Ecclesiology: Characteristics of the People of God
Words by Glenn Jago
Jesus responded to Peter’s great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” by stating, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16, 18). Unfortunately, it seems the very people inside the doors of the church are the ones attempting to prevail over this institution even more than the gates of hell. Or could it be the direct attack of Satan from within?
This is similar to God’s institution of marriage as introduced by “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). A young lady looks in the eyes of her knight in shining armor with complete adoration and anticipation as he poses the question, “Will you marry me?” The young lady believes that the emotional experience of this moment will yield a lifetime of marital bliss. But, something changes within the marriage, after the vows are exchanged and the children are born. All of a sudden, the husband and wife become too distracted with life to pay attention to each other like they once did. Soon, without realizing it, the emotional experience of bliss begins to turn into the emotional experience of stress and dissatisfaction. Was there a problem with God’s institution, or with the character of the couple?
The proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” can be applied to many other facets of life. Unfortunately, this often holds true in regard to the church. There is a growing contempt for the church as outsiders view it as too predictable, hypocritical, institutional, restrictive, and just too un-American. The characters representing the church are no longer believable to the world. Is there a problem with God’s institution, or with the character of those within the church?
Ecclesiology is the theological term for the church. This term originates from two key words, “out of” (ek) and “called” (kaleō). Therefore, the church is characterized as “called-out ones.” In his 2012 release Sojourners and Strangers, professor and author Gregg R. Allison defined the church as “the people of God who have been saved through the repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
The church is described in Matthew and in the epistles by two elements: the universal (invisible) church and the local (visible) church. The universal church consists of all who have believed the gospel of Jesus Christ through all ages and geographies. The local church consists of both believers and non-believers living within a specific location at a specific time. Jesus’ revelation that he will build his church speaks of the universal church, and Paul’s letters speak customarily of the local church; however, both are an integral part of reflecting the body of Christ.
The diminishing popularity of the church emerges at the local level more than the universal church. This is why it is vitally important to draw renewed attention to the actual purpose God intended for his church, whose members he called out of the world. God’s purpose and means for transforming the character of those inside the church and growing his people has never changed.
Peter, the first to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, was the Apostle who wrote a letter to the people of God spread throughout modern-day Turkey. Peter seeks to encourage these believers in the hope they have in Christ, no matter the circumstances. This hope set these believers apart from their culture and even provides joy in the midst of trials.
Peter then exhorts believers to pursue holiness, because God is holy. This is the result of the grace of Jesus Christ who purchased their redemption by his own blood. Because of this truth, each believer experiences the privilege of the new birth that transforms them to look more like the holy character of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, sometimes the believer’s happiness becomes more important than his holiness.
What Peter begins to describe in chapter 2 validates the effectiveness of Christ’s work in his church, as he is able to transform lives. God will continue to work through his church and call a people unto himself—united together with Christ.
In 1 Peter 2:9–12, the people of God are given eight characteristics and four consequences.
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul."
Significantly, these characteristics stand in contrast to the ones who stumbled in disobedience to the Word (v. 8). The popularity of the church is not the issue—the rejection of the stone and its power is the issue. The individuals comprising the church, after all, are those united with Christ, the living stone (vv. 4–5). The characteristics are: elect; royal priesthood; holy; possessed by God; proclaimers of God’s excellence; called out of darkness into marvelous light (9); recipients of God’s mercy (10); and sojourners (11). This is what makes up the “flock of God” (5:2) and the means of God’s continued work until he returns.
Now notice Peter’s four-fold consequence: abstains from fleshly lusts (11); fights against the fleshly desires (11); conduct honorable among outsiders (12); and visible conduct that glorifies God (12). Each consequence is dependent on the believer “working out,” or living, what God has provided.
The church is not comprised of self-made people doomed to failure, but rather Christ-ordained, elect people, destined to reflect the glory of Christ in a dark and wicked world. The church’s intention is to be the constant reflection of the transforming work of Jesus Christ, “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious” (1 Pet. 2:4).
Paul summarized it well when he revealed God’s revelation regarding the mystery “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). The display of the universal work God is doing in the hearts of his elect (through Christ) will continue to reveal the character of its Lord and glorify God. This is why God’s people see themselves as sojourners and not titleholders in this world. It’s no wonder Jesus called his people “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).