He was already perfect in that His nature was perfect. He was perfect in that at every stage of His development He walked in harmony with His Father's will. But He was not perfect in that He had never faced the acid test of separation from His Father. He had never been faced with the reality of what it means to be alone in the universe, crushed under the weight of the sin of the world. What would be the result when He was placed in that fiery place? How would His perfect nature and character respond to such a crisis? Only when He had faced and conquered this greatest of all trials could it be truly said that He was perfect in the ultimate sense.
In a similar way, Christians who are already perfect in Christ when they are born again, are still to pass through experiences in life during which their submissiveness to God is to be perfected. Their characters are to be refined and to grow mature as they pass through conflicts and trials.
What is involved?
But what is really involved in character perfection? When we speak of obtaining character perfection, what is it that we are seeking to do? Well, of course, character perfection means getting rid of sin, it means coming to the place where we no longer commit sin and where we are fully in harmony with God's will for mankind, in every way. After all, the 144,000 are said to be “without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).” But how can we understand this if we do not have a proper understanding of what the cause of sin really is? How can we even begin to approach the task of getting rid of sin if we don't even know what we are dealing with?
Sin is not something which can be picked up and put in a box, it is not a collection of actions which can be removed one at a time. Sin has its source in a mind which is separated from God by either rebellion or a failure to abide in Christ. In the case of the unconverted person, it is the mind which is in rebellion against God, in the case of the converted person, sin still finds a foothold because of a failure to abide in Christ. The Bible tells us that the person who abides in Christ does not commit sin (1John 3:6), therefore it is plain that the reason why sin still continues to be manifested in the life of any person is the fact that he does not abide in Christ.
Perfection of character then, is really coming to the place where a person abides in Christ so consistently that there is never any moment when he is not abiding. It is learning to cling to Christ in such an unshakable way that the link between us and Him cannot be broken for even a moment. Perfection of character is not to be viewed as our behaviour in relation to the law, or a certain moral standard. It is more to be viewed as our relationship to Christ and must be approached from this angle if it is ever to become a reality. Of course it involves reshaping the habits of flesh and mind, the strengthening of commitment, discernment, submissiveness and faith, but all of these are to be seen as means of binding us more closely and permanently to Christ. They must be viewed in terms of our relationship to a Person, and not to a standard of behaviour.
Character perfection also involves education to some extent. The more we understand of the ways of God, the more faithfully we can represent Him in the world. This is where a propr understanding of the law has its place. Here it serves as an educator to make us aware of the ways of God. However, if we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that our failure in spiritual things is not because we do not know what is right. Our problem is not a lack of education and if this was the problem, this would not be an issue with God, for the Bible tells us that God “winks” at our ignorance, or in other words, He does not consider us to be accountable or blamable for those wrong actions which we sincerely did not know to be wrong. Lack of knowledge of right and wrong really has very little to do with the fact that we still commit sin. If we would live in perfect harmony only with what we know to be right and wrong, we would be very close to perfect living. But the truth is that our real problem is our failure to consistently do what we know to be right. This is not caused by a lack of knowledge, but by a failure to surrender, or to abide in Christ. It is not to do with us and the law, it is to do with us and Christ.
Made White by Washing?
In Revelation 7:13,14, we find a very interesting statement concerning the 144,000. It says,
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? (14) 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. (Rev 7:13,14)
All Christians are clothed in the spotless righteousness of Christ, represented by a white robe, the moment they are converted. Isaiah 61:10, Rev. 3:18 and Matt. 22:11,12 all make this fact clear. These robes are received as a gift from Christ and have nothing to do with anything which we can do or have done. However, the description of these robes worn by the 144,000 seems to be suggesting something unique. It says that they have washed their robes in the Lamb's blood and made them white. This is a description of the 144,000 as opposed to all others who have been saved. The suggestion is that they have an experience in relation to their robes being made white which is different from the experience of other Christians. While all Christians receive a white robe, as a gift, these have an experience in which the robes are made white, while they are wearing them! In fact, notice that these robes have been made white by the experience of these Christians as they passed through the “Great Tribulation.” This is not just any tribulation, it is not just representative of the difficulties which Christians face in their walk day by day. In the Greek text of the book of Revelation it says they have come out of “THE” great tribulation! This is the experience of the last great crisis, an experience more terrible than any that Christians have ever experienced.
Why the most perfect?
God has a washing machine in which He will purify characters and it is the great tribulation. However, it is one thing to have my clothes thrown into a washing machine, but it is another thing altogether to have them thrown in while I am still wearing them! If this should happen, then I would know that I had been through great tribulation! God's purpose for the 144,000 is that their characters are to be purified during their lifetimes. They are to become perfect while they are still alive on this earth. They are to have an experience such as no other Christian group has ever gone through in the history of the world. When it is over, they will possess not just God's first name, but they will have God's last name written in their foreheads.
Christians have always had difficulties to face. The Bible tells us that this is inevitable:
Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. (2 Tim 3:12)
. . . . we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
The history of Christians throughout the ages testifies to the truthfulness of these words. Millions have been burned alive, thrown to wild beasts, hunted and persecuted like animals, were torn from their families, suffered hunger, pain, deprivation, terrible tortures, yet, no generation ever attained to the perfection of character development which is seen in the 144,000. What can we conclude from this? If chastisement and trial is God's way of perfecting character, then clearly, these Christians go through trials which are greater than any that Christians have previously experienced. The mind cannot imagine this, but it is the truth. Something beyond imagination is just ahead of us. May God help us to be prepared by learning to abide in Christ. But we have the assurance that when we are tried we shall come forth as gold. We may anticipate that this great trial will produce in us the “ peaceable fruit of righteousness. ” (Heb. 12:11) God will work in it to perfect the character of His people, to ensure that they have His last name and are capable of rightly representing Him in the world, for the first time, at last.
What is character?
While God gives us His perfect nature in a moment when we are converted, character is different. Character cannot be instantly imparted, or it would not be character. Character involves, patience, trust, hope, loyalty, dependence, integrity, tact, wisdom, purpose, determination. Character is something which is the accumulation of attitudes, perspectives and qualities gained over a period of time. Attitudes learned through the conflicts the defeats the victories of life. Yet, character is not behaviour – it is only revealed by behaviour.
How is character perfected?
As I was studying this subject, something came home to my mind forcefully. There is no other way that God can perfect our characters but by means of trials.
If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? (Heb 12:7)
Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. (Heb 12: 11)
When God chastises us, it produces the “fruit of righteousness.” God's aim for us is that we should be righteous not only in nature, but also in character, that we should possess both His first and last name. Therefore, chastisement is the lot of the Christian, but especially for the 144,000 who are to represent God perfectly in the world, during the last generation.
The harder and the more enduring the trial, the more permanent the change in character. Just think about your own experience: What have been the lessons which stuck most forcefully in your mind and which made the most lasting change in your character? For me, the most striking changes and those which lasted were those which brought some kind of pain, which produced stress, which compelled me to give long and hard consideration to my behaviour. Many times when I was a boy, my parents encouraged me not to do wrong. Over and over I disobeyed them. However, whenever I learned a lesson through hardship or difficulty, or even by getting a spanking from my father, I tended to remember that lesson.
The truth is that trials drive us to deep soul-searching, earnest analysis and life-changing decisions. When we make commitments in terrible adversity they are not easily forgotten or discarded.
The vital quality
The most essential element of character development which the Christian needs is the element of perseverance in abiding in Christ. Since the person who abides in Christ does not sin, then obviously, our greatest problem is that we fail to abide in Him. Our characters are fickle, we fluctuate in our experience and God's purpose is to teach us lessons of perseverance, of patience. This is certainly implied in Revelation 14:12, which speaks of the 144,000 when it says,
(Rev 14:12) Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
One of the outstanding qualities of these Christians is that they have patience, perseverance. Another is that they have the faith of Jesus. Of course, they also keep the commandments of God, but this is only because they have the other two qualities. They keep the faith of Jesus. They possess the life of Christ, received by faith, and they persevere in this relationship with Christ. Therefore, it is the most natural thing in the world that they keep the commandments of God, for Christ in them works to will and to do of His good pleasure. In other words, the perfection of the 144,000 is manifested simply because they have learned to abide in Christ without letting go for even one moment.
Christ monitors the flame
Mal. 3:1-3 has a striking description of this final trial which God's people endure. It presents the crisis from an unusual and comforting perspective.
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. (2) But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: (3) And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness. (Mal 3:1-3)
Here we see a description of the final work of Christ in His sanctuary. He is represented as coming suddenly to His temple, or to His church. This represents the final work of the great antitypical day of atonement. What is the purpose of His coming? He comes to do the work of a silversmith, one who purifies precious metal. In this coming, the nature of His work is similar to that of “fuller's soap,” a kind of soap which was well known for its whitening qualities.
The question, “who shall abide (or endure) the day of his coming,” suggests that this process of purification will be a fearsome experience. Understandably so, for this purification process will involve the great tribulation. How does one purify silver or gold? I have never seen the process, but I understand that it involves bringing the metal to extremes of heat until the metal melts and runs like water. When the metal reaches this stage, the metalworker will skim the impurities from the metal as they rise to the top of the molten mass. In order to purify metal it is necessary to pass it through great heat. Notice that although the metal must melt and run like water, it does not change its nature, it only comes to a place where the imperfections can be dealt with. The metal remains unchanged.
It is different with trash, however. If wood or leaves or paper or any material which cannot withstand the heat is put in such extremes of heat, not only will it undergo a permanent change, but it will ultimately be destroyed, burned to ashes.
God does not enjoy seeing His people suffer pain and hardship, but as long as we are to remain free creatures, there are some lessons which can only be learned in this way. If a person abides in Christ, then he will not sin, but how easily we are distracted from Christ! How often we determine not to take our eyes off Him only to become aware of how far we drifted, when we find ourselves behaving in an unchristlike manner and recognizing that we have left Him behind without even realizing it!
Yet when a person is placed in a situation of stress, then he tends to keep his mind focused on what is important. For example, if my child is very ill and facing death, when will I ever forget? When will I stop praying? How often will my mind be distracted by something else? The truth is, even if I must deal with other matters for a moment, I cannot forget. There is a constant weight resting on me which affects my behaviour, my outlook, my approach to every circumstance of life. If I am usually a jovial person who likes to joke and to tease, this will change. Unimportant matters will be put aside and I will give all the attention possible to this child and to the task of finding some way to help him. Prayer will become my way of life. If a person is compelled to remain in such a situation for an extended period of time, then there is the probability that there will be permanent changes made in his character. Perhaps he will never again be as jovial and ready to indulge in idle jokes as before.
In Romania, I met a man whose infant child of two years died a terrible death. This child fell into a pan of boiling water and was scalded to death. The child did not die immediately, but suffered before he died. The person who told me the story said, “for two years the father never smiled.” Even when I met him several years afterwards, the father was a serious man who did not smile easily. That terrible experience changed his life forever.
God knows that in order to bring us to the place where we will never let go of Christ for even one moment, He has to take us through a terrible experience. One which we can survive, only by clinging to Him steadfastly, one in which our survival will depend upon how persistently we remain bound to Christ. During this terrible tribulation we will learn to hold on, and to hold on more. All earthly support will be cut off, jobs, homes, food supplies, friends, all will be gone. What will be our support? It will be Christ, and Christ alone. How then can we ever afford to let Him go for even one moment? God will allow this purging process to continue over a period of time. It will not be merely a matter of days, but for many months. The change of character will be thoroughly accomplished. The dross will be perfectly taken away from us. At the end of this process, there will be a people who will never again let go of Christ, not for a single moment, and therefore, they will never sin again.
There is an important fact which needs to be understood because it allows us to focus on the important element in character perfection. Many of us believe that character perfection consists of the receiving of more knowledge or of learning to discipline and bring our bodies under control. Such persons are constantly making efforts to improve themselves, they are in a constant fight with themselves in an effort to purge sin from their lives.
However, sin is not something which can be taken up and put aside. It is not something physical or tangible. The reason why a person commits sin is because he is controlled by his own carnal mind rather than the mind of Christ. Even today, as we are told in 1 John 3:6, the person who abides in Christ does not commit sin. Therefore victory over sin is a simple matter. If we can get to the point where we abide in Christ constantly, then it is evident that we will then be at the place where we will have overcome sin permanently. Therefore the apostle Paul tells us that “he that is dead is freed from sin.” (Rom. 6:7). In other words, the person who puts self aside and allows Christ to live, is free from sin.
So when total victory over sin is finally experienced by the 144,000, it is important to recognize that in reaching to this place, nothing new is received. God has not given them a different gift than He has given to all other Christians, but in actual fact what we already have is made permanent. This is the great difference. Through the great tribulation, we will learn lessons of abiding, we will learn perseverance in maintaining our hold on Christ. It is the character of Christ that becomes permanently integrated into us, it is not man's character. It is not man developing, but Christ living more consistently. It is becoming what we already are.
So, to put it another way, the relationship with Christ becomes unbreakable while the relationship with self is permanently broken . Self-will, self-government is purged from the soul.
Why a “new” song?
Beloved, the experience of the 144,000 will be a terrible one, but it is an experience to be coveted. What a privilege to be chosen to represent God before a world which has chosen to defy Him! What a privilege to manifest Christ in a time when Satan has set out to prove that it is impossible for man to be entirely free of the principle of self-government. If we truly love God and His Son, the painful process by which we are purified will not seem to be too high a price to pay for the privilege of showing the universe that salvation is real and complete. All who are included among the 144,000 will be people who are willing to suffer the pain, that God may be glorified in them.
Therefore we are told that this 144,000 sing a new song. It is new, because nobody has ever sung it before . Why not? Because nobody in the history of the planet has ever had their experience. Nobody has ever been so fully integrated into Christ and so, these, “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.
Something in me cries out, “Lord, I want to be one of them.” May all of us who love Him find an echo of this desire in our hearts.