The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by growing closer together and demonstrating our unity. This is done through fellowship. The act of gathering us together was intentional — God did not mean for us to be spiritual lone rangers. He does not have one church of doers and another church of viewers. He has one body, with many members. Fellowship is the way we show our unity among ourselves and to the watching world.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
[T]hat which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another …
The gathered church is not a saved soul here and a saved soul there. We are a collected crop. We are gathered sheaves, prepared to be harvested for our Master on the last day. The gathered church is a fellowshipping church.
The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by snatching people from among the doomed and bringing them to eternal life in Christ. We do this through dynamic witness. Jesus told us that we would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” We are witnesses to the fact that there is now hope because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Peter told the first gathered community that they were all witnesses of this fact: God raised Jesus from the dead!
We are to witness to two facts: 1) that the risen Christ is coming again to judge the world and 2) that forgiveness of sins is available to all who believe in Christ. These two facts must not be separated. A gospel that only emphasizes God’s love and forgiveness misses the first fact. It ignores the bad news, without which people cannot understand the good news. Attempting to evangelize without pointing out why we need forgiveness is only half a witness.
The world is used to Christians telling them that God wants them to join them in heaven. He wants no such thing. The gospel is about a risen Christ who is coming back to conquer the earth. The early Christians did mention heaven. They spoke of Christ, “whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” Heaven was only mentioned because that is where Christ is now, and were he is coming from when he returns. True evangelism is not an offer of a new location — it is an offer of life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life …
“Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life …”
“[W]hoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
[T]o those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life …”
… so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called …
… in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began …
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
The church needs to be done with this “good people go to heaven when they die” gospel because it is not the biblical gospel. A church that wants to truly be the church will testify to what the Bible says. It will hold out the hope that the Bible calls “the blessed hope,” which is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Any hope that replaces this hope is a false hope.
Any “evangelism” that sidesteps the centrality of Jesus Christ raised from the dead is too sanitized by human philosophy. If all we have to say to people is that Jesus died for them, we are telling the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth includes the fact that this same Jesus who died for them was raised to rule them. He is coming back, and any gospel that does not take that fact into account is too truncated. Much of modern evangelicalism has missed this point. For that reason, what has passed for evangelism has failed to capture people’s loyalty to Christ. Its recipients are interested only in what Jesus can do for them because that is the only gospel they know. The church who truly evangelizes leads people from accepting Christ’s gift of forgiveness to embracing Christ’s authority and his coming kingdom. The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by bringing others into his kingdom through dynamic witness.
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 …”)
 Matthew 9:37-38.
 John 4:35-38.
 Acts 12:12; 13:44; 14:27; 15:30; 20:7-8.
 2 Thessalonians 2:1.
 James 1:18.
 James 1:19-27.
 Luke 19:40.
 John 4:23-24.
 Ephesians 5:18.
 Ephesians 5:19-21.
 Acts 2:15.
 Acts 2:47; 4:21.
 Hebrews 10:25.
 Acts 4:18; 5:28.
 Acts 5:21.
 Acts 13:5.
 Acts 13:7.
 Acts 17:13.
 Acts 18:11.
 Colossians 1:25.
 1 Thessalonians 2:13.
 1 John 2:14.
 Luke 19:13.
 1 Timothy 4:13.
 1 Corinthians 12:12.
 Acts 2:42.
 2 Corinthians 6:14.
 1 John 1:3.
 1 John 1:7.
 Acts 1:8.
 Acts 2:32; 3:15.
 Acts 10:40-43.
 Acts 3:21.
 John 3:16.
 John 3:36.
 John 4:36.
 John 5:24.
 John 12:25.
 Romans 2:7.
 Romans 5:21.
 1 Timothy 6:12.
 Titus 1:2.
 1 John 5:11.
 Titus 2:13.