When my friend Sammy became a missionary to Peru, everyone knew he was in for big changes, but sometimes the biggest changes come through small things. After he got to Lima, he decided he should read the Bible in Spanish, even for his personal devotional times. That’s when he discovered the power of the second-person plural.
“It’s the most amazing thing,” Sammy told me. “All the years I read the word ‘you’ in my English Bible, I thought it was talking about me. But in Spanish, I think it’s talking about ‘us.’”
Sammy is on to something; the New Testament, especially the epistles, is addressed to “us,” not “me.” Who knew that 9th grade grammar class would turn out to be so important? By some unfortunate accident of the English language the word “you” can mean one person or a whole group of people. Not so in Spanish and most other languages. Instead of a Red Letter edition of the Bible, I think we need a “You and You-all” edition.
When many Americans read the letters of the New Testament and encounter the word “you,” we tend to interpret the word as a singular. In other words, we think the Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, is speaking to “me.” And when we stop and consider our individualistic consumer society, is that any surprise?
But Paul and the other writers of the epistles were usually addressing groups of people. Have we ever considered this: Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, 15 of them were written to groups of people, not individuals. These groups of people are more commonly known as “the Church.” And by the way, of the six remaining letters, three of them (I & II Timothy, and Titus) are all about life and order within the Church!
It’s popular these days to say “Jesus, yes. The Church, no.” But the writers of the epistles would never have thought like that. They saw the Church as the primary focus of what the Holy Spirit was doing in their day.
Here are three examples from Paul’s letters that have challenged my thinking about the importance of the church:
Ephesians 1: 22 tells us that the church is not only the “body of Christ,” but also the “fullness of him [Jesus] who fills everything in every way.” Imagine that: The Church is the fullness of Jesus. This really stretches me. Apparently Paul hasn’t been to any churches I have ever attended.
Ephesians 3: 10 tells us that God wants to show his “manifold wisdom” through the Church. But the Church is perhaps one of the last places people would think to find wisdom. Around my hometown, not even the Christians think that the church demonstrates the wisdom of God.
I Timothy 3:15 tells us that God considers the Church to be His household, and that the Church is the “pillar and support of the truth.” A pillar holds something up, either to bear the weight or to put something on display. What kind of “weight” could your church bear, and what does your church put on display?
These are just three examples, but there are plenty more in the New Testament. If we put on “church glasses” and look again, we can begin to discover that throughout the New Testament God has a pretty exalted view of the Church.
So now I’ve got a big problem: Bashing the church is easy to do and lots of fun, but apparently Jesus kind of loves the Church. He loves the Church so much that He wants to marry her. And unless Jesus is into polygamy, he’s thinking about one bride, not billions of individual Christians.
What if I told my friend Sammy, “Sammy, I think you are great. You’re smart, loving, wise, insightful and fun to be with. But I don’t like your wife at all. Sammy, I want to be with you, hang out with you and learn from you. But I don’t want to hang out with your wife at all, ever.” Do you think he would accept a relationship with me on those terms?
How many of us say that to Jesus all the time.
Why is the Church in America in such sad shape? Could it be that we (together) are responsible because we have given up on the Church?