The Faithful Church (Rev. 3:7-13)
In the verses before us we have a message to a church in the ancient city of Philadelphia, located in the Roman province of Asia, about thirty miles southeast of Sardis. It was the next town after Sardis that the postman would have encountered along this ancient postal route. The earthquake that crippled Sardis in AD 17 did even more damage to Philadelphia, because this city was nearer the epicenter. In fact, the entire region was apparently located in an area that had experienced a lot of volcanic and seismic activity. The aftershocks that plagued Philadelphia lasted for several years, and this caused the population to scatter, despite help from the emperor for rebuilding. Nevertheless, there were still people here, and a church that had probably been planted during the ministry of the apostle Paul was thriving. In fact, of all the churches in Asia that are addressed in Rev. 2-3, only Smyrna and Philadelphia received no censure, only commendation.
The thing that stands out about this church is its faithfulness. This is something you can’t miss when reading these verses. When our Lord speaks to the angel of the church, he commends him with these words: “thou . . . hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (8). Then, in verse 10: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation.” So this church was known for keeping and holding fast to the word and name of Christ; that is, it was known for its faithfulness. And this is what our Lord commends and commands for them going forward: “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (11). It’s interesting to me that there is only one imperative verb here, only one command: the command to remain faithful.
However, this doesn’t mean that everything was going great for these believers. This church was faithful, but what especially makes them stand out in this respect is the fact that they were being faithful despite every earthly reason to give up. Two things in particular made faithfulness difficult for them.
The first thing that made faithfulness difficult was the fact that this was a persecuted church. And just as it was with Smyrna (2:9), it appears that the local synagogue had allied itself with the magistrates of the city to make life hard for the Christians. The fact that our Lord calls the synagogue there “the synagogue of Satan” in 3:9, indicates that they were being used by the devil to persecute the people of God.
It is important to remember that at first, Christianity was seen as a sect within Judaism. But by the end of the first century, when Revelation was written, this was no longer the case. What made this a problem for Christians is that they were no longer protected by the legal permission the Roman authorities gave to the Jews to practice their monotheistic religion (which meant they were not punished for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor and to the gods). But Christianity was not a legally recognized religion, now that it was seen as distinct from Judaism. And because it was not legal, Christians could get in hot water for refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan deities. And this is apparently exactly what was happening.
We also see indications of persecution in the language used to describe their faithfulness. “Thou . . . hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (8) is the same language used of the church in Pergamum, which is followed up by “in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you” (2:13). This was a persecuted church.
But what made this perhaps even more difficult was the fact that persecution was accompanied by “little strength.” It was a powerless church. We see that in 3:8 that the church is described in this way: “thou hast a little strength.” Now, it is true that it was not a powerless church in the strictest sense. It doesn’t say they had no power, but that they had little power. But relatively speaking it was powerless. Commentators speculate as to exactly how this church was powerless. They say that this could either mean that the church was made up of the lower classes (such as slaves) or that the church was economically impoverished or that the church was small in number (or a combination of some or all of these things). So perhaps this was a church with little to no political, economic, and numerical power in that community.
What does this mean? Well, it means that there was little they could do about the situation they were in. And that must have made the trials they were passing through even harder. It’s one thing to be going through a difficult time. It’s one thing to be marginalized by others. It’s one thing to experience injustice at the hands of others. But to go through all that with little to no hope of being able to change your circumstances is even more disheartening. The feeling of powerlessness before your persecutors, adding vulnerability to victimhood, is a frightening combination.
But this is not just a letter to the church of ancient Philadelphia. All these letters end with the admonition, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (13). The Spirit still speaks to the churches today. He is speaking to our church. He is speaking to each of us, and we need to be willing to listen to what he has to say. We are not meant to read this for the purpose of merely learning about what went wrong and what was right with the church at the end of the first century. Rather, each of these letters are meant, I believe, to cause each of us to examine ourselves in light of the rebukes and to be exhorted in light of the commands and to be encouraged in light of the promises.
The call to faithfulness was not just a call for the saints in Philadelphia; it is a call to everyone who names the name of Christ. And the fact that Christ calls a church to faithfulness in the midst of persecution and powerlessness is a reminder that the call to endure through hardness is not something merely theoretical, but something actually experienced by believers from the very beginning. It is a reminder that those of us who are suffering cannot use our suffering as an excuse to clock out or walk away from holding fast to the name of Christ. Christ calls us to take our crosses and follow him. The path of the cross is not easy, but it is the path that Christians have taken from the very beginning. We are not walking a new path or a road less taken when we take the narrow way. This is the way believers have taken from the very beginning.
The Call to Faithfulness
But what does this look like? What are we called to be faithful to? Well, in terms of verses 8 and 10, it is clear, isn’t it? We are called to be faithful to the name of Christ and to the word of Christ.
What does faithfulness to the name of Christ look like? Notice the particular way this is put in verse 8, “hast not denied my name.” I think it is helpful to compare this with something our Lord said to his disciples in Matthew 10. There he said, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (31-33). To deny the name of Christ is to deny Christ; this is the opposite of acknowledging him or confessing him before men. So to not deny the name of Christ means that you don’t hide the fact that you are a Christian, even when it is to your disadvantage to do so, or when it might bring down upon you the wrath of others.
You will notice in our Lord’s words what it is that might keep us from confessing him. It is fear (31). He tells us to “fear not” because he knows that the fear of men is the thing that so often kills faithfulness to Jesus. The Philadelphian Christians had many genuine reasons to fear in light of the persecution they were experiencing. But they did not deny the name of Christ; they did not give in to fear. Instead, they boldly owned the name of their Lord even when it cost them dearly.
Why would they do that? I will tell you why. It is because Christ was more precious to them that anything they could lose in this world. That is what is ultimately behind the faithfulness that Jesus calls us to. It is why the call to discipleship is the call to die to every other allegiance and to give our hearts entirely to him. Are you willing to do that? Have you counted the cost? Listen to the words of the Lord: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Mt. 10:37-39).
The Christians at Philadelphia were examples of men and women who loved the Lord more than their own lives. They openly and unashamedly took their cross and followed Jesus. Will you not do the same? Listen, young men and young women, Christ is calling you to follow him. Will you? Are you willing to take the cross, to die to yourself? If your answer to that is yes, then you must openly acknowledge him. That means, at least partly, being baptized and publicly identifying with the church, and then to live a life consistent with that confession of faith.
The apostle Paul was like this. He endured a lot for the sake of the Lord. But he never complained. Even as he languished in prison, he wrote this to the church in Philippi: “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20-21). He was genuinely willing to die for Christ. His “earnest expectation” was not so much to be delivered from prison but to give an unashamed and bold witness for Christ, even if it meant the taking of his life. How and why could he do this? It was because he cherished Christ above all things. To die didn’t mean the loss of anything ultimately precious to him; instead it meant to be with Christ (23), and that made death gain for Paul. The question is: are we like that?
Then, let us consider what it means to be faithful to the word of Christ. You cannot really separate the word of Christ from the name of Christ. To hold fast to his name is to hold fast to his word. But it is worthwhile, I think, to consider them separately so we can fully understand what is involved in the call to be faithful to him.
To be faithful to the word of Christ means that we believe his teaching and obey his commandments. And of course we find his teaching and his words in the whole of the New Testament. Not just the Gospels, but in the Acts and the epistles as well. The apostles were commissioned by Christ to give us his words. Those who are unwilling to hear the apostles do not hear Christ.
In most of the other churches (with the exception of Smyrna), there were problems with false teaching and/or immorality and worldliness. There is no hint of this in the letter to the Philadelphian church. They were faithful in embracing all the word of God for all their lives. Do we? Are we? This doesn’t mean we must be perfect but that the trajectory of our lives is conformity to the word of Christ in our hearts, minds, and lives.
That is the call to faithfulness. We are not called to be faithful to ourselves or to the traditions of men. We are called to remain firm in our commitment to the Lord, to his name and his word. But how do you do this? How do you do it so that you don’t become worn down and bitter and hopeless? Especially if, like the Philadelphian Christians, faithfulness requires so much of us, how do we remain faithful? What resources can we draw upon, especially when all we can see in ourselves is weakness and blindness? How can we, as the apostle Paul prayed for the Colossians, have “longsuffering with joyfulness” (Col. 1:11)?
The rest of verses 7-13 of our text show us where our resources are. They are in Christ, “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (9) so that we “are complete in him” (10). Again, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there is only one imperative in the message to this church. For every precept there are ten promises. Everything else is meant to encourage them and to strengthen them and to give them hope. Everything else here is meant to direct their attention away from themselves and to Christ. Which is what we need to do above all else. In particular, we see four things to which we are meant to look. I want to put them to you in four realities that ground our faithfulness in joyful hope: acceptance, acknowledgement, acquittal, and award.
Four realities that ground our faithfulness in joyful hope.
Acceptance with God (7-8)
In contrast to the taunts of those who belonged to the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9), who had cast the Christians out and excommunicated them, our Lord comes to the church and affirms his acceptance of them. He reminds them that however they may be despised and rejected by men, they have been embraced in the love and grace of God through Christ. He does this through the two images of a key and a door.
We read: “These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” (7-8). In the Bible, a key was a symbol of authority. In fact, we encounter this exact expression in the book of Isaiah, when God takes “the key of David” from a man by the name of Shebna and gives it to Eliakim. Neither man was the king, but having “the key of David” meant having authority in the Davidic kingdom to aid in administering the rule of the king: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah: and I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa. 22:20-22). When our Lord commits the authority of apostleship to the twelve, he does this in the language of a key (cf. Mt. 16:19). The fact that Christ has the key of David means that he has authority in the Messianic kingdom. It is similar to what our Lord said in the opening chapter of Revelation: “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and death” (1:18).
The point is that no one can open the door to the kingdom again any man when Christ has opened it to them. Keys open doors, and the door here is the door by which we enter into salvation and acceptance with God. Nor can any man open the door of the kingdom to any man when Christ has shut it. The point here is access to the kingdom, and the fact that Jesus alone determines who enters the kingdom of heaven and who does not. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6). There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). He had opened the door to the Philadelphian believers, and it didn’t matter whether or not they were acknowledged by the Jews or not. It didn’t matter whether or not the civil authorities accepted them or not. Christ had, and because Christ had accepted them, there was nothing anyone could do to change that. He doesn’t receive us into his fellowship and then change his mind. He keeps us by his grace.
The need for acceptance and affirmation can be tremendous. When we don’t receive it, we can become bitter. The lack of acceptance can paralyze a person by casting them into deep depression. But, my friend, if you have trusted in Christ as your Savior and Lord, on the authority of his word I can say that you are accepted by him. He receives you; you are forgiven by his blood and justified by his righteousness. Think about it: God loves you! The love of those we hold dearest to our hearts is but a faint expression of the love of God in Christ. Oh, may we lay hold on this reality: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19).
Acknowledgement by Christ (9)
Remember what our Lord told his disciples: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32-33). On the Day of Judgment, it won’t matter how popular or successful or comfortable a person was in this life. All that will matter for eternity is whether or not the Lord Jesus Christ will stand up for you on that day.
But our Lord does one better than that for these believers. He tells them: “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (Rev. 3:9). In other words, he is telling them that the Jews which had rejected them and who believed quite sincerely that they were heretics bound for hell will one day see very clearly that they were wrong, and not only will they see that but that they will themselves acknowledge that fact to these very believers by coming and bowing down before their feet. Not only will Jesus acknowledge them before men; he will force their enemies to acknowledge the fact that Christ loves them.
To understand just how remarkable this is, consider the following prophesies in Isaiah:
The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; and they shall call thee; The city of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel. (Isa. 60:14)
Thus saith the Lord, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall come over, and they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God. (Isa. 45:14)
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me. (Isa. 49:23)
In each of these passages, Isaiah envisions the enemies of Israel (Gentiles!) coming and bowing down before the feet of the children of Israel as acts of submission to them. What our Lord does here is to reverse the image: now it is Jews who are bowing down before the Christians, many of whom would have been Gentiles. That doesn’t mean that these prophesies were wrong: what it shows is that the church is the true Israel; it is the church which now inherits the saving promises of Abraham. We are all sons and daughters of Abraham by faith (Rom. 4:11-13). On the other hand, anyone – even someone who belongs to the physical race of Abraham – who rejects Christ, will be cast out of the kingdom forever.
Brothers and sisters, when you are misunderstood, isolated, and ostracized by others, on account of your faith in Christ, remember this: if God is for you, who can successfully be against you (cf. Rom. 8:31)? Christ will stand up for you, and not only will he stand up for you, but he will also cause all those who stood against you for your faithfulness to him to come and bow down before your feet.
Acquittal before the Judge (10)
In verse 10, we read, “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” I believe that this verse is a reference to the Final Judgment and is a promise to all believers that they will be rescued from it.
However, I need to pause here and to address another popular interpretation of this verse. It is often read to refer to what is called the rapture, when Jesus comes back to earth secretly and raptures (takes to heaven) all believers and rescues them from the final tribulation by which God will judge his enemies upon the earth before Jesus comes visibly and glorious to establish his earthly kingdom. And they argue that because our Lord promises to “keep thee from the hour of temptation” it really does mean that believers will not have to go through the final tribulation but will be kept from it altogether.
I don’t believe that this is a reference to a secret rapture; in fact, I don’t think the Scriptures teach this at all. It is based upon a mistaken interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:17, where the apostle tells us that “we which are alive and remain [at the coming of Jesus, ver. 15] shall be caught up together with them [those believers who had already died] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” The mistake here is to see meeting the Lord in the air as meaning that we will be raptured up to heaven away from the earth.
But that is almost certainly not what the text means. The word for “meet” here is used two other times in the NT, in Mt. 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places, they refer to people who meet someone as they are coming to a place and then joining them as they complete their journey to that place. In Mt. 25:6 it is used of the virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom. This doesn’t mean the bridegroom turned around and went back when the virgins met him; it means that they joined him on the last part of his journey to meet his bride. In Acts 28:15, it is used to describe how Christians from nearby cities met Paul and joined him on the final leg of his journey to Rome. It stands to reason, then, that meeting Christ in 1 Thess. 4:17 does not mean meeting him only to find him turn around and go back into heaven. It means to join him on the final part of his journey back to earth. 1 Thess. 4:17 is not referring to a secret rapture but to the visible, glorious Second Coming of Christ when he returns to earth to raise the dead and establish his kingdom.
I don’t believe in a rapture of believers into heaven before the end; I believe in the rapture of believers at the end. I do believe that we will be raptured up to meet Christ, for 1 Thess. 4 teaches that, but not to be taken into heaven. We are raptured to meet Christ as he returns to establish his kingdom upon the earth at the end and to join him in that kingdom. There is no pre-tribulation rapture; there is no promise that we will be saved from earthly trials this side of the Second Coming. What we are promised is grace to endure through them. Our Lord doesn’t pray that his disciples be taken out of the world, but to be kept from the evil and the evil one (Jn. 17:15).
What then is meant by Rev. 3:10? Some interpret this as a localized, temporal judgement (like the destruction of Jerusalem). However, this can’t be the case; the worldwide language here precludes that. I also have a problem viewing this as a promise to be saved from or through the final tribulation at the end of the age. It is true that this is a promise to all believers, but it was first of all a promise to this church in Philadelphia at the end of the first century. That being the case, our Lord knew they would not encounter that particular trial. So why promise them deliverance from it? I don’t see why. Rather, as I said, I believe this is a reference to the Final Judgment and the promise that God’s people will be rescued from it.
This language is consistent with the final judgment for two reasons. First, the use of the word “hour” is used in other instances in Revelation to refer to God’s final judgment. For example, in 14:6-7, we read, “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (see also 14:15; 18:10, 17, 19).
Second, the “earth-dwellers” is almost uniformly a reference to unbelievers in the book of Revelation (see 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 17:2, 8). This is not so much a refence to the place where the tribulation will take place, but rather a reference to the type of person who will be placed in the furnace of this trial. The believer will be rescued from, not from earthly trials, but from the final judgment by which the wicked will be eternally condemned and the righteous shine in the kingdom as the sun in its glory.
Brothers and sisters, it is no mark of God’s displeasure that you are going through trials now. Nor is it evidence that God either doesn’t care or can’t help. God has promised that we will go through trials and tribulations. It is role of faith to carry us through it, not to keep us from it. But what God has promised is this: that the sins which might have weighed our souls down into eternal punishment on the Day of Final Judgment will not stand against us in that day. We will be acquitted and enter eternal glory. It is true that the verdict “not guilty!” is already ours through faith in Christ. But the verdict will one day be read aloud for all to hear. It is in this sense that we will be kept from the hour of tribulation.
The Award of heaven (11-12)
I hope you don’t hear that wrong. I’m not saying that heaven is awarded to us on the basis of our own merit. It is not. Salvation is entirely of grace. But heaven and its glories are nevertheless spoken of in terms of reward (Mt. 16:27; Lk. 6:23; Col. 3:24; Heb. 11:26; Rev. 22:12). An award is usually thought of in terms of something good. In fact, here, it is spoken of in terms of a crown (11). And it is in this sense that I speak of heaven.
We see heaven and the eternal glory spoken of here in verses 11-12. “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.” We of course should not read this over-literally. No one wants to be turned into a pillar! Rather, this is simply a way of talking about participation in the future eternal kingdom of God. To be in the temple of God is to enjoy the closest possible fellowship with God. That is the place of real joy and peace. And the fact that his name is written on you means that this is the place to which you belong. It reminds me of what the apostle Paul said to the Philippian believers: “For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).
So think about all these things: the fact of your acceptance with God through Christ, the fact that Christ will acknowledge you before your Father and will cause your enemies to bow before you, the fact that you will be acquitted in the Final Judgment because of what Christ has done, and the fact that you belong to and will eternally enjoy everlasting joy and peace in the presence of God in the New Jerusalem. Now put your present trials, as terrible as they are and which are pressing in upon your faith and choking your hope, put them in comparison to these realties. Can we not say that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18)? Do we not have reason to persevere in faithfulness to the Lord? Can we not agree with the apostle James, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (Jam. 1:12)? Brothers and sisters, let us remain faithful, that no one take our crown; let us be overcomers!