************ Sermon on Revelation 3:7-13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 30, 2007
"Philadelphia: the Church of the Open Door"
I The Letter's Introduction
A This letter starts off the same way as all the letters: "To the angel of the church ..." The angel is the guardian of the church. In this case it is the guardian of the church in Philadelphia. In writing to the angel, John is writing God's inspired Word to the church in Philadelphia. But notice, this letter ends the same way as all the letters with a reference to the "churches" – that is, the seven churches of Asia Minor, all the churches of Asia Minor, and all churches of all times and all places. So, Jesus is addressing Trinity United Reformed Church as well.
B The name "Philadelphia" means "brotherly love." Let me tell you how the city got this name. Eumenes was king of Pergamum. In 172 B.C. a false rumor arose that Eumenes had been assassinated, so his brother Attalus took the crown. When Eumenes returned, Attalus relinquished the crown and all was forgiven. In 167 B.C. the Romans pressured Attalus to remove his brother and assume the throne, but he repeatedly refused. Do you see how the two brothers loved each other? The city of Philadelphia was so named as a memorial to their brotherly love.
Philadelphia occupied a key position on the trade route that ran eastward from Rome. Because of this position Philadelphia was nicknamed the doorway or gateway to the east.
Another feature of Philadelphia that is important was an active range of volcanoes. The ash from these volcanoes made for fertile land that was just right for growing grapes; Philadelphia was the Napa Valley of Asia Minor. Volcanoes, unfortunately, also meant earthquakes. In A.D. 17 a massive earthquake leveled Philadelphia; there were so many aftershocks that most of the populace lived outside the city for some time.
Philadelphia was a city that kept changing its name. After the earthquake of A.D. 17, the emperor removed their obligation to pay tribute to Rome for five years so they could recover economically and reconstruct the city. Out of gratitude, Philadelphia renamed itself "Neocaesarea" (which means "New Caesar"). In A.D. 80 the city renamed itself "Flavia," the family name of the then current Caesar. Later, due to the establishment of the emperor cult in the city, it earned the title "Neokoros" (which means "Temple Warden"). "Little Athens" became its nickname in the fifth century.
One negative incident took place under Emperor Domitian in A.D. 92. Probably to encourage the growing of grain crops to feed the Roman armies, the emperor issued an edict demanding that half of the grape vines be cut down and no new ones planted. Volcanic ash is not particularly suited for the growing of grain so this edict hampered the economy and produced outrage throughout the province. Philadelphia felt betrayed by the Roman emperor.
C Notice how Christ identifies Himself to the church in Philadelphia. It starts with, "These are the words of him who is holy and true." This is a description of Jesus. In Revelation 6:10 "holy and true" is a description of God. Notice the complete equality of the Father and the Son. What the Father is and does and is described as the Son is and does and is described as. They are of the same essence and being. In other words, Jesus is God, He is divine, He is part of the deity.
"These are the words of him who is holy ..." The "Holy One" is a common designation for the Messiah in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The emphasis is not on a lack of sin but on being set apart for and dedicated to God. Just like the volcanic ground of Philadelphia has been set apart for the growing of grapes, so Jesus has been set apart as Messiah.
"These are the words of him who is ... true." The emphasis of "true" is NOT that He cannot lie. "True" means He is faithful and true to His promises; He is dependable and trustworthy – unlike the Roman Emperor. And it means He is genuine and real in contrast to the claims of hostile Jews that Jesus is a false messiah.
"These are the words of him ... who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open." This image comes from Isaiah 22 (here again we see we need to know the Old Testament to understand "the revelation of Jesus Christ"). In Isaiah 22 the Lord demanded that Shebna be replaced as the chief steward of King Hezekiah's household because Shebna had become self-serving and unfaithful. The "key of David" was to be taken from Shebna and given to Eliakim. Now, you need to realize whoever has the key controls access to the king and his palace.
Jesus "holds the key of David." He controls access to God's Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, in the same way as Philadelphia controls access to the Eastern trade routes. He opens the door and He shuts the door to the Kingdom. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn 14:6).
Jesus "holds the key of David." How encouraging this title must have been for the Christians of Philadelphia. The Jews excommunicated them from the synagogue and, supposedly, from the Kingdom of God. But it is Jesus, not the Jews, Who holds the keys to the Messianic Kingdom. It is Jesus Who gives entrance and bars entrance into heaven.
Do you want to enter the Kingdom? Do you want a place in the New Jerusalem? Do you want to be saved? Your only hope lies in Jesus Who holds the key. Though our culture and even some churches claim all paths lead to God, there is only one way, one path, one road, one door, and one gate. The gatekeeper, the doorkeeper, is the Lord Jesus Christ. If you want to enter the Kingdom you need to come to the One Who alone "holds the key of David."
II The Evaluation
A We come now to Jesus' evaluation of this church. Unlike five of the churches Jesus has nothing negative to say about this church.
"I know your deeds." His eyes are like blazing fire and see everything and miss nothing. "I know your deeds." He knows everything about the church of Philadelphia.
"I know your deeds." In every other letter Jesus immediately describes the deeds He knows and sees. But in this letter He gets sidetracked. "I know your deeds," says Jesus, and then what does He do? He immediately offers a word of encouragement. Then He explains the deeds of the church. And then He offers three more words of encouragement.
Do you see what Jesus is doing? Jesus knows the extreme situation the church of Philadelphia is facing. Jesus knows what she is enduring. Jesus knows the persecution and trials and hardships she is going through. Jesus feels the pain of this church. Jesus loves this church. So He does not wait and cannot wait and will not wait to encourage her.
B I know your deeds." What deeds? Listen to what Jesus says: "I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name" (Rev 3:8). They have "little strength." Jesus cannot be talking about a lack of spiritual power because He is praising this church; Jesus never praises spiritual weakness. In what way, then, is Philadelphia a church of "little strength"? Numerically, Philadelphia is a small church. Financially, she is a poor church. Politically, she is a church with no influence. Culturally, she is a church with no visible impact. She is a church of little earthly strength.
"You have little strength." That is the present tense and it expresses ongoing action. Jesus is writing to a church that continues to have little strength. She had little strength in the past and continues to have little strength in the present. Now notice the change of tense in the verbs from the present to the past. "You have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." The past tense indicates a specific time and place and incident. Sometime in the church's past she was faced with a crisis. Was it persecution? Was it threat of martyrdom? Was it heresy? Was it confiscation of goods and property? Was it temptation? We don't know. But whatever it was, she persevered, she overcame, she "endured patiently" (Rev 3:10). She kept the Word – that is, she guarded the Word and obeyed the Word. She did not deny the name of Jesus; or, to put it positively, she acknowledged Christ before men.
Compare the church of Philadelphia to the church of Sardis. Sardis, if you remember, is the exact opposite of Philadelphia. Sardis is a church with numbers, riches, power, and influence. Yet, when she faced the culture she collapsed like a house of cards; she responded to the pressure of culture by denying the name of Christ. Philadelphia, on the other hand, stood up to the pressure. When her back was to the wall, she kept the Word and did not deny the name of Jesus.
Like Sardis we have numbers, riches, power, and influence; we all know that. Unlike Philadelphia we are not a church of little earthly strength; we all know that as well. When we face our pagan and godless culture do we collapse or do we keep the Word and confess the name of Jesus? When we confront culture are we like Sardis or are we like Philadelphia? That's the question we need to ask about Trinity United Reformed Church, about the Christian Reformed denomination, about ourselves as individuals.
C Now the encouragement. Four words of encouragement.
The first word of encouragement for Philadelphia, a faithful church of little earthly strength: "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut" (Rev 3:8). Don't forget, the One saying this "holds the key of David" (Rev 3:7). Jesus is the doorkeeper Who has opened the doors of the Kingdom of heaven to the church of Philadelphia. No one can close these doors – not Satan, not the Jews who kicked them out of the synagogue, not the Roman authorities. The door is wide open and it remains open for this faithful church of little earthly strength. We can't say that about any other door or gate. Sierra Village close its gates every night, banks close their vaults every night, all of us close the doors of our homes every night. Not even the gates of hell can remain open or closed. But the door to heaven remains open to the church of Philadelphia. "What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (Rev 3:7).
Are we faithful, like Philadelphia? Is Jesus holding the door open for us?
The second word of encouragement for Philadelphia, a faithful church of little earthly strength:
(Rev 3:9) 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 ...What a promise for a faithful church of little earthly strength. They have been kicked out of the synagogue. Jesus promises that their Jewish oppressors will come crawling before them. This promise comes from Isaiah 60:14 where we read:
(Is 60:14) The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.This Old Testament passage teaches that someday the Gentiles will pay homage to the Jews. But now this promise is turned on its head: Jewish oppressors will be forced to pay homage to Gentile believers. The oppressors will bow but not in worship; they will bow in submission.
The third word of encouragement for Philadelphia, a faithful church of little earthly strength:
(Rev 3:9) I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan ... acknowledge that I have loved you.This is Jesus the doorkeeper speaking, the One Who holds the key of David, the One Who controls access to the Kingdom of Heaven and the Father's throne. How will the enemies of the church of Philadelphia know that this Jesus "loved" her? Notice the past tense of "loved." It refers to one definitive event. How does any Christian know he or she is loved? The cross is the proof of Christ's love. Philadelphia is not the city of brotherly love; rather, it is the city of Jesus' love. This little but faithful church is loved by Jesus. She may be hated and despised by the Jews, by the Romans, by the culture, by the pagans, but she is loved by Jesus.
The fourth word of encouragement for Philadelphia, a faithful church of little earthly strength:
(Rev 3:10) Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.Many commentators mistakenly take this promise as a reference to a great future tribulation. But does it make sense for Jesus to promise Philadelphia protection from something that they themselves will not face? Don't forget, this letter is to them and for them. This letter is supposed to be relevant to their situation.
Jesus is promising protection from something they are facing or about to face in the Roman Empire – namely a systematic, widespread persecution of the church. How are we to understand this protection? Some say Jesus promises to rapture His saints. But you know, Jesus nowhere promises to keep us from suffering; rather, Jesus promises to keep us through suffering. Look at the martyrs we see again and again in the "revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev 6:9-11; 7; 12:11,17; 13:7; 17:6) – they have all died because they obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus; obviously, Jesus has not kept them from suffering but He has kept them through suffering. Think of Christ's high-priestly prayer in John 17:
(Jn 17:15) My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.Did you hear that? Jesus promises spiritual protection. Jesus does not promise protection from persecution but protection through persecution and from apostasy.
Throughout "the revelation of Jesus Christ" and throughout the New Testament, persecution is something believers are to expect. To be persecuted means you are privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ. In "the revelation of Jesus Christ" martyrdom is seen as a victory over Satan, not a defeat (Rev 6:9-11; 7:14-17; 12:11). When Satan put Jesus on the cross – according to the plan of God – he defeated himself. Likewise, whenever Satan take the life of one of the saints in Smyrna, Pergamum, Philadelphia, Myanmar, Eritrea, China, Russia, or wherever, he is defeating himself. Therefore, Jesus' promise to Philadelphia is not that she will be protected from the wrath of Satan; rather, she is protected through the wrath of Satan and gains victory.
Jesus has a very short exhortation for the church of Philadelphia: "I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown."
"I am coming soon." This is the fourth time the "coming" of Christ has been stressed. To Ephesus, Christ's return would mean the removal of its lampstand (2:5). To Pergamum, judgment with the sword of His mouth (2:16). To Sardis, sudden and unexpected judgment like a thief in the night (3:3). To Philadelphia, however, Jesus' coming means glory.
So Jesus says, "hold on, hold fast, grasp, grip." What are they hold on to? They are to hold on to Christ, the One Who holds the key of David and has opened the door of heaven that no one can shut. They are to hold to the open door.
This church has been so faithful. They have kept the Word, they have confessed Christ before men, they have endured patiently. Now Christ warns them to continue in all of this and theirs will be the crown of glory.
This letter ends with the promises of Christ for those, like Philadelphia, who overcome, who are faithful and true, who endure.
If we include the four words of encouragement that we find in verses 8-10, there are a total of eight promises given to Philadelphia. As with Smyrna, the churches that seem the weakest have the greatest rewards. The churches that are characterized by faithfulness rather than earthly success receive the most promises.
The first promise: "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it" (Rev 3:12). The pillars of the pagan temples were the only thing left standing in Philadelphia after the devastating earthquake of A.D. 17. Remember how most people had to flee the city and live in the countryside? Jesus is promising that overcomers will be secure in the city of God and will never again be dislodged from their homes. Now their lives are characterized by uncertainty and weakness. Now they suffer physical harm from earthquakes and persecution. But Christ promises stability and permanence. He promises that His people will never be separated from His love.
The second, third, and fourth promise to overcomers: "I will write on him 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 him my new name" (Rev 3:12).
"I will write on him the name of my God" is to belong to God, to be His child. To carry around someone's name is a sign of belonging, of ownership. The synagogue does not want them, the Roman Empire persecutes them, the pagan culture rejects them, but God claims them by putting His name on their foreheads.
"I will write on him ... the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem" is to be promised citizenship in the Kingdom. In the Roman Empire citizenship was attached to particular cities. Paul, for instance, is identified as "Paul of Tarsus." Paul's Roman citizenship is through Tarsus. Similarly, the overcomers citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven is through the New Jerusalem. Don't forget, the One Who gives this promise is He Who has the Key to the Kingdom.
"I will also write on him my new name." Nowhere are we told what this new name of Christ is. In Philippians 2 the new name is "Lord." In Revelation 19:13 the new name is "the Word of God." Yet, the very next verse tells us "no one knows" His new name (Rev 19:14). Whatever the new name, the important detail of Christ's promise is not the name, not its meaning, but the fact that overcomers will share that new name. Overcomers will be marked with the same name as Christ.
Remember how the city of Philadelphia kept getting new names? The overcomers also get new names. Written on them are three names showing that they belong to God, to God's city, and to God's Son.
What astonishing promises to this faithful church of little strength: an open door, submission from the Jews, a public acknowledgment that they are loved, protection through trial, a permanent place in the temple, and three new names.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 3:13).
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