The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia: The Church of the Open Door
Revelation 3:7-13

The sixth Letter to the seven churches of Revelation – to Philadelphia.  As we have looked at each of the churches prior to this I have challenged you to see something of yourself in what is said about them, and to see our own little church in the light of what Jesus says as well. I want you to do the same this morning and I want you to be encouraged.

We are a small church, with little strength of our own to apply to the work that needs to be done and so to was the church in Philadelphia – I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.v8.  I sometimes look at the bigger churches, churches that people seem to be attracted to and feel somewhat dispirited, feel guilty that perhaps I’m not doing what I should, and several other emotions.  I was reading the other day of a church in America that has, reportedly, 20,000 people attending Sunday school.  I know of a church in Belfast that has a membership of 3000+, when you look at these statistics and then look at our own few you can’t help but wonder what you’re doing wrong.  

When we look at the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we can or should see a pattern emerging – The Lord tells us that it is not the biggest church, nor the most impressive one, nor the one with a name and reputation, that are necessarily in the best spiritual shape. When Christ measures or gauges a church’s spiritual life, He doesn’t look at size, He doesn’t look at buildings, He doesn’t look at power and influence, He doesn’t look at programs and ministries, He doesn’t look at wealth and growth. When Christ measures or gauges a church’s spiritual life, He doesn’t look at outward appearances – no matter how impressive those appearances may be. What Christ looks at is the heart. What Christ looks for is spiritual wealth.

Let’s look at the meaning and significance of His titles as we examine His letter to Philadelphia.

 A Praiseworthy Church
Christ looks at that church of Philadelphia and offers her nothing but praise: “I know your works,” He says (v8). Outsiders may not see or know what is going on in this church, but Christ does. As in the case of Ephesus and Thyatira, He sees a church filled with good and holy deeds: Philadelphia is obedient to the Lord and is filled with good works.

Also, Christ says, I know that you have little strength (v8). We are not to understand that word “strength” in spiritual terms but in physical or political terms. Spiritually, as Christ makes clear, the church of Philadelphia was a giant. Physically, though, the church of Philadelphia had little power, little influence; she was a small and poor congregation. From the world’s perspective the Philadelphian church was not much to look at.

Yet,” says Christ, “you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (v8). The church of Philadelphia was obedient to the commandments and precepts of the Lord in spite of her little strength. She did not deny Christ’s name. The church of Philadelphia was persecuted by the Jews and Romans – by the Jews because of her Christian confession that Jesus is the Son of God, by the Romans because of her Christian confession that Jesus is Lord – yet she did not deny Christ’s name.

There are three ways to deny Christ’s name.
The first form of Christ-denial is to claim that one has not confessed Christ’s name – such as was done by the Apostle Peter.
The second form of Christ-denial is ungodly or disobedient conduct – such as was committed by King Ahab.
The third form of Christ-denial is false and heretical doctrine – such as the Nicolaitan heresy that three of the seven churches of Asia Minor struggled against.

The church of Philadelphia, even in the face of persecution and false doctrine, was completely faithful to the Lord: she was faithful in confession, in lifestyle, and in doctrine.

Moreover, says the Lord, the church of Philadelphia has “kept my command to endure patiently” (v10). This church patiently awaited the second coming of the Lord and made herself ready for that coming. This church endured in the faith in the face of attacks from a hostile and unbelieving world.

A recent television documentary pointed out that the cheetah survives on the African plains by running down its prey. The big cat can sprint seventy miles per hour. But the cheetah cannot sustain that pace for long. Within its long, sleek body is a disproportionately small heart, which causes the cheetah to tire quickly. Unless the cheetah catches its prey in the first flurry, it must abandon the chase.

Sometimes Christians have the cheetah’s approach to ministry and the Christian life. We speed into projects with great energy. But lacking the heart for sustained effort, we fizzle before we finish. We vow to start faster and run harder, when what we need is not more speed but more staying power or endurance. The church of Philadelphia was not like this at all. She endured in her testimony, in her godliness, and in her faith.

Philadelphia was a church of inner strength and beauty. Yes, she was small; she wasn’t influential; she wasn’t much to look at; yet, she was great in the sight of the Lord.

Philadelphia’s Open Door
How come the church of Philadelphia endured while others of the churches of Asia Minor did not? How come she was a church filled with good and loving deeds? How come she was able to keep Christ’s Word and did not deny Christ’s name? Was there something special about this church? Was the church of Philadelphia so fully grown and mature in the faith that she could stand on her own feet while the other churches fell flat?

To explain her good points, the church of Philadelphia could not point to herself, her strengths, her faith, her commitment. The simple fact is that she had to point to Christ. It is because of Christ and only because of Christ that anything positive can be said about the church of Philadelphia, or about any other church for that matter.

So, what is it that Christ has done for the church of Philadelphia? “See,” says Christ, “I have set before you an open door that no one can shut” (v8). We can understand this only against the background of Christ’s titles at the start of this letter.

Jesus identifies Himself at the start of the letter as He Who holds the key of David:
(Rev.3:7) These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens“:.

Holy – Why speak in this way? These faithful Christian people believed that God is Holy and that Christ is Holy – so why did Jesus introduce His letter in this way?  Because the Jews had rejected Jesus as being cursed of God, the of Philadelphia declared in their persecution of the Christians in the city, they taught it in their synagogue, they spoke to the Roman authorities, to their Greek neighbours – So Jesus begins His letter by stating with Divine authority That He is the Holy one of God.

True – Again the reference is to what the Jews were saying, that He was a false Messiah. The Greek word used here goes beyond simply saying that what is said is true but also that the one who says it is true, is the genuine one.

key of David –  once more the Lord answers the claims of the Jews,  they declared all who believed in Jesus to be shut out of the Messianic Kingdom. comes from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah tells us about Shebna (Isaiah 22). This Shebna was the Prime Minister of King Hezekiah. In the name of the king and for the king he ruled Jerusalem and the royal household with a firm hand. He had undisputed control. It was he who decided who could or could not see the king. It was he who controlled entry into Jerusalem. The king entrusted Shebna with the key of the house of David.

The language of Isaiah is used in the letter to Philadelphia to present Christ as the Messiah with power to control entrance into the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. It is Christ, in other words, Who now has the key of David. It is Christ Who opens heaven to all who believe and closes heaven to all who disbelieve.

This power of Christ is absolute: who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (v7). Christ has final and absolute and undisputed authority over entrance or exclusion from the Kingdom of God. When Christ opens the doors of heaven to those who believe, no one is able to drag them out. And, when Christ closes the doors of heaven to those who disbelieve, no one is able to open that door.

What an amazing promise when we consider the fact that this congregation had very little strength, literally, “little power.” 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.
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, that one who is the key of the house of David and about whom Isaiah was speaking in his prophecy.

He “who is holy and true, who holds the key of David” says to the church of Philadelphia, “See, I have set before you an open door that no one can shut” (v8). Christ has opened the doors of heaven to the believers of Philadelphia.

There was prayer that was said by Jews when another Jew converted to Christianity – For apostates let their be no hope, and the kingdom of insolence mayest thou uproot speedily in our days; and let Christians (noserim) and the heretics perish in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of life and let them not be written with the righteous. Blessed art thou O Lord, who humbles the insolent.

Each of these designations by which the Lord introduces Himself leads to the one that follows, the order cannot be changed.

Here is the Holy God, who is the true Messiah, who holds the keys that open all doors, who has opened a door for you.

Philadelphia was known as the “doorway to the East.” It was situated at the eastern end of a broad valley which it shared with Smyrna on the Aegean Sea and Sardis half-way in-between. Passing through Philadelphia was a trade route to the riches of the Orient. An imperial post route from Rome passed through Philadelphia to the far-eastern portions of the empire.

The city that is the “doorway to the east” has a church with an open door to heaven. Philadelphia is a saved church. And no one, absolutely no one, not even the great enemy Satan, can close the doors of heaven to this church. The Jewish synagogue can excommunicate the believers, the Roman authorities can persecute them, the Nicolaitans can tempt them, but theirs is an open door to heaven.

 Now we know why this congregation of believers can endure, can do good and loving deeds, can keep God’s Word, and can remain true to Christ’s name.

See, I have set before you an open door that no one can shut.” Notice what is implied here: the church of Philadelphia does not save herself; she doesn’t earn salvation by her works, her obedience, her faithfulness, her endurance; she does not deserve salvation because she has kept the Word of Christ; she does not deserve salvation because she has continued to confess Christ’s name even in the face of persecution.

Notice what else is implied here: it is only because of Christ that the church of Philadelphia has gained entrance into heaven. He “who holds the key of David” opens the door. He is the only one Who can open the door. There is no other way into the presence of the Father. As Jesus Himself says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No ma comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

In Salt Lake City a few years ago a photographer saw a street sign, all askew, and promptly took a picture. The result was captioned, “Divine Direction,” and showed a “one-way” sign pointing to the sky with a cemetery in the background. The words of English poet William Blake were quoted: “The grave is heaven’s golden gate, and rich and poor around it wait.”

But the picture is wrong. As we all know, there are two ways from the grave – the way to Heaven and the way to Hell. On the other hand, the picture is right if by the “one way” it means the Lord Jesus Christ. For He alone has the key of David. And He alone is the way to the Father’s throne.

See, I have set before you an open door that no one can shut. Does Christ say this about us too? Don’t answer too quickly, because Scripture makes clear that Christ does not and cannot say this about every church; of the seven churches of Asia Minor, Christ says this only about Smyrna and Philadelphia. The other five churches Christ condemns: Ephesus for being without love, Pergamum for being far too tolerant, Thyatira for compromising her faith, Sardis for putting on a false show, Laodicea for being lukewarm. So again I ask, can Christ say about us what He said about the church of Philadelphia?

There is more that we can say about the power of the key of David. As I already mentioned, King Hezekiah entrusted the power of the key of David to his servant Shebna. But there came a day when Shebna had to be removed from office, when the power of the key had to be stripped from him; this was done because he was wicked and disobedient, not a good and faithful servant. On that day the power of the key of David was given to Eliakim (Isaiah 22).

In Philadelphia, as I already mentioned, there was a Jewish synagogue. This synagogue claimed that the power of the keys has been given to them; they claimed that God entrusted to them the key of David; they claimed that God granted to them the power to include or exclude from the heavenly kingdom. To that end they excommunicated every member of the synagogue that dared to profess Christ as Saviour and Lord.

What happened to Shebna, the servant of the king, also happened to this synagogue: the power of the key of David was stripped from them and given to another. The power of the key of David entrusted to the elders of the synagogue has been taken from them and given to the elders of the church. He Who holds the key of David gives to every believing church a door that opens directly into heaven (Mt 16:19; 18:18).

Philadelphia’s Promise Protection
V10 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. A verse often used to confirm the secret rapture, but there is a problem for 7:14 shows us that that the Great began with the coming of Christ and we are living in the time of the Tribulation even now. Jesus never promises to remove His people from the world rather he promises to protect them in the midst of the world.  

In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and the persecution that he began against Christians lasted for over a century – this is the hour of trial that the Lord speaks of here.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”