The Church's Evangelistic Witness: Preserving the Word of Christ (1)

Article by Dr. Cornelis Venema from The Messenger, April 2017
President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary 

“I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” Rev. 3:8

I have long believed that conservative Reformed churches often suffer from the idea that they have to make a choice between being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and being fruitful in evangelism and missions. This idea derives from what might be termed a false dilemma between preserving the truth of God’s Word in Scripture and propagating this truth to those yet unreached by the good news of Christ’s saving work.

The odd thing about this mentality is that it drives a wedge between faithfulness and active witness to unbelievers. However, in the Word of God itself, there is an intimate relation between the two. Faithfulness in the preservation of the gospel is not only a precondition for evangelism, but also the only way to effective evangelism. After all, to “evangelize” is to “gospelize,” that is, to herald the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ to those who are perishing (cf. John 3:16). You can hardly expect to be able to pass on the good news, when you have lost it by failing to preserve it!

In this respect, we need to listen carefully to Christ’s letter to the church in Philadelphia. In this letter, Christ speaks to a small and beleaguered church, which was assailed by fierce opposition to its testimony to Christ, and warmly assures them that He will set before them an “open door” of opportunity to witness to His name. Because of their tenacious grip upon the true testimony concerning Jesus Christ, the witness of the church in Philadelphia will be a beacon of light, drawing them and others into fellowship with the living God and entrance into His temple-sanctuary.

The way Christ, the Author of this letter, identifies Himself provides an especially important background to its message. The words of this letter are “of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” “Holy” and “true” are divine attributes in the Scripture and in the book of Revelation (cf. 6:10). Christ thus assures the church in Philadelphia that His words have divine authority. Christ Himself is the true witness whose word comes with absolute reliability. The recipients of this letter are assured from the outset that Jesus is the true Messiah and Savior, and their witness to him is therefore true.

With these words of remarkable self-identification ringing in their ears, the letter turns to the promise that Christ extends to the church in Philadelphia. Christ “knows” their works. He is aware that the church in Philadelphia was, when viewed from the standpoint of numbers or social prestige, a church of “little power” (v. 8). Yet, this church had “kept” Christ’s word and had not “denied” His name. Their witness to the truth concerning Jesus Christ had remained steadfast and certain, even when those of “the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not” opposed their witness and belied their testimony to Christ.

To this faithful church, Christ promises an “open door” of opportunity to witness to the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the true King of spiritual Israel or the people of God. Because of its persevering faithfulness to the truth, this church, located at a strategic crossroads of the ancient Greco-Roman world, will enjoy the privilege of calling Jews and Gentiles alike to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord. Inasmuch as the church in Philadelphia has kept Christ’s word in patient endurance, it may be confident that, in the “hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world” prior to Christ’s coming, it will be spared. This assurance, contrary to the interpretation of some, is not a promise that they will be “raptured” before the time of testing comes, but that they will be preserved through whatever trial comes. Nothing will separate them from God’s love in Christ. And so, as they hold fast to their “crown,” they are encouraged to look forward to an eschatological future, when they and all who share their faith in Christ will dwell in God’s presence forever.

The message of this letter to the contemporary church is startlingly clear. Christ assures his people that faithfulness to the Scriptural gospel in all its integrity is the way forward in witness and evangelism. No message could be more relevant to any church in danger of losing faith in the ancient gospel and its power to transform sinners after the image of Jesus Christ.

You can read more of this April's edition of The Messenger here