Scripture reveals that God's eternal plan is to unite all things in Christ. To achieve this, he is gathering to himself a vast assembly, from every nation, tribe, people and tongue, to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1-2).

At the beginning of human history, fellowship with God was broken because of sin, and disastrous consequences followed (Genesis 3-11). We were separated from God and divided from one another. But God initiated a process of restoration designed to bring blessing to 'all the families of the earth' (Genesis 12:1-3). He drew Abram and his descendants into a covenant relationship with himself, and from that context the people of Israel emerged. In his dealings with Israel, God prepared the world for the coming of the Lord Jesus and the gathering of the ultimate assembly of people from all nations that is portrayed in Revelation 7.

Gathering Israel

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and gathered them to himself at Mount Sinai, describing them as his 'treasured possession out of all peoples.' He promised that, if they obeyed his voice and kept his covenant, they would be 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Exodus 19:3-6). That 'day of the assembly' (Deuteronomy 10:4) was decisive and formative for the life of the people from then on. In their wilderness wanderings, and then in the Promised Land, the Israelites assembled on various occasions to meet with God, to express their devotion to him with sacrificial rituals and to respond to his word with faith and praise (e.g. Exodus 29:38-46; Psalm 95).

In this pattern of worship and service, sacred places such as the tabernacle and temple, divinely appointed priests, prescribed rituals, and a yearly round of festivals, were essential aspects of their gathering to God, required by the law given to Moses. Shaped by those gatherings, they were meant to treat one another with mercy, justice and love in every sphere of life (e.g. Deuteronomy 26:1-15). Indeed, when their corporate worship did not provoke them to serve God with everyday faith and obedience, the prophets were strong in their condemnations (e.g. Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-4; Micah 6:6-8).

God sought to bless Israel by gathering them to himself, but the judgment that ultimately fell upon them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness was their scattering among the nations (Deuteronomy 4:25-40). Even so, the prophets spoke of the day when God would act to rescue and restore his people, gathering them to himself once more (Deuteronomy 30:1-3; Isaiah 40:9-11).

Gathering the Church

In various ways, the New Testament proclaims the fulfilment of those promises in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. His mission was to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to be their Good Shepherd, to save them, to lead them, to feed and protect them as God's flock (John 10:14-16). More than that, in fulfilment of the original promises to Abraham, his purpose was to draw people from every nation to himself (John 12:32), making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), and building his assembly (his 'church'), against which even the power of death will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).

Reflection: Consider Matthew 16:16-20 in the light of Exodus 19:1-6.

 

  • How does Jesus build his church?
  • How does it differ from the 'congregation' that God gathered to meet him at Mount Sinai?

God has delivered the people of the New Covenant from the dominion of darkness and death and has transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 'in who we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins' (Colossians 13-14). Jesus our ascended high priest and saviour-king has gathered us to God's throne in heaven, where by faith we are part of the joyful assembly that is Christ's heavenly and eternal church (Hebrews 12:22-4). He continues to grow his church as he sends out the messengers of his word and enables people by the power of his Spirit to respond with repentance and faith.

We look forward to the day of Christ's return, when that heavenly assembly will be fully and finally revealed (Revelation 21:1-4). Those gathered together by God in his new creation will continually rejoice in his victory and enjoy eternal fellowship with God (Revelation 22:1-5). But even now, as believers are gathered to Christ through the preaching of the gospel and have access to the Father in one Spirit through Jesus Christ, we are drawn to each other by the new relationship with God we share. When we meet, there is a deep bond between us generated by God's word and God's Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-2; Philippians 2:1-2).

Every Christ-centred gathering is an expression of our union with him and with each other before God's heavenly throne. The vertical dimension (God engaging with us) is primary. Uniquely among human assemblies, we are gathered by the triune God to himself, and he is powerfully present among us. So we meet with God in the presence of one another and meet with one another in the presence of God. The horizontal dimension (meeting with one another) is created and determined by God's approach to us. God ministers to us through the fellowship of his people and we respond to him as we pray, praise, and listen to his word.

But each of our gatherings, week by week, is also an anticipation of the ultimate assembly of God's people around his throne in the new creation. Since we await that final experience of fellowship with God, each Christian assembly has an 'already and not-yet' dimension. We are already 'in Christ' and yet we wait to be together 'with Christ' in the new creation.

Christian assemblies can take place anywhere and do not require the presence of any particular person. They can occur at any time (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11), and do not involve any essential ritual (Colossians 2:16-17). Christians do not have sacred places on earth to which they must come to worship (John 4:21-4), and the only priest they need is Jesus Christ, who is in heaven (Hebrews 8:1-6; 10:19-23).

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