The Church in All Her Glory
In the Western world at least, the glory of the church seems to be fading fast. Far from those days when her influence was far-reaching and wide-ranging, her values and opinions respected and her numbers strong; she has become the object of public ridicule and, too often, seen as the great irrelevance. It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that Christians and even Christian ministers are tempted to keep their church affiliation and involvement to themselves. These are challenging times for many churches.
The answer to such discouragement is not simply to seek solace in the fact the church is thriving in many other parts of the world – even surprising regions like China and parts of the Middle East – but to look at Scripture. Because there we not only find a theology of church, but find its history traced from its earliest beginnings in the Garden of Eden and its portrait painted, in Cromwell’s words, ‘warts and all’.
As we follow the unfolding history of the church and explore the details of how it is portrayed – in its worst seasons, as well as the best – we discover the kind of insights and doctrinal markers that give us a true perspective on this body to which we belong. And often it is in unexpected places that we find the greatest possible encouragement.
This is especially true when we explore the church of Israel in some of her darkest times in the Old Testament. There were certainly chapters in the history of the church under its Old Covenant administration when its future seemed very bleak. The days of the Judges were an obvious example of this, as too were the 400-year ‘Dark Ages’ between the Testaments. But even in the darkest times, the lights never went out. In keeping with God’s promise to Abraham, his determination to bless the nations through the blessings of salvation he bestowed on Israel would not be thwarted.
Some of the most encouraging insights into the nature and destiny of the church found anywhere in the Bible emerge from the prophecy of Isaiah. He, like the other Major Prophets, was called to serve in some of the most difficult times God’s Ancient People ever went through. It was era of the two-stage disintegration of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, culminating in the permanent diaspora of the North, then by the 70-year exile of the South. And, even when the restoration took place under Ezra and Nehemiah, the Southern Kingdom never regained its former glory, stability or spiritual strength.
It would be tempting, therefore, to think that God’s message through these great preacher-theologians would have been one of unremitting condemnation. And, although this was true in a very real sense – Isaiah especially has great swathes that are filled with foreboding – nevertheless, the weight of grace and gospel interwoven into them is quite extraordinary. Indeed, it is perhaps especially because these glimpses of salvation are set against some of the darkest backdrops found anywhere in Scripture that they stand out so brightly.
There are many examples of this, but one stands out especially. It is found in Isaiah 60 and is striking because it comes hard on the heels of two entire chapters in which God confronts his people with a catalogue of their sins and failures and reminds them of what they deserve. And, even though they are not completely devoid of hope, it would have been despair that loomed largest on the horizon for their original audience.
If there seemed to be anything for these people to cling on to in face of God’s words to them in that section, it would perhaps have been the idea of ‘a remnant’ – scrap of cloth hanging on by a thread – that God said would survive. But God had far more in mind for them in terms of where future lay: a future that would stretch far beyond their wildest expectations. A future bound up with the greatest glory imaginable.
Astonishingly this had to do with the church’s witness to the world (Isa 60.1-3). These people, who in the previous chapter had said, ‘We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in shadows’ (59.9), were now being told, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.’ More than this, not only would God’s light in all its glory shine on them, but through them it would light up the world. So much so that, ‘Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’.
The dawning of this new day would indeed come when Jesus, ‘the Light of the World’ came into the world and, through him, his people would become the light of the world in a derivative sense (Mt 5.14-16). The full force of this began to become apparent on the Day of Pentecost when the nations came to Jerusalem and brought home the light that came from another world. The aftershocks of Pentecost continue to reverberate through the ages and across the world today.
The prophet builds on this remarkable statement with something even more remarkable: the fact that the church would ultimately become a home for all nations (60.8-14). Once again this seemed to beggar belief for the faithful few Isaiah was addressing. They instinctively thought the opposite. They were about to be torn from their homes and homeland and deported to places where they could never feel ‘at home’. But God informed them differently.
He spoke of just how far the influence of the church would reach: to distant places – some named, others not – and to the fact that even their kings would make their way through the gates of God’s new community (60.8-13). The survey God gave was of the whole known world of that time. More than that, God’s community would become a sanctuary for the entire cross-section of humanity in all its classes as much as the spread of its ethnic groupings. Once more, the fulfilment of these words is seen from the earliest days of the church’s expansion in Acts and has been charted through the history of the church ever since.
Everything Isaiah is saying in this surprising chapter points ultimately to the church as the pride and joy of God’s people through all generations to come (60.15-22). Despite their beleaguered state at the time the words were first spoken, the future would tell a different story. God says, ‘Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no-one travelling through, I will make you an everlasting pride and the joy of all generations’ (60.15). And the reason for this is not because of what the church could ever be in itself; but only through what it has become in union and communion with Christ, God’s promised redeemer. She is loved by God and that love has been displayed most dramatically in the price he has paid to make her his very own.
Indeed, even here in one of the church’s darkest hours, God gives his people a glimpse of the heaven we see at the very end of Revelation where there is no need of sun or moon because God himself will be their light (60.19-20). Even when his people are at their very worst, God will not let them lose sight of the very best he has secured for their eternal future.
Isaiah’s words resonate with the church of our day, because they tally with our own sense of coldness and failure – certainly in many parts of the West. But more so because of the comfort they bring when we are tempted to lose heart. And the key is not to introspect; but, following where the prophet’s finger points, to look out and up to the Saviour-King in whom our future is secure. He is our glory and often he chooses to shine most brightly in the darkest times.