You expect, and rightly, at Christmas to hear sermons apropos the incarnation and the birth of our Savior. Similarly, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday you expect to hear sermons devoted to the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord. In the American evangelical tradition you have been far less likely even to know that a Sunday in May or June was Pentecost much less to hear a sermon devoted to the theme. I confess that this was true here for too long. But I am committed to changing that and to mark Pentecost every year not only with a liturgy shaped by the remembrance of that great event, but by a sermon devoted to the theme. And what is that theme?
Well, we might think that the theme of this Sunday should be the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, in particular, the gift of tongues. It was at Pentecost that the supernatural gift to speak languages one had never learned was first given. But marvelous as that miracle was and dramatic as its effects on that long ago Sunday, tongues-speaking is not the meaning of Pentecost. It rather points to the meaning. Other evangelicals might well think that the real significance of Pentecost is the heightening of the spiritual life from what it was before the age of the Holy Spirit. This view is widespread – I would say nearly universal – in Protestant Christendom. It is thought that there is a more inward less formal, a more spiritual and less legal, a more divinely empowered and less human-nature-dependent religious experience in the new epoch than there was in the age of Moses and this better and greater thing came with the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost. You have heard me say often enough that there is precious little evidence in the Bible for that opinion. The Bible never discusses Pentecost in these terms and never defines, therefore, what the difference is that there is supposed to be between a believer’s spiritual experience in Abraham’s day or David’s day or Daniel’s day and our day. I remember listening to some class lectures of Prof. Bruce Waltke. Prof. Waltke, as you know, is a man whose biblical understanding I hold in the highest regard. At the end of one class a student asked Prof. Waltke about this very thing: what is the difference between believing life in the ancient epoch and in the epoch after Pentecost? Dr. Waltke’s reply was to the effect that he understood that there was supposed to be such a difference – that Pentecost was to have made such a difference – but he couldn’t see it and didn’t know what it was! Far better to admit that such a difference in the quality of a believer’s experience was not the effect, the result, or the purpose of Pentecost.
The Bible says very explicitly and in a number of places what Pentecost would achieve. The result would be not a qualitative change in the spiritual life of believers but a quantitative change in the influence of the gospel. Pentecost changed the world by empowering the church to take the gospel to the world. Jesus said to his disciples just before his ascension that as a result of Pentecost they would be his witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth. In the Upper Room, the night of his betrayal, he told his disciples that when the Spirit came they would do greater works than he had done. And what were those greater works? Not greater miracles, for they did not do greater miracles than he had done. But with one sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, in and by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought more people into the kingdom of God than Jesus did perhaps in the entire three years of his ministry. Long before the Upper Room Jesus said to his disciples that when the Holy Spirit was given “rivers of living water would flow from them.” They would be, in other words, the means of salvation for others. Until Pentecost the church had never been under direct obligation to take the gospel to the nations. Pentecost changed all that. And that was a change indeed. Today the billions of professing Christians in the world are the fruit of this one great event in the history of salvation: the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Pentecost made the church a missionary church. Pentecost, as John Stott put it, “was essentially a missionary event.” [The Incomparable Christ, 165] That is why the miracle of tongues was found on Pentecost. People from all over the world heard the gospel in their own language. That was a foretaste of things to come. This is the point explicitly made about tongues in Acts 2.
We are this morning taking up the letter to the church in Philadelphia, the sixth of the seven “Letters to the Churches.” Now many things can be said about these seven letters, but this morning let me mention just this one thing. Taken together, they seem in John’s presentation of them according to the vision the Lord gave him, to represent the life of the church in the world. We know how significant the number seven is in the Bible, how often it represents completeness and entirety and perfection. Well, here the seven churches are the whole church. And the features commented on in each letter and with respect to each church are therefore the features of the true church of God. That is true both of these churches sins and their virtues. They are representative. And what are those virtues? Well, we have love in the first letter; patience insuffering in the second; truth in the third; holiness in the fourth; we have sincerity or integrity in the fifth letter; and we have zeal in the seventh. And what, then, do we have in the sixth? What is the characteristic of the true church given to us in that sixth letter? Well, let us see.
- Remember, the characteristics of these letters are taken from the introduction we are given at the end of chapter 1. There were seven stars that were the angels of the seven churches as we read in 1:20.
The identification and description of Jesus Christ, who speaks to each church in turn, is also taken from the description of him given in chapter one. Each letter repeats some part of that description. There we are told that this figure like the Son of Man glorious in his appearance held the keys of death and Hades. Insofar as the letter will be taken up in part with the relations between the church and the Jews in the area, it is natural that it should open with the affirmation that Jesus is the true Messiah, the one who holds the key of David.
- You may be aware that this is a verse often referred to as evidence for the idea of the rapture, the sudden and unannounced removal of all believers from the world before the great tribulation at the end of the world, seven years before the Second Coming of Christ. The Left Behind books trade on this expectation. But the language employed here does not mean – and the rest of the Bible never teaches – that the church will be evacuated before the tribulation. It means that she will be kept, preserved, protected in and through all her trials and especially that last and greatest trial. Remember the Lord’s prayer for his disciples in John 17: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Interestingly, the words the NIV renders “protect them” that is, “keep them from the Evil one” in the Lord’s prayer in John 17:15 are the same words used here in Rev. 3:10 where we read that the Lord will “keep them from the hour of trial.” But in John 17 keeping them explicitly does not mean taking them out of the world. Nor does it mean that here in Rev. 3. Or think of the very characteristic statement of Jeremiah, contemplating such a time of terrible judgment: “If those who do not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, why should you go unpunished.” And, most decisively, the church in Smyrna, in 2:10 is told that she will have to endure persecution even to death but that the Lord will sustain her through it and reward her for her faithfulness.
In other words, the promise the Lord is making to the Philadelphian Christians here in v. 10 is that their faith will not be overturned or their salvation lost or their eternal life put in jeopardy by the trials and persecutions that must come. Even death would not separate them from the love of Christ and the certainty of eternal life. As Augustine would famously put it, “Hack me, hew me, burn me here, but spare me hereafter, spare me hereafter.”
Now, we have to answer the question we posed at the beginning of our reading: what is the characteristic of the true church highlighted in this sixth letter of the seven letters to the churches? And the answer to that question is another question. What does the Lord mean when he says to the church in Philadelphia: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut”? He is obviously referring to the sentence just before it in v. 7:
“What he – that is Jesus Christ who holds the key of David – what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”
But what is opened? The key of David has already opened a door and that door stands open before the church; but what door and in what sense is it open? Regarding John’s words here, we do not have, if you pardon the pun, an open and shut interpretation. I will not trouble you with all the details of the arguments for various understandings of this “open door” that stands before the church in Philadelphia. But let me explain the sense that seems right to me and is the opinion of the majority of the commentators. [Cf. especially Colin Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting, 161-163]
The open door is the door of missionary opportunity that stands open before the church in Philadelphia, opportunity to reach both Jews and Gentiles. This explains the surprising reversal in verse 9. Again and again in the ancient prophets we are told that the day would come when the nations of the earth would submit to the God of Israel and come to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. In some cases it is explicitly said that the Gentile nations would come to the Jews and acknowledge “Surely God is with you and there is no other, there is no other God.” [Isa. 45:14] There is no doubt that v. 9 here borrows from the language of texts in Isaiah and Ezekiel. John is applying those prophecies to the situation faced by the church in Philadelphia. But here, in a striking reversal, the unbelieving Jews will come and fall down at the feet of the church – Jewish and Gentile Christians together – and acknowledge that their God is the true God and that Christ is the Messiah. It is a grand picture of the progress of the gospel penetrating even the most determined and obstinate resistance.
And what is true of the unbelieving Jews is no doubt true as well of the Gentiles in that region and – given that Philadelphia here stands for the entire church in the world, as do the other six churches – is true of all the nations of the world.
There may be a reason why this particular characteristic of the true church – missionary action and missionary success – should have been linked to Philadelphia and not some other church. This city was known in its day as “the gateway to the East.” Its founder intended it to be a center of missionary activity for the Hellenistic way of life – bringing the enlightenment of Greek civilization to the Eastern peoples. The position of Philadelphia on the borders of Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia and “on the threshold” of the Eastern countries gave the church in Philadelphia unusual opportunities for spreading the gospel. [Swete, 54]
In any case, an “open door” is a familiar way of speaking about missionary opportunity. When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary tour the church rejoiced to learn, as we read in Acts 14:27, that God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. In 1 Cor. 16:9 Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that “a great door of effective work has opened to me” in Ephesus, necessitating a longer stay in that city. When later he left for Troas, he says in 2 Cor. 2:12, that there “the Lord had opened a door for me” as he preached the gospel. He asks the Colossian Christians to pray “that God may open a door for our message…” [4:3].
So it seems very likely that the reference to the open door in v. 8 is to the opportunities for missionary work that the Lord had given to the Philadelphian Christians which they, in turn, had faithfully availed themselves of. The Philadelphia church was an active, eager, entrepreneurial missionary church! Far from denying the Lord’s name, they had proclaimed it far and wide. And what is still more noteworthy in all of this is that this church was small. As we read in v. 8, it had little strength. This was not Corinth with its large and influential congregation or Rome with its burgeoning numbers of Christians. This was a smaller town, devastated some years before by a great earthquake, having suffered numerous aftershocks, still only recovering from that catastrophe decades later, with a population spread out over the countryside because life in the city was deemed by many people unsafe. And in that smaller city was a smaller Christian church; and yet it had done its best to spread the good news to those in the town, in the surrounding countryside, and to travelers coming through – both Jews and Gentiles alike.
But remember, what is being said about Philadelphia as a representative church – as one of the seven churches – is being said about the whole church of God. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ, considered as a community of those genuinely devoted to Christ and his cause, is almost always comparatively small. It is always comparatively small in numbers, in wealth, in power, and in prestige. There has scarcely been a time in human history anywhere when the true church of God was the dominant power in this world. And is that not an important fact for us?
What is it that makes evangelism so difficult for most Christians? Isn’t it that there are so many more unbelievers and that we serious Christians represent a minority viewpoint. If most people were convinced and sincere Christians, and if most of the wealthy, powerful, and successful people were devout followers of Christ, and if only a minority were unbelievers, it would be much easier to speak of Christ even to those who despise the message. But when most of the people are not believers and do not welcome the message about Christ and salvation, it is much harder to be as bold and as fearless as the gospel requires. Is it not so with you? We lack confidence because of our lack of size and influence.
But this is the significance of Pentecost for us. The most unlikely people believed on that Sunday when Peter preached Christ in Jerusalem. Three thousand Jews who, by and large, had showed themselves not only uninterested in but hostile to the proclamation of Christ as the Savior of sinners and King of Kings realized in a moment of shattering illumination that all that they were being told was true and believed on the spot. Humanly speaking, perhaps no more unlikely thing has ever happened in the history of the world! And following Pentecost many others in Jerusalem also believed, including a large number of priests who had been defiantly unwilling to submit to Jesus when he was among them preaching and working miracles. Not everyone in Jerusalem believed by any means. There was still fierce opposition.
And in the years that followed, hardly everyone believed when the gospel was preached, but people did believe everywhere and churches were established and the number of Christians in the world swiftly multiplied. Pentecost was proof enough that the difference in result was to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Jesus was a better preacher than Peter was and his words were backed by the authority of a perfect life. But Peter did greater things as an evangelist than Jesus did because the Holy Spirit empowered him to that end in a way, however mysterious, that he did not empower the Son of God. It was God’s plan and God’s goodness that the great work of calling the world to salvation in Christ should be given to the Lord’s people, his disciples, his church. But they could actually accomplish the salvation of the world only if the Holy Spirit empowered them. Hence Pentecost.
Different results would be given at different times and different places. Many more became Christians in Corinth and Rome than in Philadelphia to be sure. But the transformation of a human heart and life, the gift of faith in Christ, a person’s embrace of Christ when he or she hears the good news, all of this being the Holy Spirit’s achievement not the evangelists, all the Lord has ever asked of his people is that they be faithful as the missionaries he has called them to be. When they are faithful, they will have some measure of happy results, to be sure, but they will get a crown from the Lord Christ, no matter the numbers.
The unmistakeable fact is, the gospel has advanced and has made its way everywhere in the world. This is the fact of Pentecost. And it has advanced in the same way: from mouth to mouth and heart to heart. There have been objectors and there have been opposers from the very beginning, there have been those who have mocked and those who have persecuted, but the gospel has never been stopped on its path of conquest in the world. And over and over again the Holy Spirit has discomfited the gospel’s enemies and overturned their best efforts.
You remember Felix, the Roman governor, who so haughtily dismissed the Apostle Paul when he began to explain the gospel of Christ to him. You remember the emperor Nero at whose command the great apostle to the Gentiles was put to death. T.R. Glover, the British writer reminds us, that the day would come when we would name our cats Felix, our dogs Nero, and our sons Paul! The Holy Spirit is able to and will set the record straight!
That is the meaning of Pentecost and here it is set in the context of a particular church, like so many other churches, small in number and influence. Christ holds the key of heaven in his hand. He has opened the door to eternal life. And the Holy Spirit, now set loose upon the world and using the church and Christians, holds that door open and draws multitudes of men and women through it.
We are wont in our day of research and development, of means and ends, of calculations to determine the best strategies, and of measuring efficiency by outcomes, to think in those terms when we are thinking about evangelism and about building the church. But the Bible teaches us to think of the Holy Spirit and the open door and the power of God to change even the most unlikely and unpromising heart. Philadelphia was a small church with little strength, but she used what she had and the Holy Spirit blessed her efforts and promised her an eternal reward for her faithfulness to the gospel.
And so it has been ever since. Peter was a fisherman, not an orator, but through him the Holy Spirit captivated a city. William McCulloch, a pastor in 1740s Scotland, in the village of Cambuslang, was so poor a preacher that he was known in the town as the “yill or Ale-minister” because when he got up to preach many of the men in the congregation left to quench their thirst in nearby pubs. His delivery was slow and cautious and even his son said that he was not “a very ready speaker.” This was so much the case that it was nine years after his graduation from seminary that he finally landed his first pastorate. But it was upon these slow, unimpressive sermons that the Holy Spirit fell in 1742 and produced what could fairly be called a repetition of Pentecost. People were converted by the score and then by the hundreds and from there the revival spread throughout Scotland changing the face of the country for generations to come. [Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival, 39] The Holy Spirit had thrown the door open wide and drawn great numbers through that open door.
At other times the door, if not shut, is only ajar. So it was also here. There was an open door before Philadelphia, but not, apparently, before Sardis in the previous paragraph. Samuel Rutherford spoke of the spiritual coldness of a particular Scottish town and its church when he said, “In these twenty-eight years the grass is grown long betwixt Jedburgh and heaven.” [Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 749] The Holy Spirit, for reasons known to God only, was not calling large numbers of people to faith in Christ in that particular place at that particular time. It was not as it was those years long before in Philadelphia. Even ministers who were both godly and exceptionally gifted found that few would respond to the offer of salvation through faith in Christ.
Think of Richard Greenham, a celebrated Puritan pastor in an English parish for 20 years in the late 16th century. He was a diligent, faithful, and gifted servant of God. His insight as a Christian counselor drew people to his study from far away. He preached unceasingly to his own congregation, even rising early on weekday mornings to preach a daybreak sermon before the workers left for their fields. But in spite of this faithfulness and in spite of the success he enjoyed in ministry to the people of other parishes and the reputation he gained through his writings, Greenham’s ministry in his own town was virtually fruitless. He said to his successor, “I perceive no good wrought by my ministry on any but one family.” Others said that “Greenham had pastures green, but flocks full lean.” [J.I. Packer, “Puritanism as a Movement of Revival,” Evangelical Quarterly 52 (1980), 10-11]
But all of that is the Holy Spirit’s doing, the reality of Pentecost – a Holy Spirit set loose upon the world who will do his work of grace according to the election of God and the redemption of Christ. The wind blows where it will and no man knows where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost did not take away God’s sovereignty, but it did very much make the church of Jesus Christ a missionary force. It promised the church that the Holy Spirit would work in and through its witness and bring salvation to the world. Pentecost is calling, nerve, courage, and hopeful expectation for Christians who, in themselves, are always of little strength. Pentecost made every Christian a missionary and ought to make of every Christian an expectant missionary. Pentecost called the church to take on the world for Christ. Pentecost is the announcement of an open door before the church. How open at any time and place the Holy Spirit will decide, but open nonetheless. Always open. And, surely, the Word of God here and the experience of the saints through 2,000 years conspire to assure us all that as we are faithful to the gospel of Christ, as we hold fast to his glorious name, and as we look to and depend upon the Holy Spirit to apply the gospel to human hearts, we will see folk go through that door. And that is the happiest thing we ever shall see in this world!
The true Pentecostal is not the Christian who aspires to speak in tongues. The true Pentecostal is the Christian who knows himself or herself called to be an evangelist, who knows that the Holy Spirit was given to the church precisely to make her witness effective, and who looks to the Spirit of God for the working of his grace in the hearts of those to whom we speak. What was it our Savior said? What were his very last words to us before he ascended to heaven?
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”