In 325 AD the Nicene Creed defined the Church by giving it 4 marks saying this in the first sentence of the last paragraph: “And we believe in One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” Today we turn our attention to the third mark of the Church: catholic. As we begin I want to give a disclaimer. Some of you right here from the start may be alarmed that we’ve chosen such a word to focus on today because you may believe by teaching the ‘catholic’ nature of the Church that we are affirming the Roman Catholic Church. We are not doing that. We will never do that. SonRise Community Church is protestant through and through. So why use the word ‘catholic?’ Well the word ‘catholic’ that the Nicene Creed uses here has a lower case ‘c’ not an upper case ‘C.’ You may not think this matters very much, but the size of the letter ‘c’ determines alot. While an upper case ‘C’ indicates a proper noun and refers to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, the creed’s usage of the lower case ‘c’ indicates the original sense of the word, which simply means ‘universal.’
Therefore to say the Church is catholic, to define the Church as having ‘catholicity’ is to say the Church is universal. This means Christ’s true Church is formed by all the people who, in all times and in all places, have believed in Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel. To describe this catholic or universal nature of the Church, we’ll go to John’s apocalypse, the book of Revelation, chapters 4-5.
These two chapters put 4 of the largest Biblical realities on display for us, that when taken together show us not only the universal nature of the Church, they show us the true nature of the gospel:
Reality #1: The Holiness of God (4:1-11)
We learn from 4:1 that John is now having another vision, and in this vision he sees an open door in heaven, and hears a voice speaking to him like a trumpet. The voice says, ‘Come up here and I will show what must take place after this.’ Remember John is still on the island of Patmos at this point, he hasn’t been physically taken to heaven, but while on the island John receives a vision of heaven. v2 set the stage, John immediately says he was ‘in the Spirit’ just as he was in 1:10, and behold John sees a throne standing in heaven with One seated on the throne. This is none other than the Lord, God Almighty seated on His throne in glory. Now, John has seen an earthly temple before, he was probably even familiar with the layout of Solomon’s temple, but now for the first time in his life John witnesses, not the earthly copy, but the heavenly original and what he sees in the throne room of heaven is stunning.
v3 says God’s appearance was like the precious gems jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was an emerald rainbow. Further around the throne v4 says there were 24 thrones, on which sat 24 elders who were all clothed in white, with golden crowns on their heads. Further still John says in v5 that thunder, lightning, and absolute power are streaming out from the throne. These images make us think back to Mt. Sinai and other places like it where God revealed Himself to His people with powerful displays of His Kingly authority and sovereign rule. You can imagine what John was feeling like at this point – he probably felt something like a terrified wonder entering his heart and exploding through all his senses. v5 continues describing the presence of the Holy Spirit saying it was like seven torches of fire burning and the seven spirits of God. John then sees a sea before the throne. Not a stormy or wild sea, but a calm sea; a sea of glass, like crystal that appears to have no shore. As if John isn’t already overwhelmed he see’s more still. v6b-8a mention living creatures around the throne, full of eyes around and within, the 1st like a lion, the 2nd like an ox, the 3rd like a man, and the 4th like an eagle in flight. Similar to Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 these creatures have six wings and day and night they never cease to proclaim: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
v9 states that each time these living creatures proclaim the holiness of God, giving glory and honor to Him who is seated on the throne who lives forever and ever, that the 24 elders fall down before God, cast their crowns down, and worship Him saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created.”
So see the vision John is beholding here. God, in His matchless holiness and Kingly authority seated on His throne, while there seems to be the whole host of heaven around the throne worshipping Him with refrain after refrain, responding to one another in their worship and never ceasing in such delightfully fearful activity. This is all about God. It isn’t about anything else. God, simply based on who He is, demands such worship. This is the vision of John, and for John this must have been highly encouraging. I say this because in Revelation what happens before chapter 4? Right, in 2-3 we have the letters to the churches, most of which are messed up and enormously sinful. What a contrast this is between the sin in the Church and the pure vibrancy of worship happening around the throne. That the vision of the throne room in 4-5 is placed directly after the letters to the seven churches is meant to show us that chapters 4-5 serve as a correction or an antidote to the problems we see in chapters 2-3.
Is this not also encouraging to us? In the midst of all the sin that happens within the Church, where is God? Sitting on His throne, dwelling in endless praise, ruling with authority. Take heart, you who are suffering – take heart, you who struggle and fight with overwhelming sin – take heart, you who grieve over the condition of the world and those in it – God is on the His throne, He is still in control.
The question that comes into view next leads us to the next reality we see in these two chapters – how could we ever approach such a holy God? Enter Revelation 5 where we see the dilemma of worthiness, the work of Christ, and the worship of all peoples. Let’s take them as they come to us in the text.
Reality #2: The Dilemma of Worthiness (5:1-4)
The scene in chapter 4 continues uninterrupted in 5:1, where we see the One sitting on the throne who is worthy of all worship, holding a sealed scroll in His right hand. Opinions abound as to what this scroll is or contains, some say it’s the Old Testament, others say it’s God’s providential agenda or will for all of history. I believe the scroll to be the God’s plan of redemption and judgment, I’ll explain why in a moment. In v2 we hear a mighty angel loudly ask the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” v3-4 introduce us to the dilemma. No one comes forward in response to the angels question, there is only silence. That none of God’s creatures were found worthy to open the scroll and break its seals demonstrates their inability to execute the contents of the scroll. Sensing that his own hope and the hope of the entire Church now stood in dire peril, John recognizes the dilemma of unworthiness and starts to weep because, as v4 says, no one was found worthy to open or look into the scroll.
Reality #3: The Work of Christ (5:5-7)
But that’s not the end of the story. One of the elder’s approaches John and calms his fear, answering the dilemma of the unworthiness of God’s creatures. The elder tells John in v5, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then John hoping against hope in his anxiety sees Him, “…between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” This ‘Lion-Lamb’ John saw is Jesus Christ, who though slain in His crucifixion, is standing in His resurrected glory, and walking to His Father’s throne to take the scroll.
Now we can return to why I believe the scroll to be God’s plan of redemption and judgment. When the scroll first came into view no one was found worthy to break it seals and open it, and then we see that Christ is the only One found worthy to open it. Why is it that Christ is the only One worthy to open the scroll? The reasons are given in v5, because He is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, who has what? Conquered (!) by being both the spotless Lamb of God slain for sinners and the resurrected Son of God standing in Lion-like victory. The work of this Lionhearted and Lamblike Christ makes Him the only One worthy to break the scroll open.
We are not in a position to see the catholic, or universal nature of the Church. What is the result of the angelic hosts of heaven when they see Christ, the Lion-Lamb, take the scroll? It is reality #4…
Reality #4: The Worship of All Peoples (5:8-14)
See how the rest of this chapter unfolds from v8-14. When Jesus took the scroll the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before Him, with their golden bowls of incense, and then what happened? They sang a new song with these words, “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every TRIBE and LANGUAGE and PEOPLE and NATION, and You have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Later on after this all the hosts of heaven and earth sang two more songs singing these words in v12 and v13, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing…To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
These new songs the living creatures, the elders, the myriads of angels, and all those on and under the earth are singing is a song of praise to the Lion-Lamb Christ who acted in redemption, purchasing for God…what? A universal Church made up of all peoples. Notice the new song being sung isn’t about the glory of America, or English speaking peoples, rather it’s about the glory of Christ who has redeemed men and women from all peoples and all tribes and all languages and tongues.
Therefore, since this is what the gospel does – saves men and women from all peoples – don’t you think every individual local church should endeavor to be multi-ethnic? I’m serious about this: heaven will be universal, we will one day join in singing these songs…songs about peoples from very different backgrounds coming together under the one banner of the saving grace of the gospel. Since the local church ought to give us a glimpse or foretaste of the greater church to come there’s something wrong with a church unwilling to join up (or even merge together) with other churches, there’s something wrong with a church unwilling to go on a mission trip, there’s even something wrong with a white church content to remain all white, or a black church content to remain all black, or a Hispanic church content to remain all Hispanic, or an Asian church content to remain all Asian. If we’re really about the business of the Kingdom of God we’ll make multi-ethnicity in our personal lives and in our church a priority.
You know what this means for us when we really get down to it?
First, we must think about the Church the way God thinks about His Church. So many people are planting churches and becoming members of churches that seek to be effective and strong by targeting a certain segment of likeminded people who are culturally and economically similar. These churches shoot themselves in the foot by having a church growth agenda that doesn’t match with the Church universal. We must think about our local church, about SonRise Community Church in the way God thinks about it.
Second, we must understand who we are in Christ. Theologian Justav Gonzalez writes this, “The multi-ethnic vision is sweet but there is a bitter side to it. There is a bitter side to having to declare the vision of many peoples, many tribes, many nations, and many languages. This bitter side involves not just adding a bit of color or folklore into our traditional worship services, it includes radical changes in the way we understand ourselves.” This is not about tolerance, it’s about who we are in Christ. Though different, when we become new creations in Christ, we become one in Christ. And if we love one another in Christ, we’ll see someone as ‘Christian’ before we see them as ‘white’ ‘black’ ‘hispanic’ or ‘asian.’
Third and lastly, we must sacrifice self. 1 Cor. 9:19-23 says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became mas one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Sacrificing self means we must reject all racial supremacist statements like ‘white lives matter’ or ‘black lives matter’ or ‘Asian lives matter.’ When it comes to the gospel and living the Christian life, ‘all lives matter.’ For we all came from and fell in the first Adam, and men and women from all peoples can be raised to new life in the Last Adam. Paul says “I have made myself a slave to all men, that I might win more of them…I do this for the sake of the gospel…”
I’m not asking you to ignore ethnic difference, we should celebrate and even love our distinct heritages, but we should love Jesus more. Do you do this? Do we as a church?
This is really what Jesus did for us isn’t? He wasn’t like us, yet He became One of us so that we would be saved. We must do the same, sacrificing ourselves for the joy of all peoples.