Philadelphia: The Church of the Open Door (Revelation Sermon 7 of 49)
April 23, 2017 | Andrew Davis
Persecution, Perseverance, Providence and Sovereignty of God
Please turn in your Bibles to Revelation 3:7-13 as we look at the sixth of the seven timeless letters that Jesus gave to the first-century churches.
Since the beginning of human history people have marked the passage of time in various ways. God Himself set the celestial beings — the sun, the moon, and the stars — in the heavens as the first time pieces. Their celestial motions still keep time for all of creation. It says in Genesis 1:14, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.’” This rhythm of the passage of time was established right from the start: “There was evening and there was morning… the first day…; there was evening and there was morning, the second day…”
At some point human ingenuity and technology took over. Increasingly sophisticated and elaborate means of marking the passage of time were developed: water clocks, candles with gradations, sundials, pendulum clocks with escapements, Swiss watches with exquisite internal gears and mechanisms and springs, quartz watches, digital timepieces, up to the latest technologies that use electronic and even atomic mechanisms to keep time with precision and accuracy. With our smartphone apps and other technology, we have no excuses to be late: it has become more and more possible to keep perfectly synchronized time throughout the day. I say to all preachers, “Teach us to number our minutes that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
What is time, really? Physicists call it the fourth dimension; science fiction writers fantasize about time travel; philosophers meditate on the significance of time in human culture; various cultures mark time in different ways; aged people in nursing homes wonder where all the time went and marvel at how quickly it passed.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, the creature Gollum engaged with Bilbo Baggins in a duel of riddles. Gollum tried to stump Bilbo with this riddle: “This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers. Gnaws iron, bites steel, grinds hard stones to meal. Slays kings, ruins town and beats high mountain down.” The answer to the riddle, of course is time: Time devours all things. Time kills birds and beasts and trees and flowers; all living things eventually die; they pass away as though they never lived at all. Time gnaws iron until all that is left is a pile of rusty powder. Time grinds the hardest stones down along the ocean side; the relentless pounding of waves over centuries erodes the rocks until they are erased entirely. Time slays both kings and commoners alike; their glory fades like the flowers of the fields — here today and gone from all memory tomorrow in a blink of an eye. Time ruins towns and cities alike; they rise up, up, up from the dust of the earth through human technology and ingenuity and energy and drive, but then they eventually reach their peak and they sink back down into the dust from which they came, covered over with layers of silt and sand and clay, some to be discovered centuries later by archeologists. Time even wears ancient mountains down; wind and rain efface the hardest rock until it is gone.
Obviously Gollum had a very dreary view of the effects of time. However, though everything under the sun eventually does wear down, grinds down, dies or comes to an end, yet in and through Christ, time itself has been redeemed. The days of our lives have been redeemed to an eternal purpose.
The biblical way for us to understand time is to equate it with opportunity. Opportunity, otherwise known as time, is a specific set of providential circumstances orchestrated by God that will never happen in that exact way again. Today, this day, this Sunday is unique, and with this particular day comes a unique set of opportunities. These opportunities worldwide are for the church of Jesus Christ to do eternally significant things. These things will be eternal because there is something in the universe that is not wearing down by time, not aging, not past its prime — actually has not even reached its prime yet. Every day makes it more and more glorious, more and more lofty and grand, more and more intricate and detailed, more and more beautiful and massive.
I am speaking of the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” Death cannot stop this glorious worldwide building project of the church. It is growing bigger and more glorious and more elaborate and more intricate all the time. Every day, by the sacrificial loving works of the children of God, it rises. We know from Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” At the end of that same chapter, Ephesians 2, Paul sets before us this vision of the rising church of Jesus Christ built by those same good works. Ephesians 2:21-22 says, “In Him the whole building [the spiritual structure] is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” This is an incredible, eternal building project.
At the end of the book of Revelation, we have a picture of the final product of all of those centuries of labor. In Revelation 21:9-11, the angel said to John the Apostle, “‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a Jasper, clear as crystal.”
Thus, every day that we live is special, unique. It is specially crafted, prepared in eternity past by the mind of God, who is sovereign in wisdom and who has a perfect plan and all power to effect His plan. You are a part of it; so am I. He gives us works to do every day that will shape some specific aspect of the beautiful, magnificent Church of Jesus Christ by our Spirit-filled labor. That is the work we have to do. Time, then, is daily unique opportunity to do something eternally significant to build the Church of Christ with our life of faith and our knowledge of the Word of God. Today is opportunity.
In Revelation 3:8, Jesus speaks these amazing words to the church at Philadelphia: “Behold, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”
I hope to show you that, as with the other letters we have studied, we should read this statement made to a church almost 2000 years ago as a timeless, living, active Word to us today as a church. This letter urges us to walk through the open door of opportunity to serve the Living God, to build the Church of Jesus Christ through evangelism and missions, spiritual gift ministry, acts of service, discipleship, prayer, the ministry of the word. Today is one of a limited number of days, each one unique as an open door of opportunity for us to walk through.
I. Christ the Sovereign King Addresses His Church (vs. 7)
Let’s review to get our bearings. We are looking today at the sixth of seven letters that the resurrected, glorified Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord of the Church has given as timeless instruction to all of his churches. The Apostle John was in exile on the isle of Patmos. He was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he heard a voice behind him. Turning, he saw a vision of the resurrected, glorified Christ moving among and ministering to seven golden lampstands, which we are told represent seven churches (the number seven being a number of perfection and fulfillment) for which He had individual messages. In His right hand He held the stars of these churches, which were the messengers, or pastors, of the churches. Some scholars believe that there were actually seven messengers from these churches in exile with John but that they would be set free to go back to their churches. Others hold that the letters were going to be sent. Regardless, these were literal churches in space and time and history, but they also represent what Christ has to say universally to every local church in every generation. At the end of each of the seven letters, he says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
What Makes these Seven Letters So Precious
Jesus is speaking to us today through this letter that he spoke to this actual church of Philadelphia so many centuries ago. Each of these seven letters begins with, “These are the words of…” followed by some amazing description of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the king of the church walking among them and ministering to them. Usually they begin with words like, “I know you, I know your deeds, I know your circumstances, I know your challenges, I know your successes, I know your failures.”
That is what makes these letters so precious. They give us a glimpse into the mind of Christ as he cares for us as a local church and show us the glory of the One who wrote them. The specificity of His knowledge of us, the fact that He knows us completely reminds us that we cannot hide from Him. He knows and searches us with His eyes of blazing fire. Nothing is hidden from Him, and He speaks words of wisdom and timeless commands to us. I believe each church should read all seven of the letters as though they were a powerful message to us. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus is speaking through the Holy Spirit to us today by means of this letter.
Christ’s Unique Self-Description
In this particular case, the sixth letter to Philadelphia, the circumstance of Christ’s self-description is unique. Typically, He takes some aspect of the vision that John had in Revelation 1 and cites that as a descriptor of Himself. However this time he does not do that. He goes instead back to the pages of the Old Testament.
Verse 7 says, “These are the words of him who is holy, who is true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one can shut, and who shuts and no one can open.” He begins by declaring Himself to be the One who is holy. “Holiness” means separation. God alone can make this assertion, because God’s holiness is different than the holiness of any of the created beings. God certainly has a perfect separation from all evil and wickedness. He is holy in that regard, just as the holy angels or the holy saints are separated from evil. That is true. But beyond that, God is also infinitely separated above all created things. He is infinitely above all of creation, and so He is the Holy One.
His holiness is so powerful, such an awesome attribute, that it seems to be the focal point of much of heavenly worship. Like the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 who cannot stop singing, calling out with loud voices about the holiness of God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty… the whole earth is full of His glory.” They are holy in themselves, separated from all evil — there is no evil in them; they have never done anything evil. But they are celebrating in triplicate the holiness of God their Creator, the Lord. The living creatures before the throne cry the same thing in the next chapter in Revelation 4:8, “Day and night they never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’”
Jesus’ identification of Himself as the Holy One is a claim to deity. Jesus possesses undiminished holiness. He has not only perfect separation from evil in and of himself, but also perfect separation from all creatures as King and Lord over all creation.
He also calls Himself “the one who is true.” Jesus claims to be the one who is true. If something is true, it lines up accurately with reality — either spiritual reality or physical reality or both. It is authentic, genuine, real in the heavens and on earth.
Satan, by contrast, has crafted his evil empire with lies. He lied to himself about his own power and his own capability when he thought he would ascend to Heaven in Isaiah 14 and take over the throne of God. In addition, he lied to the angels who fell with him, who joined with him in his rebellion in Heaven. Revelation 12 tells us that they were cast down and are now called demons. He lied to Adam and Eve at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, saying, “You will not surely die.” Since then, he has lied to every sinner who ever lived; he has built a worldwide empire of sin, all of it based on lies. Jesus said in John 8:44, speaking of Satan, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
But everything Jesus has ever said is perfectly true, and it flows from the source of all truth. Jesus is Truth and speaks truth. He appears to be powerful because he is powerful. He appears to be glorious because he is glorious. He appears to be sovereign and in charge because he is sovereign and in charge. He appears to be alive after being crucified because he is alive. It is all true. Jesus is holy and true. He himself is the Truth.
He HAS the Key of David
He also says that He has the key of David. The word “key” designates authority. He has the right to open and shut. He has the right to unlock and swing a barred door wide open; and he has the right to slam a door shut and lock it. He said in Revelation 1:18, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” He holds the keys of death and the grave.
Specifically here the “key of David” means he has the right to sit on David’s throne. He is the son of David, predicted to come and reign over all human beings. He is the Son of Man, the son of David, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. All of that was predicted to be the son of David — David was the focus of the promises God made to place a human king over all humanity. The very first thing that the New Testament teaches us about Jesus is found in Matthew 1:1, a very brief “… record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This is included to show that Jesus is the heir to David’s throne, has the right to David’s throne. But Christ’s throne, unlike David’s, which was real but temporary and symbolic of future glories, is eternal and glorious in the Heavens. For all eternity he will sit on that throne. He has the Key of David.
Furthermore, He has the right to open and close doors. Look at verse 7:“What He opens, no one can shut, and what He shuts, no one can open.” This is a statement of absolute, infinite power and authority. He controls the doors of Heaven and earth. If Jesus wanted a door open, and Satan and all of his demons and all of the wicked men and women on earth joined together to close that door, it could not be closed. If he opens the door, it stays open. Conversely if Jesus wanted a door shut, none of those combined powers could do anything to wedge it open even an inch — it would be shut with immeasurable power and authority. If He shuts a door, it stays shut. “What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.” In this way, Jesus has controlled the flow of human history as well as entrance into Heaven itself. “The king’s heart is like a water course in the hands of the Lord. He directs it whichever way he pleases.” He opens doors and their wickedness flows in a specific direction and not in other directions to achieve His purposes. This is the way He is sovereign over wicked people who do not even acknowledge him. He is opening doors and water flows. Their nature is evil, but it will flow in a specific direction. This is how he has controlled human history.
Beyond this, He has the right also to determine who will and who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That is the most important door. He is the doorkeeper of the Kingdom of Heaven. He says in Matthew 5:20, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” You may think, “What right does He have to make that statement?” He has all rights. He has the right to open and the right to shut. And he said the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes is not enough for heaven. Even further, He said to His own disciples in Matthew 18:3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He said to Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He has the right to make these assertions.
If Jesus shuts the door of heaven, no one can open it, like Noah’s ark in the days of the flood: when the door was shut, everyone on the outside perished. The hand of God alone had the right to shut that door and say, “No more can enter the ark.” Similarly, the Five Foolish Virgins in Jesus’ parable were not ready when the bridegroom came. They ran off to get oil for their lamps, arrived back too late and found the door closed. They banged on the door and cried, “Let us in, let us in,” but they were not permitted. “I never knew you. Go away,” they were told, and the bridegroom would not let them enter.
He has the right to determine who has access to the throne of Almighty God, the right to draw near to God and address Him. As I got up here to pray, I was struck again with the privilege of prayer. It is a great privilege for sinners like us to have access into the throne room of God. Jesus controls that access. It is by him alone that we have access to God. It says in Hebrews 10:20 that we enter into the throne of grace “by a new and living way… that is his body”, only by the death of Jesus. It says also in Ephesians 2:18, “For through [Christ], we both [Jews and Gentile believers] have access to the Father by one Spirit.” He is the door by which we enter into the presence of God.
As we have seen, then, Jesus describes Himself as holy and true and having the key of David, and he has the authority to shut and no one can open and he has the authority to open and no one can shut — He is the one who is talking to us today by the Spirit. Don’t you want to hear what he has to say to this church? I do.
II. The Church at Philadelphia: Small but Faithful (vs. 8-10)
Christ’s Unmixed Commendation
What does he say to the church of Philadelphia? He begins in verses 8-10 with this word: “I know your deeds. Behold, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 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 and acknowledge that I have loved you. 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.”
“I know your deeds…” He always begins with this. He starts with the fruit of the tree, with the works — by our fruit, He will know us. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good; make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad. A tree is known by its fruits. Jesus starts with the deeds, the works. In this case, He actually says nothing about their deeds, good or bad. We do not know anything about what the did; instead, he speaks of the challenges they are facing, specifically from unbelieving Jews, which I will address in a moment.
He says, “I know you have little strength…” This is an accurate evaluation of the church, not a criticism in any way. “Oh, church, you have little strength; you are weak.” But they know it, and that is their spiritual strength to some degree. They are not boastful about what a great church they are; they are not a dominant part of the city of Philadelphia; they do not have a massive footprint in the life of that pagan place. But they are a faithful outpost, a colony of heaven, a refuge for those seeking true salvation, right there in Philadelphia.
The Church seems to have been small in number, not very influential, probably comprised of lower classes of society. It reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:27-28): “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things… the weak things… the lowly things… the despised things of this world… — and the things that are not —[to exalt His own power and glory,] to nullify the things that are.” They were a church of small strength. When you know and acknowledge the simple truth that you have little strength, you can tap into true power, the infinitely greater strength of Almighty God working through you.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “… for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” To clarify and expand this verse to its full meaning, I would add, and I think Paul would agree, that when I know I am weak and feel myself to be weak and confess my weakness to God in prayer, that is when I am truly strong. Thus, Jesus says, “I know you have little strength…” A church that knows that apart from Christ they can do nothing is a strong church — perhaps the most powerful it can be in this world.
He says, “You have kept my word, and have not denied my name.” That gives a sense of the persecution and the opposition that all these churches were going through. There has been a constant pressure. Maybe they were not facing the same level of persecution as Smyrna, nor perhaps even maybe like Ephesus, but they were under opposition and they persevered, did not give up, did not forsake the name of Christ. They refused to cave in.
He says, “You have kept my command to endure patiently…” We are in a race which we are called to run to the end with great endurance. We are to be bold in our witness, to persevere in a hostile environment. Jesus said in Matthew 10:22, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” The author of Hebrews tell us in Hebrews 12:1 that we are to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and… run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This faithful little church refused to drop out of the race, refused to quit; they kept his word, his command of endurance.
III. Christ’s Provision: The Open Door and Protection
The Open Door
Now we come to verse 8: “Behold, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” We have already discussed Jesus’ sovereign power over the doors of Heaven and earth. He holds the key of David, and what he opens, no one can shut. He says, “Behold,” which gives the idea that He is unveiling something that we have not heard before: “I will show you something you did not realize: I have set before you an open door. I am giving you an opportunity, and no one can shut it. No demon, nor Satan himself, can shut it. No human ruler can shut it.”
What is this open door He is referring to? It could be just the door of salvation — the right to enter Heaven through Christ, who is the door. In Matthew 7:13-14, He said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many, enter through it, [enter hell]. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” We could see it as the open door to Heaven.
But I think here in Revelation, this “open door” goes beyond salvation. It is a door of opportunity, of work, to serve Christ, to do specific good works that will build His kingdom. Paul uses this kind of expression in 1 Corinthian 16:8-9: “I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” We should think of the open door first and foremost as opportunities for the external journey of evangelism and missions, to share Christ. This door is open into dark places to shine the light of the Gospel where it has not been shining before.
Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 16 gives us amazing insight into the nature of the open door. Paul was excited and motivated to stay on in Ephesus, because, number one, God had opened a great door of effective work for him. And number two, “I am excited to stay here because” “there are many who oppose me.” Many enemies translates to staying where he is…? Wait a minute… that does not sound like an open door… But yes, it is; apparently, the open door and opposition are not mutually exclusive.
So we must ask again, what is the open door? We should think of it first and foremost in terms of human hearts, the hearts of the elect. One of those in Philippi who listened to the apostle Paul preach the gospel was a woman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira. Acts 16:14 tells us, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” There is your open door. It is elect people who are hearing the gospel and coming to faith. Paul requested similar prayer in Colossians 4:3-4: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” The open door is about the Gospel message and opportunity and people responding to it. Paul’s prayer also reflects the need to ask for the boldness to step up and move through that open door.
The open door represents God’s sovereignty over circumstances and providential indicators that the church should move in that direction for evangelism and missions so that the word of God may flourish there. When Paul and Silas did not know where to go next and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from going up into Asia Minor, they had a vision of a man of Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” That sounds like an open door to me. All the other doors were shut. They could not go anywhere else, so they had to go to Macedonia.
Let me give you some examples from church history. In 1949, Douglas MacArthur was ruling over the rebuilding of war-devastated Japan. He urgently called for 1,000 missionaries to come and preach Christ there — this is a matter of recorded history. He said, “Japan is a spiritual vacuum and if we do not fill it with Christ it will be filled with communism.” You might think that was an wild and speculative prognosis, but look at what happened in Korea. Just across a short strait of ocean from Japan, that country went almost 100% communist before the Korean War. Now, it is half Communist. So it was a big threat. What was the remedy? According to Douglas MacArthur, the preaching of the gospel of Christ was the solution. Many Christian workers from many different denominations looked on that as an open door: “If the potentate of Japan says we need missionaries, I am getting on a boat.” Many Southern Baptist missionaries went there to rebuild churches and preach the Gospel and do all kinds of works in Japan.
The Japanese pastor whom Christi and I worked with in a church planting effort in Japan was an 82-year-old godly Christian man named Kubo-sensei. This man, Mr. Kubo, had been in the Imperial Japanese Army and fought against the Americans and the British in the islands and in the Philippines. He contracted malaria, which saved his life and his soul. He went back to Japan to be healed and convalesce and was there when the war ended. It saved his soul because his unit was involved in a battle and the Japanese units generally fought until there were no survivors. So he would have fought until he was dead and would not have known Christ. But in 1950, Southern Baptist missionaries came to Takamatsu and led him to Christ. It was an open door for him, for them to come do work. He walked with the Lord from 1950 on. (He never spoke a word of English to me. I had breakfast with him every Wednesday morning, and we sat there in silence for the first few weeks until I thought to myself, “I’d better get going on my Japanese.”) What a great open door that was.
Throughout the history of missions, Christians have walked through similar open doors of opportunity to advance the Church of Christ. Again, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16, “There is a great door of openness for the Gospel in Ephesus and also great opposition.” Since the open door by definition means people are coming to Christ, Satan responds generally to that event by mobilizing forces to persecute and shut that church down, if it were possible. We can see the rhythm of much fruit leading to much persecution leading to much fruit. Paul calls that an open door.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Eastern Bloc countries were open for the first time in more than a generation to missionaries. Christian workers flooded into that area, and the Gospel spread rapidly. Many came to faith in Christ. The backlash is now coming: recently, especially in Russia, there has been more of a crackdown; it is becoming more difficult for evangelicals to share the gospel in Eastern Europe. We see openness and we see persecution.
We are also seeing the backlash from the activities of Islamic extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS create an open door. A tremendous disaffection is building in the hearts of many nominal Muslims who express that if that is what orthodox Islam is, what being a “good Muslim” looks like, they do not want any part of it. There is a book about this theme called Leaving Islam. Those who are leaving are not necessarily going to Christianity, but they are considering options, and missionaries are frequently there to share the Gospel.
There are open doors in refugee crises where missionaries and others are serving in tent communities to people who are disconnected from their home culture, separated from their home religion and society, desperate and open to hearing a message of hope like never before. Pray for open doors for the spread of the gospel.
In verse 9, Jesus speaks about the opposition that the church of Philadelphia was facing. He says, “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 and acknowledge I have loved you.” This is the second time in these seven letters that Jesus has spoken of the synagogue of Satan, meaning people who claim to be Jews but are not, first to the church at Smyrna, and now to this church at Philadelphia.
According to Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of John, that physical descendants of Abraham who call themselves Jews but reject Jesus as Messiah are not truly Jews. That is Jesus’ attitude. John 8:39-44 tells of a conversation between Jesus and His enemies. “‘Abraham is our Father,’ they answered. ‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.’ They protested, ‘The only Father we have is God Himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father you would love me, for I came from God… You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.’” That is a very strong statement, but it is Jesus’ assessment of Jews by physical descent who do not accept Him as Messiah.
Paul said the same thing at the end of Romans 2:28-29, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”
Jesus says it straight out in Revelation: “They are not really Jews. They claim to be Jews, but they are a synagogue of Satan. But I will cause them to come to you, oh Gentile converts to Christ, to fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.” This image would have been very familiar to any careful, zealous, Bible-reading Jew. They had in mind that that was what would happen with the Messianic reign over all the Gentile kingdoms. Messiah would spread the kingdom of David and of Solomon as far the ends of the earth, and their enemies would come lick the dust of their feet — a picture of conquest, of the total humiliation of enemies. It says in Isaiah 49:23, “They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet.” Isaiah 60:14 says, “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.”
Jesus is using the same image. He is saying, “Actually, the shoe is on the other foot. The unbelieving Jews will come to you Gentile believers in Christ, and will fall at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.” It is a picture of vindication from the persecution that they were suffering.
Protection Through the Hour of Testing
Verse 10 is a promise of protection from suffering: “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.” Jesus is promising to protect this faithful church in or from the hour of testing that was in the future, that would come on the whole earth. This is a fascinating and challenging promise. Let me start with a simple approach, then I will add a little more complexity. Jesus will protect his church: they will not fail, whatever test this is; they will endure through it and make it to the other side because of his sovereign protection. That is His simple promise.
What is the hour of trial that will come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth? The Book of Revelation depicts “the Great Tribulation”, a terrible seven-year period of suffering that will come right before the Second Coming of Christ. The words “keep you from” have been carefully analyzed. Some scholars believe that there will be a secret rapture in which the Lord will come like a thief in the night to rescue His Church out of the world before the Great Tribulation. That may well be. Others see it more as a promise to protect his people in the midst of, not out of or out from, the Great Tribulation — somewhat like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had a bubble around them when they were thrown into the fiery furnace. The Church will be in the trial, but it will not harm them, at least to a degree. These scholars see Christ as saying, “I will keep you through it; I will make a refuge for you in the midst of it.” The exact translation for this interpretation hinges on the Greek, which I will not burden you with. Suffice it to say that they will be protected from something.
It is possible He is talking about death as the trial: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” Isaiah 26:19-21 gives a beautiful picture of this: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.” [That is all about the resurrection of believers.] Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until His wrath has passed by. [That is interesting — perhaps this indicates that the church will go through the suffering but not be harmed by it in any way. God has always been doing that.] See, the Lord is coming out of His dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer.” That harmonizes well with what is depicted in the Book of Revelation. I cannot say whether or not Revelation 3:10 is teaching the secret rapture, but it would be an interesting discussion. But we do know that Christ makes sweet promises to His faithful church in Philadelphia: an open door, fruitful ministry, vindication from their bitter enemies, and protection from the overwhelming trial that will sweep the whole earth.
IV. Christ’s Command: Hold Fast to What You Have (vs. 11)
The Promise of the Second Coming: I AM COMING SOON
In verse 11, He commands them, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have [or hold fast], so that no one will take your crown.” First, we have the promise of the Second Coming. “I am coming soon.” That word “soon” has been standing over every generation of Christians for 2,000 years. This should not trouble us, because “with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8) And according to Psalm 90, a man’s life is like a mist that appears but is gone by the evening, or like an evening watch that it is quickly finished. Either way, He is coming soon. At the very end of this book, in Revelation 22:20, John says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” John wrote that around 90 AD, saying, “Amen. You are coming soon. Come, Lord Jesus.” Every generation of Christians has had a sense of the imminent return of Jesus Christ, as well we should.
Christ’s Command: HOLD FAST
Next, He says, “Hold on to what you have until I come.” This is clearly a call to courageous perseverance in the face of mighty struggle. What is it we have? To begin with, we have doctrine. We must hold on to Christian doctrine, to the Gospel. Jude writes to urge his fellow Christians “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” “Hold on to this brothers and sisters, hold on to what you have. Scripture, the truth of the gospel, faith, doctrine — hold on.”
Further, let us hold on to Christ. Hebrews 4:14 says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
Perhaps He is also saying, “Hold on to your crown.” The crown may possibly mean the crown of eternal life. James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.” At the end of a hard life of fighting the good fight, of running a marathon race, finish the race and keep to the faith until the end: “Hold fast and I will give you the crown of life.” Or the crown may refer to specific rewards for serving Christ faithfully. Paul said to his converts in Thessalonica, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” — “You are our crown.” Whether the crown of eternal life or specific rewards, we are to hold fast.
V. Christ’s Promises: A Crown, A Pillar, A Name
Christ promises a crown, a pillar and a name. Look at verses 12-13: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. 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. He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” As with each of these seven letters, the conquerors are rewarded. The ones who overcome, who fight and win, who stand firm to the end, do so by the power of the Spirit and by the blood of the Lamb.
What rewards were theirs? Besides the crown implied in verse 11, he also says, “I will make [him] a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it.” Remember that I said there is one work that grows more glorious, bigger, grander, more radiant every day, with every generation,. That is the Church of Jesus Christ. Here he is promising the conquerors, the overcomers: “You will be a pillar in that temple.” A pillar is a symbol of stability and permanence and security; it bears glory and honor in the intricate, beautiful decorations on its crown. This pillar that Christ speaks of is strong and beautiful in its privileged place in the eternal spiritual heavenly temple of God, and the overcomers will never leave it.
In Isaiah 56:3-5, God speaks to the Gentiles, the foreigners, the people from other nations who would eventually come to Christ: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from His people.’ And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.’” There is the marvelous consistency of the word of God! Isaiah 56:5 speaks to the exact thing Jesus is promising. He will make the Jew and Gentile believers in Christ who overcome and run this race with endurance a pillars in His eternal temple, and they will never be cut off.
Also, He imparts a sense of His total ownership: “I will write the name of my God on you. He will be your God and you will be his people. I will write the name of the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ on you, and also my new name” — the name of Jesus Christ himself. Revelation 22:3-4 says, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him. They will see His face and His name will be on their foreheads.” Complete, indisputable ownership.
Understand the Significance of TIME
First, understand the significance of time. I am not talking about the mindless tick-tock tick-tock of a timepiece marking the passage of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. I am talking about opportunity, about redeeming the time. What makes today special? You should ask that every day. This is the day the Lord has made. Ask Him, “What good works have You crafted for me personally? What open door have You set before me that I should walk through it? What opportunity does today bring for me to serve You?”
If you are not a Christian, there is only one work for you on this day: to believe in Jesus. God gave you the opportunity to come here today to hear the Gospel. Let me say it clearly: God, who made Heaven and earth, is ruler over all nations. He put just laws in place by which we are to live our lives: the Ten Commandments, the two great commandments — to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. All humans have violated those laws. We have sinned against Almighty God. The wages of sin is death, not only physical death, but also for eternity in hell. It is no more than we deserve.
But God, in His mercy and love for us, sent Jesus, born of a virgin, who lived a sinless life and did signs, wonders, and miracles that established him as the Son of God. Most important, He died a substitutionary death on the cross in our place. Our guilt was put on Him and He died. His righteousness is given to us as a gift, and we live even on Judgment Day.
If you will only repent and trust in Christ, you will have eternal life. That is the Gospel. Today is an opportunity for you to walk through the door of Christ into salvation. Jesus said in John 5:24, “…whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Today you have the opportunity to cross over. In 2 Corinthians 6:2, God is saying this to you: “‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” Also He says in Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near.”
For You Christians… SEEK THE OPEN DOOR!!
For you Christians, I say this: Seek an open door. Ask God, “Where have You placed me that I can I be a witness for Christ? What unique opportunity do I have to reach the particular people that I will encounter today? What door have you set before me that I'm supposed to walk through?” Wherever you are in your vocation, you have a mission field with your co-workers, many of whom are unchurched. We have opportunities every day.
Ask the same for our church. We live in one of the best places in the world, the Triangle, for an evangelical church. People are pouring in from all over the country. They come to live here because of mild temperatures, economic opportunities, myriad reasons. We are among the few Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, evangelistic, fervently active churches in this area. And we, with our sister churches, are called to reach the people who are pouring into this area.
Pray for more open doors. Pray for doors to open in these new expensive apartments and condominiums that are rising around us in downtown Durham. Those who will move into these will be people who generally make more money than we do and who will generally not have the same world view that we have. Pray for an open door, for a chance to meet some of those people.
Think about the underserved parts of the community: African Americans, Latin Americans, refugees, undocumented aliens. That is a door of opportunity for us to share the Gospel. Think about unreached people groups like the Gujarati in Morrisville. Think about people flooding into this area from all over the world — perhaps you cannot reach them in their country, but they are here now. We can reach them with the Gospel. Ask God, “Set before this church an open door of opportunity and let us walk through it.”
Ask the same thing with missions. Let us continue to be a missions-minded church. You sent me to Cameroon last week — thank you. We will be sending short-term mission teams to East Asia and other places. Support those teams financially, pray for them, get to know those who are going. Give financially to the Great Commission Fund. Spiritually adopt unreached people groups and pray for them — for people in North Africa, in the Middle East, in Muslim countries — that the door of the Gospel would be opened for them.
Close with me if you would in prayer. Father, we thank You for the chance we have had to look at this incredible letter to the church at Philadelphia. Help us to take to heart its encouraging message and to be strengthened in the good works You have for us to do. Thank You for the Gospel, for our Lord Jesus who, at infinite cost to Yourself, by His blood, by His body, opened a door, a new and living way for us into Heaven. Father I pray for those who are lost, who have come here outside of Christ, that they would hear and take to heart the Gospel. Help us as a church to be fervently active in spreading the Gospel, both in evangelism and in cross-cultural missions for your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.