Church post-COVID-19 era: Separating the wheat from the shaft
Olufemi Emmanuel PhD
The Church of Jesus Christ is presently facing numerous challenges as a result of the ongoing pandemic; besides the government regulations which have kept the Church doors under locks and keys, the apathy of many Church people towards the things of God seems to be prevailing at this time.
The panacea to this is in heeding the call to a deeper understanding of what the Church as an entity is all about. The absence of this kind of understanding among Christians of today is generating some kind of trepidation and confusion in terms of their response to the question of how the Church should position herself in the scheme of things as the world continues to battle with the ongoing Pandemic and its seeming unending consequences.
That explains why since the advent of the Covid-19 challenge, the Church has not in one voice made a cogent and clear statement in disclosing the mind of God about the situation. What has been going around are the solitary and ‘selfish’ denominational declarations that have not offered any definite direction to the body of Christ and the world at large.
Church post covid-19; What the church is not
In the present time and under the current condition, the true picture of the Church as clearly presented in Hebrew 12:18-24 should be borne by every member of the body of Christ, especially the leadership. The book of Hebrew was written, arguably by the Apostle Paul to reassure the Jewish Christians of their faith in Christ as they contemplated abandoning the faith and returning to Judaism because of the persecution they were suffering.
The writer aimed to help his immediate recipients’ understanding by defining for them the actual Church to which they belong. He presents a contrast between what they were familiar with in their former Judaism religion and Christianity. He begins by presenting what the Church is not:
It is not about what can be touched:- “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched….”(vs.18a) The true definition of the Church is not intangible, material or concrete sense. The spirit of religion often moves on people today to limit the Church and see it only in light of a touchable entity. The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar (John 4) had this religious perspective. But Jesus corrected her by saying “…the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father…. But the hour is coming and now is when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (vv21,23)
It is not about what can be seen or felt: – “For you have not come to the mountain…that burned with fire and to blackness and darkness and tempest” (v 18). The spectacular sight that the Israelites saw at Sinai is not what the Church of today is all about. Many Christians in the present time define ‘Church’ only as an arena of signs, wonders and mind-blowing miracles.
It is not about the noise that can be heard: – “For you have not come to …the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words….” (vv18, 119). Many modern worshippers view Church as a place of hype and noise where solemnity is buried by sophisticated and high definition musical gadgets with high- sounding and electrifying euphoria. To many, noise-making is synonym to worship.
What the Church is
But what is the Church all about? What scriptural perspective is this Hebrew passage communicating about the Church of God? If the Scripture does not want the believer in Church to see himself as having come to a mountain that can be touched; to a place of a tempest; noise and smoke; to what then has he come? Again, the writer of Hebrew provides an eye-opening answer as explained below.
1. It is to a Divine Location: – “But you have come to, Mount Zion and to the City of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem….” (vs. 22a) Zion, which means ‘permanence or unmovable’ is a mountain in Jerusalem first mentioned in 2Samuel 5:7 as a stronghold that King David captured and a City that was named after him. But Zion became a prophetic name for the residence or city of the heavenly king and not just a physical mountain (Ps. 2:6;20:2;50:2;76:2; 110:2; 128:5;132:13)
The writer of Hebrew sees Zion as “the heavenly Jerusalem” to which anyone who is in Church has come. Therefore, going to Church means going to Zion, the City of the Living God; being in fellowship with other believers is being in the heavenly Jerusalem. The Church is a divine location, irrespective of where the gathering is taking place. It could be in a sitting room, car garage, a classroom, under a tree, in a cave, on a mountain, along the street, cathedral, an auditorium etc.
As long as the gathering is of the believers of Jesus Christ and it is in his name and to worship him, that location is Zion, the city of God and heavenly Jerusalem. In such a place, the river whose streams make glad the city of God will flow and there, God will command his blessings and everlasting life (Ps 46: 4; 133:3). The modern-day Christians are often concerned about the place of worship; they place so much value to the comfort and the ambience such a place could offer, as there is nothing wrong with that, the biblical understanding of the divinity of wherever the worship is taking place must not be lost.
2. It is to a Divine Company: – “…to an innumerable company of Angels” (vs. 22b) When Christ’s believers gather wherever in worship; irrespective of their number, innumerable company of angels joins them in worship. The minimum number of persons that makes a Church is two. Jesus said, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name I am there in the midst of them” (Mt.18:20). Of course, he is never in their midst alone but with the entourage of his uncountable angels. This understanding speaks volume about the numerical value that is often attached to gatherings of believers in worship. Is it about numbers or the presence of the Lord amid his people?
3. It is to a Heavenly Gathering: – “…to a general assembly and Church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (vs.23a). The gathering of believers is not only with themselves and an innumerable company of angels; it is also with the general assembly and Church of the firstborn (Jesus Christ) who are registered in heaven; this is referring to all the heavenly saints who are constantly worshipping in the presence of God. This indicates that the coming together of believers in worship is not ordinary. It also shows that the calibre of persons that constitute the worshipping community is not the most important. Today, Churches are rated according to the social, political and economic status of the worshippers. Pastors are looking for the rich and the powerful people in the society to be members of their churches. This is due to the ignorance of what the Church is in Scriptural sense.
4. It is “to God, the Judge of All” (vs.23b) God is essentially a righteous judge (Gen 18:21; Ps. 50:6; 94:2) and when believers meet and constitute a worshipping Church, among all other, aforementioned things, he is in their midst as a judge. A Judge (shaphat in Hebrew) is one who judges, governs, passes down judgment, pronounces sentences and decides matters.
It, therefore, means that just like in the Law Court, the Church is not only a place to come and report matters, it is also a place to do more of hearing God’s pronouncements on issues. Some Church gatherings take the place of God in judgment by pronouncing curses and declaring death on their enemies whereas God said vengeance is his. The understanding of the Church as God’s court where he judges will create the attitude of listening more to God than taking his position in pronouncing judgments and decrees.
- It is “to the spirits of just men made perfect” (vs.23c). This is referring to the spirits of those who God has made holy and who have completed the race of faith. They are the Saints triumphant; though they are among the general assembly as mentioned above, they are given a special recognition; as believers gather in worship, they at the same time gather with the spirits of the saints. This understanding implies that it matters, the sort of people that constitute the Church. Physical presence, performances and membership seem to have overridden the quality of personal character in today’s church.
- It is to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (vs.24a). It is not enough to know that the believers’ gathering is unto Jesus, it is also very important for them to understand the capacity of Jesus’ functions in their midst. As a go-between in God and man covenant relationship, Jesus has satisfied all requirements that are needed for man to be reconciled to God. It, therefore, means that the practice of sacrifices of any kind with the aim of ‘provoking’ God to bestow one blessing or the other no longer has any place in the Church. No offering, service, or act of worship can ever be adequate for obtaining the least of God’s blessings; he has already offered himself for mankind; that is the only offering that would satisfy him as the basis for any other blessing he could ever grant. Whatever offering, sacrifice or service believers render, should not be tied to receiving anything from God; it should rather be an act of love for him.
- It is “to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than the blood of Abel” (vs.24a). Alongside all the aforementioned is the blood of sprinkling to which believers gather each time they meet together as Church. The blood is a perfect representation of (I) the life that Jesus shed in death and (II) The price that Jesus paid for man’s redemption. The sum of these two explains the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for the sin of mankind.
The metaphor of the blood speaking better things than the blood of Abel is reminiscent of the first human blood that was shed. It was the blood of the innocent that was spilt to the ground by a sinner. But Abel’s blood cried to the Lord moving him to take vengeance on Cain. It was a similitude or type of Jesus’ death: the righteous being put to death by and for the sinner. But Jesus’ blood never spoke like that of Abel; his blood has ever since been speaking forgiveness, peace and reconciliation of mankind with God; whereas Abel’s blood has since stopped speaking. The implication of this is that rather than being a place of vindictiveness, the Church is rather a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. As earlier mentioned, it has become the penchant of some Christian groups in this part of the world to release curses and imprecatory prayers on their perceived enemies. This is not a practice of the Christian Church.
How does this understanding help the Church under the current global situation? Among other things, it can develop the attitude required of the Church for a proper and adequate response to the current and subsequent challenge she encounters here on earth. Secondly, the Church will be able to stand tall and take her place as God’s representative that no unwholesome human regulations can disturb under any situation. Lastly, if embraced and practised, this understanding will rid the Church of the garbage in her doctrine and practices as she awaits the arrival of her Lord and saviour.
Dr Emmanuel is a lecturer at the West Africa Theological Seminary, Ipaja, Lagos Nigeria