As I read this today, I’m reminded of some thoughts concerning Job. He was by no means sinless (there’s only One who can claim that), but the Lord Almighty, who knows everything about everyone’s heart, said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” If I knew that the Lord said about me what he said about Job, I’d be thrilled!
No church is perfect, because no church member is perfect. However, to say that there’s absolutely no difference between a church that’s trying to follow Christ and one which is dead—to say that there’s no difference between a church like the one at Sardis and the one at Philadelphia--makes no sense in light of what we’ve been reading. These are letters personally dictated by Jesus—with the all-piercing eyes like flaming fire—to his churches. He praises them when they’re doing something right, and he censures them—to the point of removing them as a church—when they’re not.
All of this is to lead up to my point that of all the churches listed in chapters two and three, this is the only one he praises unconditionally. No, they weren’t perfect, but for whatever reason he didn’t choose to correct them on anything specific in this forum. Just like with Job, if I knew that Jesus was thinking about my church the way he thought about this one, I’d be thrilled. So let’s see what our Lord has to say about and to them, and glean what practical lessons we can.
I doubt there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know this, but “Philadelphia” means “brotherly love.” Background from MacArthur: “Located on a hillside about 30 miles SE of Sardis, the city (modern Alashehir [in Turkey]) was founded around 190 B.C. by Attalus II, king of Pergamos. His unusual devotion to his brother earned the city its name, 'brotherly love.' The city was an important commercial stop on a major trade route called the Imperial Post Road, a first century mail route. Although Scripture does not mention this church elsewhere, it was probably the fruit of Paul's extended ministry in Ephesus (cf. Ac 19:10).”
Our Lord is holy (utterly unique in the universe), and true (in fact, he’s Truth incarnate). In other words, we can utterly entrust everything we have, including our souls, into what he says. He holds the key of David, probably referring to the Kingdom which he inherited as the fulfillment of God’s promises to David. The main point here with the key is sovereignty, which is what he’s talking about when he says that when he opens a door, it stays open. When he closes a door, it stays closed. He’s opened the door of Heaven, and nothing in the forces of Hell are going to shut it. He’s closed the door on any possibility that his plan is going to be thwarted.
From the reading, this also apparently applies in our personal lives. He places a ministry or an opportunity in front of us, and when he opens it, nothing in all creation can shut it again except him. Being missions-minded as I’ve been, I can see how the church has been praying for the Lord Jesus to open doors in areas which are (supposedly) closed to the Message. Or I can see how the Adversary is trying to find an inroad into a church, and we need to pray that the Lord’ll shut the door in his face. Again, the point is sovereignty: He’s in charge, and everyone gets whatever authority or power or ability they have at his pleasure and according to his plan.
He knew that they had “little strength.” On our own, this describes all of us. Jesus told us to ask that the Father will keep us out of temptation, and the reason we need to pray that, early and often, is because we also have little strength. On our own, we’ll fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane. But he knows how little strength we have. How comforting! He knows how weak I am, and he keeps that in mind every moment of every day as he watches over me.
He also knows when I’ve been slandered. During those days they were under assault from the “Jews” who falsely claimed to be God’s people. Nowadays the situation has changed, and the worst opponents we have are certainly not any Jewish people. But in every age Satan has his pawns and tools, and one of his favorite weapons which he’s always used is slander against believers. During the early days of the Church, believers were accused of cannibalism (since they claimed to “eat the flesh” and "drink the blood" of their Savior) and incest (since they called everyone “brother” and “sister”). In this age the calumny is that we “hate” people if we tell them that their sexual lifestyle isn’t acceptable to God, and we’re “narrow-minded” and “bigoted” because we have the gall to tell people that they have to believe in Christ to be saved. It’s always been this way, and it’ll always be until he returns. The specific lies change with the times, but the method never does.
One day, as C. S. Lewis put it in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, “All names will . . . be restored to their proper owners.” Right now our opponents try to saddle us with all sorts of vile names, but there will come a day when he’ll set things right. I have to admit I’m not all that comfortable visualizing anyone bowing down before me, but the idea of making the enemies of the Church admit that they were wrong. . . well, there’s a certain sense of justice that appeals to.
There’s no real fault-finding in this letter, but he does have a command with a warning behind it: Hold on to what you have. This isn’t talking about salvation, because that’s not something you hold on to. On that score it’s not an issue of you holding on to anything: It’s an issue of Jesus (and his Father) holding onto you. But there are some things you have to hold on to. You can let Satan steal them from you if you’re not watching: Your witness before the world, your effectiveness in his Kingdom, your assurance that you belong to him, your joy and peace and sense of purpose, among other things. And what you have left after Jesus’ all-piercing gaze burns through all your alleged works, that’s the “crown” he’s talking about here. Satan’s the king among thieves, and he can steal something really precious from you. But he can only take from you what you don’t guard.
Then we come to the promise he has for all who really belong to him. Again, if you’re a believer, this applies to you: “I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.” I’ll leave most of those beautiful images without comment, but one I like in particular, the fact that he’s going to write on me his new name. Not my new name. No, it’s wonderful that I have a new name that he’s given me, but he has a new name that’s never been revealed before. Here’s MacArthur again: “At the moment we see Christ, whatever we may have called Him and understood by that name will pale in the reality of what we see. And He will give us a new, eternal name by which we will know Him.” Amen.
He ends the letter, as he always does, with a command and warning to listen to (and act on) what the Spirit’s saying to the church here. To me, it seems like he’s saying that the even the “best case scenario” church needs to be warned to keep its eye on the ball; there's never any point at which we can be complacent or "coast." At all times, no matter well-off we are spiritually, we have to watch out for the Thief who wants to steal whatever he can get away with. And when we feel exhausted and are ready to give up, he says “I know how much strength you have. Just hold on for a little while longer, and I’ll make it right.”