Preparing the Church for the Return of Jesus
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CHAPTER 2: BLESSING AND PURIFICATION
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials. James 1:2
It is an amazing story. After World War II Mennonite missionaries were active in Ethiopia, and one of the results of their efforts was the start of the Meserete Kristos (Christ is the Foundation) Church. The first believers were baptized in 1952, and the church continued to grow. Eventually the missionaries handed the administration of the church over to the Ethiopians.
In 1974 a Marxist government took power in the country, and in 1982 the government outlawed the church. At that time they had 5000 members, and the government seized all their properties and closed the church. The leaders were imprisoned and most of the missionaries left the country. It was a time of fear.
At the celebration of their 50th anniversary in 2002, Kassa Agafari, the pastoral secretary of Meserete Kristos, recalled that time. When the church was closed and the missionaries left, we felt like the Israelites when the ark was captured by the PhilistinesIchabodthe glory has departed. We wondered if MKC would die.
Kassa Agafari continued. When the church was closed, only those who had died to self came to us. They didnt fear for their lives. They were like grains of wheat in the ground. God purified us. He gave us new vision and zeal.
Religious freedom was restored in 1991 after the Marxists were ousted. When the believers again assembled, Meserete Kristos discovered that they numbered 50,000! They had grown ten-fold in the nine years of persecution. As of their jubilee celebration the church had 264 congregations, 584 church planting centers, a faith community of 178,622 people throughout the nation, and over 88,000 baptized believers.1
Tribulation and Blessing
There is a belief among Christians in the United States and Europe that it is almost their right not to suffer real tribulation. Tribulation comes at the hands of governments, and few Christians have suffered real persecution in Western democracies for hundreds of years. Yet in many countries of the world Christians are subjected daily to tribulation for their belief. Furthermore, Jesus made it plain that we will be blessed when we do suffer persecution for His names sake. (Matthew 5:11-12)
It has become a popular teaching that the church will be removed from the earth prior to all of what Jesus warned His disciples would happen. This false teaching would have us believe that we will not suffer under the one we call the Antichrist. However, one can make the case that if believers were not to suffer tribulation under the Antichrist, there would be no need for Jesus to make such a major issue of this in Matthew 24:15-21.
Those who teach that the church will be removed prior to these events do so because they know that believers will never experience the wrath and judgment of God. It is true that as believers we have been saved and delivered from Gods judgment, and as such we will never experience His wrath.
It is important to understand, however, that the tribulation spoken of by Jesus here is not Gods wrath. According to Revelation 12:13 the tribulation is the wrath of Satan, and not the wrath of God. This point cannot be overstressed. As recorded in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught His followers that it is a blessing to experience the wrath of Satan in the form of persecution. Tribulation and trials in the life of the believer are not Gods punishment, but rather His blessing.
I recently came upon a fascinating quotation by Dennis Balcombe as he was visiting brothers and sisters in Christ in China.
[A brother in China] stood up in the meeting and began to share about what had happened in prison. Everyone began to weep and I at first thought they felt bad for the suffering he had to endure. Then I heard people saying, Lord, how blessed he is that he can suffer for you. Oh, that You would allow me the same privilege. I realized they were all envious of this believer, for he was especially chosen of the Lord for this honour.2
What a different attitude than the typical western Christian!
It is part of our lifestyle that we, as saints, are to have joy. It is one of the fruits of living in the spirit. However, there is a special joy for those who are faithful in tribulation. It is like the joy that an athlete, who has been tested to the limit of his endurance and wins, has as he stands on the podium and receives the gold medal. That is why James could write to the believers, Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
Tribulation and Purification
Much of the Old Testament is a record of how Israel was unfaithful to God, and God occasionally allowed Israels enemies to defeat her in order to purify her and bring her back to Himself. When things had deteriorated so far that there seemed to be no returning, God allowed the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and deport the people to Babylon. God used godless people to purify His people.
It is going to be the same with the church. The Bible testifies that the church is being prepared as a bride for Jesus. In Ephesians Paul writes that Jesus is going to present Himself with a bride.
That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, have no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:27)
There are few today who would argue that the church in America or anywhere else is pure and blameless. We often look the other way at sin and excuse immoral behavior, even in church leaders. Yet Peter indicates that judgment begins with the household of God. (I Peter 4:17) The church must undergo a process of purification.
The image that the Bible uses to communicate what this process is like is that of the metallurgist who is refining silver. Concerning Israel God says,
But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiners fire and like fullers soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3)
Speaking also of the day of the Lord, Zechariah states
It will come about in all the land, declares
What is true for Israel is also true for the church. As Titus writes,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14, emphasis added)
In the description of the Marriage of the Lamb in Revelation 19 the bride is described as being clothed in fine linen, bright and clean. (vs.8) As Malachi speaks of the fullers soap, the church must go through a process of purification similar to Israel.
The process of refining silver and gold is a long and exacting one. First the ore is placed in a crucible and heated white hot. As the ore melts the more dense metal sinks to the bottom and the impurities, also called dross, float to the surface. The refiner carefully and skillfully skims the impurities from the surface so as to not remove any of the metal. He then makes the fire a little hotter, and more impurities float to the surface so that he can skim them. After doing this several times, each time increasing the temperature of the fire, there are no more impurities, and the surface of the metal looks like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the image of the refiner as he looks at it.
In terms of the church and the children of Israel, the refining fire is persecution and tribulation. Although much of the church worldwide lives under the threat of persecution, the church in the United States and much of the western world has known little of persecution. Although a large percentage of the adult population in the U.S. claims to be born again, it is virtually impossible to know how strong the church really is. As the heat of persecution and tribulation gets turned up many are going to fall away, submitting to the demands of the Antichrist and betraying believers. This is what Paul called the apostasy. It is also the dross floating to the surface.
One of the criticisms that unbelievers often have of Christians is that they are hypocrites. While this is often just an excuse on their part, it is often difficult to see much difference between the world and the church in the behavior of believers. The word Christian means like Christ, but that image is often badly distorted to the world.
As the tribulation increases the church becomes more pure until it finally reflects accurately the face of the Refiner. The great tribulation spoken of by Jesus is not His wrath. Rather it is a time of separating the pure from the dross, the wheat from the chaff.
Surely as things stand now the Bride of Christs garments are not bright and clean. The people of God, both in the church and Israel, must undergo a purifying process before they are ready to receive their King. And it is the Antichrist that God uses to do that.
1African Christianity: A History of the Christian Church in Africa, Ethiopian Protestantism: The Pente Churches in Ethiopia, http://www.bethel.edu/~letnie/AfricanChristianity/EthiopiaProtestantism.html.
Eastern Mennoite MissionsExplore Resources, Meserete Kristos Church celebrates Jubilee, http://www.emm.org/resources/article.cfm?articleID=31
2 Virgo, Terry, Start, Kingsway Publications (Eastbourne, UK) 1988, p. 178.