I have been a pastor in Washington, DC, for more than two decades. How many election cycles is that? More than a few generals and journalists, senators and Hill staffers have come and gone since I first arrived.
It is not uncommon for young people to show up with grand visions of the changes they can make. And Christians in politics should fight for good changes. It is one way to love our neighbors. The trouble comes when people try to use the mechanisms of the state—the power of the sword—to bring heaven to earth.
If cynicism more often characterizes the older generations in politics, utopianism is the more common desire among the younger. Aside from the fact that utopianism has been the source of some of history’s greatest atrocities, it fundamentally misunderstands God’s plans for history. Nothing in the New Testament teaches us to expect that Christ’s kingdom shall come, and that his will shall ultimately be done on earth as it is in heaven, thanks to the work of presidents or prime ministers.
But there is one place we should look for the firstfruits of heaven on earth. The local church.
“Jesus loves the church entirely.”
How does Jesus regard the church? And what does Jesus call the church to do and to be? Jesus loves the church entirely. And just as Jesus represents heaven on earth, so he calls the church to do the same.
Jesus’s Love for the Church
Jesus loved the church to the end. That’s what John said right before Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, symbolizing the more permanent washing he was about to accomplish through his death: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1, HCSB).
Jesus purchased the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Jesus founded the church (Matt. 16:18).
Jesus addresses, instructs, and shows his love for churches in both encouragement and warning (Rev. 2–3).
Jesus’s love for the church, in fact, provides the model by which husbands are to love their wives. Says Paul,
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the Word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of his body. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband. (Eph. 5:25–33 HCSB)
Christ gave himself for the church. He seeks its holiness. He cleanses it with the Word. He provides and cares for the church. He loves it as his own body.
Demonstrating Heaven’s Love
So much does Jesus love the church that he means to identify it with himself. Among other things, this means that our love for one another in the church should look like his love.
“I give you a new command,” said Jesus. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35 HCSB).
The church is to demonstrate heaven’s own love. Such one-another love is a distinctive of Christ’s disciples. By it the nations will know that we belong to him.
But it’s not just other Christians that we should love. We demonstrate God’s love for the world in our love for outsiders too. Jesus connects loving one’s neighbor with loving God. “Which command is the most important of all?” asked the scribe. Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourselves” (Mark 12:28–31).
“The church is not fundamentally a human idea or a human creation. Fundamentally, it is God’s idea and God’s work.”
The claim to love God brings a necessary horizontal element. You can have wonderfully rich quiet times, but if that doesn’t translate into how you treat other people, then something is wrong. The normal, natural way for Christians to express our love to God is not merely in singing hymns to him, though that is wonderful. It is also in giving ourselves in love to others.
Churches should be centers for such loving activity. It’s where heaven’s love shows up, first in the pronouncement of Christ’s love for us in the gospel, and second in our love for insiders and outsiders alike.
God’s Commitment to Church Planting
Christ loves the church. And when he ascended to heaven, he sent the Spirit who has given gifts to the church, which build it up. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are committed to the church. Father, Son, and Spirit are committed to planting churches.
The church is not fundamentally a human idea or a human creation. Fundamentally, it is God’s idea and God’s work. In one sense, God is the great church planter! He has commissioned the disciples to gather in his name, baptize in his name, teach in his name.
So when you’re involved in a church, you don’t have to wonder if it will ultimately work. Christ has promised that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. Christ has promised that he will have a witness to himself when he returns.
Mark Dever is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. This is an adapted excerpt from his book Understanding the Great Commission and is republished here with permission.