The seven letters to the churches in the book of Revelation are always relevant. Evangelical churches need to listen regularly to the first letter, the letter to Ephesus. This is about Christians losing 'their first love', the love they had when they first were converted or became spiritually alive - love for God and love for others. Many churches in the West currently need to listen to the fourth letter, the one to Thyatira. This makes it clear that the immoral agenda and the multi-faith agenda have to be rooted out. That is why the acceptance of extra-marital sex (and, therefore, homosexual sex) by some bishops is a 'line in the sand', as is saying Jesus Christ is not the only way. Such things must not be tolerated.
Then many others in established Protestant churches and also in some small orthodox chapels need to listen to the letter to Sardis. The people there were told 'you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.'But for many faithful Christians the sixth letter to the church in Philadelphia, Revelation 3.7-13 at the present time is a letter that needs to be read.
The letter to Philadelphia
"To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
7 These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars--I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13} He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Many Christians in England today who have been faithful, who 'have kept Christ's word' and feel that they have 'little strengthy (verse 8) are aware that the situation with the church in the country is very serious. There is a slow but definite collapse going on among the churches. 'Could the end be nigh?' was a headline in the Newcastle Journal. 'The number of children attending Sunday schools has hit an all-time low, new figures reveal.' It asked 'if this spells the beginning of the end for Christianity in Britain.'
The point is this. As the new Millennium dawned the spin doctors at Church House Westminster and other denominational HQs could no longer hide the figures. Christian Research had revealed all in its survey of church attendance in England at the end of the 20th century (Peter Brierley The Tide is Running Out, Christian Research, £8.99). The church in England and the Church of England were shown to be in a dire situation.
Most of the mainline churches lost one fifth of their members or attenders during the 90's. According to the Christian Research the Church of England declined by 23 percent. This was immediately. The 'official accounts' were said to show a decline of only 17 percent (Church Times, 3 December 1999). But these 'official accounts' were calculated using a shorter period than Christian Research!
Going back 20 years Christian Research said that in 1979 5.4 million were in church on a normal Sunday; by 1989 that had dropped to 4.7 million; while by 1998 it had fallen to 3.7 million. Most frightening of all was what is happening to children and young people. At the beginning of the 20th century 56 out of 100 children were in Sunday school. Now it is 4 out of 100 children. But The Journal in its feature on children focused on Jesmond Parish Church and found that the church is bucking the trend with 250 in its Sunday youth work and 150 midweek in scouts, guides, cubs and brownies. What is happening?
So over all, or on average, the churches lost one fifth of their members or attenders during the 90's.
The press, however, did not pick up the one encouraging statistic that has huge significance. Across the denominations the number of people attending 'mainstream' evangelical churches (churches like JPC) over the last 10 years has increased by 68 percent (with 'broad', or more liberal, evangelicals declining by 47 percent and 'charismatic' evangelicals declining by 16 percent).
These figures when broken down for the Church of England are even more staggering. Over the last 10 years there has been, as we have seen, overall decline in the Church of England of 23 percent. But there is small growth among evangelicals (plus 2 percent) and those classified as 'low church' (plus 1 percent). But that 2 percent 'evangelical' growth was averaged from charismatic Anglican evangelicals who declined by 21 percent, broad Anglican evangelicals who declined by 23 percent, but also mainstream Anglican evangelicals who grew by an amazing 320 percent
Undoubtedly this growth has been due in part to the influence in the 90's by groups like Reform; the Proclamation Trust; churches like Jesmond and Walkergate in Newcastle and now St John's in Worcester that in a high profile way have tried to stand firm for Biblical truth; but also, and most importantly the hundreds of other Christians - clergy and lay people - who support them by prayer and when they can, by action.
There are, however, no grounds for complacency. All Anglican evangelicals only make up 24 percent of the entire Church of England. And while in 1989 mainstream Anglican evangelicals made up a tiny 7 percent of all Anglican evangelicals, with broad then 49 percent and charismatic 44 percent, mainstream Anglican evangelicals now still only make up 29 percent, with Broad 37 percent, and Charismatic 34 percent.
But common sense suggests that in the Church of England ays that the future may well lie with mainstream Anglican evangelicals. Their concerns, their strategiesw, their analyses and their needs cannot be ignored. And they cannot be, nor are they being, ignored world-wide. Hence the importance of the 'irregular' but necessary and valid consecration of two bishops at the end of January in Singapore, one to serve as a missionary bishop of the Province of South East Asia , the other to serve as a missionary bishop of the Province of Rwanda.
A number of evangelical churches, and others, particular in America, have asked for alternative oversight, as we have in Jesmond. This is where bishops are accepting the immoral or multi-faith agendas. As none has been provided by official sources (as our Canons seem to require), two fine Primates of the Anglican communion, Archbishop Moses Tay of Singapore and Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, themselves decided, together with some other bishops, enough was enough; and they ordained on 29 January 2000 two American evangelicals, Chuck Murphy and John Rodgers, to provide some alternative oversight where it is needed.
So all this is now the context for our work here at JPC. That is why this letter to Philadelphi is relevant. We should be encouraged by it.
The reference in verse 8 to 'an open door that no one can shut' for the Philadelphians is a wonderful promise. We don't know exactly what it was, but it was some sort of opportunity for the gospel. And we now have huge opportunities - because of the default of others. By the grace of God, while the Church of England, on average, has been declining by one third, JPC has doubled.
But as with any opportunity for evangelism there are always problems. First, the Philadelphians were, and no doubt felt, very insignificant and weak compared to the task. The risen Jesus says (verse 8):
'I know that you have little strength.'
Secondly, these Christians were being attacked by the more 'established' religious people - the Jews. The risen Jesus is blunt. These religionists are described as 'The synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars' (verse 9). The believers in Christ were and are, now, the 'true Israel' as Paul had argued in Romans 2.28. These Jews were, presumably, being unpleasant and making life difficult for these Philadelphian Christians. They were probably persecuting them.
Thirdly, there was a threat of persecution from the secular authorities as well:
'the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth' (verse 10).
Some of these Philadelphians undoubetdly may have been tempted to keep their heads down in this situation. They said to themselves:
'look we have been faithful so far, (verse 8) we have "kept Christ's word and not denied his name": let's now take it easy. What more does Christ want?'
The answer is that Christ was wanting them to go through the open door.
The risen Jesus, through John, wants to encourage these Philadelphian Christians. And he gives encouragement, first, in verse 7 where he reminds them of who he is. Jesus speaks of ...
'the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.'
This is a claim to deity.The words 'him who is holy and true' echo Old Testament ascriptions of Jehovah (Yahweh). And Jesus is the fulfiller of promises - 'the key of David' goes back to Isaiah 22.22 and the steward of Hezekiah, Eliakim - a man of authority. Without going into details, Christ seems to be saying this:
'if I am the true steward of God's household, I have authority and power - far more than Eliakim. If Eliakim could open and shut the doors of the treasury in ancient Judah, I certainly can now open and shut doors.'
So as we face the challenges of the future we need to remember that Christ has the authority. 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me', says Jesus in Matthew 28.18. Let's be encouraged by the fact that we face those challenges (and can only face them adequately) with Christ and in his strength.
Secondly, Jesus encourages his readers by saying that in time some of these other religious folk will see the truth (verse 9):
'I will make them [these Jews] come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.'
I think we do need to be prepared at Jesmond for considerable transfer growth, now in the new millennium. People in liberal churches where the gospel is not being preached and children are not being taught, simply will come, more and more, to churches like JPC for help.
And, thirdly, Jesus encourages the Philadelphians by a promise of protection (verse 10):
'Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.'
And, fourthly, Jesus encourages them with the fact of his return and the prospect of eternity (verses 11 and 12):
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.'
A lot could be said about that. But the new Jerusalem must ultimately refer to heaven. Note the command: 'hold on to what you have'. In the current situation in the UK, churches like Jesmond can't stand still. They will either go forwards, through the open doors and grow, or they will go backwards.To make no effort when the tide is going strongly in the opposite direction, is to drift. To make progress against the tide always requires great effort. The only option, therefore, is for us to plan to grow at Jesmond. We, therefore, have to increase our work and increase our ministry. That seems a clear calling. But it will be costly in terms of time and money. A vast a mount of the ministry of the church is by those who give their time quite freely. But an increase of time freely given in ministry always means the need of more 'facilities' and equipment, plus more full time work in co-ordinating and resourcing. That is why there are then increased financial needs with any increase in ministry.
This is the time of year we think about money. It is time for our annual Giving Review. This coming year we must increase our giving. Our income must increase hugely, if we are going to do the work, we believe, God has called us to do.
As has been explained in the Giving Review, current figures show that out of every 100 people present on a Sunday, 44 are students or under 18; 10 are retired or unwaged; 7 are visitors, and 39 - just over one third - are members who are regular wage earners. It follows that one third has to bear a large proportion of the costs of our church. And there are now additional problems with the economic situation in the North East. But God is good, and with him nothing is impossible.
While some are finding life financially hard there are those of us who are single people with good incomes, or in double income families with no children, or are older people with more disposable income now their children are off their hands. And there are all sorts of other people in between who are not really in too difficult a situation.
The problem is that all of us are tempted to be caught up in the prevailing religion of materialism. That is one reason why we need to pray against temptation.
And we need to pray that money is given this year to release God's work here at Jesmond. It will be hard, because of this prevailing materialism and the desire for financial security. Nor is it wrong to want security. But it is wrong if it is at the expense of the gospel, and rather foolish - as God alone can only provide true security. Moths, rust and thieves have to be contended with in the normal run of things, as Jesus so eloquently once said.
So we all need to recognise the need for prayer. The Giving Review should start and continue with prayer. If we are not one of today's 'winners' financially, we can work for the Lord by praying, in faith, for the financial needs to be met. If, however, you are one of todays 'winners', you need to pray not only for yourself not to be tempted, but also that, if you see the need and have the vision and the will to give, others also will have that vision. That is why all of us, therefore, need to pray.
Who is willing to spend five minutes a day praying for the Giving Review and that all the financial needs will be met? Who really wants to be part of JPC moving forward. Who is saying to themselves, 'it can't stand still, but it will be costly to move forward. So I will pray at least for five minutes every day over this Giving Review period.'
Already there are great encouragements. Over the period the Church of England dclined by two-thirds, JPC doubled in size. The youth work is good, so is the work among women.
But looked at carefully, prayerfully, and responsibly, it becomes obvious that this church can only go forward, if this year there is a great increase in ministry (that means money at some point)
I believe God can and will provide. He can do so miraculously when necessary - that is to say, by external gifts of huge sums - we've experienced that in the past.
But perhaps at the moment a large proportion of us, need to be the answers to our own prayers before we expect that kind of miracle.
So these Philadelphians were faithful. They felt they were a tiny minority. And they were being opposed by the more powerful Jews. But Jesus tells them there is an open door. He encourages them by the fact of his authority; by the fact that people will come to them as they see the truth they have been witnessing to; by a promise of protection and by the reality of his second coming and eternity.