An Easter message from Harvest Bible's James MacDonald: Why we need church
Editor's note: Dr. James MacDonald is founder and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, founded in 1988 with 18 people. It now comprises seven Chicago-area campuses, including ones in Aurora, Elgin and Rolling Meadows, with 12,000 weekly attendees. His teachings are broadcast worldwide daily on radio and TV via the program, "Walk in the Word." MacDonald, who has written several books and Bible studies, founded Harvest Bible Fellowship in 2002, which has started more than 150 churches on four continents. The Daily Herald asked him to write an essay reflecting on today, Easter Sunday.
God has placed a longing in every human heart -- and that truth is a game changer.
The longing is there because God placed it there. You can't escape it and you've certainly felt it. A deep and abiding sense that there must be something more; something outside of the boundaries of our senses … Something that endures beyond momentary happiness. Something eternal, transcendent, and glorious.
The glory our hearts were created to long for -- the glory the universe is whispering -- God has shouted to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1: 1-3 says, "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high."
The glory of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh on the earth and dwelt among us and lived a perfect life, so that He could die a substitutionary death and take upon Himself the wrath of His holy Father for your sin and mine.
To put it simply, glory is God "showing up," -- it is evidence for God, proof of His existence. Glory is when we see something that could not be by itself. It is whispered everywhere in creation and sometimes even shouted. When you look at the beauty of the mountains or vastness of the oceans and say, "Yeah, I couldn't have made that," you're picking up on glory.
Now look at the gospel. It's the real story behind Easter. What kind of a God would die Himself to pay the penalty for those who have rejected Him and then allow Himself to be beaten, spit upon, mocked, and ridiculed, not just then but now, and reach past that rejection and lovingly draw people to Himself? Don't ever cease to be shocked by the wonder and amazed by the power of the message of the gospel. It is shouting the glory of God. The gospel is demanding we witness to its marvelous, matchless, indescribable wonder -- who but God would do this for you?
So why do we need church every week? This page could be filled with reasons, but let's start with this: because God's glory brings down the needed balance. In John 1:14, the glory of Jesus is that He is "full of grace and truth." Who do you know like that? We are all either grace or truth people by nature and greatly in need of this powerful pairing.
Churches tend to align themselves with one to the neglect of the other. Truth-focused churches stand strong and hold lines and demand conformity to the letter. But they can end up fulfilling the prediction of the apostle Paul that those who "bite and devour" each other end up consuming each other (Galatians 5:15) -- there is no glory in that.
Grace-focused churches delight in the God of second chances. But they can slip quickly into the superficial, smiley world where you can't say "sin" even if you step in it, and act like marketing Jesus is the best way to serve Him -- there is no glory in that.
The glory of Jesus is that He was full of grace and truth, both existing fully without diminishing the other. It is the combination that manifests glory in your church, not one to the exclusion of the other. When a preacher prides himself on his truth, his orthodoxy, and his fearless contending for the faith but distorts the views of brothers and sows discord and separates friends in God's family, he should not be surprised if glory does not come down in his ministry. Just a parched dry land with robotic conformity to a creed where "the letter kills" -- when, if grace and truth were fully present, they could testify that "the Spirit gives life." (You'll find this in 2 Corinthians 3:6.)
When a preacher calls explicit statements of Scripture negative or controversial then seeks to avoid them, even refusing to stand for the essential tenets of biblical orthodoxy, he has rejected Christ's warning to "(beware) when all men speak well of you" (Luke 6:26). Or when he softens the biblical prescriptions for holiness in his unbiblical depiction of grace, he may have "crept in unnoticed" into some weak minds, but to those familiar with Scripture, he has "perverted the grace of our God into sensuality and denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (Jude 1:4).
The reason so many churches are mired in mediocrity is that glory descends only as the fullness of Jesus is seen in grace and truth. I began as a "truth" guy, and my own failings to be full of grace are legion. While I pray that truth is never diminished in my preaching or disciple making, God has graciously pursued me through much pain about the need to balance truth with grace. When I have failed in grace, glory has been restricted and the church has suffered for my deficiencies. Where my grace has grown and faithful congregants have seen it to be more in line with Christ's exemplary fullness, our ministry has reached new levels of revealed glory with every step.
Every week I need to work on balancing grace and truth. Going to church is essential for me -- and you.
And what could this world possibly need more than the miraculous? Let's all go to church where God's glory brings down the miraculous. John 2:11 says, "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory." It didn't take long for Jesus to get the lid off His total identity and glory started flowing out of Him like a river. He thought differently than humans think, He talked in a way that made everyone hush to hear, and He loved in a way that no one had a category for. And His miracles demonstrate His glory … we need to hear about this!
Where Jesus Christ is at work, things are happening that cannot be explained by rational categories. We understand them rationally but cannot elucidate their means or replicate them ourselves. John's two words to describe the purpose of the miracles Jesus did were manifest and glory. The presence of God is what He gives to satisfy the longing He has placed in every human heart, and it is the only "product" the church has to offer.
When every pastor gets hold of the reality that we are providers of nothing but are facilitators of glory -- that we are just channels through whom Christ can reveal Himself -- churches will return to their created purpose and God will begin to move in power to display that glory.
In John 5:41, Jesus disclosed the true purpose for His glory, saying, "I do not receive glory from people." The word order in Greek is emphatic -- "glory from men I receive not." I can hear the disciples asking, "Why, Jesus, why do you not receive glory from people?" Answer: Mountains do not receive glory from dirt piles. Do you understand? Oceans do not receive glory from birdbaths. Redwoods do not receive glory from shrubbery, and Jesus Christ does not receive glory from people. Then why are we exhorted to glorify God?
The answer is that God is lovingly leading us onto the path of our greatest joy -- aligning ourselves with the divine nature that in Christ we are made partakers of. Let us be done with the illusion that God needs or is validated in our glorifying; we alone are the beneficiaries.
The glory of God through Jesus Christ is revealed in the church. And when that happens, the lost are converted, the poor are fed, the saints live in unity, and much more, all as by-products of God's manifest presence in the church.
May we, like the invalid man in John 5, turn to see how very close and available the healing and forgiving presence of Jesus actually is.