How many of you would agree there's no such thing as a perfect church? How many of you would agree there's no such thing as a perfect pastor? There's no such thing as a perfect Christian? We are all imperfect. So it makes sense there is no such thing as a perfect anything. We all fall short of the standard for perfect holiness that God has set.
Having said that…no perfect church…no perfect pastor…no perfect people…nowhere in the history of churches has there ever been a church that manifests perfectly all that God desires for His church…having said all that, it is still possible to be a faithful, obedient, diligent, and pleasing to God church.
As we've looked at the seven letters to seven churches in The Revelation to John, we've seen that four churches get mixed reviews, two get nothing but praise, and one gets absolutely trashed. Today's letter, to the church at Philadelphia, is praised. But as we'll see, they were imperfect. Because the point isn't to be a perfect church. No one can be perfect. The point is to be a faithful church. A faithful church.
Philadelphia was a lot like Smyrna. Smyrna was the other church where there were no warnings, no condemnations, no threats, or no judgments. Like Smyrna, the letter to Philadelphia was free from condemnation or any type of criticism at all.
Let's begin our look at Philadelphia by setting the geographical/cultural context.
As most people know, Philadelphia is a word of Greek origin which means, "brotherly love." Word origins are fascinating. For example:
After silent movies there were "talkies," because of the advanced technology of adding sound.
But before that, they were "movies" because of the technology that added movement to still pictures.
So many words have interesting origin stories.
Going back to about 150 B.C., Eumenes II, king of Pergamum, and Attalus II, his younger brother, were instrumental in the development of Philadelphia. In fact, Eumenes loved his younger brother so much, that he attached Philadelphia to his title and named the city after him. Rumor had it that at one point, Roman rulers wanted Attalus to overthrow his brother and become king, but he refused. That truly was brotherly love.
Here are two pictures for contrast:
Philadelphia was strategically located where major trade routes intersected. It was called "The Gateway to the East."
Because of prehistoric volcanic activity, the soil was fertile and well suited to growing grapes, along with other cash crops. One of its drawbacks was that it was prone to earthquakes. A devastating earthquake in A.D. 17 leveled 12 cities in the region overnight, hitting Philadelphia especially hard.
Culturally, Philadelphia was popular for its temples and religious festivals. Because of its grape-growing prowess, Dionysus was its chief pagan god. He was, among other things, the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking, orchards and fruit, vegetation, fertility, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre.
Funny thing is, we really don't know anything about the church. We know from inference in Acts 19:10 - "This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks." - that churches were planted from the home base in Ephesus throughout this region. But that is all we know. Philadelphia is only mentioned here in The Revelation to John.
Let's now look at Revelation 3:7-13:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: "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. 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. 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. 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. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
As we know, Jesus is the author of these letters. Here, he describes himself in four distinct ways.
First, the One who is Holy. As we read in Isaiah 6:3, "And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!'" Jesus is referring to himself as the Divine Son of God.
The Holy One. As we read in John 6:66-69:
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus Christ shares the Holiness of God. He is God. Jesus is the Holy One.
Now, in another context, this could have been a frightening introduction. Holiness cannot tolerate sin. Holiness cannot look upon sin and sinful people. But there was no rebuke or threat or warning or judgment. We'll soon see why the Holy One spoke well of this church.
Second, Jesus is the True One. The Greek word used here translated as true, means authentic, genuine, and real. It is the opposite of false and fake. Jesus is the True God, not Dionysus, or the false god. He is true in all he says and does. All other claims to truth fall woefully short when seen in the light of the truth of Jesus Christ. There was no falsehood in what Jesus said and did. Are you getting an inkling yet why the Philadelphia church
was not rebuked?
Third, Jesus identifies himself as the One who has the Key of David. Simply put, it means he is the Messiah. The Old Testament said that the Messiah would be in the line of David. To him has been given all authority, control, and sovereignty. This is huge.
And fourth, related to the authority connected to the Key of David, Jesus has authority over the riches of heaven. In other words, he has control over the opening or shutting of heaven. Jesus has authority to dispense all of heaven's blessings.
So, taken as a whole…Jesus is the Holy One…Jesus is the True One…Jesus is holder of the Key of David…and Jesus has authority over the riches of heaven…Jesus Christ is the only way by which sinful people like you and I can enter heaven.
So it is the Lord Jesus, the Holy One, the True One, the One who dispenses
all of heaven's blessings, the One who opens the door of heaven, who does
it by his own sovereign choice. Only he does it. We are saved by no one else. Without Christ, we cannot enter the kingdom. Jesus alone opens the door.
So, why did Jesus say these things to the church at Philadelphia? There was no judgment…no condemnation…no rebuke or warning. They weren't a perfect church. There can't ever be a perfect church. But they were a true church. They were a faithful church. And they rested confidently and comfortably in the grace and mercy of God.
That is our encouragement. We are not saved by good works. We don't have to be perfect. All we have to do is be faithful. Faithful in worship. Faithful in following the teachings of our Savior. Faithful in resisting the allure of our pagan culture. We don't have to do great things. We just have to do faithful things.
Look again at verse 8. "You have but little power." Power - dunamis in Greek - doesn't mean weak or feeble. It simply means they were a small church. They we small in numbers. Numerically, they were few. I wonder
what that tells us about the promise of God in the design of His church?
The Bible teaches us, over and over, that God chooses a few…He chooses the poor and the weak and the lowly, and the unremarkable and those lacking in distinction or accomplishment…God chooses the nothings. Jesus is said to be shepherd of the little flock. And why is that? It is to manifest God's power flowing into and through a church of little power.
Let's say this together:
WE ARE SMALL.
WE ARE WEAK.
WE ARE NOTHING.
WE ARE NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT.
WE HAVE LITTLE POWER.
That feels good. I can think of nothing better than to be a church like the church at Philadelphia. By God's grace and mercy, there was power flowing through the small church. They were faithful in their worship. They were holding tight to the truth of God's Word. And they were obedient in faith and practice.
Here's a subtle, but beautiful point about this church. Notice there was no
call to repentance nor warning to repent. Remember, Jesus knew them. He knew what was in their hearts and in their minds. "You have kept my word and have not denied my name." In other words, as we know they were an imperfect church…like all of us here today…Jesus knew the sincerity of their repentance. He knew they knew when they had gone or were going astray, and committed themselves to move past it. As Paul puts it in Philippians 3:12-14:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Remember, while we can never be perfect, we can be faithful. Such faithfulness is marked by:
Here's something you might want to write down. No matter what we experience or go through in life:
WE ARE CALLED BY CHRIST TO ENDURE PATIENTLY.
And here's the remarkable thing. As verse ten says, "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." Somehow, someway, God will protect the church from the forces of evil that will come against the faithful. While we don't know what all the specifics are, what we do know is that little church will be spared. They will be spared. They were promised deliverance from the time of tribulation.
Finally, those who have been called by Jesus Christ to follow him, and have remained faithful, they will find their final reward in heaven. They will - we will - live in heaven forever. When Jesus promised, "I will write on him the name of my God," it was a stunningly merciful and gracious thing. God claims us as His own. We are His. We will be forever God's, forever honored, forever citizens of heaven.
No matter what happens in this world, through Christ, we are saved. We will be rescued from all harm, trouble, and tribulation. Not because we have been perfect. But because we have been faithful.
Father, we're grateful for Your Word. We thank You for Your kindness to us. We have a living hope. Help us to continue to be faithful, loyal, obedient, loving, and persevering in all things and through all things. Continue to use this church. We thank You for pouring out Your blessings. We thank You that we are enjoying now a foretaste of what You have prepared for us in glory. We look forward to the reality of all that. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.