Revelation 7:9After this I looked, and behold, 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, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
The last section of the Apostles’ Creed contains the article, “I believe in the holy catholic Church”. I wonder if you have ever wondered what these final lines are doing at the end of the Creed? It makes perfect sense to be very clear about who God is, what He’s like and what He’s not like – those were, after all, the key questions facing the Early Church. But surely it’s obvious what the church is.
Well, no its not. Because when we use the word “Church” we can mean any number of different things.
- A building. I can say “I’m just going over to the church”.
- A group of people associated together in the way that so many of us are in our parishes. We can be spoken of together as a church.
- A job. Some may talk of my twin brother and I “going into the church”.
- Some people would even say that it’s the whole hierarchical structure that we have, so we speak of the Anglican Church. Some people extend this argument to suggest that without these structures, for example bishops and so forth, we are not a church.
What of course, as Christians, we are interested in knowing is what the Bible says on these things because its our rule in all matters of faith.
And the intriguing thing is, the Bible knows none of these uses of the word. Instead it tells us that the church is something else, something quite remarkable and yet, quite simple.
The word in the bible thats translated into English as church is the greek word ????????, “ekklesia”. It simply means “gathering”. A bunch of people coming together. As well as being used to speak about what we might recognize as the church it is also used to speak of a town meeting and even a near-riot (Acts 19:32, 39, 40) It simply means a gathering of people.
Now, people dont just gather for any reason, theres always a purpose for gathering and so our question has to be what is this gathering that the bible speaks about?
Well, the answer lies in the above text, Revelation 7.
Revelation is the last book in the bible and it relates a vision that John the Apostle has. Its called an “apocalypse” which simply means an “unveiling”. Not necessarily a great universe-ending catastrophe, just an unveiling. So, its as though God is drawing back a curtain on world history so that we can see spiritual realities. Theyre not necessarily future events, theyre picture language to describe things that words can’t on their own describe.
And here in Revelation 7 John is being given an insight into the reality of the church and we can see immediately that it is an ????????, a gathering:
Revelation 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, 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, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Now that is a crowd meeting with a purpose.
First, notice how the gathering is described: a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.
This great heavenly church that John sees is truly international; all tribes, all peoples, all languages represented. It is, in fact, the completion of the great promise to Abraham at the start of the bible, Genesis 12, where God promises him that through him all the families of earth will be blessed. Well, here they all are, or perhaps more accurately, here we all are because if you are a Christian then this is you, or at least it will be.
Which should make us stop. Because like it or not we have to admit that for many of us we have some difficulty with this. It would be wrong for each and every one of us to pretend that we don’t have prejudices when it comes to people that are different to us. Without dwelling on the matter I wonder if I might ask you to consider for a moment whether you have such a global view of the Christian church or, for that matter, whether you harbour a little bit of a “them and us” mentality ? One day, Christian, you will stand with those people around the throne and you will be arm in arm with them.
And that, simply, is what it means to be Catholic. The word Catholic comes from two more greek words; ???? meaning “according to” and ???? which means “whole”. The term “Catholic”, therefore, means “according to the whole” that is to say “the same as everyone else”.
And so the Early Church coined this phrase Catholic to tell people that there was only one church, not several. What they wanted to say is that you can’t just run off and do your own thing, making it up as you go along as some people were doing. If you’re part of the church then you’re part of the Catholic church, you’re part of the whole.
Of course, when we hear the word Catholic we immediately think of something else we think of the Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome with its own idea of what the church is. Simply put, they think that they’re the true Church, the catholic church, the whole church, and therefore if you’re not with them then youre not actually in a proper church. Thats why they use that name “Roman Catholic Church”.
But Anglicanism is a Reformed communion because men like Martin Luther, who directly influenced Anglican Reformers like Cranmer, read their bibles and realized that the Roman Church may be many things but it wasnt Catholic. It taught things, and still teaches things, that are simply contradictory to what the Bible says. And when Martin Luther and others like him read their bibles and understood what the true Catholic church looked like they realized they couldnt be in a gathering with Rome any more. As the Anglican Article puts it,
XIX. Of the Church.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
So there is a Catholic church, a whole church, a true church. And we see them clearly here in Revelation 7.
But who are they? Well, were told that theyre clothed in white robes. White, of course, is symbolic of purity, and so the picture here is of people who are perfect and pure, no sin whatsoever. But, in case we didnt get it, were given one of those lovely set-up questions just look with me again at v13.
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Sometimes questions in the Bible are there simply for our benefit. This is one of them: Tell us about these people dressed in white!
And the answer comes in 2 stages.
First they are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.
Tribulation is a word the bible uses regularly to speak of suffering that Christians go through. It’s popular at the moment in some Christian cicles to speak of the the Tribulation as though its going to be some sort of future event when things get really tough. That kind of talk is popular in countries like the United States, Britain and Australia where Christians tend to be nice and fat and fairly happy. But ask a Christian in Pakistan or Indonesia or the Sudan whether the Tribulation is something in the future and theyll laugh at you – at least they would if the tears of pain ever stopped. No, the Tribulation is ongoing. It was going on right when John first wrote these words almost 2000 years ago – even then Christians were suffering for Jesus – and so this picture was an enormous encouragement to them to persevere because here is the church, the gathering, that have come through it.
First, they are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.
And, second, John is told that they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Its a fantastic picture, isnt it? Blood making something white when surely it does the opposite? But remember what the whiteness here stands for; its purity, freedom from sin, total forgiveness. And here are people who trust in Jesus’ death on a cross, trust in His blood and as a result are completely forgiven. Not somewhat forgiven, not one step along the path to purity – no, they are white. They are perfect.
And Jesus is called the Lamb. It’s an image from the Old Testament sacrifices which model for us what Jesus did. He was the true sacrifice.
That’s what the true Catholic church believes, more than that – that’s what the true Catholic church is. They are people who trust in Christ’s death on the cross and, as a result, are completely forgiven.
So let me ask you; is that your picture of being a Christian? Do you believe that by trusting in Jesus you are completely forgiven? Because its easy to slip into thinking that theres something that we must do to be forgiven.
We even sometimes imagine that there are better and worse Christians. So, for example, its common to imagine that there are people such as “the Saints” who are somehow holier than us, who have achieved more in their lives. I realise that this will be a confronting statement for some, but the bible knows no such distinction. Thats not to say, of course, that it doesnt know about saints – it does and it holds them in high regard, they are indeed the most holy of people, but the Bible uses the word “saint” to talk about you and me, to talk about all Christians. Because anyone who trusts in Jesus, according to the Bible, is a saint (Eph. 1:1, Acts 26:10, Rom. 8:27 etc.).
This, then, is the Catholic church, the gathering of saints, all of them, that trust in Jesus’ death and nothing else. It’s you and me if we trust in Jesus.
So, weve seen what “the Church” is – its a gathering of people.
We’ve seen who they are – they’re suffering but holy people, saints like you and me who trust in Jesus’ death.
Finally, lets see what they do.
The first clue as to what the church does is back in v9. If you remember the church has palm branches in their hands. It makes us think of Jesus entering Jerusalem and the people waving palm branches and cheering him as their king. Thats exactly what the church does here and more. They cry out
Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.
They dont just cry out anything about God, the thing that they’re most excited about is that Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb Jesus. They’re saying what we’ve already seen – that being saved from the punishment of sin, becoming a Christian, is something that God does and the Church is excited about that. It is the thing they sing about again and again and again, worshipping God because of what He has done.
So again, let me ask you a question. Would you do the same as them? Do you do the same as them? Are you excited above all about the fact that Jesus has done everything that is needed to save you? Because that is the mark of the Christian.
Or perhaps you’ve allowed other things to cloud your attention, to draw your heart away? Perhaps you’ve never even realized that this is greatest thing, the thing that the church will be singing about into all eternity?
Perhaps today, even today, you want to join them? There would be no better time. Trust Jesus, trust his death on the cross where he did everything that needs to be done so you could wash your clothes white.
And then join this church, join this holy catholic church and spend the rest of your life and eternity singing about the salvation that belongs to God and to the Lamb.
But the vast majority who read this will have already done that – they trust Jesus and what He has done for them. More specifically, most people reading this (I assume) are Anglicans who are deeply troubled about the events that are overtaking us this second weekend of February, 2007. What difference does a right understanding of the Church make to us?
Well, above all, it means that we may rest secured that whatever the outcome of the Primates’ Meeting it will make no difference to the holy catholic Church. If you find yourself in a parish in the middle of a revisionist diocese and the people you look to in the Communion have announced themselves to be out of Communion with your diocese then you must be assured that, although you are out of Communion, you are still gathered with those same true believers around the throne. Being in an out of Communion is, ultimately, a human way of expressing a difference that already exists. But a deeper bond exists between the faithful. We are, even now, gathered up in the heavenlies. Together you and I – in different parts of the world and “out of Communion” – are together pictured in Revelation 7.
The thing to grasp, then, is that the Church is so much bigger than the Anglican Communion. Our unity comes by our common confession that “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb”, not by whether we have appropriate episcopal oversight. The Bible knows nothing of the latter. That is not to say that it is a useful structure to have and, indeed, a useful structure to maintain at this time of division since by coming under one bishop or another we may signal or acceptance or otherwise of what TEC is doing – but it is not a Biblical requirement nor mark of the true church, at least not in the sense that much Bishopry is understood today.
Let me be even bolder. Perhaps the Communion must in one way or another break apart. It has become quite clear that there are so many in leadership in the Anglican Communion who do not believe that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb Jesus. The question of salvation itself is alien to them, let alone the idea that Christ might be thepenal substitute that wins our salvation so completely. How can we even stand to be associated with those that deny Him in this way? Surely to “come out from among them” (2Cor. 6:17) is almost required of us?! For the sake of clarity in our gospel message we must seek that those associations are cut. If many of the Primates of the Communion will not sort this issue out then perhaps those power brokers don’t understand the real issues either?
It would, of course, be a tragedy. But sometimes tragedies are necessary.
What is important is that it will have no effect upon the true Church of God. Those that we are finally leaving behind were not part of the Church of God anyway – they were a cancerous growth sucking resources and inhibiting the proclamation of the Biblical gospel – eternal salvation, not the MDG’s. And although such a division may leave you feeling desperately and horribly alone you should understand that you are not. The reality is that we are gathered around the throne together. Whether we wear the badge of “Anglican” or not may leave scars on us that we take a long time to recover from – but they are nothing like the scars that bought all of us and hold us all together; those scars were there long before Anglicanism existed and will continue to be there guaranteeing our place in the Holy Catholic Church long after Anglicanism is gone.