When a friend of mine became a missionary to Peru several years ago, we talked about the cultural changes that were going to be necessary, but there was one change neither of us could have predicted. 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,” he said. “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.’”
He’s 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, we need a “You & You-all” edition.
When North Americans read the letters of the New Testament we tend to interpret the word “you” as a singular. In other words, we think the Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, is speaking to “me.” Considering our individualistic consumer-oriented society, is it any surprise?
Paul and the other writers of the epistles were usually addressing groups of people. 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.” Of the six remaining letters, three of them are all about life and order within the church (a group of people)!
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 [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?
There are plenty more such passages 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 an exalted view of the church.
Now I’ve got a big problem: bashing the church is easy to do and lots of fun, but apparently Jesus loves the church. He loves the church so much that he wants to marry her. The marriage supper of the Lamb will celebrate the union of Jesus and his church, a bride without spot or blemish. Perhaps one of the reasons evangelical believers have difficulty committing to a local church body is they consider membership to be something beyond the gospel message instead of part of the gospel message.
What if I told my friend, “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. I want to be with you, hang out with you, and learn from you. But I don’t want to have anything at all to do with your wife--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?