Revelation 3:7-13 | The Letter to the Church in Philadelphia
Let’s open the Bible to Revelation 3:7-13, the letter from Jesus to the church in Philadelphia.
As you’re turning, the other day, a friend pointed to this story published in the NY Times in 2011 about a stone tablet on the coast of Japan.
“The stone tablet has stood on this forested hillside since before they were born, but the villagers have faithfully obeyed the stark warning carved on its weathered face: “Do not build your homes below this point!”
Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.
“They knew the horrors of tsunamis, so they erected that stone to warn us,” said the village leader.
Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation.”
I find that fascinating. Messages from the past serving those living in the present.
When we approach these letters to the churches (and the entire Bible, really) we have something similar. But instead of messages from unknown ancestors warning of tsunamis from the sea, we have a message from Jesus about how he’s saved us from the tsunami of sin. We have his word speaking to us, warning, correcting, and in the case of our passage today, encouraging and comforting. These letters stand like Tsunami stones in the landscape of the Bible, and each sends a certain urgent message relevant in some way to every church.
So, what’s the message in this particular letter? To endure suffering, stay close to Jesus,. Keep his word, and you can withstand anything.
Let’s hear this message from Revelation 3:7-13 now.
7 “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.
8 “ ‘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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 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. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
This is God’s word.
Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. It appears the ancient church took that name to heart. They loved Jesus, and Jesus was not ashamed to call them brothers (Hebrews 2:11). Out of the seven churches, only this church and the church in Smryna received unqualified praise and approval. They deeply pleased Jesus.
So who was this church? Well, Philadelphia was a strategically located trade town in Asia. It stood between Rome and the eastern world and was known as “little Athens” because of it’s many gods and idols. But though it was filled with idolatry, the church remained faithful to Jesus. They had little power, as Jesus mentions in the letter. They also faced persecution from the Jews, which we see in verse 9. But despite weakness and opposition, they trusted his word and remained faithful to him. In a world filled with idolatry, they listened to Jesus alone, and that was their greatest achievement. That’s our call today—listen to and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Scriptures must be the centering point of every church.
We must listen to the great Tsunami Stone himself, Jesus Christ, who is more than worthy of our ears. Listen to how Jesus introduces himself in verse 7. “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.”
We have in that single verse a four-fold description of Christ.
1) He’s the holy one. This is the distinctive attribute of God. He’s set apart, perfect, pure.
2) He’s true. He cannot lie. He keeps his word. He’s fully trustworthy at all times and in every way.
3) He has the key of David. Keys and locks and doors are a sign of power and official authority. Jesus holds the key not to Philadelphia but to the house of David. Remember, God told David that he would establish his kingdom and his son would reign on the throne forever. Jesus is that Son who takes the seat, the eternal throne.
4) He is the one who opens and shuts the doors. He’s sovereign over all. He’s powerful, able to open and shut.
These four marks show Christ worthy of our attention. He’s the pure one, the right one, the key to every door. How could we not listen to him?
We need this message today because at some point our faith will be tested, just as the Philadelphian church was, and when it is, we need the everlasting word of Jesus to help us stand like oaks of righteousness.
So, to that end, let’s consider three truths about the word of Jesus from this passage:
1. The word of Jesus is an open door for his humble people (v. 8).
2. The word of Jesus is a sure foundation for his suffering people (vv. 9-10).
3. The word of Jesus is a promise for his enduring people (v. 11-12).
The word of Jesus is an open door for his humble people (v. 8)
Look again at verse 8 “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.”
Jesus opens every letter with his knowledge of each church. What does he know about this particular church? That they have but little power. That’s not an insult or rebuke. It’s just an acknowledgment that they had very little influence in their culture. They were small in size. Even more, they were persecuted by the Jews who were stronger than them, as we see in verse 9. Yet in the face of opposition, they did not deny their faith in Christ.
Jesus wants them to know that the opposition was not their fault. Their suffering wasn’t a result of their lack of faith or anything else. They kept his word. They stood firm. He knows their heart of faith toward him and their love for him. So, to encourage them, Jesus says he set before them an open door, which no one is able to shut.
Now, there is some debate on what exactly this open door is. Often in the New Testament, an open door is a way of saying God provides an evangelistic opportunity. Some think that’s the meaning here. They argue that in verse 9, when he says the Jews will come bow at their feet, he’s opening the door of evangelism to them. But there is another meaning of “door” in the New Testament: entrance into the kingdom of God. Jesus refers to himself as “the door” in John 10:9, “I am the door of the sheep... If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” So Jesus is the doorway into salvation. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” The door symbolizes the need for a decision. It’s the entryway into Christ or the barrier keeping one from Christ. So, the door in this context seems to be entrance into Christ’s kingdom.
Here’s the point: this little church had no power, they suffered, and Jesus saved them. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the outward circumstances show. They’re inheritors of the kingdom of God because Jesus opened the door for them, and no one can shut it. No greater power can shut them out. No amount of opposition can suffer them away. Jesus holds them. They’re on the way to eternal life with him. Go ahead, world, do what you will, you can’t take away what Jesus gives!
This is so Jesus! Remember what he said in John 10: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.” The focus is on the power of God. So what if this church has little power? Their God has all the power!
We must understand that it’s God’s power that determines our future. Our salvation and commendation from him is not based on the great things we do but on the great things Jesus has done. All he’s asking of us is to humbly keep his powerful word. He’ll do the rest.
When suffering comes, it’s our reliance on Jesus in the midst of suffering that gives us such strong confidence in him. When Jesus is all we have, we realize Jesus is all we need.
This church’s faith caused them to rise above their own strength and lay hold of the strength of God. That’s what we need too. We need the strong word of God for our little-power lives. We need the mighty hand of Jesus to hold us firm when everything else feels as if it’s falling away.
Which takes us to our second point.
The word of Jesus is a sure foundation for his suffering people
Look at verses 9 and 10: “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”
When Jesus opens the door of salvation, we realize that his everlasting word, the word that has proved true throughout history, the word that says he’s coming soon, is the most solid foundation in the entire world. The church in Philadelphia knew that. That’s why they stood firm in the face of persecution. They held fast to Jesus’ promise to give them eternal life.
Suffering shows us who we really are. When we suffer with Jesus, we see how Christian—or not—we really are. Without the closed doors of our world seen our suffering, we often never really see the open doors of Jesus in his world seen in his grace. We never enter because we never see a need. But when things don’t go as planned, we realize we need more than our resources. We need more than our wisdom. We need more than what we can gain by our work. We need a savior to rescue us. We need a foundation beneath us stronger than the happy platitudes of this world. We need the rock of the Bible.
It’s that rock of the Word of God that sustained these Christians in Philadelphia. We see in verse 9 that the Jews in the synagogue of Satan have caused harm to the church. These Jews, Jesus says, are not really Jews, but lie. What does that mean? It means what Paul meant in Romans 2 when he said no one is a Jew outwardly but inwardly, by the Spirit. These Jews didn’t love God. They loved themselves and their power and their status and their self-perceived righteousness. A true Jew would not persecute Christ’s church, he would join Christ’s church!
But these Jews didn’t trust Jesus. They, like Satan, set themselves against him. So Jesus will show them how wrong they are and how right the church is. Jesus will bring about the vindication the church longs for. Jesus always makes things right. It might not be in the time we would choose, but it’s coming in his time! And in his timing, the Jews will not only see from afar how wrong they were, they will see close up how much Jesus loves his church, and the Jews will bow at their feet in confession of their error.
This would have been a remarkable event in the early church. We know the story of the Jews. They were the religious elite, the official establishment. They even had the backing of Rome in some areas of the world. They thought they held the keys to the kingdom, but Jesus is that key, and if they reject him, they never gain entrance.
And now, this upstart band of misfits who claim Jesus as Lord are withstanding persecution from the Jews and enduring. And Jesus is about to show them how much he loved this little church. See what he says. “Behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.”
Oh, let’s not race over that phrase. “I have loved you!” Jesus loves his church! If we just look to him and hold out our empty hands of faith, confessing that we need his salvation, he places in our empty hands his full heart of love.
If we’ve come to Christ in repentance and faith, everything in our life—all the good and all the bad and everything in between—is a witness to the dying love of Jesus. We may know his love but one day the whole world will see that he has loved us. The Bible says he will present us to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27). It doesn’t matter how much the world roughed you up. On that day, he will wash us clean and show the cosmos how he has loved us.
No one can take that from you. The world may say you’re worthless but Jesus died on the cross to prove otherwise. The world may say you’re ignorant but Jesus says your true knowledge is in him. The world may say you’re wasting your life but Jesus is just getting you ready for the wedding feast, for entrance into abundant, eternal life.
So, church, keep his word with patient endurance, because he rewards those who do. See that phrase there in verse 10? “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”
What does it mean to keep the word about patient endurance? Commentator Leon Morris points out that the original language reads more like, “the word of my steadfastness.” What steadfastness was that? The steadfastness to endure the cross. That’s the call of God on our life—to follow the steadfastness of Jesus. Are you doing that? Are you beholding him so that you can follow him?
If you are, you’ll find something amazing. Look at the second phrase in verse 10. “I will keep you from the hour of trial…” That little word keep is the same word kept earlier in the verse. As you keep Christ’s word, you find that Christ keeps you!
Here’s why this matters. You may worry if you can keep Christ’s word. You may wonder when suffering will be too much. Well, if you’re in Christ, if you believe he is your all in all, you don’t have to worry about that because it’s Christ who keeps you so that you can keep his word. Jesus is not saying, “Do this, then I’ll do that.” He’s saying, “I’ve done this so that you can do that.”
For this little church in Philadelphia, their faith in Christ not only helped them endure the persecution they already faced, it would help them endure the wider persecution to come. Jesus would keep them from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole word, to try those who dwell on the earth. Here’s how this helps us. As we suffer with Christ, we learn how to face future suffering. Suffering teaches us the answer to the test of life—and the answer is Jesus Christ. As we stand on his unchanging word, we find a sure foundation for our suffering, which helps us endure to the end, which is our third and final point.
The word of Jesus is a promise for his enduring people (vv. 11-12)
Look at verses 11 and 12. “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.”
Jesus is coming soon. Therefore, he says, hold fast. He means to hold on—to keep a firm grasp on. No one can steal their crown. Why not? Because Jesus traded in the crown of thorns for the crown of glory, and he gives that crown of glory to all his people suffering the thorns of this world. No one takes what he freely gives. He holds the keys. He is the door. So Jesus is not infusing doubt here. He’s not saying, “Worry about losing your crown.” Instead, he’s saying, “Don’t give it up. It’s coming soon. Endure! Hold fast! Trust me!”
Think of it this way. We’re all running a race. That’s what life is. The Bible uses that imagery over and over again. You’ve all watched a race, cheering for a winner. What do you cheer? You don’t say, “Ease up now, you’re almost there!” No! What do you say? “Go! Go! Go! Run! Run! Run! You’re almost there!” The closer we get to seeing Jesus, the harder we must push to get there, to finish our race. We can never ease up. Why? Because the prize is so close to being ours! Our best life is out there, in eternity with Jesus. Run to him! Never stop running to him! It’ll be hard. Every race is. And as we get closer to the end, it gets hard still. But Jesus ran his so that you can run yours. Take heart. Go!
“To the one who conquers,” Jesus says, “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.” We know from history that Philadelphia suffered a major earthquake in 17 AD, and there were others as well. It’s hard for a pillar to stand when the ground beneath it shakes, but Jesus promises to make his church into an immovable pillar. The world may knock you down in this life, but in the life to come, no one will have that power. Jesus will give every Christian a permanent place in the structure of God’s kingdom. The faithful are not only included in the kingdom of God in some general sense, as some extra in the film of eternity; they’re people of prominence in his kingdom. They’re pillars. Your future in Christ is incredibly solid.
And it’s and unending future. “Never shall he go out of it,” Jesus says. No one can come in and undo the work of Jesus. He will reign forever. No one will out vote him and he’ll never resign. His people will live forever in the presence of God as the people of God for the glory of God.
But there’s more! “I will write on him the name of my God.” That means we’ll belong to God. We’ll be marked as God’s people, renamed for his glory.
“And the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven.” We’ll have permanent citizenship in this kingdom. And this kingdom will not be far off. It will feel like home because it will be home. It will come down from God out of heaven and make its place on earth. The earth will be recreated, made new into heaven. But it won’t feel like a foreign country. We will be more fully home there than we are even now!
“And my own new name.” A new name in the Bible means a new status, a new function. What is this new name? We’re not sure, but whatever it is, it’s the name above every name. The name before whom everyone will one day bow. It’s the name of Jesus, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Lamb who was slain, the Lion of Judah, the Christ, the True One, the Holy One, God himself—and maybe there’s another name so glorious we can’t know it until we reach the other side. But whatever that name is, it’ll be written on us, marking us as his enduring people, claimed by him for all time.
Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Let me close with this.
What can we take from this letter? We can take the assurance that the people we desperately want to be, the God whom we desperately want to please, the place where we desperately want to live is coming. All we have to do is hold fast to the word of Jesus. Let’s stake it all on that unchanging, never-failing Word.
Look at verse 13. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The word of Jesus is our promise. It is the Tsunami Stone testifying to what’s coming. All we have to do is heed his word and we will be more than okay. We will be glorious. Can you hear that word today?