Outposts of the Great Assembly

Why are God’s people called “the church” even though we can’t actually all assemble together?

Chris Hutchison on June 1, 2020

On Sunday we explored three descriptions of the church found in the book of Ephesians. We saw that the word “church,” used in those passages, was not speaking directly about a specific local church. Instead, it referred to “The Church.” What we sometimes call “the universal church.” All of God’s people from all time.

We use the word “church” in this way when we speak about “the church across the globe today.” Jesus used it this way when He said that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18). Not churches, but church. Singular.

Here’s an important question we need to ask: if the word “church” basically means “assembly,” and refers to the assembly of the citizens of the Kingdom of God, then how can we use the word “church” to refer to all of God’s people in this way?

It makes sense to speak about churches, because local churches actually assemble together. But can we really use the phrase “the church” today, when God’s people are spread all over the world and it is impossible for them to all gather in one place at one time? Why call us an assembly if we never will assemble?

Here’s a way of thinking about it: have you ever seen those little shirts or other merchandise given to babies that say something like “Class of 2038”? (Here’s an example.)

When a parent puts a onesie on their baby that says “Class of 2028,” it’s like they’re saying, “If everything goes well, this child is expected to graduate in 2038. And so we are calling them something today based on what we hope they will be then.”

I know that “Class of 2038” onesies are a bit of a joke. But I hope you can see the idea: that you are referring to someone today based upon who they will be in the future. Perhaps you can think of other examples of this yourself.

I want to suggest that something quite similar is going on when Scripture refers to God’s people as “the church.” God is looking forward to the day when the kingdom will come and we will all be together with King Jesus. In that day, the citizens of the kingdom from all times and all places will be assembled together. 

Jesus calls us His “church” today on that basis. We are members of the people who will be assembled all together in the future. And today, as we live in this season of already-but-not-yet, we already get to participate in that spiritual reality.

A passage of Scripture that makes this point really well is found in Hebrews 12:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

(Hebrews 12:18–24, ESV)

One day, we will experience these realities fully. But today, we already get to participate in them spiritually. (See also Ephesians 2:6 & Colossians 3:1-4). We are already a part of this heavenly “assembly of the firstborn.”

And guess what that word “assembly” is? εκκλησια (ekklēsia). That’s the word for church, and “church” is actually how the NIV and the KJV translate that word in this passage.

So let’s sum this up: one day, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, there will be a literal assembly of its citizens, gathered together from all times and all places. That assembly is the “church” that Jesus is building today. If we have been saved by Jesus, we can be assured that we’ll be a part of that future assembly.

But we don’t have to wait until then to share in its life. Today, we already get to spiritually participate in its heavenly realities. And even more than this, we already get to start living out kingdom life in community with other brothers and sisters in Christ. We assemble together with them into local churches (“assemblies”), which are outposts and anticipations of that great assembly, and in which we live according to the ways of the kingdom and exercise our authority as citizens of it.

So being called “the church” is kind of like a baby wearing a “Class of 2038” onesie. But it’s so much bigger than that. Because it’s like we’re already being treated as graduates and invited to participate in that post-graduation life even as we wait for it to come.

The church is so much greater than we think.


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