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The Church at Philadelphia

Glorious Restoration of the Truth
(AD 1800~Rapture)

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. (Revelation 3:7-8)

Although it appears the development of the church thus far has been on a decidedly downward spiral from one age to the next, it will be understood that during every age, no matter how dark and no matter how obfuscated the testimony of the church-at-large, there has been a constant stream of true witnesses to the salvation that is by faith in the Lord Jesus alone. Often­times, those who shared this common faith would attempt to congregate for the purpose of being edified by the fellowship that is in Christ.

From the time of the Great Persecutions of the second century on, this was always a very risky business. If discovered by church authorities—whether under Constantine’s rule, the papacy, or the ever vigilant eyes of the leaders of even some of the protestant churches—punishment, if not excommunication and death, was certain.

With the seeming success of Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, more “dissenting” congregations came to be formed. The Congregationalist, the Puritans, and the Baptists were all regarded as “dissenters” by the state church in England, which itself had joined the Reformation for historically well-known reasons. This church became the Anglican Church in England, and is known as the Episcopal Church in America.

Although differing in various points of doctrine or emphasis, all of the churches mentioned above —including the so-called “dissenters”—held a number of things in common. First of all, each of them insisted on an ecclesiology revolving around an ordained clergy class—specially ordained men who alone could perform baptisms, administer the Lord’s supper, officiate at marriages and funerals, and the like. That is to say, they were (and remain) Nicolaitan in regards to their ecclesiology.

Secondly, they all practiced “closed communion.” That is to say, the sacraments or ordinances of the church were to be dispensed among members only, and an individual could be a member of only one of these spiritual communities. Therefore, by their strict denominationalism, they denied, and continue to deny to this day, the Truth of the unity of the Body of Christ. 

Thirdly, in doctrine they all held to the amillennial interpretation of scripture, equating the thousand-year reign of Christ promised in the Book of Revelation with the proliferation of their own party, or church body.

In the mid-1700s, John Wesley and George Whitefield fueled the “Great Awakening” in England. The Methodists were formed. While relatively flexible in doctrine, ordination was still a prerequisite for preachers and missionaries. The same situation prevailed in the New World, as well.

It was not until the early 19th Century when a dentist by the name of Anthony Norris Groves began meeting with a handful of other believers in Plymouth, England, determined to know nothing and practice nothing that was not clearly spelled out in scripture as being the desire of the Lord for His saints, that something along the order of true “first century” Christian fellowship began to be restored.

Thus, a table was cleared for their weekly meetings and laid upon with wine and bread. The Lord was remembered and praised, and the participants broke bread together, “as at the beginning.” The meetings were open for all to pray, to share, to study together the Word of God. All who were “accepted of Christ” were accepted into the fellowship, with no requirements to officially join. There was no one in charge but the Lord Jesus Christ, who was present through His Spirit. No one administered the elements to the congregates. Those who gathered around that table were all equally brothers in Christ and members of His Body. They were doing something virtually unheard of since Constantine crossed the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. They were meeting without the benefit of a professionally trained, ordained clergyman. And the meetings flourished as a result, and the Lord ministered Himself to these sincere believers who wanted nothing but the Lord Himself.

Not long afterwards, it was discovered that other “brethren” had begun meeting in a similar fashion in Dublin, with very much the same results. The Plymouth group was joined by a young clergyman named John Nelson Darby, an Anglican priest by training who nevertheless acknowledged that in the fellowship God was no respecter of persons. Tracts began to be published promoting a return to primitive Christianity and the scriptural form of meetings for believers. All denominational labels were eschewed. The Plymouth Brethren and the “Brethren movement” had been born, although they never took any name for themselves other than “brethren,” (small “b”), believers, or, simply, saints.

For the first time since AD 312, people were meeting without the leadership of ordained clergy of any kind. The Holy Spirit was to be the only teacher recognized among them. As they began to depend solely on the scripture, the glorious teaching of the still future advent of the Lord came into view, with its attendant promise of deliverance from the wrath to come for all believers in the Lord Jesus. For perhaps the first time in 15 centuries, men began to teach that God was not finished with the nation of Israel, but that when the “fullness of the Gentiles” had come in, the Lord would once again establish believing Israel as “the head and not the tail” of all nations on earth, that the natural branches would be grafted back into the olive tree, and that the Greater Son of David would rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem over a literal, physical earthly kingdom for a period of 1,000 years.

Fundamental, premillennial, dispensational Truth had been unleashed upon the world. And it would do more to change the face of Christianity than any other single event since the victory of Constantine, perhaps even since Pentecost itself.

I have gone into these events in some detail because this period of church history is nowhere near as well known as the Reformation or “Great Awakening.” It is impossible, however, to truly understand the Lord’s message to the “church of those who love the brethren” (a more accurate translation of Philadelphia than “brotherly love”) without some knowledge of this background.

Having said that, let us look together at the message.

First of all, the Lord confirms what the brethren have discovered about the focal point of all prophecy regarding the Kingdom—mainly, that it does not culminate with the church, but with a restoration of God’s people Israel. Listen.

These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David.

Keys in the scripture, as in our day, speak of authority. Here Jesus confirms that He is one who has authority to rule in David’s place, as He is the Son of David, and God has promised that there should be One who would rule from the throne of David and that His rule should be forever. 

Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie…

This is an interesting statement! Who in the first century (if indeed we are to believe this letter was primarily addressed to first century churches) would go around pretending to be a Jew? And for what conceivable purpose?

For some 1,500 years, however, the “church” has officially taught that God was through with Israel and all of the unfulfilled promises to God’s chosen people of the Old Testament would be fulfilled spiritually in the church. This is the heart of amillennialism. It is the usurpation by the church of the promises of God to His people Israel. It is saying you are Israel when you are not! That is, to claim you a Jew when you are not. The Lord uses some pretty strong language in His condemnation of those who use Romans 2:28-29 to avoid the implications of Romans 11:25-26. He says they will bow down and worship at the feet of the Philadelphian brethren. This is a hard saying.  Who can hear it?

The Lord says He has set before this church an “open door.” This is clearly a reference to missionary opportunity. He notes that this group has “a little strength,” or little strength, but because of the Lord’s personal intervention in holding open the door, they will be able to accomplish great things with the little strength (small numbers) they have.

It is amazing to realize how much effect this little, short-lived movement had on the future of Christianity. As we have mentioned, the premillennial, dispensational teachings of the brethren were popularized by such writers as C. I. Scofield, Harry Ironside, Clarence Larkin (who provided the charts), and countless others who traveled far and wide speaking on the imminent return of the Lord, Daniel’s 70th week, and other such provocative topics.

These events are often cited by many modern church historians as the seeds of the modern Fundamentalist movement. It is not uncommon today for hard-line fundamentalist sects to insist on the dispensational, premillennial view as a “fundamental” of “fundamentalism.” In fact, on our timeline, we could replace “the Brethren Movement” with “Fundamentalist Movement” and cover pretty much the same ground.

But the brethren contributed to more than just a doctrinal redefinition of eschatology. In addition, the knowledge that the Lord was going to return to this earth for His own one day promoted a missionary zeal among the brethren disproportionate to their small numbers. And their presence on the missionary fields of the world have always been disproportionate to the small number of practicing “Plymouth Brethren” (Note: true “brethren” do not accept the name “Plymouth Brethren,” seeing it as a divisive label that others apply to them, but which they in no way take unto themselves to separate themselves from others in the Body of Christ.)

Because they recognized no clergy class of any kind, but relied solely on what has come to be called “lay ministry,” many more individuals from their ranks could become missionaries since they didn’t have to find a way to be ordained and certified by a denominational institution first. Secondly, because the brethren had such little ecclesiastical “overhead” (that is, no clergy class requiring their financial support to maintain), the believers had significantly more money to contribute to evangelistic efforts at home and abroad.

One of the more well-known brethren of this century was Watchman Nee. Brother Nee practiced the spiritual principles of gathering and ministry he learned from English brethren such as Austin T. Sparks and others. He trained his young workers in these principles, which emphasized that the church is saved believers, not a building. Full time church “workers” are servants, not masters. (“Worker” is the highest attainable “office” in the house church movement started by Nee.) He sent young missionaries out in teams all over China—lay workers with no papers, no pedigrees, no certificates, no titles, who would meet in homes and would not build buildings no matter how large their works grew. Instead, they would spin off into “manageable-sized” meetings. This, of course, was the Lord’s way of planting His church all over the mainland of China.

 When the communists came to power, the first thing they did was run every foreign missionary out of the country. Then they closed the church buildings. Then they began looking for Nee’s disciples. They found Nee and he was incarcerated and died in a communist prison. But they could never find all of the churches this brother had planted. No buildings. No clergy. No beads. No incense. No statues. Nothing physical or tangible to track down. Just people with Jesus living in their hearts who fellowship with each other in living rooms and barns, in spirit and in truth.

Yes, for its small numbers, or “little strength,” the brethren movement of the 19th Century radicalized the church in a brand new way, a way that had not been seen as a predominant feature of the visible church since shortly after John had finished penning the letters we are now studying.

Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.  (Revelation 3:10-13)

The Lord commends this church for keeping “the word of (His) patience.” “Patience” is a word used many times in the New Testament in the direct context of waiting for the Lord’s return:

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. (James 5:7)

(See also Rom. 5:4; Rom. 8:25; Rom. 15:4; 1Thes.1:3; Heb. 6:12; Heb. 10:36.)  

This is the church that revived the teaching of the Second Coming of the Lord in our day. The Lord further promises this church, in contrast to the promises to the two previous churches, that it will not see the great day of tribulation that is coming upon the earth prior to the Lord’s return to establish his Kingdom in Jerusalem. This fact, that the future Kingdom is to be ruled from Jerusalem by a descendent of David, is emphasized in the Lord’s reference to the New Jerusalem. This is not the City of God that Augustine wrote about, that was adopted by the Catholic and denominational churches.

How will this church be spared from the horrible judgment that the churches at Thyatira and Sardis are promised they will not be spared from?

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord him­self shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.  (I Thessalonians 4:15-17)

It is commonly referred to as the Rapture. It is described in detail in the above passage and in I Corinthians 15:51,52, and strongly suggested in Revelation 4:1, following which the church is not mentioned again in the narrative of the entire Book of Revelation. And while this is so, this blessed event is unknown to dead orthodox amillennial theology. It is the reason “that day” will not come upon true believers (regardless of denominational affiliation), for they will be taken to be with the Lord before that “great and terrible day of the Lord,” which the prophets spoke of as being “darkness and not light,S” comes upon an unbelieving, unrepentant world.

We have now traversed nearly 2,000 years of church history. We have seen that the church has not been “perfect” in the eyes of her Lord. We find through it all there are only two churches that receive only praise with no admixture of rebuke or admonishment. The first is the suffering church under Roman persecution in the second and third centuries. The other is the church of “brotherly love” that strove to be faithful to the Word of God alone in every aspect of faith, regardless of whether it flew in the face of the whole of church “history” and tradition. They hated Nicolaitanism just as the Lord hates it and refused to bow down to it or accommodate it in anyway. In return, the Lord gave them a clear understanding from scripture of the things that are shortly going to come to pass.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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