the Kingdom of God,
or the Church
Bishop Alexander (Mileant).
Translated by Dimitry Baranov/ Irina Guzel NabBarrett
Where Shall We Seek the Kingdom of God? The Need for the Church. The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Attributes of the True Church. The Orthodox Church. Why do We Need the Church? Pastors and Teachers. The Two Spheres. The Church Militant. A Christian: Warrior for Christ. The Treasure of the Truth. The Treasure of Holiness. The Mountain of the Lord. No nomads but citizens. Conclusion.
Where Shall We Seek
the Kingdom of God?
"Thy kingdom come!"
Reading the Gospel we cannot but notice that it often speaks about the Kingdom of God. Christ's many dialogues and parables are aimed at revealing the nature, attributes and purpose of the Kingdom of God. This was so obvious to contemporaries that they called His whole teaching activity as "preaching the good news of the Kingdom" (Matthew 4:23).
But what does this title imply? Does it signify future life after death, which comes upon resurrection of the dead? Or, maybe, it stands for man's present spiritual condition, his readiness for communication with God? Does it imply a society built in accordance with the evangelical principles? Or the universal, one-thousand-year-long reign of the saints described in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 20:4)?
The word "Kingdom" itself presumes quite an extensive and complex social structure: a state, an empire. Now, if everything that exists ensues from God (as there is nothing existing that was not created by Him), then the Kingdom of God is, in principle and by design, the entire world of God, the immense universe, which includes all things visible and invisible! This seems to be a correct statement.
But if we know that God is infinitely good and just, where does all this discord come from? All those calamities and disasters, myriads of evils: crimes, acts of violence and injustice, diseases and deaths, which we see everywhere? Why is it that what must happen does not match what actually happens?
"It is because of sin and disobedience to God, because of conscious resistance to Him," explains the Holy Scripture.
It is the gift of freedom granted to people (and angels) by the Creator, that presupposes the ability to infringe His will and laws, bring disharmony to the beauty and order that should have existed throughout the universe. The freedom of will is like fire, which a savage can use to cook his food and warm up his dwelling in cold weather or to burn down the forest and maybe himself perishing in that fire.
In principle, God could have "programmed" us to do good only, cause no harm to others and ourselves, and act only as predestined: eat, sleep, multiply... But in this case we would have been robots or animals, driven by natural instincts, rather than the free-spirit beings. We would be spiritually defective and, moreover, deprived of the very possibility of the delight resulting from creative work, inspiration, spiritual growth and free-will acts of charity and love. God created plenty of beings without moral freedom, which live by the physical laws alone, though; but they were just a preparatory stage before the making of man, for whose sake God created our physical world.
In His incomprehensible love, God did not make men as blindly submissive "mechanisms," but created us as free "children", capable of conscious love and longing for Him as their Prototype and Ideal. God granted man with great spiritual gifts, settled him in the sweet paradise, let him rule over all creatures and gave him the tree of life so that he would always be healthy, could perfect himself and enjoy life. What honor and grace! And what should be the gratitude of the people that dwelled in Eden!
But we are aware of the tragedy that happened: the savage learnt how to make fire, and burnt down the forest. Luckily, he did not burn it all and forever!
We would not retell here the details of the mankind's spiritual catastrophe described in Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. It is important to remember that due to that tragedy all people are born morally defective and predisposed to sin. The original sin is like a biological damage of a cell, which passes from parents to children.
The tragedy of mankind is that people, with all their good intentions and efforts, cannot cure the spiritual rot, which has its roots very deep in our spiritual and physical self.
By the mercy of God, neither our earth, nor the hell this gloomy abode of evil, which demons set up for themselves, has spread throughout the Kingdom of God. They are more like separate "islands," "quarantine wards," or darker spots on the immensely great Kingdom of Light and Good. Peace and harmony reign everywhere, and especially in the angelic world. Everyone rejoices in the life-giving light of the Creator, thanking Him for His never-ending goodness.
But murmurs, groans and cursing are heard in our society, which has fallen away from the Creator. People deceive and offend each other, "a man has become a wolf to his fellow man." Sometimes it seems that spiritual darkness would absorb our world, making a real hell out of it.
But this will never happen! We know, and it has been promised to us by the Savior, that the evil will be permitted only until certain time. Coming to our world for the second time, the Son of God shall raise all people. Then all conscious evildoers, rapists and malefactors, all who hated the light and were happy about the evil, will be thrown to the fiery Gehenna, along with demons. The world will be fully renewed then. All those who lived by the Gospel, loved good, sought for truth, suffered without guilt, avoided lies and violence, will be "saved," which means that they will be re-united with the rest of the Kingdom of God. It will be the joy inexplicable.
"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes the Apostle Paul in the Book of Revelation: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away... And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away... And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city (new Jerusalem) had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb (Son of God) is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it... And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations... And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light" (see Revelation 21-22).
The nature of that world is so much different from our physical universe that the author runs short of words describing it. It is however clear that this is the most beautiful world, and just the understanding of a condemned sinner that he would never get there seems to be his most painful torture.
That is why the Gospel is insistently calling everyone to take all efforts, and sacrifice anything including this temporal life itself, in order to make it into the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is our true fatherland, while this world in its present state is alien to God, and thus must be alien to us as well.
Significance of Penance.
When the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, came into the world, He found it in the most miserable condition. "The whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5:19). Wickedness, in the forms of spiritual ignorance and harsh morals, deprivation of rights of the weak, brazen profligacy of the rich, violence and vulgarity, beastly stupefaction of the mob, reckless and insolent orgies of mean passions, was commonplace and considered a norm. That is why spiritual regeneration of people by enlightenment of their minds and correcting their morals became the Savior's main work.
Jesus seems to have been saying, "You people, suffering under the burden of untruth and lawlessness! The life you made for yourselves cannot give you the happiness you seek. But if you want to reach it, then repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
"Repent" is the first call of the Gospel. Repentance is the primary condition for the possibility to receive the Kingdom of God. The Russian word "repent" is insufficient to render the original notion; "metanoi΄te" of the authentic text means change your way of thinking, your attitude to life and your entire system of values.
This call for repentance supposes that another life is possible and realizable in the world; a life, different than that which people live, groaning under its burden. Delusion, love for self, malice and chaotic stream of low instincts are not unbreakable chains. Better, noble and holy volitions exist along with them in a man, at least in a latent and potential form: love of the truth, compassion, fraternity, vague longing for righteousness. If one would not lose them but let them open and blossom, then one's inner world will glow with heavenly light; the life will change beyond recognition: peace, righteousness and charity will dwell in one's heart, replacing vicious and shameful desires.
The process of inner renewal of a man is very individual. It may be instantaneous or gradual. Everything depends on the sincerity and the effort of will, which a man takes in turning toward Christ. People that are "readily available" today are not fit for the Kingdom of God; they have to change radically, re-value the basics of their thinking, wishes and ambitions, and start out a new life: in a word, they have to imbibe the spirit of the teaching of Christ and seek to imitate Him.
But sincere desire only is not enough either: the prolonged moral malady has undermined our spiritual powers, and the goodwill itself became shaky and faded. An inflow of fresh spiritual powers is required for a fundamental change and complete turn of life toward the Kingdom of God. Man needs to be born for the second time: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:1-3). Such birth for spiritual life is given through the Holy Ghost, and the baptismal waters convey His power.
Significance of Grace.
The grace of God is the primary source of all spiritual powers and abilities. It is like the Sun that gives our world light and heat.
Having fallen from God through sin, people lost His vivifying power and died spiritually. Christ came to the world to return to us the fellowship with God, and with it our lost lives. This is why turning to Jesus is compared to rising from the dead: the Savior said, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God [the proclamation of the Gospel], and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25).
Grace penetrates into a sinner's heart and makes the misery and damage of his soul manifest to his consciousness. All of a sudden, as though awoken from sleeping, he begins to realize how tragic his condition is, fear for his eternal lot, and care for deliverance and salvation. He used to be blind to salvation, senseless and careless; now, he can see, has sense and takes care. But this is not a change yet; it is an opportunity and call for a change only. It is grace knocking at the heart of a sinner, saying, "Look where you walked into, and take pains to be rescued." Should he wake to this call and note the warning, he will do himself good; should he not, he will be abandoned and will plunge into his heavy sleep.
Self-dissatisfaction and pursuit of loftier things are common repentant feelings incited by the grace of God. Man becomes discontented with everything that surrounds, his advantages and possessions, even though he might be very rich.
The words "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit." (John 3:3) denote the graceful regeneration of a man in the water of Baptism and receipt of the grace of the Holy Spirit through Chrismation. Other spiritual means, instituted by the Savior, and the Sacraments of Penance and Communion in particular, are designed to confirm and strengthen the power of our spirit. Our home and church prayers, Christian austerities and good-doing are helpful in achieving these ends. Special attention should be given to the prayer of the heart, as it draws the grace of God to us and transforms us into the temple of the Holy Ghost.
Grace helps man see the misery and paltriness of everything worldly, and warms his heart with affectionate love for God. Bit by bit, man begins to perceive fellowship with God as his most valuable treasure.
Zeal and enthusiasm in grasping spiritual things are characteristic of indwelling of the Kingdom of God in a man's soul. "I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled," said the Savior (Luke 12:49). As flame engulfs the entire building during a fire, so much the spiritual flame must capture the entire nature of a Christian: his thoughts, interests, feelings, desires, his whole activity. But there is a danger of losing the fellowship with God. "Quench not the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19), be "not slothful in business; [but be] fervent in spirit," warns the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:11).
The good disposition is put into us through God's special suggestion, and in a like way it provides us help in doing good things. What depends on us is the greater or lesser readiness in obeying God's suggestion and accepting His help. We deserve punishment or reward by being slothful or reverently obedient in following God's will in our life.
The process of spiritual renewal occurs deep inside a man, and this is why it reads that "the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). Every effort should be taken to secure this Kingdom inside ourselves: "seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you," (Matthew 6:33) says the Savior. He does not say, "seek ye only the Kingdom of God and his righteousness" but "seek ye first," meaning that care about the Kingdom of God, longing for righteousness in life should be the priorities of our consciousness.
The enemy of our salvation is taking every attempt to distract us from these priorities, throwing in a variety of 'urgent' and 'important' tasks. Warning us against the new slavery of materialism, the Lord said, "take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek" (Matthew 6:31-32). Material goods can satisfy only people with dormant morality. For the sons of the Kingdom of God, the outward world with all its conveniences can be exclusively instrumental for achieving the main goal, which is beyond it.
Who the Kingdom Appeals to?
It has already been said that, in today's conditions, the Kingdom of God is not as much realized in outward social improvements as in the inward betterment it makes in people. The Kingdom of God is especially close to those oppressed by this world of vulgarity and cruelty, languished under their own sins and imperfections, gasping in the surrounding atmosphere of lies and untruth, and longing for the triumph of good and truth.
Should some one have thirst for spiritual renewal, the Kingdom of God will come for him. Should a nation have this thirst, then the Kingdom of God will come for this nation. But for him who is self-satisfied and happy about the existing world, who cannot understand and ridicules the longing for the ideal, who is not worried by falsehood and lawbreaking, who despises purity and unselfishness, who dreams of riches and pursues the worldly joys and bodily pleasures, for him the Kingdom of God is a strange and unwanted teaching.
The Kingdom of God is not to triumph in this world. It is the "strait gate and narrow way" that few can find. It is not a completed "building" but one under construction. But still it is a fairly real thing that has been fulfilling in the world since the day the Savior came to earth. It always grows and spreads out, attracts and absorbs spiritually sensitive people from all walks of society, all nations and all stages of development. It is an organization (association) of individuals, thoughts, powers, writings, outward transformations and occurrences, guided by God and developed by the invisible power of His grace. The Kingdom of God is a new, righteous life, built upon the faith in the Savior and acceptance of His teaching.
Complete and manifest triumph of the Kingdom of God will only happen after the Second Coming of Christ, when the community of the righteous merges with the angel world to become the Kingdom of Heaven. But now it can only occur, partially and incompletely, in the hearts of the faithful, by the degree of their spiritual advancement.
However, the wholesome results or "fruit" of this Kingdom has been evident in the history of humankind after the Nativity of Christ: abolition of slavery, correction of morals, overcoming of brutality and depravity, humanization of legislation, dying out of superstitions, greater respect to personality, improvement of all arts literature, painting, architecture, music...
The Savior's entire life and teaching were aimed at laying new, spiritual foundations in a human life: pure faith, living charity and love for God, striving for moral improvement and sanctity. It is on these foundations that we should build our religious mindset and our whole life.
Building our lives upon the commandments of Christ, we soothe ourselves by thinking that the Kingdom of God shall certainly triumph, and the promised peace, justice, joy and everlasting life shall come to the renewed Earth. We pray that God makes us worthy to inherit His Kingdom!
So even here, under the vaults of the martyrs' tombs, some sorrowful sighs dissolved in the joyful anthem of the victorious faith. Watching the beginning daybreak of the Good News over the world, Christians forget their own woes and misfortunes. We have to remind ourselves that "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."
May Thy kingdom come to us, O Lord!
The Need for the Church.
The jungle cannot bring up Newtons or Einsteins, Apostles Pauls or reverend Seraphims. However gifted a man is, if even he is a genius, still he cannot comprehend everything on his own but needs family and society for his development. Even the most talented person won't become an excellent violinist when you give him a violin and music. Someone has to teach and pass experience to him. The visible progress of humankind, advancement of civilization takes place due to the experience previously gained. The preceding generations serve as a base for the intellectual growth of the following generations. When a state or empire collapses as a result of some disaster, the culture collapses with it. Efforts of many generations will be required afterwards in order to restore the knowledge and experience.
For development of mental abilities and harmonious overall progress a man needs teachers, schools and the very complex structure of human society. Man grows, improves and becomes useful as a member of community. Without it, man would be a savage, not adapted to life. In one word, man was created in such a way that he cannot live outside a community.
Ideally, family and community have to form not only the mental and applied abilities of a man, but build his spiritual self as well. That is how God designed it. The celestial, angelic world is the ideal community of goodness and truth, founded on the principles of divine love, where blameless beings live not for themselves but for the sake of each other, with a joyful praise of the Maker.
Sin intruded into the entire order of human life, perverted the spiritual nature of man, and social life as a whole. Community, which, by God's design, had to facilitate the correct spiritual development of humans, has lost the capability for this in practice. Without the spiritual checkpoints, community focused all its efforts on the development of outward advancement, material goods, this resulting in one-sidedness of its members, and sometimes in callousness, brutality and other things that we see daily in the surrounding world.
Therefore, for the sake of salvation of our souls, and for spiritual upbringing and development of man, God set up another community: Church. "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God" (1 Peter 2:9:10).
The Church is a peculiar community, established and sanctified by God. The Church is different from any other human society or state in that she is the Kingdom of God on earth, and her goals are the moral renewal of humans and guidance towards salvation. Christ gave the Church everything necessary to fulfill this purpose, which can be put in just a pair of words: grace and truth. These are her spiritual treasures that she is called to keep, and to enrich the faithful with them. But even the greatest jewel won't do any good to a man unless he makes use of it. That is why it is necessary for everyone to enrich oneself from the Church's spiritual treasury: learn the truth that she keeps, receive the sanctification through her gifts of grace, absorb the spiritual experience of her righteous people.
A man has a body and a soul, and similarly the Church has a visible and invisible part. Her invisible part is the action of Christ's grace, the spiritual improvement of the faithful, and her heavenly portion the Church Triumphant. Church is a celestial-terrestrial community, headed by Christ. This is why much in ecclesiastical life cannot be subject to study. The visible part of Church is her teaching, ecclesiastic hierarchy, ecumenical and local councils, temples, divine services, feasts and traditions, canon laws and chapters.
Many contemporary Christians do not understand what the Church exists for. They think that it is enough to read the Gospel and believe in Christ. But, for one, the Gospel did not fall from the heaven. Someone had to collect the books written by the Apostles, check them through and incorporate them in the body of the Bible. Someone had to take away from the Bible any false, heretical writings. The Church did it in her first three centuries. Two, one cannot learn from books alone. Even in the very precise and logical science of mathematics a student needs someone to explain what is not clear to him, check on his success, give him guidance for further learning. In the same way, man's spiritual education requires spiritual guides to explain what is not clear and warn him against false teachers and false prophets that have always been abundant.
Listening to the teaching of the Savior and His Apostles, we can understand that, in accordance with the Divine plan, people are not called for salvation haphazardly and in loneliness; oppositely, they can be saved in their togetherness, as members of one big family. The faithful are not only called to utilize whatever the Church gives, but also to assist one another's salvation. Sin and selfishness are sources of disintegration, while charity and kindness initiate integration.
No man can reach perfection in a blink of the eye. Christian life is a process of self-improvement. It is therefore natural that the Church consists of people on different stages of spiritual development. Those who have reached a greater degree of perfection, should help their weaker fellows. The Lord Himself established the order that some teach and others are taught.
In the Church a Christian learns the truth and receives sanctification by the grace of the Holy Ghost. In the Holy Sacrament of Eucharist, he comes into real communion with Christ, Son of God Incarnate, and through Him becomes a partaker of Divine nature. In this mysterious communion with God man receives mighty spiritual powers, which help him to grow and improve spiritually. Moral perfection is the goal of our life: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
is the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Because she is a reflection of the ideal Kingdom of Heaven, Christ's Church on earth is called the Kingdom of God in the Holy Scriptures. In its regular usage, "kingdom" means a high degree of a society's development, a state with its law-making, legal, executive and all other authorities. A state consists of citizens, government, administration; it has laws, customs, language, army and so on. The Church is also a Kingdom, and a peculiar one as she is filled with grace. She consists of people in the process of moral regeneration. Being a Kingdom, she has her Head, the Heavenly King, Lord Jesus Christ and also her own laws, internal structure, ministers (hierarchy), and citizens faithful Christians. Without these features she would not be a kingdom, but something shapeless and vague. Christians enjoy all privileges of the spiritual Kingdom that they belong, but not merely as consumers but as active "citizens," co-working for the common good.
The Holy Scripture speaks about the Church as a Kingdom of God in a number of places: Matthew 3:2, Matthew 4:17, Matthew 6:10, Matthew 6:33, Matthew 9:35, Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:14-15, Luke 12:32, Luke 17:21, John 3:5, John 18:36, Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 4:20, Colossians 1:12-22.
The Savior often began teaching with the words, "The Kingdom of Heaven is likened..." "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom," which is the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming (Matthew 9:35). It shows that people shall not be saved individually and solitarily, but jointly, as one family, making use of the graceful means that He lodged His Kingdom.
The conditions for entry to the Kingdom: "Repent (literally, change the way of thinking): for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). This entry is possible only through the Sacrament of Baptism, in which man becomes reborn for spiritual life: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5-6).
The Church has in her foundation the atoning sacrifice of Christ that allows us, by faith and through new birth, become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). That is why the life of the Church is supernatural in essence, although it flows in quite ordinary circumstances and visible forms. It is also explanatory of the Savior's words (so confusing for non-believers) about the position of the faithful in worldly life: "... and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:14). "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). These words of the Savior demonstrate the incompatibility of righteous life with sinful and out-of-Church customs of the secular world. "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).
Thus, the Church is a graceful, supernatural, unity of born-again people who form the mystical Body of Christ, founded by Christ on Calvary, filled with the Holy Ghost, and headed by Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Attributes of the True Church.
The increasing number of churches and various sects makes it very hard to find out which is the true Church, and whether one true Church exists in these times at all. Some think that the original Apostolic Church might have gradually disintegrated, and today's church groups are just its "splinters," keeping certain fragments of its former spiritual wealth of grace and truth.
Some of those who share this viewpoint assume that the Church can be restored out of the existing Christian denominations by means of agreement and compromise. This assumption lies in the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement, which takes it that no church is true. Others think that church, probably, never had anything in common with the official churches, but has been built up from individual believers that belong to diverse church groups. The latter opinion developed into the teaching about the so-called "invisible church," promoted by some Protestant theologians. Finally, many Christians are not clear whether the Church is needed at all if man is to be justified by his own faith.
All these controversial, false opinions on the Church result from a lack of understanding of the core truth of Christ's teaching the salvation of man. Through reading the Gospel and the Apostolic Epistles it becomes obvious that, in the Savior's plan, people were called to save their souls not as separate individualities, but jointly, in order to establish an indivisible, graceful Kingdom of the Good. Even the kingdom of the evil, headed by the prince of darkness, is rallied for the war against the Church. Christ reminded about it saying, "And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?" (Matthew 12:26).
In spite of all motley, modern opinions about the Church, most sensible Christians agree that in the apostolic era there was one true Church of Christ, which was a united community of the saved. The Book of Acts of the Holy Apostles tells how the Church started to exist in Jerusalem, when, on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Ghost descended onto the Apostles like tongues of fire. Since that day the Christian faith started to spread out in different parts of the extensive Roman Empire. As it disseminated in towns and villages, Christian communities, or churches, sprang up. Because of tremendous distances, these communities were more or less separated in the everyday life. Still they considered themselves as organic parts of One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. They were united by one faith and one source of sanctification, drawn from the grace-filled sacraments (baptism, Communion and ordaining, or imposition of hands).
Initially, the Holy Apostles performed these sacred actions. But very soon they started to need assistants, and the Apostles chose the worthy amongst the members of Christian communities, and ordained them bishops, presbyters and deacons. (For example, the Apostle Paul ordained Timothy and Titus to the bishop degree). The Apostles compelled bishops to watch the purity of Christian teaching, instruct the faithful in righteous living and ordain new bishops, priests and deacons as assistants to themselves. By doing so the Apostles themselves established the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is still in existence today. Over her lifespan, the Church, like a tree (Mark 4:31), permanently grew and spread out, getting richer in spiritual experience, religion literature, prayers and singing of the divine service, and later on church architecture and art; still she preserved her essence of the Church of the Apostolic era.
The Gospels and Apostolic Epistles did not appear all at once and all at one place. For decades after the Church was created, the Church was instructed not by the Scripture, but by the oral preaching that the Apostles called the tradition (1 Corinthians 11:16 and 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6, 1 Timothy 6:20). The Tradition is a unified custom of instruction in faith. It has always been decisive when people needed to find what's right and what's wrong. When something was inconsistent with the apostolic tradition, say in the issues of faith, conducting of sacraments or administration, it was considered false and rejected. In line with the Apostolic tradition, bishops of the first centuries checked all Christian manuscripts very thoroughly, and collected the works of the Apostles, Gospels and Epistles, one after another, into one set of books. We know it as the New Testament, and together with the books of the Old Testament it makes up the Bible we read today. This process of collecting books was finalized in the 3rd century. The controversial books, which were not in agreement with everything in the apostolic tradition (though said to be left by the Apostles), were rejected as false, or apocryphal. The Apostolic Tradition played the decisive role in the formation of the New Testament, the Church's treasure of writing. Today, Christians of all denominations use the New Testament, though often voluntarily, without piety or understanding that it is the property of the true Church, the treasure that she collected and kept safe.
We are grateful to other documents, written by disciples of the Holy Apostles and preserved until today, for the many valuable details of life and belief of the Early Christian communities that we know today. The belief in the existence of One, Holy, Apostolic Church was then universal. It is only natural that the Church also had its visible side then: the agape meals (Liturgies) and other services, bishops and priests, prayers and Church singing, canons (Apostolic Constitutions) that governed customs and relationships of churches, and generally all areas of life of the Christian communities. That is why we should agree that the teaching about the "invisible" church is a false innovation.
If we agree that one real Church existed in the early centuries of Christianity, then can we find out the historical moment when she fractured, split and ceased to exist? The honest answer is no. Deviations from the clear Apostolic doctrine, or heresies, began to occur yet in the apostolic age. Most active then were Gnostic teachings, which put together Christian belief and elements of pagan philosophy. The Apostles warned Christians against such teachings in their epistles, and stated directly that adherents of those sects had fallen away from the faith. The Apostles considered heretics as dry branches that broke off from the living tree of the Church. In a like way, the successors of the Apostles, bishops of the first centuries, renounced the deviations from the Apostolic faith, which emerged at their times, and excommunicated persistent adherents of false teachings, according to the Apostles' instruction: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed," i.e. excommunicated (Galatians 1:8-9).
Thus, the oneness and unity of the Church was not questioned in the early centuries of Christianity: the Church is one spiritual family, which has been holding the true doctrine, Sacraments and unbroken succession of grace, transferred from bishop to bishop since the Apostolic age. The Apostles' successors never had doubts in that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation. She keeps and proclaims the pure teaching of Christ, she sanctifies the believers and leads them to salvation. We can use the images of the Scriptures and say that, in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church was viewed as a fenced sheepfold where the Good Shepherd, Christ, secures His sheep from the wolf, the devil. The Church was compared to a vine, from which believers, like branches, from the same root, received spiritual powers needed for Christian life and good works. The Church was also looked at as the Body of Christ, in which every believer is a limb that has to do some service needed to the whole. The Church was also presented as Noah's Ark, on board of which the believers cross the ever-storming sea of life and reach the shore of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church was likened to a high mountain, raised above human delusions and leading the travelers toward the Heaven, communion with God, angels and saints.
In the first centuries of Christianity believing in Christ meant believing that what He had done on earth, and the means that He had given the believers for salvation, cannot be lost or taken away through efforts of enemies of the Church. The Old Testament prophets, the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles definitely taught that the Church would exist until the last times of the world: "And in the days of these (pagan) kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed... it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever," predicted an Angel to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:44). The Lord made a promise to the Apostle Paul, "Upon this rock (of faith) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
In this way, if only we believe the promise of the Savior, we should acknowledge that His Church exists in our time and until the end of the world. We have not pointed out where she is yet, but only posed a principal assumption: she should exist in her holy, indivisibly whole, real essence. Fractured, damaged, evaporated she will not be the Church.
So where is she? What are the hallmarks that help to find her among many modern Christian 'branches'?
First, the true Church must maintain the Christian doctrine, proclaimed by the Apostles, in its intactness and purity. The Son of God came to the earth with the goal of bringing the truth to people, as He said before His suffering on the Cross, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). The Apostle Paul, instructing his disciple Timothy on how to fulfill the bishop's office, concluded, "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).
It is sad to recognize significant divergence in doctrinal issues amongst modern Christian denominations. In principle we must agree that all teachings cannot be correct. If one church teaches that, say, the Eucharist is the Flesh and Blood of Christ, and another says that it is not so, then it cannot happen that both are right. If one church believes in the reality of spiritual power of the sign of cross, and another rejects this power, then obviously one of the two is in error. The True Church is that which has no doctrinal deviation from the Church of the first centuries of Christianity. Should someone compare teachings of modern Christian churches impartially, then (as we will see further) he or she will have to conclude that only the Orthodox Church upholds intact the faith of the ancient Apostles' Church.
Another indication of the true Church is the grace and power of God that the Church sanctifies and strengthens believers with. Although grace is invisible, there is a visible condition that permits us to judge whether grace is present or not: the apostolic succession. Since the Apostolic age grace was given to believers in the Sacraments of baptism, Communion, imposition of hands (Chrismation and Cheirotonia, or ordination) and other mysteries. First these Sacraments were worked by the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17), and later by bishops and presbyters. Presbyters differed from bishops in that they did not have the right to ordain. The right to perform these Sacraments could be conferred exclusively in the form of succession: the Apostles ordained bishops, and to ordain other bishops, priests and deacons, was allowed to them only. The Apostolic succession is similar to the holy fire that lights many candles from one. Had the fire died out and the chain of apostolic succession discontinued, then there would no longer be priesthood and Sacraments, and the means of sanctification of believers would be lost. That is why continuity of the apostolic succession has been thoroughly watched since the Apostles' times: that a bishop is ordained only by genuine, legitimate bishops with their ordination traced back to the Apostles themselves. If bishops fell into heresy or conducted immoral life, they were deposed and lost the right to perform Sacraments or ordain successors.
Today there are very few churches that possess undisputed apostolic succession: the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and some non-orthodox eastern churches (which broke away from the purity of the Apostolic doctrine yet in the times of the Ecumenical Councils). Christian denominations, which principally deny the necessity of priesthood and apostolic succession, are significantly different from the Early Church due to this, and cannot be true.
A spiritually sensitive person will not need any external evidence of the action of God's grace when he or she vividly senses its warm and appeasing breath in the Sacraments and services of the Orthodox Church. A Christian should distinguish between the grace of God and the low-grade, unhealthy ecstasy of sectarians, like Pentecostals, induced artificially during their prayer meetings. Indications of the genuine grace are peace of soul, love for God and neighbor, gentleness, meekness, humbleness, and other such qualities, enumerated by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (5:22-26).
One more indication of the true Church is her suffering. It may be difficult to people to recognize which church is true, but her enemy, the devil, understands it very well. He hates the Church and attempts to extinguish her. When we study Church history we see that it is written with blood and tears of her martyrs. Jewish high priests and scribes gave a start to persecutions already in the Apostles' lifetime. Then followed three centuries of persecutions in the Roman Empire, enforced by Roman emperors and regional rulers. From the 2nd till 9th century, Persian rulers were from time to time severely persecuting Christians. In the middle of the 7th century the Muslim Arabs raised the sword on the Church, followed by the Crusaders coming from the West. They undermined the physical power of Byzantium so much that this stronghold of the Orthodox Faith could not withstand the Turks that flooded it in the 14-15th centuries. And lately, the God-fighting Communists outdid them all in brutality, and exterminated more Christians then their predecessors killed altogether. And here is the wonder: the martyrs' blood became the seed for new Christians, and, as Christ promised, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church.
At last, historical investigation provides a correct and relatively easy way to find the Christ's Church. The True Church must have a continuous succession from the apostolic era. The principle of historical investigation does not require insight into details of development and spreading of Christianity. It is enough to check when this or that church came to existence. If it was, say, in the 16th or other century and not in the times of the Apostles, then this church cannot be genuine. This principle is sufficient to denounce the claims of all denominations, which trace back to Luther and his advocates; neither Lutheran, Calvinist, Presbyterian, nor Mormon, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals and other similar denominations, which appeared even later, cannot be the Christ's Church. These denominations were not established by Christ or His Apostles, but by false prophets Luthers, Calvins, Henrys, Smiths and other innovators.
The Orthodox Church.
The history of Christianity convinces that the establishment of the Orthodox Church originates in the age of the Apostles. The Church was initially small, as the mustard seed, according to the Savior's expression, eventually grew into a big tree, and its branches filled the world (Matthew 13:31-32). As early as the end of the first century, Christian communities were found in almost all towns of the Roman Empire: in the Holy Land, Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Hellas, Macedonia, Italy, Gaul, Egypt and Northern Africa, Spain and Britain; and also beyond the boundaries of the Empire: in the faraway Arabia, India and Scythia. By the end of the first century, Christian communities of all more or less significant towns were headed by bishops who were the bearers of the entirety of apostolic grace. Bishops had authority over the communities in neighboring towns of lesser importance. In the 2nd century bishops of principal (regional) cities of the Roman Empire began to be called metropolitans, and their metropolis covered the nearby bishops' sees. The metropolitans were obliged to regularly convene bishops' councils to resolve current issues of religion and administration.
Apart from principal cities, there were imperial dioceses in the Roman Empire. These most important centers of state organization became the starting points of wider area Church administration, which were named Patriarchates later. The Fourth Ecumenical Council, assembled in Chalcedon in 451, defined the boundaries of five Patriarchates: that of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (with little territory as concerns administration, but having great religious significance).
As time passed, the territories of patriarchates grew or shrank because of different historical events. Serious changes in the Church occurred due to the invasion of Germanic tribes to Europe (late 4th century), oppression by the Persians and invasion of the Arabs to eastern districts of the Byzantine Empire (mid 7th century). In the middle of the 9th century, there was a movement for adoption of Christian faith amongst Slavic peoples. The Thessalonian brothers, Saints Cyrill and Methodius toiled much for the enlightenment of the Bulgarians and Moravians. From Bulgaria, the Christian faith spread to Serbia. A great merit of St. Cyrill and Methodius is that they created the Slavonic alphabet and translated selected books of the Scriptures and divine service from the Greek language into the Slavonic. Their work prepared the ground for the spread of Christianity in Russia.
Although Christian communities existed on the northern shore of the Black Sea as early as the end of the first century, the mass conversion to Christianity of Slavic tribes, inhabiting Russia, began only at the time Christening of Russia in 988, when Grand Prince Vladimir had the entire population of Kiev baptized in the River Dnieper (See leaflet on St. Vladimir and the Millennium of Christianity in Russia). From Kiev, the Orthodox faith spread to other parts of Russia. The following statistical data allow us to judge how great the Russian Orthodox Church was before the revolution: there were 1098 monasteries in Russia, with the total of over 90 thousand monks. Apart from the Patriarch of Moscow, there were 6 Metropolitans, 136 bishops, 48 thousand priests and deacons serving in 60 thousand temples and chapels. Four Academies, 57 seminaries and 185 schools provided training for the clergy. Bibles, theological and other spiritual literature were published in large quantities. Unfortunately, we did not value our spiritual riches as we had to, and became captivated by western ideas. The post-1918 persecution of the Church by atheists, extermination of the clergy and believers, and destruction of temples can only be explained in the light of the Apocalypse, which predicts severe persecution of the faith in Christ before the end of the world.
From the middle of the 18th century, through the efforts of St. Herman of Alaska and other Russian missionaries, the Orthodoxy made its way to Alaska, where a few Aleuts received baptism, thus giving the start to dissemination of the Orthodox faith in North America. Today, about 3 million Orthodox Christians live in the USA.
The Orthodox Church currently includes the following autocephalous (regional or local) churches: Constantinople (with a number of parishes in Europe, North and South America, and the Patriarchal See in Istanbul, Turkey), Alexandrian (Egypt), Antioch (with its capital in Damascus, Syria), Jerusalem, Russian, Georgian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Greek, Albanian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Lithuanian, and the Orthodox Church in America. Sinai, Finnish and Japanese churches are autonomous. Many Orthodox Greek and Russian (Russian Church Abroad) parishes were established in almost all parts of the world after the First and Second World Wars. Total number of Orthodox Christians around the world is about 160 million.
The term Orthodox Church came into usage in the age of religious disputes of 4th-6th centuries, because there was a need to differentiate between the true Church and heretical groups (Arians, Nestorians etc.), who also called themselves Christians. The word "Orthodox" comes from the Greek оrthо-dоkео, which means "right thinking." Another term for the Church is Catholic, which is translated from the Greek as universal, all-gathering or all-inclusive. The meaning of this term is that the Church calls all people to salvation, irrespective of their nationality and social status.
The regional churches, such as Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian and others, are sometimes headed by Patriarchs, or archbishops, or metropolitans. To resolve problems, related to a certain church, the head of this church convenes an assembly (synod) of his bishops. The problems that concern the entire Orthodox Church, e.g. the issues of faith (dogmas) and church law (canons), should be discussed in Ecumenical Synods (or Universal Councils). Ecumenical Synods are attended by bishops from all regional and autonomous Orthodox Churches. As need may be, representatives of the clergy and laity are invited. Thus, the governance of the Orthodox Church is neither sovereign, nor democratic, but synodal.
The teaching of the Orthodox Church is concisely formulated in the Creed, developed by the First and Second Universal Synods in 325 and 381 (in Nicaea and Constantinople). In its turn, this Creed was built upon more ancient creeds, originated in the age of the Apostles. Summing up the Orthodox doctrine, we believe in One God Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, Who is the consubstantial and indivisible Trinity. The Son is begotten from the Father before all ages. The Holy Ghost does eternally proceed from God the Father. We believe that One God, worshipped in the Trinity, is eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent, that He, by His will and out of nothing, created everything that exists: first the invisible angel world, then our visible, material world. Also, God created us people, breathed immortal soul into us, and inscribed His moral law in our hearts. God created us so that we improve ourselves and reach never-ending felicity in communion with Him. We believe that God is infinitely just and merciful. He rules the whole universe and life of every human being, and nothing can happen without His will.
When the first people broke the commandment of God, God did not reject them completely, but, through the prophets, began to prepare people for salvation, and promised to send the Messiah, or Christ, to them. When the world matured enough to accept the true faith, the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth to save us, sinful people. He taught how to believe and how to live right. For our salvation He died on the cross and rinsed away our sins with His blood. On the third day He rose from the dead and set the beginning of our resurrection and everlasting life in the Paradise. We believe that on the fiftieth day after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Ghost to the Apostles, and since then He has been in the Church, instructing her in the truth. We believe that one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church will not be overcome by the powers of evil until the very end of the world's existence. We believe that in the Sacraments of baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, and in other actions of the divine service, the Holy Ghost does purify and sanctify believers and give them power to live Christian lives. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ shall come again to the earth. This will be the time of the resurrection of the dead, end of the world and the general Judgment, where every one shall receive in accordance with his or her living. After the Judgment, eternal life shall start: it will be never-ending bliss in communion with God for the righteous, and never-ending torture in the Gehenna of fire for the devil and sinners.
We acknowledge that faith only is not enough to make life conform with belief. That is why we recognize the need in fulfilling the Ten Commandments, given by God to the prophet Moses (Exodus, Chapter 20), and the Evangelical Commandments, or blessings, given by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:3-12). The essence of these commandments is the love for God and neighbor, and even to enemies (Matthew 5:43-45). These commandments of love place the Christian faith above other religions in the moral sense, and from the point of view of the human reason they can be evaluated as the only way to establish peace, mutual respect and lawfulness among people. Without genuine love for neighbor and all-forgiveness, wars and mutual extermination will be inevitable. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to forgive everyone in the Lord's Prayer, when it reads, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). In His parables, the Lord teaches us about the virtues of faith, meekness, patience, constancy, justice and other. Outstanding among others is the parable of the talents, which calls us to develop all abilities and talents that the Lord God gave us. The genuine faith must inevitably manifest itself in the inner growth and good-doing, because "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). A Christian should not be avaricious, i.e. he has to be quiet about material welfare, and use it not for his whims, but for his needs and for helping others. Pride, self-seeking, arrogance and egoism are all disgusting in God's eye.
The Orthodox Church teaches that every one received free will from the Creator, and is therefore responsible for one's acts. The Lord loves and pities for us. He helps us in everything good, and especially if we ask Him for it. As He promised, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). A fervent prayer does clear the mind, help overcome temptations and live in accord with the Commandments of God. Prayer helps us improve our spiritual capabilities, which is the main goal of our life on earth.
When an Orthodox Christian suffers from diseases or adversities, he or she should not murmur at God and forget that God permits that we suffer, but it is for our own spiritual benefit, for cleansing of sins and strengthening of the will for good-doing. At the rough moments of life we must pray to our Heavenly Father: "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."
We, the Orthodox, honor saints: the Holy Virgin Mary, prophets, Apostles, martyrs, reverends (monastic) and other holy people who pleased God. Many saints have not broken their communion with us after their deaths, but passed to the celestial part of the Church, called Church Triumphant. At the Throne of God they pray for us as for their small brothers and help us in achieving the Kingdom of God. Very precious for us Russians are the memories of Saint Princess Olga and Prince Vladimir, Saints Boris and Gleb, Reverend Sergius of Radonezh, Antonius and Theodosius of Pechersk, Seraphim of Sarov, Saint John of Kronschtadt and others, including the recently glorified new Russian martyrs.
The divine service of the Orthodox Church follows the centuries-established order. The principal act of worship is Liturgy (communal service). An essential portion of the Liturgy is Eucharist, when the faithful receive the very Flesh and Blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine, and mysteriously commune with Him, as the Lord said, "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:54). Before the Communion believers confess their sins.
In order to help Christians overcome their imperfections, fasting days were established. Since the Apostolic age there has been a tradition to fast on all Wednesdays and Fridays (as commemoration of the suffering of Our Savior), and to hold fast during Lent, before the Easter. On fast days it is not allowed to eat meat and dairy products and to have entertainments, but we should pray more and read religious literature. The Orthodox faith calls to provide for the family, care for the elderly, sick and poor, and not to reproach anyone: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). The purpose of our life is continuous moral improvement: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
Why do We Need the Church?
Many truths that form the foundation of the Christian faith are incomprehensible for the human consciousness. When the human mind, proud but limited, attempts to handle them in the plane of its own notions, then it distorts these God-revealed truths, and heresy appears. This is how the truth about the Holy Trinity was distorted in the early centuries of Christianity, and the doctrine of the nature of the Savior from the third through the seventh century. The doctrine of the Church is being distorted even in this time.
"Just believe and you are saved!" this is the motto of Protestantism-based Christian denominations. But our Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples, the holy Apostles taught that salvation is a process of spiritual revival, where faith is the first step only. The Holy Scripture treats the teaching about salvation in a close, organic connection with the teaching about the Church, God's Kingdom amongst people, and it is impossible to separate one from another. That is why modern misconceptions of the Church are in their essence misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of salvation of man.
Modern misconceptions of the Church can be divided into two groups. The first group will include those Christians who believe that Church is not needed for salvation, that man is saved by the faith alone, with absolutely no regard to the Church. Out of this understanding arises the doctrine of the "invisible church," popular among sectarians. It says that all believers, irrespective of their confessions, are members of one invisible church. Of course, if church is invisible, and thus insensible and inactive, it cannot be a means of salvation, and then it is merely a result of the existence of the faithful. The second group will include those Christians who would agree that Church might be useful, but, failing to understand Her nature, they believe that church can be created through human efforts, collusion and compromise. This group covers the champions of so-called ecumenical movement. Both groups share the denial of one true visible Church, in spite of the Savior's clear words, "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
Because wrong opinions about the Church are so widespread, we the Orthodox Christians must establish in our minds the correct understanding of the Church, Her significance and necessity for the salvation of our souls.
Evil, as well as sin, is a disintegrating, destructive power, although in this world it can struggle God in serried ranks. As opposed to evil, the Church is a miraculous realization of multi-unity, where things Divine, Spiritual and Heavenly join together with things human, material and worldly.
Unity is the principal feature of the Church. She is organically united per se, although She comprises many local churches and includes worldly and heavenly aspects. She is also united from outside, and there is no match for Her among heterodox confessions. Imaginatively speaking, She is one vineyard, one field, one tree, one vine, one mountain, one building, one flock, one family, one body. Jesus Christ gave the Church one teaching, one baptism, one Communion. The Church lives and becomes sanctified by one Spirit of God, She has one head, Christ. Unity of the Church was the subject of the High-Priest prayer of our Savior: "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21).
This unity of the Church is a reproduction of the tri-unity of the Persons in the Holy Trinity, and forms Her mysterious nature. That is why, when speaking about the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ often told parables, gave descriptive examples, in order to gradually reveal the diverse aspects of Her and the properties of this miraculous unity of numerous planes. We will use these images of the Gospel for the discussion of the nature of the Church.
The Church of Christ, although it exists in the world that lies in evil, has nothing in common with it. She has Her fence, or boundaries, that separate the sheep of Christ from the bad-tempered sheep and from the wolves. This is told in the parable of the Good Shepherd.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers... I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture... As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd" (John 10:1-5; 9, 15, 16). Clarity of Apostolic teaching, legislation, lineage of the apostolic succession, and the entire order of Church life comprise the obvious fence separating the Church from various religious groups.
The door of the parable is the Sacrament of Baptism, by the means of which the faithful become members of the Church. But there is also a door for the shepherds, which is the legitimate election and ordination. Usurpers of the shepherd's functions, who "climb up some other way" as it is put down in the parable, are thieves and robbers. The parable of the Good Shepherd stresses the idea of obedience for the sheep and self-sacrifice for the shepherds. Obedience is expressed through acceptance of the teaching of the Church, without critique and private opinion, and living Christian lives under the guidance of good shepherds.
The sin of sectarians is, first of all, in their disobedience to the Church, their insubordination and riot. Protestantism is a very characteristic generic term for sectarians.
The parable of the vine discloses the mysterious communion of the faithful with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Source of gifts of grace and spiritual revival.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman... Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:1, 4-5).
Whosoever arrogantly alienates oneself from the Church, becomes similar to a cut branch: not only it remains fruitless, but also it will undoubtedly dry up. The consciousness of unity with Christ in the Sacrament of communion should fill us with sense of utter gratitude. We draw our better intentions and powers from Him. He is the source of our spiritual life!
Pastors and Teachers.
"And He (God) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12).
"The Spiritual Meadow" is the book that has a story of an old man who lived a very righteous life. When he offered Liturgies, he saw angels standing at the Altar Table. Being of little dogmatic knowledge himself, this man adopted the order of worship from heretics and, in all simplicity and with good intentions, during the divine services he repeated the words, which he thought he had to. By Divine Providence, a deacon visited him once, who knew the right order of worship. He noticed the error in the elder's words and corrected him. The old man did not believe the deacon and asked the angel, who was standing at the Altar Table, what was the right way to say the prayer. The angel answered, "You should listen to him: he says the right thing." "But why have you not corrected me earlier when I prayed?" the old man asked the angel. The angel answered, "God made it so that people would correct other people's errors." The elder worshipped correctly thereafter, and was grateful to God and the deacon.
This ancient moralistic story illustrates an important element of salvation: God's plan is that people must help one another in doing good!
If we look into the organization of the world and human life, then we will see that God-established principle of mutual help, assistance and cooperation underlies everything. Every thing and each living being has its own purpose, and one creature needs another. For example, plants are food for animals and humans, and also they produce oxygen, which is necessary for breathing. In their turn, plants need carbon dioxide, exhaled by animals, and insects for reproduction. Germs, inhabiting stomach and bowels of animals, are nourished with substances animals eat, and at the same time they facilitate the animals' digestion and nutrition. The male and female functions add one to the other in the process of conception and development of new generations. It is often in nature that death of some creatures is a necessary condition for the existence of others.
The need in mutual help is even more evident in the life of human society. When man comes into the world, he is helpless. His life, growth, nutrition and upbringing are fully dependent on his parents. Heritage, succession and communication form the basis of culture and progress. Coming to school age, man learns science and the arts, the results of efforts and studies of many generations of scientists, poets and authors. The entire modern life with its high technologies and tremendous achievements in medicine, science and arts, is the fruit brought by previous generations. This is how man constantly makes use of the achievements of those who passed away long ago. He cannot exist in a vacuum, separately and independently of other people. Even Christianity itself needed the preparatory work of the Old Testament period, needed its Law, its Prophets and the spiritual experience of the Old Testament's righteous people.
In a word, wherever we look in physical or animal or human life, we will see one universal and unbreakable law of cooperation and interaction everywhere. Without this law progress and the very life would not be possible. As interaction and cooperation are so inevitable in the everyday routine, they are even more wanted in our spiritual life, for success in virtues. This is why God "gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints (i.e. for spiritual improvement of Christians), for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13). It is not the goal of our life to mechanically move the soul to the paradise; the primary goal is interior, spiritual renewal. In its turn it requires knowledge, experience, guidance, assistance, cleansing and sanctification. And for this the Church is needed, as the spiritual treaty of the faithful.
The Holy Apostle Paul who urged Christians to help each other in virtues often picks up this thought. He takes the human body, of which every part has its own task, and teaches:
"For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" (1 Corinthians 12:12-30).
The Apostle's key thought is that within the Church every member, even if apparently unimportant, is still needed for the common good. A Christian family, the "home church," forms the first cell of the universal Church. The parents and the elder care for the smaller and guide them to the good way. Caring for the minors and giving them a good example by this, the elder at the same time perfect in virtues. At a higher level, families and members of the Christian community become united in their parish church. The gather for the common prayer, take part in worshipping, receive the communion of the Holy Gifts, share spiritual experiences. Here, through God's will, the efforts of worship and guidance are assigned to the shepherds, presbyters, who are responsible to God for each "sheep." At even higher level, Christian communities group into dioceses and local churches, where bishops, these "angels of the church" (Revelation 2:1), lead the spiritual life of Christians and care for preservation of the purity of the Christian faith. Finally, local churches together with the celestial church form One Body of Christ, endowed with life by the Holy Spirit.
In a normal, healthy family there should not be a conflict between parents and kids, the elder and the younger; so in the Church, the ministries can be different but all of them are needed for the common good. "The elders which are among you I exhort," writes St. Peter, "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock... Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder" (1 Peter 5:1-5).
We Orthodox Christians must value our belonging to the Church. She is our spiritual treasure, our guide in the issues of faith and life, our cleansing, sanctification, source of moral power and cheerfulness. We should try to become living, green branches of the vineyard of Christ out of the scarce of fruit and drying out branches that we are!
The Two Spheres.
"Our Father Who Art in Heaven."
When people talk about the Church, they usually think of her worldly aspect, the Church Militant. In various countries, and throughout her history, this Church has had periods of tranquility and prosperity, and periods of persecution and abasement. At times of ordeal, people who set store by the Church start fearing for her fate and asking, whether the end has come to her existence and the world has reached its last days.
In the time of hardship of the Church, it is comforting to raise our spiritual eyes aloft, and to pray to the Lord, "Our Father which art in heaven." Through such prayerfulness, we enter into mysterious fellowship with the Omnipotent God and with the spiritual world, and the existence of our Church in her out-of-this-world glory becomes revealed to our sight. Then we start to clearly comprehend and feel that the spiritual community we belong to is in fact much greater and stronger than it has seemed. Parts of this community are the Holy Virgin Mary, Apostles, prophets, martyrs, saint monks, fools-for-Christ-sake, saints, innumerable righteous people of all times and nations, and finally, the infinite ocean of the angel world, with its glory and power above comprehension. And this grand multitude is lead by the Chief of our salvation, the Victor over the devil and Conqueror of death, our Lord Jesus Christ!
The Holy Apostle Paul comforted his compatriots, Judean Christian persecuted by non-believing Jews, by reminding them about this genuine glory of the heavenly-and-worldly Church, "But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant" (Hebrews 12:22-24). And yet in another place he compared the Church to a great building and inspired the faithful with the following words, "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Ephesians 2:19-21).
In relationship to the universal heavenly-and-worldly Church, our local, national Orthodox churches are just small cells, as though stones on a slope of a big mountain, or huts in the outskirts of a large city; and the parishes we belong to are simply microscopic.
But the seeming scarcity and even mediocrity do not mean that we have been forsaken by our glorified brothers and left for the servants of the prince of darkness. Contrarily, the more powerful the onslaught of the enemy's forces, the closer to us is help of the entire Church. If we cannot permit a bully to hurt our small brother before our eyes, then even more the saints, who have reached perfection in charity, are always ready to come to our rescue. And, in accordance with the words of the Savior, "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (Luke 15:7).
Our world is like a battlefield, and maybe it is in the center of the struggle in which God and Satan fight for each and every human soul. Indeed, the front line of this war goes far beyond the boundaries of our universe, and the Heavenly Church takes very vigorous action in the struggle with the dragon and its servants. We are able to watch only a minor portion of this arduous, tense spiritual war.
In order to see this battle in a wider scale, it should be looked at through the eyes of the Holy Visionary, the Apostle John the Theologian, the writer of the Book of Revelation.
The Church Militant.
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12).
The devil hates the good and persecutes those trying to set themselves free of his power. God permits devil to tempt people for their own benefit, as struggle with temptations helps man improve and strengthen spiritually. An ancient thinker was right, saying, "Without the devil and temptations, there would have been no saints."
Although the devil out of malice often sets off physical persecution of the faithful, it needs to be clearly understood and remembered that he can seize and ruin a man only through sin! Mean and experienced psychologist, the devil artfully adjusts his tactics of temptation to individual weaknesses of the man he wants to incline to sin. So he tempts lascivious people primarily with fleshly sins; people attached to material goods - with love of money; vainglorious people - with pride; pusillanimous and cowardly - with fear of persecutions, and so on. When the devil succeeds to incline a man to sin, then the devil wins; when a man repulses the temptation, then the man is the winner. Our entire life is woven out of episodic wins and losses. The summary will be made at the end of a man's life.
The pages of the Holy Scripture, secular and church histories, lives of saints and ordinary life stories contain, in a billion variations, reflections of visible details of the spiritual warfare between the devil and man. In this regard, the most expressive and bright example of writings describing this warfare, is the book of Apocalypse, or Revelation. This book was written by the Holy Evangelist John the Theologian on the island of Patmos during his exile under the Roman emperor Domitian. It is primarily dear for depicting the spiritual struggle between the powers of good and evil in its maximum fullness and comprehensiveness, and due to it a faithful person can see that he or she fights the evil not alone but with the help of God and the entire Heavenly Church. This book is especially valuable for revealing the extreme result of the warfare we are all willy-nilly involved in: utmost defeat of the devil, his punishment and punishment of all armies of evil, and eternal reward to all who fought him and did not surrender. What can be more comforting than knowing that good and life will be victorious after all!
Before we describe certain episodes of the spiritual warfare, depicted in the Revelation, we should say something about the book itself. Among the books of the Holy Scripture, the Revelation is the most complicated for comprehension. It is so because the book is written in the language of symbols and similarities. It does not describe events directly, but does it through picturesque images. The Revelation was not written this way in order to make it hard to understand; its goal was to demonstrate the spiritual core of the entire human history, summarize the original causes of all disasters ever occurred to the humankind, and vividly depict the abomination of sin and the beauty of righteousness.
Therefore the Apocalypse has two particular features: 1) combination of homogeneous events in one vision, and 2) repetitive description of complicated events from various perspectives. It is usually thought that the Book of Apocalypse only predicts what would happen in the latter days of antichrist and the end of the world. In reality, the Revelation does encompass the history of humankind, and Church history in its entirety. The end of the world and the judgment are described just as a natural completion of the past events. That is why the visionary draws one single apocalyptic picture for several events, which can be set apart by a space of centuries, but are very close in their essence. For example, combined in one vision are persecutions of Christians under Roman emperors in the early centuries of this era, massacres of Christians by the Arabs in the 7th through 9th centuries and by the Turks in the 14th through 18th centuries, persecution of the faithful by atheists in Communist countries of our days, and, at last, persecutions under the antichrist before the end of the world. In other words, a single vision would join elements of various historical epochs: Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero and Diocletian, Khozroi and Omar, Mohammed II and Murad III, Stalin, antichrist and the like all would merge into the image of the scary, many-headed beast. The value of such combination of facts in one description is that it allows rendering the essence of events; while out of precise description of each separate case we would receive only a list of superficial details but would not be able to grasp the essence.
Similar combinations of different historical episodes in the same one vision can be found elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures. For an instant, in His conversation about the end of the world, Our Savior overlaps this event with the devastation of Jerusalem under Titus in 70 A.D. He did it because the former foreshowed the latter.
Another example of such combination of events in a single picture is found in the description of the vision of the Woman in Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation.
"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them.
Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. 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" (Rev. 12:1-17).
The Woman clothed with the Sun is the Church. The moon, stars and the sun that decorate Her are to symbolize Her spiritual beauty and glory. Travails and pains of childbirth represent the austerities of Christians in the way of their spiritual rebirth. The red dragon is the devil with his servants. Of course, a few details of this description are unclear to us, but the sense and the result of spiritual warfare are obvious. The dragon proved to be powerless to hurt the Woman and destroy her children. The Woman's two wings can be perceived as fasting and prayer, which spiritually enrich a man and take one nearer to God. The flood that the dragon cast out after the Woman can be viewed as temptations. The dragon's allurements were swallowed up by the earth, which some Church Fathers understand as humbleness because no temptation can attract a humble man, committed and fully obedient to God. It is noteworthy that the faithful suffered no harm from the dragon and even overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. The flight into the wilderness can be understood both literally and figuratively when the faithful voluntarily and completely separate themselves from the sinful society and its vanity, in order to submerge entirely in spiritual life. Mentioning of Archangel Michael and other heavenly hosts that overthrew the dragon is obviously related to the time preceding the creation of our tangible universe, when the angels, who were faithful to God, expelled Lucifer's rebellious angels from the Paradise (it was the first revolution).
So it is doubtless that the vision of the Woman is a combination of events from different epochs. It also contains elements from the life of the Holy Virgin: birth of Christ (the Firstborn of the Church), and the flight to Egypt, and persecution of Christians in various periods.
In other apocalyptic visions, the Holy Apostle John reiterates the description of persecutions of the faithful but from a different perspective that will be discussed later. In Chapters 19 and 20 of Revelation, the Apostle John depicted the conclusive defeat of antichrist, false prophet and the ancient dragon, which would be thrown into the lake of fire the place of their never-ending torture.
Warrior for Christ.
"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3:21).
The Holy Scripture interprets the life's tests and sufferings as an opportunity of taking effort to achieve the supreme reward in Heaven. For example, in the Epistle of the Apostle Peter we read, "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:12).
The feats and sufferings of the righteous can be both voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary feats include fervent prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, abstinence from marriage, God-thinking and various works of piety, which lead to purification of heart and gaining of the grace of God. Since ancient times, people who wished to dedicate their entire lives to God in such efforts, have been receiving monastic vows. This type of feats is called reverence (prepodobnyie), and those canonized for it are known as reverend (prepodobnij). Involuntary feats may include standing persecutions, hardship, tortures and violent death for the sake of the Christian faith. Such feats are called martyrdom. These two forms of feats martyrdom and reverence are traced throughout the entire Church history, and each Christian would do one or the other to the extent of his or her ability and devotion.
In the book of Revelation we see representatives of both these forms of feats: martyrs in Chapters 6 and 7, and reverends in Chapter 14. The visions, retold in these chapters of the Revelation, show us the implementation of the Saviors promise, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3:21). The description of the Heavenly world starts with the vision of God Father.
"I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
And when those beasts give glory and honor and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev. 4:2-6, 8-11).
The crystal sea before the throne is a symbol of tranquility and placidity of the heavenly world as opposed to the troubled worldly life, which is like a sea raging in a tempest of vain misfortunes. The twenty-four elders around the throne are representatives of the Old Testament and the New Testament Church, prophets and apostles.
Further on from Chapter 5, the visionary turns to a more elaborate description of the throne and those who surround it. In the first place, he describes his vision of the Lamb of God, Who was in the midst of the throne and looked "as it had been slain," meaning that He looked like a lamb for the Jewish Passover sacrifice. Doubtlessly, we should interpret Lamb as the Son of God because John the Baptist said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The removal of seals from a mysterious book must signify the revelation of the mankind's history, which is known only to God until its fulfillment. Skipping the peculiarities of numerous events here, we are to see the results, revealed after the fifth seal gets opened.
"And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (Revelation 6:9-11).
It is significant that the dwellers of heaven, who foreknow of the persecutions, would not prevent them from happening because through persecution will the faithful receive the heavenly glory and 'fulfill the number' of winners that reached the heaven. Looking at the life through spiritual sight, we would view suffering for the sake of God as great honor and opportunity to partake in the glory of Christ, rather than necessity. The Holy Apostle Paul writes, "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29). Such suffering is just a superficial, exterior test for believers. Their spiritual self is absolutely out of reach for the devil and servants of evil, because the faithful are fenced off from the evil with the mysterious seal of God, which must be understood as the grace of the Holy Spirit.
"And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel... After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes" (Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17).
The number one hundred and forty four thousand same as other numbers in the Apocalypse has a symbolic significance, although it is not necessary to discuss it here. Having said about martyrs, the visionary proceeds to describe the efforts of reverend, venerable people who voluntarily undertook living in virginity and rejected having any property (mostly monks and nuns).
"And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God... Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them" (Revelation 14:1-5, 12-13).
Harps are to symbolize the great inner harmony achieved by virgins for their feat of purification of heart. Their moral cleanliness makes them especially close and dear to God.
Many visions of the Apocalypse tell about the tight spiritual relationship of the heavenly-worldly Church. Reading this sacred book, we see that saints take a very active part in all tests that their lesser brothers have to pass on the earth, and fortify them in such tests through their prayers. Their prayer is symbolically represented as incense offered from sacred censer, depicted in Chapter 8.
"And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand" (Revelation 8:3-4).
A man, submerged in routine vanity, does forget his heavenly homeland and that saints care for him. Our Orthodox church decorated with images of saints, and also supplication of saints during divine services, are the reminders of spiritual nearness of the heavenly Church Triumphant to us.
Should we read the cited visions of the Apocalypse with more attention, we will notice some amusing likelihood to the order of Liturgy of the Church. In the heaven, there is a throne and the slain Lamb, elders in gold crowns surrounding the throne, seven lanterns, censer with incense and hosts of bystanders. How similar it is to what happens in the altar during the Divine Liturgy! As in the heaven, we have a throne with the Lamb in the Holy Gifts of Eucharist, elders that are clergymen standing around the throne, a seven-branch lantern and censer with ascending sweet smoke. During the Liturgy, the clergy, cantors and the faithful join into one choir with angels and saints in the heaven, and as though with one mouth glorify the Creator, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory."
No other faith has divine services so close to divine services made in the heaven. How poor and idle-looking are sectarians' meetings, how void and unimpressive are their prayer halls against the background of our beautiful, inspiring Liturgies! This is why we must treasure spiritual riches of our Orthodox Church, and Her close connection with the Heavenly Church.
The Treasure of the Truth.
"I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 1:4).
Our Lord Jesus Christ defined the purpose of His coming into this world, saying, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37).
Consciousness ability to learn, think, contemplate and create, is the most precious faculty that the Maker endowed us with. It raises us above other living creatures and, to a certain extent, makes us similar to God. The most important capacity of consciousness is to recognize the truth, i.e. acquire the correct perception about an object or occurrence. Without this ability, consciousness would remain in a world of illusions, and would be absolutely useless. Consciousness, which is not enlightened with truth, is like a candle without fire, or river without water.
If cognition of the world and its physical laws is desirable, then cognition of spiritual truths is of even greater importance. They provide us with correct understanding of the God and His properties, cause and purpose of existence of universe and humans, reason of evil amongst people, nature and determination of man, spiritual world, goal of man's temporary life, the Savior and salvation of man, of what is good and what is evil, of death and resurrection, Judgment and eternal life, ways to overcome temptations, succeed in virtue, achieve perfection, and so on.
God, who granted humans with and honorable need of studying and learning, helps them to fulfill this wish. Thus, in the Old Testament patriarch's time, God revealed to His chosen the most elementary knowledge about Himself and about what is right and wrong. Later through Moses and other prophets God provided more details of the moral law, and also that the Messiah-to-come would save people from sin and death. Finally, in the New Testament time, through His Son, God revealed the truths of spiritual world in the fullest and most perfect degree. "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ," wrote the Evangelist John (John 1:17). In his current, physical condition, man is not able to perceive the truth deeper than it has been exposed by the Lord Jesus Christ to the Apostles. It does not exclude the possibility that, when spiritual horizons of man extend in the future life, he will become capable of a deeper and fuller insight into truth. The Apostle Paul writes about it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known [by God]."
Of course, the Lord Jesus Christ made the truth known to His contemporaries not exclusively for their sake but also for the sake of all future generations. By His care and the almighty power of the Holy Spirit, truth that at some point of time was opened to the Holy Apostles, has been preserved in the Church in its original purity, and will remain there until the end of time. Departing from His disciples, Jesus condoled with them, promising that soon the Holy Spirit would descend to strengthen them in truth. "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive... he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you... Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth" (John 14:16,17, 26; 16:13). It is noteworthy that Christ calls the Holy Ghost the Spirit of truth, letting us understand that revelation of truth to believers is primarily an action of the Third Person of the Most-Holy Trinity in the business of salvation of humankind. As opposed to the Spirit of truth, the devil is called the seducing spirit and father of lies, because dissemination of false ideas is the main weapon he uses to ruin people.
Heterodox Christians reduce the religious truth to what is contained in the Holy Scripture and reject the apostolic tradition, preserved by the Church, which is the spiritual experience She has collected. Such delimitation of sources of truth is incorrect due to two reasons. First, the Apostles did not write their epistles with the objective of giving a coherent and exhaustive exposition of the Christian doctrine. In their epistles, they either laid the basics of the teaching of Christ, or addressed problems that one or another Christian community had faced. "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able; For ye are yet carnal," wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:2). The Apostles usually preferred to teach orally. "I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto thee: But I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face" (3 John 13-14). Thus, the guidance of the Apostle John the Theologian and most of his conversations have not been recorded. But the Apostles exposed the Christian doctrine in its completeness and full detail to bishops who were their successors. The Apostle Paul instructed his disciple Timothy: "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2).
Much of what Paul taught Timothy and his other disciples, and also what other Apostles taught, was recorded by their successors. It was included in the Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Polycarp of Smyrnae, Ignatius the Theophoros and others), in the ancient Creeds, the order (rule) of Liturgy, Baptism, Chrismation and other sacred acts. Making ourselves acquainted with these ancient documents of Christian literature, we become convinced that the Church, rather than the Scripture, contains fuller truth.
Second, the Holy Scripture contains the words of the Holy Ghost, truths from supreme, and even divine spheres of existence. Therefore, in order to understand the Scripture fully, one needs assistance and guidance of the Holy Ghost. Existence of a great number of sects proves that many of those, who undertake to interpret the Holy Scripture, do not comprehend it. And it is not so due to complexity of its language the Apostles usually preached to simple, illiterate people. This means that the cause of misunderstanding of the Scripture is in human inability to accept the inspirations of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 2:14). Such misunderstanding can be conscious, but even more often unconscious, caused by man's sinfulness, corporeality, passions or other reasons. Sectarian preachers often err by 'clipping' a verse from the Scriptures and interpreting it out of the context of other related verses. They chose exactly a text that seems to support their prejudice, and ignore other quotes that refute it.
Sectarians' voluntary handling of the Word of God resulted in skepticism of many modern people toward the very idea of truth. Pontius Pilate was first to express the mindset of these skeptics. Hearing Jesus speak about truth, he ironically asked, "What is truth?" and turned to another topic before He could answer. But we believe that truth exists in the Church, because in Her acts the same Holy Ghost that guided the Apostles.
History has shown that in the matters of faith, infallibility does not belong to individual bishops, councils, and in no case to any certain nation. Infallibility in the matters of faith and moral is granted to the Church in Her wholeness, Her synodal harmony of bishops, clergy and all Orthodox believers. The Church in Her entirety constitutes the body of Christ, and the Lord Jesus Christ is Her Head. The Holy Apostle Paul witnessed the impeccable purity of teaching of the Church: "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27). That is why the Church is called "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).
Sometimes, heterodox preachers tell the right things. In this case they produce sparkles of the light, which glows its utmost in the Church. As physical light that lights the earth has only one source, the Sun, so all of the religious truth, irrespective of who uttered it, is a particle of the same spiritual light, which fully shines in the teaching of the Church. But the problem is that sectarians, who lure followers with these particles of light borrowed from the Church, mix them with particles of their own and sometimes satanic darkness.
So, in order to comprehend the words of the Holy Ghost correctly, one must ask for His guidance and assistance. It is also necessary to check that the truths we learn are in complete harmony with what the Church has always taught. The Holy Ghost cannot contradict Himself.
Truth remains in the Church not like a soulless treasure, inherited from ancient time, but as an eternally life-giving power. Different epoch, cultures and conditions of life pose specific problems to people. Guided by the Spirit of Truth, the Church addresses these problems and gives the right answers to Her children. Like a big tree that can change its appearance as it grows, still having the same nature, the teaching of the Church is always new and fresh in the visible form of its language, but it is essentially unchanged.
Cognition of truth in its fullness is not a one-off act of will but a process, which runs simultaneously with intellectual and spiritual development of an individual. The Gospel pronounced truth not merely for the enlightenment of mind, but for its spiritual improvement. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness," orders the Savior (Matthew 6:33).
The teaching of Christ is extremely rich in contents and is actually inexhaustible. It is designed to guide one's thoughts and will at any step of spiritual development. It can be applied to slaves and freemen, monks and married people, academics and illiterates, workers and kings. It indicates the way toward penance and correction for sinners; it directs and strengthens up those who are burdened and oppressed with toils; it gives wisdom and sanctifying grace to those who strive to reach perfection. About the purpose of learning of truth, the Lord said, "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32). Being free of darkness of delusion and serfdom of passions that is the genuine freedom granted to everyone who loves truth.
The Treasure of Holiness.
"For this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Holiness is a mysterious property of God. Neither human, nor angelic intellect can comprehend the holiness of God. When we speak about holiness, or sanctity of people, we mean sinlessness, purity, virginity, righteousness, and moral perfection in general. However, holiness of God, being inclusive of all virtues, also has an essence that is incomprehensible for us. It is the prevalent property of God's Nature. Seeing His impregnable holiness, the angelic beings that are close to God exclaim, "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah, Chapter 6).
All that comes from God, or whatever His grace-filled power touches, becomes sanctified and sacred. That is why sacred is the Scripture, which is the Word of God, sacred are God's churches, sacred are prayers, sacraments and services of the Church. Holy are angels, prophets, Apostles and other bearers of God's grace. People and things that touch sacred objects also become sanctified.
In this sense, God's holiness can be compared to some very precious ointment (Matthew 26:7) that gives its own sweet fragrance to everything it touches. It should be very clear that there is no holiness without God. A certain virtue can be one's natural property, or can be gained through one's effort. Every kind and honest person, even though he is a pagan, can be said to be virtuous. But only someone sanctified by God can be saint. That is why holiness and sanctity can also be likened to light, without which even gold would be as black as charcoal. The degree of one's holiness is determined by the degree of one's partaking in the holiness of God.
"The will of God, even your sanctification," wrote Apostle Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Sanctification of faithful is made in the Church. "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water (baptism) by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27). Thus, God made the Church sort of an exquisite vessel that contains the precious ointment of God's holiness.
The Church is holy due to Her mysterious unity with God. The Son of God did incarnate in order to unite the faithful with Himself. The unity with God is accomplished through partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ. Joining in with God in the Eucharist, the faithful at the same time merge in one mysterious union the Church. This union is so powerful and effective that all faithful become one mysterious body with Jesus Christ as its Head. Sanctification of the faithful in the Church is completed by the grace of the Holy Ghost.
The sanctifying power of God acts in the Church abundantly. The Church sanctifies everything that She engulfs with Her action. Sanctification of man starts in the Sacrament of Baptism, which washes off any filth of sin from him. Baptism serves as sort of a doorway to the Church, where a newly baptized believer receives access to all Her grace-filled sacraments. The sanctifying power of the Church stretches not only to the Christians who actively pursue moral perfection, but also to their families. In a word of the Apostle, "the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife ... else were your children unclean; but now are they holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14). Members of the Church, who are passive or indifferent to virtue, become sanctified as well when they this way or other come in touch with divine services and ecclesiastical objects. The Church sanctifies the human mind through reading of the Word of God, singing of hymns and prayers, and through sacred images (icons); She sanctifies bodies, houses, food, harvests and various things through sprinkling of holy water. She cleanses off sins and heals infirmities in the Sacrament of Confession.
Grace does sanctify not only one's spirit but also one's physical self. The visible sanctification comes into effect immediately, and the inner one takes a harder and longer journey because it depends on sensitivity of a certain person. As fragrance and shine can have different degrees, so differ the degrees of sanctity. Sanctity may be compared to the mysterious ladder, seen by the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 28), which stood on the ground but reached the heaven with its top. In the process of acquiring sanctity, one's psychology and attitudes must change. There must be an effort of will, desire, continuity, in order to have man's moral qualities come nearer to the most perfect properties of All-Holy God. This is why inner sanctification often walks a thorny and winding path. Rare are the people who, like St. Seraphim of Sarov, longed for God since their childhood, and continuously ascended in the way of righteousness until the very old age. The majority experiences alternate periods of religious inspiration and apathy, spiritual scarcity and even transgressions. Because of this, in the real life the Church must not be demanded to contain sinless people only. The Holy Evangelist John wrote, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
This is exactly the reason why the Lord Jesus Christ likened the Church to a field where wheat and weeds grow next to each other, or why in the parable about the ten virgins He mentioned the five who were foolish whose lamps went out while they were sleeping. Our life is not some frozen expectation, but a process, growth that takes different pace with different people. With His grace, God calls everyone to Himself, without any violence, waiting for one's own wish. Some become cleaner and better as they reach their old age, others die without repentance. It is only in the life to come that evil will be completely separated from good.
Speaking about holiness of the Church, we must remember that Her holiness is not a result of holiness of Her members. God, not people, is the source of holiness. That is why the Apostles in their epistles called all Christians saints, despite the fact that among them there were imperfect and even sinful people (Acts 6:1; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4; 1 Corinthians 4:8; 1 Corinthians 6:1-9; Galatians 5:5; 2 Peter 2:13). It is not right to think that the Church is constituted only of morally perfect people. The sanctifying power of the Church is not diminished by the presence of unworthy members. Everything sinful and worldly that invades the terrain of the Church would remain alien to Her and would be destined to trashing away and elimination as though weeds in a field. As time passed, the word 'saint' has come to mean only the most perfect champions of faith, for example, martyrs for the sake of Christ and righteous people, glorified by God through wonders and miracles.
Yet many heterodox Christians love to call themselves saints. They join this name with an elevated opinion about their own virtues. But we have already said that holiness is not a mere result of virtue: it is partaking in the holiness of God. The name of saints cannot be applied to sectarians because they alienate themselves from the sanctifying power of the Church. They have damaged the purity of faith in Christ, denied God-established priesthood, rejected sacraments, and have got no communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. In a word, they have cut off all conductors of holiness God had provided.
Intellect controls a man's actions, and thats why sanctification of soul starts from intellect. That is why the Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the faithful, asking His Heavenly Father to enlighten their minds, "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." And to the Apostles, who learned truth, He said, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you" (John 15:3). This makes it very important to study the Word of God regularly. Without enlightenment of intellect, the soul would remain in darkness and separation from God.
In our Church, we, the Orthodox, possess the wholeness of Christ's truth, all sanctifying sacraments, the entire spiritual treasure of gifts of the Holy Ghost. We must thank God daily for giving us the honor of being members of His Church. "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light," wrote the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:9) to reassure Christians. Let's try to justify this honorable name in our lives!
The Mountain of the Lord.
"Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways" (Isaiah 2:3).
Being the children of the grace-filled Kingdom of God, we have been taught since childhood to believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. However, few of us probably know that these precious properties of the Church had been revealed and explained by the Old Testament prophets long before the Christian era. During a divine service, when we hear, "Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem" ... "A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel" ... "Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion" and other similar words, we know that they are not about the exaltation of the Jewish nation, but about the glory of the Church to which we belong. Still, some are bewildered: why 'Zion', 'Jerusalem', 'Israel' and other such names cannot be replaced with the word 'Church'? The reason to retain these archaic names in our divine services is that for people from the most ancient times they have become sacred and dear symbols of the Kingdom of God. As we will see, these symbols do reveal the mysterious nature of the Church of Christ to us, and at the same time offer images of Her forthcoming glory.
Long before Christianity, the Old Testament prophets prepared spiritual soil, and made a religious foundation for the Kingdom of God among people. In those far-away times when other nations deified various objects and elements of nature, the Jewish people worshipped the true God. After the Kings David and Solomon, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of God built on Mount Zion, became the only places in the world to glorify the Name of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. At times reality could be different, but the Old Testament temple, the city of Jerusalem and Mount Zion had to be the holy sites. It had been predicted that the Messiah, the Savior of mankind would manifest Himself here; it was here that atonement of people and descent of the Holy Ghost would take place, and the Kingdom of God would also start from here. The Israelites were called to be the first nation to join the Kingdom of God, and indeed, many of them became the first Christians and saints.
It was nothing but natural that prophets, speaking about the forthcoming Kingdom of God, made use of names familiar and dear to their contemporaries Zion, Jerusalem and others as symbols of God's Kingdom-to-come. The King David was first of all prophets to call the Kingdom of God "the holy mount," "Zion" or "Jerusalem." Predicting enthronement of the Messiah and the defeat of His enemies in Psalm 2, David wrote: "Yet [says God the Father] have I set my king [God the Son] upon my holy hill of Zion" (Psalms 2:6). After David, prophets often likened the Kingdom of God to a MOUNT. Majesty of mount represents the grandeur of the Church, Her unity and oneness. King David was first to write about the holiness of the Church. After David, the prophet Isaiah often wrote about the Kingdom of God, calling it the Mount of Zion or the Mountain of the House of God. For example, in the following prophecies he spoke about the future glory of the Messianic Kingdom.
"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:2-3).
It is noteworthy that this prophecy clearly foretold that many nations would join the Church. This truth was then often repeated and reconfirmed by other prophets (see Psalm 22:28 and 72:10-17, Isaiah 42:1-12, 49:6, 54:12-14, Daniel 7:13-14, Haggai 2:6-7). A little later, the prophet Isaiah described the moral revival, which would occur to the members of grace-filled Messianic Kingdom, making people even brutal and cruel as though wild beasts turn meek and kind:
"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb ... And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek" (Isaiah 11:6-10, see also Romans 15:12).
In today's Church, inner renovation of man takes place, but complete security, tangible peace and welfare will occur only after the Last Judgment and renewal of entire nature. Chapters 25 through 27 of the Book of Isaiah further develop the leitmotif of the previous prophecy, and describe glory and bliss that will triumph on the mountain of God by the end of time.
"And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth ... For in this mountain shall the hand of the LORD rest ... Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in. Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee ... And it shall come to pass in that day, that the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the LORD in the holy mount at Jerusalem" (Isaiah 25:6-8, 10; 26:2, 20; 27:13).
Egypt and Assyria here are symbols of the kingdom of evil, as is Babylon in other prophecies. The prophet Daniel, who lived about 300 years after Isaiah, returned to the symbol of mountain in one of the visions he described. Below are the key features of that vision:
"A stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth..." The prophet Daniel gave the following explanation to this vision: "In the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever" (Daniel 2:34-35, 44).
In this vision, as well as in other places in the Scriptures, stone is a symbol of the Messiah. The image, broken by the Stone, implies heathen kingdoms. The mountain, i.e. the Church, will spread through the whole earth. She will outlive all kingdoms of earth, and will exist forever. This vision is very close to the prediction Jesus Christ made to the Apostle Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). It is noteworthy in the Old Testament prophecies about the Kingdom of God that despite the extensive usage of names like Zion and Jerusalem in them there is absolutely no narrow-minded nationalism, which became a common disease of the Jews at the time of the Roman rule. The Old Testament prophecies about the Kingdom of God constantly emphasized universality and all-inclusiveness of the Church.
After the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, had come on the earth and the Kingdom of God had spread among the various nations of the Roman Empire, the Old Testament's symbols of the Church did not lose their meaning. On the contrary, the Apostles, and then saints and compilers of prayers for divine services, broadly used them when speaking about the Kingdom of God. For example, in his Epistle to the Hebrews the Holy Apostle Paul used the image of a mountain, well known to Christians, to speak about majesty and universality of the Church:
"Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant" (Hebrews 12:22-24).
In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John described the vision of the Church Triumphant, again with the image of the Holy Mountain: "And, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads" (Revelation 14:1; 144 thousand is, of course, a symbolic number, that is 12 by 12 by 1000, signifying a great multitude of the saved). The ancient image of Church as the Holy Mount Sion left so deep an imprint that it is reproduced in the Paschal hymn, "Shine, shine, new Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord has shone upon thee. Rejoice now and merry, Sion." (Cf. Isaiah 60:1). Thus, we see the symbols of the Holy Mount Sion and Jerusalem thread throughout almost all of the Old and New Testaments. They speak for unity, holiness and catholicity of the Church. Yet in the Holy Scripture there are other images of the Kingdom of God: vine yard, tree, field, sheep yard, and so on. However, the symbol of a mountain rather than any other symbol emphasizes the main purpose of the Church, which is to lead people upward, toward God. As a mountain has its base on the ground but touches sky with its top, so the Church exists and operates in the world to guide people and draw them to God.
The world does, in a way, lie at the foot of the mountain of God. Individual people and entire nations come up to this mountain and, having adopted the Christian faith, start climbing or grow spiritually. As people come nearer to God, they become closer to each other at the same time: their cultural and national differences pull back to secondary positions, while their faith and grace come to the foreground. That is why, as the Apostle says, in the Church "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11).
Putting it bluntly, only the Orthodox faith does indeed lead man upward. Only this faith possesses the great treasure of spiritual experience of saints. Only this faith can revitalize man through Her grace-filled sacraments, transforming one into a 'new creature'. The heterodox world rejected sacraments and spiritual experience of saints, and by doing so it closed the road of its own spiritual revival. Despite the acclaim of heterodox preaching and sometimes-broad humanitarian activity, there is no real ascension to God, as though heterodox Christians just roam in circles at the foot of the holy mountain.
No nomads but citizens.
"When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son "
The "fullness of time" should be understood as the God-established timeframe for mankind to ripe up for acceptance of ideas that underlie the Kingdom of God among people. As we know, our Lord Jesus Christ in His conversations and especially in parables called His Church the Kingdom of God. The Holy Evangelists alternately use similar terms: "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God." The Kingdom of God relates to the Church on earth, Church Militant, and the Kingdom of Heaven mostly implies the heavenly Church Triumphant. In fact, both these spheres make up one Church of Christ, one Kingdom of God.
Referring to the Church as a Kingdom is a later usage in the Bible. This term had not existed twenty or fifteen hundred years before the nativity of Christ, when tribes just started to join into states. However, by the time of apparition of the Savior, the shape of people's communities matured. It is especially true for the Roman Empire with its sophisticated structure of state. Emperor was head of state; there was a legislative body, Senate, and an elaborate system of judiciary with circumspect laws. In fact, Roman law laid the basis of legislation of Western Europe and Russia. The empire was divided into provinces, also called proconsulates. These were governed by proconsuls, governors and sometimes local 'kings' (like king Herod of Judea). A well-trained army, organized in legions, led by generals, chief captains and centurions, guarded the vast empire.
When Jesus Christ used the word 'Kingdom' referring to the Church, His audience could understand that He meant a certain society with a well-defined structure. It should be obvious that Jesus called the society, which He was creating, a Kingdom, because He intended to provide it with a certain structure that would have some features in common with kingdoms of men.
This commonness is disclosed in the following comparisons. A regular kingdom always has one ruler, and all spheres of state's life are subordinate to him. In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ is one King and Head of the Church. Each kingdom must have its laws and customs that guide and regulate its life. It is assumed that one lives in his kingdom, and if one comes to dislike it due to any reason, he would be free to move to another country. However, while living in a certain kingdom, one is obliged to obey all of its laws and customs. In the same manner, one is free to become a Christian and a member of the Church; nobody would be forced to do it. But being a member of the Church, one should comply with Her teaching and abide by the commandments of God. One cannot say that he agrees with some commandments and disagrees with others, that something suits him and something else does not.
Citizens, abiding by their country's laws, receive access to a variety of privileges granted by their kingdom. For example, one objective of every state is to protect its citizens, immunity of their property and reputation, care for their welfare, children, elders and handicapped members of society in general. In a similar way, the Church cares about Her members, i.e. the faithful. And in the first place, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself takes care of and provides protection to the faithful: "I am the good shepherd ... neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand " In order to bring believers up in the true faith, and lead them to salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ installed prophets, apostles, bishops and pastors, as it is written, "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the [moral] perfecting of the saints [Christians], for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-15).
In regular states, every able-bodied citizen would bear certain responsibilities with respect to the society, pursuant to his title and position, and everybody would contribute his bit of work in order to better the life in his country. So in the Church, each member must not be a 'consumer' only, but should also try to be useful for others.
So Jesus Christ wished that the believers would not live separately, and gathered them in one community, one spiritual family the Church, with Her members tied with one faith and mutual love. He provided the Church with an appropriate structure and grace-filled sacraments so that each believer, guided by more experienced members of the Church and strengthened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, would reach the Kingdom of Heaven in an easier and more straightforward manner.
At the very beginning, when the Church was just coming into existence, the Christians of Jerusalem lived as one loving family as though of one heart and of one soul (Acts 4:32). The rich gave their property away to the apostles who used it to help those in need. The believers gathered for prayer, listened to the teachings of the holy apostles, and received communion of the Holy Gifts almost daily.
When the Christian Church began to spread from Jerusalem to other countries, the apostles set up communities of believers, small churches, in every town and village where they preached. These churches always had rooms for common prayer, reading of the Word of God and communion of the Holy Gifts. A distinguishing feature of these communities was that the believers took care of their sick, elderly and orphans. These small churches jointly made up one Catholic Church.
For governing of different churches, instruction of the faithful and delivery of divine services the apostles ordained bishops, priests (presbyters) and deans.
Little by little, due to communication between separate Christian communities, the order of divine services became defined, uniform ecclesiastic customs and regulations were established. Fasting days and periods were set, the sign of cross came into usage, church vestments were introduced that were made after a certain model, church hymns were compiled. In line with it, the first compositions for defense and explication of faith were written, and councils of bishops were held to discuss and resolve some Church issues.
Having suffered brutal persecutions from the Jews and heathens during the first three centuries of Her existence, the Christian Church of all subsequent centuries up to mid-9th century withstood a severe internal struggle with various heresies, which threatened to distort the apostolic teaching radically. The Church defended the purity of teaching of Christ during the Universal Councils, and by the middle of the 9th century achieved the perfect and complete beauty of a balanced doctrine of faith, elaborate order of church services, rich assets of prayers, hymns and rituals. This is how gradually, through efforts of many generations the church life took the shape we have today in the Orthodox Church.
The fullness of divine revelation is contained in the Holy Scripture and Tradition of the Church. Jointly they bear one and unchangeable doctrinal tradition. A powerful means for improvement in spiritual life is the Sacrament of Communion, by which a believer partakes with the Savior. The Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of the incarnate Son of God.
The greatest treasures of the Church are the truth and the grace of the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ promises that the Church shall be a fortress that cannot be conquered: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
A man, seeking to save his soul, needs to belong to the Church of Christ this infinite college of believers, headed by the Lord Jesus Christ, that contains a great multitude of holy people who pleased God, apostles, martyrs, saint confessors, venerable and righteous people of all times. He needs to learn his Orthodox faith and clearly understand its advantages over non-Orthodox doctrines. He should also help other seekers of truth to find it in the Orthodox faith. When explaining the faith to someone, a believer should avoid disputes and debates that result in animosity. To love God and one's neighbor is most important in Christian life.
Missionary Leaflet # E83
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
(kingdom_god .doc, 02-26-2002)
Irina GuzeGuzel NabBarrett