The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.
Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes, I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him 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 him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 3:7-13 NIV).
Revelations – Day 8 “Letter to Philadelphia – The Missionary Church”
One of my all-time favorite music ministries comes from The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in NY city. It’s true that I love the music and the combination of lead singers supported by a large choir. The arrangements are fantastic, and the orchestra is top-notch. I use a number of their songs in my books sung by the angels in heaven. I find it all quite moving.
But I also like Elvis when he sings Christmas songs, and Whitney Houston and even Pentatonix with their rendition of Hallelujah. Wonderful music to say the least but I don’t use it in my books. And there is a very good reason why. In my opinion, great music is not necessarily great spiritual worship. Worship comes from the heart of the redeemed.
I remember preaching in a poor church in Tandil, Buenos Aires, Argentina years ago and the worship was led by a young man with just a guitar. That was not what made it so special though. It was his attitude. We had a teenager who was not entirely right in his mind and always wanted to come to the front of the service and participate in the music. He had two sticks which he banged together at a rhythm that defied any kind of structure. It threw the tempo of the songs off and interfered with the flow of the worship.
But we didn’t tell him to go away. The joy on his face and the enthusiasm with which he banged those two sticks together were enough. But it wasn’t the young teenager that brought us into the presence of God but rather the young music leader with the guitar who so warmly accepted him, adapted, and modified the music to incorporate him. It was his grace that opened the floodgates of heaven and allowed us all to enjoy the presence of God.
The same is true with The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. We know many of the people who sing in that choir. Not personally of course but through their testimony. The church used to publish video testimonials of different choir members and spoke of their experiences with the Lord in the church and in the choir, how they became Christians, and what ministries they were involved in today. We also read stories about the early years of the church and the signs and wonders that God did there, the lives that were transformed, and the spiritual context for their worship.
To this day, whether I am listening to a sermon or enjoying worship music, I always want to hear the stories, get a sense of who the people are, and learn the spiritual context of their worship so that I know it isn’t just about the music but about the presence of God in their lives. And there are some wonderful ministries out there and it brings joy to my heart.
That’s important to remember as we read the book of Revelations together. It can seem like a lot of doom and gloom but that isn’t really the case. Even in these letters to the churches, Jesus has good things to say to each church as well as rebukes and concerns. The church of Philadelphia is a case in point. Nothing negative is said. No corrections need to be made. Everything is ready for ministry and Jesus announces an “open door” of ministry opportunity waiting for them.
It’s a strange name for a city in the ancient world. Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. It is a relatively new city built at the entrance to the high central plateau of the Province of Asia and meant to be a “missionary” base for Greek culture and language to the backward country people of Lydia. Built by Attalus II (220-130 B.C.), it was named Philadelphia to commemorate his loyalty and devotion to his brother Eumenes II. The name of the city was changed a couple of times over the years, but Philadelphia always stuck.
It was a region of earthquakes and at one point in A.D. 17, it was almost completely destroyed together with Sardis and ten other cities in the region. It had some commercial significance as the gateway to the interior of the province but, other than that, it was not that important. Except to God.
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Rev. 3: 7 NIV).
This is the first time that Jesus refers to himself without going back to the heavenly vision that John saw in the introduction to these letters to the churches. Neither the words “holy and true” nor the reference to the “key of David” are mentioned. It seems to refer to a story in Isaiah 22 during the reign of King Hezekiah. Apparently, there was a foreigner named Shebna, who was “in charge of the palace.” This was a powerful position second only to the King himself. And Shebna was not a good man.
God revealed to Isaiah that he would replace Shebna with “his servant, Eliakim, son of Hilkiah.” Listen to how God describes his role as the one in charge under the King. “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open” (Isaiah 22:22 NIV). Sound familiar?
Jesus uses this same idea but refers to himself. He is the one “who holds the key of David.” He is the one who is second in command to his Father in Heaven. He controls who has access to “the palace” of God. It reminds us of what Jesus once said about the keys of the kingdom which were shared with his disciples. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told his disciples. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19 NIV). He was, of course, referring to his authority as the head of the church and indicating that the ministry of reconciliation and the spread of the gospel would be shared with his followers. The keys of the kingdom have been traditionally associated with the preaching of the word and church discipline.
“I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8 NIV).
There is no talk about what they are doing well or what they could improve upon. “I know your deeds.” Full stop. And don’t forget that the whole point of the rebukes and discipline and exhortations is to get the churches ready for this “open door” of ministry opportunity. After all, it isn’t just about the ultimate witness as a martyr because you refuse to participate in emperor worship, which is idolatry. It is the lifestyle of a “living martyr” and there are many opportunities to share your faith and demonstrate your witness.
Remember that this church was in a city that was a gateway to a region in need of the “missionary” work of spreading Greek culture and language. Jesus is building upon that context to say that his church in Philadelphia was prepared and positioned to take advantage of the missionary opportunity of the “open door” that Jesus set before them. They weren’t a strong church, like Ephesus, or wealthy like Laodicea but they were ready. When Jesus says that “you have little strength” he must mean something other than “spiritual” strength since they seem to have that in abundance. Perhaps they are small in number, with limited resources or simply situated in an unassuming area far from the centers of influence and power in Asia. No matter. There were still difficulties and persecution because Jesus commended them with the words “You have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
Paul spoke often of having an “open door” of ministry opportunity (I Cor. 16:9, II Cor. 2:12), and in addition to the context, we can assume that that is what is meant here as well. And it is an “open door” that Jesus provides. He is the way-maker. He is the one who has the authority and power to change hearts, organize world affairs, and structure situations where the gospel can penetrate to the hearts of the people.
Some people call these opportunities “revivals” since they seem to be the result of direct divine intervention or because the result of the ministry or witness was out of proportion to our normal efforts at evangelizing the lost. That may be so, but it would be unwise to limit the “open door” to these exceptional circumstances.
One of the great lessons all of us must learn is that no one can be persuaded to enter into the kingdom of God. All of the preaching, with the most uplifting worship music, and even with signs and wonders following, will not bring a single person into the kingdom of heaven. Without the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, without Jesus to open the door and prepare the heart, our witness will fall on deaf ears.
I learned this lesson in Egypt when I was a young man attending Bible College. We spent three months there preaching in churches and learning the language and culture. It was during the time with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. There were protests in the streets and my friend, Jake, was in a small town in the interior and being the only foreigner there (although he was Canadian), the house where he was staying was surrounded by a mob of people shouting “Al Akbar” for ten or eleven hours.
Needless to say, we were all praying fervently. And it all worked out in the end, and no one was harmed.
But that was only the context of the lesson that I learned in Egypt during that trip. I had met a young man in Alexandria who was willing to let me try and evangelize him. I gave him my testimony. I explained the gospel. I argued the apologetic points we had learned to refute Islam. But I didn’t pray much other than including him in my normal prayers. “Lord, be with this young man (I don’t remember his name now) and bring him to a saving knowledge of you.”
But he wouldn’t budge, and time was running out. We were about to continue our three-month semester by going to Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey. It was the last day, the last opportunity that I would have to talk to him. I cannot honestly tell you whether I was truly interested in his soul or just wanted to be able to say that I successfully witnessed to someone who came to the Lord. But there I was, earnestly trying to persuade him to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. I did everything right. I said the right things. I knew all of the arguments, but nothing happened.
Finally, out of frustration, I hit him over the head with my softcover Harper Study Bible. Now that was a big book with all of the study notes included but, thank God, it was the soft-cover edition. And don’t forget that in Egypt, the Koran was considered a holy book and it extended somewhat to the Bible as well. Taxi drivers would put the Koran in the back window of their vehicles and then drive like crazy through the city streets trusting that Allah would protect them as he protected his holy book.
So you can imagine the shock on the face of my friend when I hit him over the head with my Bible. It wasn’t so much that I hit him hard. Far from it. But he was ready to melt into the floor wondering what might happen to him now that I had so flagrantly violated the sanctity of this Holy Book. I don’t know how dangerous the moment was. He was from the city and not the countryside and that probably affected his level of radicalism, but it was still not a very smart move, spiritually or otherwise. As it turned out, I apologized, we said goodbye and I never heard from him again. I can only hope that I was not a hindrance to the gospel in his case.
What I learned from this experience is that I was not relying on the Holy Spirit to empower my witness. I was not in earnest prayer for his salvation. I wasn’t crying out to God in tears for my friend because I wanted him to know the joy and peace of a new relationship with Christ and be brought out of the darkness of disbelief. Jesus must open the door and we must walk through it. It is a joint effort. We have a significant role to play but not the deciding one. He is also the one who ensures success. After all, he opens the door “that no one can shut.”
In the case of the church in Philadelphia, we aren’t sure what the opportunity for ministry and witness was exactly. Some people connect it to the next thing that Jesus says about the Jews.
“I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9 NIV).
Some commentators want to associate the “synagogue of Satan” with the Jews in general and are suggesting that Jesus is referring to an opportunity for ministry to the antagonistic Jews who often become their accusers before the Roman authorities. But we have shown that it is more likely to be the Judaizers within the church that are the “synagogue of Satan” since they claim that God does not love the Gentiles unless they first become Jews. It is true that this promise of vindication and the change of heart by these Judaizers could be the result of the witness of the church of Philadelphia, it is more likely that Jesus is simply saying that in this life or the next, the Judaizers will realize their mistake and acknowledge that the Gentiles are loved by God through Christ and Christ alone.
In other words, it isn’t so much about a change of heart by the Judaizers as it is about encouraging his people in Philadelphia that vindication will come sooner or later. It is more likely connected to the commendation that “you have kept my word and have not denied my name,” than to the promise of an “open door.” But, even so, our witness is integral, and it has the power to change lives within and without the church.
“Since you have kept my word to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev. 3:10 NIV).
Persecution, suffering, and death are not simply about character development or even the testing of our character in Christ but about demonstrating that character and purpose in witness without consideration of the cost even unto death. So, when Jesus talks about the purpose of “the hour of trial,” he is referring to the testing of our witness, to see if we are willing to be “living martyrs” and “true and faithful witnesses” like Christ for the sake of the gospel.
But is it true that Jesus will “keep you from the hour of trial” and that they won’t face the prospect of emperor worship and martyrdom? Yes and no. Perhaps these people, in this church and in this situation may be spared for a time but it isn’t likely. Still, there are a few things to be said.
First of all, we are not to seek martyrdom itself but rather to be an effective witness in the face of martyrdom. It is Jesus who determines whether or not you are saved from “the hour of trial.” Some people died. Some people didn’t die. But it isn’t up to you and me. That is in the hands of Jesus. And if you think that’s obvious, let me tell you a story of what happened near the end of the time of persecution in the Roman Empire when it looked like there may be no more opportunity to become a martyr for your faith.
As hard as it is to believe, there were those who went around provoking people to accuse them before the authorities and when they stood before the proconsul, they insisted on being martyred for the cause. They wanted “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10 NIV) promised to those who would die for their faith.
It is true that many of the Roman officials couldn’t understand the obstinate attitude of the Christians who refused to make a token gesture of loyalty to the emperor to save themselves from death, but this was something different. This was an insistence that the official fulfill his duty by sentencing them to death. This wasn’t about the witness of the transforming work of Christ within and the loyalty that he deserved above all. There were no weapons of love at work here. It was arrogant and misguided and nullified their witness completely. No one was inspired by that kind of ambition.
Jesus decides who lives and who dies. We must simply be willing to die and even be ready to live and continue our ministry if that is what our Lord desires. All the rest is sin and manipulation and ambition, which is not spiritual at all.
So, there is a lesson to be learned here when Jesus tells his people that he will “keep them from the hour of trial.” But the truth is that the words in Greek written here could just as easily mean that he will keep them “through” the hour of trial which would seem to make more sense in the context of these letters to the churches.
“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown” (Rev. 3:11 NIV).
How can they have a “crown” of life, if they are exempt from “the hour of trial?” That is reserved only for those who experience martyrdom. When Jesus says, “I am coming soon,” he could mean the Parousia itself, which is his second coming, but we know, in hindsight, that it hasn’t happened yet. More likely, this is a reference to the persecution and death that make up their “personal” Parousia when they face death and meet the Lord on the other side face to face.
“Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him 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 him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:12,13 NIV).
A pillar in the Temple of God. The name of the new Jerusalem and the new name of Jesus. These are the rewards promised to him who overcomes. What is this all about? It is about the “evangelistic” attraction of the living temple of God to draw people into the presence of God. It isn’t just about the future in the kingdom of heaven. This is about the new Jerusalem which is now “coming down out of heaven.”
To be a pillar in the Temple of God is to be a permanent part of the community of believers, the new temple which houses the presence of God on earth. It is here in the local church that you can meet with God and feel his presence and worship him and it is happening as we speak. It will continue to come “down from heaven” until the time when Jesus does away with the old structures and creates a new heaven and a new earth where there is no distinction between secular and sacred.
Ezekiel, in his final vision, tells us that the name of the holy city is “The Lord is There” (Ezek. 48:35 NIV). To be given that name is to say that “the Lord is there” in you permanently and continually and “never again will he leave it.” And to be “a pillar” in that community of believers indicates a position of spiritual influence that acts as a foundation for others, a strong post that others can rely on.
And what of the new name of Jesus that we will share?
We spoke of this before when we talked about the role of “naming” someone as an indication of character or of a new position or new experience that changes the direction of their lives. In the same way that Abram was named Abraham, to reflect his new covenant with God, we also received a new name when we became “a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17 NIV). But this seems to be something more. To the degree that we suffer with Christ for the gospel, to that degree we share in his glory (Romans 8:17 NIV). The glory of God is the character of Christ upon the cross. He was given a “new” name and we will share in that glory.
The church can be described as both “dangerous” to those who are within if they don’t take the call to radical discipleship seriously, but also “attractive” to those without. When spiritual unity through confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is the hallmark of the church it truly becomes filled with the presence of God. That “evangelistic” attraction of the living temple of God where people are respected and loved and given purpose and significance is very attractive to people outside of the church – especially if the Holy Spirit has been preparing them for our witness.
The point to remember is that that is the witness. The witness is not simply refusing to bow the knee to the emperor or to reject any kind of idolatry in our lives from any quarter, but rather the ongoing witness of the whole church, as a church, in how we relate to one another, work and pray with one another, and prioritize our joint worship and witness to the world. After all, Jesus didn’t write these letters to individuals but rather to churches. Certainly, he expected that each person in the church would respond to his call to radical discipleship but with the goal of building up the witness of the church, not just going it alone.
Over and over again, the witness to the Roman populace was about how these Christians loved one another and how they served the poor and were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believed. It was a religion of conviction, an uncommon conviction that few could understand. They would abandon their ancestor worship, refuse emperor worship, and be in conflict with everyone and everything just to maintain their conviction that Jesus was Lord.
That was the start. Now look at the results. It made them better citizens, more involved in the lives of other people, willing to sacrifice time and money for the sake of sharing the good news with others, and even willing to die for their faith. Perhaps God was with them after all.
Jesus took the time to rebuke and discipline his church to bring them back to their “first love,” to be truly alive and not just “look” alive, to be committed rather than lukewarm, to not play games in church but take it seriously, to not reduce the opportunity for witness and the expansion of the gospel to politics or collaboration, nor find any “theological” way out of the moment.
But he was rebuking his church and his people who were already functioning as the temple of God on earth. They simply needed to wake up and repent and stay focused on his plans for them rather than trying to find a way out of “the hour of trial.” To see it for what it really is, an opportunity for witness, a moment of significance, a time of glory.
We would do well to remember the awesome burden we all share, a “burden of glory,” when we participate in church. We are the temple of God together. We share in the experience of the presence of God. We must encourage one another, confess our sins to one another, and serve each other but always with a view to the outside, to the lost and lonely, to those who look in our direction and see something, however dim, that gives them hope.
Of all things, the book of Revelations should remind us that our witness is not “complete” without this missionary mentality rooted in our privilege of being the temple of God on earth, together. It is not enough to go through the motions. It is not enough to do good works or be a steward of the earth. It is not enough to be involved in political or social programs for the good of the country.
We must be a “temple of God” on earth, a new Jerusalem in true spiritual unity, an “evangelistic” attraction to those whom the Holy Spirit is stirring up and Jesus is preparing to hear our witness. He has given us an “open door” for evangelism, but we must be the ones who walk through it.
The Desert Warrior