Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia

Revelation 3:7-13; Key Verse: 3:8 (See also Isaiah 22:20-25)

"I know your deeds. See, 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."

After the prologue (Rev 1:1-8), the opening section concerns John's vision of the resurrected Christ who walks in the midst of his church (Rev 1:12-16). This first vision includes the 7 letters addressed by Christ to the 7 churches scattered throughout western Asia Minor. In each letter Jesus reveals an aspect of himself in his post-resurrection glory as described in the vision John saw (Rev 1:12-20). Jesus does this to reinforce the point that he is the head and Lord of his church who walks among them and is always with them. Next, Jesus speaks directly to the churches, promising blessing for faithfulness, protection from danger, and warns them of their need to repent when they are unfaithful. He commends 5 of them with 2 receiving no commendation (Sardis and Laodicea). He rebukes 5 of them with 2 receiving none (Smyrna and Philadelphia). Jesus commands Christians in these churches to repent lest they face immediate judgment. Yet, all 7 letters end with a promise from God to all those who are faithful and who overcome through faith in him. Despite the efforts of those who oppose the gospel and seek to harm them, Jesus promises all those who are his that they will overcome.

Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Philadelphia may be considered as such:
  1. The Church: Faithful (Rev 3:8).
  2. The Christ: Sovereign King who opens and shuts doors (Rev 3:7).
  3. The Commendation: "...you have little strength, yet you have kept my word" (Rev 3:8).
  4. The Condemnation: None.
  5. The Command: "Hold on" (Rev 3:11).
  6. The Consummation: "I will make a pillar in the temple of my God... I will also write on them my new name" (Rev 3:12).
Weak yet holding fast. To the church in Philadelphia, as to Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11), Jesus speaks commendation without rebuke. As in Smyrna, the challenge confronting the Philadelphian church was external opposition from those in the Jewish community who, instead of embracing Jesus the Messiah, had rejected him, proving to be not true Jews but a "synagogue of Satan" (Rev 3:9, 2:9). Both of these churches lacked needed resources: the Smyrnan church was poor, and the Philadelphian church had only little strength (Rev 3:8). Yet each held fast its confession despite adversity. "...you have kept my command to endure patiently" (Rev 3:10). Despite pressure to renounce their allegiance, the believers had not denied Jesus' name (Rev 3:8).

Jesus is the Holy One of Israel. He "who is holy and true" (Rev 3:7a) speaks to this church. The fire and light radiating from the Son of Man in the opening vision symbolized divine holiness (Rev 1:14). Jesus alludes to the OT title of Yahweh, the holy One of Israel. God promises that his people's oppressors will bow at their feet and call them "the City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel" (Isa 60:14). Likewise, Jesus the true holy One will bring opponents to bow at the church's feet and confess that she is the Lord's beloved (Rev 3:9; Isa 43:4).

Only Jesus who holds the key of David has unchallengeable authority. In Jesus' self-designation, he emphasizes the fact that he "holds the key of David" (Rev 3:7a). This means that he has unchallengeable authority, so that "what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (Rev 3:7b). In the opening vision the Son of Man held "the keys of death and Hades" (Rev 1:18), signifying his right to unlock the grave and release its captives. But in Rev 3:7 Jesus is quoting directly from Isa 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Thus, Jesus not only holds power over death and the grave but he alone is that one in whom is found salvation from the guilt and power of sin. Since the resurrected Christ alone holds these keys, he is judge of all the earth.

Jesus (not anyone else nor the Jews) holds the key to the kingdom. In Isa 22:20-22 from which Jesus quotes verse 22, the image of Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, is a type of the Messiah, for he was given the key of David, and the robe of royal authority. But in John’s day the Jews "who claim to be Jews though they are not" (Rev 3:9) apparently interpreted this prophecy to refer to their own authority to shut out of the assembly (the synagogue) those Jews who became Christians and excommunicated them. Since the Jews claimed the authority to shut the assembly to Christians, Christ now cites the same passage to demonstrate that it is he, not they, who determines membership and entrance into the true assembly, which is his church. It is Jesus, not they, who holds David's key, the key to the kingdom. Therefore, Jesus is not only aiming these words as words of comfort to those Jews who had been excommunicated when they came to faith in Jesus Christ, but these words are also a word of warning to the Jews in Philadelphia who were persecuting Christians and claiming messianic authority to do so.

No one can shut the door that Jesus has opened. Jesus has put an "open door" before his church by unlocking it with David's key (Rev 3:8). This may be interpreted as an open door and an opportunity for mission and evangelism, since Paul uses the image in this way (1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 2:12; Col 4:3). The context, however, shows that the open door before the Philadelphians is the door into the kingdom of God, which cannot be shut against them even when "the synagogue of Satan" (Rev 3:9) excludes and repudiates them. Since the Jews claimed to have shut the door to the messianic kingdom to those who came to embrace Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus now tells them that he has placed before the Philadelphians an open door which cannot be shut. Since Christ has opened this door through his death, burial and resurrection, no one can shut it--not Satan, not the beast, not those Jews in Philadelphia who persecute Christ’s church. The victors in Philadelphia will enjoy permanent access to God's presence as a pillar built into the structure of God's sanctuary, never to leave his holy presence (Rev 3:12). The next door that John will see is the door into heaven, through which John will enter to see the One seated on the throne and the Lamb (Rev 4:1; 5:6). Because Jesus holds David's key, no one can lock Jesus' people out of the sanctuary of God.

God opens doors despite little strength and power. This "open door" is an amazing promise when we consider the fact that this congregation had very little strength, literally, “little power.” The church in Philadelphia was probably a small congregation numerically, with little material resources. Nevertheless, this congregation is given an open door by Christ which cannot be closed, because they have kept Christ’s word and not denied his name (Rev 3:8). They have faithfully preached the gospel despite the fierce opposition from the Jews living in the area. Because of this, the church in Philadelphia is an open door to the messianic kingdom of Jesus Christ, the One who holds the key of David and about whom Isaiah was speaking in his prophecy.

Jesus' open door to the Father is related to our Christian witness; Jews humbled before a Gentile church. Jesus has opened the door to the Father. Yet it is related to our witness as Christians. Jesus promises an open door into heaven to those who have kept his word, and he promises that their word of witness will bear fruit even in their enemies. Jesus says, "I have placed before you an open door" (Rev 3:8). Then Jesus says regarding some of their enemies from among the synagogue of Satan that "I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you" (Rev 3:9). In Isaiah's prophetic imagery the Gentiles were to be saved as they comes to bow at Israel's feet and to confess, "Surely God is with you, and there is no other; there is no other god" (Isa 45:14; 49:23; 1 Cor 14:25). Now the tables are turned: It is to the multiethnic church to whom Jews will bow, confessing that here alone can the love of Israel's holy One be found. This is how Paul expected his mission to the Gentiles to work: Christ's mercy, extended to the Gentiles in the gospel , evokes envy among Jews, who by God's severe mercy are regrafted by faith into the tree of God's covenant (Rom 10:19-11:32).

Jesus will reciprocate their faithfulness in keeping his word by keeping them from the hour of trial. The Philadelphians have kept Jesus' word (Rev 3:8), and Jesus will keep them "from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth" (Rev 3:10). This verse has been variously interpreted, most notably by the dispensationalists who believe that a secret rapture of the church takes place before the seven-year tribulation begins. This verse is often cited as a proof-text for this notion, since Christ supposedly promises to remove this church from the hour of trial (i.e., the tribulation period) which is yet to come upon the earth by means of the rapture. The problem with this is that according to Rev 7:14, the great tribulation began with coming of Christ! Therefore, we are in the midst of the great tribulation even now. The church of Philadelphia has not been kept from the trial in the sense of being removed from the earth during the tribulation. In fact, this church is in midst of tribulation of some sort even before Jesus addresses this letter to them! But what does Jesus mean when he speaks of keeping this church from the hour of trial? What is this hour? 3 features:
  1. It's brevity. Longer time periods are described later--3 and a half, 42 months, 1,000 years--one hour points to a brief time of trauma between Jesus' first advent and second coming.
  2. It's target: the whole world, the inhabitants of the earth. They are God's human enemies who murder the martyrs (Rev 6:10; 11:10), worship the beast (Rev 13:8), and get drunk on the harlot's wine (Rev 17:2). This trial which is expected is coming upon the whole earth–not just Jerusalem in A. D. 70, as preterists insist. This coming trial is universal, not localized. 
  3. It's restraint: Jesus will keep his people from this hour of trial. How is not disclosed. Whatever trial Jesus is speaking about and whether it is yet future or has already passed–he clearly promises to preserve this congregation in the midst of this trial. He never promises to remove this church from the earth through a so-called “secret rapture.” Also, God promises to protect his church not from suffering but from apostasy. Thus it should not be assumed that Jesus would keep believers by shielding them from pain or suffering. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for believers who will remain in the world, even after he leaves them to be with his Father in heaven. Jesus never promises to remove his people from the world. Rather, he promises to protect them in the midst of the world and from the evil one (Jn 17:11, 15). This is most likely what John has in mind here in Rev 3:10. Because these Christians have faithfully persevered in the face of persecution, Jesus will keep them–in the sense of protecting them–during an hour of trial which is coming upon the whole world.  Whatever the hour of trial is, Jesus' people know that no one can snatch them from the almighty hands of Jesus and his Father (Jn 10:28-29) and nothing can separate us from God's love (Rom 8:39). Interestingly, this particular church remained faithful to the gospel down through the centuries, even after Islam became the dominant religion in Asia Minor. In fact, throughout the twentieth century the church in Philadelphia has flourished and is the only one of these seven churches which continues on into the present age. God has kept them, as he promised he would.
Hold on; no one can take your crown away. Having promised to deliver this church from further suffering, Jesus gives them the following word of exhortation: “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Rev 3:11). Not only does Jesus promise to come to the Philadelphians quickly to preserve them from the hour of trial, he also encourages them to hold on to what they have, i.e., the gospel which they have heard and believed. By holding fast to the gospel, no one will take from them their crown, probably a reference to Isa 22:15-25 where God promises to take away the evil Shebna’s crown and gives it to Eliakim, who has been faithful (Isa 22:19-21). The image here is that the Jews will not be able to take their crown, since the Philadelphians are like Eliakim–faithful–while the Jews there are like Shebna–faithless.
A pillar in the temple of God and a new name. Jesus promises, "The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name" (Rev 3:12). A few things:
  • Jesus promises to make the victor a pillar in God’s temple, a temple which they will never be forced to leave. This promise makes perfect sense against the backdrop of continual earthquakes which rocked the earthly city of Philadelphia. Instead of sleeping outside and living in fear, God’s people will given a permanent residence as pillars in that heavenly temple which even now God is building as the body of Christ. Unlike earthly structures which can be destroyed, this temple cannot be shaken. There is no need to flee from within or to sleep outside. For all those who dwell in this temple dwell in perfect peace and safety. And they will dwell in this temple forever.
  • Jesus promises to give each of his people the name of his father, as well as the name of the heavenly city. God’s people and his heavenly city bear the eternal name of the true and living God. The idea of naming implies ownership and protection. Unlike their own city, which had its named changed twice to honor pagan emperors who claimed to be divine, the heavenly city is named by the eternal God, and its name will never be changed. In the new Jerusalem God's people "will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads" (Rev 22:4). Bearing God’s name, we will live in that glorious heavenly city named by God. This is what awaits these Christians in Philadelphia who have been faithful and who will be delivered from the hour of trial coming upon the whole world. In the meantime victors already bear God's name as a seal that shields them from his coming wrath (Rev 7:3; 14:1).
God's promise to protect us and to prepare for us a kingdom is our only hope. The application is simple and straightforward. God knows how to protect all those who are his, even in the midst of the hour of trial. Christ's promise to us is that he will protect us from the wrath and wiles of Satan, and that he will preserve us in the hour of trial whenever it comes. Indeed, through his own death and resurrection Jesus has given us an open door into the kingdom of heaven, a door which no one can close. What is more, even now, Jesus is preparing for us that heavenly city which cannot be shaken and where we will dwell in his presence for ever and ever! Therefore, let us hold on to that which we have been given–the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ and all of its promises. For by doing so, we will overcome and dwell in the heavenly temple for ever and ever!

Do you hold on to your faith even when you have little strength?

  1. Are the churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) rebuked for their behavior? What do both churches share in common? What characteristics of Jesus is found in Rev 1:12-18? What do the words "holy" and "true" mean (Rev 3:7)? What does "the key of David" refer to (Isa 22:22; Mt 16:19)?
  2. What did God promise the church of Philadelphia (Rev 3:8a)? What does it mean, specifically and practically that they had an open door? Does God give to us an open door as well? (Jesus taught that the fields were ripe for harvest (Jn 4:35; Mt 9:37; Lk 10:2). Are they still? Are people today interested in spiritual things? What are some positive ways you have found to talk to people about Christ? Do you like to do so? Do you enjoy it? Do you feel confident talking to people about Jesus? Other than witnessing, what are some other ways we can contribute to the advancement of the kingdom? Why do you think the Gospel is not spreading more rapidly than it is? The Bible teaches that the Gospel is good news. Normally, good news spreads fast. Is the Gospel spreading rapidly? What did Paul ask prayer for (2 Th 3:1)? Do you want to see the Gospel spreading rapidly?)
  3. What does it mean that the church in Philadelphia has "little strength" (Rev 3:8b)? How impressive is it that even with little power the church kept Jesus' word, and did not deny His name?
  4. Who is the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev 3:9; 2:9)? Who will "bow down" before the church (Isa 45:14; 49:23; Rom 10:19-11:32)?
  5. What is the "hour" that Jesus spoke of (Rev 3:10; 7:14; Mt 24:21)? What does "I am coming quickly" mean (Rev 3:11)? If this is a reference to Jesus' coming, why has He delayed His return so many years? How does this phrase serve as an incentive for Christians (1 John 2:28)?
  6. How is the church like a "temple" (3:12; cf. Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5)? What does Rev 21:22 tell us about a future temple? What is the significance of a "pillar" (Isa 22:23)? What does it mean, "Never again will they leave it [the temple]" (Jn 10:28-29; Rom 8:39)?
  1. Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
  2. Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
  4. Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
  5. Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
  6. The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.