Early on in the study systematic theology most examine the attributes of God, that is, those characteristics that describe who God is. In this post today I’ll look to the attributes, or marks, the Scripture uses when speaking of the Church. These marks have been points of identification for not only what the Church is in general but also what makes a healthy local church. Though there are many modern and historical confessions and creeds that point to various and important marks of the Church, I want to focus on the oldest creed that does this – the Nicene Creed. In the Nicene Creed, written around 325 AD at the council of Nicea, we read the following statement: “And we believe in One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church…”
To say the Church is one is to say the Church is unified. When we come to the Son of God in faith we are united to the Son. Because we’re united to the Son, we’re accepted by the Father, and because we’re accepted by the Father John 17:23 tells us that the Father now loves us even as He loves His own Son and because the Father loves us He sends the Holy Spirit to reside in us. So every believer is in the Father and the Son and the Spirit, yet in our union with the Godhead we don’t lose our own distinctive identity or personality. Because of this work of God’s grace, being a Christian is more fundamental to our identity than the family we come from, the ethnicity we represent, the job we labor in, it is even more important than our nationality. The unity we share with other Christians is greater than any other bond we have in this world. This means where Christians exist, diversity always exists, but the stunning thing about the witness of a healthy church is that in the midst of diversity, there is unity. Therefore, our unity is a visible display of the invisible gospel.
So, true unity begins with the gospel, is upheld by the gospel, lasts by the gospel, and spreads because of the gospel. Paul writes of Jews and Gentiles at the end of Ephesians 2:14-18, saying that God has “…abolished the dividing wall of hostility that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And He came and preached peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Did you notice here that it is the gospel alone that upholds unity? How did God get rid of the hostility between Jew and Gentile? The cross of Christ, where He remade one new man from two separate peoples. If we continue down in Ephesians, going all the way 3:10 we find the purpose of this unity. God’s purpose is “…that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” What is on display in the unity of the Church? None other than the very character of God. Remember, you can’t physically see the gospel; but when we foster and encourage community that is supernatural, it makes the invisible gospel visible. Union with Christ, brings unity in Christ.
Suppose you wanted to heart a large room with burning coals, how would you do it? Do you spread the coals evenly throughout the room? No. That would dissipate the heat and eventually each coal would burn out. So how do we heat the room? You push all the individual coals together into one pile in the center of the room, and as they burn together they become one large heat source that’s brighter and hotter, and warmth will fill the room. Such is the unity of the local church. The more unified we become the brighter and hotter we’ll burn with the heat of the gospel, and the brighter and hotter we burn with the heat of the gospel, the more compelling our community becomes in its witness to the lost.
1 Peter 1:14-15 says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…” Here we are presented with the reality that for Christians, holiness is to be pursued. v14 and v15 say the same thing in different ways. v14 says it negatively saying ‘do not be conformed to ignorant passions’ and v15 says it positively saying ‘be holy in all your conduct.’ When you combine the commands in v14 and v15 you have a clear picture of what the pursuit of holiness looks like. Since we’re called to not conform to ignorant and wicked passions, being holy means we conform to what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. What is good, true, and beautiful? God Himself.
We’ve seen this in Old Testament Israel, they were set apart by God from the surrounding nations to be holy. Now Christ’s Church is to be set apart from sin and the surrounding world to be holy herself. Israel was to look different from her neighbors, and now the Church, though in the world, is to look different from the world. v14 calls this type of life ‘obedient.’ Therefore obedience for every Christian means conforming to Christ rather than the world around us. This means holiness is not optional for the Church. Holiness is not just something for mature Christians, holiness is not just something for pastors and elders, holiness is for all Christians, in all times, in all places. I know that each of you has at one time or another asked God this question, ‘God, what is Your will for my life?’ Listen to 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” You can’t get clearer than that.
It is said that the moon, though appearing to be very bright, has no light of it’s own – it only reflects the sun. The same is true of us, in and of ourselves we have no holiness, we are mere reflectors of God’s pure light. Peter says the same thing as he continues his passage “…as He who called you is holy, you also be holy…” while v16 quotes Leviticus 11:44 where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.” This teaches us that the foundation of our own holiness is God’s holiness, that our holiness is a reflection of God’s holiness.
Some of you right here from the start may be alarmed at such a because you may believe by teaching the ‘catholic’ nature of the Church that we are affirming the Roman Catholic Church. We are not doing that. We will never do that. So why use the word ‘catholic?’ Well the word ‘catholic’ that the Nicene Creed uses here has a lower case ‘c’ not an upper case ‘C.’ You may not think this matters very much, but the size of the letter ‘c’ determines alot. While an upper case ‘C’ indicates a proper noun and refers to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, the creed’s usage of the lower case ‘c’ indicates the original sense of the word, which simply means ‘universal.’ Therefore to say the Church is catholic, to define the Church as having ‘catholicity’ is to say the Church is universal. This means Christ’s true Church is formed by all the people who, in all times and in all places, have believed in Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel.
In Revelation 5:8-14 Jesus took the scroll the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before Him, with their golden bowls of incense, and then what happened? They sang a new song with these words, “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every TRIBE and LANGUAGE and PEOPLE and NATION, and You have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Later on after this all the hosts of heaven and earth sang two more songs singing these words in v12 and v13, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing…To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
These new songs the living creatures, the elders, the myriads of angels, and all those on and under the earth are singing is a song of praise to the Lion-Lamb Christ who acted in redemption, purchasing for God…what? A universal Church made up of all peoples. Notice the new song being sung isn’t about the glory of America, or English speaking peoples, rather it’s about the glory of Christ who has redeemed men and women from all peoples and all tribes and all languages and tongues.
The meaning of Apostolic is given to us within the word itself. To say the Church is ‘Apostolic’ is to say the Church is founded on the apostle’s teaching. The book of Acts makes this crystal clear in Acts 2:42 when Luke, the author, says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here we see a summary of what the early Church devoted themselves to or continued steadfastly in when they gathered together. They devoted themselves to prayer, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper), and fellowship. But notice what’s on the top of the list here? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Above all they did, the central object in focus was the teaching of the apostles. This is why we say that the apostles’ teaching is the foundation of the Church.
This is clear to most of us I think and, clear as it may be, it does bring up a number of questions, questions that need answering. Questions like: ‘Who were the apostles?’ ‘What did the apostles teach?’ and finally ‘Why is the apostles’ teaching so important?’ To answer this briefly I’ll just say this. The apostles were common, ordinary men who became Apostolic representatives by the power of the Holy Spirit, who then through the inspiration of the Spirit turned into Apostolic writers, who have left in their writings an Apostolic witness for the Church for all time. Therefore the Bible you hold in your hand is the only Apostolic authority for us today as well as the sum and substance of Apostolic teaching.
As the early Church devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, let’s do the same today.