The Most Important People in the World

Why Christians Prioritize the Church

Bethlehem Conference for Pastors | Minneapolis

The word priority refers to “precedence in time or rank.” A priority is the “thing regarded as more important than another or others.”

Interestingly, according to the Google Books Ngram, the use of the word priority in English spiked in use around 1940 (leading up to and during WWII), then plateaued in the fifties. Then usage rose again sharply in the sixties and seventies, and priority enjoyed its heyday in the eighties and nineties. Since around 2000, usage has declined precipitously and returned about to where it was in the 1960s. And I can’t help but wonder if our ability to prioritize well, or the energy and attention we give to prioritizing well, may have declined with the use of the word. (And how it relates to the advent of the Internet in the same twenty-five-year period!)

Priority can be a tricky concept. To prioritize one entity over another clearly means something, but it services a range of applications. And in this session of talking about the priority of the church, however theological we take it, this inevitably relates to our priorities, both as Christians, and in particular as pastors — since this is a pastors conference. It would be one thing to speak to the priority of the church in a local-church congregation — or imagine this, to a gathering of Christian lawyers or athletes. And we could. I hope we will.

But brothers, this is a pastors conference. This is a message for lead officers in local churches (variously called pastors, elders, overseers — three names for one lead office in the New Testament). And the applications here of “the priority of the church” are especially significant for those whose breadwinning vocation is leading and teaching the local church. I know there are nonvocational pastors in the room with other breadwinning jobs. But for the vocational guys, the full-time pastors, there is no vocational disconnect between Christ’s priority of his church and ours. If Christ’s priority is echoed practically and substantiated anywhere, where will that be if not first and foremost in the lead officers who are the church’s preachers and teachers?

Paul’s Pastoral Priority

And so, we come to Ephesians 3, and especially verse 10, which is not a complete sentence:

. . . so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

In chapter 2, the first half (verses 1–10) has celebrated our salvation in Christ by grace through faith, and then the second half has marveled at the stunning (horizontal) development of Gentile inclusion. For centuries, God focused publicly on the Jews. He prioritized Israel. By and large, Gentiles were separated from the true God, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). They were “far off” (2:13, 17).

But now, amazingly, in Christ, even Gentiles “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [between Jews and Gentiles] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14–15).

This reality, this “one new man,” made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, Paul has already called “the church” in 1:22, and that’s the term he uses again in 3:10 (and then 3:21 and then six times in 5:23–32).

In 3:1, Paul starts moving toward a prayer. He writes, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles . . .” Then he breaks off and gives us the glorious aside of verses 2–13. He’ll come back to his prayer in verse 14, but first he wants to make sure we understand his special calling, and then the church’s. Paul’s is “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (3:2). He then speaks about “the mystery of Christ” — which is not an unsolved mystery but one that now has been made known. Previously it was hidden, until Jesus came. Now, it’s revealed. What is this mystery, once unsolved, now made known? Verses 6–11:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I take it that our focus in this session is this: What is the priority of the church for Christians? And in particular, for pastors: What’s the priority of the church for us? That’s where we’re headed: “The Church Prioritized” in the hearts and habits of her members and her ministers.

But might we first get our bearings, and spend our best focus, on a far more important prioritizer? Ephesians 3 is not concerned with our prioritizing. Not yet. Rather, here we marvel at God’s prioritizing of the church. And not just God as one, but also God as three.

So, before we get to us, as Christians and as pastors, let’s look at the priority of the church for God the Father, for God the Son, and for God the Spirit. (And hopefully this will be an exercise in proper prioritizing!) So, four truths about the priority of the church, with our hearts and habits coming last.

1. The Father prioritizes the church in his plan and purpose.

Verse 9 mentions his “plan”; verse 11, his “eternal purpose.” Let’s pick it up at verse 9:

[Paul’s calling is] to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things. . . . This was according to the eternal purpose that [the Father] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (verses 9, 11)

Verse 11 mentions God’s “eternal purpose” (prothesin), and verse 9, “the plan [oikonomia] of the mystery hidden for ages [and now revealed] in God, who created all things.” It’s the same language Paul has already used in Ephesians 1:9–11. In the gospel, he says,

[God has made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan [oikonomian] for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose [prothesin] of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

God the Father has an eternal purpose, before creation, and he has a plan that he works out, in his perfect timing, in history — as Lord of creation and Lord of history.

What is this eternal purpose and plan? Now we need chapter 3, verse 10. Paul says he preaches to bright to light God’s plan,

that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

We have three parts here to verse 10 (working backward): (1) the rulers and authorities, (2) the manifold wisdom of God, and (3) how all that relates to the church.

Rulers and Authorities

In Ephesians 6:12, Paul will write — and this might be a helpful reminder in times when algorithms condition us for digital “culture war” — “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And we have “in the heavenly places” here in Ephesians 3:10 as well.

“The rulers and authorities” are minimally, or mainly, “spiritual forces of evil,” the devil and demons, “the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” They are not earthly creatures, but heavenly ones, in the upper register or another dimension (however it works). And we might assume that good angels are looking on as well, as Peter says of the good news of Jesus — of his sufferings and subsequent glories, of his grace and our salvation — these are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).

So, Ephesians 3:10 expands the audience. Previously, Paul has talked of (potentially) preaching “for everyone” (3:9) on earth, Jews and Gentiles, but now he says that also in view (presently) are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

Manifold Wisdom of God

God’s wisdom is what lies behind and is revealed alongside this mystery long hidden and now revealed in Christ. Remember what we saw in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

God’s wisdom becomes evident in the great unveiling that is the preaching of Christ. And God’s wisdom is said to be manifold, many-sided, varied. The gospel may be a simple message, and yet the divine wisdom it reveals is no simple, basic, one-dimensional wisdom.

The gospel of Christ overturns and surpasses and puts to shame the wisdom of man, and does so over and over again. That God would become man, with an ignoble birth and childhood in a backwater; that he would live in obscurity for three decades, and be despised and rejected by his own people at the height of his influence, and be crucified (of all deaths!) as a slave; then, after rising from the dead, that he would ascend and be enthroned in heaven (not in Rome), and pour out his Spirit, and bring the far-off Gentiles near with believing Jews into his new-covenant church — this is stunning, multifaceted, many-sided wisdom!

In the simple gospel of Christ, the manifold wisdom of God is on display in turning upside down the world’s wisdom and strength and nobility. Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).

“There is no more important gathering in the world than the church.”

And that phrase “both Jews and Greeks” — in one body, one new man from the two — is at the heart of what makes the wisdom of God so horrifying to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (As Paul preached in Athens, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” Acts 17:30.)

Which leads us to the last key phrase in verse 10: “through the church.”

Through the Church

How does God’s making known his manifold wisdom, to the hosts of angels and demons, relate to the church?

My prayer here, for us as pastors, is that God might be pleased to lift our eyes up from the ordinariness and the smallness and the annoyances and the frustrations of everyday practical church life — that we might see the church more like our God sees his church. In the immeasurable riches of his divine and Trinitarian fullness — infinitely happy, and overflowing in joy and creative energy and redeeming grace — our God, in the gospel of his Son, is making known his manifold wisdom to the spiritual forces of evil.

And how does he do it? Verse 10 says “through the church” — not armies, not technology, not sports, not entertainment, not political maneuvering — but “through the church the manifold wisdom of God [is] now be[ing] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

The church is his chosen instrument for showing the cosmic powers, good and evil, “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). The reality and existence of the church — this seemingly unimpressive, lowly, ignoble, unwise, unwealthy, unaccomplished body of local Christians, covenanted to each other — his ragtag church, this otherwise unremarkable church shows Satan and his minions that their time is short. In effect: “You see the church, believing Gentiles joining with the Jews as one body? Checkmate.”

How does that work? God the Son takes human flesh and lives a lowly life in obscurity for thirty years. Then, just when he really begins to turn heads, Jews and Gentiles conspire to cut him down and end the story. The crucifixion looks like utter folly, not manifold wisdom. Then he rises again! But forty days later, he ascends to heaven and is gone. Now what? From heaven’s throne, the risen Christ pours out his Spirit, his gospel spreads through faith and repentance, and the church begins to grow and increase and multiply, and not only among Jews, but also Gentiles.

And as the church spreads from city to city and nation to nation, the seeming folly of the incarnation and the cross and the ascension is shown visibly to be manifold wisdom. Not all the earth sees it yet, but all the heavens do. And as this gospel advances, and the church grows, and Gentiles stream into the church, the manifold wisdom shines ever brighter.

So, the church — normal, local, ragtag, seemingly unimpressive, including Gentiles — bursts with spectacular cosmic significance, demonstrates the manifold wisdom of God, and shows the evil powers the surety of their doom.

God channels his global glory specially through his church. He is making known his manifold wisdom, not just in the physical realm but also in the spiritual — for all the universe to see. And how? Through the church.

Brothers, the main thing happening in the world right now, and at all times, is what Jesus Christ is doing in and through his church. And you are pastors! Is this still your priority?

In reflecting on the Father prioritizing the church in his purpose and plan, I couldn’t help but think about how Jonathan Edwards, on several occasions, writes of how God made the world to prepare a bride for his Son:

The spouse of the Son of God, the Lamb’s wife . . . is that for which all of the universe was made. Heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:271)

God created the world for His Son, that He might prepare a spouse or bride for Him to bestow His love upon; so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of the creation. (Works, 13:374)

The creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse, toward whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence of his nature, and to whom he might, as it were, open and pour forth all that immense fountain of condescension, love, and grace that was in his heart, and that in this way God might be glorified. (Works, 25:187)

Let’s say more, then, about the Son.

2. The Son prioritizes the church in his purchase and his presiding.

Enthroned in heaven, Christ now presides over the universe. He reigns over all. He rules over the nations and the angelic realm with sovereign power, all authority in heaven and on earth given to him. And as he presides, he prioritizes his church.

We could turn to John 17 to see his priority, but let’s stay here in Ephesians: first, chapter 5, verses 23–30.

Chapter 5 makes the connection between human marriage and Christ and his church. Now, Paul’s “mystery” language relates to marriage. What was hidden for ages, and now revealed, is that all along, from the garden until now, human marriage has been patterned on the Son’s love for his church. And in our considering how the Son prioritizes his church, we have here both the decisive act, at the cross, in the past (the purchase), and his present attention to the church, as he reigns in heaven (presiding), for the good of his church.

In the past, says verse 25, referring to the cross, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Jesus prioritized the church in his sacrificial death — to say the very least. He did not simply love humanity in general and so go to the cross to make salvation possible to any who might later decide to take him up on it. Rather, he loved the church, Paul says. He gave himself up for her. He had his bride in view, his people, his flock, his church. It was a particular redemption, a specific purchase, a definite atonement. Sufficient as his cross is for the sins of all, it is effective for his church. As Paul says in Acts 20:28, the Son obtained the church with his own blood.

But that’s not all. There are also present dimensions in verses 26–27:

[Jesus died] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Then, verses 29–30:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

The Son bought the church with his own blood. And the Son rules the universe to sanctify her, cleanse her, wash her, prepare her to be presented to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any smear or smudge. From heaven’s throne, he nourishes and cherishes his church as his own body. He builds her and protects her and upholds her. He pays special attention to his church and her progress and health and joy.

The old confessions refer to this priority of the church as his “most special manner.” Westminster and 1689 say, “As the Providence of God doth in general reach to all Creatures, so after a most special manner it taketh care of his Church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof” (5.7).

But there is one more thing we might say from Ephesians about the priority of the church in the eyes of the Son — which Michael Reeves celebrated for us so well last night as the climax of Ephesians 1: the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23).

The church, as his body, not only receives his care; the body also acts for him and from him. The head acts through his body. The body extends the will and heart and grace and designs of the head out into the world. Christ fulfills Adam’s mandate to fill the earth as the church grows and increases and multiplies — as his fullness, the church, fills all in all.

What priority, what privilege, what an unimaginably elevated role for the church — not only as beneficiaries but as agents, actors, arms, legs, hands, feet.

“Pastoral work is ‘get to’ work, not ‘have to’ work.”

So, what is Jesus doing in the world today? He is building his church, purifying his church, nourishing his church, cherishing his church — prioritizing his church. Yes, he rules over wars and natural disasters, over human sin, and over Satan, over rulers and authorities — and in it all, and through it all, his priority is building his church, and through his church extending the fullness of his reign to every tongue and tribe and people.

We have observed Christ’s “most special manner,” his priority of the church. What about the Spirit?

3. The Spirit prioritizes the church in his power.

Talk as we might about how the Spirit is active in the world outside the church — upholding the natural order, extending God’s common kindness, inspiring and assisting works of justice and mercy, and even industry and art and literature — when we look at what the Spirit does in Ephesians, and throughout the New Testament, it’s fair to say at minimum that he prioritizes the church. (The language of priority feels grossly inadequate.)

Just in Ephesians:

  • Those who believe the gospel, he seals “for the day of redemption” (1:13; 4:30).
  • He is given to us, as “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [God]” (1:17).
  • He gives us access to the Father (2:18).
  • By him, we “are being built together into a dwelling place for God” (2:22).
  • By him, the gospel has been revealed to the prophets and apostles (3:5).
  • By him, we are strengthened with divine power (3:16).
  • He is “the power at work within us” (3:20).
  • He unifies the church (4:3).
  • He fills us, leading us to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” and to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:18–21).
  • “The sword of the Spirit . . . is the word of God” and our offensive weapon (6:17).
  • He even helps us pray (6:18).

And when Paul finishes his glorious aside in chapter 3 (verses 2–13) and begins his prayer in 3:14, he prays in essence for the Spirit’s work in the church. And just to round out chapter 3, this prayer for the Spirit’s work in the church, which comes with the confidence that he will indeed answer this prayer, spills over into the doxology celebrating God’s ability “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” And again the priority of the church is striking:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20–21)

How is God being glorified in our world today, and at this time? Stand in awe: in the church and in Christ Jesus. Through Christ, seated in heaven, and through his church, displaying him around the world in every major city and advancing on every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

So, the Spirit seals, builds, reveals, strengthens, and fills the church. The bride of Christ is his priority (to say the least). However much he works (unsavingly) outside the church, his work is decidedly, emphatically, pronouncedly asymmetrical. He prioritizes the church.

4. We prioritize the church in our hearts and our habits.

Finally, then, what about the priority of the church in our lives?

Our Christian Priorities

1. We adopt the priorities of the Father, Son, and Spirit and resolve to rehearse the glories that our world conditions us to forget. Jesus Christ has triumphed and sat down at his Father’s right hand. He, our head, rules over the universe, and does so, amazingly, for and through the church. Don’t be snookered by the unbelieving world that what matters most is politics and sports, or whatever else seems for the moment so electric with importance. There is no more important gathering in the world than the church.

2. We prioritize the church over all other groups and associations in our lives, whether Christian or otherwise: institutions, workplaces, neighborhoods, teams, even ministries. In time, they all will perish. God will roll them up like a garment, but not the church. The church will remain. She will go through the final fire and endure. In time, the gates of Hades will prevail against all other societies, but not against the church.

3. We prioritize the church in the good we seek to do in the world. Among other good we might seek to do in our cities and towns, most important is our involvement in the body of Christ, in which eternal human souls find rescue from eternal suffering. As pastors, we help our people realize, whatever their vocation, that their single most important involvement for the good of others, among other noble causes, is engaging with and investing in the life, health, and mission of the local church.

4. We prioritize the church in our affection for individual believers. We learn to love with the eyes of Jesus: the weak, ignoble, and foolish (in the world’s eyes!) to whom we are joined, in Christ, in his church.

5. We take care to leverage what a resource we have in the church: for counseling and advice, for arbitration in disputes among Christians:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? (1 Corinthians 6:1–4)

6. We prioritize the church through covenant membership. Committing to a particular local church, and actively fulfilling our covenant, is the first concrete way the priority of the church takes root in our lives. We voice such a priority implicitly in our church covenants, as we make promises to each other to be the church for each other, not just in the good and easy times, but the bad. That’s what covenants are especially for: the hard times. It’s easy to stay with a church when it’s easy. It’s hard to stay when it’s hard. The priority of the church in our hearts finds expression in covenant membership in a particular local church. Christians will not adequately prioritize the church without committing to the fellowship and being held accountable.

Our Pastoral Priorities

Last, what about us as pastors?

1. Marvel at this calling. Brother pastors, without minimizing the righteous vocations of any non-pastors in our congregations, can you believe that we get to do this work? Pastoral work is “get to” work, not “have to” work. You don’t have to do this. You can get out of it if you’ve been stuck on “have to” for too long. I know there are hard days and hard seasons; there are stresses and strains that make our “get to” work feel like “have to” work. But brothers, in light of the Godhead’s priority of the church, is there any greater privilege and blessing in vocational life than getting to work on the one institution that has the special attention of God and over which the gates of Hades will not prevail?

If the rough and tumble of ministry has caused your vision of the church and its priority to get small and dull and boring, ask God to raise your head. Linger in Ephesians 1–3. Ask God to put his church back where it belongs on the map of your heart.

2. Seek to win your people to prioritize the church in their schedules. Some want “family-friendly churches” — to cater to their family idolatry. What if we cast a vision for “church-friendly families”? Instead of presuming the church adjust to dozens or hundreds of families, what if godly dads and moms adjusted their family rhythms to prioritize the church? What if we built our family lives around the few but important weekly flashpoints of church life?

3. Hold your people accountable to their membership covenant. The pastors set the tone for how seriously the congregation takes church membership. If the pastors aren’t diligent to oversee the flock, give regular upkeep to the roster, and pursue drifting members, your people will treat their church membership as a small, empty reality, and they will not prioritize the church.

4. In light of the priority of the church in the Godhead, we pastors might resist the temptation to ask less and less of people. When overly busy congregants complain that the church is doing too much or offering too much or gathering too often or for too long, we might patiently, graciously resist the impulse. We might say, “No, we’re not going to keep cutting and shortening and abbreviating and rushing. This is a priority in our lives as Christians — over work demands, over hobbies, over personal and family conveniences and comforts. We’re not going to apologize for opening the church doors. We’re not going to apologize for gathering Christ’s people for worship, for teaching, for prayer, for meals together. Church is priority enough to arrive early and stay late.”

5. In our own lives, exercise wisdom with news, social media, hobbies, and entertainment (including ESPN). Brothers, if you take out your phones and go to Settings, then Screen Time, you can see how many minutes per day are you on ESPN, or X (which is now largely overrun with politics), or some other social media, or YouTube TV, or Netflix. Do you know what you’re likely not doing well while you’re there in the digital world? Just a sampling: Communing with the risen Christ. Husbanding. Fathering. Pastoring a flock of eternal souls for whom you will give an account. That doesn’t mean there’s no space for rhythms of life and rest and pastimes and news. But that is a precious list to let slide.

Brothers, how much news? There was no telegraph until the mid-1800s. No radio until the 1920s. No television until the 1950s. No cable until the 1980s. No round-the-clock, nonstop news until 9/11, and until news (and commentary on it) essentially took over what was formerly social media, which continued the takeover of news by content that is more or less political. Today, without even trying at all (but just living in society), you will be far more informed and aware of national and world events than even the most diligent news-lovers could have been just two hundred years ago. Without even trying.

Would you fancy yourself a man “of Issachar” with “understanding of the times” to know what Christians ought to do and tweet about it (1 Chronicles 12:32)? Perhaps consider a serious audit and on your social media and news consumption. No wise, healthy pastor can just go with the world’s flow and saunter through the digital world without great vigilance.

6. If your priorities have drifted — over years, or through coasting, or through getting interested in other things, or through the disorientation of the pandemic and recent years — return to your former love and priorities. Perhaps as the years have passed, with complex influences and pressures, have you become “entangled in civilian pursuits,” to use the image of 2 Timothy 2:4?

What started as being where your people are, to provide spiritual leadership for them, has slowly become, over time, entanglement in secular affairs and undue distraction from your calling. I pray this conference is an opportunity to freshly see the glory of your work and make midcourse corrections, if needed.

7. Enjoy being a man of the Book. This last point is another “get to” point. Start your day in the Book. Linger over God’s word, without hurry, steeping your soul in it, meditating on it. And if you daily set your mind on the things above, you will become and remain the kind of man who prioritizes the church and whose instincts and heartbeat prioritize the church. You won’t first and foremost think of human solutions to the deepest, most intractable problems in our world, but you’ll think of conversion to Christ and life in his church — and perhaps God would be pleased to use that to restore to you the deep, durable joys of the pastoral calling.