Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 19, 1978
Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, is one of the newer cities of the seven who received letters from our Lord in the book of the Revelation. It was founded about 140 B.C. by a king of Pergaums named Attalus II, called also Philadelphos because of his fondness of and loyalty to his brother, and so it was named after him.
Attalus founded his new city of Philadelphia in a very strategic location. First of all, it was on a major east-west trade route. Secondly, it was on the edge of a great volcanic area, an extremely fertile plain known far and wide for its grape growing, its vintages and its wines. Thirdly, the medicinal value of its numerous hot springs attracted the sick and infirm from many lands. Philadelphia was a prosperous city, a city of opportunity. But the opportunities afforded its citizens did not stop here.
The primary reason Attalus chose this site for his city was that it stood on the borders of three countries: Lydia, Mysia, and Phrygia. It was the gateway from the highly civilized kingdom of Lydia, with its Greek language and Greek customs, to the uncivilized territory to the east. Like the new western towns in the early days of our own country's history, so the new city of Philadelphia was an open door of opportunity. The attempted Hellenization of the barbarous tribes to the east, the effort to convert them to the Greek way of life, afforded the people of Philadelphia with countless openings and opportunities.
As we might well expect, there was a church of Jesus Christ at Philadelphia. Like the city in which it was located, the church was faced with unlimited opportunities. But it seems as though they had not made the best use of those opportunities. They must have expected the worst that Sunday morning when their pastor opened the letter from John which contained the words of the Lord. If the fundamental church at Ephesus had been criticized for its lack of love, if the persecuted church at Pergamum had been criticized for its compromise, if the loving working church at Thyatira had been criticized for its corruption, if the thriving church at Sardis had been criticized for its deadness, what would Christ say about them? For you see, they hadn't made the most of their opportunities and they were weak. That is exactly what we read in Revelation 3:8.
1. Christ's Critique of the Church
"I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength..." (Revelation 3:8a).
"You have a little strength," just a little. Not really a great church. This church had failed to make much of an impact on the city of Philadelphia. It was not blessed with numbers. It had very little wealth. None if its members had social influence. Compared to the strength of the city, it was weak and feeble.
But this statement of fact is the only trace of a complaint against the church in Philadelphia. For while they were feeble, Christ says they were faithful. "...For you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name" (Revelation 3:8b).
He seems to put a great premium upon this faithfulness. In spite of their little strength, they have kept Christ's Word, and have not denied His name. You see, numbers are not everything to Christ. He is interested in quality as well as quantity, and where there is genuine quality, He commends it.
The believers at Philadelphia kept His Word. While others were denying it, they were defending it. While others were ignoring it, they were searching it and studying it. While others were willfully disobeying it, they were making every diligent effort to put it to practice in their lives. They received the Word, they believed the Word, they loved the Word, and they obeyed the Word. Thank God for this commendable characteristic of the Philadelphians.
Now, we live in a day of disbelief, basically. Yes, there has been a bit of a revival of evangelical Christianity, but you can look around and quickly find disbelief. It is becoming more acceptable, more sophisticated, and more intellectual to deny. Last year (1977), a group of seven British theologians published a book called The Myth of God Incarnate. In it, they tried to prove that Jesus Christ was not God in the flesh. The Redbook magazine reported in August 1961, that only 44% of these our future ministers, believed in the virgin birth of Christ. Only 29% believe there is a real heaven and hell. Only 46% believe that Jesus ascended physically whole into heaven after His crucifixion.
Outstanding churchmen in leading periodicals are openly stating that the Genesis account of creation is a myth, the story of Jonah a fairy tale, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb an unnecessary addition to the Gospel record. We who believe the Word of God are in an ever diminishing minority. It seems as though the Christians at Philadelphia even went through a period of suffering for their beliefs, but they steadfastly refused to deny Christ's name.
If the day ever comes when we are called upon to do the same, I wonder how many of us will be faithful. We had better begin to cultivate a love for God's Word right now. Only a love for it will motivate faithfulness to it when the heat of opposition and persecution is applied. Do you love the Word of God? There's an easy way to find out: Ask yourself when was the last time you spent any time in it just enjoying it. If you aren't spending time in the Word, you can't really claim to love it. And if you don't love it, when the heat is on, you're going to be willing like many others to say, "Well, you know, we really don't need to believe that. There are other ways to approach the Bible than to take those words in their normal sense." You'll be falling by the wayside--but not the Philadelphia Christians. Christ's critique of the church: feeble, but faithful.
2. Christ's Challenge to the Church
If the letter ended at verse here, however, I would be a liar, for I have often said that where there is quality there will eventually be quantity. Where believers are yielded to God and faithful to His Word, there will certainly be growth, and numbers. Now I know there are parts of this world that are very hard. There are parts of the Muslim world where people are killed for their faith in Jesus Christ and that certainly discourages many from taking a stand for Christ, and certainly missionaries will have fewer results in areas like that. There are parts of our own country which seem hardened to the Word of God, far more so than our own area in which we live and labor for Jesus Christ. There will be varying degrees, but I'm of the opinion that where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and applied to people's lives, and believers are responding and growing in God's grace, others are going to be attracted to Jesus Christ. Quality produces some degree of numerical growth.
Jesus is interested in numbers. Did you know that? I don't think He's interested in attendance contests and that sort of thing, or how big a church is and where it ranks in the nation. But He is interested in numbers, for numbers represent souls for whom He died, souls whom He commissioned us to win to Himself. He wants to use you and me. When we're living for Him, and He's first in our lives, and His Spirit is in control of us so that the world can see Jesus Christ through us, there are going to be some people who come to know Him. There's no question about that. Quality should be producing quantity.
My contention is Biblical, as this letter to Philadelphia reveals. You see, we haven't yet talked about a phrase in verse 8, a phrase which is parenthetical in the thought. Jesus says, "I know your works...that you have little strength, but have kept My word, and have not denied My name." Now, because of their faithfulness, He says, "Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it." An open door. An opportunity to reach the world. Now walk through it.
This phrase "open door" was used by the Apostle Paul on several occasions to describe an opportunity for a Christian witness, and it has become almost a technical term in Christian circles for this idea (Acts 14:27, 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). When Paul found an opportunity to tell others of God's saving grace in Christ, he took it. He considered it an open door, and he walked right in.
For the feeble but faithful church at Philadelphia, opportunity was knocking. They need not remain feeble forever. Their relatively young and prospering city presents a challenging sphere of ministry. With God-directed methods and Spirit-filled lives they can make an impact for Jesus Christ. Christ is saying, "It's wonderful that you have been faithful to Me and to My word, but this is not the end. There are opportunities all around you to bring others to know Me just as you do. Every friend, every neighbor, every business acquaintance, every relative presents another opportunity for gracious and tactful witness. A strengthened, growing, prosperous church will permit you to send scores more of your young people into those unevangelized wilds of Phrygia to the east. You have not even begun to tap the potential of your opportunity."
Did you notice how Christ introduced himself in this letter in verse 7? He was the Holy One, and the True One, and the One that holds the key of David, He that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens." When Jesus Christ opens a door of opportunity, it's open, and it shall not be shut until He sees fit to shut it.
Incidentally, that description of the Lord Jesus is borrowed from Isaiah 22:22. This is rather interesting. I'm not really sure exactly what this has to do with the Lord Jesus, but evidently this man who had a key to the house of David is a type--a forerunner--of the Lord Jesus Himself. He pictures the Lord Jesus who is to come. Look at Isaiah 22, starting with verse 20. "Then it shall be in that day, That I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, And strengthen him with your belt; I will commit your responsibility into his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, And to the house of Judah. The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; So he shall open, and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open."
This man Eliakim was a faithful servant of God. He became a steward and an advisor over the house of King Hezekiah. He had a key to the palace and to the treasury. When he opened the door, no one could shut it, and when he shut it, no one could open it. That's the kind of power he had. He had the key to the riches of the king.
When we get over to Revelation 3, we find there is another key. And this time the Lord Jesus holds that key. He has the key of David, and He opens and no man shuts, and He shuts and no man opens. That is the key all the blessings of God, all the riches of God. He holds the key to blessing. He is the Great Door Opener.
I believe that the Great Door Opener has given to us an unparalleled opportunity in North San Diego County. We stand at the most exciting open door of our church's history. Our city anticipates a tremendous boom. We have the potential of being in one of the thriving centers of growth, where the people will be coming. But that door of opportunity could be shut at any time if we're not faithful. We need to get our hearts right with God, seek the direction of the Lord, do everything we possibly can to sharpen the effectiveness of our outreach, and take advantage of every opportunity we have in winning folks to the Lord. Whatever it demands, we must do. To dilly dally around, to hold back when God wants to move, is certainly to die.
We need to get down to business in our own personal witness, getting to know folks who need the Lord, and show them by the quality of our own lives what a difference He can make in theirs. Have we been faithful to God's Word? Fine. Let us now begin to carry it to others. Have we been faithful to Christ's name? Well and good. But now let us proclaim it to others. This is not just the responsibility of the minister of the church. This is for the entire congregation. God has given us an open door, and no man can shut our opportunity.
3. Christ's Consolation for the Church
Now entering God's open doors is not always easy. There will be a great deal of hard work. And there will always be opposition, sometimes from within, sometimes from without. The church at Philadelphia was facing just such opposition, but Christ has some consolation for them. It was the same kind of opposition faced at Smyrna, the Jews of the city claiming to be God's people, and discounting the claim of the church of Jesus Christ. They could even stir up governmental opposition to the church, as they seem to have done at Smyrna (Revelation 2:9).
Christ's consolation involves first of all, the defeat of their enemies. "Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie--indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you" (Revelation 3:9). These who are making it so difficult to carry on a faithful witness will someday acknowledge their wrong. They shall bow down at the feet of these Christians, not to worship them, but to worship Christ, and to admit that Christ loves His church.
But there was another problem at Philadelphia. Being faithful students of the Word, they probably had in their possession copies of the Old Testament prophets, especially the passages from the prophets Daniel and Jeremiah concerning the Great Tribulation (i.e., the Time of Jacob's Trouble in Jeremiah 30). There is a good possibility they even had some of the Gospel records at that time. Maybe they had in their possession the Gospel of Matthew. They were aware of the Great Tribulation which was to try all men on the face of the earth. Christ had spoken about it clearly in Matthew 24:15-21. "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place' (whoever reads, let him understand), 'then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.'"
Jesus taught that there was a great tribulation coming to this world. It is quite possible that some of the Christians in the church who were undergoing persecution at that time were living in mortal fear of that great trial. "This isn't the time to enlarge our outreach. This isn't the time to build a new church building. This is the time to retrench, to dig in for the worst." There were some pessimistic Christians in Philadelphia and they didn't want to reach out. So the Lord has a word of encouragement.
Christ's consolation involves, secondly, deliverance from the great tribulation. "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10).
Because they have proved the reality of their faith by obeying the Word of God, Christ says, "I am going to keep you out of the hour of testing, which shall come upon all the whole earth." That is a powerful verse. To my way of thinking, that is one of the clearest promises in the entire Bible that the church of Jesus Christ will not pass through the Great Tribulation. This is not preservation and protection through the tribulation, as some would suppose; this is deliverance from it. This is what all who are in a position of leadership in this church believe to be what the Bible says and so I make no apology for preaching it.
Christ says "I will keep you from the hour of trial." The Greek preposition has the primary meaning of "out of." He's not saying He'll keep us through the hour, or in the hour, but out of the hour of trial. He doesn't promise us protection through the Great Tribulation; He promises to keep us out of the Great Tribulation.
Note that He says He will keep us out of the hour of tribulation. That's very significant. The true believer will be kept out of not just the trial, the tribulation, or the temptation, but the very hour, the time, the period of tribulation. We who have put our faith in Jesus Christ will be removed from the earth before this period of time actually begins. There is no doubt that this is the Great Tribulation spoken of the prophets and Christ, for it will affect all the world; every earth dweller will feel the horror of it. "But I will keep you out of the very hour," says the Savior to His saints.
The church of Smyrna was promised tribulation, you remember, and some have used that to prove that the church will go through the tribulation, but look at that letter again (Revelation 2:10). "You shall have tribulation 10 days."
Note that the trial there was a short period of time, 10 days in length, and it seems to have been localized to the particular church of Smyrna. But here we have a world-wide tribulation, and to the true believers of any generation which should be living when it happens, there is the comforting promise of deliverance.
That deliverance will be coincident with the return of our Savior to receive us unto Himself in the air, as we learn in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The Apostle Paul writes, "I don't want you to be ignorant concerning them who are asleep, lest you sorrow as those who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. ...For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So shall we ever be with the Lord."
That is our deliverance "out of," you see. We'll be "caught up." Of course, the post-Tribulationist make a big deal out of the fact that the word "rapture" nowhere appears in the Scripture. But it does occur, right there in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Those words "caught up" are translated into the Latin text by a verb that is rapio, from which we get our English word rapture. Caught up. That's what the rapture is. We're going to be caught up and delivered out of that period of tribulation that is going to come upon the whole world to try those unbelievers.
So, Jesus says, hold fast. It is not more than coincidental that the promise of deliverance in Revelation 3:10 is followed immediately by a word about His return in verse 11. "Behold, I come quickly. Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown." There is no danger of true believers missing that rapture. But there is a danger that some may miss the rewards Christ has for those who are faithful. Stand firm by the Word, hold fast to Christ's name. Don't let the influence of anyone cause you to become careless in your spiritual life, and lose that reward Christ has for you.
4. Christ's Compensation to the Church
But what glories await the true believer in heaven? What compensation is there for the hardships of a faithful testimony in this life? As every other letter in these seven, this one ends with a promise to the overcomer, a glorious prospect in eternity for the one who has placed his full trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. 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 out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name" (Revelation 3:12).
Now what does all this mean? What is being promised to the overcomer? The overcomer is the true believer, remember. There are two parts here. The first is that God gives him permanent entrance into His presence.
Philadelphia was a city of many temples, and there was an interesting custom which surrounded these temples. When a man served well in some public capacity, leaving behind an impressive record as a benefactor, a magistrate or a priest, it was common to erect a pillar in one of the temples with his name inscribed on it. All who came to worship would remember them and honor them because they were now a permanent part of the temple. Now there will be a temple in heaven. Did you know that? Speaking of the New Jerusalem, John describes it for us in Revelation 21:22, "But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." God Himself, and His blessed Son, are the temple of heaven. And you and I will be pillars in that temple. Christ is offering us permanent entrance into God's presence (Revelation 3:12). We shall enjoy Him, and honor Him throughout all eternity. We shall be made pillars in the temple of our God.
And note, we "shall go out no more." This was a blessed promise to the Philadelphians. You see, there is something about this city I haven't told you. Being so close to a volcanic area, the city was subject to severe earthquakes. In 17 A.D., it was completely destroyed by one such earthquake, only to be rebuilt by the emperor Tiberius. Whenever tremors came, the people of Philadelphia fled from the city into the open country to escape the failing masonry, and remained there often for days. When the tremor subsided, they returned to their homes. But the shaking of the earth was frequent, and historians tell us that the constant fleeing and returning became an accepted though unhappy part of their lives. What a blessing it would be to go no more out. When those believers and us, enter God's presence, it will be forever.
But do you know what those citizens of Philadelphia did when Tiberius rebuilt their city for them? They changed the name of their town from Philadelphia to Neocaesarea, the new city of Caesar, to show their gratitude to him for his kindness. It was the only city of these seven that ever did that. The old name finally came back into use--kind of like Cape Canaveral which became Cape Kennedy and now it's Cape Canaveral again--but for some time it was known exclusively by its new name of Neocaesarea (the new Caesar). They had identified their city with Caesar. But when the believers at Philadelphia, and when you and I enter God's presence, we shall be identified with the name of the Lord forever. It won't change.
That's the second part of the compensation: We have the promise of permanent identification with God's person. "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 out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name" (Revelation 3:12b). We shall have inscribed upon us the name of God, the name of the city of God, the New Jerusalem, and the new name of our Savior, a name which shall be above every name throughout eternity.
We live in a world of instability. Only God knows what tomorrow will hold. What a blessed promise this is--a promise of stability: permanent entrance into God's presence and permanent identification with the Lord Himself.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
That promise can be yours. It is reserved for those who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for their eternal salvation, who have repudiated the value of their own good works as far as earning any kind of eternal blessing from God. You can know beyond all shadow of doubt that you will be among those so honored. This blessing is reserved for you, if you are one who has trusted Jesus Christ for salvation. Have you done it? Don't put it off another day.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:13). Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the challenge that is ours, preserved through these centuries and made known to us today: that there is a door open to us which no man can shut. Oh, God, help us to be faithful and to walk through that door of opportunity and take advantage of every opportunity You've given us to share the good news of salvation. God, help us to be faithful. And if there are some here today who have never trusted Christ, God, we ask You to work in their lives with such convicting power that they will submit to Christ for salvation. We ask it in His precious name. Amen.