The Marriage of the Lamb – Rev 19:7

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. – Revelation 19:7 ESV

This chapter marks a turning point in Revelation as both Babylon and the kingdom of the beast are destroyed. Even more exciting is the first picture of the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride. Who is this Bride? I believe it to be the Church, redeemed and purified by the blood of the Lamb (Eph. 5:25-27). The Bride has been through the fire (1 Pet. 1:6-7) and endured (Heb. 12:1-3). And now it is time to rejoice and exult and give God the glory.

While the book of Revelation is generally thought of as describing conflicts at a global scale, it is also possible to see it as a picture of the Christian life in conflict with the forces of spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12). When as a believer you find yourself facing trials and challenging times, and you wonder if it is worth it, just read the back of the book. We can rejoice now, not because what we are going through is good, but because it is preparing us for something that is beyond good, for our union with Christ. Look ahead to that (Phil. 3:13-14), stand firm (Eph. 6:13), and rejoice (Phil. 4:4).

The Lukewarm Church – Rev 3:17

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. – Revelation 3:17 ESV

The church at Laodicea was lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, and Jesus threatened to spit them out of his mouth. There were sources for hot mineral water, suitable for soaking, and cold spring water, suitable for drinking, near Laodicea. But they were like neither. They were just bleah. The problem was that they did not recognize their condition. They were like a church with nice facilities, abundant offering, dynamic preachers and worship teams; everything that they could humanly desire. Yet they were spiritually destitute and badly in need of the true riches that God had to offer them.

Like so many other areas of life, Jesus’ view of the condition of a church is often quite different than ours. The church in Smyrna was afflicted and poor, but Jesus declared them to be rich. The church in Philadelphia had little strength, but Jesus saw them as faithful. The church in Laodicea was well off and strong, but Jesus saw them as weak and poor, pitiable. We need to evaluate churches, especially our own, not on the outward appearances, but on our obedience and faithfulness to Christ as our head. Being a poor, weak church is no guarantee of approval from Christ. Nor is having a large and prosperous body a guarantee of Christ’s disapproval. What counts is our heart and relationship with the head, with Christ.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Following the Way – Acts 9:3

[Paul] went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. – Acts 9:3 NIV

‘The Way’ is the name for a modern day cult, but early on it was apparently a designation of the church for itself. It seems like a strange expression to use and its origin is unclear, but it is likely the result of Jesus teachings. In John 14:6 Jesus says “I am the way . . . no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the way to the Father and so his disciples followed ‘the Way’ of Jesus. The term could also refer to the broad and narrow gates of Matt. 7:13-14 where the narrow road leads to life; it is ‘the Way’ to life. Regardless the origin of the expression, the early believers were followers of ‘the Way’; the way of life, the way of truth, the way to the Father, the way of Jesus. The way that is spelled out for us in the Bible. Do you belong to ‘the Way’ of Christ?

Resolving Conflict in the Church – Acts 6:7

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. – Acts 6:7 NIV

The church in Jerusalem was facing a crisis. Internal dissention was disrupting the harmony of the body; some among them felt like they were being treated unfairly. Sound familiar? With, I believe, the Holy Spirit’s direction, the leadership of the church proposed a solution to the problem and saw that it was implemented; a solution that resolved the conflict and saw harmony restored.

While I don’t know that this verse is a direct result of the resolution of the crisis, it does seem related. Conflict within the church is definitely going to hinder the sowing of the seed and the resultant harvest. Don’t allow problems to fester and grow, distracting the church from the work God has given us to do. Resolving them may be hard and challenging, but the cost of not doing so is great. If there is conflict, be willing to allow God to use you to be a part of the solution.

What to Look for in a New Church

My wife and I have been searching for a new church home for the past couple of months. It is both exciting and daunting. It is exciting because of the opportunity to visit churches that we do not normally get the chance to experience. While not every worship service we have attended has been one that I would want a steady diet of, it has been a good experience.

The search has also been daunting because I am looking for a body that I can be involved in and committed to. The worship experience that we have on Sunday morning is only a small part of being an active part of a church. How do I determine my ability to get connected and involved from a visit on Sunday morning? All of the churches we have visited have been different, and that is a good thing. Not everyone is like me, and most people would agree that is a good thing. What appeals / challenges me is not necessarily what is going to appeal to or challenge someone else.

So how does one know when they have found the ‘right’ church? One can either visit until one feels right, or you can determine what is important to you and then evaluate each church against that list. For me it is really a combination of the two; that it ‘feel right’ is important, but even more important is that it be a church where I can become involved and can grow in my faith. I am very much an introvert and am retired; the only real social interaction I have, apart from family, is with the church. I crave deep relationships with a few people and enjoy theological and/or biblical discussions. I yearn for a closer walk with God, but struggle with surrender. Now everyone is different, but that is who I am, and it is important to me that I am a part of a body that will maximize my potential for developing a few close relationships, will enable me to effectively serve, and where I will to be challenged to grow in my faith.

Below are some of the primary things that I am looking for.

Worship: The first three of these are based on the Sunday morning experience; and first is worship. For me this is primarily the music portion of the service. I like hymns, and I like praise chorus’. I am good with a variety of tempos. What I do not want is to be entertained with a dynamic worship team and light show, or to have the music so loud that it hurts. Nor is it enough to just sing through three or four songs and then settle down for the preaching. I like to sing, but I am not an accomplished vocalist, so if the songs are hard to sing I get left out. Whether the worship team is a single vocalist and a piano, or a full blown ten person worship team, what matters to me is that I am led into worship; that the worship leader (and their team), the music, and the environment are drawing me into active participation in the worship of my creator and redeemer. Don’t entertain me; lead me to worship.

Preaching: Of these three, this one is the least significant to me. I seem incapable of sitting still for half an hour to listen to someone talk; by the end I will almost always be nodding at least a bit. But the preaching still is important to me. I am not interested in jokes and personal anecdotes.  You don’t need to entertain me. What I value is exegetical preaching in a logical and rational form.

Atmosphere: This is the hardest to quantify of the initial three. It has to do with the general feel of the gathering. Is it warm and inviting? Or is it cold and sterile? Or somewhere in between? I find that most churches are friendly; at least among themselves. But how friendly are they to the visitor walking in cold? In few of our encounters this past month (we generally hit two services a Sunday) have we had someone just come up and visit with us. Most of our interaction with church members has either been by designated greeters at the door, or at the greeting time that seems to be built into most services, although even then sometimes I am ignored. I do appreciate both of those opportunities, even if they make me uncomfortable, because they say that the church recognizes the need to meet me. As an introvert, I certainly don’t want to be mobbed by people, but I do want to feel like I am welcome and wanted.

Small group opportunities: The rest of these items can sometimes be ascertained from the bulletin or churches web site. For others it may be necessary to engage the pastor or other members of the body. The most important of these, at least for me, is the opportunity to be a part of a smaller group whether that be a Sunday school class, a small group, or some other gathering. I will generally not interact much with people in a large group setting. The small group setting is also the best opportunity, at least for me, to learn and grow; the more personal experience of the smaller group is essential for me. I look for multiple opportunities to be engaged in smaller groups that are focused on personal interaction and growth in God’s word.

Ministry opportunities: I am interested in being more involved in the life of the church than passively sitting in worship services, attending a Sunday school class and tossing some money into the offering plate. Is there an opportunity for me to be able to serve in some capacity that is in alignment with my giftedness?

Outreach opportunities: Is the church focused internally, or does it have an outward facing view of ministry? In other words, is the church actively involved out in the community, looking to make a difference where they are. Outreach is a problem for me, and it is helpful to have avenues for this available within the church body.

A clearly defined purpose and commitment to that purpose: This is really important for me; does the church have a clear sense of purpose they adhere to; or are their ministries and activities based on tradition and/or popularity. The latter is the easy approach and one that many churches seem guilty of. But it leads to a broad focus with little depth. I would much rather be part of a church that has a clearly defined purpose and who focuses all their efforts in accomplishing that purpose. Unfortunately this can be very challenging to discover as a visitor; requiring one to ask members of the church, as well as the pastor, what their purpose is.

Doctrine: Most churches have a doctrinal statement on their web site, making it easy to discover the major doctrines of the church. The doctrinal statements of most of the churches we have visited have been very similar and fairly orthodox for an evangelical church. An issue for me though is their response to one whose beliefs are not totally in line with theirs, which will likely be true for me. I agree that some beliefs are essential, but what about those that are not?

What I Believe . . . the Church

I believe that the church is God’s primary purpose in creation; that God has made all that is in order to produce the church. The church is the assembly of called out ones; those God has called out of this world to be in relationship with himself. At some time in the future this creation will pass from existence; but the church will remain.

I believe that the church is, metaphorically, the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). Christ is the head of the body (Eph 1:22-23), giving life and direction to it. As his body we represent him in this world, carrying on his ministry from his time here, and following his direction. Each believer is a part of the body (1 Cor 12:13, 27) and essential for a healthy and fully functioning church (Eph 4:16).

I believe that the church is responsible for carrying out the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) and the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-31). The Great Commission instructs us to evangelize the world and to teach those who respond how to live as disciples of Christ. The Great Commandments instruct us first to love God, which we demonstrate in our worship, and then to love each other, building one another up in Christ.

I do believe that the church is made up of all believers across time and space. This universal church also includes those from the Old Testament who obeyed the law as an act of faith (Rom 4:16). It also includes those since the time of Christ who have put their faith in him.

I believe that the universal church is represented here on earth whenever believers assemble together to worship, to serve God, and to fellowship together. These local churches may be informal or well organized, but whatever form they take they are representing Christ’s one church. Within these local churches there may be found some who have membership in the local church who are not believers and are not included in the universal church (Matt 7:21-23).

I do not believe that there is a specific form of church government that is mandated in the Scriptures or that would work best for every local church. I do believe that if Christ is not the head of the local church, then it does not really matter what form of government they use. If Christ is the head, then I believe he will lead a church to develop an organizational structure that will best suit their needs. I do believe that a body of elders has the most support of Scripture (1 Tim 5:17), but that could well be because that is what was common at the time.

I believe Christ’s church is one body and that we are called to have one heart, one mind, and one spirit (John 17:20-23; Phil 2:1-4). While local churches have a variety of traditions and some variation in doctrine, we are all part of the one body. It is important that local churches work together as much as possible without compromising doctrinal integrity (2 Cor 8:1-7).

I believe that the Scripture teaches that baptism should be one of the initial steps a believer takes; out of obedience to Christ and to identify with him. I do believe that baptism is a symbolic act that mirrors the death and resurrection of Christ and that pictures the spiritual transformation that has occurred in our own lives (Rom 6:1-4). Baptism is best represented by immersion and is only applicable to believers.

I believe that the Lord’s Supper is the second ordinance given to the church. The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of Christ’s death until he returns (1 Cor 11:22-26). The elements themselves represent the body and blood of Christ, but in no way is he actually present in the elements. I believe that the Lord’s Supper should only be shared with other believers.

So Just What Is the Church?

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says that he will build his church on the rock of Peter’s confession.  But what is this church that Jesus was going to build?  We all have conceptions of what ‘church’ is.  Some identify it as a building, although most seem to recognize that is not exactly correct.  We use the term to refer to an event, as in ‘going to church’. But most recognize that the church is actually the people that are meeting in the building for the event.  But that still doesn’t really answer the question as to what the church actually is.

Too many of us view the church as a social gathering of people, like a club, or a religious organization, whose purpose is to study the Bible, worship God, and maybe do good things together.  I find a church I like, join it, and participate in its activities, at least until conflict arises or I find that my needs are not being satisfied, at which point I quit or find another church that will do a better job.  With that conception, is the church really any different than the Elks, Eagles or Masons, apart from where the focus is?

There are a number of terms used in the scriptures to describe the church, primary among them being the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and his household, a holy temple and his dwelling.  All of these point to the church as being more that just a group of like minded believers who choose to meet together.  Rather they point to the church being an organic whole, a unity.  As members of the body of Christ, we all have a part to play, we need each other to be whole, we belong to each other.  Jesus prayer for us is that we be one, as he and the Father are one.

These terms are used to describe the universal, or invisible, church; the sum total of all believers across time and place.  Today, we mostly use the term to refer the a local instance of that universal body.  But wherever we meet together, and regardless the numbers, we still are a part of the body of Christ, and are called to be one in him.

We live in a society that cherishes individual freedom.  But that emphasis on individualism runs contrary to the scriptures teaching about the church, and Jesus expressed desire for us.  If we can take anything away from the imagery of the Holy City in Revelation 21, it is that the church, the bride of Christ, will continue into the new heaven and earth.  The church is eternal.  Could it be that my eternity is not as an individual as much as it is a member of the body?  And if that is the case, should I not put more emphasis now on life in the body, working toward the unity that scripture calls on us to have?

The church is like the Elks club only on the surface; but it is so much more.  It is an organic body, composed of member parts who lose themselves to become part of something bigger than we can imagine, not an earthly organization, but the bride of Christ.

 

Conflicts in the Body – James 4:1-10

Churches fight. It is unfortunate, but true. If you have been involved with a church more than a few years, you have probably experienced conflict between members; conflict that sometimes spreads across the whole body. And it inevitably hurts, even if you are not directly involved.  If any parts of the body are in conflict, then the whole body is really in conflict and suffering.  In the passage below, James has a lot to say about conflict in the church, its causes, and how to avoid it.

1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:1-10 NIV

Our desires may be natural, and not inherently wrong, but if not kept under control they can cause great harm.  Earlier James identified our desires as the root that brings us into temptation, sin and death.  Here he turns from the personal result of desires to what they do within the body, identifying our desires as the root cause for conflict with others. When I choose to pursue my own desires, and encounter someone who is doing the same thing, then conflict is inevitable.  How far that conflict will progress will depend on how badly I want my desires to be fulfilled.  While at times the conflict might result in physical death, it will more commonly result in attempts to kill reputations, character assassination, as well as quarrels and fights within the body.  Putting my own perceived ‘good’ above the good of the body is actually pretty common, but never good.

Having desires is not bad.  And asking God to satisfy my desires is not necessarily a bad thing.  What is a problem is when I am selfishly pursuing my desires for my own pleasure.  If I am a part of a body, then my desires, and the fulfillment of those desires, should be directed toward the good of the body as a whole, rather than toward myself as a member.  Imagine what would happen should my feet choose to pursue that is best for them, at least in the short term.  I would end up laid up in the Lazy-boy all the time with my feet elevated and non load bearing.  And the body would suffer, not to mention that the feet would also suffer in the long run through atrophy.

My bride is the love of my life, and I would not consciously do anything to hurt her.  And that includes sharing my affections with another woman.  In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes pictured as God’s wife, while in the New Testament the church is identified as the bride of Christ.  In the Old Testament, a couple of the prophets accused Israel of adultery when they would chase after idols, Hosea’s wife Gomer being the best example. And now James accuses me of adultery when I am enjoying friendship with the world, getting caught up in worldly pleasures and pursuits.  In a sense, I am committing adultery whenever my passion for God is turned to other things, regardless how good I see them to be.  The same desires that bring me into conflict with others in the body also bring me into conflict with God.

So what do I do with my desires?  Do I want to know God’s desires?  Do I want to be a productive and edifying member of the body?  James says I need to submit myself to God.  Resist Satan.  Wash and purify.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Humble myself before God.  That sounds harsh and uninviting.  But I do not believe James is telling us that we need to live a life of doom and gloom; joy is mentioned in connection with the Christian life too many times to think that we should be gloomy.  Instead, I believe James is talking about our attitudes to our own desires and the harm they cause to us and to the church.  I need to repent of my sin, and turn away from the desires that cause so much harm, and submit myself to God.  James assures us that if we do that, God will lift us up, and joy will result.

 

And the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail – Matthew 16:13-20

Recently, the church where I serve received an unsolicited letter from an organization that warned us about the potential for lawsuits from members, ex-members, and outsiders because of stands that we might take as a church.  Included in this letter were a set of recommendations for changes to the churches by-laws that would make us more immune to those types of lawsuits, although they also admitted that we were not really at much risk anyway.

But we choose to look into it and a committee was appointed to make recommendations concerning changes to our by-laws that would further protect us from legal action.  That committee has met and prepared their recommendations.  I obtained a copy of them yesterday, and my initial reaction was disappointment, although I had a hard time putting my finger on just why.  It is not that they were proposing changes that I really disagreed with in principal.  But something about the whole thing just didn’t seem right.

And last night, as I was going to bed, it finally dawned on me what it was.  In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus first asks his disciples who others say he is, and then who they believe him to be.  Peter is commended for his response: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.  Jesus responds with, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

The first thing to note about this is Jesus is talking about His church, not my church, or our church.  We often use those terms innocently to refer to the local body that we are members of, or at least regularly attend.  But oftentimes it really does mean that the local body referred to does not belong to Christ, but belongs to the members; although I doubt that many would actually say it in that way.  But if the pastor, elders, or members provide the direction for the church; does it belong to Christ?  If we have become more of an internally focused social club than a body that is reaching the lost and worshiping the creator; do we really belong to Christ?  If we can see no further than our limited financial income and human resources, and live in fear of the outside world; do we really belong to Christ, or are we a human institution?

Jesus here says something very important about His church: “the gates of hell will not have victory over it”.  That is a pretty bold declaration.  His church will win!  All we need to do is be his church: reaching the lost; disciplining the believers; and worshiping the creator.  We do not need to put special language in our by-laws to protect us from the “gates of hell”.  We for sure do not need to withdraw into a defensive posture, climbing into our bunkers.  Just be about the business of Christ’s church, and leave the rest of it up to him.

And I guess that is the problem I have with this proposal.  It looks to me like we are reinforcing our bunker, keeping us safe within our walls, rather than going out into the battle that rages around us.  Might we suffer in the battle?  You bet.  But we will emerge victorious.  That is his promise in this passage.

On This Rock – Matthew 16:15-18

In Matthew 16:15-18, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is.  Peter responds with “You are the Christ, the Son of God.”  To which Jesus responds that God has revealed this to him, and that upon that rock he would build his church.  Many believe this ‘rock’ that the church is built on was Peter, but most of the rest of us believe that the rock was the truth that God had revealed to Peter concerning Jesus identity: that the church is built on Jesus, the Son of God.

Who

But what is the church?  This word is used twice in the gospels, both times in Matthew, and frequently throughout the rest of the New Testament; but never with a description of what, or who, the church is, and what its purpose is.  The word generally translated as church is the Greek word ekklēsia which more literally means “called out” or “called forth”.  It was generally used in Greek to reference a civic assembly that was called together for a specific purpose, i.e Acts 19:39.

So you might think of the church as an assembly of those that God has called out of this world, an assembly that is under the authority of Jesus.  The church, contrary to some, is not a building, it is not an activity we engage in on Sunday morning, it is not a social gathering.  The church is people, people who have been called out of this world by God, and who have responded to that call.  Sometimes it refers to the called out believers in a specific location, and sometimes it refers to the called out believers across the world, but always it refers to called out believers.

Why

That is the ‘who’ of the church, which is part of the ‘what’ question.  But ‘why’ is also a very important part of ‘what’ the church is.  Why is it that we are called out of the world and into assembly together?  For too many people in the church, or hanging around the church, the answer is either a blank look, or something like “to worship God”.  Now I find it hard to believe that God had no purpose in ‘calling’ us out.  Nor do I really believe he takes great delight in us assembling together on Sunday to sing a few songs and listen to a sermon; as inspiring as either might be.

While we may not always designate Jesus followers prior to Pentecost as the church, they were the ones he had called out from the rest of the world, and had been assembled with him for over 3 years.  And the last thing he does with them before his return to the Father is to commission them.  Matthew’s version, in Matthew 28:18-20, or Luke’s version in Acts 1:8, both tell the same story.  We are to go out into the world and tell people about God, bringing others into the assembly, making disciples of them.

I believe that commission contains our marching orders, to represent God to a world that is sorely in need of him.  And that is the picture we see painted in Acts, as the gospel is taken into wider and wider circles; into all the world.  Here the church is intentionally sharing the gospel where they are, and going to places the gospel hasn’t yet reached.

Nowhere, apart maybe from the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3 do we find a church that withdrew from the world to be a safe haven for beleaguered believers.  And yet too often that is what we have become today.  Too often we sit within the comfortable confines of our safe walls, singing nice songs, studying the Bible, and moaning about how the world around us is going to hell in a handbasket.  And the closest we come to taking the gospel to them is when someone wanders in off the street and sits through a sermon.  And we wonder why the church is not growing!

Body Life

Of course there is more to life in the body that proclaiming the gospel.  It is appropriate for us to worship our Lord; to grow and develop as disciples; to love each other in personal and practical ways.  Worship should be a natural expression of who we are.  One of my favorite parts of Revelation is the scene described in chapters 4 & 5.  Here we see the 4 living creatures praising God, followed by the 24 elders, bazillions of angels and every creature, including those on the earth.  Too often we follow the lead of a worship team on the stage at the front of the building we meet in on Sunday to set the tone of our worship.  Consider following the lead of the 4 living creatures instead, and be constantly in a state of worship around the throne.

Part of the Great Commission in Matthew is teaching the disciples to follow Jesus direction.  And the example of the earliest church is that they were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles.  The New Testament church was eager to learn all they could about God, the good news about Jesus, and about living as God’s called out ones.  Following their example would help us to grow in our knowledge of God, both intellectually and relationally, as well as becoming more effective in sharing with an increasingly skeptical world.

The church is not just an assembly of believers while we hang around earth waiting for our promotion.  The church is also described as the bride of Christ and one of the most interesting parts of John’s vision in Revelation is his description of the bride of Christ in chapters 21 & 22.  Here the bride is described as a pretty spectacular city; an eternal city.  The church will be around for eternity, not the SBC or the Roman Catholic, or Methodist, but the assembly of called out ones.  That may be why Jesus and his apostles were so insistent that we love each other and get along here.  A part of being the church, the body, the bride, is to lose ourselves and become one, like Christ and the Father are one; to love one another.

Thoughts

  •  How does the church you are apart of compare to the church described in the book of Acts?
  • Is there a passion for taking the gospel to the lost around you?
  • When you come together to worship, do you have a sense of having entered into God’s presence?
  • What can you do to improve the quality of life in the body?
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