As I write these words, our church’s annual World Outreach Celebration (WOC) is upon us. This year’s theme is “Making a Difference.” Of course, that is precisely what the Great Commission is intended to do. As the nations are discipled, they, by definition, become different in their values and therefore in their attitudes and actions. Ultimately, this is because, by the gospel, they become different in their adoration.
The Lord has used BBC over the past four decades to make a difference in various parts of our country and the world. At this year’s WOC, we want to focus on this. To help us in this regard, we have invited two former members, who are now ministering elsewhere, as well as one current church-sent missionary, to be our keynote speakers. We desire to be reminded of what the Lord has done so that we might also be encouraged to trust Him to do even more with us in the years ahead. By God’s grace, we have made a difference and, by God’s grace, we will continue to make a difference through obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission.
The theme verse for this year’s WOC is Revelation 3:8: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” There are several relevant issues and applications from this verse, and from the connected passage, with reference to BBC. But the one that I am most focused on is the Lord’s acknowledgement of this local church’s social insignificance (“a little strength”) and yet, under His care, her corresponding great spiritual significance. That is, she was dismissed by many around her, yet the Lord promised to use her to make a profound difference.
So it is in the Christian life. The world is dismissive of our beliefs and worldview even to the point of persecution. Yet we are called to persevere with biblical integrity and Christ-centred fidelity, and we do so confident that God is doing His thing and that His Great Commission will prevail. In other words, as members of a local church persevere together, looking to Jesus, it will make a difference. In this study, I want to focus on this truth, and the local congregation of believers in ancient Philadelphia will be our template. May we copy it well.
The book of the Revelation is about our Lord’s promised destruction of Jerusalem due to her covenantal unfaithfulness (in fulfilment of Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; etc.). It is John’s elongated version of the Lord Jesus’ Olivet Discourse as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
The prophesied destruction was only a few years from commencing. In mid-67 AD, what became known in history as the Jewish War engulfed Jerusalem, with repercussions felt far and wide in the Roman Empire.
This series of revelations was for the purpose of preparing Christians for what would transpire. This is the significance of it being addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor.
Some are critical of a preterist interpretation of the Revelation, arguing that, if this was about the destruction of Jerusalem, it would not be addressed to churches outside of Jerusalem. Why address a prophecy about Jerusalem to churches in Asia Minor? The answer is simple—and twofold.
First, the Lord had already warned Christians to flee Jerusalem (see Matthew 24) and according to Acts 8 many had in fact already done so.
Second, the most pestilent nemesis of the early church was Judaism, and Jews were widely scattered throughout the Roman Empire, with a majority living in Asia Minor. The Christians living there needed this relevant encouragement to help them to persevere in the face of pressures to cast away their confidence in Christ.
This was particularly the case with reference to the local church in Philadelphia, since historians record that this city had a population that included some seven thousand Jewish men who worshipped at a very significant synagogue.
These Jews were proving to be a thorn in the side of these Christians similar to the thorns that other hostile Jews had plaited for the Lord Jesus some thirty years earlier.
It is with this historical context before us that we can better appreciate the Lord’s commendation of this little church as well as the Lord’s wonderful assurance that He would continue to use it for His glory. He promised the believers here that He would open and close doors on their behalf with regards to their ministry of the gospel. In other words the clear implication is that the Lord was promising them that their local church, in spite of being opposed, and perhaps in spite of being numerically outnumbered by its oppressors, would nevertheless make a difference. There is much here for our encouragement.
A History of Making a Difference
Jesus begins, “I know your works” (v. 8).
For 43 years we at BBC have sought to be faithful to the Lord and to His word as we have sought to do “works” flowing from our worship. The result has been the planting of churches, both here and abroad, as well as helping those who have been sent by other local churches.
We have seen many converted to Christ and subsequently made into disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have seen believers maturing in the faith, and many who were raised in the church are now making a huge difference in the lives of others, most significantly in their own homes.
We have faced many battles over the years, and some have even prophesied our demise. And yet the Lord has strengthened us as we have sought to reform according to God’s Word.
When I reflect on the history of BBC I am encouraged by the many times that the Lord so graciously and magnificently opened doors for ministry and how He has provided the ways and means to make a difference. What was affectionately, if not at times unhelpfully, referred to as “the little church on the corner” is now the corner! All glory to God for this. He has made us different, and He has used us to make a difference. And we have good, because biblical, reason to believe that this will continue. May God continue to make us different by making us increasingly like Christ. May He continue to use us to make a difference as we make disciples going through the open doors that yet await us.
The Hardships of Making a Difference
We see in this text that hardships accompanied this church making a difference. Jesus said,
You have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth
This local church at Philadelphia obviously faced difficult times of opposition. Yet her members remained faithful as disciples and therefore remained faithful to make disciples and so made a difference.
Actually, besides the usual sinful hardships that often accompany church life (gossip, backbiting, jealousy, judgmentalism, etc.) BBC has not experienced anything near what the church at Philadelphia experienced. They were under direct threat, under persecution in ways that we have been untouched by. This has been perhaps to our detriment.
There are people in our church whose biggest burden on a Sunday morning is dealing with the thoughtlessness of a fellow church member. Or perhaps there are others whose biggest trial for the faith is church members who are gossiping about them. Compare that to an ISIS soldier storming into your home, kidnapping you because you are a Christian, and locking you in a cage as you await your scheduled beheading. Is there any real comparison?
Now, I am not suggesting that we all pack up and move to Syria to be in the direct line of such fire. I am saying that we should pause and consider whether our relative ease in Zion is a hindrance rather than a help in our spiritual growth.
What do I mean by our “ease in Zion”? I mean that, when our biggest conflict is around whether or not the music was too loud or had too much of a beat, or whether we were served the elements of the Lord’s Supper rather than getting up and serving ourselves, or where the pulpit is placed, or where we sit, or whether we serve cookies and coffee after church, then perhaps we need a reality check! Better yet, we need a heart check.
I doubt that the church in Philadelphia was too alarmed over such matters. They were probably just happy to be able to gather with occasional peace in spite of hostile neighbours. They persevered in their work and their worship, which is precisely what we are called to do.
For BBC, trust that our WOC will go a long way towards knocking the starch of apathy off of our lethargic souls.
Perhaps we need a good dose of persecution to move us from our lethargy. No doubt, persecution would, at least initially, dwindle our numbers. Yet, in the end, I suspect that the Lord would continue to keep opened doors for our ministry and our maturity. We might even grow.
But is persecution necessary? I don’t think so. What is necessary is that we be filled with the Spirit. And if we are filled with the Spirit then we will be functioning in ministry. We will, each of us in some way, be making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the words of Revelation 3, we will hold fast to Christ’s Word and will not deny His name. And, in the end, we will make a difference.
A Worthy Goal
Our goal is not merely to survive but to thrive, not merely to exist but to extend, not merely to be here but to also do both here and there, not merely to be reformed doctrinally but to be reformed practically, not merely to be correct in our Christ-centred message but to also be correct about and committed to our Christ-mandated mission, not merely to talk about the Great Commission but also to walk the Great Commission. This is a scriptural goal.
Blessed to Make a Difference
We should be grateful that, like the church at Philadelphia, BBC too has been used by the Lord to make a difference. We too have faced some hardships, but by God’s grace we have been enabled to hold fast to His Word as we have focused on the worth of His name. But we, of course, need to continue to appreciate that our best days are not all behind us. There remains the hope that we will continue to make a difference by making disciples to the glory of God.
The Hope of Making a Difference
All the above leads us to the important consideration of what is essential for us to continue to make a difference. In other words, what is essential for us to effectively make disciples?
We Must Bow to Christ’s Sovereignty
In each of the letters to the seven churches, the Lord introduces Himself in some way that reminds us of the vision recorded in chapter 1. Here, we read, “He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’” (v. 7).
The introduction to this letter, as with the other six letters, is significant. The intention is to provide a vision of the glorious Lord, which will grab the attention of the readers in order to remind them of who is addressing them. After all, “where there is no revelation [of God], the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18).
In this vision, the emphasis is clearly upon the Lord’s sovereignty. He is identified as being “holy” (a divine characteristic [Isaiah 40:25]) and “true” (truthful, faithful, reliable) and as the one who “has the key of David.”
This latter concept is lifted from Isaiah 22:22, where the Lord announced that He was taking the stewardship of the temple away from an unfaithful man named Shebna and was giving it to a man whom He had found to be faithful, named Eliakim. Eliakim would determine who could and who could not enter the temple to worship God. He served as a kind of gate-keeper at the door. This is now applied to Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate holder of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19).
This should not be surprising since, in John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through Me.” He is the Saviour; He is the sovereign Saviour. When the Sovereign speaks we do well to listen and pay heed.
We will not focus on this at this point, but suffice it to observe that the Lord’s self-revelation encourages us that He makes a definitive difference. In His own words, He “opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.” Again, He makes the difference.
What we must focus on here is our need—indeed, our obligation—and even our encouragement to obey when the Sovereign speaks.
This matter of Christ’s sovereignty is central to the theme of this particular letter, and of course it is central to the theme of the book. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is precisely that: It is the revealing of the glorious person of Christ and His enthronement in heaven. It is not a revelation of the chaotic, out-of-control world, but rather the account of the very much in-control Christ.
Upon His ascension—after His crucifixion, burial and resurrection—the Lord Jesus was enthroned on the right hand of the Father (see Psalms 2; 110; Daniel 7; Hebrews 12:2; etc.). It is from there where Jesus is making a difference in this world through those whom He has made a kingdom of priests to God (Revelation 1:5–6).
Acts begins the story of the difference that Jesus is making in the world through His people by the Spirit. Luke tells us in Acts 1:1–2 that his Gospel was intended to give the history of what Jesus did and taught in His earthly ministry. The implication is that all that follows is still the record of Jesus doing and teaching, but now through the person of the Holy Spirit, whom Paul elsewhere calls Him who dwells in you: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Jesus and the Holy Spirit are on the same page!
Those who had been covenantally unfaithful would be judged in accordance with the Lord’s repeated warnings as the kingdom was taken from them and given to a nation that would bring forth the required fruit of obedience (Matthew 21:34). And a huge part of this obedient fruit-bearing is to take place through the Great Commission.
The sovereignty of Jesus Christ is not some theological novelty to be discussed in the ivory towers of academia and in interesting intramural church debates. Rather, it is to be a dominant theme in our daily living.
It should be noted (and often remembered) that the last words recorded by Matthew were those uttered by Jesus not long before His ascension. In chapter 28 Jesus uttered these literally awesome words: “All power has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Jesus was making the unmistakeable claim that He is God. Only God, the Creator of heaven and earth, has all authority in heaven and earth. And in claiming to be God Jesus was claiming to be sovereign. He was claiming to be in control of everything. He was claiming that not a raindrop would fall apart from His permission nor would a grain of wheat grow apart from His involvement. He was claiming that He is in control of earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, global heating and global cooling. He was making it abundantly and unarguably clear that world leaders would rise and fall according to His appointment. He was informing those disciples, and all future disciples, that political boundaries were His portfolio (Acts 17:24–27). And, most importantly, but certainly not unrelated, He was letting us know that it is because of His authority that we can be saved (see John 1:11–13).
Jonah said, “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18 were a resounding amen to Jonah’s affirmation! In other words, Jesus was making it clear that, through Him, a difference in heaven and earth would occur.
It would seem that the church members in Philadelphia understood this. And because they did, they affected how they lived, how they worshipped, how they served and how they persevered. And I suspect that the same conviction will have the same effect upon us as well. In other words, not only will a vision of Jesus as sovereign Lord produce a commitment to orthodoxy but it will also motivate orthopraxy.
Someone sent me a great quote recently, which read, “Procrastination is the assassination of motivation.” How true. And this is equally true in the realm of the spiritual. The best way I know of overcoming procrastination in the Great Commission is to have a high view of Jesus Christ. When this is present, we have all the motivation we need to continue to make a difference by making disciples.
In other words, if we are truly persuaded that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will do what He says (Luke 6:46). His sovereignty will inform not merely our soteriology but also our missiology. His sovereignty will inform our hearts and our wills as well as our minds. In other words, our doctrine of the sovereignty of Christ will affect our duty in light of the sovereignty of Christ. And we are not left in the dark concerning what that duty is: to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19–20). And we are to do this among all the nations.
Let me put it this way: Those who, by grace, have come to bow the knee to the Sovereign Lord will be committed to seeing every knee bowed to Him. Such will be actively engaged in bringing this to pass. And this takes place in several ways all emanating from the Great Commission to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you truly believe that He is Lord then you will be committed to the commission, whose goal is to make His lordship known to others—all others.
When the Great Commission is properly understood, properly appreciated and properly obeyed, then a difference is eventually made. Yes, sometimes the difference is detected in the presence of hostility as many reject the Lord. But even this is used by our sovereign Saviour to make us different which, again, will make a difference (Matthew 5:10–16).
But as lives are transformed by the gospel, a major difference is made, not only individually but also in families, workplaces, communities and even nations. In sum, we must come to grips with the sovereignty of Christ. If we will make a difference then we must recognise the sovereignty of Christ, submit to the sovereignty of Christ, hear the sovereignty of Christ, believe the sovereignty of Christ, persevere under the sovereignty of Christ and adore the sovereignty of Christ.
Let’s probe this matter of the practical application of the sovereignty of Christ as we move forward. If we will make a difference by making disciples, we must do something further.
We Must Behave with Integrity
Not only must we bow to Christ’s sovereignty, but we must also behave with integrity:
I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.
The Lord blessed this church with a measure of success and He promised her more. But this is in the context of her track record. She had behaved with integrity. She remained faithful to the Lord in the midst of difficulties. Though she had little or “strength” or “power” (“ability” would also be a good translation), nevertheless she kept His Word and did not deny His name. She remained faithful to the gospel and to her sovereign Lord in the face of a culture that was otherwise hostile to it. Though she was socially viewed as insignificant, yet she in fact was very insignificant—and her spiritual integrity was a key factor in this.
Philadelphia was established by Attalus II in 140 BC in honour of his brother, whom he dearly loved. It was for this reason that it received the name Philadelphia: literally, “lover of brother.” Attalus was passionate about the Greek language, culture and thought and his idea was that Philadelphia would serve as a “missionary outpost” for the dissemination of this Greek way of life. It was on a major thoroughfare to the East and so was strategically located. But when the gospel penetrated this city, there would of necessity be a clash of ideas. Nevertheless, in spite of whatever cultural pressures were present, this local church remained faithful.
All On a Mission
Let’s pause here to make an important observation: Every people group, every culture, is on a mission—whether they realise it or not. And they can at times be quite deliberate, quite intentional and quite “evangelistically” zealous about it. It is clear that Attalus was. But the Lord placed this church to be countercultural. And hence the clash of worldviews. The same is true for BBC and for any other biblically loyal local church.
We are a “called out assembly” that has been delivered from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13). We are therefore different. Our worldview is different. And we desire for the mission of our culture to be different. We seek to make this difference. The result is often conflict.
Our numbers, in worldly terms, may be small; nevertheless, we can make a difference. We must make a difference. If we remain faithful then we will make a difference.
But we must also reckon on the reality that the opposition to our mission from the secular culture will not be the only pressure that we face. We will also face it from the religious establishment.
Historically, with reference to the church of Philadelphia, the intense opposition from the large Jewish population was perhaps more severe than that from secular pressures. Historians inform us that Philadelphia was home to seven thousand Jewish men and that this too was strategic. The Jews of the day were seeking to disseminate Judaistic culture in a city devoted to disseminating Greek culture. The church was caught as it were between the devil and the deep blue sea, between a rock and a hard place. Nevertheless, she remained faithful in her assignment to make a difference.
Of course, we find ourselves in the same dilemma. The gospel, and local churches committed to it, faces conflict from what appears to be a growing secularism among pagans while at the same time facing pressures from the religious lost. What will we do? What have we done? By God’s grace, we have sought to remain faithful to God’s Word and to God’s Son. The result has been that we have made some difference.
We have a long way yet to go. But we will never get there unless we are committed to behaving with integrity. We must continue to remain faithful to the Lord, including obedience to His Great Commission.
We Will Be Blessed with Credibility
What will be the results of such integrity? For one thing, we will grow in credibility. In v. 9 the Lord promised vindication for this church as a gracious recompense for her integrity. The picture is akin to that of Isaiah 60:9, 14 as well as Zechariah 8:23. In fact, there may even be a hint here of John 17:23. The point being made is that the Lord, upon the effects of the Jewish War, would make it clear that He loved the multi-ethnic church, not merely the Jewish church (Matthew 8:11–12; 21:43).
But we should not miss the implication here that the primary vindication would be that of the Lord Himself. After all, the church being the Body of Christ, when these enemies of the gospel eventually worshipped (bowed) before their feet, they would in fact be bowing at the feet of Jesus. The sovereign Lord Jesus Christ would be vindicated (Philippians 2:9–11)!
But there is one more result that this passage reveals that local churches who behave with integrity can expect.
Jesus had “set before” this church “an open door, and no one can shut it” (v. 8). This letter to the church at Philadelphia, as with the account of the exodus, is preserved for our edification. In the words of Romans 15:4, it was “written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”
These words to this historical church should provide us with the hope that, if we too will take seriously Christ’s sovereignty, and if we will therefore behave with integrity, then we too can expect God’s providential boundless opportunities. We have the same hope that we too will continue to make a difference and that we will do so by continuing to make disciples.
Holding On and Making a Difference
As we have seen, vv. 10–12 speaks of the persecution that this church faced and, more importantly, their faithfulness in the face of opposition.
Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.
Admittedly, we do not know the immediate historical fruit that this church experienced in return for its faithfulness to the Lord. We do know that the city endured until the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, admitted ignorance of history aside, we do have something far more substantial to hang onto: the recorded promise of our Lord.
Jesus promised this local church a couple of things.
First, He promised them that He had opened a door for them, which would remain open as long as He wanted it to.
But second, He also promised them that, if they continued to persevere (in making a difference by making disciples), He would make them “a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.” Though this promise can be applied individually (and it must begin there; after all, the text says “him”), nevertheless it would include the corporate element as well. But what does this mean?
Clearly, it is a reference to the true temple, the church of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:19–22; etc.).
The point the Lord is making is that the Christian, and by extension the congregation that is faithful to the Lord, will be perpetually a significant factor in God’s church, and in His kingdom. Eternal security and historical perpetuity are promised to those who persevere.
The Lord promised this church a degree of perpetuity. I would deduce from what I know about the Lord that He did not merely desire to perpetuate her existence, but rather that He was intent on perpetuating her effectiveness. The promise of an open door was a promise that this church would continue to make a difference. The concept of an open door is frequently used in the New Testament to speak of missionary opportunity (see Acts 14:27; 26:17–18; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3).
We should take courage from the promise from Isaiah 22, to which our Lord refers. He is still the one who opens and closes doors. Just as we saw time and again in our study of Acts, the Lord often does amazing things in providing gospel opportunities. Though we should count on opposition, we must bear in mind that these are inseparable from opportunities.
Why should we have the conviction that the Lord will continue to open doors? Because He has not yet returned. We can conclude that souls for whom He died still need to be converted. We can conclude that peoples still need to be discipled. We can conclude that more of the knowledge of God’s glory must cover more of the earth. This all means that we should expect that Jesus Christ our Lord expects us to make a difference! But we need to consider the most important element here in this matter of making a difference: It will take Christ exercising His sovereignty. As we are well aware, and yet we are in constant need of reminder, ultimately it is Jesus who makes the difference.
Recently, a visitor to our church commented to one of our members that they heard me preach salvation by works. That cut me to the heart, and I spent a large portion of my day off lamenting this, asking the Lord for forgiveness for not honouring His gospel, and recommitting to be more careful to do so in the future. Let me do that now: The Bible teaches that, apart from Jesus Christ, we can do nothing. In fact, apart from Him, we are nothing.
So let me try to make it abundantly clear: The one who makes the difference is the Lord, yet He has chosen to use means. The local church is His primary means. Members of local churches are His means.
We must take seriously our responsibility, while trusting the Lord to exercise His sovereignty. That is the combination that our sovereign Lord has chosen as the way to make an abiding and everlasting difference.
Hearing and Making a Difference
Finally, v. 13 urges us to hear if we will make a difference: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The week of our WOC will focus on the theme of making a difference. But it is not a new theme. It is a theme that, in one way or another, we repeat weekly.
BBC is grounded in the biblical responsibility that each member is to be contributing to making a difference by the means of making disciples. If you are not making disciples—in some meaningful way—then you are missing out on your God-prescribed mission. And you are thereby also missing out on the faith adventure of experiencing the sovereign Lord doing some remarkable things.
BBC, let’s make a difference. All of us. Each of us. Together.