The Church-year is drawing to a close. If it has been a good year, or a busy year for you, it probably seems like it is swiftly drawing to a close. If it has been a difficult or painful year, it may seem like it is dragging its heels, so to speak. Either way, November is here, and at the end of November, on November 27th to be exact, the new Church year begins. Here, at the end of the Church-year, the Church looks at the end of time and the coming judgment.
Of course, we all know that the judgment has already come. That is how we know that these times are the end-times. Judgment Day was the day we call Good Friday. That was the day that our sins were judged and condemned and punished. Jesus died because we sinned. The wrath of God was poured out on Him, and because of that we are all redeemed and forgiven. Yes, every last one of us people - man or woman, young or old; we have been purchased by the death of Jesus and God is pouring out salvation and life and forgiveness upon all of us. Now the judgement of God is plain, and written very large, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that does not believe shall be condemned."
That day which is yet to come is the day when the judgment of God as it applies to each one of us individually is revealed before all of creation. God will raise us all from the grave and give us our bodies back and proclaim before all mankind that His people are this group here, who lived out their true nature and demonstrated that they were His people, and they will receive life eternal in glory and peace and joy. The other group - on that day mankind will be divided into only two groups - will hear the four most horrible words in human history from the lips of the Lord Jesus, "I never knew you." Then they will be sent to the place prepared for those who would not let God rescue them, who had to do it all on their own, who insisted that the world, and even God, follow their way of thinking and doing - or be dismissed and ignored. Their place will be the place of darkness and pain, of "weeping and gnashing of teeth."
In one moment it will be all over. The consequences, however, the things that follow from that one moment, will be forever. One of the things that people say, when they are busy justifying themselves for rejecting the goodness and love of God so freely offered, is, "Why didn't we know? Why were there no forewarnings ? Why didn't God give us some sort of hint?" I tend to think of all of the preaching of Law and Gospel as a sort of warning - but God goes even farther. He illustrates the judgment for us in the Church.
It doesn't do much to help those outside of the Church to do this warning in the Church, but then, those outside of the Church have already made up their minds for the most part. They are the ones who would not be persuaded even if one rose from the dead. The warnings and illustrations are within the Church for the sake of those in the Church who might be tempted with the thought that maybe it isn't coming soon, or maybe the judgment of God isn't going to be as strict or final as it sounds from Scripture. For such people, we have conflict and division within the Church as a sort-of visual aid and illustration of the judgment.
Listen to Scriptures; just two verses, 1 Corinthians 11:18-19: For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.
Now, remember: this is the God who uses human history as illustration. The history of Israel is an object lesson for us. 1 Corinthians 10:11-12: Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. The events God uses to teach us are not fictions or play-acting. They are real events of real consequences to those involved in them. They merely also serve to teach and warn us.
Our modern age is a time of division and controversy in the Church. Every church body has them. It is so prevalent in our age that books have been written and studies done about the modern phenomenon of division in the Church. The fact that there are hundreds of denominations attest to the reality that this division thing has been going on for a long time at a steady pace -- but it seems to be growing much worse. Most congregations have histories of division and strife of some sort. Many pastors have faced hostility and attack from within the flock they have been called to serve, and it is almost always over doctrine.
Paul's words to the Corinthian Christians apply today just as they did in those early days of the Church. When Christians come together as Church, divisions exist among them all too often. Such divisions are not the work of the Holy Spirit. He both desires and creates unity - unity of doctrine, unity of purpose, and unity of spirit and heart. Where division raises its ugly head there is another spirit at work. Such division illustrates the realities of the Church in this world, confronting the corruptions of sin and the constant battle with the flesh which all Christians are facing.
We might be tempted to say that some controversy and division is only natural. And that would be true, but our human nature is sinful and struggles to serve a master other than our Lord. So, while true, it is not an excuse, and while controversy and division seem almost unavoidable, it is nonetheless not a good thing, but rather a distinct evil in our midst. It happens in almost every group, no matter how small or close-knit. We let our opinions and our preferences set us to judging others and finding fault with others. We inevitably find something with which we can take issue when the pastor teaches. We practice criticism more often than we practice patience, forgiveness, forbearance, and humility. Most of it is internal, and we generally know who would be sympathetic to our attitudes if we just have to tell someone. Besides, we tell ourselves, it is nothing serious, and we don't mean anything by it, really.
But that is how it starts. God-willing, we put our hands over our mouths and count our blessings and keep dissension from rising up in our midst. Our experience tells us, however, that dissension will blossom into divisions and factions more often that we want to admit. Those factions and those divisions illustrate the great judgment for us.
Just as all of mankind will one day be divided into those who are approved and those who are not, factions and divisions an disputes in the Church divide the Church into those who are approved and those who are not. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.
Does this mean that every dispute in the Church divides those who are going to heaven from those who are going to hell? No. Not every dispute divides the Church. Disputes vary in intensity and effect, but the sort that divides the congregation - or the Synod - into parties and are often accompanied by uncharitable dealings with one another certainly do. Sadly, the behavior of the parties involved is not always a reliable indicator of which group is "approved" and which group is not. Even Christian can behave badly, at times, and deliberately evil people may behave outwardly in a way that is designed to throw one off their guard - or to impress those not intimately involved in the dispute with their piety. Those involved in doing evil often like to appear holy and decent.
Take, for example, the false teachers on the T.V.. They put on a great show of piety and holiness and intense religious fervor. At the same time they are twisting the Word of God and saying whatever they may need to say for personal gain. Some of them may not know the truth from the lie, to be charitable, but most of them understand that they are teaching contrary to the truths of the faith to which they hope to appeal. The revival preacher follows a time-honored and well-honed sales technique refined for use of the revival service by Dwight Moody, and used with profit by Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, to name a few. Some of these practitioners are absolutely sincere - and some are simply using the most consistently effective approach to fund-raising, ala the fictional Elmer Gantry.
It must be admitted that we cannot always be sure who is right and who is wrong, who is the winner and who is the loser, and who is "approved" and who is not. Hopefully, if we are involved in a dispute or in dissension, we know that we are standing on the Word of God and contending for the truth. If it is not about the truth, it is not worthy of dividing the Church, and we ought to have nothing to do with it. Even then, however, there are times when we cannot help it, for we must stand with the helpless and the innocent when they are attacked - even when the issue is not the Word of God.
We cannot always tell on which side the angels stand because the devil will often dress up as a holy man and deceive us - particularly if we are watching the dispute from the sidelines. The good guys don't always emerge with the apparent victory either. The ultimate victory is always with Christ and those who are His, but in this world the guys in the white hats (so to speak) often take it on the chin, and lose the outward battle, and come in second in the court of public opinion.
Not withstanding all of that, these divisions and dissensions still serve their holy purpose as illustrations of the coming judgment, dividing the approved from those who fall short or utterly reject such approval. The factions in the Church - national or local - remind us that there is a day coming, a judgment in which Christ will separate the sheep from the goats. On that day, there will be surprises. The holy will ask the Lord when they did all those righteous things for which He praises them, and the unholy will ask when they failed to be and do all that they were supposed to be and do. So we should not be surprised if we cannot always evaluate the factions in the Church flawlessly either.
Those who stand on the truth of the Word will always be standing on the side of the "approved". Those who fight for the helpless and defend the innocent will be doing the work of the Lord. Those who fight against them will be the ones who make the approved evident by providing the contrast. You may be tempted at times to wonder - to ask yourself if this dispute or that division is one that requires that some be found approved and some be found wanting. In every case, the answer to that question is ultimately God's responsibility, not ours. I just take Paul's word for it, there must be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you And so the presence of divisions and factions will continue to serve us as a reminder of the coming of the end and of that great day of division, and encourage us to be diligent in the use of the means of grace, and to be careful to stand in the Word of God, that we may also be found evidently among the approved of God.
After all, the end is coming quickly -- both the end of the world, and the end of the Church Year.
Yours in the Lord,
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