Dear Faithful Church (Rev. 3:7-13)
In his novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck provides a harrowing illustration of the pressure families faced during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Due to poor farming techniques and severe drought, tens of thousands of families were forced to migrate to California. But the recession had such a widespread impact that few people were better off. In their weakness, families had to rely upon the kindness of strangers, which oftentimes resulted in cruel mistreatment. It is a picture of depravity, community, and patient endurance.
The trials of the dust bowl migrants may be similar to the church in Philadelphia, which is described as having “little power” (3:8). We are not told what caused their predicament. Were they a relatively small congregation? Was their weakness due to constant persecution? Or, maybe, this was the general kind of suffering everyone faces in a fallen world.
Believer, how are you doing? What is the state of your strength? Do you feel weak and drained? Although the dilemma in Philadelphia describes the church as a whole, it would be appropriate to evaluate your own personal circumstances in light of their context. When you have done that, I hope you will be able to receive the message they heard: Hold fast to Him who opened the door and secured your place in His presence.
Read Rev. 3:7-13
Like the other cities we’ve considered in Asia Minor, this one was known for its worship of many gods. We don’t know much about their involvement with the imperial cult, but we can imagine there was at least some interest. The region was populated with vineyards.
I. You Have an Open Door (7-8)
As in all of the other letters, Jesus tells John to address the letter “to the angel of the church…” We have suggested that this angelic being represents the church, but the contents of the letter are clearly meant to be heard by the congregation.
This opening sentence also serves to introduce the church to the author of the letter. Each letter begins with a description of “the son of man” (1:12-20) which are relevant to the particular church. They relate to the encouragement or rebuke that is given. In this case, Philadelphia is the second church, along with Smyrna, to receive nothing but commendation.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the church was perfect. No church has ever been perfect in this age. “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (WCF 25.5). And yet, despite her weaknesses, the Lord is pleased with her.
The holiness and truth that define the Son, are found in the church as well. This makes sense for those who have been united to Christ. Jesus holds the “key of David” which points to his all-encompassing authority as King.
In Isaiah 22:22 God promises to give Eliakim the key of David with which he would have the authority to “open, and none shall shut…” Jesus also holds the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18). The authority of Jesus surpasses every king inside and outside of Scripture. He alone possesses the power to bring salvation and judgment.
That is relevant because with the authority he is able to set an open door before the church (8a). Christ alone sets the door. An open door often means evangelism in the New Testament, but here it makes more sense as a reference to their constant access to God.
The word is in the perfect tense suggesting a past act that has present and perpetual implications. No one—especially the false teachers in Asia Minor—had the ability to shut the door that Jesus opened. And the reverse is also true. If Jesus closes the door upon the false teachers, no one will be able to open it (7). However, in the case of the true believers in Philadelphia, that door has been opened, and it would remain open for them.
That is precisely why they could remain faithful! Though they had been drained of their strength, they kept the word of Jesus and did not deny his name (8b).
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is speaking to a church that had compromised in many ways. He tells them how the Lord gave him a thorn in his flesh which served as a reminder of his weaknesses (2 Cor 12:8-10).
Philadelphia might have been weakened by any number of things just like all of us. But, we have a Savior who has set an open door before us. We have free access to enter through that door whenever we want. We can bring our weaknesses before the Lord with full assurance that he will provide us with the strength to persevere.
No one can be saved apart from the finished work of Jesus Christ. The door that Jesus opened, so we might have access to God, can never be closed. It remains open forever.
Have you entered through the door that Christ has opened? In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as “the door” through which we must enter in order to be saved (John 10:9). There is no other way to find peace with God. Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).
The good news gets even better…
II. You Are an Undefeated People (9-10)
Jesus will vindicate them before their opponents. These are the same opponents mentioned in 2:9 that persecuted the church in Smyrna. Although they were Jews, because they had rejected Jesus Christ, they are considered liars of the “synagogue of Satan”. They were lying about their covenant status. In reality, their physical ethnicity was the only thing they had in common with Jesus. Spiritually, they belonged to Satan, the father of lies.
These Jews were most likely persecuting the Christian church. They claimed Jesus was a false Messiah who was cut off from the covenant community by his cursed death upon a tree. But, in fact, Jesus and those who are united to him, remain the “true” witnesses (7). Unless they repent and enter through the door that Jesus has opened by his life and death, they will be forever shut out from the presence of God.
Jesus will make them bow before the feet of the church. This is not divine worship, but respect. They will come to learn that it is those who possess the faith of Abraham that are truly the sons of Abraham (Rom. 4).
In Isaiah 60:14 Gentiles who oppressed Israel will bow down at their feet and declare them to be “the city of the Lord”. Jesus alludes to this, but the subjects are ironically reversed. Here, it is the unbelieving Jews who bow down at the feet of the church.
Beale These OT texts predict that the unbelieving Gentiles would come and bow down at Israel’s feet and to Israel’s God in the last days. This prophecy has been fulfilled in an apparent ironic fashion in the Gentile church, which has become true Israel by virtue of its faith in Christ. In contrast, the ethnic Israelites in Philadelphia fulfill the role of the Gentiles.
Israelites who rejected Jesus placed themselves outside of the covenant. In the last days they will recognize their error and acknowledge God’s love for the Christian church. This is a clear example of the church receiving the Old Testament promises given to Israel, because they are true, spiritual Israel.
Not only will Jesus vindicate the church before their opponents, but he will protect them from “the hour of trial.” Some have argued that this refers to the rapture of the church prior to the great tribulation of judgment that is described later in Revelation. But this speculation is never found in Revelation and doesn’t make sense of the context.
Mounce It is better to understand the phrase as a promise that in the final period of demonic assault upon the earth, believers will receive spiritual protection against the forces of evil.
The language is reminiscent of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in which he said, “I ask not that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). If their physical preservation was in view (i.e. by rapture out of the world) it would be inconsistent with the letters to the other churches who were physically persecuted and even martyred (2:8-11, 13).
The frequent allusions to Daniel also affirm the idea that the people of God will endure suffering, but that God would cause them to persevere. Daniel was not taken out of the lion’s den, but protected from within it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not pulled out of the fiery furnace, but preserved from within it. Likewise, those who are on the earth during the great tribulation will not be raptured out of the world, but safely brought through with their faith intact.
This is the message believers in Philadelphia needed to hear. In their weakness, God would not allow them to experience any trial beyond their ability to bear. They might suffer serious physical hardship, but they would not suffer separation from God.
Jesus had already endured that “hour of trial” in their place as he satisfied the wrath of God upon the cross. What looked like the certain defeat of Jesus, was in fact the final blow to Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). The same Lord who suffered for them was now promising to keep them. They might feel like they are on the brink of collapse, but Jesus was present and ready to catch them.
Are you confident that Jesus will vindicate and protect you? If you have entered through the door that Jesus has set before you, and placed your faith in him alone for salvation, then you can be confident that he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of his return (Phil. 1:6).
You can remain confident that though you feel weak now, for all eternity…
III. You Will Be Immovable Pillars (11-13)
Hold fast what you have so no one takes your crown. Consistent with the other crowns mentioned in this book, this may have royal connotations or a reference to the victor’s wreath (as in the athletic games). Both analogies fit the context. They were exhorted to “hold fast” to what God had granted them either through adoption into the royal family, or through victory in the spiritual race.
Jesus’ promise to protect them from “the hour of trial” would give them the confidence that they could indeed “hold fast” to what they had. This is a perfect example of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. They are not incompatible or mutually exclusive truths. You ought to trust in the Lord who protects you while obeying his commands.
Just as Jesus will make their opponents submissive, so that they will bow down to them, he will also make the conquerers immovable, so that they are pillars in the temple. They will remain in God’s temple forever.
Philadelphia was considered unstable due to experiencing several earthquakes. A particularly severe earthquake occurred in 17 AD, from which they suffered several years of aftershocks. There was a level of insecurity about living there. People were beginning to relocate outside the city. But Christians have a security that can endure all forms of trial and tribulation.
Johnson The victor in Philadelphia will enjoy permanent access to God’s presence as a pillar built into the structure of God’s sanctuary, never to leave his holy presence.
We are commanded to cling to God (Joshua 23:8). As we hold fast to righteousness and walk with integrity, we grow stronger (Job 17:9). When the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas—the son of encouragement—to Antioch, he saw the grace of God at work among them “and he exhorted them all to remain faithful with steadfast purpose,” (Acts 11:23).
You might feel like you don’t have the strength to be much more than a broken roof tile in the temple of God. But if you hold fast, he promises to establish you as one of the great pillars that supports its structure. It is your very sense of weakness that suits you for the position. Those who think they are strong feel no need to cling to anything. It is the humble who hold fast to the gospel with all their might. And they are the ones God preserves and ensures that no one seizes their crown.
Not only that, but Jesus will write a new name upon these pillars. They will be identified with God’s name, city, and Son. Rather than a reference to the Trinity, this triplet emphasizes the citizenship of believers. They will enjoy divine intimacy and protection because God acknowledges their adopted status. Because they belong to God, they will receive the benefits of sonship for all eternity.
Many of the dust bowl migrants who survived, suffered so much injustice, they had lost all hope in humanity.
John Steinbeck In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy.
Their suffering had filled them with anger, and their anger would eventually burst open in a fury of wrath.
Does your weakness fill you with distrust, despair, or anger?
If you have entered through the open door that Jesus has set before you, you can be confident that he will preserve your faith despite the many weaknesses and imperfections that you feel. Hold fast to Him who opened the door and secured your place in His presence.