Picture this: you’re on the playground during recess about to start playing a basketball game. The two most athletic kids are pushed forward as captains and they begin picking teams. The first kid chosen is obviously going to be best player in the mix, and that’s clearly not you so there you are left among the crowd wondering what team you’ll be on. One by one kids are picked, the numbers shrink until there’s only three of you left. No one really wants any of you on their team but they have to have 5 on each team to play so they stare at you in and the other two kids to see which 2 are going to play. Then it happens, the kid on your right is picked. Now there’s just 2 of you left, and you realize there’s a chance you may not get picked. As you anxiously wait hoping to avoid the embarrassment of not getting picked at all you wait for the final team captain to make his choice and then he does, the other kid gets picked and you’re left standing with no team. If we were to place these 7 churches on this recess basketball court we see something interesting. From the outward appearance of things the one that looked the best was Sardis. The unpicked church left without a team would’ve been our church today Philadelphia. From the outward appearance of things Philadelphia was puny, weak, and small – yet out of all of these 7 churches the healthiest congregation, the one who receives the most praise from God, is small Philadelphia. Ironic huh?
When we approach the letter to the church in Philadelphia we come to a letter that is refreshing. For the past 2 weeks we’ve looked into the letters to the church Sardis and Thyatira, two churches who boasted of great things but were in reality very unhealthy. Philadelphia isn’t like these previous two congregations, rather it is much more like the church in Smyrna, faithful and strong. The name Philadelphia is a combination of two Greek words: ‘phileo’ which means love and ‘adelphia’ which means brothers and sisters. Taken together the name Philadelphia means ‘the city of brotherly love.’ Unlike our Philadelphia, Pennsylvania this Philadelphia wasn’t originally meant to have a Christian name or identity. It was meant to have and spread Greek love and culture to the world. The city of Philadelphia, which sat directly on the border of Lydia and Mysia, was founded in 140 BC by a man named Attalus II who also was known the by the name Philadelphus…from which we get the name Philadelphia.
Philadelphia served as the gateway to the most fertile land in all of Asia Minor, and because of this it had famous vineyards and an unusual ability to grow grapes. An unfortunate thing about this city was its earthquakes. Volcanic activity was oddly high in and around this city, so earthquakes were often and fierce. The ancient author Strabo once said of Philadelphia, “The walls never cease being cracked, and different parts of the city are constantly suffering damage…the actual town has few inhabitants…the majority live as farmers in the countryside, as they have fertile land.” In 17 AD the massive earthquake that hit a couple of these churches in Revelation 2-3 hit Philadelphia head on and as a result it was completely destroyed. But because this city was so important to the Greek Hellenistic culture the Emperor rebuilt it and gave it the nickname ‘Neo Caesarea’ meaning ‘Caesar’s New City.’ As I said, like Smyrna, the church in Philadelphia was a faithful and healthy church, and because of this they aren’t confronted by Jesus but commended and comforted.
In v7 Jesus introduces the letter saying, “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 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.”
The characteristics ‘holy’ and ‘true’ are attributed to Jesus not only in the glorious vision of Christ in chapter 1 but in the whole of John’s apocalypse as well. Jesus is the Holy One, the True and Faithful Witness, and as He is so too will His people be. Meaning, that because He stands forever as holy and true One, as the Head of the Church, He will empower and equip His people to be holy and true also. v7 states that Jesus has the key of David, and the doors He opens no one will shut, and the doors He shuts no one will open. This is almost an exact quote from 1:18 but the new addition here in 3:7 is the phrase ‘of David.’ That Jesus has the key of David is meant to be a Messianic statement because Jesus is the long awaited Son of David and Lord of David. This is also a bold statement against the so-called Jews in v9. These Jews, which Jesus calls the Synagogue of Satan (which we’ve heard of before in 2:9), believed that only those worshipping within their doors could be considered God’s true people. Against this false belief Jesus announces that in His hand is the key of David, pointing out it is not those who worship in their temple who are true, but those who follow and embrace Christ (the true Son of David) who are true. And because of this those who Jesus allows into His temple are truly God’s people. It was said that these false Jews troubled the church in Philadelphia long into the first century, even going as far as excommunicating some of the first Philadelphian Christians for following Jesus, banning them from their temple. In this first verse Jesus reminds them that the doors of the true synagogue will always be open to them, regardless what man may say. Christ is the sovereign/powerful God who holds the keys of the Kingdom: that no one can close a door He opens means salvation is secure for all who come to Christ. That no one can open a door He shuts means judgment is certain for all who reject Christ.
With the beginning of v8-12 we find a pattern where two things are put before the Philadelphians and before us. Two phrases echo throughout this letter: Jesus knows and Jesus will. Jesus knows this Church, and Jesus promises to act in behalf of this Church. Let’s start with what Jesus knows about this Church:
In v8 we find all of the ‘Jesus knows’ statements. v8 says, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you and open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept My Word and have not denied My name.” Here we see that Jesus (the sovereign key holder who knows all things) points out to this church 3 things He knows about them. First, Jesus knows their works. Second, Jesus knows that they have little power. Third, Jesus knows that they have kept His Word and have not denied His name. These three things are interwoven with one another, such that it’s hard to see one without seeing the others. Jesus knows their works, what are their works? That even though the Philadelphian church is a small church, low in numbers and low in the social pecking order, they still have kept His Word and haven’t denied His name. In the middle of these three statements Jesus makes a statement that seems out of place, ‘Behold, I have set before you and open door, which no one is able to shut.’
This could mean one of two things. Option A: because of the faithfulness of this church God has opened a door for greater ministry by this congregation in this city. Option B: the open door that no one will shut is the ultimate basis for the faithful work of this congregation in this city. Option A could have happened but I think Option B is what’s happening here because God goes out of His way to mention that this church is weak, that in and of themselves they could not have been so stout in the face of such strong persecution. Rather than seeing their obedience as coming from them we should see it as from God who empowers, equips, and enables His people to do what He has called them to do. He opened a door for ministry in Philadelphia, a door that no one can shut, and as a result the little congregation in Philadelphia was faithful to Christ. You see there’s a truth here we don’t often mention: Jesus is the author of the obedience of His people. His grace can make the weakest, puniest, and feeblest congregation stand, grow, and flourish. That was the strength behind the massive momentum at the small church in Philadelphia, and you can bet your bottom dollar if SonRise Community Church is to do anything for the Kingdom of God, if any doors for ministry are going to be opened in our city, it will be God who opens them, not us! Therefore sooner we admit our weakness and our need for the grace of God, the greater our impact will be in this city. This is another reason why I love our vision statement, because it’s a constant reminder that we cannot accomplish it unless God shows up to do it. It leaves us feeling weak and dependent, which is a very good thing.
Now, how does Jesus promise to act in behalf of this church? This question is answered by seeing all the ‘I WILL’ statements Jesus makes in v9-12.
I WILL statement #1 and #2 is found in v9, “Behold, I WILL make those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold I WILL make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” Here in this verse we have two I WILL statements that both refer to one thing. Jesus promises to make the false Jews come before the church at Philadelphia and bow before their feet, and from bowing before them these false Jews will learn who Jesus really loves – His Church. In our politically correct day we may not be used to hearing Jesus use such forceful language like this, but remember who He is. He is the Christ, the Lord of Glory. Yes He is fierce in His love and grace toward those who receive Him and believe on His name, but He is just as fierce in His wrath and justice toward those who reject and refuse to embrace Him. These words comforted this small weak church, while they terrified this group of so-called Jews. By using this language He means that even though this church appeared to be small and weak, having only ‘little power’ in comparison to the city and the synagogue of Satan, God will defend His Church, and cause a powerful witness to flow out from them, especially among the Jews. There’s a note of irony here because in the Old Covenant all nations were to come to ethnic Israel to learn who the one true God was, it was Gentiles coming to Jews in order to find salvation. Now in the New Covenant it’s ironic that unbelieving Jews will be brought before the feet of Gentiles to learn who the true God is. If the Jews repent they’ll learn of grace, if they refuse to repent they’ll learn of judgment. The same is true of us.
I WILL statement #3 is found in v10, “Because you have kept My Word about patient endurance, I WILL keep you from the hour of trial that is coming the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” Here we witness Jesus granting persevering grace to this church during a trying time. The church kept His Word, now Jesus promises to keep them. Because this church has been faithful and patiently enduring, Jesus rewards their faithfulness by pledging to hold them through the hard times to come. The ‘hour of trial’ could refer to the 2nd coming of Christ where He will judge the world. If it means this, the promise in view is that Jesus will preserve the Church from His wrath on that day while unleashing His wrath on all unbelievers. The ‘hour of trial’ could also refer to the violent persecution that will soon increase upon all of the churches in Asia Minor. If it means this, the promise in view could refer to the gracious activity of Christ to protect and defend His Church from the attacks of unbelievers. Whichever one of these two options meant here the truth remains the same. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, will hold His sheep and no one will be able to take them out of His hands. This is a wonderful promise to a suffering church, more so, it’s a wonderful promise to the universal Church, a promise not to remove us from hardship but to hold us through it.
I WILL statements #4 and #5 are found in v11-12, “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I WILL make him a pillar in the temple of My God. Never shall he go out of it, and I WILL write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from My God out of heaven, and My own new name.”
After reminding them that He is coming soon Jesus gives the church in Philadelphia the one and only command in this letter ‘Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.’ When taken together with v10 we see that as suffering will likely increase for this church, Jesus will hold them so they make it through it. Right after telling them that He will hold them, hear what He tells them in v11, ‘Hold onto Me.’ So who is holding onto who here? Is Jesus holding onto His Church, or is His Church holding onto Him? I want to say a simple ‘Yes’ but I want to say more. Order does matter here. We saw earlier that because Jesus opened a door for ministry in Philadelphia, the church was able to do faithful work. We see the same pattern here in v10-11; because Jesus is holding onto them, they’re able to hold onto Him. To a congregation aware of their ‘little power’ (remember v8?) this promise would have birthed enormous spiritual power in their souls. In their weakness Christ would be strong to support and sustain. Does this promise birth a spiritual vigor in you? If it does, rejoice! In your weakness Christ is strong to support and sustain you. You’ll never have to worry or fear your own inadequacies…His grace is made perfect in weakness. If you don’t wonder at such a promise of Christ perhaps it’s because you’ve been unwilling to admit your weakness in the first place. If that’s you be reminded: you may think you’re something when you compare yourself with others and may feel good that you stand above other men. Rather than comparing yourself with others compare yourself with the Holy One, with God Himself, with the Cosmic Christ, how do you measure up now? Until you admit your own weakness and quit trying to be strong on your own, you’ll never find true and living strength in Christ, be sure of that.
For these men and women who hold fast, Christ assures them that their crowns won’t be taken, that they will be pillars in His temple, that they shall always have a place there and never need to leave, and that they’ll have a new name, the name of God and the name of the city of God. Again, glorious promises to those who have been excommunicated out of the local synagogue or the local temple. Also, this promise of a permanent dwelling in God’s temple would have meant the world to the Philadelphians because of all the earthquakes they lived through making them live on the move, never staying for long in any one place, here, there, again and again and again…not so with the gospel. Recall, Christ holds the keys of David in His hands, the keys of the Kingdom, when He wants to come in the door of our hearts He doesn’t knock and wait for us to answer, He breaks down the door down! When He opens our hearts to Him, enabling us to believe His gospel, salvation floods the soul and assurance abounds. We who used to be wanderers, vagabonds who never had any permanent home now has a home in Christ finally and forever! We shall always dwell in the temple of the Lord and shall never go out of it. Not only will we be in it, God will make us pillars in His temple. We’ll have a new name given to us that put’s ‘Neo Caesarea’ to shame! Rather than being part of ‘Caesar’s New City’ our hearts will become God’s New City where God dwells with man. This is precisely what repenting of sin and believing the gospel produces in the human heart, a home in the shadow of the Almighty. This home may look unimpressive from outward appearances, but within it is pleasure in Jesus forevermore.
v13, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”