I think it’s obvious to us that these are distressing times in which we live. They are frightening times, to some people. It’s an important time for us to take a hard look at the church and ask, “What is the church going to be?”
For the first time in the history of our country, we are an alien assembly in a hostile land. That’s new for us. But that’s the world the church was originally born into.
The church existed from its very outset in a highly pagan world. The church in Jerusalem, of course, was surrounded by apostate Judaism; but the church in the Gentile world was in the midst of paganism. Persecution broke out. The apostles were virtually all rejected. Early church believers were martyred, and that went on for a couple of centuries.
From the earliest days of the church’s life, it has been in the midst of tribulation. That has ebbed and flowed through Western history. But it seems to me that the church is re-entering a time not unlike the time of the New Testament. And the opening three chapters of Revelation are a very important place for us to go.
Starting in Revelation 4, you have visions of the future. But in chapters 1- 3, you have instruction for the present tense. Revelation 1 is the opening vision in the book of Revelation, a vision of Christ in His church. It is a vision that applies in the present time. Revelation 2 and 3 then contain letters that our Lord wrote to His church – letters to churches in the midst of paganism.
This is for our instruction, for our encouragement, and for our motivation in a time when we desperately need it.
It’s easy to become discouraged about the state of the world, the hostility toward the Bible. And then you add on top of that the rather depressing state of the so-called church. Chaos and confusion abounds in the church.
True godliness and sound doctrine are scarce. Sober worship is hard to find. Selfishness is rampant, even in the church. Worldliness dominates not only many people in the church, but many leaders in the church. Faithful pastors and faithful believers look at all of this in wonder.
What is the church to expect in the future as the hostility increases, as the animosity escalates, as more and more people see Christianity as an alien enemy, as they begin to make laws against what we believe? What is the church to do? How are we to respond?
We go all the way back to the book of Revelation to learn what our Lord is doing in His church and what our Lord has to say to His church.
When we look at the church, we would desire that the church be genuinely in Christ — true, fruit-bearing branches, in the language of John 15. We desire that the believers in the church walk in the Spirit, and that they would experience the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome temptation, trials, and sin. We would desire the church to be strong and pure in holiness.
We would like to see the church clearly understanding that it sits beneath the reigning authority of Christ as disseminated through the Scripture. We would love to see the church submissive to Scripture, and therefore sanctified by Scripture — sound in doctrine and sound in behavior.
We would like to see the church led by godly people who set the example of Christlikeness. We would desire that the church be able to counter the deception and the subtleties of Satan by being protected by a clear understanding of the truth and discernment. We are concerned that the church manifestly reveal the radiating, holy glory of God.
This is a desire not only of every faithful pastor, but of every faithful Christian. These are very foundational desires for me and for every faithful pastor. We need to take another look, then, at those things that we must be, those things that we must hold to in the church, in the midst of paganism. And for that, we’re going to look at Revelation 2 and 3.
But before we get there, I want to look at Revelation 1 next time to see what the Lord is doing in His church.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2015, titled “The Lord’s Work in His Church” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
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