Proclaiming the Excellencies of God: The Identity and Purpose of the Church

*This blog post originated as a meditation to open a congregational meeting to discuss the possible institution of a church in Caledonia, the town where I live.

What is the purpose of the church? That’s a big question that deserves much more space and time than is possible here, so we’ll have to content ourselves with only scratching the surface.

To do that I’d like to draw your attention to 1 Peter 2:4–10, where the apostle, inspired by the Spirit, gives us a most beautiful picture of the church, and then reveals to us what the purpose of the church is.

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

As you read through this passage, first notice how Peter outlines the glorious identity of the church. Since Peter is writing under the inspiration of the Spirit and thus his words are God’s Word, what we have here is a wonderful picture of how God himself sees the church and how he describes her. This is who we are in his eyes. Well, what do we look like as the church of Christ?

The first thing to be said is that the church is established on the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. Believers are built like living stones into a spiritual house that has no other foundation than Christ himself. 

What’s more, Peter goes on to say that the church is (you are!) “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” These are the glorious attributes of the church, and not just the catholic church, that is, the church of all times and places, but of each and every faithful, local church.

We could explore all those wonderful descriptions at great length (it would take us deep into the Old Testament!), but we’ll have to resist. We hear enough already, anyway, to recognize that in God’s eyes the church is the most wonderful institution, the most wonderful family, the most wonderful spiritual house, in the world. 

We’re reminded again of how much Christ loves the church. He bought her with his precious blood to become his own possession. It’s only natural then, that we should love the church with our whole hearts as well. Then love for Christ and his bride (another beautiful Biblical metaphor for the church!) should guide us too as we seek to be faithful to God’s purpose for the church.

The second aspect of this passage we should notice is that Peter describes the purpose or mission of the church. Why are we a “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession”? Why have we become “God’s people”? Why have we “received mercy?” Peter tells us plainly: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light!” 

Isn’t that a glorious mission? We exist for nothing more (and nothing less!) than to magnify and exult our glorious God. That’s the primary purpose of the church: to bring God glory. This is what we might call the upward focus of the church. It’s our paramount, supreme, foundational—and whatever other synonym you can imagine—purpose. 

That’s why our weekly public worship, where we most clearly and openly proclaim God’s excellencies in word and song, is so central to what we do as church. How can we not gather to worship our God since we’ve been called out of darkness into the light of his presence?? 

But this worship, this upward focus, also flows naturally and necessarily into the other two purposes of the church that we see described in Peter’s letter. 

First, we don’t only proclaim the excellencies of God to him, in glorifying praise, we also proclaim his excellencies to each other. We’re called to encourage, exhort, and support each other as brothers and sisters in the same family, as living stones in the same spiritual house. We’re called to build each other up. We’re called to draw each other’s attention to the glories of God. That’s the inward focus of the church. Our upward praise of God leads us to seeking the inward growth of the church. We magnify the Lord with and to each other. And so, as members of Christ’s church, as brothers and sisters in his family, we desire to grow together.

Secondly, as those who are called out of the darkness into God’s glorious light, we won’t stop at declaring his excellencies only to those who already know him. We want him to receive more glory! We want him to receive more worship! So, we proclaim his excellencies to the world. At various places in this letter, God makes it clear that the purpose of the church is to reach outward as well. He wants the church to be visible to the world through good deeds, so that unbelievers would also come to glorify God (2:12). He wants believers to speak of the hope within them, the hope of Christ, to those who don’t know him (3:15).

This is a high calling, a weighty responsibility, but it flows out of our identity, who we are as the bride of Christ, and out of our deep gratitude and overwhelming thanksgiving at the wonders of God’s grace towards us in Christ. He is excellent and has done marvelous things! 

That’s quite the calling and purpose, isn’t it? It would be overwhelming and impossible, if we had to accomplish these things in our own strength. We need to depend fully on Christ, who provides for his bride through his Spirit and gifts. 

The reality is that we haven’t arrived yet. Although this identity is secure in Christ and Peter makes it clear that these things are true of the church already now, he also helps us to recognize that as church of Christ we are on the road to becoming these things in increasing measure. 

The bride of Christ still has her blemishes, her imperfections, her weaknesses. We long for the day of Christ’s appearing when the church will be presented to him in perfection. But until that day, as faithful church of Jesus Christ we ought to strive towards great faithfulness to both our identity and our purpose. We want to grow in obedience! We want to grow in holiness!

The church, as one of the slogans of the Reformation teaches us, ought not only to be Reformed, but also always reforming. That is, we desire more and more to be who we are in Christ (1 Peter 1:15–16). And we want to live more and more according to the Word and Spirit, also in fulfilling the upward, inward, and outward purposes of the church. To God alone be the glory!

~ Dr. William den Hollander