Philadelphia: Keeping the Word for the Crown
Topic: Persecution Passage: Revelation 3:`7–3:13
One of the earliest Christian Latin documents we have is a court record from North Africa. It’s known as The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs. Around AD 180, we learn of twelve Christians on trial in Carthage, because they wouldn’t worship the emperor. A man named Saturninus was governor.
At one point, Saturninus says, “We…are religious and our religion is simple: we swear by the birth spirit of our lord the emperor and offer sacrifice for his health, which you must do as well.” A Christian named Speratus responds: “If you are prepared to listen to me, I will tell you a mystery of simplicity.” Saturninus: “If you’re going to tell bad things about our sacred rituals, I will not listen to you. Rather, swear by the birth spirit of our lord the emperor.” Speratus: “I do not acknowledge the authority of this world, but I rather serve that God whom no one has seen or can see with these eyes…” Saturninus: “Stop being part of this madness! …Do you persevere in being a Christian?” Speratus: “I am a Christian.” Saturninus: “Do you want some time to consider the matter carefully?” Speratus: “In such a just cause there’s no need for careful consideration.” Saturninus: “Have a delay of 30 days and think things over!” Speratus: “I am a Christian.” The other Christians uttered their agreement with him.
The next lines are Saturninus reading their death sentence, to which the Christians respond: “We offer thanks to God. Today we are martyrs in heaven.” Put yourself in their shoes. Seven brothers, five sisters—few in number, little power before great rulers. What questions would you wrestle with? “Will I ever kiss my spouse again? Will I laugh with my children again? Will they seize everything I worked hard for. Would a little compromise be okay to care for my family? To keep church going?”
The persecuted church wrestles with questions like these all the time. Feeling small, powerless; and yet we have example after example of saints staying faithful—we remember them especially on this Day of Prayer for the Persecuted. How does one keep choosing faithfulness in the face of tribulation? Jesus’ message to the church in Philadelphia answers that question. When feeling powerless in tribulation, Jesus’ person and promises keep us choosing faithfulness. Read with me from verse 7…
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.
Little Power in Great Tribulation
Last Sunday, we looked at Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis. Jesus had nothing to commend. We find the opposite at Pergamum: Jesus has nothing to condemn. They share this with the church in Smyrna. Both churches have chosen faithfulness over compromise. But faithfulness has led to persecution, pressure to get them to compromise.
Notice how verse 9 mentions “those claiming to be Jews and are not but lie.” This same group persecuted the church in Smyrna. 2:9 says that Jesus knows “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Jesus speaks the same way of those persecuting the church in Philadelphia. Being a Jew, being a true child of Abraham, means more than just sharing a bloodline. You must share Abraham’s faith in Jesus. But these Jews have joined Satan to war against the church.
Notice also that verse 9 says “you have little power.” Socially speaking, Christians were outnumbered. Religiously speaking, Rome didn’t recognize them—they worshiped a man Rome hung on a cross. Economically speaking, they often didn’t have the resources to be influential. In 18:3, John describes how all the merchants of the earth have grown rich—listen to this—from the power of Babylon’s luxury. Luxury has powerful influence. By not bowing to luxury, these Christians have little power.
So, we have a church with little power/resources in great tribulation. But notice their response. Verse 8, “you have little power and yet you have kept my word and you have not denied my name.” Again in verse 10, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance…” Instead of folding under pressure, they keep Jesus’ word.
Specifically, he says his word about “patient endurance.” We saw this in 2:2. Endurance has to do with long-standing obedience in the face of trial. Part of that obedience includes not denying Jesus’ name. They acknowledge Jesus’ name. They acknowledge Jesus’ authority above all others. They publicly identified with Jesus. They were like the Scillitan martyrs, who confessed Jesus’ name at great cost.
For these believers, Jesus has one exhortation in verse 11: “I am coming soon, hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” He recognizes how well they’re running the race. He sees how far they’ve advanced. Now, he comes alongside them to cheer them on, to reassure them of his return, to help them persevere to the end. “Don’t give up. You’re almost there. The crown of life awaits you.” …But how will they keep going? How will they keep running? How will you keep running?
The answer is Jesus’ person and Jesus’ promises—that’s the major thrust of this passage; and I want to look at them more carefully. Let’s look first at Jesus’ person in verse 7. Jesus identifies himself with four phrases. The first two go together and the last two go together. Jesus is “the holy one, the true one.”
These recall titles given to God elsewhere in Scripture.[i] Especially in Isaiah, God refers to himself often as the holy one. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” cry the seraphim in Isaiah 6. There we get a glimpse of what God’s holiness entails. He is high and lifted up. God’s holiness is his “majestic otherness,” to use the words of David Wells.[ii] God’s holiness also includes his “moral otherness.”[iii] How does Isaiah respond to seeing God’s glory? He curses himself: “Woe is me…” God’s holiness illumines all. It reveals right from wrong, righteousness from evil.
Jesus takes up that title. He identifies himself with the God of Israel. That’s important because, when we get to verse 9, Jesus alludes to a promise from the Holy One in Isaiah 60:14. Only this time Jesus is Yahweh.
Jesus is also the true one. In the same way God is true, Revelation says Jesus’ testimony is true. His words are always trustworthy.[iv] That’s important because Jesus promises this church many good things. Identifying himself as “the true one” reassures the people that he will come through on his promises. It also stands in contrast to the liars he calls out in verse 9. They’re in cahoots with Satan and the Beast who deceive all nations. Jesus, however, is the true one.
Now, the next time we find both words together is 6:10. The martyrs stand before the altar in heaven and cry, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood…” There is comfort for the church in God being holy and true. He sees the evil committed against the church. He will not tolerate it. He will bring justice for his people because he is holy and true.
He also has the key of David. That’s the next two phrases: “the one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” The image comes from Isaiah 22:22. The focus is the dire state of David’s city, Jerusalem. Jerusalem should’ve represented God’s kingdom on earth. But it didn’t. The people failed to follow God’s ways. There’s also a steward named Shebna. He’s the man given charge of Jerusalem. He’s supposed to lead the city in God’s ways. Instead, he’s only concerned for himself. So, God thrusts him aside and appoints a servant named Eliakim.’ Eliakim would watch over Jerusalem like a father. He would be dependable. Verse 22 says, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” God entrusts Eliakim with authority over Jerusalem—again, God’s representative kingdom on earth. Eliakim controlled who entered the city and who didn’t. But, Isaiah says, not even the more honorable Eliakim would be able to bear the load. Restoring the people, building the kingdom, overseeing God’s city would take a far superior servant.
In steps Jesus. But he’s not just another honorable servant; he’s the King himself. His life, death, and resurrection, proves that he has the power to restore God’s people, to build God’s kingdom. Therefore, God entrusts Jesus with authority over the New Jerusalem. Jesus alone grants access to God’s city, God’s kingdom.
For a persecuted church—a church shut out of many social settings due to their allegiance to Jesus—what a comfort this title becomes when they consider Jesus’ first promise in verse 8. We’re shifting now from Jesus’ person to Jesus’ promises. He says, “Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” Some have taken that to mean missionary opportunity. Paul uses this image to describe the Lord opening a door for the gospel to spread in a city.[v] Perhaps…
But the context of Isaiah 22 seems to indicate Jesus granting them access to God’s city. In Revelation, God’s new city is where God’s people experience the fullness of all the blessings promised to David. Those blessings include a forever King sitting on a forever throne, bringing a forever kingdom, blessing all nations with a new world order in a new creation under the glory of God’s peace.[vi] Even more, God dwells there. In 4:1, John sees a door standing open in heaven. Through that door of God’s revelation, John receives access to God’s throne and the worship of the Lamb.
Consider how that promise would land on a church experiencing persecution. When family members exclude them, when friends shut them out, when the world slams shut every door that would help them, Jesus sets before them an open door into God’s city, an open door into God’s presence, that no one can shut. They may have little power, but they have access to a King with all power. They may not have much on earth, but they are rich in heaven. Jesus has opened the door to his heavenly city.
A second promise is vindication before their enemies. Verse 9 says, “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.” That comes from Isaiah 60:14.
Israel was suffering in exile under foreign oppressors. Pagan nations afflicted them and mocked them. But God promised a day when these pagan persecutors would prostrate themselves before a restored Israel. Isaiah says, “The sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet. They shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” That was the hope of the Jews.
But notice in Revelation 3:9, the nations won’t be honoring these Jews. Rather, these Jews will bow at the feet of the church, a church that included Gentiles, by the way. The irony is deliberate. By persecuting Christians, these Jews have joined the pagan nations. The true recipients of God’s promise in Isaiah 60 are those who keep Jesus’ word—no matter what their background is. The true Jews are those who belong to the Lamb. God will vindicate the church. Our persecutors will know that Jesus loved us.
He loved us. 1:5 says that he loved us by freeing us from our sins by his blood and making us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. Jesus doesn’t love everybody in this special way. He loves his church, and he will not tolerate people persecuting them. He will vindicate his people. Now, we’ll have to wait until 21:23-26 to learn how the fullness of that vindication comes with the New Jerusalem. But it’s enough for now to recognize that it will come. Rest assured in Jesus’ love that it will come.
A third promise: protection in tribulation. Verse 10, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that’s coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” “Those who dwell on the earth” aren’t just anybody. In 6:10, they murder Christians. In 11:10, they rejoice at the death of God’s prophets. In 13:8, they worship the Beast. In 17:2, they get drunk with sexual immorality. In 8:13, an angel pronounces woes on them. These are God’s enemies.
An hour of trial is coming on the whole word to try God’s enemies, to test them, to expose their allegiance to the Beast. Within John’s vision, this plays out among the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls. Plague after plague falls on God’s enemies, and still they choose their idols over worshiping God. When these judgments fall on the world, Christ will protect and preserve his people. He will keep them from that hour.
Some have said this means he’ll rapture the church to heaven. But it’s better to see this as a protection through tribulation. They won’t experience his wrathful plagues. They will experience persecution. They will experience hardships and trials. But they will not be the object of God’s judgments. They will be the objects of his protection and nourishment. You see this with God sealing the church in 7:3, or with God nourishing the church in 12:6 as they go through the wilderness-like tribulation.
Promise number four: permanence in God’s presence. Verse 12, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God and never shall he go out of it.” All throughout Scripture—whether you start with Eden, or come forward to the tabernacle, or Solomon’s temple, or further to Jesus and the church, or furthest to the New Jerusalem—wherever you trace the temple theme, one thing remains central: God’s presence. “Temple” is all about dwelling in God’s presence. The Psalms even shape our longings around God’s presence. Psalm 27:4, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
For Jesus to say you’ll be in God’s temple means these longings to gaze upon the Lord’s beauty will be satisfied. But then he adds the idea of a pillar. When you read about the bronze pillars in Solomon’s temple—they’re large, expensive, stable, and beautiful. But what happened when Israel went into exile? 2 Kings 25:13, “the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord…the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon.” Enemies tore down the pillars. Enemies carried them out.
For Jesus to say, “you’ll be a pillar in the temple of my God and never shall you go out,” means not only that God’s temple is better, but also that no enemy will threaten you. No enemy will remove you from God’s presence. You might get drug out in the streets and carried away from your brothers and sisters in the faith. On earth it might feel like you’re losing everything. But when doing it for Jesus’ sake, you will gain everything. He will make you a pillar in the temple of his God. You will behold his beauty forever, he will make you beautiful, and no enemy will ever remove you.
Finally, promise five: citizenship in the New Jerusalem. “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.”
In Revelation you either bear the name of the Beast, or you bear the name of God. Having God’s name means not only that you belong to him, but that he set you apart for his service, his worship. In the Old Testament, priests wore the Lord’s name on their foreheads—Holy to the Lord. In Revelation, the Lamb creates a new priesthood. Christians carry God’s name on their foreheads as well as the Lamb’s name.
They also bear the name of God’s city, New Jerusalem. Remember from Isaiah 60:14 what the nations must one day acknowledge: “They shall call you the City of the LORD.” Isaiah 62 continues the same idea: “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give,” and that name is, “My Delight Is In Her…you shall be called A City Not Forsaken.” You will bear this city’s name. God’s delight will be in you. You will know its inheritance. You will taste of its fruit. You will experience its life and feasts and joys. Zechariah speaks of children laughing in the streets without fear. All the rights and privileges to live there will be yours. These are the good promises for those who overcome. Jesus has both the integrity and the power to make them yours.
How, then, shall we hold fast?
Going back to the Scillitan martyrs. How did they say, “No, we will not sacrifice to your emperor?” Facing the sword, what gave them the strength to say, “No, we stand with Jesus.”? They held fast because they knew Jesus is holy and true. They knew Jesus has the key of David. They knew that in union with Jesus, they had access to God’s city; vindication before enemies; protection in tribulation; permanence in God’s presence; citizenship in the New Jerusalem. Jesus’ promises fueled their endurance.
When feeling powerless in tribulation, Jesus’ person and promises will keep you choosing faithfulness as well. The first thing I want us to take home is this: treasure Jesus’ person and promises before persecution comes.
As a pastor, I get the privilege of recommending good books to people. But do you know which books impact people’s lives the most? Do you know which books keep them persevering most? It’s not the ones on financial management or marriage or counseling or lust or politics. It’s the books that help them behold the glory of God in the person of Jesus—books like Packer’s Knowing God, Sproul’s Holiness of God, Reeve’s Delighting in the Trinity, Macleod’s The Person of Christ. It’s also the books that help them grasp the glory of Christ in Scripture. When beholding Jesus’ glory, they find their hearts so full that they never want to let go, they no longer want to trade him for sin, they find themselves strengthened and able to keep running the race.
The same is true for those who treasure Jesus’ promises. Cancer hits and they’re quoting Isaiah 43 about God’s righteous right arm upholding them. Trials come and they remember Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and that promise upholds their spirit. The same will be true when you face tribulation. But these things must be part of you now. You’ve got to hide them in your “chest pocket” now. They must be dear to your heart before persecution comes.
Are you there? Are you treasuring these truths about Jesus? Tribulation will not get easier. As long as darkness hates the light of Jesus, persecution will not stop. Will you be ready to stand with Jesus when challenged and mocked by the world? Prepare for suffering by treasuring Jesus’ person and promises now.
A second takeaway: focus on keeping Jesus’ word no matter how small you feel. The world looks big and powerful, when compared to the church. The world and its resources and influencers and powers can make the church feel small, insignificant, weak. You read your news feed and think, “How can I possibly make a difference? What good are my little attempts?” You hear stories of authorities treating Christians however they want, and you wonder, “What could I possibly do in the face of that power?” Smaller churches often lack the resources other organizations have, and they can start wondering, “What good could we possibly do?”
That’s when the temptations enter, too: “Maybe if we become hip, relevant, more like the culture, then we’ll have greater impact. If we just had more money and better facilities, maybe that’ll do it. Maybe we can baptize some secular methods to win friends and influence people. Maybe the way to make a difference is through politics—making sure our person stays in power. If we could just increase our numbers somehow, then we can succeed. But none of these are the way Christians overcome.
Here’s the greatest thing you can do: keep Jesus’ word. Wherever Jesus has placed you, keep his word. You may be small and insignificant to the world. You may have little power when compared to others. You as an individual may have little strength. But when you keep Jesus’ word, you prove to be the true victors. You overcome Satan and the Beast by holding fast to Jesus’ word. In the eyes of persecutors, you will look weak and small. But in the eyes of Jesus, you will be victorious. You win not by partnering with the world politically, morally, financially, but by keeping Jesus’ word. Day by day, make that your focus.
Finally, pray these promises for the persecuted church. The Lord Jesus has churches like Philadelphia scattered throughout the world. They are churches who, in the world’s eyes, have little power, little resources. They need our support in prayer. As Gary mentioned earlier, today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We’re going to take some time to do that. I want us to pray in groups of about four or five. You will notice in your Worship Guide several specific things to pray for persecuted Christians. Use that during these next ten minutes. Pray that the Spirit would remind these Christians of Jesus’ person and promises. Pray that the Lord would help them endure in the face of great tribulation. Pray they would keep Jesus’ word to gain the crown. Let’s lift our voices together; and then Ben will close when he leads the Supper.
[i] E.g., Ps 71:22; Hab 3:3; Isa 12:6; 30:12 [“thus says the holy one”], 15; 40:25; 41:20; 43:3; 45:11; 60:14.
[ii] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 104.
[iii] Wells, God in the Whirlwind, 112.
[iv] Rev 3:14; 19:9; 21:5; 22:6.
[v] Acts 14:27; 1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 2:12; Col 4:3.
[vi] For further development, see the following sermon by Bret Rogers at https://www.redeemerfortworth.org/sermons/sermon/2017-12-10/the-king-who-brings-the-blessings-of-david.