“On this Rock I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18). “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan . . . to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (Rev. 3:9).
There is a church built by Jesus; there is a synagogue built by Satan. Against one the armies of hell cannot prevail; against the other, the armies of heaven will prevail. One is Zion, the other is Babylon. One does not fail or fall; the other goes into oblivion. And every inhabitant on the planet is choosing membership in one or the other.
John the Revelator gives us a good description of both. He foresaw the trials and triumphs of God’s people in the end time. He saw 144,000 who “come out of great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14) and “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (14:4). He identified the end-time church as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (14:12). He saw “those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark . . . standing on the sea of glass” (15:2).
John also foresaw that the churches of Babylon would crash and burn. He devotes a large part of the book of Revelation to their woes and final demise. The kings and merchants weep and wail as they witness her collapse while heaven is said to exult over her destruction because she has shed the blood of saints (Rev. 19:1, 2).
But what about right now? Where are we in the battle today, and what is the expected outcome? Here is an answer that no doubt gives us both hope and apprehension: “The church may appear as if about to fall but it does not fall. It remains, while the sinners in Zion are sifted
out—the chaff separated from the precious wheat. This is a terrible ordeal, but nevertheless it must take place” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 380, emphasis supplied.)
What do those words, “may appear as if about to fall,” mean? What signs and symptoms should we be looking for? How bad will things have to get before we decide it is “about to fall?” Some see it teetering on the brink of Niagara right now; others see it moving forward on solid ground. Let’s look at a few examples of this “about-to-fall-but-does-not-fall” phenomenon.
Companies out, tribes in
Jesus said “The love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12); but He also said, “Many shall come from the east and the west and sit down . . . in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). Many wax cold; many come. Ellen White says, “In vision I saw two armies in terrible conflict. One army was led by banners bearing the world’s insignia; the other was led by the bloodstained banner of Prince Immanuel. Standard after standard was left to trail in the dust as company after company from the Lord’s army joined the foe and tribe after tribe from the ranks of the enemy united with the commandment-keeping people of God.” (Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p. 41.)
Now as we stand on a hilltop watching the battle raging in the valley below, what is our assessment of how things are going? As we see the standard of the cross trailing in the dust and companies deserting the Lord’s side, we cry, “Help! The church is falling!” But when we see whole tribes leaving the ranks of the enemy and standing under Immanuel’s banner, we say, “Praise God! We’re winning!”
That prophecy is in remarkable fulfillment today. While many are leaving the church, in heart if not in body, still many more around the world are joining the remnant. Our personal perspective must constantly be informed by what’s happening globally. If I am a member of a church of 200 and only 35 are showing up for Sabbath services, I may be ready to vote the “about-to-fall” verdict. But if I see churches in other parts of the world with attendees greatly outnumbering their memberships, my perspective shifts to the positive.
Separation and unity
“As trials thicken around us, both separation and unity will be seen in our ranks.” (Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 400.) Separation can describe those leaving the church, or it can refer to those still holding membership but separating themselves into factions within the church.
Thousands of Adventists today choose their church home, not on the basis of proximity to their residence, but on the basis of lifestyle and worship style, thereby fulfilling the separation part of the prophecy. And from the perspective of those who would like to see the entire church firmly united on the platform of truth, that has certainly created an “about-to-fall” possibility.
We can be assured, however, that the church triumphant, before it is dispersed to prisons and mountains, will continue to grow toward a level of unity never before known in its long history. When every worldly, compromising element has been purged—both by the preaching of the straight testimony and the threat of persecution–cultural, racial, and theological divides will disappear and those who remain will give a clear, consistent definition to the world of what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. It has to be. In the end-time crisis, identity is everything. Both persecutors and those targeted for persecution will want to make sure of that.
The threat of financial collapse
In our economically volatile world, we live with the momentary possibility that the church’s financial structure could collapse like the proverbial house of cards. I seldom visit an Adventist church whose bulletin does not advertise a sizeable deficit in the monthly and yearly operating budgets. As attendance at our churches and schools in North America declines, pressure to keep operations in the black increases.
“The set time to favor Zion will soon come. God has provided men and means whereby His work shall be accomplished. He will not leave His people to shame, but will accomplish His work.” (Ellen G. White, This Day with God, p. 193, emphasis supplied.) The “means” spoken of here could very well come through sacrificial giving on an unprecedented scale by the faithful remnant. Houses and lands and savings may pour into the treasury faster than they can be spent!
Sinners sifted out
The church “remains, while the sinners in Zion are sifted out . . . This is a terrible ordeal, but nevertheless it must take place.” It is the church which will feel the emotional pain which this causes, not the sifted out ones. The latter will be happy to distance themselves from a group which has become the objects of the world’s hatred.
Unfortunately, in times of peace when it is easy to follow the Lord, it is also easy to follow Satan, to become lax and let the world come in. It is important to note, however, that if disunion and apostasy are currently threatening to topple the church, the logical conclusion is that its purification is also imminent. The threat of persecution will separate the chaff from the wheat.
God’s servant says that when these difficulties come upon the church, “the half-hearted and hypocritical will waver and yield the faith; but the true Christian will stand firm as a rock, his faith stronger, his hope brighter than in days of prosperity” ~ Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 602.
God is still in charge
The best of all reasons why the church does not fall is that it is greatly loved and zealously guarded by the God who created it. “There is no need to doubt, to be fearful that the work will not succeed. God is at the head of the work . . . Let us have faith that God is going to carry the noble ship which bears the people of God safely into port.” ~ Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, Sept. 20, 1892.
It is crucial that we see God at work in and through all the things that are happening today. We may see separation, but we must also recognize that there is a growing unity—a pressing together—among the faithful. If we see unworthy ministers, let’s not let that keep us from appreciating those who are faithfully proclaiming the full message of Bible truth. While some members are becoming more and more deeply attached to the world, we must take note of the fact that others are living frugally and giving generously to advance the gospel. We may despair that so many seem to have lost confidence in the Spirit of Prophecy, but let’s not fail to recognize that others are holding this treasure of truth ever closer to their hearts.
In other words, we must see the power of divine intervention that continually turns “about-to-fall” into “does-not-fall.” In unnumbered ways God is intervening to protect His church from annihilation. He is keeping His promise. The church will not fall!
- S. Lewis imagines a conversation between the devil and one of his agents in which the demon complains to the devil that a man assigned to him has recently joined the church. But the devil gives him this assurance: “There is no need to despair as long as this professed Christian does not see the church as we see her—spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which should make all of us tremble.” ~ C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), p. 15.
Could it be that the devil sees the church in a truer light than many of its members do? We tend to see ourselves as weak, disunited, and riddled with apostasy. But the devil sees us in terms of our potential when filled with Holy Spirit power. He may laugh at the weakness of church members, but he has good reason to be intimidated by the church’s Leader. He sees its past failures, but has sense enough to know by now that the Word of God does not fail, that the future triumph of the church is assured.
“We are almost home; we shall soon hear the voice of the Savior richer than any music, saying, Your warfare is accomplished. Enter into the joy of thy Lord. Blessed, blessed benediction; I want to hear it from His immortal lips. I want to praise Him; I want to honor Him that sits on the throne. I want my voice to echo and re-echo through the courts of heaven. Will you be there?” ~ Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places, p. 368.