John 10:26-28 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. (27) My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (28) I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
It is absolutely crucial that we regularly remind ourselves regarding the difference between the visible church and the true church. Otherwise we are going to get into all kinds of trouble.
With some sad frequency I hear from people who profess to be Christians and who have been mistreated or abused in their church, and as a result they speak of “the church” as being hypocritical, condemning, unloving, unforgiving. Recently one such person said that they would rather hang out with the most wicked in the world rather than having anything to do with “the church.” Why? Because, as she said, “the church” is condemning and judgmental and hypocritical. Better to have worldlings as companions than those in “the church.”
Do you see the problem? This lady lumps all who profess to know Christ together into one big mass and calls it “the church.” She fails to differentiate between the visible church and the invisible church. So let’s clear this up.
We know, as Christ plainly said in John chapter 10, that His flock consists of His true sheep. Sheep who know Him. Sheep who hear His voice and who only follow Him. Sheep who will not follow a stranger. And we also know that on the Day when He comes in judgment, MANY will come to him and boast about all the great works they did for Him. But He will say to them “I never knew you.” In contrast, His true sheep on His right hand will be known and welcomed by Him.
So you see it? There is a true church, and there is a false church. There is the visible church which we can see on this earth. Your local church is part of that visible church. You can go to it. You can see the people in it. You can touch it, you might say. But then there is the invisible church which you cannot see. Why? Because it consists of all true Christians from all eras and all places, including those who are in heaven now. We will see this church one day, but you cannot see it now. It is a vast host that no one can number.
Now, what characterizes the visible church? It contains false sheep. Hypocrites. Pharisees. Not all members of the visible church are such. No, some are genuine Christians. But the visible church is a mixture and sadly it is often the wicked counterfeits who set the reputation of the local church. They are often the “movers and shakers” of the visible church. They are the children of Ishmael, products of the flesh rather than of the Spirit, who even to this day persecute the real children of Abraham.
But if we fail to discern these two churches, the true and the false, the invisible and the visible, then we are going to end up wanting nothing to do with Christ’s church. We are going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are going to wrongly accuse and reject Christ’s bride whom He died for.
So when I hear someone say “I will have nothing to do with the church.” I immediately ask them – “well, just what “church” are you talking about?” Because to reject the true bride of Christ, to malign the yet imperfect body of Christ, is to reject the people for whom Christ bled and whom He has loved from eternity past. It is also to reject the very nature of Christ’s salvation and what He effects in His true people when He regenerates us. He does not leave us wallowing in our sins. He does not keep calling us sinners or hypocrites. No. He calls us saints, holy ones, children of God, sons of Abraham, new creations, and a whole host of other glorious names.
Our challenge today then is to discern, by His Spirit, those who really are His sheep, and those who are not. How? His sheep hear His voice. They follow Him. They will not follow a stranger. Look around you. See them? They are there if you will look, and if you yourself are one of them.
Many of you and myself included have been sorely mistreated by people who claim to be Christians. By pastors who claim to speak for Christ. By local churches that claim to be the body of Christ. Well, here is encouraging news. It wasn’t Christ or His people who did this to us. Oh, for a time a real Christian can be deceived and in naivete be duped by the wicked. But their eyes will eventually be opened. Such people (and they aren’t many, they are a “remnant” you know) will come back to us and ask for forgiveness and confess their sin against us. But Christ’s true church will never side with evil in the end. What we have not fully understood is simply this: many if not most local churches today are not Christ’s churches. We have suffered at the hands of counterfeits just like the blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9. And like him, we find Jesus outside the formal temple.