The Lord's Day Evening
September 30, 2007
“A Letter from Jesus”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please be seated. Now turn with me if you would to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation — a book that often intimidates and frightens and terrifies, because of its use of apocalyptic imagery involving colors and numbers and so on — but we're in none of that this evening. We’re going to look at one of the so-called “seven letters” that we find in Revelation 2 and 3, and we're going to focus our attention tonight on the letter of Jesus Christ to the church in Philadelphia. And we find in it chapter three, beginning at verse seven, and all the way through to verse thirteen. Before we read this passage together, let's look again to the Lord and ask for His blessing. Let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, we come again as needy people. We need instruction, we need counsel, we need wisdom, we need encouragement. We surely need reproof and correction. And we ask in the tenderness of Your lovingkindness, come, O Lord; come by Your Spirit; open up the Scriptures to us and help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Help us to treasure up Your word and to hide it in our hearts, to love it more than our necessary food. And for Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Hear now God's holy, inerrant word:
“And to the angel of the church Philadelphia write:
‘The words of the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens:
‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an 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. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that 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. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His word.
I've always had a thing about mail…letters… “the post,” as I would call it. Probably every day I come home from seminary or here at the church, and it may not be — although occasionally it is — it may not be the first thing I’ll say when I go through the door, but sooner or later I’ll say, “Was there any mail?” And it’ll be sitting somewhere on the kitchen table, or the dining room table. And you know the routine, how you go through it: junk, more junk…not worth opening; bills; and occasionally, though less so these days in the days of email and electronic communication, but occasionally an old-fashioned letter written by hand, and with a nice little address label in the top left-hand corner in gold lettering perhaps, telling me who it's from. And if it's from someone I like and it's not some letter of complaint or something, I rip it open, sit down, read it! Over the years I've kept a number of letters. It's not a big file, but I have a little file of letters that have meant something to me: letters from my grandmother, my late grandmother. I have several of them. I found one recently in a book that I had slipped into the book when I was a student — away too far back to think about. And I was taken aback again by her handwriting. It had a very distinctive style. And she loved words, and it was chatty and homely, and I was glad I found it. It meant something to me.
Well, this is a letter. It's a letter from Jesus. Now there's a sense, of course, in which the whole Bible is a letter from Jesus, but these are specific letters — seven of them given by inspiration to the Apostle John, writing (as I think he was) in the middle nineties of the first century…banished to the Island of Patmos for his testimony to Jesus Christ. Seven letters written to churches with zip codes; churches with specific addresses; churches, all of them based in cities. We’d probably call some of them large towns, perhaps, but they were cities in what we would now call Turkey. And if you were to try to put these on a map, they actually form something of a circle, as though Jesus was going round in a circle and addressing each specific church in turn. Seven, of course, because the book of Revelation is preoccupied with the number seven. It's one of those numbers that speak of perfection. These letters are like old-fashioned school reports. I haven't read one in a while…haven't read a report of First Presbyterian Day School, or a Junior High or Senior High report. I imagine things haven't changed that much. I vividly recall comments made on one of mine: “Could do better”; “Master Thomas checked out of school this semester. We wish him a speedy return”–even though I was there!
Jesus is addressing each church in turn. He examines, He analyzes, He sees, He scrutinizes, He points out various things. There's a certain pattern to each of the letters. Each church has a distinctive mark that He singles out. For one it's their love; for another, it's their suffering; for another, it is their godliness or holiness; for another, it's their sincerity, their wholeheartedness, their love of the truth. Well, this one…well, it looks as though it's their security.
“The city of brotherly love” — Philadelphia, thirty miles southeast of Sardis — known for its earthquakes. One had occurred around 17 A.D. It had almost destroyed the city. It was called “little Athens.” When the city was founded (and it hadn't been in existence that long), when Philadelphia was founded, the founders aspired to be like Athens. Philadelphia was known for its love of Greek and literature, and theater and music. The god that was everywhere was Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of wine, the god of agriculture, the god of theater. Bacchus’ divine mission was to play the flute and drive away all worry and care. This was Philadelphia.
I could choose which one I wanted to preach on, you understand! And I chose this one because this is the only one where there's no complaint. Some of these letters are harsh. Some of these letters call for repentance. They issue words of dire warning as Jesus walks amidst the candlesticks. Look at chapter two and verse one:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
‘The words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand…” [either the seven churches, or perhaps the elders of those churches…some think angels of those churches who have guardianship of those churches] “…who walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
Jesus walks amidst the church. He walked amidst the church in Philadelphia. [Brothers and sisters, He walks amidst this church.] He makes an observation. He gives exquisite promises, and He makes one final exhortation.
He begins with an observation, and you see that in verses 7 and 8: “I know your works,” He says in verse 8. “I know your works, your deeds.” And despite their weakness, and despite their poverty, He sees something. He looks and He scrutinizes, and He observes something about this church in Philadelphia: “I know that you have little strength…I know that you've kept My word…I know that you've not denied My name.” What a great report! Despite their weakness — maybe weakness in numbers, perhaps. It wasn't a large church. It was a relatively small church in Philadelphia. Perhaps because of the impending persecution, they were keenly aware of their weakness and their frailty, and in that context they have been faithful. They've kept God's word, and they haven't denied His name.
“Behold,” He says to them, “I have set before you an open door that no one can shut.”
What is this open door?
Well, there are two possibilities. It may be a reference to evangelism and missions. Paul can write to the Corinthians in the closing verses of I Corinthians…he says that “there is a wide door for effective work that has been opened to me.” A door of opportunity, a door of missionary expansion. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he's keenly aware that God in His providence has opened up a way for him to take the gospel and to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ, and to use up the opportunity that in His providence had been afforded to him. There's an open door. We still use the term in that way. We speak about countries where the doors are closed, and we speak about countries where the door is open. We heard a report earlier this evening of a country in the Ukraine where the door is open. And there are countries where the door is closed. God had provided for them an open door to witness, to testify, to demonstrate their love for Jesus Christ. They proclaimed the gospel. They made Christ known. They spoke about the way of salvation. They called upon their fellow citizens to repent of their sins and to embrace Jesus Christ. “I have set before you an open door.”
Tantalizing as that possibility is, it probably is not what is uppermost in the mind of the Lord Jesus here when He says “I have set before you an open door.” It's not so much their evangelism; it's not so much their mission. It's the fact that they have themselves gone through that door. They’re aware of their weakness. They’re aware of their frailty. They’re aware that in the eyes of the world they are nothing. Mocked and scoffed — and impending persecution is coming their way — but they've been given a door through which they have entered. They have entered the kingdom of God. They have come into fellowship with Jesus Christ. They've come to know Him as Lord and Savior. What a word of encouragement that must have been to them; small, struggling Christian community, and they've entered into the kingdom of God. They’re in the empire of Rome, and an increasingly hostile empire of Rome. In all likelihood, Domitian is now the emperor. Christianity is no longer the religio licita — the tolerated religions of the empire. Having been forced now from Judaism (and Judaism had that preferential treatment in the empire), Christianity was no longer in that position. But you've entered into My kingdom. You’re come into fellowship with Me. I've set before you an open door.
You know that's why further back, in verse 7, you have that reference to “the key of David.” It's an interesting metaphor, isn't it?
“The words of the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, and who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one will open…”
What is this reference to the key of David? Well, the key of David is an expression that we find in Isaiah 22. It's used of Eliakim. Eliakim was the representative of King Hezekiah, who foolishly allowed Rabshakeh entrance into the armory and the throne room of the king. In his folly and his exuberance, he allowed his enemy access into the king's throne room. He had the key. It was called the key of David. Well, Jesus has this key. We don't have that key. It doesn't reside within our power. It doesn't reside within our wills. He has the key, and He's opened the door. “I set before you an open door,” and when Jesus opens the door, no one can shut it. And they have come; they have entered into the kingdom of God.
Philadelphia was set in a broad and fertile valley that commanded trade routes in all directions. And when it was founded, as I said earlier, it aspired to be like Athens in its language and culture. But the church had a similar vision: to be known for its love for Christ and its love for the gospel, and the fact that it was now in the kingdom of God. That's the observation that He makes.
And then, a series of promises, in verses 9 and 10. You notice in verse 10, He talks about the hour of trial: “I will keep you from the hour of trial…” or perhaps better, “I will keep you through the hour of trial.”
Once Christianity had divorced itself from Judaism, once Christians no longer went to the synagogue (which was largely the case after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70), Christianity became open season for persecution by the Roman Empire. In A.D. 90, possibly just a few years before the writing of the book of Revelation, Jewish leaders met in Jamnia. It was when the Old Testament canon was agreed upon. The liturgy, the so-called Eighteen Benedictions of synagogue liturgy, was codified and established at that council, and one of those benedictions included the words “For apostates, let there be no hope, and Christians and heretics perish in a moment.” These are words the Jews would have uttered on a weekly basis — sometimes on a daily basis. The Eighteen Benedictions is still part of strict synagogual liturgy till this day. The hour of trial is coming, and it's coming from the Roman Empire, “but I will keep you.” I will keep you. God will ensure that in the hour of trial His hand will be upon His people, and He will shelter them and hide them beneath His wings, so that the enemies of the church, you see, will not triumph. It's part of that promise that Jesus had given at Caesarea Philippi:
“I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
There seems to be an indication here of growing hostility not just from Rome, but growing hostility from Jewry. And there's this promise:
“I will keep you in the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”
How will they survive? “Because I will keep you.” Because the hand of the sovereign Lord will be upon them. What did Jesus pray in the so-called high priestly prayer, in John 17?
“I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You would keep them from the evil one.”
You remember Jesus’ words to Peter?
“Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you.”
What blessed words of reassurance those are, because the prayers of Christ, the prayers of the Son of the living God, are always effectual prayers. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” James says. How much more the prayers of Jesus? “Satan has desired to have you, but I have prayed for you.” He's come before His father in heaven, and He's said about this one, this believer, this weak, frightened believer, ‘Father, I gave my life for this one. I shed My blood for this one. I endured the wrath of God for this one. Now keep this one.’ And the Father can never say no to His Son. There's such divine equanimity between the Father and the Son. The Son thinks the Father's thoughts, and the Father thinks the Son's thoughts; and when the Son prays, His prayers are always effectual.
“In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial, I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall;
Not for fear or favor, suffer me to fall.”
In the hour of trial, Jesus plead for me….
And then in verse , “I am coming soon.” It's not the first time in the book of Revelation that expression will occur. It will occur again. It will occur right at the end of the book of Revelation. It gives rise to all kinds of speculations about the end times, about the expectation of the apostle with regard to the Second Coming of Jesus. But you know, think of it this way: What is the next great redemptive event? One thinks of the flood; one thinks of the exodus; one thinks of the exile; one thinks of the incarnation; one thinks of the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension of Jesus; one thinks of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; but what's the next great redemptive event? It's the coming of Jesus. On the scale of God, as God views space and time…with whom a thousand years is as one day, and one day is as a thousand years, “I am coming soon…I'm coming quickly.”
Because He holds the world in the palms of His hands, He orders all events from beginning to end. And none can say to Him, “What are you doing to this poor fledgling weak church, facing the hostility of the Roman Empire? And death?” And imagine John himself, having already suffered at the hands of the empire, having already been banished to this island…that Jesus knows and Jesus cares.
Do you ever think, my friend, in the midst of trials and tribulations, ‘Does He really care?’ Have you ever uttered those words? Found yourself shocked perhaps, taken aback perhaps, that you would even think that? That the Lord Jesus, who died for us, who shed His blood for us, who went to Calvary for us, who endured the unmitigated wrath of the Holy God for us…does He care for us? We may not understand what He does; we may not understand His timetable; we may not understand why He takes one sooner than the other, and brings that one to Himself and wraps His arms around that one, when we would have them stay here.
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
He, in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
Treasures up His bright designs, and works His sovereign will.
“Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.”
Does He care? Of course He cares! Of course He cares! He cares for all His little ones. He cares for all His sheep. He cares for the entirety of His flock, and this little church in Philadelphia. “I'm coming soon.” The idea is ‘I will bring you to Myself,’ and “I will make you a pillar in the temple of My God.”
You know there are two pillars in Solomon's Temple, and one was called Jachin, meaning I will establish, and the other was called Boaz, meaning strength. Two mighty bronze pillars. It would be nice just to be a little pebble in the temple of God, wouldn't it? Just a speck of sand will do. There's no need to be extravagant here. “I will make you a pillar.” This weak, fledgling, frightened, cowering church–perhaps facing the onslaught of the evil of the Roman Empire at the close of the first century, and “I will make you a pillar in the temple of My God…and I’ll put the name of My God, and the name of the new Jerusalem, and My own new name on you.” Not the mark of the beast. Not 666, but the name of God and the name of Jesus as Lord; and the name, not of Philadelphia (not even Jackson, Mississippi), but the new Jerusalem. He's telling this little church, you see, to have a very different perspective. That here we have no continuing city, but we seek one which is to come, whose builder and maker is God. Look up! Look ahead! Look forward! Because “eye has not seen, neither has ear heard, nor has entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him.” He's preparing you for a new order of existence: a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness will dwell.
Do you see what this is saying? It's a wonderful little word of security, of assurance.
“Who can separate [me] from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord? Not life, not death, not angels, not principalities or powers; not height nor depth, nor anything in all of the created order, because we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
So he gives a little exhortation. He's already talked about their patient endurance, but He gives them a little exhortation at the end:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
It's a little exhortation that closes all of these letters, of course.
Are you listening? Dear friend, are you listening tonight? At the close of this Lord's Day, do you hear what Jesus says to His beloved lamb? ‘I will keep you. I will give you a new name. I want you to have a new vision of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her bridegroom. I want your eyes to be open to that great festal wedding feast that is to come. I want you to understand who you are. I want you to understand who you really are.’
You know, the German philosopher/theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, at the close of the nineteenth century, when he was an old man, was sitting in the park. And someone came up to him — didn't recognize him at first — and said to him, “Who are you?” This man has written volumes that still affect the church to this day–badly! Do you know what his answer was? “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”
My friends, do you know who you are? If you’re trusting in Jesus Christ, if you’re covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, if you’re justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, do you know who you are? I'm the child of a King. I'm the child of a King. With Jesus, my Savior, I'm the child of a King.
Father, we thank You for Your word. Thank You for its sweetness at just this point in the Bible. Hide these precious, precious promises in our hearts. Help us to see that grand vision of what lies before us. Help us to see what we already are in Jesus Christ. And bless us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.