To the Saints Gathered
W. T. Parker, Wembley, London
The familiar opening to the normal letter of commendation is more often than not taken for granted, and younger believers could be forgiven if they assumed that this was merely a polite form of introduction similar to that often used when forwarding formal invitations; somewhat archaic, but nevertheless providing the necessary embellishment such as occasion might demand. The expression saint, in particular, is worthy of our attention, since this was the mode of address often used by the Apostle to the Gentiles when forwarding those Church epistles which are now included as part of the canon of Scripture, the veritable breathings of the living Word.
Words like coins arc subject to debasement, and one can say that few other expressions in the language of men have suffered so much in a calculated attempt to undermine the original meaning than the word saint, both now, and over the course of history. Yet for our purposes, let us recapitulate and try to discover what was its original meaning, since such searchings reveal a truth which, like some priceless work of art, has been hidden from the sight and apprehension of men in the dust and ruin of centuries.
For immediate reference let us turn to the letter to the Romans where we find the former Pharisee writing to an unknown community living in the very centre of the dominating world power, and addressing these persons in extraordinary terms: 'To all that be in Rome, . . . called to be saints', Rom.
Now in the world of the Hebrew, such an appellation could only have one meaning, namely, 'the sanctified ones'; moreover such a description was confined strictly to limited communities. One such community, for example, comprised the sons of Levi, Num. 8. 17, 18, the tribe to whom were exclusively imparted the priestly functions of the tabernacle. Many attempts had been made to usurp this right, but these were met with instant retribution, a classic example being the tragic sequence to a godly reign by a king who dared assume the office of a priest, and to be found within the holy place carrying a censer of incense, 2 Chron. 26. 16-21.
Further, the salutation of the Apostle is all the more remarkable, since the recipients of the letter were personally unknown to the writer; moreover by Jewish standards they were a polyglot community, even having among their number individuals who were slaves in Caesar's household. Yet the epistle opens with studied emphasis: 'To the sanctified that be in Rome'. The implication behind this phrase is that believers are in a privileged position of priestly nearness to God. In deliberating on these matters, it is suggested that the early chapters of the letter to the Ephesians contribute towards the answer. In these verses, Paul declared that they of Ephesus (though not of earthly Israel) were blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, and as the great truth that the Gentiles were also participators in the blessings of the Gospel was reported to the church at Jerusalem, so to the Apostle born out of due season was revealed the mystery whereby those not of the stock of Abraham have been made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.
This truth is also expressed in Peter's pastoral letter when he comforted the 'strangers scattered' with the words: 'Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood', I Pet. 2. 9, but it is left to the writer to the Hebrews to sweep away all lingering doubts as he exhorts those redeemed under the new covenant blessings with the words: 'Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest', and 'Let us draw near ... in full assurance of faith', Heb. 10. 19, 22.
The consistency of this interpretation throughout the Church epistles is so conclusive that one can assert that, notwithstanding the passing of time, there are no relevant factors to support the common travesty that goes by the name of saint in sharp distinction to what has been revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles as to the universal priesthood of believers.
With these truths in mind, it is our privilege to witness week by week, believers exercising their priestly function as they lead the assembly gathered in worship and prayer. If Spirit-led, this can lead the worshippers into the very presence of the Lord, thus fulfilling the divine injunction, 'For the Father seeketh such to worship him', John 4. 23. These things being so, let us listen again to the 'letter of commendation', and it could be that the greetings of the great Apostle to the Gentiles will come again across the centuries to each one of us: 'Beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ'. He sees Thy precious blood;
It cleanses all our sin; The golden gates have welcomed Thee And we have entered in.