Corporate Realities in the Bible

by Eric Ryan, Pastor of Leadership Development
Do you think the average Christian has a Bible literacy problem?  I have not run into a single pastor or Bible teacher who would answer, “No.” Early on in ministry, I focused almost entirely on encouraging Christians to read the Bible more, but have found that many Christians really do try to spend regular time in the Bible. Rather, the struggle is in their ability to interpret it in its original context. So, while we do not have space to address all of the common mistakes in a single devotional, I do want to point us to one common problem I run across. Namely, our reflex, while reading the Bible, is to interpret and apply texts first to ourselves as individuals and secondly, or not at all, to the common corporate context in which they are written.

For example, recently I heard a sermon preached on Hebrews 12:1-2:

"1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

I’ll be honest: I think the pastor completely missed a vital aspect of this passage. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the person I was listening to greatly, and any pastor is prone to mistakes in interpreting and applying God’s Word. That’s why we test it!

My greatest problem with the sermon, and where I want to sit today, was in his first application to the text: “We all have a race to run.” In part, that statement is true because we all do have a race to run: the same race. But as he shared illustrations and clarified his point, it became clear that he was removing the text almost entirely from its corporate context. He shared a story of untold heroism, as well as a few stories of people struggling, while still enduring, and yet this passage isn’t about many different races, but one race.

What is that one race? It is the race to look to Jesus (v.2), who is supreme over all (ch. 1), by faith (ch. 11), even when facing horrific trials and persecutions (ch. 10:32). This passage is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” passage, but an encouragement that you are not alone in the race and a charge to consider that Jesus endured more than we ever will (v.3). It’s a race that has been “set before us,” just like all the examples of people in chapter 11. It’s not a race that has been set before you only.

But won’t that race look and feel different in each of our contexts? Certainly! But to read Hebrews 12 in a primarily individualistic context would be like a football coach giving his pregame speech to each position in isolation and never addressing the team or the game as a whole. That would cause every player on the team to think, “I don’t care if we win or lose as long as I play my position/role well.” Oh wait, that is what a lot of players think… And, frankly, that’s what a lot of Christians think too.

Be honest, as a Christian, do you consider the entire body of Christ and how they are doing? Or do you sometimes think: “I am doing well spiritually, and there’s no need to step into other people’s problems”?

So many of us read the Bible to get God’s plan for “me,” but that only breeds an individualistic culture in the body of Christ. We are all in a race together, to endure until Christ returns or takes us home. It’s the same race for each of us, experienced a little differently by each of us. The call in Hebrews 12 isn’t to try and figure out what special race Jesus wants you to run because there is only one race: going after Jesus, by faith, regardless of what comes our way. There is no mysterious race for each Christian to discover, only differing obstacles as we run.

A quick application: Regardless of where you stand on racial injustice, there are a lot of Christians hurting right now. Is that something you find easy to explain away? After all, your race is going just fine. Or is that something you see and hear and recognize that we, as the body of Christ, are clearly not running our best race if so many believers are hurting the way that they are. This is where corporate realities come in.

The sin of the Church is our sin as individuals of the Church. It’s not as if I did not personally commit a sin, and therefore it doesn’t apply. The Church’s sin is our sin. I know, corporate realities in the Bible are very uncomfortable for our American minds, but if we want to interpret our present times well, we can’t forget stories like the one about Achan’s family in Joshua 7, or Nehemiah’s prayers of confession for the Israelites of past generations, or Ananias and Sapphira dying in Acts. We have to remember the letters in Revelation 1-2 that address the shortcomings of churches as sins of the whole. Or 1 Cor. 5 when Paul rebukes the whole church for the sin of one man. I would love to spend time on each of these, but while I don’t have time to walk through each passage on corporate realities; I do want to state the good news of corporate realities in the Bible.

Corporate reality is why the death of Jesus can cover the sins of all the saints! Without the corporate representations, Jesus could only atone for Himself (which would be unnecessary because He’s perfect). Because corporate responsibility is an aspect of God’s justice, Christ can represent us all by putting on flesh, living a perfect life, and dying in our place.

In these hectic and confusing times, as you seek the Lord in His Word, please be aware of our American tendency to apply passages only to ourselves as individuals. The charge in Hebrews 12 is “let us run with endurance the race set before us.” It’s not a race we can win as individuals. We are all, as believers, in the same race together, and when some of us suffer, we all suffer as we are all one body in Christ.
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