The Church at the Center

Toward the end of the Revelation, John sees a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The old created order in Adam has passed away, and the new order under the lordship of Jesus has been established. Within this new creation John also sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The splendors of this city-bride are detailed in Revelation 21:9—22:5. While details and their multivalent symbols all demand our attention, the designation of the city as the new Jerusalem and the context for understanding all of these details must occupy our attention first.

Why call this city the “new Jerusalem?” Why not call the city the “new Rome,” the “new Babylon” or the “new Susa?” The designation of the city is not arbitrary. Jesus isn’t designating this as a generic city. This city is the new Jerusalem. There is a connection, a continuation, between the old Jerusalem and this new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the old Jerusalem that has died and been resurrected in Jesus. Just as Jesus was radically transformed but still recognizable after his resurrection, so Jerusalem is radically transformed but still recognizable.

The ways in which God defined Jerusalem and her existence in the past, therefore, informs us as to what this new Jerusalem, the church, is even now. There are many characteristics of the city that now find their fulfillment in the church. Jerusalem was the “foundation of peace” (or possibly the “teaching of peace”). It is the city with whom God has declared peace. The church as the new Jerusalem is the place where peace with God is experienced. Jerusalem is the location of God’s throne (cf. e.g., 1Chronicles 29:23). It is quite clear in this vison that God is enthroned in the new Jerusalem. Being the place of God’s throne, Jerusalem is a temple-city. In the new Jerusalem there is no temple because the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Revelation 21:22). Jerusalem is YHWH’s bride (cf. Isaiah 54:4-8; also Ezekiel 16). The angel introduces John to the new Jerusalem as “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Revelation 21:9).

All of these characteristics are important to the church being the new Jerusalem. But there is one other characteristic of Jerusalem that is vital for the people of God to understand: Jerusalem is the center of the world. In Ezekiel 5:5 we hear, “Thus says the Lord YHWH: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.” The world revolves around Jerusalem. Whatever God is doing in the world, he does in, through, and for the sake of Jerusalem. The destiny of the world rests in Jerusalem. World governments, economic systems, and cultures rise and fall because of what God purposes for Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzars are raised up to correctively discipline her. Cyruses are raised up to deliver and provide for her. The glory of all the nations will be brought into her, God’s holy mountain-city (cf. Isaiah 2:1-4; Revelation 21:25). Jerusalem’s obedience or disobedience determines the course of world history. The Jerusalem dead-and-resurrected remains the center of the world. The world under the lordship of Christ is for the sake of the church (Ephesians 1:22). Through the church God is declaring his manifold wisdom to all of the principalities and powers of the world (Ephesians 3:10). World governments, economies, and cultures all ebb and flow, rise and fall, because of God’s purposes in, through, and for the church.

Because of what we see going on in the world, we have a difficult time grasping the truth of this reality. But it is the truth of this reality that keeps us sane in this crazy world. If it is not for the church that God is directing the course of history, if the church and her ultimate glorification is not God’s central intention, then what purpose is there for all the turmoil we don’t understand? The centrality of the church in God’s purposes means that we can be confident that all things are indeed working for the good of those who love God, those who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). As with all that God says about us and the world, we accept this by faith. We trust God’s definition of reality and commit ourselves to it with our entire lives.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Having a theological grasp on the centrality of the church in Scripture is one thing. Living out that reality by faith is the difficult part. If the new Jerusalem, the church, is the center of the world, if all of God’s purposes work in, through, and for the church, what place, then, should the church occupy in our day-to-day lives? To ask the question in that way is to answer it. If our lives are shaped by God’s reality, then the church must be central to our lives.

Western culture in general and American culture in particular tend to have a skewed vision of what this means. With all of our emphasis on a “personal relationship with Jesus” in the evangelical culture, the church as the cultural center of our lives is lost. This is the cultural air we breathe; these are the lenses through which we understand our Christian faith. We grew up this way. We were taught in word, ritual, and by example that the church holds an important place in our lives, but, really, our personal relationship with Jesus is all that really matters. We can have a relationship with Jesus without the church.

Consequently, the church and her activities are seen in just that way: activities that I must juggle with all of the other activities of my life. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel Community, summarize the situation:

The prevailing view of life today is that of an individual standing on his or her own, heroically juggling various responsibilities—family, friendships, career, leisure, chores, decisions, and money. We could also add social responsibilities like political activities, campaigning organizations, community groups, and school associations.

From time to time the pressures overwhelm us, and we drop one or more of the balls. All too often church becomes one of the balls. We juggle our responsibilities for church (measured predominantly by attendance at meetings) just as we juggle our responsibilities for work or leisure. (44-45)

Our life as the church is not to be one of the various compartmentalized activities of our lives. The church—our life together as the people of God—is to be the “hub” of our lives around which all of life is to revolve. The decisions I make concerning employment to what I do with my leisure time should revolve around how those decisions affect my participation in the life of the church. The church’s calendar, to the extent that I am not providentially hindered, should determine my calendar. That is, I make decisions about what my family and I participate in based on how it affects our participation in the life of the church. This means that I don’t choose a job first and hope that a solid church is there. I am willing to give up promotions or seemingly better opportunities for healthy church life. My decisions should take into account how others within the church will be affected. This begins to flesh out what it means for the church to be the center of life.

The greatest responsibility for living this type of life is upon the pastor and other leaders in the church. We and our families are to be exemplary in this, models for the rest of the church to follow (Hebrews 13:7). We are to show them the beauty of having a life centered in Christ’s church so that they will want to follow.

But as pastors and other leaders we also have a responsibility not to make participation in the life of the church practically impossible. We must set times and seasons for the church to spend time together, for instance, in such a way that considers the need for physical rest. As the stars in Jesus’ right hand (Revelation 1.20; 2—3), we are the governors of this new creation, determining the calendar (cf. Genesis 1:14). We must order the life of the church in such a way so that it is healthy for those whom we govern.

In all that is done we must model and encourage the centrality of the church in lives of the people of God. It is not enough to have a “high ecclesiology” but disregard the daily effects of what it means to live with the church as the center of our lives.

Bill Smith is pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church in Carbondale, IL.