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These Are They

When God Says, 'Let Me Alone'
First Lesson Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost (Last Third)
Of all societies in the earth, the Christian Church without question is the most mysterious. Of all earthly associations, the Church is the most unique. Of all fellowships, the Church alone has a decided and definite destiny. This is both her pride and her peril, her pride in the sense that her subjects know that "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is not the final benediction, and her peril in the sense that her foes forever seek her destruction.

Christianity is preeminently the religion of crises. The Church was born in crisis, in the throes of terrible persecution. Her Lord, the Lamb of God, died a cruel death on a callous cross, and since that day the cross experience has been the badge of discipleship and the banner under which the Church has made her march.

There have always been those outside the circle of faith who have looked upon the Church with disfavor and disdain. Their contempt is as real today as it was in all of the Church's yesterdays. The Church has never had universal respect. In fact, if you look closely at the gospel record, you will discover that her Lord never intended for the Church to gain the applause of all men. She has always created a certain uneasiness, a certain friction, a certain fear in the hearts of many.

Those outside her domain, and even some who claim citizenship within, have no real understanding of what the Church is. Terrible misconceptions abound regarding the nature and purpose of the Church. Some regard her as a glorified insurance agency, where you sign up for insurance against the fires of hell. Others look on the Church as a common interest group, a kind of mutual admiration society where friends get together at least once a week. Still others feel that the main purpose and function of the church is to exert social pressure and engage in social action against demonic forces.

Gross misconceptions exist regarding the nature and purpose of the Church. Some thirty years ago when we completed the Bethany Church structure, a man said to me on the street one day, "Preacher, you should have built a factory to employ people and manufacture goods." I politely answered, "Sir, I don't know how to build a factory. I don't know anything about manufacturing and management. You people who are familiar with factories and manufacturing ought to put up factories. My orders from my Master say nothing about these. They simply read 'Go and preach my gospel.' Sir, I'm in the soul building and the character building business." He, like many others, understood not the mission and nature of the Church. Now the Church ought always be marked by a burning social passion. She should forever seek the elevation of the total humanity. She ought always be ready and willing to raise the voice of prophetic protest against demonic structures.

Her major mission is to lift people by lifting up the Christ. The Church is caught up in a certain mystique, an incomprehensible mysticism. There is something about the Church that even the saints don't understand. She deals with certain inexplicables, things like salvation, sanctification, and justification. Her central figure is a field preacher who died on a Roman cross between two thieves. She talks about the resurrection and the ascension, a second coming and a heavenly destiny.

Though she walks and works in the marketplace, she stands as it were on tiptoe, waiting for the heavens to open with jubilant gladness, and the world doesn't understand this kind of posture. Admittedly, there is something peculiar about people getting up on Sunday morning and rushing to a building where they lift their voices in song, and praise the King who elects not to make a personal appearance. There is something strange about an institution that has no entrance requirement except "Lord, have mercy on a sinner like me." There is something rather weird about an organization so free-hearted that it echoes that invitation. "Whosoever will, let him come."

The world doesn't understand it. What is the Church? What is this strange phenomenon that winds its way through the centuries? What is this peculiar commonwealth whose citizens have pledged to it their ultimate allegiance? What is the Church?

Well, the local church is a body of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. But "the Church" is more than this. The visible Church is the Christian family on earth at any given time. But "the Church" is even more than this. The Church invisible is the saints of all ages. That is a good description of "the Church."

The Church is best defined as "the body of Christ." He is the great Head of the Church. He was born for it; he lived for it; he died for it; he got up for it; and he is coming again for it. Christ founded the Church. The formal declaration was made one day at Caesarea Philippi. When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replied, "Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus retorted, "Peter, flesh and blood didn't tell you this, but my Father which is in heaven, and, Peter, I will take your testimony and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

How small and how humble was the Church's beginning. She had no creed, no ritual, no hymnal, no money, no school, no choir, no library, no building. She had nothing but a message. But, my God, what a message! A message of redemption from sin. A message of sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. A message of freedom for the captives; a message of balm for the brokenhearted. The little Galilean mission preached that message with such vigor that on the day of Pentecost the fire fell from heaven; the precious Paraclete descended. Three thousand souls put on the whole armor and began to march to the matchless music of eternity. A man named Saul came face to face with divinity on a dusty road, put off the old man, put on the new man, and went all over the Mediterranean world declaring with conviction, "Jesus saves." The young Church became the Church militant. She was comparable to an army with banners, with Captain Jesus at the head of the column.

All along the pathway of her marchings, she has had to surmount hard and bitter obstacles. Her best sons and daughters were tortured and burned and thrown to hungry lions, and yet she continued to grow. Divisions within tried to rip her sails, but she kept on growing. Powers from without tried to ditch her train, but she kept growing. And how greatly she grew! Tacitus, a Roman historian during the reign of Nero, Emperor of Rome, writing in the year 64 A.D., called the Church an ingens multitudo, a huge multitude.

So militant were they and so powerful was their preaching that one day certain Thessalonians looked up, saw Paul and Silas approaching, and said, "These that have turned the world upside down have come hither also." The Church Fathers sought diligently to be imitators of the Lord Christ. The threat of death did not hinder their march. There was no way to lose, because to live was Christ and to die was gain. Thousands were slaughtered. Peter was crucified. Paul was beheaded. Rome's fury and Rome's lust feasted on the blood of God's redeemed children. But the record is that "the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church."

Her endurance in spite of brutal, evil, and sadistic treatment is itself incontrovertible testimony to her divine creation. If mere humans had created the Church, her journey would have ended long ago. If man had made her, her light would quickly have gone out. There have always been those who feared that the Church would die. One cynic said, "The Church is always a generation away from extinction." Not so!

There is no known method on how to conduct a funeral for the Church of the Living God. The Church is no weakling devoid of defense. Men have tried to kill her, but the Church witnessed their demise. I saw the Church down at the Red Sea with its waters backed up, and she passed over on dry ground. I saw the Church in a fiery furnace, but she walked through the fire accompanied by one like unto the Son of God. I saw the Church in a den of lions, but she came out with neither hurt nor scar. I saw the Church in a sealed tomb guarded by watchful eyes, but God broke the fetters of death and raised Jesus from the grave. The Church militant is as terrible as an army with banners. She is indestructible, indomitable, imperishable, and invincible. Fire can't burn her; water can't drown her; death can't destroy her; foes can't defeat her. This was the essential message of John to the Christians on the mainland in a time of terrible persecution and intense suffering.

One Sunday morning while at work in the mines of Patmos, John saw the heavens open up mysteriously. So thrilling and so rapturous was the vision, that John simply said, "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day. I heard behind me singing from the realm of somewhere, a great voice, it sounded like a trumpet. I turned to see the source of this voice and when I turned I saw the Son of God walking among the golden candlesticks in the new Jerusalem. His hair was white like lamb's wool, and his eyes were as a flame of fire. His feet were like fine burnished brass and his voice as the sound of many waters.

"When I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead, but he laid his hand on me and said, 'Fear not, I am the first and the last, I am he that liveth; I was dead, behold I am alive for evermore. And I have the keys of hell and death. John, I want to show you things you have never seen before, and I want you to write what you see for the Churches of Asia Minor and for Christians yet unborn.' " John began to write. He wrote to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

He was carried beyond the sun, moon, and stars to the city of God, to "God's great town in the unknown land." And John penned what he saw. He saw the throne; he saw the elders; he saw the four beasts. He heard winged creatures singing antiphonally, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty." He kept on looking, and he saw in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals. He saw a mighty angel, and he heard that angel cry aloud, "Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?" No answer came because there was none worthy, neither in heaven, nor on earth. And John began to weep, because none was worthy. The tragedy moved him to tears. One of the elders observed his tears and said tenderly, "Weep not, John, behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David. The Lamb that was slain is worthy to open to book." John ceased his crying and Jesus began to loose the seals. Divine personality began to unravel the mysteries of life and of things to come.

Christ opened the book and John began to read. He read history written from heaven and as the Lamb opened each seal some terror was revealed. When the first seal was opened, he saw a white horse, whose rider had a bow in his hand going forth to conquer. This represented war. When the second seal was opened he saw a red horse, whose rider took peace from the earth. This represented international strife. When the third seal was opened he saw a black horse, whose rider had a pair of balances in his hand. This represented famine. When the fourth seal was opened he saw a pale horse whose rider was death, and hell followed him. This represented pestilence.

War, international strife, famine, and then pestilence. Jesus was telling us through John that all of these would occur in their respective order. In a word, history is moving toward ultimate destiny. The fifth seal is now open and John sees under the altar the souls of all the martyrs, those who were slain for their testimony concerning the word of God. And they are crying out to God, "Oh, Lord, how long? How long shall the wicked continue on earth? How long before justice is realized? How long will the righteous suffer?" They are told to rest for yet a little season.

The sixth seal is then opened and the martyrs' great hope is fulfilled. Judgment begins to march. There is a great earthquake. The sun becomes as black as midnight. The moon becomes as blood. Stars begin to fall. The heavens roll back, as a scroll. Mountains and islands begin to skip like lambs. Men try to hide; they beg for mountains and rocks to fall on them. "The great day of His wrath is come. And who shall be able to stand?" Four angels take their places at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds. Universal judgment is about to take place. I remind you that John is writing to and for the Church, for those who suffer for his name's sake. It is an encouraging word for the faithful. In sacred imagery, the seer of Patmos tells us that another angel, carrying the seal of the living God, flies to the four angels holding the four winds and tells them, "Don't release them yet. Hurt not the earth, neither the sea nor the trees, nor the leaves until we have sealed the servants of God in their foreheads."

John said that he saw those of the house of Israel who were sealed. In figurative language, he said that there were 144,000, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Those of Israel who had believed in the promise were all sealed. John looked again and saw a great host. There were so many that they couldn't be counted. It is a multitude that no man could number. I remind you that he is writing to the Church in a time of terrible persecution. And he is saying to Christians back on the mainland, "Whatever you do, don't give up. I know it's rough under Emperor Domitian. He exiled me, he is persecuting you. But we can make it. We can endure. We are soldiers of the cross and followers of the Lamb. We belong to the Church. We are God's new Israel. We are built on the rock, and the gates of hell will not prevail. Don't be disheartened; don't be discouraged. I know your agony; I know your pain. Hard is the night; bitter is the fight.Suffering is your portion. It gets lonely sometimes, but remember you have been twice born. You belong to the Church. And the Church is going somewhere. The Church militant will become the Church triumphant. While in the spirit, I talked with one of the elders about the throne. When that innumerable host came sweeping up, he asked me a question. 'Who are these arrayed in white robes, and from whence did they come?' And I answered him, 'Sir, Thou knowest.' And he said to me, 'These are they, which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white, in the blood of the lamb.' " Church, that's you and that's me. Whatever you are going through, look beyond present trials. Look beyond the cloud. Look beyond the grave. Can't you see the marvelous sight? Behold, "the armies of ransomed saints, throng up the steeps of light." They are of all nations and of every kindred and of every tongue, Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans, black, white, yellow, and red, oriental and occidental. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, preachers, cooks, housewives, domestic workers, businessmen, big people, little people -- people of every tribe and nation. "These are they," and they are going somewhere. They are on their way to the great coronation. They have palms of victory in their hands. "Up above my head I hear music in the air," triumphant music, songs of praise. They are singing the songs of the redeemed. In a rolling tide of praise, they declare blessing and honor to the Lamb that was slain.

Thank God today for the miracle of grace, that one day saved sinners will walk in white in the glorious presence of the King of kings.

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