The Church: in Service to Humanity

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the November 24, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” Revelation 12:1, NIV

Revelation’s beautiful image of the church is easy to love. It is the image God shares with the Apostle John on the island of Patmos. God loves His church and clothes it with His grace. He has granted to the church the tremendous blessing of proclaiming His grace to the world. This does not mean that He has placed the church in control of events that will unfold in the days ahead. He continues to rule over times and events which are dependent on His wisdom and judgment. Nevertheless, He has chosen to make the church participatory in final events. Like the children of Israel who wandered through the wilderness on route to the Promised Land, we also are guided by God’s hand as we traverse the chaos of these last days. However, just as those desert wanderers were divided in their understanding of what course to follow, we often have two competing paradigms for the church and its purpose. While both paradigms may appear biblical, their results or “fruits” (Matthew 7:20) can be very dissimilar.

Some see the church as a fortress against the corruption and sin of the world. For some of these individuals, the walls of the fortress can never be too high. Putting on the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6), they eagerly mount the battlements, sword of the Word in hand to jab any questionable individual who comes too near. For some this sword is the Bible, for others it is the writings of Ellen White. In either case, those who see themselves in the fortress paradigm use their swords to smite sin wherever they feel it is revealed. With gusto, they thrust forward to the very depth of joints and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). Searching the face for signs of heart ache, they try to determine if they have made a telling and mortal blow against sin. If the person should perish in the process, at least sin will not raise its head a second time. (Nahum 1:9)

Knowing that the world would never tolerate such behavior, these warriors perform much of their work behind the walls of the church. Protected by the fortress they “spare not” (Isaiah 58:1) as they pursue sin in all of its imaginable forms. Although Isaiah 58 is about compassion and mercy, that message is sometimes lost in the fortress paradigm. Too many wounded have eventually found themselves outside the castle walls with no desire to ever return. This is not because they do not love Jesus. Rather it is because they cannot understand His followers or see that love in their actions.

Rarely do the castle’s warriors sally from the fortress. They are too busy cleaning up all the sin inside. Even when they cannot find any remaining visible sin, they continue to watch one another with eagle eye lest some sinful phrase or action might manifest itself in their ranks. On the rare occasions when someone seeks entry to the fortress, even if it is from another fortress, the visitor is closely examined at the gate for signs of a sinful threat. If possible, those signs are ferreted out before entry. But if granted entry, even then, those fortunate few will be watched, perhaps for generations, before they are fully assimilated. Needless to say, population growth is not a problem for these fortresses. In fact, some face issues with population decline. This can be problematic for the fortress.

A proper fortress is expensive to maintain. It requires capital and labor to keep the tower, battlements and gate in good working order. If the population declines too much, the fortress cannot be maintained and must be abandoned. Although the warriors see their primary purpose as fighting sin, they also know there is no honor in losing the castle. Just like secular armies, it sometimes becomes necessary to sacrifice quality for quantity. Through periodic enrollment campaigns, they are forced to invite strangers into the castle in order to fill vacancies in the ranks. While they are nowhere near the standards expected by the warriors, they are nonetheless tolerated as long as they do not flag in their responsibilities and take days off for holidays like Christmas or Easter. Sin is relentless and can even slip in during these occasions. On occasion these recruits fail under scrutiny and are expelled. When that happens there is much agonizing about whether or not the recruits are being properly vetted. Sadly, this is often the only question the warriors ask about their own conduct concerning the failed recruit.

Most individuals probably tend to give these fortresses a wide berth. After all, most of us don’t fancy dropping by the local police station or court for a friendly visit. We are all too conscious of our own sins and shortcomings to want to do that. How much more so if we can be reasonably sure those faults will be assaulted and exploited? No, we need something different to feel comfortable entering the church. We need a paradigm of invitation as opposed to a paradigm of exclusion. Instead of seeing the church primarily as a fortress, maybe we should see it as a hospital.

Many people willingly enter a hospital. They know they have a problem and they want it fixed or at least tended to. Sometimes those treatments can be very difficult. Chemotherapy or surgery is not like putting on a bandage or simply getting a few stitches to close a wound, but because we know we need it, we are willing to undergo even the most painful treatments in hope of a cure. Even amputation becomes acceptable when the situation warrants it. (Matthew 18:8-9) Unlike the castle defender that is constantly seeking hidden sins, the doctor of the hospital paradigm has a much easier time dealing with sin as those afflicted seek him out for treatment of their illness (Matthew 4:23-24). They know that the hospital is all about healing rather than slaying, so they come confidently, even boldly (Hebrews 4:16), seeking treatment.

While fortresses have to be concerned with admitting an adequate number to continue to exist, hospitals never run out of new admittances. Hospitals tend to grow over time as more and more individuals come seeking healing. Those who are healed often encourage their other family members to seek healing there when they need it. Eventually, entire families come to know the hospital and experience its healing.

A fortress is meant to protect those inside from harm, but a hospital is meant to grant access to the most skilled healer there, the Physician. All the other staff persons are there for one over-riding purpose, to enable others to experience healing at the hands of the Physician. They do not do the healing. They know that only the Physician has the understanding and skill to provide complete healing. Humbly they defer to Him and do not interfere with the healing process.

The Physician interacts with every patient. Some require more from Him than others, but to each He gives everything they need for healing. Perhaps the hardest part for these patients is waiting. Healing can take time. Illnesses can take weeks, months, even years to heal. Medical procedures must also be done in the proper order. A patient may ask “Why isn’t the doctor dealing with this problem? It is so obvious. I don’t know why He doesn’t heal it right away.”

However, the Physician may know there is an underlying problem that must be dealt with first or the healing of the obvious one will not last. Some patients must also first be made strong enough to be able to handle a difficult treatment. Without being strengthened first, dealing with the problem could kill them. Other patients may not understand that the obvious problem is only a symptom and not the disease. Once the disease is cured the symptom will disappear on its own. As they come to know the Physician, their trust grows, and they begin to understand these things.

The Physician has only one goal, and that is to heal as many people as He possibly can. He does not want any to continue to be ill. He also wants to comfort them as much as possible during the healing process. Here is where the other hospital workers can play a major role in the healing process as they demonstrate compassion and understanding so that the patients can rest comfortably. The character of the hospital staff helps all the patients to know that they are in caring hands and that even when the Physician is not physically present they can discern His Spirit of healing in their actions. All look forward to that day when they can sit down at a meal together with the Physician with all memory of disease far behind them. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Revelation 21:4, NIV



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