The Church with Little Power But Huge Faithfulness
August 2, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos
We are now going to study the letter from Christ to the church in Philadelphia, which is the sixth of the seven “Letters to the Churches” found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. As we have done before, we are going to look at our study today using a seven-point outline, but I will make a minor deviation in one point. Instead of “Words of Praise or Rebuke,” I will use “Words of Encouragement.”
To save time, let’s go quickly to the first point, “The Church Addressed.” Here I will give you a little background of the city of Philadelphia and some words about the church in this city.
The church addressed (3:7a)
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write
Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. It is about 35 km. S.E. of Sardis. It was built and named after its founder, Attalus Philadelphos, King of Pergamum (159- 138 B. C.). His surname Philadelphos is the Greek for one who loves his brother. Such was his love for his brother Eumenes II that he was called Philadelphos.
Although Philadelphia was situated on a place that was ideal as a military post, its founders intended it to become a missionary city to spread the Greek language, the Greek way of life, the Greek civilization, to Lydia and Phrygia. Philadelphia was so successful in its mission so that by A.D. 19 the Lydians had forgotten their own language and had been completely replaced by Greek.
The city is located on the edge of a region where volcanoes were quite active and where earthquakes were frequent. In A.D. 17 a strong earthquake hit Philadelphia, along with Sardis and ten other nearby cities. In Philadelphia the aftershocks went on for years. William Barclay writes about the impact of these tremors upon the residents of Philadelphia:
It often happens that, when a great earthquake comes, people meet it with courage and self-possession, but ever, recurring minor shocks drive them to sheer panic. That is what happened in Philadelphia. [Ancient Greek geographer and historian] Strabo describes the scene.
“Shocks were an everyday occurrence. Gaping cracks appeared in the walls of the houses. Now one part of the city was in ruins, now another. Most of the population lived outside the city in huts and feared even to go on the city streets lest they should be killed by failing masonry. Those who still dared to live in the city were reckoned mad; they spent their time shoring up the shaking buildings and every now and then fleeing to the open spaces for safety. These terrible days in Philadelphia were never wholly forgotten, and people in it ever waited subconsciously for the ominous tremors of the ground, ready to flee for their lives to the open spaces. People in Philadelphia well knew what security lay in a promise that "they would go out no more."
After this great earthquake, the Roman emperor Tiberius provided substantial help in rebuilding the city. In gratitude it changed its name to Neocaesarea (“New Caesar” which signifies the new city of Caesar). Several decades later, the city again changed its name to Flavia in honor of the emperor Vespasian Flavius. Philadelphia was the only city to substitute a new name for its original name voluntarily. These new names did not last long and later the name "Philadelphia" was restored, but the people of Philadelphia well knew what it was to receive "a new name."
Philadelphia was sometimes called “Little Athens," because of its numerous temples, and idolatrous festivals. This pagan community where the church was situated would have been a source of trouble for this faithful church.
There are a number of similarities between this church and the one at Smyrna in Rev 2:8-17. In Philadelphia, as in Smyrna, Christians also had to contend with the Jews who are described as the “synagogue of Satan.” These Jews questioned the authority of Gospels and Epistles, and admitted only the Old Testament Scriptures as binding. History says that some of these Jews even tried to lead Ignatius, one of its church leaders astray.
The church in Philadelphia was small but it was a healthy church. Along with Smyrna, they were the only two of the seven churches that did not receive condemnation for the Lord of the church. In spite of their struggles, the Christians at Philadelphia were faithful and obedient to the Lord. They provide an outstanding model of a loyal church.
Today, the city of Philadelphia exists as a town in Turkey known as Alasehir
(City of God). It has a population of about 25,000 inhabitants, mostly Muslims but about 2500 Greek Orthodox Christians.
A description of Christ (3:7b)
‘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.’
MacArthur: The Lord Jesus, the divine author of the seven letters, always introduces Himself with a description reflecting His character. In the previous five letters, those descriptions had come from the vision recorded in 1:12-17. But this description of Him is unique and not drawn from that earlier vision. It has a distinctly Old Testament features.
The Risen Christ is called by three great titles.
Throughout the Old Testament God is repeatedly called the Holy One, which means that he alone possesses absolute holiness (e.g., 2Ki 19:22; Ps 71:22; 78:41; Isa 6:3; 40:25; 43:15). To say that God is holy is to say that He is completely separate from sin. Therefore His character is absolutely pure and undefiled. In many instances in the NT, Jesus is also called the holy One. It is used as a Messianic title for the Lord Jesus Christ. It is spoken by a demon (Mk 1:24), by an angel speaking to Mary (Lk 1:35), and by Peter (Ac 3:14). In John 6:69 Peter affirmed, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus’ identification of Himself as “the holy One” means that Christ shares the holy, sinless, pure nature of his Father (Ps. 16:10; Isa. 6:3 40:25 43:15; Hab. 3:3; Mark 1:11 24; John 6:69; Acts 3:14); He is absolutely pure and separate from sin.
Christ also describes Himself as the “true One.” The Greek word used here for “true” describes something that is real, genuine, or authentic as opposed to what is fake or unreal. For example, God is true or real in contrast to all so-called gods and idols that only pretend to be like God have really no power or ability. ‘True’ can refer both to one who speaks truth, and who is genuine or authentic as opposed to fake.” (MacArthur).
- who has the key of David,
Third, Christ describes Himself as the One “who has the key of David.” Behind this description of Christ is Isaiah 22:20 where the king’s chief administrator named Eliakim, held this key to the house of David. This key symbolized the administrator's authority to admit or refuse admittance into the king’s presence. Our Lord Jesus applied this terminology to Himself as one who alone has the sovereign authority to admit to His kingdom. (Remember His words to the robber beside him at the cross. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”)
The Jews of the synagogue in Philadelphia could not accept that Christ has complete authority to admit or exclude from the kingdom of David. But, why not? In Matthew 28:18 we read that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. In Revelation 1:18 we read that Jesus has the keys over Death and Hades. Thus He also has absolute authority over who to allow or reject entry into the millennial kingdom.
- who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.’
This final self-description of Christ stresses His sovereignty. The Lord in Isaiah 43:13 declared, “I act and who can reverse it?” No one can shut the doors to the kingdom or to blessing if He holds them open. No one can force them open if He holds them shut.
Again, the opening and shutting of doors can be interpreted in the context of the Jews in Philadelphia (v. 9). They opposed the admission of Gentiles, but Jesus warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the Christian church.
Opening and shutting could also refer to a door of opportunity for service. Col 4:3, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (cf. 1Co 16:9; 2Co 2:12). In either case, the emphasis is on His sovereign control over the church.
Christ’s diagnosis of the church (3:8,10)
8 “‘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. … 10 … you have kept my word about patient endurance,
What Jesus knows about the church
- I know your works.
Jesus says this to each of the seven churches. His knowledge is based on intimate personal knowledge. The “works” that Jesus was referring to may be connected to the next sentence: Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.
In its history, the city of Philadelphia had a great “evangelistic” calling. The city had the mission of spreading Greek culture and language through the whole region. Now Jesus opened a door of opportunity for the church to spread the culture of His kingdom through the whole region. The church recognized this open door and they actively preached the gospel, did missionary work, and faithfully made disciples for Christ.
When the Lord opened the door of opportunity for the church at Philadelphia to evangelize and make disciples, they grabbed that opportunity and acted accordingly.
- I know that you have but little power:
The term “little power” does not imply weakness, but real
strength. This could refer to the number of the believers in the church and so they had little influence in society. Also, most of their members probably came from the lower classes of society in contrast to the wealth of their Jewish adversaries. Their situation could be described using the words of Paul in 1Co 1:26, For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
As a result of that, in the eyes of the local Jews and the pagans living in Philadelphia these Christians were so insignificant that they could not even be regarded as meaningful. But their “little power” was a blessing because they have learned to rely fully upon the Lord as their strength.
[Personal illustration: One of those who separated from us accused me of being a coward. I admitted that I was. But this was something that drew me closer to Jesus who is my Rock, my Fortress, my Shield, my Strength, my Redeemer!]
The apostle Paul had several instances of this:
- 2Co 1:8-9 For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
- 2Co 12:9-10 - But he said to me, “ My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We can be “too strong” or “too big” or too sure of ourselves so that God can no longer use us to accomplish His purposes.
- and yet you have kept my word:
Although the believers in Philadelphia did not have strong connections with influential people, they were regarded as insignificant, they were ridiculed for their faith, they were opposed by Jews who regarded themselves as the true citizens of God’s kingdom—they remained faithful to the Gospel and the apostles’ teaching.
- and have not denied my name
The idea behind this is not only that they expressed their allegiance to Jesus, but that they lived in a way that was consistent with the character of Jesus. Like their Lord, when they were reviled, they did not revile in return; when they suffered, they did not threaten, but continued entrusting themselves to God who judges justly. (cf. 1Pe 2:23).
- you have kept my word about patient endurance (v. 10):
This means that the Christians at Philadelphia kept the command
of Christ to endure suffering and to endure according to the pattern of Christ's own endurance till He returns.
- Mt 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- Heb 12:3 - Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
- Heb 10:36 - For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
Words of encouragement (3:9-10)
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 down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 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.
Christ gives several encouraging words to this small church:
- The first promise to the church at Philadelphia has something to do with their vindication before their Jewish opponents. As in the case of the believers at Smyrna, the believers in Philadelphia had to deal with those who "say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Rev 2:9 cf. 3:9). These are those who claim that they are real Jews simply because of they were Jews physically but not spiritually (Ro 2:28-29). Though they claimed they were Jews, their claim was a lie. From God’s point of view they were really of the “synagogue of Satan” because they refuse to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, they reject the Gospel, and they persecute believers. The only true Jews are those who accept the Christ and love His gospel and His people.
Amazingly, Christ promised that some of the very Jews who were persecuting the Christians at Philadelphia would “come and bow down at their feet.”
This promise does not mean that the Jews will worship the believers. This could mean that the enemies of the church at Philadelphia would be completely humbled and defeated. This promise could also mean that some of the Jews will be saved and they will bow and worship Jesus in the presence
of Christians. 1Co 14:24-25
speaks of this.
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
In general, the promise of Jesus here is that the church in Philadelphia will be vindicated before their persecutors. Jesus will make sure that their persecutors recognize they are wrong, and that Jesus and His followers are right.
A further vindication of these believers is that their opponents will learn
that Jesus loved
these Philadelphian believers they once persecuted.
On a personal note, I have had my own share of critics and opponents. During those times when I was most discouraged, I prayed to the Lord holding on to promises such as the following:
- Ps 86:17 Show me a sign of your favor, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
- Ps 109:26-27 Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love! 27 Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it.
I did not pray that God kill them or something. Nor did I curse them. I just pray that they would recognize that they were wrong and that they would repent. I pray that God would do something to me so that they will realize that what we did in excommunicating them was right. That Jesus was really with us where two or three are gathered in His name, that our Elders are not stamp pads of the pastor. And I am still waiting for the Lord’s vindication.
- The second promise to the church at Philadelphia has something to do with deliverance from the Great Tribulation. Verse 10: “…I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”
In this verse we have the only mention in the seven letters of the coming worldwide ordeal which is a major theme of the rest of the book. This does not seem to be a local and temporary judgment such as the one referred to in 2:10; this is worldwide, embracing all men. In the context the reference seems to be to a great tribulation at the end of history also prophesied in other places in the Bible.
Because the believers in Philadelphia had faithfully held on to the gospel and preached it and lived according to the character of Christ and have patiently endured despite persecution and suffering, Christ says that they will be kept from the “trial” that will affect the whole world. The important interpretive question is this: Does the word from
mean evacuation or preservation?
ESVSB: Many who hold a “pretribulation rapture” position believe that this verse means Christ will take them out of the world [evacuation
] before a literal “great tribulation” period begins. Other interpreters, however, see this as God's promise to safeguard and remain faithful to believers [preservation
] who endure patiently in the midst of “the hour of trial that is coming,” though it does not imply that he will take believers out of the world at that time
John MacArthur, Robert Thomas, and others would belong to the “evacuation” camp. John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and many Reformed teachers belong to the “preservation” camp.
Where do I stand? I would like to read our from our SDG Church Manual in the section Doctrinal Distinctives,
We are premillennial in our view of Eschatology but give latitude to the time of the Rapture.
We believe in a premillennial view of the kingdom which teaches that Jesus Christ will come back bodily to earth to set up a literal thousand-year kingdom where He will rule from Jerusalem (Isa 2:2-4; Zec 14:3-4; Ac 1:9-12; Rev 19:11-16; 20:1-7). We also believe that the Lord will return for His church in what is known as the Rapture which is the believer’s blessed hope (1Th 4:13-18; 1Co 15:51-55). But as to when this will occur, whether before, during or after the 7-year Tribulation Period (1Th 5:9; Ro 5:9), the Bible is not clear.
For this study, I will take the “preservation” position. Allow me to read from a portion of the sermon of Dr. Robert Rayburn, Pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in the U.S. His view represents the “preservation” position:
You may be aware that this is a verse often referred to as evidence for the idea of the rapture, the sudden and unannounced removal of all believers from the world before the great tribulation at the end of the world, seven years before the Second Coming of Christ. Indeed this verse is the most important verse in the book of Revelation for the dispensational scheme of biblical interpretation. The Left Behind
books trade on this expectation of a rapture of the church. But the language employed here does not mean – and the rest of the Bible never teaches – that the church will be evacuated before the tribulation. It means that she will be kept, preserved, protected in and through
all her trials and especially the last and greatest trial. Remember the Lord’s prayer for his disciples in John 17: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Interestingly, the words “keep them
from the Evil one” in John 17:15 are the same words used here in Rev. 3:10 where we read that the Lord will “keep them from the hour of trial.” But in John 17 keeping
them explicitly does not
mean taking them out of the world. Nor does it mean that here in Rev. 3. The church in Smyrna, in a letter so much like this one, is told that she will have to endure persecution even to death but that the Lord will sustain her through it and reward her for her faithfulness.
In other words, the promise the Lord is making to the Philadelphian Christians here in v. 10 is that their faith will not be overturned or their salvation lost or their eternal life put in jeopardy by the trials and persecutions that must come. Even death would not separate them from the love of Christ and the certainty of eternal life. As Augustine would famously put it, “Hack me, hew me, burn me here, but spare me hereafter, spare me hereafter.”
But whatever position a believer may take, whether evacuation
, I think it does not matter too much. The important thing is being with Jesus. It is like what happened to Stephen, the first martyr of the church. Whether the Lord removed him from the place of danger or gave him the grace to face persecution is not important. The important thing is that Jesus was there with him. If you are raptured, the important thing is not to be removed from the place of danger but to be with Christ. Even if you are removed from danger but you are not with Christ, what eternal benefit does that bring?
Words of exhortation (3:11)
I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown
The Risen Christ tells them that he is “coming soon.”
In the New Testament the coming of Christ is often used for two purposes.
Mt 24:48-51 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘ My master is delayed, ’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- It is used as a warning to the careless. Jesus himself tells of the wicked servant, who took advantage of his master's absence to do evil. The master’s return was something that became unexpected and it brought judgment.
- It is used as a comfort to the oppressed. For example James tells the poor and oppressed believers to continue to be patient because Jesus was coming soon. Jas 5:8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
- Here in Rev 3:11, we have another purpose for the Lord’s coming soon. It is to warn them so that they will not lost their expected reward: “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”
Though salvation cannot be lost, one can lose an expected reward.
- 1Co 3:12-15 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
- 2Jn 8 Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.
- 1Th 3:5 - For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
- Gal 4:0-11 - But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
A promise to the overcomer (3:12)
Christ concluded his letter to church at Philadelphia with three eternal blessings to the one who conquers.
- The first promise of Christ to the one who conquers: “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.” A pillar represents stability and permanence. A pillar can also represent honor. Peter and James and John were the pillars of the early church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9). This means that they were very important and honored leaders of the church. In pagan temples pillars were often carved to honor a particular deity. The marvelous promise Christ makes to believers is that they will have an eternal place of honor in the temple of God.
- Christ’s second promise is, “never shall he go out of it.” The construction of the sentence in Greek is a double negative, ou mē, to express a strong negative which means “never, in no way, under no circumstances, certainly not.”
Barclay: This may be a promise of security. We have seen how for years Philadelphia was terrorized by recurring earthquakes of the earth and how, when such times came, its citizens fled into the open country to escape and, when the tremors ended, came uncertainly back. Life was lived in an atmosphere of insecurity. There is for the faithful Christian the promise of a settled serenity in the peace which Jesus Christ can give.
- The other part of the promise to the overcomer is an absolute assurance of eternal life. This is indicated by his receiving a threefold name: 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. Receiving this threefold “name” implies a threefold assurance of the victor’s identity with God.
- To have “the name of My God” was equivalent to belong to God. In Rev 14:2 and 22:4 we learn that those who have the Lord’s name on their foreheads are identified as belonging to him in the same way that those who have the mark of the beast upon their foreheads are identified as belonging to the beast (Robert Rayburn).
- To have “the name of the city of My God” meant the right of citizenship in the new Jerusalem (Charles). I imagine this to be like me owning a passport with the words on its cover: Pilipinas Pasaporte. This means that I am a citizen of the Philippines. Having the name of God’s city is a mark of being a citizenship of that place. This is then another mark of assurance for the overcomer.
- Finally, on the faithful Christian Christ will write his own “new name.” The people of Philadelphia knew all about taking a new name as I mentioned a while ago. Philadelphia was at sometime called Neocaesarea, and then Flavia.
Christ’s “new name” symbolizes the full revelation of His character promised to the overcomer at Christ’s second advent. Currently, man is incapable of grasping the full theological significance of the incarnation, but that will change. When He comes, the victors will not only appreciate fully who Christ is, but they will bear His new name with Him. Herein is further assurance (Robert Thomas).
A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (3:13)
13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches
What a great encouragement this is for small churches who have few members, no big buildings, no expensive equipment, sound systems, laptops, iPads, etc. They do not have radio or TV programs and their churches are located on the outskirts of the city. Politicians don’t go to them during elections. They are regarded as insignificant. Jesus says to them, “you have little power but remain faithful. Do not deny me. Do not complain or grumble. Obey my command to persevere. Hold on to the gospel. When there is a door that is open, serve, evangelize, make disciples.
Some of our workers here have secular jobs where they make a lot of money but they have set aside certain days to serve God. They do not get anything out of it. They will not become more influential. They will not have more money. They just do it because of love Jesus. People say they are crazy. But they do it for God. They are looking for their future reward.
Do not give up. Hold on to what you have so that you will receive a full reward. You may be a nobody here but when Christ returns and establishes His millennial kingdom, His promise is that He will honor you and make you a pillar in God’s temple. You will have no shadow of a doubt that you are God’s, and you will have a taste of Christ that you never experienced before. You will have fellowship with Christ that will be full and perfect. Hold on. Be faithful till the end so that you receive a full reward.