Not a single church building that now exists will remain after Jesus returns. NOT ONE. But every single disciple that we make will be there with us. Let’s not waste time and money building what is after all, a fake church. I mean it. A building is not a church, no matter how many crosses and altars you slap on it. Let’s put our time into building disciples. We do that by walking with God, walking with others and working in the kingdom. Let’s build a real house of God in that way!
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2 Samuel #7 . 2 Samuel Chapter 7; 1 Chronicles 17
Last time we looked at how the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem. 2 Samuel describes the event with one chapter. However, 1 Chronicles takes three chapters to recount the same thing. What we learn from 1 Chronicles is that David set up various ministries for the priests and Levites: not just the priests who offer sacrifices, but also professional worship musicians and song-writers, full time door-keepers, administrators and so on. There were probably more than 100 full time ministers taking care of the ark and of the tabernacle. But after all, when it was all said and done, the place for all this amazing ministry was just a very old tent.
The tent was put together in the days of Moses, more than four-hundred years before. Israel has a dry climate, but I have to imagine that sometime during four-hundred years, there had been mold. I’m sure there were rips and scuffs, and it is a good guess that there were a lot of patches by this point in time. David talked to Nathan about it. He said, “Look, here I am in a palace – and God lives in a tent.” The implication, not spoken explicitly, is that it is time to build a permanent place of worship. Nathan the prophet said, “Go and do all that is on your heart, for the LORD is with you.”
I want to talk about Nathan’s response here. I understand it pretty well. It is a no-brainer at so many levels. First, Nathan felt (rightly) that David was in tune with the Lord and walking with him. Nathan said, “the Lord is with you.” I’ve said things like that to people. I will say “I know that you are in tune with the Lord – you aren’t just going off your own way. So stay in tune with him, and trust that he will lead you as you do what you feel you are supposed to do.” I don’t say that to everyone, by the way, but David was not just anyone – he was in tune with God. So, when a person who is humbly walking with God feels that she wants to honor God in some particular way, it’s an easy call – God probably put it on her heart. So, in such situations, I usually say, go for it. That’s exactly what Nathan said to David.
Second, David’s intention appeared to be obviously the right thing to do. How can it be right that David lives in a palace, while the place to worship the God of the entire universe is literally an old, moldy, patched tent? God deserves our best, right? How could it ever be a bad thing to build a really nice place of worship? How could it ever be a good thing to have to worship in an old tent? So Nathan answered immediately – before even talking to God about it. I mean some things, are obvious, aren’t they?
God had something in mind much bigger than just a place of worship. He had in mind the transformation of the human race. That transformation has everything to do with the Messiah – the Savior – and nothing at all to do with the building where people worship. And so, contrary to all expectations and common sense, both David and Nathan were wrong.
Now, this topic is one of my “pet subjects,” theologically. Even so, please don’t check out at this point, and say, “Oh that’s just an axe he likes to grind.” I have good biblical and historical reasons for grinding this particular axe. Let me start with this statement: a building accomplishes nothing spiritual. God said to Nathan and David:
Are you to build a house for Me to live in? 6 From the time I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until today I have not lived in a house; instead, I have been moving around with a tent as My dwelling. 7 In all My journeys with all the Israelites, have I ever asked anyone among the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd My people Israel: Why haven’t you built Me a house of cedar? ’ (2Sam 7:5-7, HCSB)
A building is completely unnecessary to real church, and often has a negative impact on making disciples. History bears out what I am saying here. Now some of you may argue that later on God did have Solomon build a temple. But the events that followed that only bolster my argument here. Solomon did indeed build a magnificent temple. But listen to what Solomon himself said:
18 “But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! (2Chr 6:18, ESV)
Even more important, it was precisely at that point in time – during the time of Solomon and his temple – when the people of Israel began to go astray again and worship other things. The temple did not help in the least, and an argument might be made that it hurt. Solomon’s temple was destroyed four hundred years later, and another was made. Four hundred years after that, king Herod built a third temple to please the Jewish people who were his subjects. It was even more magnificent than Solomon’s temple. Even with these amazing temples, the Jews utterly failed to walk with God. Let me make it very clear – the magnificent temple of the Jews did not help them when it came to actually receiving God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself found the most receptive hearts far away from the temple – in the outlying areas of Palestine, not in Jerusalem. The temple did not help people recognize who Jesus was. Not only that, but there is something else. Jesus apparently was regular in going to the synagogues. But most of his real ministry and disciple-making took place outside of weekly worship services.
After the time of Jesus, the church worshipped in private homes, in small groups, for almost three hundred years. Even now, that period stands as one of the most effective disciple-making eras in history. After Christianity finally became legal in the Roman empire, Christians began building buildings for their churches. The emergence of this trend of building physical church buildings coincides with the beginning of a long decline in Christianity. In fact, it wasn’t long after this that Europe entered what we call “the dark ages.” We can’t blame all of the problems of the dark ages on church buildings, but it was a period where Christianity was focused on buildings and institutions, and did very little real disciple-making that truly transformed lives.
A building dedicated to worship sometimes has practical value. However, a lot of church buildings are used for only a few hours each week – which doesn’t seem very practical after all. If the bible and history teach us anything about worship-buildings, it is that they often lead believers to live with the wrong focus, and sometimes to entirely miss the point.
I want to be honest here. I think one of the reasons New Joy Fellowship (our church here in Lebanon, TN) has not grown much numerically is because we have not built a church building. I think a lot of folks were up for that – to build something we could look at and see and touch and say “We did that. That’s ours.” I deeply wish that people would be that committed to building a life that belongs entirely to Jesus and to living for his purposes. I think a lot of people who might otherwise come back to our worship after visiting just don’t feel like it is really “church” without a church building. I want to be blunt – this is because they don’t understand what church really is. You see when we have a building, we can divert our attention to religious activity that keeps God at arm’s length. But when there is no building, you are confronted with what it is really about: walking with God, walking in fellowship with each other, and working in God’s kingdom. If you have a building you can “have church” without those things. But if you don’t have a building, and you don’t have those things, you don’t have a church. It’s easier to have a building – you can pretend to be a church without really engaging with Jesus.
I’m not saying it is wrong for churches to build their own buildings to worship in. But I am saying it is unnecessary, and often it slows down spiritual growth and disciple-making.
Let’s see what Jesus said about worshipping in a particular building:
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
Jesus essentially says here that worship is not about a place. It is about turning to God in spirit and truth. In fact, that is the kind of worship God is seeking, not people who just want to go to a certain place. God said to David, look, the place of worship for the past four-hundred years has been that moldy tent, wherever it happens to be parked. Why do you suddenly think that isn’t good enough?
So, what does all this do for your relationship with God today? First, I want to encourage you to hold on to the understanding that a real church is a community of people who trust Jesus and walk in fellowship with God, and in fellowship with one another, and allow God to use their lives for his kingdom purposes. It has nothing to do with where, when or in what building they worship.
David and Nathan were both godly men who thought at first that a building for God was important. So don’t feel bad if you have thought that in the past. But understand, God told Nathan and David, “No, it isn’t important. I don’t want a building right now.”
The focus that God wanted (which we will examine more next week) was on his work to bring salvation into the world. He wanted his people receive the Messiah and put their trust in him. That is the focus he wants for us also. Jesus said:
19 Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:19-20, HCSB)
The word “where” means “whatever place you happen to be in.” The full presence of God, and full authority of heaven is found among God’s people gathered together, not in a building somewhere.
Now, I want to speak directly to New Joy Fellowship and to the people of Life Together Churches for a few moments. It’s easy to say “come help us build a building.” People understand that. It’s a helpful thing to motivate people. It is a simple vision to grasp and it is less threatening than real discipleship.
But I want to challenge you to present new people with a vision to “come help us build disciples.” Think about it this way. Not a single church building that now exists will be there in the New Creation. Not – One. But every single disciple that we make will be there with us. Let’s not waste time and money building what is after all, a fake church. I mean it. A building is not a church, no matter how many crosses and altars you slap on it. Let’s put our time into real church. We can present the vision clearly and simply. We want to make disciples. We do that by walking with God, walking with others and working in the kingdom. Let’s build a real house of God in that way!