16 Feb ARTICLE—Building transformational communities
I wrote an article that has just been published by Ministry Magazine on Transformational communities and how this relates to the work of those preparing for the return of Jesus. The original article that was also published online can be found here.
The apostle John records a voice from heaven crying “come out from her, my people” (Rev. 18:4, LEB), referring to Babylon. It would seem, then, that to prepare for the return of Jesus, we must deliver this message.
But what does it mean to call people out of Babylon? Understanding one aspect of the Old Testament background of this call may provide a fresh and compelling insight that can help focus our pastoral calling within an eschatological movement.
The call to “come out”
The call to “come out” of Babylon in Revelation 18:4 alludes to a number of Old Testament passages.1 Isaiah declares this message while looking toward a future Babylonian exile, and Jeremiah speaks it while God’s people are still in captivity. However, Zechariah’s call, about 520 b.c., comes once a remnant has already returned to Jerusalem. This timing may be helpful for understanding how Revelation 18 provides a foundation for the remnant’s mission before Jesus returns. As the time of the Babylonian exile came to a close, Cyrus believed God chose him to fulfill the words spoken through Jeremiah to restore the temple. Cyrus issued a decree for any willing persons to return to Jerusalem for that purpose (Ezra 1:1–4). Zerubbabel led a remnant back to Jerusalem, but after just a year of opposition by the surrounding people, the remnant became discouraged with the rebuilding program and resigned themselves to staying at home. After 15 years of inaction, God spoke through Haggai, part of the remnant himself, to the timid materialists in Jerusalem, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4, ESV). About two months later, Zechariah, also part of this remnant, addressed those in Jerusalem, but then, facing their relatives still living in Babylon, cried, “ ‘Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,’ declares the Lord. ‘Come, Zion! Escape, you who live in Daughter Babylon!’ ” (Zech. 2:6, 7).2 But why does Zechariah call to the remnant’s relatives to leave Babylon? It is quite clear that God is going to bring judgment on Babylon, and the lingering Jews would not want to be caught up in that destruction. However, the wider context of the story is the call to those in Babylon to join their relatives in Jerusalem. The call to join the remnant was a call to help in the specific purpose that inspired the remnant to leave Babylon in the first place—to restore the temple (Ezra 1:3). The restoration of God’s sanctuary was the primary, driving motivation for the remnant originally leaving Babylon.
In other words, Zechariah’s call to “come out” of Babylon was actually a call to “come in”—into a community that was defined as a remnant because of their devotion to the cause of restoring the place of God’s personal presence on the earth. This call was urgent due to imminent judgment on Babylon, but perhaps more importantly, as Haggai indicated, the call was urgent because of the need for the remnant to recapture their temple rebuilding mission, which had been let adrift for so many years.
A three-fold calling
Zechariah’s call may be considered to consist of three parts. First, a call to come out of Babylon. Second, a call to join the remnant at the ruins of God’s temple. Third, a call to participate in the process of restoring God’s temple—the place of God’s personal presence—that His glory could again be revealed across the earth.
This three-fold pattern in Zechariah3 is also seen in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18. Paul refers to the Old Testament call to come out of Babylon to urge his readers in restoring purity in their lives (2 Cor. 6:17) because “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). Again, the context of Revelation 18:4 suggests this pattern. A call to “come out” of Babylon did exist so that the people would not “share in her sins.” Within the broader story of Revelation, while these people are preparing to enter into the eternal New Jerusalem in order to live in the presence of God and the Lamb, who are its temple (Rev. 21:22), the context suggests a dynamic that Paul describes. As the people of God “contemplate the Lord’s glory,” now at first hand, they are entering into an eternal process where God is reflected through them “with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
While these parallels stress the urgency of “coming out,” contextually the “coming out” and the “coming in” are merely prerequisites to the main focus: entering into a process of rebuilding the place of God’s presence so that His glory may be increasingly revealed.
Temples are places of transformation
While temples are places where God personally reconnects in relationship with His disconnected people (Exod. 25:8), they are significantly places of transformation. David relates his single-minded desire to see God in His temple: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). While the temple was the place where David met with God, there were going to be inevitable consequences to “gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” Again, alluding to Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai, Paul spells this out, “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Rebuilding enables reflection
So unless God’s temple was rebuilt by the remnant in Jerusalem, God and His people would remain disconnected. And without intimate connection, reflecting their God in the world—to be holy as He was holy (Lev. 11:44: 20:26; 1 Pet. 1:16)—would be impossible. But God assured His people of the link between their future restoration in holiness, His sanctuary, and their witness to His glory. “ ‘My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy,when my sanctuary is among them forever’ ” (Ezek. 37:27, 28).
While we have noted that people are transformed in God’s presence, what specifically is to be re-created when God lives within us corporately and individually as His temples (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 6:19, 20)? Paul explains that it is God’s image in us, for “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Genesis states that God’s own image provided the blueprint for human creation (Gen. 1:27). That means that God’s image defines what it means to be human.4 Consequently, God’s image provides us with the blueprint for human re-creation.
After the Fall, Paul describes how “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). This glory of Jesus in us remains at the very heart of God’s purposes as Heaven works for the salvation of humanity—that deformed humans “be conformed to the image of his Son,” (Rom. 8:29).
This purpose of God naturally flows over into the mission of God’s ministers and, therefore, of God’s church and church members. Paul illustrates this through his own example. He shares with the Galatians that this purpose of God compels him to minister, even “in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). Then, when writing to the Colossians, Paul describes how the members of God’s community, who have been raised with Christ and have put to death the old self, “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10).
Questions for establishing transformational communities
I have suggested that the call to come out of Babylon in Revelation 18:4 infers a foundational call to swell the ranks of the remnant who are devoted to restoring the image of God in broken human beings, that God’s glory is increasingly revealed through them across the earth. Now let me reflect on three sets of application questions for prioritizing the work of building transformational communities.
Questions as pastors and teachers of transformational communities. First, our desire for the transformation of others. I remember attending one of the first pastors’ meetings of my ministry. We were divided into groups to discuss our concern for lost people. The overwhelming consensus of my group was that none of us really were that concerned. So I am forced to look into Paul’s mirror of Galatians 4:19 and ask myself, do I really care for broken people? Am I willing to endure “the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in [others]”? (Gal. 4:19).
Second, our desire to gaze on the beauty of the Lord for ourselves. Having passed the official halfway point in my ministry, I realize how extremely task oriented I am. But my ability to pursue transformation in others is completely dependent on a personal daily encounter with Jesus. I can easily be motivated and focused to prepare a sermon or write an article, but do I genuinely treasure the beauty of the Lord above all other things (Ps. 27:4)—so much so, that I am increasingly longing to spend time in His presence?
Questions for the mission of transformational communities. Third, keeping the prophetic vision a priority. As we have noted, calling people out of Babylon is a call to “come in.” But the “coming in” is for the purpose of rebuilding people in the image of God so that God’s own glory is revealed. However, as Scot McKnight suggests, modern evangelicalism has largely embraced a culture focused on attaining personal salvation rather than a culture of ongoing discipleship, partly due to a historical overemphasis on justification.5Consequently, our churches may inadvertently emphasize baptism as arrival rather than baptism as a departure into joining God’s mission to restore others in the image of Christ.6 So, how do we ensure that our churches are characterized and known as transformational communities where there is a continuous devotion to discipling people to become sanctuaries of God? How do we foster a community vision where devotion to revealing the image of God in our lives “with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18) moves far beyond a satisfaction with simply adding more members?
Fourth, fostering unity and harmony in mission. Sometimes we may see tensions in our churches between those who believe that our prophetic ministry is defined primarily as identifying Babylon or explaining the books of Daniel and Revelation and others who see this approach as old-fashioned and irrelevant at a time when the basics of Christianity are unknown. I would suggest that this polarization is not between a right and wrong approach but is actually the work of Satan to destabilize God’s people. What we need is a synthesis of the approaches rather than a battle between them. So, in the context of what we have explored, when living in cultures that are increasingly post-Christian, and even anti-Christian, how do we nurture a harmonious prophetic ministry that unashamedly continues the eschatological mandate passed on to us by our pioneers while addressing the needs of people who do not even know whether there is a God?
Fifth, the need to develop partnerships for broader ministry. As pastors, we were generally trained in theology, yet the restoration of people in God’s image requires an approach that addresses damage to mind, body, and spirit. Moreover, I would suggest that it is not simply a matter of having those three types of ministries existing within a church but about working together in a coordinated way. Consequently, how can we develop partnerships where, together, we provide a wholistic ministry where individuals are being restored in all facets of the image of God?
Questions for individuals of transformational communities. Sixth, guarding against elitism. As we have noted, success is not defined merely by someone “coming out,” or even “coming in,” but by a person entering into the transformational process. One challenge is that defining people as “out” or “in” can breed a destructive form of elitism. In view of the fact that the remnant’s prophetic call to leave Babylon addresses their own relatives, with the expectation that many will indeed leave because they are excited to become part of a transformational community, how can we guard from seeing ourselves as part of an elite group rather than servants in an astonishing and ever-expanding mission to reveal God’s glory throughout the earth?
Seventh, establishing a clear vision and action plan for members of the transformational community. Being transformed into the image of God “with ever-increasing glory” does not happen by accident or randomly, but there are certain key components that fit together in order. Just as there are basic sequential processes when building a house—you do not put on the roof before you build the walls—so there are basic operating processes as people are restored in the image of God.
Therefore, as members of transformational communities, can we clearly articulate the spiritual dynamics of transformation? Indeed, if the image of God was the blueprint for human creation, do we even know what that image of God is so that it can be the blueprint for nurturing human re-creation—both for ourselves and for those for whom we minister?
From what we have considered, the mission of the remnant before Jesus returns may be shaped by the three components related to the process of calling people out of Babylon in Revelation 18:4. That is, calling others to (a) “come out” of where they are— outside of God’s personal presence, (b) “come in” to a community devoted to restoring people as temples of God— that God may personally dwell within them, and then (c) actively participate in an eternal journey of reformation and transformation of self and others so that God’s image is revealed “with ever-increasing glory.”
Ellen White describes these themes of sanctuary, rebuilding, and transformation to reveal the glory of God in the context of God’s purposes for deformed human beings: “From eternal ages it was God’s purpose that every created being, from the bright and holy seraph to man, should be a temple for the indwelling of the Creator. Because of sin, humanity ceased to be a temple for God. Darkened and defiled by evil, the heart of man no longer revealed the glory of the divine One. But by the incarnation of the Son of God, the purpose of heaven is fulfilled. God dwells in humanity, and through saving grace the heart of man becomes again his temple.”7
I would suggest that as we become coworkers with Jesus in this purpose to prepare people for His return, the identity and purpose of the remnant is both clarified and strengthened as we unite around such a prophetic movement to restore broken people into God’s own image. Indeed, I believe this is the most significant enterprise a human being, or a church, could possibly imagine.