31) An Unstained Remnant (Revelation 3:4-5a)
The last few meditations, I admit, have been somewhat negative in that I have portrayed the plight of the church (both in the first century and in our day) in pessimistic terms. I’m not apologizing for that, in view of the fact that we have explicit biblical warrant from the text in Revelation 2-3.
But it would be a mistake to throw in the towel when it comes to the local church or to conclude that it is irredeemable or that its influence is so minimal as to justify the creation of a new model or new expression for being the people of God.
This, it seems, is what George Barna is suggesting in his book Revolution. He documents the exodus from the local church of countless folk he calls “Revolutionaries”. Finding the local church to be excessively authoritarian, out of touch with the spiritual needs of its members, devoted primarily to its own preservation and comfort, and without much of a witness or influence in the surrounding society, many are simply walking away and allegedly finding satisfaction for their spiritual needs through other expressions of religious life.
I have provided an extensive, three-part review of Barna’s book on my website, http://www.samstorms.com/ (see Book Reviews in the Recommended section), so I won’t repeat myself here. I will, however, say this. Nowhere in these seven letters in Revelation 2-3 does Jesus even remotely suggest that the local church is dispensable. Notwithstanding his promised disciplinary visitation to those congregations that refuse to repent, there is no indication he envisioned his people living out their lives together and pursuing the values and goals of the kingdom of God any other way than through the ministry of the local church.
We see this in his letter to the church at Sardis. As bad as it was, and it was really bad, there were still “a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments” who are promised that they “will walk” with Jesus “in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4).
In a word, there was in the church at Sardis, as there is (most likely) in all churches, a faithful, believing, godly remnant who have refused to compromise their convictions and whom the Lord is determined to bless and favor with his manifest presence and goodness.
Our Lord uses an interesting word in v. 4, declaring that these of the remnant have not “soiled” or “stained” (Gk., moluno) their garments. G. K. Beale believes this term is evidence that the sin of the majority was either idolatry or a decision to suppress their witness by assuming a low profile in idolatrous contexts of the pagan culture in which they had daily interaction. He points out that “soiled” (moluno) is used elsewhere in Revelation for the threat of being polluted by the stain of idolatry (see 14:4,6-9).
I see nothing in this passage or anywhere else in the NT that would lead me to believe that the solution to idolatry or immorality or any other pervasive problem is the abandonment of the local church or the decision to “seek God” via some alternative movement. Yes, sometimes it is necessary to leave a particular local congregation. But this must always be with a view to planting or joining another one. We are not required to remain in a church or denomination that has abandoned the gospel or has seriously compromised its ethical posture or refuses to acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture (although I think, at times, Christians are too quick to leave; church hopping is not a sanctioned biblical sport!). What is clear is that we are not free to ignore the NT witness concerning the necessity of involvement in a community of Christians whose corporate life is consistent with the principles of a local church as found, for example, in the pastoral epistles of Paul.
As bad as it was in Sardis, Jesus does not counsel the faithful few to depart. As I noted in the previous meditation, there’s a slight possibility that our Lord’s exhortation to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (v. 2) is a reference to individual members of the church, making this a call to the faithful few to minister to those who are languishing in spiritual lethargy. Even if not, Jesus envisions them remaining within the church at Sardis and laboring for its renewal.
The reward promised to those who persevere is four-fold, two of which I’ll note briefly here.
First, in v. 4, they will “walk” with Jesus “in white, for they are worthy.” Some see a reference here to the resurrection body, but this is more likely a promise of victory and irrevocable purity both in the intermediate state and in the messianic kingdom when those who have remained faithful will experience the consummation of fellowship with Jesus. The reference to “white” probably refers to the righteousness imputed to us in the act of justification, although we can’t dismiss the possibility that Jesus has in mind the experiential purity of life for which he in v. 4, and elsewhere in these seven letters (cf. Rev. 2:2-3; 2:9-10; 2:13; 2:19; 3:8,10), commends them.
Second, the “overcomer” or “conqueror” will be “clothed in white garments” (v. 5a; cf. 3:18; 6:11; 7:9-14; 19:13). Again, this refers both to the experiential holiness of life now, by virtue of the gracious, sanctifying work of the Spirit (cf. Rev. 19:6-8), as well as the righteousness of Christ himself that is imputed to us by faith.
I’ll close with two important comments. First, the language of the saints being clothed in white garments is consistently used in Revelation for those who have persevered through suffering (see especially 6:9-11; 7:9,13-14). In other words, refusing to accommodate or conform to the behavior of the crowd came at a high price. It’s rarely easy to be in the minority, especially when it costs you a job, or a promotion, or popularity, or perhaps even your physical safety and freedom. These “few” in Sardis no doubt suffered intensely for their commitment, but the reward made it all worth while.
Second, I also believe Jesus wants us to understand and appreciate the emotional, perhaps even psychological, implications of this truth. What I mean is this. All too often those who know Christ and by grace whole-heartedly desire to walk in purity of life fail to fully embrace and enjoy their status as God’s forgiven children. They wallow in shame over sins long since confessed and of which they’ve sincerely repented. Contrary to their status as the adopted and justified children of God, they feel condemned and struggle to walk in the liberty and joy of the elect.
If that is you, remember this: God sees you in his Son! Although your clothing in white will be consummated in the age to come, you are now and forever will be a pure, spotless Bride in his sight (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:26-27; Rev. 19:7)! This glorious truth is not to be perverted into an excuse to sin, but is an incentive, by God’s grace, to live passionately and resolutely in the pursuit of a practical purity that conforms ever more to the standing we already have in Him.