What I understand about the Local Organized Church
(This discussion reflects my understanding as of April 24, 2002.)
by Tom Schaff
Much has been said about the organized church in the past months, especially by people who say that the organized church as an institution is dead. That is, the claim is no organized church represents God on earth and no church has the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In particular, no one who is in a church can be saved through the work of the church. The claim is accompanied by a stern warning that people must leave their church or risk personal destruction that God will bring upon it for its sins.
As of the above date, my personal answer, based upon a careful examination of the Bible, is as follows:
1. Many organized churches are unfaithful and from all outward evidence no longer are a true church of Jesus Christ. However, not all churches are dead. There is a remnant, and always will be, according to the promise of Gods Word.
The number of true churches is small. Throughout the history of the world, even during the New Testament times, the number of true churches has always been small, a minority, a remnant. The number may be getting smaller. But God always has His remnant.
2. Many verses and passages used to support the notion that all organized churches are dead have been misunderstood and misapplied. Such abuse of and violence against the Word of God reduces confidence in the whole dead-church doctrine. Reserving judgment upon the notion of a dead church, the clear misuse of verses means that it is unwise to concur with such an idea at this time. Whether the notion of a dead church is true or not, the tactic of misapplying of a verse reduces the credibility of the whole scenario. As it turns out the Gospel shines forth clearer and brighter when we understand the verses in a different way.
More than that, it is unwise to act upon a teaching that is based upon clear misunderstandings of the Bible. That is, it is not wise to heed the insistent call of people to leave a church without compelling reason to do so. Any action based upon an uncertain foundation is not only unwise, but a sin, for according to Romans 14:23, And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Taking action for uncertain reasons is especially dangerous when we consider that a true believer desires to be obedient to his Lord. Following the insistence of a teacher who may be wrong is disobedience and a poor testimony. So, it is important to receive a clear call from the Bible alone when contemplating any serious action.
3. The foundation of the doctrine of a dead church is based upon (1) types and figures extracted from historical passages in the Old and New Testament, (2) prophetic verses, and (3) what we can call direct teaching passages. It is easier to test a doctrine by looking at its agreement with direct, propositional Bible statements that are clear, rather than evaluate the types and figures that it proposes. So, that is what I have done.
There are spiritual messages found in historical and prophetic passages. But those implicit messages must support and illustrate doctrines that are explicitly stated elsewhere in the Bible. Any teaching based solely upon analogy or figures and not supported by direct statements cannot be trusted. One reason is that it is not possible to know if conclusions based upon obscure passages are correct without direct, clear statements.
So, if direct passages are used to support ideas derived from the shadowy pictures, then it is better to investigate the true meaning of those direct passages to see if the teaching is true. And if we find that people misunderstand and misapply the more direct statements, it is not necessary to also investigate the obscure analogies. That is, it is not necessary to study and respond to every idea that comes along, especially those based upon analogies, if the teaching based upon a difficult passage does not accord with more direct easy to understand passages in the Bible.
With all of this in mind, I present an evaluation of the following passages, chosen because they are direct statements that impact our view of local organized Church.
THE IDEA: This verse teaches that true believers, as individuals and together as a congregation, bring the message of judgment to the world that does not want it. Unlike what is commonly taught, I Peter 4:17 does not predict that judgment will begin upon the corporate churches, as for example, near the end of time. Other scriptures warn about judgment, but that is not the message of I Peter 4:17 at all. Instead, it teaches that the message of judgment is brought by the church to the world. This can be shown in two ways, from the immediate context and from a careful analysis of the words in the verse.
First of all, let us look at the context of verse 17. The passage is addressed to people who are partakers of Christs suffering (verse 13). People partake of Christs suffering when Jesus suffered in their place for their sins. People also partake of Christs suffering when they suffer bearing Christs name in the world. They are people upon whom the spirit of glory and God rests (verse 14). They are saved people. In verse 15 we read, let none of you suffer as a murderer, or ... The message is that they must not suffer for the wrong reason. That is, they must not suffer for actions that are similar to an unbelievers. They must not live as an unbeliever. In verse 16 the message is again directed to Christians. The idea of verse 16 is that when they suffer for the right reason, God is glorified. Verse 17 continues the focus upon believers that is part of the preceding verses. Notice the connecting word for that begins verse 17. That is, the message of verses 14-16 continues into verse 17. So far, we see the passage is directed toward true believers.
The judgment mentioned in verse 17 concerns the house of God. In this context, the word house refers to a congregation that really is the house, that includes true believers, as we read in Hebrews 3:6, But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end. In support of that understanding of the house, verse 17 goes on to state, if it first begin at us, in which the word us includes Peter and other believers to whom he wrote. In fact, the verse ends with the words them that obey not the gospel of God, as a contrast to the us who do obey the gospel. Therefore, the first idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 is directed to true believers, as an individual or as part of a congregation. It is not directed to an apostate church, with few if any saved members.
Next, let us carefully analyze some words in verse 17. Although the words is come and the words it ... begin in the phrase if it begin at us are not part of the verse, the words must begin are. The words must begin, that in English seem to allude to a present or future time, are actually in the aorist tense. The aorist tense refers to an event began in the past with current effects. The idea is let me tell you about something that has happened in the past and continues to be part of a Christians life. Whatever the verse is talking about, it is not an event unique to the end of time.
Furthermore, the word at in the phrase at the house of God is really the word (apo) that means away from. It always means away from without exception. The judgment is not directed toward (pros) the house, as if it were the target of the judgment. The judgment is not placed upon (epi) the house, as if the house must bear the judgment. The judgment issues away from the house into the world. Therefore the second idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 tells us that judgment issues forth away from the house of God, away from true believers because it has been the time for that to happen. In addition to that, the phrase if it first began at us also uses the word away from (a different form of apo) for the word at, with the proper meaning of, but if first away from us.
The proper understanding of the word at is dramatically clear in Luke 24:47, where it says repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. That was clarified in Acts 1:8. The Gospel of judgment and grace was at first directed to the Jews in Jerusalem, just as the complete Gospel is part of the message of the church to itself throughout its history and today, in sermon and song. But that Gospel goes out, away from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth, just as the Gospel is proclaimed by faithful churches today.
Putting all of this together, we can come up with the following understanding of I Peter 4:17. The time is now, and has been for a while already, that judgment goes away from the believers out into the world. When does this happen? As this passage itself tells us in verse 11, if any man speak, let him speak the oracles of God. In other words, it is because true believers bring a message of judgment, in faithful obedience to God, that the fiery trial comes to them (verse 12), inasmuch as the unbelievers hate that message and persecute anyone who brings it. Verse 17 continues to ask, if that message first comes out of us to the world, what will happen to those people who do not obey the Gospel message that comes out of us? The answer, of course, is that they will be judged.
THE IDEA: This verse teaches that God will release His restraint upon all unsaved people of the world, including the ones in the church. But other verses show He will never abandon his people, wherever they happen to be.
II Thessalonians 2:7 states, For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. At that time, iniquity already was working. Iniquity is called a mystery because the work of iniquity is not understood by a person unless God reveals it to him. God alone reveals who is who is doing it and what exactly he his doing. Then Paul states that someone letteth or restrains, with the assumption that the restraint is upon iniquity. From Genesis 20:6 we see that God restrains and we see that He restrains iniquity in all men, saved and unsaved as well. The last part of II Thessalonians 2:7 tells us the restraint continues until he be taken out of the way (or more accurately, be out of the midst).
Some people compare this verse to Matthew 18:20, that also uses the word midst. They conclude that eventually God will leave all churches and sin will grow unchecked. That is, they say Jesus will no longer be in the midst of two or three people who gather in His name in a church. Some even say that if two or three gather in a church, it is likely they are not believers.
However, Matthew 18:20 is not the only place where the word midst is used. We could just as well compare Thessalonians to II Corinthians 6:17 that identifies midst with infidels or unbelievers in contrast to the temple of God, or to Philippians 2:15 that identifies midst with a crooked and perverse nation in contrast to the sons of God. Then we could say that God removes Himself and His restraint upon sin from unbelievers, rather than from true believers as a church.
Secondly, the audience that heard Jesus in Matthew 18:20 is the same that heard Jesus in Matthew 28:20 where He states, Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. The words end of the world are sometimes understood as end of the age. Nevertheless they are used in Matthew 13:40 to refer to the end of the universe and judgment day. So, in Matthew 18:20, Jesus promises that He will never leave His people, those who are really His and so are faithful. For support of that conclusion, notice the promise of Hebrews 13:5, Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. That promise was given to people who were an organized church (Heb. 13:17).
Thirdly, the warning of II Thessalonians 2 is very specific. The character of apostasy will be Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders (II Thess 2:9). That is, the warning is not that God will leave a church that is faithful in many things, especially about the Gospel of grace, but has a wrong view of some other doctrine or practice. The threat is directed toward a church looking for special signs beyond the Gospel. Such a church is in control of unbelievers and certainly will be abandoned by God. Again, many churches are going bad, but there is nothing in this chapter that forces us to conclude all churches will, or that God will abandon all churches.
In fact, in keeping with Gods promise, we read in II Thessalonians 2:13,14 that many of the readers of this letter, who were members of that local church, were saved. There always are a some people who remain faithful because they are chosen to salvation. The believers in Thessalonica had the promise that God would never leave them, even though they were part of the church. That promise is true and applies today, as then. People who are saved have the same promise, if they are in or out of a church.
As a final comment, if we take the view that the words he who now letteth will let mean that God restrains sin in people, including churches, then we must say that the next phrase, until he be taken out of the way refers to the removal of that restraint upon sin. Therefore, if Jesus has left all churches, we should see churches that have been faithful rapidly changing so that they display an abundance of sin. Any yet we do not see that at all. Many churches that were reasonably faithful 10 or 15 years ago are not suddenly now full of sin. In fact, they are seeking to be more faithful. So, by the evidence as well, we can say that the Lord has not left all churches. That is, is not correct to say that the words he who now letteth will let refers to sin, but then say the words until he be taken out of the way refers to errors of doctrine and not behavior, in order to interpret the evidence in a way that supports the premise that Jesus has abandoned all churches. The evidence does not support that notion at all.
A congregation is either faithful because those in control trust in the grace of God alone for salvation, as described in His Word, or it is not faithful because those in control do not believe that. The actual performance of the congregation is the product of Gods work in the lives of its members (Phil. 2:13). If it is a faithful congregation it still is imperfect in doctrine and practice. It is growing in grace over time. But it is never judged, because true believers are not judged. If it is not a faithful congregation, it is sin dominated and not blessed by Gods spiritual care. Then it will be judged, because the members are not saved.
One troublesome thing about the notion that all churches are dead based upon their sins of doctrine of practice is that such a notion contradicts a fundamental teaching of the Bible concerning how God thinks about His people. In Romans 7:18 we read, For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. According to this verse, individual true believers and therefore a congregation of true believers, that is, one in which true believers are in charge, have many sins of which they are plagued. God knows that, for they are His children (Psalm 103:10-14). In Romans 7:25 we read, I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. According to this verse, individual true believers and therefore a congregation of true believers, that is, one in which true believers are in charge, continue to have sins all their lives but serve God in the inner man. God knows that too. It is His way. The idea is that a saved individual and a congregation in control of saved individuals live by faith and not performance. Anything else is a gospel of works. We hasten to add that saved people individually or collectively seek to obey and can obey in many (though not all) cases (Rom. 8). But their thinking (doctrine) and performance will never be without sin.
Another problem with the notion that all churches are dead based upon their sins of doctrines or practices is that it contradicts the fundamental teaching of the Bible of how God works with His people. In Ephesians 5:25-27 we read, Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. Also, in Colossians 3:19, Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. From these verses we see that Jesus thinks about and treats His saved people individually and collectively (when saved people are in control of a congregation) as a husband does his wife. As an ideal husband, He understands her weakness, working to sanctify her. But He never completes the job in this side of eternity. In fact, it is not His plan to complete the job before the end of the world. Also, He does not judge her for the sins she still commits. The reason is that He has taken care of punishment in His atonement. Of course there are individuals and churches that go apostate, with grievous sins, because they were never saved. But that is not the normal situation for true believers that we are talking about here. An individual or a congregation under the control of saved people can have sins of doctrine and practice, in fact will have. And God works to sanctify it all the time they are on the earth, because He loves His people. He does not destroy them for their sins. Otherwise the atonement would mean nothing or would depend upon their performance. That again would be a gospel of works.
Sinless perfection is not Gods expectation on this side of eternity nor is it the proper expectation of saved people, as we read in Romans 7. Any teaching that a saved individual person or congregation under he control of saved individual people could be perfectly faithful, without sin, is based upon a gospel of works rather than grace. Any teaching that God will judge a saved individual person or congregation under he control of saved individuals, because they have some errors, is also a gospel of works. That is, a saved individuals right stand before God is based 100% upon the work of God and is not dependent in any way on his performance before or after he is saved. However, we must hasten to add that someone who is saved does conform more to Gods will after he is saved than before he was saved, as we read in Romans 8, although never perfectly or even closely matching Gods perfection. Similarly, a congregation that is under the control of saved people is more faithful than one that is not, even though its faithfulness is not its own, but is the faithful work of God through the individuals of that congregation.
As time approaches the end of the world, the Bible teaches apostasy will increase (II Timothy 2). More and more congregations will become apostate as they become under the control of unsaved people. Yet not all will. The Bible also teaches that God always has His remnant (Rom. 9:27, 11:5,6).
When there are few saved people in a congregation or when the congregation is not in the control of saved people, it soon becomes apostate. But the congregations that are under the control of believers are faithful in the eyes of God. We say that for two reasons. First of all, they are faithful in the sense that God sees the individuals in those churches through the merits of Jesus.
Believers are faithful in principle because Jesus died for the sins of those who are saved. Secondly, they are faithful in the sense that they show themselves faithful as God works in the individual members to do His will in many but not all situations, otherwise they would not be saved at all. Believers are faithful in practice as God gives them grace to turn from their sins.
Some people compare todays churches to the time of Jeremiah and say that as Jerusalem was destroyed so will be all the churches today, without exception. Yet God has always had a remnant. Jeremiah mentions the exceptions to the general apostasy. Jeremiah 35:17 says that all individuals have not heard. By itself, that statement seems to apply to everybody. However, it is a general statement that does not apply 100% to all the people, for Jeremiah 35:18,19 show that there were still some believers. That is a pattern we see throughout Scripture. For example, I Corinthians 3:3, without qualification or distinction, states that the members were carnal, and carnal means someone who acts like an unbeliever, controlled by the flesh. But from other verses we know that did not apply to all. Some Corinthians were saved, not carnal (I Cor. 1:4-6).
It is true that churches are going apostate right and left, as are many ministries not related to a church. It is wise under these circumstances for every true believer to examine the congregation which he attends and the ministry he supports, both to be sure that it is faithful and to be sure his own trust is not in the church or the ministry, but in Jesus.
Many churches will become apostate because there are unsaved individuals in them who take control. That is part of the tribulation throughout time. We should note that. We can decide that it may be unwise to join a particular church. But the Bible tells us there is always a remnant. Either people will have to leave the local congregation they attend because it is too far from the truth. Or if it is reasonably faithful because faithful people are in charge, they can continue as an isolated congregation. I say reasonably faithful because never are groups perfectly correct in all aspects. To assume and expect that is an attitude of a works-gospel. That is, we must be careful when contemplating leaving a church because some ideas they hold do not square with the Bible. All churches throughout time were like that, some better and some worse than others. To leave a church without warrant is disobedience.
There are misleading, archaic and outright mistaken statements in the written confessions of all churches. After all, the confessions are not the Bible, nor are they claimed to be. However, the issue is not really whether they have any errors or not. For one thing, the errors have been there for many years and only recently are the errors used as a reason to abandon the church. Secondly, the issue in the minds of people who claim that church his dead is not whether a church has wrong confessions or has any other sins. The reason we say that is, in a couple of cases, those people were in control of a congregation and had the authority to make any changes they wanted. Yet they dissolved the congregation anyway. Therefore, the motivation to disband had to be that they thought it was Gods plan dissolve the church because it was time to do so. That is, it was according to Gods schedule or clock. Underlining their actions is their belief that there is a date for the timing of increased apostasy and Jesus return
As to the errors in the confessions which some people claim are sources of Gods anger and the reasons why He sets aside the organized churches, we can make the following observations.
There certainly are errors in the various church confessions, for they are human documents. And it is a blessing to be reminded to trust in the Bible and not in human documents. But we must point out that the documents were written several hundred years ago. The language has changed and the words they used often have a different meaning or implication today. In addition, the authors had different perspectives and problems than we have today. It is easy to ascribe to those men a wrong idea of the Bible when, under a more careful analysis, it turns out that the original writers did not have that wrong teaching in mind at all. That is, we must not claim that the writers of the creeds meant one thing when in fact they wrote many years ago and did not believe what they are accused of saying. For example, when we examine the phrase faith is an instrument in the documents, we find that the writers did not say faith is a faculty that people exercise to become saved. The documents can be shown to teach that faith is Gods, which He imparts to His people, in keeping with a verse like Philippians 1:29. That is, the intent of the confession is to teach faith is Gods instrument, by which He applies His work of atonement to a persons soul.
In addition to that, we cannot ascribe to a church or pastor a loyalty to a confession that they do not have. Conforming to a confession is many times a statement of general agreement with other like churches when in fact on particular points the church or pastor may and often does disagree with the confession. For example, there are many pastors who use the word seal in reference to the observance of baptism in agreement with a confession, but they do not mean people are guaranteed salvation as some people accuse them of thinking. That is, they take the word seal as a comment upon what God does when He saves someone. His work seals people because His work of salvation is certain and sure. Water baptism is only a picture of what God does when He saves a person, but the actual baptism of an individual does not mean that particular person is saved. It is just that if he is saved, the ceremony tells us it is God who seals him.
THE IDEA: This verse teaches that the same God who was merciful to His people in the past is merciful to His people today.
There is a claim that Hebrews 13:8, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever, teaches the church of today is destroyed because God, who destroyed national Israel in the Old Testament era, is the same God who will destroy the church in the New Testament era. But that application is not taught in this verse.
For one thing, the subject of judgment upon the church is not discussed in the Hebrews passage. In fact, in the previous verse, God is supporting and validating faithful church leadership. That is, we must remember our church leaders because Jesus is the same foundation for all believers and expects His people to follow the leaders faithful example.
For another thing, if we wished to pull a verse from some other place in the Bible to highlight the message of Hebrews 13:8, we could just as well focus upon Malachi 3:6 that says, For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. Notice that it says the same thing as Hebrews 13:8 but in this case it also gives an application, the opposite one that is proposed by people who teach the church is dead. Malachi teaches that God is the same because He is always faithful to His people. God is faithful to His people, those who truly are His people, both individually and as they meet together as a congregation and are in control of that congregation.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
THE IDEA: These verses teach that the command to observe the Lords supper and the office of pastor and evangelist will continue until the end of time. From these verses, the activities and structure of the church continue to the end. That means the church will too.
I Corinthians 11:26 commands us to continue to observe this memorial as often or as in verse 25, as oft. The word translated as often is used only here and in Revelation 11:6. It does not specify how frequently we must observe. But, it never means zero times. The clear command is till he come, without modification.
Ephesians 4:11 lists the gifts of leadership given to the church. Some were done away soon after the Bible was completed, such as apostles and prophets. But some continued long after that time, such as pastors and teachers, that is, men who lead a local church. In verses 13 and 14 we learn that the gift would continue till we all come ... unto a perfect man, unto ... the fulness of Christ. The fulness is the completion of Gods plan, as we see the word used in Romans 11:12 and 25. That happens when Jesus comes again at the end of time.
Some people say, Yes the Bible does seem to say that the Lords Supper and the church offices continue, but the Bible said that about other laws and then cut them off anyway. They point to the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament that were commanded to be forever and then were abrogated when Israel was captured by the Babylonians.
For one thing, the Bible was right. The phrase forever in regard to the ceremonial laws did not need modification because it meant forever, inasmuch as the laws were fulfilled and continue in Christ. So in a real sense they were not extinguished. For example, Jesus is the Passover forever (I Cor. 5:7). God never intended ceremonial laws to physically continue because they continued in Jesus when He came and fulfilled them.
For another thing, we can consider the nature of baptism and the Lords Supper. These New Testament observances are reminders and nothing more. We cannot make them to be more important than God makes them to be. We must remember that the Old Testament ceremonial laws pointed to the coming Redeemer and were fulfilled, so their physical obligations were put aside. After Jesus fulfilled those laws, He would not add two new ceremonial laws. There are no verses in the Bible that tell us that He did. Not one. The New Testament observances, or for a better name, remembrances, testified that Jesus had finished everything. They were like memorials to a finished task. They were not ceremonial laws in any sense, not in any obligatory sense as a law is, even though God expects us to observe them as often as it works out that we are able. They are part of a Christians witness to the world of what God has done for people in His Son and what He can do to people by His Spirit.
THE IDEA: These verses tell us that there were some in the church who brought wrong teaching. Pauls solution was to challenging and correcting the wrong teaching of some in the church. Paul was not going to eliminate the whole church for the sin of some.
II Corinthians 10:5,6 is used to support the notion that God will destroy all churches because of their high places or errors of doctrine and practice. The key to understanding these verses is found in the word some found in verse 2. Paul was bringing a correction to oppose the wrong things some, not all, were teaching. The word war in verse 3 refers to Pauls conflict with some people in the church. Chapter 10 is part of Pauls instructions how to deal with some in the church so that the rest in the church could be obedient. That is, some in the church were teaching the truth but the rest were not. The solution to a problem with some was to correct the church, not to eliminate it, just as the solution to a disease is to remove the infection, not kill the patient.
The words bringing into captivity are 3rd person plural, referring to what Paul and Timothy would do. In verse 6, the words having (3rd person plural) ... to revenge refer to Paul and Timothy. In II Corinthians 10:5,6, as well as verses 3 and 4, the words we and our, refer to Paul and Timothy (II Cor. 1:1). Because the verbs are 3rd person plural, they relate, not to God alone, but also to Paul and Timothy, through whom He worked. The idea is that Paul and Timothy heard of problems in the church, but delayed going there and wrote letters instead (II Cor. 2:3). The verses are not about God coming to judge at the end of time.
The words when your obedience is fulfilled refer to the time that Paul would return to Corinth. They do not refer to the end of time. The words when your obedience is fulfilled refer back to II Corinthians 1:23 - 2:1. The word obedience in II Corinthians 10:6 is related to the word obedient in II Corinthians 2:9. Paul was going to rebuke some who were a problem in the church, but he wanted the faithful members to forgive those who were contrite. Paul waited until the faithful members had obeyed his command expressed in II Corinthians 2:7,8. The idea is that the members of the church had to resolve problems among themselves before Paul would put his oar in and start bringing words of revenge, that is, Gods word of rebuke. II Corinthians 10 is about the church policing itself by means of the leaders counseling the members according to the word of God. It is not about judgment at the last day. Notice in II Corinthians 10:3-6 that Paul wanted to go but he didnt want to speak sternly until the members of the church first had a chance to read the letters and change some things. We must understand that the conflict mentioned here is not related to the end of time, as the words in verse 6 have been taken. They do not refer to Gods judgment upon the whole church in general for its apostasy.
THE IDEA: The verse emphasizes the obligation all believers have to faithfully attend church, especially as the end of the world approaches.
The claim that Hebrews 10:25 commands true believers to assemble on Sunday in a different kind of organization, that is, in an unorganized group meeting, without the church structure, is not supported by the Bible. First of all, the context of Hebrews, both in the beginning of the letter (Heb.2:12) and at the end (Heb.13:17) is about an organized church. We have no support for insisting that a verse in-between is not about the same organization. There is nothing said about some other kind of organization.
Secondly, the word assembling is found only one other place, II Thessalonians 2:1. That is hardly a basis for making a dogmatic statement. Even if, as it is claimed, the word refers only to the elect, we can also make the same claim for the word church as it appears in Hebrews 2:12. The reason is that the word church is linked to the words my brethren, or as verse 13 states, the children which God hath given me (John 17:2).
Hebrews 10:25 has a natural understanding that believers are not to be loners, depending upon their own wisdom and resources to remain faithful. Believers need to reinforce and assist each other in a congregation.
Matthew 24:36 states, But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only, in which the word day, from the context, is the day of Jesus return at the end of time (Matt. 24:42). The claim is that this verse only limits mens knowledge of or about (as the Greek word peri means) the day of Jesus return. The idea is that the verse teaches men cannot know the nature of Jesus return, or have not personally experienced that day, but it does not prohibit people from knowing precisely when the day will be.
To be fair, verse 36 is neutral. It does not prohibit or encourage people from knowing when Jesus will return. However, as we go on in Matthew 24, we see that Jesus makes the limit upon mens knowledge clearer. In verse 42, He shows that He is not referring to the nature of the day, but to timing of the day. Surprisingly, the verse says your Lord. That is, people for whom Jesus is their Lord do not know what hour Jesus comes. Also, according to verse 44, if people think they know when Jesus day is, they are wrong. It will be in an hour they think not.
Jesus says in verse 44, instead of thinking about the time of the end, people should be concerned about being ready. Verses 45 and 46 gives us three things to think about as people seek to be ready. They must think about being faithful, wise and so doing.
Matthew 25 explains in more detail. Matthew 25:1-13 tell us that to be wise (verse 2) is to be ready for the marriage, or to be saved. Matthew 25:14-30 tells us that to be faithful (verse 23) means to use the talents given by God for spiritual profit. Matthew 25:31-46 tells us that to be so doing (verse 40) means to bring the Gospel to others.
The limitation upon mens knowledge of the timing of Jesus return is clearly stated in Acts 1:7. There we read, And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.
I Thessalonians 5:4 states, But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that day should overtake you as a thief. Sometimes that verse is used to support the claim that unlike unbelievers, true believers will know the timing of Jesus return, not in general but precisely. However, that verse does not say true believers will know the time in contrast to the unbelievers who are asleep (verse 6). In fact, it does not say anything about the time of the end. It is simply an encouragement that believers will be ready for Jesus return. A thief does not disclose the time of his entrance. But for someone who is alert, it does not matter. He is ready.
It is true that Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). But that verse means God tells He people what He will do. It is not a guarantee that God tells His people when He will do it. So a focus upon the timing of Jesus return is a focus off of the more important thing, the Gospel.
The word rendered latter rain is used sparingly in the Bible, only six times in the Old Testament. There is only one reference in the New Testament. That the term is not an end-time reference is clear from two facts. One is that it is linked to the term first (Deut. 11:14) or former (Hosea 6:3) rain. And the former rain is the beginning of the harvest, which if anything is the beginning of gathering people into the kingdom of God, not the end. But another more dramatic fact is in Joel 2:23. There God promises the latter rain in the context of verse 28 -32 that predicts the events of Pentecost, or the beginning of the harvest of souls during the New Testament times.
It is important to notice that in verse 32 we see that throughout the Gospel proclamation the harvest always would be only a remnant. That is, at all times the amount of people being saved, as today, is only a small part of the total population, despite the apparent large amount of people who seem to respond to the Gospel. So we cannot say that and the end, when churches fall away, all churches are falling away because there has only been a remnant and those that fall away are just showing their true colors. Many that fall away were not really true in the first place, while the remnant continue faithful to the end. After all, in Zechariah 10:1, another of the few references to the latter rain the promise is in the context that, although leaders will go apostate (verse 3), God will continue to bless His house of Judah (verse 6). That is, the Jewish leaders abandoned the flock but Jesus came to save the house of Joseph because He is the Savior.
As to the references that the latter rain will be withheld due to disobedience, as in Deuteronomy 11:4 or Jeremiah 3:3, we know that Gods blessing does not come in response to any effort of man. So the call must the normal admonition of the law that brings our sins to mind to turn us to seek mercy in Jesus, as we read in Galatians 3.
Some people, who wonder about the issue of a dead church and who continue to seek wisdom before they decide, have been challenged to abandon reasoning, to just accept the notion of a dead church and all will become clear in time. People who are not willing to conform to the notion of a dead church but continue to study the question have been compared to the unbelieving Jews of Acts 28:29 who reasoned among themselves. But that is a totally wrong application of that verse. For one thing, it is correct to warn someone to avoid human reasoning, as Acts 28:29 states, among themselves. But it is wrong to discourage people to reason, to say, just believe. The Bible itself gives us the example of the Bereans (Acts 17:10,11) and the command to study the Bible (John 5:39, II Tim 2:15). We are called to believe what is true, and that is what God teaches us through His Word. We are not called to believe without question what someone teaches. In fact, those who criticize others for not abandoning the church, because they are still reasoning, have arrived at their own ideas and scenarios through their own reasoning, so how can they advise others to do less?
An historical or a prophetic passage that contains a picture of a spiritual reality has many parts. Not all parts of the picture are necessarily relevant. For example, when Jesus is called the lamb of God, it has nothing to do with the personality of a lamb, such as it stubbornness or timidity, and nothing to do with its physical features, such as its wool. The third of comparison is the lamb as an Old Testament sacrifice. So when we look at the shadows and types in Old Testament stories we must be sure we are making the right comparison.
There is only one way to be sure that we are making the correct comparison. We know for sure what God is teaching when we read the direct, explicit statements in the Bible. Pictures and obscure prophesies can be supportive and illustrations of direct statements, but only supports and illustrations. We cannot present commands and doctrines based upon shadows alone. While it may be proper to seek a spiritual or gospel message in historical passages, that message must exist as an explicit statement somewhere else in the Bible. That is, we cannot trust a doctrine that is based solely or primarily upon an analogy. An analogy is subject to human judgment and must be guided by explicit statements found elsewhere. The connection between the picture and reality is easily subject to the imagination of the person analyzing the picture. When a teacher presents a message that contradicts the direct statements in the Bible, he has abused the use of analogy.
Because of the primacy of direct statements in the Bible, it is not necessary or wise to answer every idea that comes down the road based upon an analogy or a difficult passage. It is sufficient to know if a teaching contradicts a direct statement of the Bible to judge its validity. It is not necessary to analyze all of a teachings complexities. That is why the histories and prophesies are not analyzed here.
It has been claimed that Revelation 7:8, based upon the word after, splits the chapter into before and after the dead church time. However, the word after is the same as it appears in Revelation 4:1. Dispensationalists use the words after to claim that Revelation 4:1 describes a new program by God on earth after He raptures the church, for they claim that the word after refers to a succeeding chapter in Gods program. But that is not so. Revelation 4:1 is not a different plan of God but a different look at the same plan. That is, it is another vision that explains something new about the same plan of God explained in all the other passages. The church as not disappeared from Revelation after chapter 3, for we see it again in Revelation 11:4. The word after in Revelation 7:8 must be looked in the same way. That is, Revelation 7:8 does not necessarily begin a description of a change in Gods plan but is likely another vision of the same plan. Notice that the white robes of people mentioned in Revelation 7:13,14 are also found in Revelation 3:4,18 as believers in a church. So, the verses before and after concern the believers, members of Gods church.
The word they in verse 7 is, according to verse 4, the two olive trees and the two candlesticks. Revelation 1:20 is a direct statement that identifies candlesticks with churches. To say that their testimony is finished and that the beast shall overcome and kill them implies that churches will no longer have a role in bringing the Gospel because they are dead. But, as we discussed in the section entitled All or most, we cannot say from this passage if the death of the two witnesses refers to all apostate churches or all churches, including faithful ones.
Also, verse 11 states they stood upon their feet. The antecedent of the pronoun they must be the same as the word they in verses 7, which refers back to the candlesticks of verse 4. So if we adopt the scenario that the church is dead from verse 7, then verse 11 must teach that the church will stand once again. According to verse 12, they are called to heaven. That means they are the true believers only, and so the words two olive trees and two candlesticks in verse 4 refer to true believers or as the verse states they stand before the God of the earth. If that is so, then the words finished their testimony and killed means the true believers somehow no longer bring the Gospel. But that happens at the last day, at the time of the rapture. That is, the chapter must be talking about the very end of the world rather than a unique space of time in which the church is dead.
The words him to make war with the saints and to overcome them (that is, the saints) in verse 7 imply that the saints are dead. If the saints represent churches, then again, as we discussed in the section entitled All or most, we cannot say from this passage if the death of the saints to all apostate churches or all churches, including faithful ones. Or if the saints represent true believers, then they cant be overcome in the sense that they become apostate or that they are judged for apostasy, for Jesus says they are kept in the Fathers hand (John 10:4,5,27,28). Instead, it must imply their work on earth in done and the end has come.
This chapter adds a few details of the kind of attack the saints can expect to endure, namely miracles (verse 14). As in Matthew 24:24, the specific warning of seeking signs is in view, rather than any kind of error of doctrine or practice (II Thess. 2:4,9). It is true that if a particular church holds tenaciously to errors of doctrine and practice, we may wonder about their understanding of salvation. Errors in doctrine of any kind will effect a view of salvation. But, there always is a remnant. There are true believers who are able to congregate together as a church and some who cannot.
It is always been question why only a few or really one person has taught the details of the events of the end of time, including the notion of a dead church, and no one else has independently arrived at a similar scenario. Some teachers have claimed they have been able to open the seals to understand the events at the end of time, that were sealed before. Those teachers claim to have been given the wisdom to open the seals in order to understand the mysteries of the end. The idea is that such wisdom was hidden before and now it was made known to them. But according to Revelation 5:5, Jesus alone can open the seals. Jesus is the teacher of all believers and all believers would be able to see these things (I Cor. 2). If new things were to be revealed at the end, what would be our guide to test if the new information is true? The last book of the Bible claims to be the revelation of Jesus, both from the point of view that it reveals Him as a person and from the point of view that He is the one who reveals truth to others. But from either point of view, what was sealed and now open and available is what we read in the Bible and so is what all believers know through their study of the Bible.
Tom Schaff was one of Bible Instructors at Family Radio.
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