We continue this week with Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of the Revelation as we move to his letter to the church in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, now a city in Turkey called Alashehir, was located about 30 miles southeast of Sardis that we looked at last week. Like Sardis, this city was an important center of commerce and was, like the other cities, steeped in pagan religion. There was also a Jewish contingency in the city that was having a significant impact on the church there.
This church and the one in Smyrna are the only churches to which Jesus doesn’t give any words of rebuke or correction. The church in Philadelphia was a healthy church and that makes it important for us to think about. The letter breaks up into sections with each section communicating one main truth. The first truth revealed here in verse seven is Christ’s revelation of himself to the church. He reveals himself to this church in three ways and, as in the other letters, each truth about himself is revealed strategically to address particular needs in each church.
First, Jesus calls himself “…the holy one…” This is a common term God uses for himself in the Old Testament. God says of himself in Isaiah 40:25, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” This designation reveals his deity, his divinity. So, Jesus is affirming that he is God to this church in Philadelphia. With all these believers who were suffering for Jesus, it would have been important for them to be reminded who it was they were suffering for.
Jesus also calls himself “the true one.” Depending on how you translate this, he could be calling himself “the faithful one.” That would stress the fact that he will not let this suffering church endure more than they can handle. If it’s better translated “the true one” Jesus is contrasting himself as the true God with the many false, pagan gods and these false Jews. Unlike the Jews who were persecuting them, who were filled with falsehood and lies, Jesus is genuine. Unlike the Jews, HE is who he says he is.
Finally, he says of himself in verse seven that he is the One “who has the key of David, who opens, and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Anytime David is mentioned in the New Testament, the author is in some way referencing Jesus as THE King to which King David pointed. Keys in the Scripture represent authority. If you have the key to a facility, you control who goes in. Those admitted are ONLY those the keyholder permits. But King Jesus takes that authority to another level when he says that he is the One, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts, and no one opens.”
This keyholder image here is a reference to how he reveals himself earlier in 1:18. There Jesus says, “…I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” That tells us that Jesus is sovereign over all judgment. He determines who dies and when, and who goes into an eternal hades and when. Here in chapter three, he’s broadening his sovereign control to go beyond his power to judge. King Jesus is totally in control over who is IN the kingdom as well as who is OUTSIDE his kingdom. For those whom he opens the door to his kingdom, no one can keep them out. And if he shuts the door of his kingdom on someone, there is noTHING and no ONE who can open that door and let them in.
The broad application for us is simply—get right with Jesus now because if you haven’t trusted in him through the message of the gospel there will be NOTHING you can say or do to get him to open the door for his kingdom. Even if you had the opportunity to present your case to the Judge himself, no argument, plea, or emotional appeal of any kind will have any impact on King Jesus who, once his door is shut on you, it will never open for you. That’s how Christ reveals himself to this church.
Second, let’s look briefly at Christ’s profile of his church in Philadelphia. Jesus says four things about this church. The first and therefore, probably the most important thing he says about the church in verse eight is, “…I know that you have but little power…” We don’t know in what way this church had little power and that’s probably intentional so the broader truth could be applied to many kinds of weak churches. It probably means they were not a large church and had little influence in the community. It’s not a coincidence that this church, which may be the most notably healthy and vibrant church of the seven, is the only one to whom Jesus says, “I know that you have but little power.”
Given the upside-down values of the kingdom, this only make sense. It’s the last who shall be first. It’s the weak who shall be strong. The values of the kingdom as it relates to our powerlessness are summarized by Paul in First Corinthians 1:26. Paul says, “26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
God’s highest priority is his own glory and that means that he uses, he blesses, he typically gives great grace to believers and churches that are not outwardly impressive to the world. The reason is because–when a person or church is outwardly unimpressive, but does miraculous things for God, (like being faithful in the midst of terrible persecution), no one will give the credit to the weak, lowly, despised, foolish person or church who does that. God must somewhere be active in this triumph of the weak!
“Weak” people will never conquer persecution by their own determination or iron will. The church at Philadelphia was filled with weak, unimpressive people. There’s nothing special about them as measured by human standards and probably much that was disdained. But in their weakness in the midst of a hostile world, God gives them his strength. In their inadequacy to stand against the opposition of Satan, God gives them his sufficiency.
Next, Jesus says of these believers in Philadelphia that they “have kept my word.” These were obedient believers. The standard for their lives and for their ministries was NOT—“will this increase our size or influence?” Or, “will it impress people?” As obedient children of God, their standard was “Does this activity, ministry, relationship, opportunity, enterprise conform to God’s word?” Because they were being persecuted, keeping his word obviously implied that they were responding to their persecutors in a way that revealed and glorified Jesus. They obeyed the command of Jesus in Matthew 5:44, “44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” These believers in Philadelphia were not returning evil for evil, but returning good for the evil they were receiving. Only the grace of God can enable people to be sincerely, energetically blessing someone who is abusing them or their loved ones.
Not only were they responding in obedience to those who were persecuting them, they were responding rightly toward God. This is what Jesus means when he tells this church in Philadelphia in verse eight that they “have not denied my name.” Their personal comfort, being freed from persecution or even their survival was not as important to these believers as maintaining their testimony and being faithful to Jesus. In the face of probably great personal suffering, they did not deny him or their relationship with him. Later in verse 10, he shows how important their obedience was to him by repeating himself in praising this church, “10 …you have kept my word about patient endurance,” That is Christ’s glowing profile of this church.
Third, let’s see what John says about the Adversary of Christ’s church here in Philadelphia. There may have been persecution coming at this church from multiple fronts, but in verse nine Jesus mentions one that must have been predominant. He says, “9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie…” The greatest antagonist of the church in Philadelphia were Jews or, so-called “Jews.” By this time in church history, about 95 A.D., Christians were no longer identified, as they had been initially, as a sect of Judaism. By this time, opposition to the church by the Jews was often violent.
First century Jews saw followers of Jesus as fools who were part of a perverse, blasphemous cult and, as we see so frequently today, whenever you dehumanize someone like that, you feel justified in treating them shamefully. As we’ve seen with the other letters and the rest of the Revelation, Jesus here too peels back the earthly, material, flesh and blood veil to reveal the invisible spiritual enemy that was energizing the hatred of these Jews toward the church. That’s what Jesus is doing when he calls these Jews a “synagogue of Satan” in verse nine. As Jesus did in his letter to Smyrna, he accuses these Jews of lying when they call themselves “Jews.” The fact that Jesus repeats this charge in two letters means he wants us to take special note here.
Jesus is consistent with the rest of the New Testament in teaching that those Jews who were descended from Abraham but who rejected Jesus were not real Jews. Paul reveals who the real Jews are in Romans 2:28, “28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” God doesn’t define real Jews ethnically, but spiritually. A genuine Jew in God’s sight is one whose circumcision is of the heart by the Holy Spirit. That’s the definition of a Christian who has been born again by the Holy Spirit. This truth about real versus false Jews that Jesus repeats for us here in Revelation is valuable in helping us, as believers, to know how we’re to think about national, ethnic Israel.
Next, let’s look at Christ’s judgment on these adversaries of the church. Jesus says in the second half of verse nine, “I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” In order to appreciate this verse, you have to see that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophecies the same thing about Gentiles who will bow down before Jews. In Isaiah 60:14 he’s talking about the Gentiles who had oppressively ruled over Israel and says, “14 The sons of those who afflicted you [the Gentile pagans] shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
The promise to the Jews is that Gentiles would one day come to the Jews and say in effect, “Your God IS the one true God and salvation is found only through him and his Son Jesus.” When the Gentiles began to be converted in the New Testament, that is precisely the message they bore—salvation is of the Jews. The great irony here is–as a result of their faith in Jesus the Messiah, many Gentiles have now become the true Israel and national, ethnic Israel is the one marked by their rebellious unbelief. So, the tables have turned from Old Testament times. The point is that the Jews will one day voluntarily come and acknowledge the reality of the Gentiles’ faith in God and that they have become part of God’s beloved, chosen people—true spiritual descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Our fifth truth from the letter we see as we notice Christ’s exhortation to his church in Philadelphia. He says to this church in verse 11, “11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” This is almost identical to what he told the church in Thyatira in 2:25. “25Only hold fast what you have until I come.” What these believers in Philadelphia had was a sincere love for Jesus—a love that motivated them to endure persecution for him.
The message is that if a person loves Jesus, and if they want to love him just as much in a year, they must, by God’s grace actively DO something to make that happen. Loving Jesus doesn’t happen automatically by coming to church. We live in a fallen world that is filled with spiritual enemies that are seeking to tempt us to surrender our love for Christ. There are countless spiritual enemies expressing themselves through the media, materialism and the broader culture. They all seek to fill our arms with the things of this world so we will let loose of Jesus.
An example of this is the church at Ephesus from chapter two. In ways we do not know, that church did NOT hold fast their love for Jesus and, in the midst of all their church activity and ministry and fighting false teaching, they lost their love for Jesus. That means that holding fast to your love for Christ is not accomplished by staying being busy in ministry or being involved in church. It means daily, personally seeking after him, renewing your love for him as you spend intimate time in prayer with him. In a fallen world that is seeking every moment to pull you away from Christ, if you are not actively engaged in holding him fast, your love for him will grow cold.
We don’t live in a spiritually friendly or even spiritually neutral environment. We live in a spiritually hostile environment. We are swimming upstream, against a current of deception and worldliness and carnality and doubt and if we’re not actively swimming against that stream, it will carry us away. Jesus tells these believers as much when he says that the reason they should hold fast to what they have is “so that no one may seize your crown.”
What does he mean by that? Is it possible to have your salvation—your crown of victory stolen from you? If it’s NOT possible, why does Jesus warn professed believers to take active measures to keep from having their salvation stolen? For that matter, why is the New Testament filled with warnings directed toward believers that warn them about not going to heaven if they don’t repent of certain sins? There are many of these warnings in the New Testament but let’s just look at Galatians 5:19. Paul’s addressing this to believers and says,“19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Why would God warn believers that they would not inherit the kingdom of God if they could NOT in fact, lose their salvation? Aren’t warnings unnecessary if believers can’t fall away? The answer is—NO. As we have seen a few months ago, the bible DOES teach that genuine believers WILL persevere to the end because God will KEEP them saved. God DOES in fact keep genuine believers saved—he keeps them to the end. But God uses various means by which he keeps believers saved and one of the means by which he keeps us saved is through warnings.
And in genuine believers, his warnings are always ultimately heeded and by heeding these warnings, they’re preserved until the end. The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon illustrated this truth this way. He says, “Our friend pushes away from us a cup of arsenic [poison]; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it? No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So, God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold me up, and I shall be safe.”  The warning passages like this one to the church in Philadelphia do NOT imply that we can lose our salvation. They are a means by which God keeps genuine believers secure in our salvation.
Finally, let’s look at Christ’s promised reward for faithfulness. Jesus makes his first promise of reward to this church in verse eight. He says, “I know your works. Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” Some scholars argue that Jesus is talking about an open door for ministry of some sort. That may be true, but there is nothing in the context mentioning ministry. He has just commended them for their works, so it would seem to make more sense for him to be referring to—the reward of an open door to glory that no one can shut. The point seems to be to assure the believers in Philadelphia that no one can keep them from heaven.
His second promise of reward is in the second half of verse 10. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” This promise has become a source of controversy for the last 200 years since certain scholars found in this promise support for the claim that Jesus will return to earth twice, the first time secretly to bring the church to himself in what is called “the rapture” of the church and a second time to judge the world. This view is very popular today thanks in part to the “Left Behind” series of books many believers have read. Before those books, it was the study notes in the Scofield Reference Bible that widely promoted this understanding of Christ’s second coming.
People who hold this view see in this verse a promise of the church’s rapture or removal by Jesus from this world that will keep them from going through the Great worldwide Tribulation in the last days. That’s a possible interpretation, but it seems important to know that no one really saw this possibility until about 1830. The traditional view is that Jesus is NOT promising to take the church OUT OF the world and the Great Tribulation. He’s promising to protect them in the midst of it from the wrath of God. Of the five conservative, bible-believing scholars I randomly consulted, only one held the secret rapture view of this text. I never argue about this question because it’s not a primary doctrine and people are free to hold differing opinions on these kinds of teachings in Scripture. The traditional view is that when Jesus says that he will “keep” you from the hour of trial, the verb “keep” means to guard in the midst of, not remove.
The only other place in the New Testament where this Greek verb is used with this construction is in John 17:15 where Jesus prays for the church. “15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Jesus there specifically says that he is NOT asking to remove his followers from the world, but, with the same Greek construction as Revelation 3:10 says, “keep them from” the evil one. Finally, Revelation scholar Greg Beale says that, “if 3:10 is referring to a promise of physical preservation before the final resurrection, then it is the only text in the whole book [of Revelation] to do so.” Whatever your view is, this is a wonderful promise either way because whether you will be protected in the midst of persecution or taken out completely out of it, both are preferable to suffering the wrath of God.
A second set of rewards to this church are found in verse 12, “12 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.” There are four promises of reward in this verse and they’re all related to one another. Each promise describes different aspects of end-time fellowship between Jesus and the believer who conquers. And this word “conquers” in all these letters simply means to remain faithful in the midst of the opposition from this world.
When Jesus says he will make those who conquer pillars “in the temple of my God,” we know he is using “pillars” in a figurative sense because Revelation 21:22 says, “22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”
The point is that whether Jesus speaks of being made a pillar in God’s temple or having the name of God written on them or the name of the new Jerusalem or the name of Jesus written on them, they all express the same wonderful promise. That is—the temple (which represents God’s dwelling place), God’s name, the Son’s name, or the name of the city where God dwells—all speak of the glorious promise that God will physically dwell with his people and they will live in the immediate presence of God forever.
This is the promise of Revelation 22:3-4. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” For those who are faithful to the end in the midst of this world’s opposition, for those who are part of Christ’s church, the temple of the Holy Spirit, those people will be rewarded with the glorious and eternal presence of God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
So, what do we do about all of this? There is so much here, our application must be somewhat general. First, because God gives grace to the weak and not the strong, we must admit that North Shore as a church is closer to Sardis and Pergamum and as we’ll see next week, Laodicea, than we are Smyrna and Philadelphia. This church in Philadelphia was weak. They didn’t have numbers and they didn’t have wealth or influence and they were being beat up by the Jews. As we’ve seen before, the New Testament repeatedly teaches that the impoverished and hostile soil in which Philadelphia was planted is often very good soil for growing healthy churches.
Church history affirms this in countless ways. When the church has power and influence and authority in the prevailing culture, history invariably teaches us that it tends to grow corrupt. When a church has little if any opposition or hostility from the culture—when it prospers materially, history teaches us that it tends to grow fat and lazy and compromised with the world.
So, here we are in the church in North America with much more influence and authority than just about anywhere else, even though that is waning. And the North American church, even in our increasingly hostile culture, is still prospering and comparatively comfortable. Historically, that soil tends to produce corruption, laziness, and compromise with the world. We’ve seen all that in the North American church.
That is the soil in which we are planted. That’s the ocean we swim in here in North America. But that doesn’t mean that we are destined to be unhealthy and the reason that does not have to be our unavoidable destiny is what lies before us on the communion table. The cross that the Lord’s Supper commemorates not only cleanses us from our compromise and laziness. The love we see expressed in the cross of Jesus can also empower us, motivate us, compel us to forsake the things of this world and hold fast to the One who loved us and died for us. If that gospel of what God has done for us through Jesus penetrates our hearts, It compels us to live in obedience and to endure patiently whatever the consequences may be for our faithfulness.
We tap into that grace offered us in the cross, first by recognizing that, we are not strong, we are weak. We are not who we are supposed to be as individuals or a local church. We do not much resemble the church in Philadelphia. As we confess that before God and seek him for repentance from our many sins, by God’s grace, we tap into the overcoming, prevailing, persecution-enduring power of the cross. As we forsake what this world says in important and look anew to Christ crucified as our only hope, we find Holy Spirit power from the cross. As we, by God’s grace, are willing to pick up our cross and follow Christ to Calvary, we will also find the sin-conquering power of the cross.
And if you are here or watching on YOUTUBE and you haven’t placed your trust in Jesus to pay the penalty for your sin, do that today. If you wait until after Jesus has closed the door to heaven (as he will someday), there is no way for you to open it. May God give us the grace to humble ourselves and pick up our crosses that God may lift us up for his glory and our joy.