The Unshakable Church
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 22:15-25; Revelation 3:7-13
A sermon preached on January 17, 2009 at Davao United Covenant Reformed Church on the occasion of their 10th Anniversary
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|When Vic Bernales, Pete Dimaya and I considered starting Sunday worship services in the latter part of 1999, some people asked, “Why start a new church when there are many evangelical churches to choose from?” Indeed, in the Philippines there are churches in just about every major street of every city.Why a new church? Our thoughts back then were that we were believers in Davao City who were concerned and grieved that today’s churches have departed from scriptural teachings to accommodate modern social trends. Although the body of believers who first established the church came from various church backgrounds, we were united in our belief in the Bible and in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.Dr. Don Paauw, then an elder of Trinity United Reformed Church in Walnut Creek, California, came for that first worship service on January 23, 2000 at a small room at Faith Academy, a school for missionary children. He preached on the theme, “What Do You Think of Christ?” based on Matthew 16:13-20. This was the beginning of a long-term relationship between DUCRC and TURC, who has faithfully supported the young church ever since.For the first few years, the church maintained a rotation of Vic Bernales, Pete Dimaya, Bob Sterner and I exhorting the congregation. Those were difficult days, since all of us, except for Pete, were full-time workers of different companies and organizations.However, on February 14, 2001, the Lord provided for us an ordained minister of the United Reformed Churches in North America in the person of Rev. Steven Poelman from Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, Michigan. Beginning with his first Lord’s Day sermon on March 4, 2001, he faithfully shepherded the flock and the church grew, albeit slowly, in maturity and numbers.|
Like the church in Philadelphia, this church had a very uneventful beginning. To understand the letters of Christ to the seven churches in Revelation, we must remember that these churches were real churches with real people who had real struggles—like this church. They were not churches symbolizing Biblical principles or events. They were real churches which were established by believers who heard the preaching of the gospel by Paul and the other apostles, and who then preached Christ to their friends when they went back to their own cities.
Philadelphia was a small city founded as a gateway from the West to the East. Although small, it was an important city where goods between the East and West passed through. But the city had a big problem: it sat on an earthquake fault so it had frequent earthquakes. In A.D. 17, it was devastated by a big quake, and from that time on, many of its people conducted business in the city during the day, but traveled outside the city to sleep there, fearing that a quake could strike during the night.
The church in Philadelphia was a small church in a small city on the gateway between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. But Christ commended them for their faithful works and for their patient endurance. And for these, God promised them sure rewards.
This afternoon, we will consider the theme, “The Unshakable Church”:
1. Its Faithful Works
2. Its Patient Endurance
3. Its Sure Reward
Its Faithful Works
Our text begins with the words, “The words 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 opens.”
Most of these opening words come from the Old Testament. Since the term “the holy one” refers to Jehovah God, while “the true one” refers to Israel’s coming Messiah, John is saying that Christ is True God and Israel’s Messiah.
What about “the key of David”? John alludes back to Isaiah 22. Our Old Testament reading tells us about Isaiah’s prophecy regarding Israel’s two “chiefs of staff,” officials to whom the king delegated his authority over the palace, who held the “key of David.” The first one was Shebna, a worthless greedy palace overseer, whom God will replace with a more faithful and honest one named Eliakim son of Hilkiah.
Eliakim was the one who “opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” As chief of staff, he determined who will enter the throne room of the king. A couple of New Testament texts will reveal what this shutting and closing the door means. The first one is Revelation 1:18 which speaks of Jesus holding the key to Death and Hades. The second text is in Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosedÂ in heaven.” We know that Christ gave his apostles authority to open or shut the door of heaven through preaching and church discipline. Those who reject the gospel cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, and those who are members of the covenant community but who live unrepentant, sinful lives are excluded from the kingdom until they repent and turn back to God.
Out of the seven churches in Asia, Christ addressed only Smyrna and Philadelphia without a rebuke. Does that mean that they had no problems in spiritual maturity? By no means! Because of the human propensity for sin, even among believers, there is no such thing as a perfect church. All of Paul’s epistles to the churches addressed their spiritual problems. But with Philadelphia, Christ focused on the good things that he saw in that church.
First, Christ commended the Philadelphia church, “I know your works.” And these works consisted of two things. He praised them because, first, “You have kept my word.” The saints in Philadelphia kept the faith that was delivered to them once for all by the apostles. This word was handed down to the early church, lost during the medieval age, and recovered by the 16th century Protestant Reformers. But soon after the Reformation, that Word started waning, and sadly today, unknown to most evangelical churches.
|From the beginning, DUCRC was committed to the Five Solas of the Reformation, one of which is Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. Others have asked us, “Why preach the Word only? Why not preach moralisms and psychotherapeutic “How tos”? Why not make the people laugh? Why not use rock bands, drama and dancing?” Because Paul says, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of God” preached (Rom 10:17). Others have commented, “Yes, you are preaching the Word of Christ. Yes, your worship service is centered on the Word. But those things don’t reach out to the youth. They will never attract the youth.” If this is true, then why are there more youth in this church than older folks? Did you attract them with entertainment? Or did the Holy Spirit revive their souls with the preaching of God’s Word?|
Beloved in the Lord, we are not in the business of doing the work of the Holy Spirit. Our business and our commission is, “Preach the Word!” In season and out of season. Whether it is received or rejected is not a matter of entertaining the flock with songs and dances and drama and jokes. Our business is to preach and teach the Word!
Christ also praised the Philadelphians because, “You have not denied my name.” The seven churches were plagued by heresies and other false teachings. Ephesus lost their “first love,” their love for Christ and his gospel. Pergamum and Thyatira were beset by heresies. Laodicea was lukewarm and spiritually blind so Christ will spit them out of his mouth. Sardis was plagued by dead works. Only Smyrna and Philadelphia escaped these rebukes.
Jesus warns us, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:33). In the early church, many believers were persecuted and killed if they did not renounce their faith in Christ. But there were also many who crumbled under the threat of death, and eventually denied Christ. Peter denied Christ, but he repented fully of his sin, and after the resurrection, suffered much and was martyred for his unshakable faith in Christ.
And this is the reason why Christ commended the church in Philadelphia. They persevered through persecution and sufferings.
Its Patient Endurance
|After Rev. Poelman came in February 2001 and started ministering to the flock at DUCRC, the biggest trial for the small, young church would soon come. Soon after the terrorist attacks against the U. S. on September 11, 2001, Rev. Poelman and his family were recalled by Cornerstone’s consistory. That was a few months after our family went on furlough to the U. S. in June 2001, knowing that it was in the good hands of an undershepherd. In addition to the departure of Rev. Poelman, Brother Vic also left for the U. S. to begin his ministerial studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.For years after that, this mission church struggled to survive with the lack of a man of God fully trained and ordained for the ministry. While Brother Vic studied MARS for a year, Brother Ojie Bicaldo was called by Trinity URC to serve as the undershepherd. There were times when they had only four or five people on the Lord’s Day; times when we all considered disbanding. But the faithful ones in Davao persevered through many years of faithful study of the Word, fellowship, breaking of bread when an ordained minister was present, and in prayer.Those days must have been a time when your faithful flock could have had second thoughts about continuing. In the eyes of believers in other churches, why not disband and just disperse to other churches? It was not because of tradition or friendship, but because you believe that your doctrine, worship and practice is solidly based on God’s Word as proclaimed by the Protestant Reformers.|
The church in Philadelphia was a small church composed mostly of Jews who believed. There were Jewish synagogues, and the Jews persecuted them just as they persecuted Christ and the apostles. Our text refers to Jews who rejected Christ as “synagogues of Satan.” They thought they were the people of Israel, but Christ says that they are not of Israel. They thought that they were still God’s chosen people, relying on their biological descent from Abraham.
But here, Christ rejects this idea that national Israel is part of the Israel of God. Jesus told unbelieving Jews that they are not true children of Abraham, but instead are children of Satan! (John 8:44). This accusation surely infuriated the Jews even more, increasing their desire to kill him.
Paul taught that the church is the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:6), saying that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Rom 9:6-7). Instead, everyone who is in Christ is Abraham’s children of promise (Gal 3:29).
So do not be deceived by teachers who teach that there are two separate peoples of God today, Israel and the Church. The nation Israel ceased to be God’s chosen people 2,000 years ago, when Christ came and expanded his covenant of grace to both Jews and Gentiles. We are now one people of God, united in Christ, with no “dividing wall of hostility” separating us (Eph 2:14). Why insist on a view which was long ago rejected by Christ, Paul and the other apostles?
In fact, in verse 9, Christ teaches a huge reversal, “I will make [the Jews] come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” Christ is quoting from another prophecy in Isaiah 45:14 about the pagan nations surrounding Israel, “they shall come over to you and be yours; they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.” While John says that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Philadelphia, it will also be fulfilled on Judgment Day, when unbelieving Jews will bow down to Gentile believers as conquered people.
Let us remember this one thing when reading Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel: some prophecies were fulfilled when Israel came back from the Babylonian exile. But the prophecies also have long-term fulfillment in Christ and his church. Almost always, these prophecies have double, or even triple fulfillment: (1) an Old Testament fulfillment in Israel’s history; (2) a New Testament fulfillment in Christ’s first coming and the present age of the preaching of the gospel; and (3) the future consummation of Christ’s kingdom when he returns.
The unbelieving Jews in Philadelphia, those who belonged to the “synagogue of Satan,” persecuted the church to the fullest. This is why Christ warned them that their “hour of trial” will come. But this is also why he encouraged them to persevere through their sufferings.
In the same way, Christ warns you of continuing difficulties and sufferings here in Davao City. But he also encourages you to persevere in the faith. And for your perseverance, Christ promises you, just as he had promised his covenant people in Philadelphia, your sure reward.
Its Sure Reward
What is the reward of the Philadelphian believers for keeping God’s Word, being faithful to his Name, and enduring patiently through their hour of trial?
The first reward is this: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 3:10). Christ will “keep” them from the trial and suffering that is coming on the whole world. Does this mean that the believers in Philadelphia will be raptured into heaven before the “hour of trial” comes? By no means! We know that not only the church in Philadelphia suffered, but most Christians in the first 300 years of Christianity were persecuted and many were put to death by Jews and Romans.
In fact, Revelation 7:14 tells us that John saw a multitude of people who “have washed their robes and made them white with the blood of the Lambâ€¦ coming out of the great tribulation.” Since Christ first came, believers have already been suffering at the hands of persecutors and scoffers. Until today and until Christ returns, the Church will suffer. This is why during his brief time on earth, he repeatedly warned his disciples and all believers until he returns, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you ” (John 15:20), and, “In the world, you will have tribulation,” (John 16:33). Do not be deceived by the health and wealth false teachers!
What then does Christ mean, “I will keep you from the hour of trial”? In his prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, Jesus prayed, I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15). Christ will not take us away from this world until he returns, but we will be exposed to persecution because the world hates us. Not just Muslims, Hindus, Iglesia ni Cristo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, but all unbelievers hate us or resent us or ridicule us. However, we are kept from the evil one.
But not just unbelievers and cults hate you. Even evangelicals resent you. Why do you think your church went through really hard times even in just the recent past? Why do you think you are not growing as fast and as big as other churches in Davao City? Because worldly wisdom hates your doctrines. Consider the following diatribes against your Reformed doctrines of grace:
How can you say that man is unable and unwilling to believe when I myself exercised my own free will in accepting Jesus as my Savior and Lord? Believers were chosen by God before the creation of the world—that’s so unfair! Christ died only for the elect—that’s so wrong! Why do you believe that a person would surely believe when the Holy Spirit quickens his soul? If you’re right, then why are there so many Christians who later renounce their faith?
They resent you because they hate your Christ-centered, Word-centered preaching. Because they hate your God-centered worship in reverence and joy. Because they hate your practices of church membership, profession of faith, and church discipline. Because they do not have a clue about your covenant theology, which is the basis of your doctrine of infant baptism. These are your doctrine, worship and practices that most evangelicals reject because of their dependence on worldly wisdom, lack of discernment, and meager Biblical knowledge.
But Christ’s promise is that he will keep you from the hour of temptation. He will keep you from being deceived by Satan’s false teachings. The Holy Spirit will keep you from denying God and your faith in Christ. The church in Philadelphia is evidence of this. Do you know that the church in Philadelphia survived severe persecution in the early centuries of the church, all the way to the 15th century when Muslims conquered Turkey? Today, there are still a few hundred Greek Orthodox believers there. God surely kept them from their hour of trial.
The second reward is this: a crown. What is this crown? Paul says this is the crown of eternal life. If you are like the Philadelphians who were “faithful unto death,” Christ promises to you, ” I will give you the crown of life.” Peter also says that when Christ “the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet 5:4).
The third promise is that the believers in Philadelphia will be as strong pillars in the heavenly temple. Unlike their buildings which were destroyed repeatedly by earthquakes, these believers will be unshakable pillars. They did not need to fear earthquakes, even in the spiritual sense. As he promised the church in Philadelphia, Christ promises to give you strong, unshakable faith, so you may withstand and persevere through the earthquakes and trials of persecution, ridicule and false teachings. This is why Paul calls you and other true churches, “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
Lastly, Christ promised the Philadelphia church that he will write the name of God on their pillars. Ancient buildings had inscriptions on them—the builders, the year they were built, and the gods they were honoring. When you are a pillar in God’s heavenly temple, you have God’s name and the name of the heavenly city written on your pillar. You are inscripted and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Because you have God’s name written on you, you will never leave or be cast out of God’s temple. No spiritual earthquake will be able to shake your pillar of faith. While the names of our founding fathers, the 12 apostles, are written on the foundation of the heavenly city (Rev 21:14), God’s name will be written on your pillars in the heavenly temple.
What great rewards!
|A few years ago, DUCRC was able to rent this place and made it the place of assembly for worship. Over the years, under the leadership of Brother Ojie and with additional help from Trinity URC, improvements were made as we can see now. Also, David Linden, a missionary who is also a member of Bethel URC in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, facilitated the continuation of Brother Vic’s ministerial studies at MARS.And then, at long last, your prayers were answered when Brother Vic and his family came back in 2008 after he finished his ministerial studies at MARS. Since then, the Lord has added to the church’s number and you are now continuing to mature together as you diligently study the Word and the creeds and confessions together as God’s faithful and persevering people.|
Beloved in Christ, God encourages you to persevere even more, because sufferings and trials will surely come until he returns. And when you persevere until Christ returns, remember what great rewards he has in store for you in heaven: the crown of eternal life, an unshakable pillar in heaven, and God’s name written on your pillar.
|The Lord continued to be gracious to you in uniting you with a small group of churches who adhere to the same Reformed doctrine, worship and practice that are so precious to you. In God’s providence, the Reformed Church in the U. S. became interested in a mission work in the Philippines through the UCRCP, a federation to which you now belong. With the continuing help from the RCUS, Trinity URC and the UCRCP, you now have more stability—and accountability—as well.In the next few months, Lord willing, there will be joy in the morning after a night of weeping when Brother Vic is ordained by the classis of the UCRCP and your congregation is fully constituted as a church. Our Lord Jesus Christ will then say, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev 1:3). You will surely receive God’s promised reward for keeping his Word and his Name.|
Let us then sing with joy and confidence the great Reformation hymn,
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
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