The teaching of the Church is that our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died and gone on to Heaven before us are now living in Heaven with God, who is the God of the living – Mt. 22:32 says, "I am the God of the living, not of the dead." And since these fellow believers in Christ are already in Heaven with Christ, they therefore have an especially close relationship with Him.
"Beloved, we are God's children now; yet it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." (1 John 3)
Now, the Greek word for "Saint" literally means "holy one." And the closer one comes in relationship with God, the more one becomes holy. That's why those in Heaven are especially known as Saints.
But it must be said here that the only true "Saint" or "holy one" is God Himself. The Bible says, "For I am the Lord your God; you shall be holy and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. . . " (Lev. 11: 44; 19: 2 and 20: 7). In other words, because God is holy, we are able to become holy. And man becomes holy and "sainted" by participation in the holiness of God, and by moving into a closer and deeper relationship with Christ.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, all Christians have the privilege of being called saints, holy people who are separated from the world, and who live to please God. We especially see this in the Early Church - as long as a person was baptized in water and frequently participated in Communion (the Lord's Supper). This is why Paul,, when writing to the Churches he had visited, calls all the faithful Christians "saints." Writing to the Ephesians, he addresses "the saints who live in Ephesus" (1: 1); writing to the Corinthians he uses the same expressions (2 Cor. 1: 11).
In writing to the Christians in Colosse, Paul tells them that God has reconciled men by Christ's death, "so that He may present [them] before Himself holy [as saints], without blemish and innocent in His sight" (1: 22).
So, while in one sense of the word, all faithful Christians are rightfully called "Saints," it's also true that the Church recognizes certain people throughout history to be Saints in a way that others are not – these are Saints that have, in one sense, gone above and beyond the call of duty. They've not only lived the ordinary Christian life that all saints are called to live, but they've especially righteous and holy lives – and many have even been killed and martyred for their Faith.
Each and every one among all these saints has remained true to Christ, and have fought the "good fight for the faith" (1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7). And each one of them has been used by God to keep the Faith pure and holy, so that it might be passed down to us. As Jude says (vs. 3), they all contended earnestly for the Faith which was once delivered unto the Saints. Those, then, are the Saints of the Church.
Since I've started this series on the Lives of the Saints, I've had several people say to me, "Pastor, I know that they are Saints, and I know that they are in Heaven, but do they know what's going on in our lives? Are they aware of what is happening here on earth?"
That's a good question, to which there is a good Biblical answer. We need to understand that the Saints are not only still alive, but more vibrantly and more intensely alive than we are here on earth, as the book of Revelation clearly tells us. You see, they are not out there somewhere, sitting on beautiful white clouds and strumming harps all day, or selling Philadelphia Cream Cheese (tv commercial). They still think, feel, make choices, love, and remember – all of our attributes are theirs.
And the Bible tell us that they are aware of what is going on here on earth.
I'm going to say something now that's going to some as a surprise to many of you – may even shock you – some of the saints have even come back to earth!
Now, in my 20 years of being a Christian, I have never heard one sermon preached on that Scripture. Not one! But it really happened.
So if the Saints are not sitting around in Heaven doing nothing, exactly what are they doing? Well, the Bible doesn't tell us everything they're doing, but it does tell us two of the most important things they're doing.
"And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises."
I Cor. 11:1
"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (Paul)
You see, recalling the victory of the saints who have gone on before us is a great encouragement for us Christians who are still combating our way through the trials of this world.
Thomas Howard, in one of his books, recalls an old hymn from his youthful days, and some of you may remember it as well: "Art thou Weary, Art thou Languid?" ("Art Thou Weary, Heavy Laden?") – anybody remember it?:
After speaking for six exquisite verses about the difficulties of following Jesus, the hymn concludes [with these words], "Finding, following, keeping, struggling/Is he sure to bless?/Angels, prophets, martyrs, virgins/Answer, Yes." I was overwhelmed by this picture. What solace! What encouragement! I was in an ancient lineage, and all of these forerunners knew everything I had experienced, and all of them could testify, "Keep going! It is worth it! Praise God!"
Revere and honor the saints. We do it to many other people, so why not the Saints as well?
The Church has always honored the Saints to show her love and gratitude to God, who has "perfected" the saints.
Throughout early Christianity, Christians would customarily meet for worship in the places where the martyrs had died; they would build churches there in their honor; they would pay reverence to their memory; and they would present their example for imitation by others.
One of the most fascinating accounts of this happening is found in the account of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp – one of the first Saints that we looked at during this series. If you remember, Polycarp was ordained Bishop of Smyrna by the Apostle John himself, and at the age of 86 years he was burned at the stake as a martyr. When his accusers tried to get him to renounce his faith in Christ, Polycarp said these famous words: "Eighty and six years have I served my Lord, and He has done me no wrong. How, then, can I deny Him now?"
According to the account of his martyrdom, which took place in the year 122, the Christians from Smyrna reverently collected his remains and honored them "more than precious stones." And this is what all the Christians did for the Saints – after their deaths, they would take the body or the bones, depending on how the martyr had died, and they would bury them in a special place. In many cases, Churches would be built on that very spot in honor of the Saint. The Christians would also meet each year on the anniversary of a particular Saint's death to worship together and to partake of the Lord's Supper (Communion). And they did this in order to commemorate what they called the Saint's "new birthday, the day they entered into their new life in Heaven."
So, we should imitate the faith of the Saints and learn to honor and revere them for remaining true to the Faith, even in the face of severe torture and death. And may God help us to be as faithful as they were.
In closing these couple of articles, I want to leave this final thought with you:
When you and I gather together to worship on Sunday mornings, we in our little Church, whereever we are in the world, are actually joining another worship service which is already in progress. We are joining another worship service that is going on continually, and one which never stops. And when we begin to worship on Sunday mornings, we are joining the chorus of adoration and worship as it is sung in heaven at that very moment! Somehow, known only in the mind of God, when we gather together here to worship, the thin curtain that hangs between heaven and earth is drawn back, and we actually join with angels and archangels and all the saints of heaven who are continually worshipping and magnifying the Name of Christ our God. Its an awesome picture of what takes place each week when we gather together for worship. And its part of what the Church calls "The Communion of the Saints."