************ Sermon on Revelation 3:7-13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 9, 1999
"Philadelphia: The Church of the Open Door"
The sixth letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor was written to Philadelphia. Philadelphia: the city was known as the "doorway to the East." It lies at the eastern end of a broad valley which it shares with Smyrna on the Aegean Sea and Sardis half-way in-between. Passing through Philadelphia was a trade route to the riches of the Orient. An imperial post route from Rome passed through Philadelphia to the far-eastern portions of the empire.
The church of Philadelphia was a small church (vs 8), but of good quality. Today, as you may know, some churches take pride in their size – it seems every major city has a "mega-church," a church with 5000+ members. Other churches boast the world's largest Sunday School program – as does a church in Indiana with over 20,000 Sunday School students. Still others brag about their buildings – I think of the Crystal Cathedral or the Tower of Power. And still others gloat that they can offer a shopping-mall array of ministries and services.
When we look at the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we can or should see a pattern emerging which ought to make any church hesitant to boast or have pride. The Lord tells us that it is not the biggest church, nor the most impressive one, nor the one with a name and reputation, that are necessarily in the best spiritual shape. When Christ measures or gauges a church's spiritual life, He doesn't look at size, He doesn't look at buildings, He doesn't look at power and influence, He doesn't look at programs and ministries, He doesn't look at wealth and growth. When Christ measures or gauges a church's spiritual life, He doesn't look at outward appearances – no matter how impressive those appearances may be. What Christ looks at is the heart. What Christ looks for is spiritual wealth.
The letter writer, as with the previous five letters, is Christ. We will look at the meaning and significance of His titles as we examine His letter to Philadelphia.
I A Praiseworthy Church
A Christ looks at that church of Philadelphia and offers her nothing but praise: "I know your deeds," He says (vs 8). Outsiders may not see or know what is going on in this church, but Christ does. As in the case of Ephesus and Thyatira, He sees a church filled with good and holy deeds: Philadelphia is obedient to the Lord and is filled with good works.
B Also, Christ says, "I know that you have little strength" (vs 8). We are not to understand that word "strength" in spiritual terms but in physical or political terms. Spiritually, as Christ makes clear, the church of Philadelphia was a giant. Physically, though, the church of Philadelphia had little power, little influence; she was a small and poor congregation. From the world's perspective the Philadelphian church was not much to look at.
"Yet," says Christ, "you have kept my word and have not denied my name" (vs 8). The church of Philadelphia was obedient to the commandments and precepts of the Lord in spite of her little strength. She did not deny Christ's name. The church of Philadelphia was persecuted by the Jews and Romans – by the Jews because of her Christian confession that Jesus is the Son of God, by the Romans because of her Christian confession that Jesus is Lord – yet she did not deny Christ's name.
There are three ways to deny Christ's name. The first form of Christ-denial is to claim that one has not confessed Christ's name – such as was done by the Apostle Peter. The second form of Christ-denial is ungodly or disobedient conduct – such as was committed by King Ahab. The third form of Christ-denial is false and heretical doctrine – such as the Nicolaitan heresy that three of the seven churches of Asia Minor struggled against. The church of Philadelphia, even in the face of persecution and false doctrine, was completely faithful to the Lord: she was faithful in confession, in lifestyle, and in doctrine.
Moreover, says the Lord, the church of Philadelphia has "kept my command to endure patiently" (vs 10). This church patiently awaited the second coming of the Lord and made herself ready for that coming. This church endured in the faith in the face of attacks from a hostile and unbelieving world.
Topic: PerseveranceSometimes Christians have the cheetah's approach to ministry and the Christian life. We speed into projects with great energy. But lacking the heart for sustained effort, we fizzle before we finish. We vow to start faster and run harder, when what we need is not more speed but more staying power or endurance. The church of Philadelphia was not like this at all. She endured in her testimony, in her godliness, and in her faith.
Title: Endurance Takes a Big Heart
A recent television documentary pointed out that the cheetah survives on the African plains by running down its prey. The big cat can sprint seventy miles per hour. But the cheetah cannot sustain that pace for long. Within its long, sleek body is a disproportionately small heart, which causes the cheetah to tire quickly. Unless the cheetah catches its prey in the first flurry, it must abandon the chase.
Philadelphia was a church of inner strength and beauty. Yes, she was small; she wasn't influential; she wasn't much to look at; yet, she was great in the sight of the Lord.
II Philadelphia's Open Door
A How come the church of Philadelphia endured while others of the churches of Asia Minor did not? How come she was a church filled with good and loving deeds? How come she was able to keep Christ's Word and did not deny Christ's name? Was there something special about this church? Was the church of Philadelphia so fully grown and mature in the faith that she could stand on her own feet while the other churches fell flat?
To explain her good points, the church of Philadelphia could not point to herself, her strengths, her faith, her commitment. The simple fact is that she had to point to Christ. It is because of Christ and only because of Christ that anything positive can be said about the church of Philadelphia, or about any other church for that matter.
B So, what is it that Christ has done for the church of Philadelphia? "See," says Christ, "I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut" (vs 8). We can understand this only against the background of Christ's titles at the start of this letter.
Jesus identifies Himself at the start of the letter as He Who holds the key of David:
(Rev 3:7) 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.The expression "key of David" comes from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah tells us about Shebna (Isaiah 22). This Shebna was the Prime Minister of King Hezekiah. In the name of the king and for the king he ruled Jerusalem and the royal household with a firm hand. He had undisputed control. It was he who decided who could or could not see the king. It was he who controlled entry into Jerusalem. The king entrusted Shebna with the key of the house of David.
The language of Isaiah is used in the letter to Philadelphia to present Christ as the Messiah with power to control entrance into the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. It is Christ, in other words, Who now has the key of David. It is Christ Who opens heaven to all who believe and closes heaven to all who disbelieve.
This power of Christ is absolute: "What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (vs 7). Christ has final and absolute and undisputed authority over entrance or exclusion from the Kingdom of God. When Christ opens the doors of heaven to those who believe, no one is able to drag them out. And, when Christ closes the doors of heaven to those who disbelieve, no one is able to open that door.
He "who is holy and true, who holds the key of David" says to the church of Philadelphia, "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut" (vs 8). Christ has opened the doors of heaven to the believers of Philadelphia. The city that is the "doorway to the east" has a church with an open door to heaven. Philadelphia is a saved church. And no one, absolutely no one, not even the great enemy Satan, can close the doors of heaven to this church. The Jewish synagogue can excommunicate the believers, the Roman authorities can persecute them, the Nicolaitans can tempt them, but theirs is an open door to heaven.
"See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut." Now we know why this congregation of believers can endure, can do good and loving deeds, can keep God's Word, and can remain true to Christ's name.
C "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut." Notice what is implied here: the church of Philadelphia does not save herself; she doesn't earn salvation by her works, her obedience, her faithfulness, her endurance; she does not deserve salvation because she has kept the Word of Christ; she does not deserve salvation because she has continued to confess Christ's name even in the face of persecution.
"See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut." Notice what else is implied here: it is only because of Christ that the church of Philadelphia has gained entrance into heaven. He "who holds the key of David" opens the door. He is the only one Who can open the door. There is no other way into the presence of the Father. As Jesus Himself says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6).
Topic: Heavenly HomeBut the picture is wrong. As we all know, there are two ways from the grave – the way to Heaven and the way to Hell. On the other hand, the picture is right if by the "one way" it means the Lord Jesus Christ. For He alone has the key of David. And He alone is the way to the Father's throne.
In Salt Lake City a few years ago a photographer saw a street sign, all askew, and promptly took a picture. The result was captioned, "Divine Direction," and showed a "one-way" sign pointing to the sky with a cemetery in the background. The words of English poet William Blake were quoted: "The grave is heaven's golden gate, and rich and poor around it wait."
D "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut." Does Christ say this about us too? Don't answer too quickly, congregation, because Scripture makes clear that Christ does not and cannot say this about every church; of the seven churches of Asia Minor, Christ says this only about Smyrna and Philadelphia. The other five churches Christ condemns: Ephesus for being without love, Pergamum for being far too tolerant, Thyatira for compromising her faith, Sardis for putting on a false show, Laodicea for being lukewarm. So again I ask, can Christ say about us what He said about the church of Philadelphia? Can He say about Trinity, "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut"?
Has Jesus placed an open door before Trinity? He must have, for it is only because of the open door that young people can come forward to publicly profess their faith, that covenant children are baptized, that converts are won for Christ, and that God's people respond to God's Word. He must have, for it is only because of the open door that any of us can have the assurance that we are saved. You see, if it were up to us, we would all fall away from the Lord and the faith. On our own, apart from Christ, we too have but "little strength," certainly not the strength to endure and remain steadfast.
"See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut." Let us thank and praise God for the open door that Jesus, "who holds the key of David," has put in the midst of His believing people.
E There is more that we can say about the power of the key of David. As I already mentioned, King Hezekiah entrusted the power of the key of David to his servant Shebna. But there came a day when Shebna had to be removed from office, when the power of the key had to be stripped from him; this was done because he was wicked and disobedient, not a good and faithful servant. On that day the power of the key of David was given to Eliakim (cf Isaiah 22).
In Philadelphia, as I already mentioned, there was a Jewish synagogue. This synagogue claimed that the power of the keys has been given to them; they claimed that God entrusted to them the key of David; they claimed that God granted to them the power to include or exclude from the heavenly kingdom. To that end they excommunicated every member of the synagogue that dared to profess Christ as Savior and Lord.
What happened to Shebna, the servant of the king, also happened to this synagogue: the power of the key of David was stripped from them and given to another. The power of the key of David entrusted to the elders of the synagogue has been taken from them and given to the elders of the church. He Who holds the key of David gives to every believing church a door that opens directly into heaven (cf Mt 16:19; 18:18).
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
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