Last Ones Standing

 
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The majority is not always right. David Edgar argues this is true of declining churchgoing in the Western world.

The only religious leader to make Time magazine’s 100 most-influential list in 2004 was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, a man acclaimed as “the most influential moral voice of our time” (Life Magazine, commemorative edition, 2005), Ratzinger epitomises everything the Roman Catholic Church wants in a pope. However, despite his obvious talents and best efforts, Ratzinger’s 20-year mission to reverse dwindling church attendances hasn’t been as successful as his April 2005 election. “Church attendance is down, but, as [Ratzinger] said recently, ‘the essential things in history begin always with the small, more convinced communities’” (Time, April 18, 2005).

Impressive as the new pope’s efforts are, statistics reveal many in the postmodern world find churchgoing outmoded. Following Vatican II, attendance at Catholic mass in the United States fell from 65 per cent in 1966 to 46 per cent in 1995 (http://www.catholic.net), and Australia and New Zealand haven’t fared much better. According to the latest Australian National Church Life Survey, average church attendance in Australia declined by 7 per cent over the past decade.

Contrast, if you will, the world’s magnificent cathedrals echoing the sublime hymns of yesteryear with the empty pews of this third millennium. Ironically, and some say ultimately prophetic, this timely and disconcerting condition may be a portent of earth’s final days. To understand why, we need to see what the Bible says about church attendance and “the end of days.”

Conditions At The End Of Days

In chapter 24 of Matthew,* Jesus peers down the corridors of time and foretells significant, even catastrophic, events to occur before the end of days. In this passage He predicts increasing wars, floods, epidemics, earthquakes and a dozen other man-made disasters unknown in His day. In verse 37, He compares conditions at the end of time to that of Noah.
Even a cursory glance at the state of affairs in Noah’s time is disturbing: “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” At that time humankind’s sole redeeming factor was Noah; the only person God found faithful and true, the Bible says (Genesis 6:5-9).

Noah, A Messiah Figure

God called Noah “righteous” and commissioned him to proclaim a warning message to the inhabitants of the ancient world. His task was to convince as many as possible to accept an invitation to enter a boat—the ark—and be saved from the coming flood. Noah proclaimed the message for 120 years—the same time it took to build the ark. Unfortunately, in the end, only eight people took refuge in it; the rest perished. This group constituted the first “remnant.”

The point of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24 is that earth’s inhabitants will degenerate into a similar state of wickedness and lawlessness as the end draws near. And, as in Noah’s day, God will again commission a remnant to warn earth of the impending danger.

The apostle Peter wrote: “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which now exist are kept in store by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:5-7).

Will History Repeat Itself?

George Satayana, among others, is credited with coining the phrase, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” If they do, the saying goes, they reap a “folly’s reward.” The ancients didn’t believe Noah, because there’d never been a flood. Similarly, Jesus warns of ignoring His words and pleads with modern humankind to heed the lessons from Noah’s experience. His message is clear: the world will end some day and we need to prepare for that.

Unfortunately, according to the Bible, humanity will reap its folly’s reward. It says only a remnant will survive the coming crisis. However, this doesn’t mean only a few are saved, because the Bible makes it clear the redeemed are vast in number (see Revelation 7:9). What it does mean is that in the final days, only a small number remain faithful to Jesus.

The Remnant

The Apocalypse—Revelation—is an end-time book, and Revelation 12:17 has an end-of-days setting. In this passage the dragon (Satan) instigates a final attack on God’s remnant: “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (KJV).
In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, this “remnant” idea takes on the framework of Noah’s time. That is, once the issue is decided, the end-time remnant is physically removed from the danger zone. As Noah’s saved entered the ark before the Flood, Jesus removes the remnant to heaven.

What Makes A Remnant?

The apostle Paul wrote, “At this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5). Although Paul was talking to his Jewish brothers about their rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah, the first requirement of being part of God’s end-time remnant is clear: the remnant, as was Noah, is saved by grace (see Genesis 6:8 and Ephesians 2:8), and through Christ alone (see Acts 4:12).

A second condition is obedience to the law of God. Revelation 12:17 states that the remnant will keep all 10 commandments, which includes worshipping on the seventh day of the week. They do this not to be saved but because they are saved. Like King David they can exclaim: “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).
Third, Revelation 12:17 adds that the remnant holds to “the testimony of Jesus.” In his commentary on the book of Revelation, Ranko Stefanovic says this phrase was common among first-century Jews and “refers to the Spirit who speaks through those who have been called to be prophets to declare the message revealed and entrusted to them by God” (page 541).

Paul said he had this “testimony” too, and, like Stefanovic discovered, represented the messages God gave him about Jesus, saying, “I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1, 2, emphasis supplied).

John the revelator also reveals in Revelation 1:2 that he too bore the testimony of Jesus, saying, “John [himself], who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Another significant being who had the testimony of Jesus was the holy angel in Revelation 19:10: “I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus” (emphasis supplied). The angel then tells John that the testimony of Jesus is the “spirit of prophecy.” As God used prophets in Bible times to declare His messages, the spiritual gift of prophecy will be in evidence in God’s remnant church.

A final requirement is faithfulness (see Revelation 14:12). To be faithful is to be true, the saying goes. Faithfulness requires patience and obedience, and encourages a heartfelt response to grace. This trilogy of interrelated qualities—faith, obedience and grace—is what God looks for in His remnant. Moreover, they are what humankind will desperately need in the closing stages of earth’s history.

To know God forgives us in Christ calms the conscience as nothing else can. To have faith in Someone who never disappoints is an asset of infinitely more value than material wealth in our uncertain world.

To know where we stand, in terms of right and wrong, gives direction and security to our lives as we approach the end of days. To know where we came from, why we are here and where we are going in this life gives tremendous confidence as we continue our journey to the next. This knowledge empowers the remnant church to soldier on with their mission of proclaiming God’s last message to a doomed world.

Why Attendance Is Down

For Pope Benedict XVI, the biggest challenge he faces is to keep the faithful coming and entice the departed back to the fold. In the West, many think that departure from orthodoxy, increasing secularism and materialism has resulted in church standards dropping and, eventually, declining attendances.

Pope Benedict, as the Catholic Church’s new leader, knows he must continue his mission if the Roman Catholic Church is to grow. However, in the cosmic point of view, the real leader of the Christian church—Jesus Christ—wants His whole church to return to Bible basics—the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

*Except where indicated, Bible quotations are from the New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982. Used by permission