Has the work of preaching the gospel to the world been completed? Has preparing the bride supplanted this mission? Some people think so, but what does the Bible tell us?
There are several variations on this idea. Some believe that Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong completed the job of preaching the gospel to the world and proclaiming the Ezekiel warning. Some believe that when the Philadelphia era ended, "the doors were closed," and any attempt to preach the gospel will be met with futility and disappointment. Still others believe the work of the Church today is not the commission given at the end of Matthew and Mark, but rather is to separate the last two eras of the Church. Are any of these ideas valid? How can we know?
Undergirding most of these ideas is the belief that what is important today is to prepare the bride. Where did this idea come from? The answer is found in the book of Revelation: "Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready" (Revelation 19:7). Interestingly, this is the only place in all the Bible where such a statement is made, yet just half of this one verse has been turned into a major doctrine accepted by many who call themselves members of God’s Church. And the expression "major doctrine" is not an exaggeration; your acceptance or rejection of this new doctrine controls how you will see the work of God’s Church today. Most of us frequently hear people saying, "The job of the Church today is to ’get the bride ready,’ and there is no time (or ability, or reason) to put our focus on preaching the gospel or proclaiming the Ezekiel warning."
How can we understand this matter? Ask yourself a very simple question: "Where is the bride of Christ today?" The answer is found in another question: "What is the bride of Christ?" Is Christ’s bride a small group of people at the end of the age? Or is it the Church of God, down through the ages? Are Peter, Paul, John, the Old Testament patriarchs, Stephen, Jesus’ mother Mary and the other Marys considered part of the bride of Christ? Of course they are! So, where is the majority of the bride of Christ today? Six feet under! The majority of the bride of Christ is in the grave!
Once we understand this basic point, we can understand that "preparing the bride" does not somehow conflict with, or replace, the Church’s mission to preach the gospel. If "preparing the bride" meant a different mission for the Church, we would have to conclude either that those who went before us did not really preach the gospel, or else that they were not really preparing themselves and will miss out on the marriage supper. Preposterous!
Jesus expected His apostles to preach to the world and to prepare the bride—and He expects us to do the same today. Notice the great commission Jesus gave His disciples: "And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). Matthew’s account includes Christ’s statement, "and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20)—showing that His commission was not just for the original apostles, but would be valid to the end of the age. Interestingly, both Matthew and Mark report that all eleven faithful apostles were present when this commission was given (Matthew 28:16; Mark 16:14). This is important, because Jesus also told Peter, "Feed My lambs," "Tend My sheep," and "Feed My sheep" (John 21:15–17). Since Peter was one of the eleven who were also told to preach the gospel in all the world, it is plain folly to contend that doing both means "serving two masters," as one man once alleged. Christ’s instructions to preach the gospel and prepare the bride are instructions from the same Master, expecting His servants to carry out both tasks!
The Closed Door Theory
Have the doors been closed to preaching the gospel? Some people say so, and cite Revelation 3:7–8 to support their belief that Jesus (who opens and shuts doors) opened a door for the Philadelphia era of the Work, and closed that door at the end of that era. This passage does indeed show that Christ set before Philadelphia an open door. However, a careful reading of this passage shows that there is no statement indicating that the door has been shut! Certainly, Christ can both open and shut doors, but in this passage He speaks only of opening a door! The door of which He speaks is a means of proclaiming the gospel (see Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). Christ opened to Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong—and to the Philadelphia era— the door of modern electronic and print media: radio, television and the printing press. And let us not forget modern transportation, which allows one minister to cover far greater territory than could be imagined even a hundred years ago. Have any of those doors been closed? No, not at all! In fact, new doors such as the Internet have continued to open.
Through radio, television, print media and the Internet, literally millions of people have heard the gospel preached and the Ezekiel warning given. Countless millions have received this message in the 20 years since Mr. Armstrong’s death, and the message has produced much fruit. Some have heard the message loud and clear and asked to be taken off our mailing list! They understood what we were saying, but did not want to accept it (Ezekiel 2:7; Matthew 24:14). God has called others who are now baptized members of His Church. Whether they are "brand new" to the Truth, or whether they first heard the message decades ago but did not act until they came across Tomorrow’s World, they are nevertheless fruit of this Work.
Throughout history, while the gospel was being preached, God was also preparing the bride of Christ by means of the Sabbath, the annual Holy Days, Bible studies, personal letters, and one-on-one instruction. In our modern age, we have the added advantage of magazine articles and booklets to help feed the flock. We have audiotapes, videotapes, CDs and DVDs through which sermons can be heard hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they were first given. We have the Internet, through which scattered brethren can access the Truth even when God’s ministers are unable to reach them in person.
But even with all of these new media, individuals today have the same responsibility as always to prepare to become part of Christ’s bride. "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
Two Churches, Two Attitudes
William Ramsay, in his definitive book, "The Letters to the Seven Churches," showed how the geographical and cultural backgrounds of each city affected the seven churches that John described in Revelation. Writing in 1906, Ramsay called Philadelphia the "Missionary City," and Laodicea the "City of Compromise." His observations are instructive.
"Planted on the better of the two entrances from the west to the Phrygian land, Laodicea might have been expected to be (like Philadelphia, which commanded the other) a missionary city charged at first with the task of spreading Greek civilisation and speech in barbarian Phrygia, and afterwards undertaking the duty of spreading Christianity in that country. It had, however, made little progress in Hellenising [spreading Greek culture into] Phrygia.… Why it was that Laodicea had failed and Philadelphia had succeeded in diffusing the Greek tongue in the districts immediately around, we have no means of judging. But such was the case" (pp. 415–16).
In other words, Laodicea’s location gave it greater opportunity than Philadelphia to spread a message. But Philadelphia was very successful, while Laodicea was not. Why? Read how Ramsay analyzed Philadelphia:
"Philadelphia, therefore, was the keeper of the gateway to the plateau… and the work of Philadelphia had been to go forth through the door and carry the gospel to the cities of the Phrygian land.
It is not stated explicitly that Philadelphia used the opportunity that had been given it; but that is clearly implied in the context [of Scripture]. The door had been opened for the Philadelphian Church by Him who does nothing in vain: He did this because the opportunity would be used.…
But it would be wrong to infer that Philadelphia alone among the Seven Cities had a door before it. Each of the Seven Cities stood at the door of a district. In truth every Church had its own opportunity; and all the Seven Churches had specially favourable opportunities opened to them by geographical situation and the convenience of communication.… Philadelphia must have been pre-eminent among the Seven Cities as the missionary Church" (pp. 405–6).
Ramsay avoids drawing any conclusions as to why Philadelphia succeeded in preaching the gospel and Laodicea failed to live up to expectations, but here a bit of logic and an old adage may be helpful: "Where there is a will, there is a way." When President John F. Kennedy set before the American people the out of this world goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the 1960s, it was not technology alone that made the mission succeed—the goal was achieved because there was a will to do so! One can reasonably conclude that Laodicea’s fundamental problem, a lukewarm attitude, affected the original Laodiceans just as it will affect the era named after it—causing a lack of will or desire to preach the gospel.
Through the letter to Philadelphia, Christ plainly shows that a remnant of that era will continue to the very end of the age, even while the dominant attitude in the Church is that of lukewarm Laodicea (Revelation 3:10, 14–19). In other words, there must be Philadelphians who are still walking through open doors with focused zeal and energy. Indeed, for anyone who has the will and desire to walk through them, there are numerous doors open today: television, radio, publishing, the Internet and direct personal contact. Those doors did not close upon Mr. Armstrong’s death.
Is the Internet Enough?
Many who clamor about the need to "prepare the bride" do pursue some small efforts to preach whatever message they may have. Sadly, their message may not even be the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It may be a calendar gospel, a "new revelation" gospel, a "personality cult" gospel or some other message different from what Jesus Christ gave us. In most cases, though, these groups’ "preaching" is limited to putting up a Web page and trying to recruit members of God’s Church into their group.
Certainly these are doors, though usually rather small. These groups rarely proclaim the gospel to the world in any significant way, and usually find their most receptive audience among a tiny handful of people who are already members of God’s Church. These groups typically call for little if any personal sacrifice, and they do little more than "shuffle the chairs" between existing Church of God groups.
By contrast, Philadelphians demonstrate their zeal by the priority they place upon going through many doors in a major way, through a package of television, radio, print media, the Internet and other doors that become available. These doors, of course, are in addition to, not replacements for, personal example and the other ways God’s Church has proclaimed the true gospel throughout the ages.
Ramsay’s descriptions of Laodicea are chilling when we compare them against what some who claim the name "Church of God" today believe and practice:
"There is no city whose spirit and nature are more difficult to describe than Laodicea. There are no extremes, and hardly any very strongly marked features. But in this even balance lies its peculiar character. Those were the qualities that contributed to make it essentially the successful trading city, the city of bankers and finance, which could adapt itself to the needs and wishes of others, ever pliable and accommodating, full of the spirit of compromise.… It is the only one of the Seven Cities in which no relation is discernible between the natural features that surround it and its part and place in history" (Ramsay, pp. 422–23).
Ultimately, just as with Zerubbabel building the temple, we know that it will take something far more powerful than our puny efforts, no matter how zealous those efforts may be, to bring the gospel to the world (Zechariah 4:6). Yet we are not to despise the day of small things (v. 10). Though the Church is small, it will grow just large enough that it can no longer be ignored when preaching against the politically correct abominations of this age. Eventually, the world will notice the gifts of the Spirit poured out on zealous ministers backed by zealous members (John 15:18–24).
Of course, we must prepare ourselves individually and collectively to be part of the bride of Christ. God’s zealous people do this every day, through prayer, study, meditation, fasting, repenting and overcoming, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit indwelling in us. Those who believe that this personal preparation negates or supersedes Christ’s commission—which was to preach the gospel and proclaim a warning message to this dying world—have understood neither Christ’s commission nor how they should be preparing themselves.
Simple observation shows us that doors remain wide open. People are hearing the message and responding. Scripture shows us what we should be doing (Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–20; Revelation 3:7–8, 10). Why, then, do some cling to the idea of "preparing the bride" as an excuse for turning inward and "taking care of one’s own" with the resources God has provided? Is it because of selfishness? Is it because of lack of faith? Is it because they have not studied God’s word or meditated on the importance of His commission to His Church?
No matter what reason they give, when Christ returns and requests an accounting from His servants, He will not be pleased to hear the justifications of those who have turned inward. We must not fail to heed the parable of the nobleman going into a far country. We must not fail to act on what we have been given (Luke 19:20–26). Christ also warns the lazy, complacent and unprofitable servant, in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:24–30). Notice especially: "And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v. 30).
Many have faced confusion and difficulty in the last 15 years. But God’s servants do not give in to adversity. Rather, God expects them to see through the fog, pick themselves up, and go about their Father’s business: "If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ’Surely we did not know this,’ does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?" (Proverbs 24:10–12). Again, let us consider Ramsay’s analysis:
"The ordinary historian would probably not condemn the spirit of Laodicea so strenuously as St. John did. In the tendency of the Laodiceans towards a policy of compromise he would probably see a tendency towards toleration and allowance, which indicated a certain sound practical sense, and showed that the various constituents of the population of Laodicea were well mixed and evenly balanced.… The very characteristics which made Laodicea a well-ordered, energetic and pushing centre of trade, seemed to him to evince a coldness of nature that was fatal to the highest side of human character, the spirit of self-sacrifice and enthusiasm" (Ramsay, pp. 426–27).
During the persecution of 303–313AD, the brethren of Eumenia (a city in the Laodicean circuit) retreated to the church when threatened. Ramsay recounts what happened:
"In ordinary circumstances, doubtless, some or even many of them would have lacked the boldness to choose death; but it lies in human nature that the general spirit of a crowd exercises a powerful influence on the individuals who compose it; and even those who, taken singly, might have compromised with their conscience, and shrunk from a terrible death, accepted it when inspired with the courage of the whole body. The entire people was burned with the church; and they died ’calling upon the God over all’" (p. 426).
The letter to the church of Laodicea is addressed from "the faithful and true witness" (Revelation 3:14). It appears that the Laodiceans will be required to be zealous, faithful and true witnesses, one way or the other. Let those of us who seek to be Philadelphian learn the lesson, before it is too late!