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In the street-car of my Philadelphia boyhood, devout Roman Catholics would cross themselves when the trolley passed the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Chester Avenue. The holiness they recognized was not only for the building, but it was particularly for the sacramental elements kept there. Most of the Irish in West Philadelphia were Roman Catholic. The rest were from North Ireland and worshiped at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

When Protestants speak of going to church, however, they are not thinking of a building but of a congregation. The congregation, not the building, is holy. The Scottish poet Robert Burns knew that the Bible calls the people of God “saints,” although he could not get beyond the louse he saw promenading on the bonnet of a saint seated in front of him in the kirk.

When worshipers are so easily distracted, they forget the awe of God’s holy name.

They are not merely an audience; they are a congregation assembled by the call of the Holy One. The church is holy because the congregation is the house of God. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses a symbol of His dwelling in the midst of His people. As Israel traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land, God put His own holy tent in the center of Israel’s encampment. The twelve tribes of Israel, in their clans and families, set up their ensigns around God’s tent. Yet even while Moses on Mount Sinai was receiving the Ten Commandments and God’s plan for the tabernacle, Israel was breaking the second commandment by making a calf of gold. They then worshiped that idol. “We don’t know what became of Moses,” they said. “This is our God, to lead us back to Egypt.”

What could God do with such a people? God said that He could not live in the midst of this “stiff-necked” people. He was holy, and His holiness was too great a threat to them. His judgment might consume them in a moment. He would go before them but would not dwell in their midst. God would meet with Moses at the tent outside the camp where Joshua lived. Yet Moses repeated the Lord’s words back to Him. He prayed that the Lord would dwell in their midst and be their God precisely because they were stiff-necked sinners. They needed His presence in forgiving grace.

Because God is holy, the people of God must be a holy people. How is that possible? To show the way, God gave them His law and His provision for atonement and for cleansing. Sin brought both guilt and defilement. The wages of sin is death. A lamb was sacrificed after the sinner confessed his sin with his hands on the head of this sacrificial substitute. Sin is also polluting. The basin of water at the entrance of the tabernacle was used by the priest to symbolize the washing away of his pollution as he entered before God in His holy dwelling.

The Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples because they did not wash their hands before eating. The issue was not hygiene but ceremonial purity. Jesus defended His disciples. What they put in their mouths did not make them unclean; that meat was bound for their bellies. What came out of their mouths defiled them. The words of their mouths expressed the evil of their hearts.

Jesus transformed the ceremonial law as He showed His fulfillment of it. He did not set aside the Law. He said that not a jot or tittle of the Law would pass away until all was fulfilled. The “jot,” “y” (yodh) is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, perched at the top of the line, not taking up the space of the other letters. The “tittle” is not even a letter, but the serif jutting out from the bottom of the “k” that made it sound like a “b.”

Jesus endorsed the inspiration of the Old Testament, not only as “full” or “plenary,” but even “literal” in the sense that the very letters of the words were inspired. Jewish scribes checked the accuracy of their copies of the Scriptures by counting all the letters and marking the letter in the center of the text. However, what Jesus said did not support a literalistic interpretation of the text, for He said not just that every letter must be preserved, but that every letter must be fulfilled. The fulfillment of the Scriptures speaks of the prophetic aspect of the Sacred Text. The Ten Commandments were transformed by the teaching of Jesus. Jesus, of course, kept the Law perfectly. His perfect righteousness was put to our account, just as our sin was put to His account. More than that, Jesus transformed the Law in His teaching as well as in His life. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus showed that true righteousness must begin in a pure heart. The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. The second, like it and flowing from it, is to love your neighbor as yourself. His summary is: “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The holiness that Jesus required is nothing less than the holiness of His Father. Jesus, the Holy One of God, showed His Father’s holiness. That holiness burns against the rebellion of sin. Yet that same holiness flamed in the love that sacrificed His Son on the cross. In the darkness of Calvary, the Father forsook His Son as Christ bore the wrath that we deserve. When we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us. In love for us, His enemies, the Father spared not His Son, but gave Him up for us all.

God’s setting apart of the temple in the Old Testament symbolized the dwelling of God among His people. Jesus transformed the Law as He fulfilled it. The figures of the tabernacle and the temple are fulfilled in Jesus. It is as the incarnate Christ that the Lord dwells among us, for He is the Holy One of God. Referring to His own body, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Union with Christ is the central doctrine of how God dwells with us. That union is the work of the Holy Spirit, sent from Christ’s throne in glory. We are not only united to Christ as our representative, living, dying, and rising for us; we are also united to Christ vitally by the presence of His Spirit. He has not left us orphans. He comes to us, and He dwells among us in our hearts and in our gatherings as His church.

We assemble to hear His Word, to respond in worship, to sing His praises, to join in prayer for the church and the world, to support the work of His kingdom, and to greet one another in His peace as we come to the bread and the wine on His table. All is from the Savior, by His Spirit, and for the glory of His Father. Like the disciples beholding the cloud on the mountain, we see no mere man, but Jesus only.

“One,” Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

One, Holy, “Catholic,” and Apostolic Church

Keep Reading The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

From the June 2004 Issue
Jun 2004 Issue