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When we look at how the word “church” is used in the New Testament, we notice that it is used in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is used to refer to a specific local gathering of believers. We see this, for example, in 1 Corinthians 11:18 when Paul says, “In the first place, when you come together as a church . . .” Similarly, Jesus, talking about how to deal with a brother who has sinned against us, says: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). “Church” in these texts cannot refer to every believer around the world.

In a number of cases, the word “church” is used to speak of Christians within a certain geographical region without specifying one particular congregation. In Acts 8:3, for example, we are told, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Saul was ravaging more than one local congregation. In Acts 9:31, we read: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” This had to do with believers in a number of cities in a large region.

Finally, some passages use the word “church” in a more universal sense, referring to all believers. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He isn’t talking about this or that local church. He’s talking about the universal church. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, writes, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” God did not bestow gifts only on the local Corinthian church. He bestowed gifts on the entire church. In Ephesians 1:22–23, Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The body of Christ is not limited to the local church in Ephesus. This, too, is a reference to the entire church.

Speaking of the universal church, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1 explains:

The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.

When we consider the church in this larger sense, the Bible forces us to make several distinctions in addition to those between the local church and the universal church. The distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, for example, helps us understand the difference between those who profess faith and are regenerate and those who profess faith without having been regenerated. It is a way of distinguishing among the kinds of seed that Jesus speaks of in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15).

The biblical doctrine of the church triumphant is a great encouragement because it describes the blessing that we look forward to when our earthly battle is over.

Another important distinction that has been made since the early centuries of the church is between the church militant and the church triumphant. This distinction is necessary given that the church consists of the whole number of the elect because some of those elect have died and are now present with the Lord while others among the elect are still here on earth. Those in the church who are still on earth are the church militant. They are called this because they are still engaged in warfare with the world (John 15:19; Rev. 17:14), the flesh (Rom. 8:7; Gal. 5:17), and the devil (Eph. 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8). The life of the church on earth is a life of warfare (Eph. 6:10–20).

Those who have finished their earthly battle join the ranks of the church triumphant. The church triumphant is enjoying rest and the blessedness of being in the presence of God. The sixteenth-century Reformed theologian Girolamo Zanchi explained it this way:

But we acknowledge, that this church, though it is, and ever was one: yet it is so distinct, that one part is triumphant in heaven with Christ, already raised from death, and sitting at the right hand of the Father: another part on earth, fighting still with flesh & blood with the world and the devil. Whereupon arises that usual distinction among all the godly writers of the church, of the triumphant and militant church.

In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed churches denied that there is a third division in addition to the church militant and triumphant. They denied the doctrine of purgatory, which taught that most believers at death have to undergo a period of purification before they are admitted into the presence of God. They also denied the Roman Catholic doctrine of a separate place for Old Testament saints. They argued that all believers of all ages belong to the church triumphant when they die. The early-seventeenth-century Reformed text Synopsis of a Purer Theology explains:

The pious who have died under either of both testaments are not just enjoying some heavenly joy apart from the presence of God, as some of the great men used to think, but that they are fully enjoying true and unbroken blessedness in God’s very presence. Even so we do not deny that some degree of happiness is kept aside for them until the last day, when [their souls] will be joined to their bodies.

The biblical doctrine of the church triumphant is a great encouragement because it describes the blessing that we look forward to when our earthly battle is over. It is also helpful because it reminds us that the consummate victory will not be accomplished this side of glory.

The doctrine of the church triumphant reminds us that when we die, we will be with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Philippians 1:21–23, Paul writes:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (See also 2 Cor. 5:6–8)

This is true for us as well. For us, to live is Christ and to die is gain. For us, to depart and to be with Christ is far better.

In this life we wage constant warfare, and we are wearied with the remnants of sin in our flesh, with burdens, and with sorrows. But when we are present with the Lord, we are freed from these burdens, and we receive great blessings prepared for us by God.

Some of the most breathtakingly beautiful descriptions of that which awaits us are found in the book of Revelation. In chapter 7, John describes a vision he has of believers around the throne of God:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:9–12)

John describes a glorious sight of believers from every tribe and tongue and nation surrounding the throne and worshiping the Lamb. This is what we have to look forward to. When we die, we will truly be able to worship the Lord without ceasing.

If you are a follower of Christ, be encouraged by this. Whatever suffering you are experiencing now will not last forever. The sorrow will not last forever. Christ has already won the victory, and we will soon surround His throne and praise Him forevermore. And here’s the best part: as great as the blessings are that we receive when we die, God has even more blessings in store for us at the last day. Recall what the Synopsis of a Purer Theology said: “Even so we do not deny that some degree of happiness is kept aside for them until the last day, when their souls will be joined to their bodies.” We will enjoy inexpressible blessings when we die and join the church victorious. But there are more blessings to come.

At the resurrection on the last day, our bodies will be raised incorruptible and free from sin, and, we will be whole, our bodies and souls reunited (1 Cor. 15:35–58). In addition, the entire creation that currently groans will be renewed (Rom. 8:18–23). We will inhabit a new creation, a new heavens and earth, free from sin and death and all the sorrows that accompany them. This is the inheritance we have because of what Jesus did for us. Have you ever looked at what your eternal inheritance is?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1–4)

No more death. No more crying. No more pain. No more cardiology or oncology waiting rooms. No more tragic phone calls at 2 a.m. No more funerals. And as great as that is, it’s nothing compared to the greatest blessing of our inheritance: God will dwell with us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:1–5)

The greatest blessing of the new heavens and new earth isn’t the absence of pain. The greatest blessing is the presence of God. We who deserved an eternal inheritance in the lake of fire will instead be in the presence of God. And we will get to see the One who died for every one of our sins. We will get to see our Savior, Jesus, face-to-face.

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