Churches: The Embassies and Geography of Heaven
If you mosey on over to Bobby Jamieson’s article about leading the church in the Lord’s Supper, you’ll hear about the tear in his eye when he reads Jesus’ Last Supper words about drinking with us anew in the Father’s kingdom. “The Supper is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet,” Bobby will tell the congregation. The words get caught in his throat, he says.
Bobby is a lot godlier than I am.
While he’s tearing up, I confess I’m sitting in the pew listening to those same words about a “foretaste” (or as Mark Dever says, “a preview”); I’m looking down at the little cracker that tastes like rubber and the snap-in-my-fingers plastic cup of watered-down grape juice which scarcely wets my whole mouth; and I’m sighing to myself, “Really? This is the foretaste? I hope the messianic banquet is a whole lot better than this!”
As I said, Bobby’s mind is on higher things.
Then again maybe there’s a good reason for both the tear and the sigh. The tear is hope for what’s to come? And the sigh is the recognition that it’s not here yet?
I’m about to argue that your local church is an embassy and the temporary geography of heaven, similar to how Bobby calls the Supper a foretaste of the messianic banquet. But if I’m going to be honest with you, and if you were being honest with me, we might both admit that when we look at our respective churches, we sigh to ourselves, “Really? This is the embassy? I hope the actual thing is a whole lot better than this!”
Gratefully, yes, the end-time gathering we’ll enjoy in the new heavens and new earth is lot better. Still, Jesus established a link, a chain, a typological connection—to use the fifty-cent theologian’s phrase—between your church and heaven. Your church is the type, like that little communion wafer is a type of bread; and your church is pointing toward, representing, speaking for, demonstrating, living out the first fruits of something greater, which is the antitype—heaven. And that link between the two is there by divine design.
A CHURCH AS AN EMBASSY OF HEAVEN-DECLARING HEAVEN’S JUDGEMENTS
First, your church is an embassy of heaven.
An embassy, if you’re unfamiliar with the idea, is an officially sanctioned outpost of one nation inside the borders of another nation. It represents and speaks for that foreign nation. It acts as a proxy, albeit provisionally.
For instance, I spent half a year in Brussels, Belgium in college, during which time my United States passport expired. So I traveled to the U. S. Embassy in downtown Brussels. Stepping inside, they said, placed me on American soil. That building, the ambassador to Belgium, and all the state department officials working inside bear the authority of the U. S. government. They can speak for my government in a way that I, though a U.S. citizen, cannot, at least not in any official sense. Embassies and ambassadors present the official judgments of a foreign nation—what that nation wants, what it will do, what it believes.
After looking at my expired passport and checking their computers, they rendered a judgment: I am in fact a U.S. citizen, and so they gave me a new passport.
Likewise, Jesus established local churches to declare some of heaven’s judgments now, albeit provisionally. By giving the keys of the kingdom first to Peter and the apostles and then to gathered churches, Jesus gave churches a similar authority to the U.S. Embassy in Brussels: the authority to make provisional judgments concerning what is a right confession of the gospel (Matt. 16:13–19) and who is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven (18:15–20). This is what Jesus meant when he said churches possesses the authority to bind and loose on earth what’s bound and loosed in heaven (16:18; 18:17–18). He didn’t mean they could make people Christians or make the gospel what it is, no more than the embassy could make me an American or make American laws. Rather, Jesus meant that churches could make official pronouncements or judgments concerning the what and the who of the gospel on behalf of heaven. What is a right confession? Who is a true confessor?
A church makes these judgments through its preaching and the ordinances. When a pastor opens his Bible and preaches “Jesus is Lord” and “All have fallen short of God’s glory” and “Faith comes through hearing,” he echoes heaven’s judgments. And he binds the conscience of everyone who would call him or herself of citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Such preaching points to the what of the gospel—call it a heavenly confession.
Likewise, when a church baptizes and enjoys the Lord’s Supper, it renders heaven’s judgments over the who of the gospel—call them heavenly confessors. This is what we do when we baptize people into the name of Father, Son, and Spirit (see Matt. 28:19). We’re giving such individuals a passport and saying, “They speak for Jesus.” We repeat the process through the Lord’s Supper: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Partaking of the one bread, in other words, both illumines and affirms who belongs to the one body of Christ. It’s a church-revealing ordinance.
The church’s prayers of praise, confession, and thanksgiving, too, declare the judgments of God. We acknowledge who he is, who we are, and what he has given through Christ. Even our prayers of intercession, when aligned with his Word and Spirit, demonstrate that our ambitions have been conformed to God’s judgments.
The church’s singing is that activity wherein we repeat his judgments back to him and to one another in a melodic and emotionally engaged fashion.
Finally, we declare God’s judgments in our lives throughout the week, both in times together and apart. Our fellowship and extensions of it should picture our agreement with the judgments of God, as we include righteousness and exclude unrighteousness. Every member should live as an anticipatory presentation of God’s judgments.
That, ultimately, is what we call the worship of a church. A church’s worship is its agreement with and declaring of the judgments of God. We worship when we pronounce in word or deed, whether eating or drinking, singing or praying, “You, oh Lord, are worthy and precious and valuable. The idols are not.”
A CHURCH AS THE GEOGRAPHY OF HEAVEN-ENJOYING ACTUAL FELLOWSHIP
Yet a local church isn’t just an embassy of heaven, it’s the “geography” of the kingdom of heaven, albeit in a provision and temporary sort of way, again, like that little wafer of bread.
I recently heard Matt Chandler explain how his church, when the first months of COVID quarantine ended, discover afresh how profoundly “spiritual” the gathering is. That was the word he used: “spiritual.” I immediately thought to myself, “Yes, it is spiritual, and ironically the spiritual nature of the gathering is located precisely in the physical.”
God created us as embodied creatures. Jesus himself became incarnate—fully God and fully man. And there is a spiritual significance and dynamism when Christians physically gather to praise Jesus, standing elbow-to-elbow, breathing the same air, joining their voices together in praise. Heaven is there—temporarily and by proxy, like a little wafer. (See Sam Emadi’s article here).
Back up to Matthew 18 again. Churches declare the judgments of heaven through the keys of the kingdom, I said in the last point. But I skipped over a couple of crucial points. Jesus also says that Christians must gather and agree in making those judgments.
After explaining the authority of the keys to bind and loose in verse 18, he explains himself again in verse 19: “Again I say to you, if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). Notice the agreement on earth signals what the Father’s doing in heaven. They’re speaking for him. Then in verse 20 Jesus further explains that this agreement needs to occur in the church gathering: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I among them” (v. 20). A church can gather in his name because it agrees upon his name—who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus then seals that agreement with his own presence. When Jesus says he’s “there” and “among” them, he doesn’t mean he’s hovering like a mystical fog in the room. He means the very literal and embodied gathering represents him. It speaks for him. It bears his authority. He identifies himself with it, as if they were flying his flag.
In other words, it’s not just that a church provisionally represents Christ’s rule and judgment. It’s the gathered church. The gathered church is the embassy. The gathering represents Jesus’ heavenly authority and geography, whether that pin on the map is in Belgium, Germany, Russia, Iran, China, Canada, or Brazil.
And it’s not just Jesus who says this. Paul appears to have Jesus’s Matthew 18:20 promise in mind when the Corinthian church faced their own situation of church discipline: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:4–5). When a church gathers or assembles in Christ’s name, they possess the power of the Lord Jesus to remove someone from membership. After all, they can no longer agree that this person is a believer. Therefore, they must render a provisional judgment on Jesus’ behalf on earth.
Jesus did not intend his disciples to take over a geographic plot of land by sword. But nor did he intend for them to be a “religion” merely characterized by certain beliefs or a “club” whose members have voluntarily gathered around a common interest, like chess. Rather, he wanted to constitute them as a kingdom—a political reality—one which defied and transcended the political boundaries of this world. So he chose a political word that came with spatial meaning: ekklēsia. His disciples would submit to him, and they would do so together. Visibly. In a place. As a testimony to his rule. As if they were a landed kingdom like any other kingdom. 
Like fifteenth-century Spanish explorers crossing oceans in search of gold, the gathering is where our ship runs aground on the temporary-but-visible geography of Christ’s kingdom: the gathering. It’s temporary because it lasts on a weekly basis for only a couple of hours. It’s temporary because we have not yet attained our permanent inheritance. But the geography is real nonetheless. It’s spatial. It’s physical. It exists. It’s not theoretical. It’s visible. And it’s where the action happens.
Christ’s authority actually transforms and sanctifies the physical space of the church gathering. Remember how I said embassy officials told me that stepping into U.S. embassy in Brussels was stepping onto American soil? How is that? Because the authority of the U.S. government controls that space. The physical space itself is inert, but its social significance is transformed by the imposition of U.S. authority. Authority “sanctifies” the land and space.
Likewise, Christ’s authority transforms geography. He sanctifies the space where Christians gather. He gives it a new social significance with his words “there” and “among” (Matt. 18:20). He’s there. He’s among. This is true whether or not the lord of that particular realm acknowledges it, whether that lord’s name is the Chinese Communist Party or the Iranian Ayatollah or a movie theater owner. When coupled with the preaching of the gospel and the ordinances, that gathering becomes a church. Jesus’ kingdom has become visible and geographic there, among those people. When the church scatters, they remain members, but the geography vanishes. The space is no longer sacred.
Yet when we do gather, the geography of heaven becomes visible and audible and touchable, as touchable as elbows touching in the pew, even if we’re only talking about a physical reality as substantial as wafer that tastes like rubber and a draught of juice that scarcely wets my mouth. Still, humans are and forever will be physical creatures. Bodies matter. Space matters. Physical togetherness matters. And churches need a patch of geography on which to gather together so that they might become what they are—a proleptic patch of heaven.
And how “spiritual” that physical gathering is, like Chandler said. You struggle with hidden hatred toward a brother all week. But then his presence at the Lord’s Table draws you to conviction and confession. You struggle with suspicion toward a sister. But then you see her singing the same songs of praise as you, and your heart warms. You struggle with anxiety over the upcoming election. But then the preacher declares Christ’s coming victory and vindication, you hear shouts of “Amen!” all around you, and you recall that you belong to a heavenly citizenry allied in hope. You’re tempted to keep your struggle in the dark. But then the older couple’s tender but pressing question over lunch, “How are you really?” draws you into the light.
Christian, you and I can “download” biblical truths virtually. Wonderful. Yet we cannot feel and experience and witness those truths becoming enfleshed in the family of God, which both fortifies our faith and creates cords of love between brothers and sisters.
One day, all God’s people will gather together—a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). And this gathering never ends.
Until that day, churches gather to establish visible, geographically-located outposts for Christ’s heavenly kingdom on earth. And we pray, “May your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.”
I live near Washington, DC. I love walking down what’s called Embassy Row where embassy after embassy from around the world is lined up. There’s the Japanese Flag and embassy, there’s Britain, there’s Finland. Each embassy represents a different nation of the world, a different government, a different culture, a different people.
What’s a gathered church? It’s an embassy of heaven. Jesus didn’t ask the United Nations, the U. S. Supreme Court, or the Harvard University philosophy department to represent him and his judgments. He asked the humble, the lowly, the things that are not. He asked Bumblestew Baptist and Possum’s Hollow Presbyterian to represent him and declare his heavenly judgments.
Step inside Bumblestew Baptist or Possum’s Hollow Presbyterian, and what should you find? A whole different nation—sojourners, exiles, citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
Not only that, you should experience the beginning of heaven’s culture. These heavenly citizens are poor in spirit and meek. They hunger and thirst for righteousness and are pure in heart. They are peacemakers who turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give their shirt and jacket if you ask for their jacket, won’t even look at a woman lustfully much less commit adultery, and won’t even hate much less commit murder.
Oh, nations of the earth, do you want to know what heaven is like—what it believes and values? Do you want a preview of its judgments?
Our church won’t always declare and embody heaven well. We are to heaven what rubber wafers and snap-in-your-fingers plastic cups are to a royal banquet. We’ll disappoint you and say insensitive things. Honestly, we’ll even sin against you. Yet we aspire to point you heavenward to the heart of heaven, who is Christ himself. He never sins or disappoints. We are the wafers and watered-down juice. He’s the banquet. But the good news for you is that sinners like you can join us in that enterprise, if you’ll only confess those sins and follow after him.
 The paragraphs here have been adapted from Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly: Rethinking the Multi-site and Multi-service Models (Crossway, 2020).