Online Services vs. Gathering Physically
I am so grateful for the technology that has allowed us to stream our services online over the last few months. Encouraging sermons and songs filled with truth have been a lifeline during this unusual season. At the same time, attending online services should be as unique as having a global pandemic. Online gatherings are a temporary help during a unique crisis, but they are not a viable long-term option for the church. We are called to assemble. It is God’s design.
God has a specific and wonderful plan for the local church, and it is fulfilled when we gather together.
Consider what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19-22.
“ So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
God Draws Us In
Paul explains throughout Ephesians 2 how the Gentile believers in Ephesus are being drawn into the family of God. He has been explaining how they were aliens and strangers. They were far off, cut off from God, and without hope (2:12). Through the remarkable work of Jesus Christ, they have been brought near (2:13).
Therefore, Paul says in verse 19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
God has drawn them in. He came looking for them, rescued them, and brought them home to be in his family.
This is not just true for the Ephesians. It is the story of every believer in Jesus Christ. We were strangers and aliens. We were cut off from God, and cut off from hope. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (2:1), “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (2:4-5).
God Pulls us Together
Not only were the Ephesians cut off from God, they were also cut off from the people of God. They were aliens and strangers in more than one sense. Paul says in verse 12, that they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.”
Paul wants to encourage them that they have not only been reconciled to God, but they have been reconciled to his people and to one another. Paul describes this one new people in verses 20-21, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
God is creating a people for himself. He saves individuals, but then, He draws them together. He has given us a common foundation in the teachings of the apostles and prophets (the Bible), and He has given us a common cornerstone, Jesus Christ. Jesus holds us together, gives us a common hope, and grows us up together into a holy temple in the Lord.
This is so important for us to understand and embrace. God never intended for us to relate to Him in isolation. Over and over again in the Bible, we see that God saves and relates to a people. God is relational, and He intends for His people to live in relationship with Him and in relationships with one another. He saved us and ordained that we should be together. A Christian trying to live apart from the community of God’s people is like a fish out of water.
God Dwells Among Us
Everything that Paul has said up to this point is wonderful, but it gets even better. Not only were we aliens and strangers who were brought near, but God’s ultimate design is to dwell among us. Read how Paul gives further explanation to calling us the temple of God. He says in verse 22, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Paul draws on the imagery of the temple in Jerusalem. He has already referenced it earlier when he talked about the “dividing wall of hostility” (verse 14). This is referring to the wall that separated the “Court of the Gentiles” from the rest of the temple grounds. The Gentiles were not allowed to come past this dividing wall. They were excluded.
Paul already announced that this dividing wall has been torn down. The meaning here is significant. The wall coming down meant that the Ephesians were no longer separated from God’s people and from the manifestation of God’s presence. This is unbelievably good news, but there is more.
When Paul declares that they are “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit,” he is saying they have replaced the temple as the place where God’s presence is seen and felt.
In the Old Testament, God had the Israelites build the temple as a reminder that he dwelt among them. John Stott explains, “Of course spiritually-minded Israelites knew that God did not dwell in man-made temples and that the whole universe could not contain his infinite being. Nevertheless, he promised to manifest his glory (the shekinah) in the temple’s inner sanctuary, in order to symbolize the truth that He dwelt among his people.”
Now, Paul is saying that this manifestation of the glory of God happens among them. They are the “living stones” (1 Peter 2) that God is bringing together so that he can dwell among them. They are the new temple.
God delights in dwelling among his people. This has always been true, and it will be true for all eternity. When God describes the perfect unfolding of his ultimate plan, it ends with God dwelling permanently among his people (Revelation 21:3-5).
When we gather on Sunday mornings to worship together, we get a unique foretaste of this future reality. We get a glimpse into the eternal joy of being a people gathered in the presence of their kind, merciful, and loving God.
This is one of the reasons God commands us to meet together regularly (Hebrews 10:25). Our gatherings serve to remind us of heavenly promises and eternal realities that often fade from our thinking throughout the week. But something miraculous happens when we gather on Sunday morning. We find ourselves in a sea of people who love, hope in, and worship the same God. We are reminded that the trials and blessings of this life are passing away. We are reminded of a heavenly family into which God has adopted us. We are filled with hope.
Online gatherings will never be able to replace our physical gatherings. Online gatherings are a bridge in an unusual time to carry us to the other side of this pandemic. We should be grateful for the bridge, but we should not build houses on it. We need to keep marching, and pray that God will get us to the other side as soon as possible.