The faithful church - Philadelphia - Revelation 3:7-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me ask: How would you recognise a successful church? Let me show you some pictures of two churches I have visited in two very different places. (Pics). Here is one I visited in the United States. It has a membership of 10,000, with several thousand meeting regularly each Sunday morning. Its premises are huge. The site of the church is bigger than Hull University campus; it has its own baseball pitch too with car parks which would cover the area of St Stephen’s and maybe a little of Princess Quay. Does that look successful to you?
Here is the other one. It is located in the middle of a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, which has a population of over half a million people. Although there are new housing developments with houses which are equivalent to our garages, most people live in places like these- make shift shelters thrown together from boxes and sheets of metal. The poverty here has to be seen to be believed. There are regular murders, thefts, rapes and other unspeakable evils. And in the middle of all of this, stands this little church. This is what it looks like inside. It has no furniture but a pulpit. During the day there is a nursery run for these beautiful children. Take a look at them because all of their parents are either sick or dying with AIDS- most of them by now will be orphans. These are the men who are ministering the Gospel faithfully day in, day out. Is that a successful church?
How do you decide? Well, that depends upon the criteria used. If it is in terms of numbers, buildings and size, the first wins hands down. The second, by way of contrast, looks so tiny, so unimpressive, so… fragile. But according to the risen and ascended Lord Jesus in the passage we are looking at this morning, and indeed throughout the Book of Revelation, he has only one criterion for a successful church and that is- faithfulness. Faithful, not only in terms of belief, but faithful in terms of behaviour, having that belief lived out. As we shall see, the little church in Philadelphia is more like the one in Khayelitsha than the States in terms of its unimpressive nature, but it is the one of the few churches which receives an unreserved commendation from the Lord Jesus Christ and is the kind of church he simply delights in.
So let’s look at this moving letter under three headings: an access which will not be denied; an obedience which will not go unrewarded and a witness that will not be shaken.
First, an access which will not be denied, take a look at the first part of v7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.’
I am sure that you will have noticed as we have been looking at these letters that the message of each letter draws attention to particular attributes of the Risen and Ascended Jesus which are appropriate to the particular church and also uses certain features of the City in which the church is located to make specific spiritual points. And this is no exception. Why does Jesus begin by introducing himself as ‘holy and true’ apart from the obvious fact that is what he is? Well, because that is exactly what these believers are like- v 8 they have ‘not denied’ Jesus name, ‘have kept’ his command and ‘endured’-v10. So as Jesus is ‘holy’, set apart, someone who is to be distinguished from that which is commonplace, these Christians have been set apart too. Jesus described himself as ‘true’ (alethinos) a word which carries the notion of being authentic, genuine as opposed to that which is fake. Well, you want to know what a genuine Church looks like, then visit these folk who don’t look all that much in the world’s eyes, but mean everything in Jesus eyes, for he loves them, v9-in other words, they are ‘the real deal’.
Then there are certain features about this City which have some bearing on the spiritual state of the church. We are told that the church has ‘little power’. That was how Philadelphia as a town was viewed by the Roman world in general. In terms of its defences against invaders it had little going for it, and yet it is the only city in the area that did not fall to outside invaders. Well, the church is like that-it looks weak, but it is impregnable. The City has an interesting name- the place of ‘brotherly love’, which is derived from the nickname of the King who founded it, Attalus, who was renown for the special love he had for his brother. Are we to think these Christians had anything less for their brothers and sisters in Christ? But also, this was a city constantly subject to earthquakes- as the area is today. In AD 17 it was nigh on devastated and had to be rebuilt. When the earth began to move, people would run outdoors for safety. The significance this has for Jesus loving approval of the church will be obvious in a moment. I tell you, this is a great church. This is a church doing exactly what its Lord wants it to be doing at whatever the personal cost.
But then the Lord Jesus goes on, ‘“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 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.’ What’s all this about- keys and open and shut doors?
Well, we are being taken back to a passage in the Old Testament in the Book of Isaiah, and this is what we read in chapter 22:22, ‘In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. 21 I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. 22 I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.’ It is almost word for word of what we have here. You see, Eliakim was the chief treasurer under good King Hezekiah. And next to the King he was the number one man in the kingdom, having been delegated tremendous power. And one aspect of that power was that he possessed the key to the treasury. If there was a need in the land, maybe because of famine or invasion and extra resources were required, he would unlock the treasury and take out whatever gold or rubies were necssary. And when he had done that, he would lock it again so no one could break in and steal the treasure. Just over the page at the beginning of chapter 4, John sees a vision of a door standing open in heaven and he is told to go through it, which he does and what does he find? He discovers that he has entered the very throne room of God where there is divine omnipotence, every resource, every treasure that could ever be needed which are at God’s finger tips. He just has to flick his hand and whatever he wills is done. So do you see what is being promised here to these poor, put down Christians who ‘have little power’? It is access to the divine treasury of heaven. All that they need, they will have, and all that they feel they lack, Christ will give and no one will be able to prevent that from happening.
Now you may be here this morning feeling rather battered and bruised. Things have been going on in your life which, to be frank, have left you feeling bewildered and wondering whether you can go on. Well, John would have you know that you have access to an open door into God’s very presence and he is not stingy or reluctant to give you all that you need to keep on persevering. The problem is that we forget to ask. Or if we do ask, we hardly dare believe that we shall receive. But God’s people have testified to God’s faithfulness over and over again when times have seemed as dark as dark as can be. One person who knew this to be so was the Scottish minister George Matheson, who wrote the wonderful hymn, ‘O love that will not let me go’, which he composed on the eve of his sister’s wedding. What happened was this: His whole family had gone to the wedding and had left him alone. Why should that cause him any grief? Well, because a number of years before, he had been engaged until his fiancé learned that he was going blind and there was nothing the doctors could do. As a result of this devastating news, his fiancé told him that she could not go through life with a blind man (he actually went blind while studying for the ministry and his sister had been the one who had taken care of him all these years, but now she was gone). The Lord had richly blessed him in a church where he regularly preached to over 1500 people each week. But he was only able to do this because of the care of his sister who soon was to be married. The question which began to haunt his mind was: Who will care for me now, a blind man? Not only that, but his sister’s marriage brought a fresh reminder of his own heartbreak, jilted by his fiancé because he had gone blind. It was in the midst of this intense sadness that the Lord gave him this hymn – written, he says, in 5 minutes! How could he maintain such unwavering hopefulness in the midst of such circumstances and trials? His hymn gives us a clue. ‘O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee, “I trace the rainbow in the rain, and feel the promise is not vain. That morn shall tearless be.’ You see, he approached the open door and was not disappointed.
And this leads on to the next point, an obedience which will not go unrewarded v9, ‘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.’ Now we have to be careful when we come across a text like this because it is the kind of verse which has been used in the past to justify anti-Semitism, which is not what is intended. Even Martin Luther went wildly astray on this one. The implication is not that the Jews who lived in Philadelphia were Satanic, any more than when Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan’ that Jesus believed Peter was being satanic. No. Rather, Satan can use all sorts of people to try and hinder God’s kingdom, like he used Peter who no doubt had all the best intentions of the word. It may be that something like this was going on: The Jews you see, were exempt from having to offer worship to the Emperor, and for a while, since most of the early Christians were Jews, they were exempt too. But as the gulf widened between the synagogue and the church, some of the Jewish leaders may have approached the Roman authorities with the suggestion that since Christians are not true Jews, this exemption should not apply to them. The result would have been removing this protection and the Christians would have been persecuted for not joining in with the Emperor cult. And the reason they refused to do that was because for them there was only one King worthy of worship and that was King Jesus, the one who is addressing them now. In this sense the Jews were a ‘synagogue of Satan’ and not true Jews because they hadn’t recognised the Messiah- do you see?
But the fact that the Christians didn’t cave in leads to Jesus giving them two promised rewards. The first is an application of another part of the Book of Isaiah, chapter 45:14, ‘This is what the Lord says: “The products of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush and those tall Sabeans—they will come over to you and will be yours; they will trudge behind you, coming over to you in chains. They will bow down before you and plead with you, saying, ‘Surely God is with you, and there is no other; there is no other god.’” This is a prophecy which looks forward to a time when the entire Gentile world will bow before Israel and claim that God is clearly with them and all the other gods are false. Now the prophecy is re-applied to Christians, so that it will be the Jews who will bow down before the Christians and claim that God is with them, which of course he is as we have been seeing in the person of Jesus who moves amongst the lampstands of his churches. What this ‘bowing down’ will look like we are not quite sure. It may be referring to the end of the age and judgement day, when the entire world will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. And as they bow before him, they at the same time will bow before his people who are united to him. Or, it may be a reference to evangelism, the promise that some of these Jews will respond to the Gospel and acknowledge that these Christians are the true Jews because they have received Jesus as the Christ. Either way it is a tremendous encouragement- a reward for remaining faithful to Christ. So my dear friends, if you feel that you are not getting anywhere with someone as far as the gospel is concerned and that all your overtures are receiving the cold shoulder, don’t give up. One way or another, the one you are witnessing to will bow the knee to Jesus and acknowledge that you were right after all-that is the promise.
But then we have the second promised reward that these Christians who have really been through the mill will be kept secure when the heat is turned up even further, 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 on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.’ They keep the faith and Jesus keeps them. Now what is the hour of trial which is coming to test the whole earth? Well, it is the trial described throughout the rest of this book- the pouring out of the wrath of the lamb upon a rebellious world with the result that many will be drawn to Christ and others will persist in opposing him. What is the ‘hour’? It is the whole period between Christ’s ascension and Christ’s return; we live in this ‘hour’. So let me tell you about the Lutheran church in Russia.
It was nearly seventy years ago that Josef Stalin decided to destroy the Lutheran church; it was to be a case study in how all the Christian denominations might eventually be liquidated. First, he imprisoned or killed all the pastors. Then the buildings were confiscated and Bibles, hymn books, Christian books were destroyed. This was followed by Lutheran families being broken up. Women and children were crammed into trains like cattle and scattered throughout the remote areas of the Soviet Union- like Siberia. And it seemed to all the world that was the end. But it was not to be. You see, it was the Lutheran women who worked tirelessly and painfully to keep the church alive. What they did was to seek each other out across the miles of desolate countryside. They met in each others homes to pray and minister to each other. They wrote down all the Christian instruction they had ever learned, bible verses, hymns, and talks. At the risk of imprisonment they passed on their faith to their children. Over time, some of the husbands managed to make their ways back to their families. Some of the surrounding people were converted, elders began to be appointed and guess what? The Lutheran church was reborn. You see, they received the promise of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ to the church of Philadelphia-they had little strength (v8), but the door to heaven’s riches was kept wide open for them. They kept the Lord’s command to endure patiently (v10. And so the Lord kept them during the hour of trial which has come upon the whole world. They were tested and proved faithful. That was a successful church in the eyes of Jesus.
Which leads on to the final valuable lesson this letter has to teach us, a witness that will not be shaken,v11 ‘I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name.’
The Christian life is not only a battle it is a race. And that is the imagery being used here when the Lord Jesus speaks of receiving a ‘crown’ and being ‘victorious’. At the local games athletes would win a wreath or garland as a prize which denoted that they were victors in the prestigious games. Well, what is at stake is an eternal crown to be awarded by the Lord Jesus Christ himself, so we are not to throw in the towel or try and take short cuts by compromise, as in the church of Pergamum, but keep faithful to the end. And no matter how dreadful things might be going on around them, no matter how traumatic and frightening, Jesus promises to keep this little church secure so their witness will be unshakable.
And it is here that the Lord Jesus draws upon something which would have meant a lot to these people to demonstrate how powerful he really is. I mentioned earlier that this was a region prone to earthquakes of varying magnitude. And what is needed to withstand such seismic blasts are sturdy buildings with strong pillars. You saw on the clip the pillars still standing? Well, that is the kind of imagery Jesus is using here- that come what may, these Christians will remain standing like those pillars. More than that they will be so secure as part of the dwelling place of God, as citizens of the eternal City yet to come-the New Jerusalem, that unlike what normally happens during an earthquake, people run outside so they don’t get trapped in a collapsing building, these folk can remain secure inside, hence verse 12, ‘they shall never leave it’ or as the RSV translates it, ‘they shall never go out of it.’ And it is so personal. They have God’s name inscribed upon them. When our children started school, I remember my wife spending ages sewing labels into their clothes. Why? It enables the teacher- and other children- to see whose property it belonged to. Friends, we are God’s property.
Furthermore, we are God’s place. You saw what Philadelphia looks like now- it’s a ruin. You can’t see what God’s real City of brotherly love looks like fully now, because it is yet to come, it is secure in heaven. But one day it is going to appear for everyone to see- a City made up of people- his church. But in the meantime, people should be able to look at us and get a glimpse of Philadelphia- that we are a people who desire to be faithful in belief and behaviour, with a love for the Lord and his people. So whether it is a mega church in the States or a mission church in Khayelitsha, or an Anglican Church in Hull- what really matters is that we hold fast to what we have so that no one will snatch away our crown.
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