Holiness as the Church Bearing Fruit

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There are few more established routines in life than the traditional bedtime story. When our children were small, it was the only way a day could be brought properly to an end. The number of stories that we read, remembered from our own childhood or, quite frankly, made up on the spot during that sacred nightly ritual, must number in the thousands. It was Eugene Peterson who probably best captured the childhood request that every parent has heard so many times as they tuck their children into bed for the night: “Daddy, please tell me a story, and put me in it.”

Storytelling is one of the most basic human activities. All of our memories are built around stories. When we get together with our friends, what do we do? We tell stories. We exchange little narratives with each other. We laugh and we tell more stories. Life is not just filled with facts and information; it is an unfolding story. In the same way, the Bible is a grand narrative. God is unfolding a story, and as the ultimate Storyteller, He is putting us in it! The Bible is the faithful record of that grand story. It continually calls us back to the story when we are all too often prepared to accept lesser stories and smaller narratives. God started writing us into His grand story when He created us in His own image and breathed into us the breath of life. (We explored this in chapter 2.) After the fall, as the story continued to unfold, we saw that the great theme of reestablishing God’s presence is what makes us the people of God.

This story is about more than keeping the Law, or getting circumcised. Those are all crucial marks of identity, but fundamentally it is about God’s presence. Moses would later make this clear when he said to the Lord, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:15–16). The consequence of sin at the fall recorded in Genesis 3 is death, which is, at its root, the loss of God’s presence. The human race lives in perpetual exile from the Presence. Presence lost—presence regained—that’s one of the main themes of this epic story! But sin is more than the deeds we commit, or the breaking of God’s law. Sin is fundamentally relational. Sin is all the places where we elect the absence of God in our lives. Holiness, therefore, is fundamentally about the presence of God being restored into our lives, our other relationships and, indeed, in the world.

As we continue reading the Old Testament, we read more about the unfolding of the grand story. Sometimes things happen that seem rather odd to us. Strange things are done; agreements are made with certain marginal people; promises are given; strange rituals are performed. There is a particularly long part of the story, which seems to go on endlessly, about curtains and a lot of special garments, and special pieces of furniture, like lampstands, and bowls, and a table, and a very fancy golden box with fierce-looking creatures on the lid, all crafted by these two guys named Bezalel and Oholiab. But like a ten-thousand-piece puzzle, slowly the pieces to the big story start getting placed on the table, and we begin to notice a few things. Like the time God said that this big tent—a mobile temple—they were constructing was called mishkan; the English renders this “tent of meeting” or “tabernacle,” but the word is richer than that. It means “dwelling place.” We finally begin to see the reason for all of these elaborate rituals and curtains and outer and inner rooms and a most holy place where the ark of the covenant was to be kept. All of this was about God reestablishing His presence. It was about holiness. In Exodus 25:8 God declared, “Have them make a sanctuary (mishkan) for me, and I will dwell among them.” It’s about the restoration of presence!

The same pattern was repeated years later when the people settled into the Promised Land, and under Solomon, the temple was constructed according to a precise pattern. Finally, in 1 Kings 8 we read the account of the ark of the covenant being brought into the temple and into the Holy of Holies. Picture the ark being brought in on long poles by the sons of Aaron. So many sheep and cattle were being sacrificed that they were unable to be counted. The priests brought the ark into the Holy of Holies and placed it beneath the wings of the cherubim. The priests could not even stand and minister because the presence of God was so powerful and manifest. Solomon declares in 1 Kings 8:13 that the temple will be a place for the Lord to dwell forever!

The Holy of Holies remained God’s outpost in a sinful world that only knew of the absence of God. But in the fullness of time, the Grand Storyteller made a surprise move. He entered into the very history of His own making. God came in human flesh. We call this the incarnation. It is the ultimate invasion of the presence of God into the world. God’s presence now dwells in His people, the church. “I will build my church,” declared Jesus (Matt. 16:18). The church is destined by God to be the outpost of His holiness in the world. The original Holy of Holies was in a fixed location in the inner part of the temple in Jerusalem. At the crucifixion of Christ, the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). The new Holy of Holies now resides in the church of Jesus Christ. This means that there should be hundreds of thousands of Holy of Holies wherever God’s people gather for worship! This is made possible because God’s presence is now located in the gathered people of God. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). If the church ceases to be holy, then it amounts to the loss of the manifest presence of Jesus in the world.

Today, many have a broken, fragmented view of the church. We think of salvation as merely a personal transaction between ourselves and Jesus. But in God’s design, the church is about much more. The church is not just the aggregate gathering of all the justified individuals who happen to come together. The church is what God is building in the world. It is the new Holy of Holies. Jesus Christ is the foundation, and He is building His church. You cannot fully enter into personal holiness unless and until you are rightly related to the church, the people of God. It is the church that is the lens through which we capture the glorious work of God and experience the manifest presence of God. The church of Jesus Christ is God’s plan to manifest His presence and to demonstrate the fruit of His holiness in the world.

Holiness, as we have seen, is not merely about eradicating sin in our lives. It is about the full manifestation of all the fruit of the Spirit through the church of Jesus Christ. We are preparing for that day in the New Creation when we will once again see the cosmic river with not one, but two trees of life, one on each side, bearing fruit. In the New Creation the gates are never closed. Open gates mean that we are no longer living in fear. Holiness must become embodied both personally and corporately in the life and witness of the church. This is why Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). It is in the community of God’s Spirit-filled people that the presence of Jesus is fully made manifest in the world.

Did you find this entry helpful? Then you’ll enjoy Timothy Tennent’s The Call to Holiness: Pursuing the Heart of God for the Love of the World. In it he challenges common assumptions about the holiness of God and the holiness required of God’s people. Get your copy from our store here.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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