Sermon: Philadelphia

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Revelation, chapter 3, beginning in verse 7. Revelation is in the New Testament – the last book in the Bible. We have been listen to God’s word this summer from the book of revelation in order to tune our hearts to the gospel in a noisy, out-of-tune world. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

“These are the words of the holy one, the true one,

who has the keys of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying, I will make them come and bow down before you feet and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon, hold fast to what you have so that no one will seize your crown.

If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God, you will never go out of it, and I will write on you the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

In each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation, the first word is about Jesus. There is a steady pattern of introduction, affirmation, correction, and promise, with a lot of differences along the way, but the first word in every letter is about Jesus.

Before we talk about the church, we must speak of Jesus. Order matters. It is always first Jesus and then the Church. Before we can speak affirmation or rebuke, warning or promise, we must speak of Jesus. The message of the church is not principally about the church, but about Jesus. What the church proclaims as the faith once for all delivered to the saints is the faith that finds its center in God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The message of the church is not fundamentally about the church, it is about Jesus.

In a similar way, these letters to the churches and for the churches do not speak first about the church, but about Jesus. These introductions, These are the words of the holy one, the true one…these are the words of the Son of God…These are the words of him who holds the seven stars…These are not throwaway words, but the very foundation of the rest of the letter. Who Jesus is and what he does stands as first and most important. In these letters to the churches, Jesus is first – living and active – Jesus reminds them who he is before he says anything else.

If we miss this, God easily disappears from the picture and these letters become another message saying ‘just try harder.’ If we lose Jesus, we miss that these letters proclaim the gospel. If we lose Jesus, we fall back into a world where everything depends on us and our effort, a world we know exhausts and breaks both body and soul.

In these letters, as in the Christian life, it is always Jesus first and only then does it come to us. So who is Jesus?

We are told Jesus is the holy one, the true one. Jesus is holy – he is pure and clean, living a perfect sinless life, upright and good in all that he does. Jesus is holy – he is also set apart, set apart for the mission given to him. Jesus is true – he is faithful in all he does, consistent in the core of his being. He is true – he speaks the truth, he is the truth.

We are told Jesus has the keys of David. Jesus has authority and power. Jesus sits upon the throne of David and has the power over all God’s people. And he uses this power to open and to close. We will talk more about what that means in a moment, but Jesus has power, he has authority, and he uses it to create opportunity and access and to restrict opportunity and access. And what Jesus does, cannot be undone by any other. No one has power to close where Jesus opens or open where he closes.

This is Jesus – holy and true, opening and closing, full of power and authority.

Philadelphia was a weak church, at least on the outside. Jesus says, I know that you have but little strength. Philadelphia was not a strong, prominent, or powerful community. It was weak, it had little strength. Yet, Jesus has nothing bad to say about them.

Of the seven letters, only two have no word of correction from Jesus – Smyrna and Philadelphia. And both of these churches were small and weak. They both experienced opposition from the local synagogues, what Jesus calls the synagogue of Satan. We should notice that Revelation is not condemning all Jews out of hand, but is speaking directly about those who claim the status as the people of God even as they reject the Messiah and his people.

Both Smyrna and Philadelphia were churches that, from the outside, looked powerless. They did not have the prestige of Ephesus, which had been home to the Apostles Paul and John. Philadelphia was newer than all the other cities. It didn’t have the history, the size, or the prestige of the others. And the community of Christians in Philadelphia had but little strength.

But Jesus loved them. Jesus says I will make them (that is the Jews opposing the church) come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. It is unclear whether this humbling of the synagogue will happen soon or at the last judgment, but either way, they will learn that Jesus has loved the church.

The love of Jesus is not deserved, but given freely. It is not based upon how powerful or successful or put-together you are, but based upon the loving character of Jesus himself.

Jesus loves little Philadelphia, weak and powerless Philadelphia, insignificant Philadelphia. This should be encouraging to every person, every church that feels powerless and insignificant. Jesus not only cares about the big prominent churches or the successful people, but about those the world deems insignificant and powerless. Jesus loves Philadelphia.

Perhaps one of the more beautiful things about a church like Philadelphia is that, in their weakness, they learn how much they need Jesus. They learn that it must always be Jesus first, Jesus active, Jesus working in and through them, because they cannot pretend otherwise. With but a little strength, Philadelphia cannot pretend that the gospel goes forth and bears fruit because they mustered up the energy and made it happen. They know it is only by the grace and work of God. Philadelphia cannot pretend like they are self-sufficient. They know deeply that they live, work, and grow only because of Jesus – the holy one, the true one, who has the keys of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

But a sense of self-sufficiency dies hard. We like being able to take care of ourselves. We have trouble admitting that we need others – need God – in order to live.

A sense of self-sufficiency dies hard. Pastor Olga and I were driving through Ontario last week and were looking for a gas station. It is more common to still have full service stations in Canada than it is here in the states. I asked if the station she wanted us to go to was full or self-service, because I wanted self-service. I didn’t want someone else filling my gas tank. I can do it, I want to do it myself. It’s a small thing, but as we talked about it, I realized that I simply did not want someone else to help me with something I believed I could do myself. I didn’t want to sit and be served – I felt like I was saying I couldn’t fill my own gas tank and I wanted to prove to everyone that I could do it.

We don’t often like being helped, because it pricks a hole in our illusion that we can take care of life on our own. But we can’t. We do not have the strength to make it through life all by ourselves. We certainly cannot live as the people of God, be reconciled to God, or participate in God’s mission by ourselves. But that illusion that we can dies hard. It often takes being confronted with our own weakness, our own frailty in order for us to see it.

“The powerful church has too much to lose, humanly speaking; therefore it will shy away from the risks involved in bold confession.” Not so for Philadelphia. Like the rest of us, their life and identity was found in Jesus Christ. Jesus kept them and loved them and they knew it. And in many ways, it was their weakness that opened their eyes to the incredible grace of God.

We know that Philadelphia had little strength and were beloved by Jesus. We also know that they kept God’s word and that Christ kept them. Twice, the fact that this community kept the word of God is mentioned. I know that you have but little strength and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name…Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial.

Philadelphia was a community that kept the word of God. The only source of life is found in Jesus and Jesus reveals himself in his word, so it is vital to keep and cherish the word of God. Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on it they meditate day and night, they are like trees planted by streams of water, which bear fruit in its season and its leaves do not wither, in all that they do, they prosper.

The two things we know about Philadelphia was that they were weak and that they kept the Word. And that’s all it took. Jesus has nothing to say against them. They lived in radical dependence on God and boldly followed and confessed his word.

And in their trials and in the trials to come, Jesus says he will keep them. They kept Jesus’ word of patient endurance during the trials and weak periods of their life, and Jesus promises to preserve them in the coming trials.

There is a lot of debate and disagreement over what is meant by I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. Some think it refers to the rapture, but I do not believe that. Others that Jesus will keep the faithful from experiencing certain trials that the rest of the world will face, or that he will protect them during the trials so that they will not be overcome, or that he will protect them spiritually from falling from the faith even if their physical bodies are threatened. I’m undecided on which I prefer, but I do know this: Jesus promises to protect, to watch over, and to keep his people during times of trial. In the letter to Philadelphia, Jesus is saying that what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer – lead us not into the time of trial, but deliver us from evil – that pray will be answered.

Jesus loves this church that has little strength. He sustains them by his Word. He praises them for keeping it and protects them in the trials. But Jesus also opens the door for them.

I know your works. Look, I am setting before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.

What does it mean that, in addition to all that Jesus does to create and sustain this church, he sets before them an open door? Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2: Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. And again from Acts 14: On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.

The phrase ‘God opened a door’ is used in the New Testament to refer to an opportunity for ministry, particularly for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus proclaims he has set an open door before the church in Philadelphia. Jesus has a mission for Philadelphia Even in this small, weak community, the door is open. There is opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. The door is open, not because of the prominence or prestige of the church, but because Jesus has opened it and he says no one is able to shut it.

No matter how small or how powerless we are, we are called to mission. Look! I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. We may think that we are too small, too young, too old, our area is too rural, or people too resistant. But Jesus has opened the door and no one can shut it.

Jesus has opened the door, created opportunities in your life and mine to share the good news of Jesus Christ – will we walk through the door? Will we step out in faith and share the hope of the world with those who need it? Look! I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. Will we walk through it?

Every step of the way, it has been Jesus at work in Philadelphia. He is the holy and true one who keeps all his promises to protect his people. He is the one with all authority, whose strength upholds powerless churches. He is the one whose words the church keeps and finds life. And he is the one who opens the door for mission and nothing, not even the gates of hell, will stand against him.

At the end, for those who keep the faith, Jesus promises a place and name. If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God, you will never go out of it. Jesus promises that for those who belong to him, who have received the words of promise, they will have an unmovable place in the very house of God. They will be where God dwells and nothing will separate them from him. And Jesus promises them a name. And I will write on you the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Jesus promises that we will have his name, the Father’s name, and the name of the heavenly city written upon us.

Having a name written on something is a sign of belonging. Think of how often parent’s write their children’s names on tags of their clothes. It is a sign of belonging. Those who keep Christ’s word will have the Lord’s name written on them – they will belong to him for eternity.

Powerlessness or obscurity are not barriers to Jesus’ work. Trials and opposition will not overwhelm those whom Jesus loves and on whom he writes his own new name. And friends, by the power and grace of Jesus Christ, the door stands open to share the good news.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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