If a friend asks you, “what is it like being a Christian?”, how would you respond? I want to encourage you to take a moment to come up with an answer in your mind before you read on.
I suspect many of us would want to speak of the goodness of knowing Christ, the joy of fellowship or the security that comes from trusting in God. While these are all true and it is wonderful to share the joys of following Christ with our unbelieving friends, far too often we forget that the Christian life is also one that is filled with trials and tribulations. We’re called to deny ourselves, forgo our rights and endure patiently as we struggle in this fallen world. But through the struggles and trials, what gives us the strength to persevere are the promises given to us in the Bible, the hope of seeing our Lord and Saviour Jesus face-to-face and hearing the words “good and faithful servant”.
THE LETTER TO THE CHURCH
In Revelation 3:7-13, Jesus speaks words of encouragement and promise to the church in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was a relatively new Greek city in Asia Minor, known for its periodic earthquakes that led to many cracked and fallen buildings. The church in Philadelphia is described as having “little strength” (Revelation 3:8) probably due to being few in number and therefore insignificant in the eyes of the world.
“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.” (Revelation 3:7)
Jesus here is described as the holy and true one. He is the holy God; set apart from all creation in his nature and moral righteousness, the true God who speaks no lies and is trustworthy. He is also the bearer of the key of David, a role that was given to Eliakim in the Old Testament (Isaiah 22:22). To bear the key is to have access to all the riches in the temple of God, an emblem of immense power and authority. As the one who opens and shuts the door at his will, Jesus has set before the church of Philadelphia an open door into his kingdom. Salvation is through Jesus alone; and for those he has opened the door to, no one can stop them from entering the kingdom.
“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.” (Revelation 3:8-9)
In these two verses, Jesus promises vindication and protection to the church in Philadelphia. The church in Philadelphia is made up of Gentile believers and they are experiencing persecution from the Jews. The promise in verse 9 is likely a reference to an Old Testament prophecy that indicated the bowing down of Israel’s enemies before them (Isaiah 45:15), except this time the roles have been reversed. In fact, Jesus calls the Jews liars and says that they are not Jews at all. This reveals the mystery of the gospel to the Gentiles and what being a Jew had always meant. The identity of being God’s people is not gained through being born into the right ethnicity, but through having faith in Jesus.
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name.” (Revelation 3:10-12)
Jesus continues to promise protection to his church, that they will be exempted from a trial that will soon come. The phrase “the inhabitants of the earth” is used throughout the book of Revelation to describe unbelievers. Hence while it is not clear what “the hour of trial” is, it seems to be a time that is reserved for unbelievers in the future, the purpose being to test them.
Following the promise to protect and vindicate is Jesus’ reassurance to his church that he is coming soon. The one who endures till the end is called “victorious”, being a pillar in the temple of God and having a new name. Being a pillar has particular significance for an earthquake-stricken city where pillars frequently fall on each other, and people run out of buildings in fear of being crushed. To be a pillar and to never have to run out of God’s temple is a promise of being secure in God’s presence. The thought of having names written on people may seem strange to us, but it represents the glorious truth that God’s people will be his forever; they belong to the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, and will never be driven out of it.
PHILADELPHIA FOR YOU AND ME
Contextually, it seems like we cannot be more different to the church in Philadelphia. We live in a country that usually doesn’t experience any earthquakes. Our city has a relatively high number of evangelical Christians compared to many other parts of the world. While being a Christian comes with its stigmas in our society, most of us are not persecuted for our faiths. So how might Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia be relevant to us?
For one, I hope that like the church of Philadelphia, Gracepoint Presbyterian Church is a church that is faithful and patient in endurance. I hope that in a society that is so fixed on seeking present pleasures and instant gratification, we stand out as people who live for an eternal hope of glory. I hope that especially in a country where we have freedom of religion, we are bold in our witness and trust in Jesus’ work of opening doors to salvation. Since we have understood the meaning of the letter, I believe we can draw out the following points of application.
A God who commends.
No doubt, Jesus speaks many words that challenge, rebuke and correct us. Yet we see in this passage, he also speaks words of commendation and praise. Jesus rebukes us in our disobedience, corrects us in our wrongs, forgives us in our repentance and praises us in our endurance. The reason why as a church, we can encourage one another is because first and foremost, Christ encourages us. Sometimes being in the Christian life can feel like falling into constant failures. However, we have to remember that Jesus commends our good works, not because we obey him perfectly, but because he sees our works and delights in seeing his church grow into the glorious bride that he will soon return for.
A God who commends faithfulness and endurance.
Knowing that our God is a God who commends, we must then look into what is the reason behind his commendation. Jesus says to the church in Philadelphia “I know your works” (Revelation 3:8). As the holy and true one, Jesus sees not as the world sees. Unlike humans who pay shallow compliments and at times flatter out of self-interest, Jesus commends as the one who knows the hearts of people (1 Samuel 16:7). He sees the patient endurance of the Philadelphians, how they kept his word and refused to deny his name. Rather than looking to outward appearances of success, achievements or even godliness, we as God’s people should desire faithful obedience to God. Seek God’s praise, not man’s praise. Live for an audience of one.
A God who promises.
Jesus’ words to the seven churches are filled with promises. This shouldn’t be a surprise since God’s faithful character is evident throughout the entire Bible. We live in a world where people make lots of promises and don’t deliver while others have given up on making promises altogether. But when Jesus makes promises, he fulfills every single one of them. That is what makes them trustworthy. To the one who endures, he promises a crown of life, forever being in the presence of our Saviour and Lord Jesus; and belonging to God, pleasing him every moment with all that we do in our body, heart, mind and soul. This is what we hope for, for our humanity to be fully exercised in the new heavens and new earth.
Wherever you are in your Christian life, whether you are zealous for God or are barely hanging on, the gospel we all need to hear is that Jesus has opened the door to salvation that no one can close. He has saved us as his church and will keep us till the end as we patiently endure and hold fast to the word of God. We have a heavenly city to look forward to where all our present endurance will be so worth it. So hold on and keep living faithfully as you hold onto his promises.