Often times, we speak of perseverance in terms of the runner. The runner will go the distance and finish the race well by the work of denying his own exhaustion. The perseverance of the Christian is similar, correct?
Here, I would like to pose a simple question. If we compare Christian perseverance in the faith to that of a runner, do we insinuate that the Christian’s faith depends on his own power to have faith or to go the distance? Do we not promote a works-based system, which is contrary to the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ?
Christian perseverance is going to prove to be more awesome and powerful than we could ever imagine. If perseverance is not something that we can achieve on our own, then our following Christ becomes much more simple than we might cause ourselves to think. This is my question this morning: Is it necessary for us to gain more faith by our works or persevere by our own strength; or are faith and perseverance things that are given to us as people of God?
Revelation 14:1-5 HCSB
Then I looked, and there on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with Him were 144,000 who had His name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads. I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of cascading waters and like the rumbling of loud thunder. The sound I heard was also like harpists playing on their harps. They sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, but no one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. They were redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
Identity of the saints
As we have been reading through the book of Revelation together, we have seen that there are few people on the earth who genuinely repent and give the authority over their lives to Christ. In Revelation 7, we notice that there are believers on the earth who will be sealed with God’s ownership and protection as the seven trumpets, with which come intense plagues to announce the return of King Jesus, are being prepared. After the trumpets, and in our text for today, we see Christ standing with these believers in a vision prior to that of the bowls of God’s wrath being poured over the earth. These believers are representative of those in the seven churches to whom John is writing, and are the ones who have endured the great persecution. They have had great perseverance in a time of great trial.
144,000 is a finite number and very small in light of the population of the earth, even in John’s day. This is to mean simply that there were few who persevered under the headship of Christ. There were few on the earth who were part of the true church or true Israel.
Furthermore, there is the name of Christ and of the Father written on their foreheads. This is in direct contrast to the mark of the beast mentioned in chapter 13. These are people who, despite all of the false promises that the kingdoms of the world had for them, gave themselves to Christ. In fact, Christ was the one who was preeminent in their lives.
In the world today, I find that there is the same sort of contrast. There are people who live for the world and there are people who have given their lives to Christ. There can be no in-between. The world is concerned with riches, comfort, material possessions, pleasure, entertainment and fitting in. The true church is different. Consequently, the true church will not be content with entertainment (either by music, games, or style of preaching) as a means to draw people in. This means many youth groups and young adult classes across our country operate in a way that is contradictory to the text of Scripture: which indicates that a church body is not a biblical congregation. Constantly throughout Scripture we are challenged to give up our wealth and take on Christ. We are challenged to give up our comfort so that we might participate in the work of the Gospel. We are encouraged to live simply so that we do not have to spend on ourselves or take for ourselves. God’s people often give up their own happiness or satisfaction in order to serve others in need. Instead of concerning ourselves with always being entertained, we take the constant position of a servant so that we might honor Christ. Even at the cost of losing the affection or the acceptance of others, we follow Christ because He has given us life.
There is a very clear difference between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of Christ. Here is the sad reality, though: there are even so many within the organizational church who look like the world instead of like Christ. As a result, there are many local churches that, instead of being churches, are social clubs that look and feel more worldly than like Christ. This is something for us to grieve about. Many of our churches today are more concerned with worldly attraction than they are about actually denying self and living for our Lord. Many people, both in the church and out, are more concerned with pursuing the things of the world than they are the things of Christ. There are few people who actually persevere in the way of genuine Christian faith.
When we were in Revelation 9, we discovered that the people of the earth are prideful (that is all of us!). Despite our pride, Christ meets us where we are and saves us. This is grace! In this grace, Christ justifies all those who are willing and makes them a kingdom of priests (as we saw in Revelation 1). In John chapter 17, the author of Revelation states that this eternal life that Christ alone gives is knowing God. This idea is represented in our current text as well!
Knowledge of the saints
As the saints in this passage stand with Christ, they begin singing this new song before God’s throne (v. 3). It is a song that only the saints know or can learn. This reveals something very important about the knowledge that God’s saints have. When Christ justifies a person, that person actually comes to know God, whereas God could not be known by him or her before Christ’s work of salvation. Something in us changes when we submit the authority of our lives to Christ. Before, we did not know God, and now we do.
There has been a differentiation made here between general knowledge about God and saving knowledge of God. We have often referred to this as the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. There is a difference between knowing something about the God of the universe and actually knowing the God of the universe. Before Christ saves us, the only knowledge we can possibly have is head knowledge or knowledge about God.
Some people assume, then, that head knowledge about God is knowing God. It is assumed, for some reason, that because we grew up in church, went to Sunday School, learned that disobeying our parents and having sex before marriage was wrong that we have achieved salvation. The truth is that this could not be further from the truth.
One of the greatest dangers in our world is that we substitute knowledge about God in the place of actually knowing God. I can know more about God by the power of my own facilities. I can study, know the Bible, teach a class, know how to look like a Christian, and know the right answers. If I believe that those things save me, then I am gravely mistaken. There is no way, by any work I can do, that I can ever be saved. Only Christ can do this. Only Christ can bring us into a relational knowledge of God, and knowledge that John actually uses to define eternal life.
The saints, here, who knew God, sang to God a new song that only they could learn. With our lives on this earth, we sing a new life-song that only those who have been redeemed by Christ can learn. There is a difference for those who live according to the world and those who have been saved by Christ.
What I notice, here, is that Christ saves and then begins to transform our hearts and our minds. It is this transformation, this sanctification, that leads us to a more robust understanding of our own perseverance.
Perseverance of the saints
As we think about perseverance, I might point out an ironic tendency within the world today. Most people will tell us that perseverance is a good quality for anyone to have. Yet, most people do not persevere in the most important things: marriage, family, work, or friendship. We don’t even persevere in something like church. We don’t want to admit that we are more concerned with our entertainment and we want to say that we are committed to our church family, but we’ve all seen people leave for trivial reasons. When I was growing up and in the youth group, we had great music and a fun game every Wednesday! We had more than 100 teenagers all meeting together. We sang to our Lord and heard a lesson from the Bible. Yet, most of the people that were in church with me growing up are no longer in church, and many who ‘got saved’ have now rejected Christ later in their lives. Why is this?
The reality is that there is and has been two different gospels being proclaimed from the pulpit of the evangelical church. The most prominent gospel is a how-to gospel. The how-to gospel is the gospel that I heard in youth group every Wednesday and it attracts so many people. Within the context of this gospel, we hear messages like: “How to have a great marriage!” “How to honor your parents!” “How to date according to Scripture!” “How to grow a church!” “How to be saved!” “How to get closer to God!”
While Scripture does have some practical input for us on these issues, these are not the emphases of Scripture. Scripture’s aim is not to teach us how to be successful on our own power in this life. The true Gospel is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which says, “You can’t do it. Only Christ can raise you up and lead you well. You must give your life to Him.”
The reason so many mellenials, that’s my generation, have run from the church is not because the church failed to be cool enough or because the church failed to cater to a new culture. It is because so many churches were preaching a false Gospel to my generation: a gospel of how-to’s instead of the Gospel of Christ. Perseverance was seen as something that we had to do rather than something we received.
What I notice in this text of Scripture is that Christ saved, Christ gave relational knowledge of God, and everyone who received this salvation is standing with Christ when all is said and done. These are the ones, according to John, who did not commit idolatry, who follow Jesus genuinely, who were redeemed for God, and who were blameless before God. This is the Gospel, and it is not a gospel of how-to’s. It is a Gospel of ‘you can’t,’ so surrender to Christ because He is the only one who can.
Considering this, I might mention a couple other passages of Scripture. Romans 38:38-39 states that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Romans 8:29 states that those whom God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. All those whom Christ saves are also sanctified before God. Nothing at all can separate us from God’s love. Here in revelation, we get to see this idea play out. None of those who were saved chose to walk away or fell away from Christ’s salvation and sanctification.
Here, we arrive at a truth that may be very difficult for us to deal with. If it is the case that all those whom Christ saves persevere (if God’s grace is unlimited), then it must be the case that there is no backslidden Christian. It means that those who had a good head-knowledge of God and a strong will, who once looked like good Christians and ‘fell away’ have never had Christ as their Lord. I have friends who fall into this category and sometimes we use terms like ‘backslidden’ (which is not an idea represented in the New Testament church at all) that keep us from realizing the dire circumstances many of our childhood friends are in. Perhaps this describes the circumstance of a loved one. This might hurt us to hear and I do not say this lightly. Barring any mental trauma or disease (I think God’s grace covers over these), those who ‘backslide’ or choose to walk away from the faith were never in the salvation of God. There are many “good people,” church goers, mentors, teachers, deacons, elders and even pastors who have a head knowledge, but who have not been saved by Christ. As a result, many of our heroes fall from the faith, and many people who claim to follow Jesus are not participants in the community of faith.
God’s grace is so great that He brings about perseverance in our lives; not a selfish perseverance, but a perseverance toward Himself. For those of us who do genuinely know Christ, we know what this is. We would never think of leaving Him and we can’t think of our lives outside of the context of the community of faith. It does not mean that we never doubt. Our doubt reveals God’s grace because He brings us through that doubt. It does not mean that we will never make a mistake. What it means is that God’s people will persevere despite every doubt and despite every mistake. Our perseverance is not something that we are called to on our own power. It is Christ who preserves us and calls us to perseverance because it is something that He provides to those He saves.
We expend so much of our energy on how-to’s falsely believing that we must, in our own ability, persevere. Often we make the mistake of calling others to this type of perseverance. We say things like, “You just need to have enough faith!” “Just don’t doubt God!” We use all of our energy trying to do the right thing to please God and to stay in His good graces. I have news for us. We are already in God’s good grace. Those who have been saved are also preserved by God. Our simple task is surrender. Nothing else, just surrender. We tend to make the faith way more complicated than Christ does. Perseverance comes as a result of Christ’s preservation. It is evidence of our salvation and our sanctification (which cannot be separated).
The calling, here, is not perseverance. The calling is surrender, which is were we must begin if we want Christ to preserve us and if we want to persevere to the end. It is true that in Christ we have a greater ability to persevere in our marriages, in our vocations, in our commitments, in our churches and in our moral strivings; but this is not the point of the Gospel. We must remember that it is not a how-to even though it can be applied to life. The Gospel is simple. We cannot, Christ can. So, we surrender.
For those we know who once looked like Christians on the outside but never truly surrendered, we pray for them daily. We do everything that we can to perform the work of God’s witness in their lives. We lovingly call them to repentance. We share Christ’s Gospel through any avenue of communication that we possibly can. For those of us who have genuinely surrendered to Christ, He will preserve us through any and all tribulation. This is the revelation that John received from God. This is the perseverance of the genuine Christian.