As we look ahead in this new year we may wonder at what 2017 will bring. Last year we saw the persecution of Christians in many places, not just by Islamic terrorists but by pressure groups opposing Christianity and Biblical values and pushing sinful ideologies. Many churches cave in to the pressure and compromise the faith in an attempt to appeal to outsiders. In such a climate, our churches appear to be a small and powerless, while around us the world of unbelief and false religion seems so big and powerful. What can we possibly achieve with our small numbers and limited strength? Yet to ask such a question is unworthy of those who have the Spirit and who have Christ as head of the church, through whom the Father governs all things.
For He opens doors where we see closed doors, makes possible that which seems to us impossible. After all, He has “the key of David”. He “opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (Rev. 3:7). Remember what He said to the little church at Philadelphia with all its challenges. To us, today, these are encouraging words. Christ says: “I know your deeds … you have little strength … have not denied my name … have kept my command to endure patiently … Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown … He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God.”
Today, in the face of many uncertainties, we draw strength, comfort and encouragement from Christ’s words to the small church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3: 7-13). Preaching God’s Word on this text in 1943, in the difficult war years, the late Prof. B Holwerda encouraged the congregation in the midst of oppression. Those words encourage us today, too. What follows is a translated segment of Prof. Holwerda’s sermon:
Now Christ [speaking to the faithful believers in Philadelphia] acknowledges: you have little strength. In what way?
Well, numerically speaking only a handful of people were doing the work of God’s church in Philadelphia. And that work always fell on the same shoulders. Isn’t that always the case? In a large church with many members the work can be shared; the one does this, another that. In a large church there are many people to do the work, even though it is still often difficult to get the necessary helpers. But in a small congregation like Philadelphia only a few people must literally do everything.
Then there was also at the financial side: the capacity of the congregation was very small. Earthquakes had destroyed all their wealth. Whatever was needed for any form of Christian activity had to come from a few purses; and these were as good as empty.
Consider also the ability of the people. There were no big businessmen with a keen outlook in Philadelphia, and there were no prominent people in the church. The elders were sincere and faithful, but without great ability; the minister, I would imagine, an industrious man, but not half as talented as his colleague in Sardis. There really was no one in the congregation we would regard as a strong figure, no one able to take a forceful initiative, no one capable of organising and leading energetically.
Now you can take stock of the opportunities in Philadelphia: What can this congregation do? Really, nothing. They do not have the strength of numbers, they do not have the financial means, they do not have the benefit of exceptional abilities. In those respects, the doors were very much closed here.
Were there then no open doors at all? Oh yes, there were: prison doors, and doors to the graveyard. Doors that opened of themselves. For there were quite a few fanatical Jews living there; people who prided themselves on being the chosen ones of the Lord, but who nurtured a fierce hatred against that small Christian church.
Christ also speaks of the synagogue of Satan again. Over against that little church, by itself so weak, the devil puts his synagogue, his diabolical organization, his systematic campaign of persecution. And the only possibility for these Christians – and a very strong possibility at that – is that today or tomorrow they will be arrested, perhaps never to return.
Just think of that for a moment. Not a single point in your favour, no opportunity to achieve something that is meaningful. There’s only the horrible chance that all your worries for the church and all your miserable drudgery for the kingdom of God will land you in jail, and thus make matters worse rather than better. Wasn’t the situation in Philadelphia enough to make one lose all courage?
And yet, to this church which found itself in such a difficult situation, to this congregation comes the word: I know your works, I know everything about your church services, about the home visits, the efforts to balance your budget; I know all that you are doing for evangelism and mission, your struggle for Me, your serving Me. You have little strength; you cannot do much, but you have done a lot: you have kept My word and have not denied My name. With your small number, with very modest resources, you have done what was possible: you have been faithful in all things. You did not say: we cannot do much; we do not have the money nor the manpower, our pastor is not a gifted speaker; no, you have kept My word; that is: you did not believe for your own sake but carried out My command; you have spread My gospel both in witnessing and in your walk of life. Although your pastor was not an orator, he preached with heart and soul; your elders were not impressive people but they did what they could; you have only a few people who had to do all the work but it did not grieve them, they were always ready to serve; and your empty wallet was open whenever that was necessary for the sake of My name.
You were not discouraged by closed doors but laboured as though everything was possible for you, as if no door was locked. Moreover, you did not let yourself be frightened by the Jews; you did not say: we must be careful, else we’ll finish up in jail; you did not deny My name, and so you worked as if the open prison door was tightly closed.
What has been the secret of the church in Philadelphia? Quite simply, they believed in Jesus Christ. And that faith, yes, of course, that faith includes everything and decides everything. But in this situation it meant especially that they believed in His absolute power. For Christ presents Himself here again under a completely different name: This says He who is Holy, He who is True, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.
The Holy one – that is not only that He is far removed from sin; no, as so often in the Bible, it means that He is ‘divine’, everything in which God is distinguished from the creature and stands above it. And He is True, He is faithful, they can rely on him.
And so, as the faithful God, He has the key of David, He has final and absolute control of all and everything. What this congregation can do, what opportunities each member has personally, is not decided by their number, their wallet, their gifts, nor by the Jews or by the devil, but by Him alone. For He is the Holy One, He is God, He can do it. He is also True, He will do it.
And therefore, it is He alone who has absolute power. When He throws open a door in Philadelphia, no one can close it; when He provides an opportunity, no one has to ask where to get the money and manpower, for the door is open. And when He shuts the doors, no one can open them; if he closes the prison gate and keeps it closed the Jews may be fanatical and agitate, and Satan may activate his whole synagogue, but the door is closed and they are unable to even try to pry it open.
And that faith put them to work and made them steadfast. They did not calculate, they simply believed and then it was possible. They did not worry ‘what if they catch me’, but they believed, and then it did not happen. They breathed freely, those peasants and grocers of Philadelphia, those little people of modest means. In faith they did great things. They did not lose sleep over the money that was needed even though it meant scraping together the pennies and dimes. They did not fret about the dangers, although these were certainly not imaginary. But they said: I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength; the devil cannot stop it and neither will the poor state of my finances. People as little and simple as their circumstances could make them, but then again as great as only faith can make them; with modest gifts, but that did not matter. For faith lives by the possibilities of Jesus Christ and not by one’s own. People surrounded by great dangers, awfully great, and yet completely at peace, for they were, after all, safely kept by Christ Jesus’ absolute power.
Beloved, what can we do?
Everything, for all things are possible with God.
No, it does not mean that we can now do reckless, foolish, audacious things, for that is not Christ’s call. But it does mean that we should stop humanly calculating our possibilities: something we’re good at, the skills to prepare a budget and evaluate risks, and then we dare not go a step further than was calculated.
We are quick to say: where will we get the money? As if there is no key power with Christ, as if it is not true that He opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens. What opportunities does the church have now and later? What dangers threaten her, now and later? Really, it is not our business. Let this be sufficient: Christ alone has the authority to decide.
It does not matter what the world will look like after the war; Philadelphia, too, looked pretty desolate after an earthquake. It does not matter what the earthly powers undertake and decide; Christ will soon say: this is possible, and then it is possible; and that must not happen, and it will not happen. We have but one task, infinitely varied, yet simple: to keep His Word and not deny His name. If we don’t do that, we just do nothing. Driven by uncertainty we take the cautious approach. But now the command is: keep My word, and do it with all your might. I am not allowed to ask what possibilities will arise. But I have to walk the paths Christ Jesus opens up, today!