Now if you would please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn to Revelation chapter 3 at the seventh verse. You’ll find that on page 1029 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. We have been working through the book of Revelation and studying seven messages for the churches of Asia Minor given to the Apostle John by the risen Christ. And we’ve come tonight to the penultimate letter written to the church in Philadelphia. Along with the letter to the church in Smyrna, with which this letter shares a number of affinities, it is the only letter to sound a wholly positive tone. There’s no criticism, no rebuke, no correction, but instead this letter holds out the prospects of broad, Gospel opportunity and rich, spiritual reward. Before we consider its message together, however, let me invite you first of all to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray!
Lord Jesus, You are the holy one who holds the key of David, who opens and no one can shut and who shuts and no one can open. We ask that You would now, by the Holy Spirit, through the ministry of Your Word, open not just our hearts to the truth of the Gospel but the kingdom to needy sinners, that by faith in You we may receive the pardon of our sin, newness of life, that weary believers may be strengthened in the course of their obedience, and enabled as we cling to You to persevere in their ministries of proclaiming and sharing and living for the honor of Your name. For we ask it in Your name, amen.
Revelation chapter 3 at the seventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, 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, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word!
Some of you will know the story of John G. Paton who went to bring the Gospel to the cannibals of the South Sea Islands. He arrived on the island of Tanna on November 5, 1858 and on February 12, 1859, his pregnant wife Mary gave birth to their son. “Our island exile,” he wrote, thrilled with joy, but the greatest of sorrows was treading hard upon the heels of that great joy. For weeks Mary suffered from terrible bouts of fever and pneumonia and diarrhea and delirium. And then suddenly and tragically, she died. And by March 20, their baby boy died as well. And Paton is alone now on an island of cannibals, utterly bereft, overcome by grief himself, battling about fourteen separate incidents of overwhelming fever and weakness coming close to death more than once. He dug the two graves with his own hands and later wrote, “Stunned by that dreadful loss in entering upon this field of labor to which the Lord had Himself so evidently led me; my reason seemed for a time almost to give way. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me and that spot became my sacred and much frequented shrine. During all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of the savage islands amidst difficulties, dangers, and deaths, but for Jesus and the fellowship He vouchsafed to me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”
And his sufferings are still not over! Almost daily, for a time, the cannibals of the island came for him and sometimes he was able to flee and hide, but very often he found himself facing eminent martyrdom. “My enemies,” he said, “seldom slackened their hateful designs against my life.” And again he wrote, “Once when natives in large numbers were assembled at my house, a man furiously rushed on me with his ax, but a Kaserumini chief snatched a spade with which I’d been working and dexterously defended me from instant death. Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus. I knew not for one brief hour when our how an attack might be made, and yet with my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace and resonation abode in my soul.” Finally, after four grueling years of labor on the Island of Tanna, at terrible personal cost, the entire island rose against him and he was forced to flee aboard a missionary ship that arrived in the nick of time.
And it would have been easy at this point in the story of Paton’s labors to consider his mission on the Island of Tanna an abject failure. He had risked everything and to so many observers it must have seemed that he had also lost everything. Perhaps it seemed that way to him too at times. And yet, Paton refused to count his years at Tanna a failure. He stayed in the New Hebrides, as the islands were then called, and he relocated this time to a neighboring island, the Island of Aniwa, where in short order, the entire island came to faith in Jesus Christ. “I claimed Aniwa for Jesus and by the grace of God, Aniwa now worships at the Savior’s feet.”
So here’s a stark contrast! Do you see it? The vulnerable missionary from whom every outward comfort has been systematically stripped away, and the sudden, mighty advance of the Gospel against all odds. It couldn’t be a more stark contrast! And it’s a contrast, actually, that we find echoed here in our passage in the church at Philadelphia. Here is a church, Jesus describes them, as having “but little power,” verse 8. That might mean that it was an unusually small congregation or fragile congregation. It might mean that its membership is comprised of the underclass of society – slaves and outcasts with little influence in that city. Or it might mean both or some combination of both. But the point is clear – this is a weak church, a vulnerable church. We know from the hints in verse 9 that it is a church that has endured opposition and persecution. The Jews in Philadelphia, we are told, claim to be the true people of God but they have rejected the Gospel, and opposed the church’s mission in the city. Jesus calls them, actually, “a synagogue of Satan.” And the believers there, verse 11, have had to practice patient endurance in the midst of trials. And yet, Christ tells this weak, vulnerable, suffering church that He has set before them an open door which no one can shut. This is a letter designed to help us see that weakness and vulnerability are no indication of future usefulness, or any gauge of Gospel success.
Let’s take a look at the passage together! I want you to consider it with me under two headings; First, I want you to see how Jesus gives both Gospel opportunity and Gospel success. Both Gospel opportunity and Gospel success in verses 7 to 9. And then we’ll noticed secondly how Jesus gives both gracious protection and generous reward in verses 10 to 13. Both Gospel opportunity and Gospel success, and both gracious protection and generous reward.
- Gospel Opportunities
Look at verses 7 to 9 first of all. Jesus gives both Gospel opportunity and Gospel success. In verse 8, Christ tells this weak church, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” This is, after all, Christ’s prerogative. He is the “holy one,” verse 7, “the true one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut; who shuts and no one will open.” Now the image of the key of David comes from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 22 verses 20-22. Isaiah says, “On that day” – or the Lord through Isaiah says – “On that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him and will commit your authority to his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open and none shall shut, and he shall shut and none shall open.” Eliakim was the steward of the king’s riches and had the key to open and shut the house of David. And as one commentator put it, “In the prophecy of Isaiah, the house of David is a short-hand way of referring to the kingdom of God, to the city of God, to the temple of God, and to all the riches of God the King.” Eliakim is a type, a picture of Jesus Christ, who holds the true key of David, who opens the kingdom of God to all who believe. This little church is being told that although the Jews had slammed the synagogue door in their faces, Christ had opened the doors of His kingdom by His grace and they have entered in.
But more is being said here than that. The city of Philadelphia was built at a strategic, geographical location. The intention of its founders was that the city should become a center for the spread of Greek civilization and culture and language, particularly in the provinces that lay to the east. It is in one important sense, as Sir William Ramsey remarked, it was “a missionary city from the beginning.” But the open door set before the church at Philadelphia suggests that it was being called to spread a better message and sent on a better mission than simply the spread of Greek civilization and culture and language. In fact, in many places in the New Testament scriptures, the language of the “open door” is used explicitly to refer to missionary opportunity. 1 Corinthians 16 at verse 9, Paul remarks that he would stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost because “a great door for effective work” had been opened for him. In 2 Corinthians chapter 2 at verse 12 he writes, “When I went to Troas to preach the Gospel of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord.” In Colossians 4 at verse 3 he calls on the church to pray that “God may open a door for our message so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.” Christ had opened not only the kingdom of God to the believers at Philadelphia, but he had opened the way for the spread of the kingdom of God from the believers at Philadelphia to the world.
Sometimes we take stock and we see our weakness, our spiritual poverty, our limitations and we note, at least in our own estimation, that others are stronger, wiser, better suited to ministry than we and so we rule ourselves out. “I can’t do it. I can’t speak for Jesus. I can’t go for Him.” The church at Philadelphia was small and weak and suffering, but Christ was calling the church at Philadelphia to missionary service. He has opened a door for the Gospel before them and He was asking them to walk through it. It may be that we ought not to look quite so long at ourselves and much longer at the opportunities before us. Has Christ opened a door for us as a church here in this city for the advancement of the Gospel and the spread of His kingdom? Well then, by all means, whatever our limits, whatever the roadblocks, however complex the logistics, let us walk through it! Has Christ opened a door for you to serve Him in your own circle of friends, among your colleagues, in your neighborhood? Then beware of using your weaknesses as a cover for your disobedience to Christ’s call. Christ gives Gospel opportunities.
- Gospel Success
But notice, too, He also gives Gospel success. Despite weaknesses, the church at Philadelphia, we are told, had kept Christ’s word and not denied His name, verse 8. They had been faithful to the Gospel. They stood their ground under the pressure of their context to accommodate to the culture and to adjust the message to the tastes and morays and convictions of the day. They had kept the Word and been faithful to Christ’s name. What will Jesus do for faithful churches who hold fast to the Word? He will not only open doors of usefulness before them, He will give Gospel success to them. Verse 9, “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 before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” Again, the prophecy of Isaiah stands in the background, this time from chapter 60 at verse 14. Isaiah pictures a time when all the nations will stream to Zion and its gates will never shut. Streaming through the open door of the kingdom will come those who once had hated and opposed the people of God. “The sons of those who afflicted you,” Isaiah writes, “shall come bending low to you and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet and they shall call you, ‘The City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.’” Jesus is telling the church at Philadelphia, “If you will go through the door I have opened for you, those who hate you and oppose you will one day come to you in meekness and repentance and in submission. They will see what they once denied and seek from you what they once thought they already possessed – a place in the kingdom of God.”
You see the message! Both missionary opportunity and missionary success are in the hand of Christ who holds the keys of David. Salvation is entirely in the gift of the risen Christ who marvelously makes use of weak instruments like the Christians in Philadelphia, like four members going to the Czech Republic, like believers here in Jackson, Mississippi. And He sovereignly, graciously makes those who once hated the Gospel into those who bow before it. What an encouragement to go with the Good News, to walk through the open door, to speak up for Christ. The knowledge that your success is not the result of your prowess or debating skills or your ability with apologetics, but rather that it lies entirely in the gift of the Savior Himself, what an encouragement that truth is. Salvation belongs to the Lord! He gives not only opportunities for ministry, but He is the one who gives successes in ministry. And so let’s go! Right? That’s the message. Let’s go across the street and around the world.
Then secondly, look with me at verses 10 to 13. Jesus gives both missionary Gospel opportunity and Gospel success and then secondly, verses 10 to 13, Jesus gives both gracious protection and generous reward. The church, we saw, had kept Christ’s Word, not denied His name, verse 8. And now, similarly in verse 10, we are told they kept His Word about patient endurance. That is to say, they were not only theologically faithful, but they have persevered through trials. They have been suffering. And because of their endurance in obedience to the Word of Christ, Jesus makes a series of promises to them in what remains of our passage.
- Gracious Protection
First He says, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to try those who dwell on the earth.” Now, “the hour of trial” there is a reference to the growing tribulation suffering that will mark the experience of the church in the world in the whole period of time between the first and the final return of Jesus Christ. To be clear, Just in case you are wondering, there is no reference here to a secret rapture of the church from a supposed great tribulation period still to take place at the end of time. That’s not the message of this text! In fact, it’s the teaching of the New Testament that we already live in the tribulation period. It began with the life, death, and resurrection, and ascension of Christ. And although it will escalate as the Gospel advances around the world, as the book of Revelation I hope you will see will teach us, nevertheless, the hour of trial is already upon us. This is the world we inhabit, the context within which we already serve. It is hard and sore and often difficult! But Christ promises to keep us from the hour of trial. That doesn’t mean that He will take us out of the way of all suffering. The church in Philadelphia were already suffering. But it means, rather, that He will preserve us in it. He will protect us and keep us. There is a gracious security for a child of God who keeps Christ’s word about patient endurance.
Christ Will Keep You
You don’t know, perhaps, where you’re going to get the stamina to keep going. With every new summit reached on the long uphill journey, as you crest the top of each new hill you discover only another peak rising still higher, waiting for you to climb. Some of you are raising children, training them as best you can to trust in Jesus, you’re doing your very best to model before them the truths that you are teaching and you are doing it alone. Or maybe you’re doing it while a partner, who doesn’t follow Christ, undermines your every effort in Jesus’ name? Some of you are being faithful witnesses in the public school system or in the office break room or on the college campus. And you know what they’re saying about you behind your back, the names that they call you. You’re the butt of the jokes because you won’t use the language they use; you won’t gossip along with them! You won’t cut corners in your professional business and in your dealings! You try to talk to them about Christ, you try to be faithful to pray for them, but there are moments every now and then when you’re not sure you can keep doing it, you can keep stepping forward and taking the hit. And hear the Word of the Lord to you – “Because you have kept My word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial.” Keep the Word of Christ, and Christ will keep you! He will keep you! Supplies of strength will be given. Words will be supplied. Wells of patience will be opened. Stamina to stay in the fight will be found. Keep the Word, dear faithful servant of Christ, and Christ the faithful one will keep you!
And remember as you do, verse 11, that He is coming soon. Just a little while longer. Just a little longer. Salvation is nearer now than when you first believed, and so press on til then. Hold fast, Jesus says to us, what you have til then. Don’t back off! Don’t run away! Remember John Paton’s four years of dreadful hardship, and he went back to another cannibal filled island. Hold fast! Keep the Word! Persevere! Be faithful about the Word regarding patience endurance. The end is in sight. The finish line is just around the corner. And until you cross it at last, you have His Word – Christ will keep you. He will keep you!
- Generous Reward
There’s gracious protection here but there’s also generous reward. Look at verse 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.” This complex promise, really one promise, is full of references and allusions that the Philadelphian believers immediately would have recognized. First, we are told that Christ will make faithful believers a “pillar in the temple of my God and he will write the name of my God and the name of the New Jerusalem and his own new name upon them.” It was the custom in those days when someone had done a great service to the city that a pillar would be erected in one of the city temples in his honor, a kind of monument with their name inscribed upon it to memorialize them. When I served the church in London we used a very old church building belonging to the Church of England and there had been a continuously worshiping Christian congregation on that site for more than 1,000 years. And all over the walls there were monuments to generous benefactors who were buried there. The church was adorned with the names of its parishioners. And although they were long gone, some of them hundreds of years ago, their names still lived on in memory.
Monuments to the Glory of Christ
But the promise to the people of God in our text is not that Christ will erect a monument in our memory in the heavenly temple of the Lord. No, the promise is that He will make us into a pillar inscribed not with our own name, but with His! We will become monuments to the glory of Jesus Christ! That is what you are by the grace of Christ and what you will be as you keep His words – a monument to the praise of His great name, a trophy of grace, a pillar in the temple of God.
And notice that Jesus says that we will never go out of the temple city He is building, the New Jerusalem that is to come. Philadelphia was built in a location where there was tremendous seismic activity in AD 17, for example. The whole city had been completely destroyed by a massive earthquake and so the populace there were always ready to flee the city enduring constant tremors. One commentator says that the people were “always going out and coming in. They were always fleeing the city and returning to it.” But Jesus promises that believers who keep His Word will never go out of the temple city that is to come. It’s an image of amazing security, of rest and peace for a population always on edge. Here’s how Christ rewards His servants who labor for Him in the strength He gives. He makes of us shining monuments to the glory of God, pillars in His temple, eternal reminders to the vast company of saints and angels that God has done it all. He has chosen and He has called and He has saved and He has preserved and He has blessed and He has comforted. He has heard our cries and dried our tears and strengthened our hearts and brought us home to glory at last. He has done it all, and all the glory is His! And as we take our places as pillars in the temple, monuments to His praise, He tells us we will be forever secure. No need to flee! No question about our safety. Nothing can shake our eternal rest!
Jesus gives both Gospel opportunity and Gospel success, so go, labor on, and see what the Lord will do to those who go through the open door which He has set before us. And Jesus gives both gracious protection and generous reward, so trust Him amid trials. Keep His Word about patience endurance and you will be a monument and trophy of grace to the glory of God forever. Amen. Let us pray together!
We confess, our Father, that we do often feel weak and powerless and do often discount our contribution, rule our self out from Christian service. Yet, we are reminded, encouraged by Your Word that You have set before us an open door. Help us in the strength You give to walk through it that we may be Your instruments of advancing Your kingdom, of welcoming those who once rejected the Gospel to bend the knee with us and confess the name of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father. Help us, please, to keep Your Word about patient endurance. And as we do, in the midst of trials and sufferings, would You be faithful to Your promise to keep us, to strengthen us in the hour of trial, and would You bless us so that we may be at last monuments to Your praise to all who look at us, both here and hereafter. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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