Letters from Revelation 2 & 3

A Model Church

Revelation 3:7-13

Teaching t20272


Reiterate the setting of these seven letters.  These letters are relevant because they reveal Jesus’ priorities for Christians and churches (praise & rebuke).  He presents himself as the One who is able to correct their weaknesses and reward them for their strengths.

The sixth letter is to the Christian community in Philadelphia (MAP).  Philadelphia lay on the main trade route from Asia Minor to the east.  It was near a fault line, and had been leveled by a major earthquake in 17 AD.  Frequent aftershocks made its residents very insecure, frequently fleeing the city.  Philadelphia also had a significant Jewish community.  These facts help us to understand Jesus’ letter, as we will see.  Read 3:7-13.  Much of this letter is difficult to interpret, so let’s start with what is easy to understand...

Jesus’ diagnosis

Notice that there is not one word of rebuke.  Therefore, his treatment plan is simply “Keep doing what you have been doing” (3:11), and most of the letter consists of promises meant to encourage him to do this.  They are a model church, one we should emulate corporately and individually.

We might think that a model church would be a mega-church with super-gifted leaders, impressive facilities, attractive programs, celebrity members, etc.  These things may be helpful, but they are not what make Philadelphia a model church.  In fact, this church is in many ways the antithesis of a mega-church.  It has “little strength”—relatively small in size, lacking clout in the city, scorned by more powerful religious groups, etc.  Being a mega-church does not guarantee model church status, and being small and limited does not prevent you from being a model church!

Two qualities make this church exemplary in Jesus’ eyes (3:8b):

“You have kept my Word.”  This means that they were focused on and faithful to the teaching of the New Testament.  Like the Jerusalem church, they “continuously devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts2:42).  If you went to one of their meetings, you would be struck by how Bible-focused their teachings were.  If you talked to their members, you would be impressed with how eager the average person was to learn the Bible for himself.  In America, where we have unparalleled access to the Bibles, biblical illiteracy is the norm among Christians.  But this church had real every-member commitment to learn and follow God’s Word.

“You have not denied my name.”  This means that they shared their faith, even when there was strong pressure to keep quiet.  Some of them had apparently been threatened with excommunication from their Jewish synagogue, but they paid the price rather than go soft on their insistence that Jesus was the Messiah (3:9).  There was powerful social and political pressure to dilute Jesus into just one of many saviors/gods, but instead of capitulating to this pressure or keeping their faith to themselves, they kept telling people about Jesus the only Savior and how following him as the only Lord who had transformed their lives.  In America, where there is unparalleled religious freedom, only 6 out of 10 Christians share their faith even once a year1.  But these Christians understood that sharing their faith was the greatest privilege and responsibility of all, and they lived it out.

I am humbly grateful to say that these two strengths have characterized our church. They were particularly evident in the early years when we clearly had “little strength”—and this is a big reason why (in spite of our immaturity and foolishness) God protected and blessed us.  They remain strengths today, but I fear that we are not as exemplary as we were.  Spiritually prosperous churches tend to forget what made them prosperous and grow spiritually sedentary.  Members begin to depend more on their strong teachers than on growing in their own knowledge of God’s Word.  They allow their large meetings to dampen their zeal to invite more people.  I hope we keep the pedal to the metal in these two areas!  This is one reason why we emphasize home groups—they remind us that we have “little strength,” so that every member needs to learn God’s Word and reach out to others.  I feel this acutely every time we split our home group!  Many of you have split your home groups over the past year—and you are acutely aware of how “little strength” you have!  If so, pay close attention to Jesus’ encouragement...

Jesus’ encouragement

Jesus encourages them to keep going by making four wonderful (though difficult to interpret) promises.  While each of these promises apply specifically to this first-century church, they also apply to all Christians and churches that are “Philadelphian” in spirit.

Read 3:8a—“I have provided an open door for you.”  Jesus holds the “key of David” (3:7), which is a reference Jesus’ authority to control access to God’s kingdom.2  As God’s Messiah, the doors he opens to God’s kingdom cannot be shut, and the doors to God’s kingdom that he shuts cannot be opened.  What is this open door?  There are two possible answers—both are taught elsewhere in the Bible.

It may be that Jesus is reminding them of his authority grant and bar access to God’s kingdom.  The Jewish synagogue may have excommunicated Jewish Christians and told them they were barred from God’s kingdom.  But Jesus overrules this.  Only he has authority to admit and bar people from God’s kingdom, depending on whether they acknowledge him as Messiah.  So he has opened this door to these people, overruling the synagogue’s rejection.  And he has barred the Jews’ entrance into God’s kingdom until they acknowledge him as the Messiah.

This is one of many places in the New Testament that insists that Jesus is the only way to God.  Jesus himself proclaimed this (Jn.10:9; 14:6).  This is offensive to our religiously relativistic culture, but Jesus insists that he is the only way to God for one simple reason—he is the only One who can pay for our sins.  If humans were righteous in God’s eyes, there would be as many ways to God as there are righteous people.  But the Bible insists that no one is righteous—all of us have violated God’s righteousness and deserve his judgment (Rom.3:23; 6:14).  If we’re going to be accepted by God, it must be through someone else who is qualified to pay for our sin debt.  And only Jesus can do that.  Only Jesus lived the perfect life that we owe to God but cannot pay.  Only Jesus offered up his perfect life as a sacrificial payment for our sins.  And only Jesus was raised from the dead to prove that his payment was effective.  Therefore, no matter how much you think you deserve to be accepted by God, Jesus closes this door to you.  On the other hand, no matter how disqualified you think you are from God’s acceptance, Jesus opens this door to you if you are willing to humbly ask him to pay for your sins.  Maybe today will be the day you go through this open door...

More likely, Jesus is reminding them that he has authority to provide them opportunities to invite others into God’s kingdom.  The phrase “open door” is used this way several times in the New Testament (cf. Col.4:3,4).  Philadelphia lay on the main highway between western and eastern Turkey.  Virtually all travelers stopped there on their way east or west.  Because they are willing to share their faith, Jesus promises to keep providing them with opportunities to do this with thousands of people every year, and thus advance his kingdom all out of proportion to their small size.  The amazing growth of the first century church (150 to 1 million) was primarily due to small groups of Christians who believed this promise.  The same thing is true today in China (1 million to 120 million) and India (more churches now than in the U. S.).

No matter how weak or ill-equipped you may feel, if you stay focused on God’s Word and are willing to share it with others, Jesus will open doors for you to share your faith!  The churches that are most effective in reaching people for Christ are not necessarily those with the slickest programs or the most extroverted personalities.  They are the churches in which most members believe this promise and pray regularly for opportunities to share their faith with friends, family members, neighbors, work associates, strangers, etc.  This is also the most exciting way to live!  I challenge you to pray for this every day this week—and see what happens!

Read 3:9.  Even though the Philadelphian Jews denied that Jesus is the Messiah and the Christians belong to the Messiah, Jesus insists that the day is coming when they will be vindicated.  This probably refers to Jesus’ return, when Phil.2:9-11 will be fulfilled.  Every opponent of Jesus’ will have to ultimately acknowledge that he is the Messiah.  It will be too late for them to be saved after he returns, but they will be forced to admit that you were right and they were wrong about Jesus.

“I will vindicate you before those who scorn you.”  Because of this, you don’t have to be terrified or intimidated when people mock you for following Jesus.  Do you have friends or family members or supervisors or work associates who make fun of you for taking Jesus seriously enough to change the way you live?  It stings when people do this, but Jesus is for you and will ultimately vindicate you.  So let it roll off your back and keep sharing!

Read 3:10.  There is a lot of debate among biblical scholars about the meaning of this promise (to whom; when fulfilled; how “kept”).  What is clear is that Jesus is promising “I will protect you in the difficulties that lie ahead.”  Maybe Jesus is referring to an imminent outbreak of Roman persecution, and promising that it will pass them by.  Or maybe he is promising to empower and fortify them so that they persevere through it victoriously.  The point is that nothing can happen to them apart from Jesus’ permission, he will give them everything they need to fulfill their mission for him.  They don’t need to worry about being abandoned because “in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loves us” (Rom.8:35-37).

I was taught as a young Christian that “the safest place is staying in the center of God’s will.”  If you stay close to Jesus and prioritize telling others about him, you won’t be spared from difficulty but you will have his protection.  Jesus is sovereign—nothing comes upon his servants without his permission. He will either protect you from harm, or he will preserve you through harm until your mission is complete.    Spend less time worrying and more time trusting his protection as you live for him!

Read 3:11.  This description of God’s eternal kingdom contrasts dramatically with the insecurity of living in Philadelphia.  Because it was located on a major fault line, these Christians lived under constant threat of earthquakes.  They had seen the cracked city walls, and had to flee the city because of the danger of falling buildings.  But Jesus promises them: “I will give you complete and lasting security in my kingdom.”  They will be as strong as pillars (which often survived earthquakes).  They will never have to flee because of danger.  Their identity as citizens of the New Jerusalem means that their city will never be destroyed (read 21:1-4).

How much do you think about your final destination?  If you focus primarily on this life (as our culture does), you will feel more and more insecure as time goes by.  But if you focus on your eternal destiny, you can live with increasing security and hope (read Rom.8:18).  Your sufferings in this life can’t compare (in intensity or duration) to the glory awaiting you in God’s eternal kingdom!

SUMMARIZE: Jesus is the Lord.  If you belong to him, he promises to give you everything that matters: access to God, opportunities to share him with others, vindication from all scorn and mockery, protection through every danger, and eternity in his unshakable kingdom.  If you don’t belong to him, bow to him today and make him your Lord.  If you do belong to him, entrust yourself totally to his care and go all out to fulfill his mission for your life!

1 Barna Research Group, April 3, 2006 

2 Rev.3:7 echoes Isa. 22:22, where God makes Eliakim King Hezekiah’s chief steward.  As such, he had the authority to grant or bar access to Hezekiah’s presence and palace.