The Expectant Church
There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children
She didn't know what to do.
Actually, the whimsical nursery rhyme comes pretty close to capturing the thrust of the prophecy in Isaiah 49:18, 20-21!
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church may be large or small, but in either case ought not play the numbers game.
Jesus Christ can and will build his church according to heaven's counsel, which means that the exact number of sinners whom he will save through the instrumentality of the OPC is eternally fixed. We have other marching orders: to stay faithful to the word of the gospel in doctrine and life.
But should we expect numerical growth? Believers from other denominations come to our congregations, and that's good (usually). But, where are those newly converted to faith in Christ? They're there, to be sure, and we are very thankful to God for them. But there seem to be so few of them.
I believe we sometimes do think too small, reflecting a close-to-zero missions mentality. By saying this, I don't mean that we don't dream dreams and imagine great results, even numerically. Rather, I mean that we sometimes exhibit this mentality: “There really are hardly any Reformed Christians around, and there probably won't be all that many around tomorrow, either.” So we engage in evangelism in fits and starts, with more or less zeal, often starting more than we finish.
Before the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament church, Isaiah spoke, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of coming numerical growth as already taking place before his eyes.
This text addresses us today, strikingly, with this pronouncement: In the church, the Lord provides numerical growth according to his sovereign purposes, though often to the amazement of his own people.
The Apparent Lack of Growth
Isaiah's prophecy employs the figure of a woman and her children. Zion (Jerusalem) is the woman, and the people of Judah are her children. But the Captivity has taken place, and Zion has lost her children. She is “bereaved and barren … exiled and rejected … left all alone.” Far from church growth, there had been church decrease, to the point of extinction! It seemed as though the church had died out altogether. Had the Lord forsaken and forgotten his purpose and promise for the Jews?
No, he had not! Judah would no more be forgotten by God than would a mother forget the baby at her breast (vs. 15). And even if that should happen, contrary to ail natural instincts, God assures Zion that he will never forget her.
The OPC is minuscule in comparison with many other denominations. And we ask, Where are the evidences of growth? It is true enough that we ought to be more concerned with the spiritual growth of the people we have rather than bemoaning the people we don't have. Yet, there is still place for a proper sense of bereavement, I think. Why are we not seeing a greater impact – yes, numerically – upon our communities and our world? We seem so barren, like Zion, years ago.
The Lord Provides the Growth
The truth of the matter is that, even as Zion bemoaned her barrenness, the Lord was at work, preserving and even increasing his church – in captivity! Soon they would return from there, and cry in Jerusalem's ears, “This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in.” To the grieving woman, Zion, came the wonderful promise that she would have so many children, she won't know what to do.
I wish and pray that for the OPC.
And, although I may not be able to pronounce it so on the basis of this text, I can confidently say that the OPC is part of the fulfillment of the promise contained in this text. That fulfillment goes beyond merely the return of the Jews to Palestine under the providential direction of Cyrus, the Persian (cf. vss. 22-23). It is found ultimately in the kingdom of God brought about through Jesus the Messiah. Gentiles, peoples, Pentecost! The passage is being fulfilled by the worldwide expansion of the church through the proclamation of the gospel – children born to Zion by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
Zion was looking to the wrong person for growth. She looked at herself and could only despair. But the apostle John would later correct her – the kingdom of God consists of “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God” (John 1:13).
The Church's Amazement at Her Growth
“Who bore me these?” wondered Zion. Humanly speaking, it was impossible for the church to grow and be nourished in captivity, How about her continued existence? She was anything but optimistic, looking at the situation from a purely human perspective.
So, when the Lord provided the growth, her mouth fell open! She just couldn't believe that she had borne a child – actually, many children. Quintuplets!
She shouldn't have been so amazed – thankful, yes, but not amazed that God had been faithful to his promises to Abraham. Did she think that he would forget?
The OPC should be, instead of an amazed church, a prepared, busy, and grateful church. When the Word of God, the seed of new birth, is present, we should expect growth! When we don't preach and witness the word of the gospel, then the blame for barrenness is ours. But when we do, we have every reason to confidently await God's blessing.
The Holy Spirit is the regenerator – we aren't. That's why the church shouldn't be so amazed when growth occurs. If we think that we can win people into our congregations, then it will be truly amazing if anybody does come in. We just don't have the competence to build the church. But God does, and we may expect him to.
Enlarge the Place of Your Tent
I must resist the temptation to think small. By faith, and in obedience to the Word of God, I hear those children crying out, “Make the place bigger; it's way too small for us!” But my faith is weak; there is still too much flesh in me. I'm thinking too much about the OPC and her admittedly great needs – officers, spiritual gifts, money, strength. When I think about those things too much, I don't see all those children out there hollering for space!
That's my problem, my unbelief. God help me. And God help you, if you share my problem. “I will beckon,” says the sovereign Lord (vs. 22), and when he beckons, things happen.
When people learn to trust God for growth – yes, even numerical growth – they are in a position to bestir and exert themselves, as instruments of that growth. Then they are ready to be the nursing mothers of these children.
There is a factor, crucial to our understanding of the responsibility that God lays upon us the church, and thus upon the OPC, which is easy to overlook. There is a generation of baptized rebels in the United States just now. Many of the large denominations have failed to exercise church discipline. So, there they are – hordes of baptized people who are not following Christ.
They are baptized, identified as people of God, but living for other gods – gods of materialism and pleasure. Sunday NFL football takes priority over the public worship of God. Calling themselves Christians, they live for themselves. And no one says them nay – not even the church, upon whose roll their names lie.
What, of them? Well, in one sense at least, the church is a lot bigger than we thought! The body of people who say that they are Christians is whopping big! They're all around us, by the millions. And we need to command them: “Come back to Christ, to discipleship and loyalty to him! Forsake the way of apostasy and death.” God says that he will give the growth. The children are there. Go to them. Call them back. Bring them, on your shoulders, if necessary. Enlarge your expectations. Be done with surprise at extraordinary blessings. Pray and give.
Our goal is not growth, but God's glory. Don't expend energy looking about and counting noses. Growth is presumed; it's a nonissue.
The secret things belong to the Loan our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.Deuteronomy 29:29