The Lord’s Day
“A Letter from Jesus”
Dr. Derek W. H.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
When Thou seest me waver, with a
Not for fear or favor, suffer me
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
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
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
“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,
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.