12/17/2020 11:54:46 AM
Letters to the Seven Churches: Philadelphia
Pastor Joel Leyrer - Midweek Advent 3 - Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Dear Friends in Christ, If you did a little detective work, you would discover that somewhere you can find a Christian church today of one denomination or another named after every one of the seven churches listed in the Book of Revelation. That’s actually a bit surprising because, as we’ve learned through our examination of each of them in this sermon series, in some of his letters Jesus is pretty critical of what’s going on in a particular congregation and issues very strong warnings. We might think a church today may not want to be identified with a church that is mostly exposed for its flaws.
Be that as it may, what you’d also discover that by far two of the Revelation churches are more popular than the other five. The first is Smyrna. The second – even more popular than Smyrna – is the one we are looking at today: Philadelphia.
The reason they stand out is because in these two Jesus offers only commendations, and not warnings or calls to repentance. Which makes these churches examples for us and our own St. John’s congregation. Keeping in mind that Jesus is talking to us today just as much as he was talking to the original recipients, let’s turn our attention to
THE LETTER TO PHILADELPHIA – AND US
“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.
“Key of David” is a rare but interesting title for Christ. If it sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because of the great Advent hymn,“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The final verse begins, “O come, O Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home.” The name itself is based on a little-known historical event found in the Old Testament…
Speaking through the prophet Isaiah (22:22), the Lord says: “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.” These words refer to a man named Eliakim. The man who had been holding the position of treasurer, or steward, over the royal household in Jerusalem was named Shebna. This is all taking place in the 8th Century B.C.
Evidently, Shebna was a proud man who was interested in using his position to further himself. So, God said he was going to depose him and put Eliakim in his place. As an indication of the power and responsibility that went with this office, Eliakim would now be given “the key to the house of David,” meaning control over all the royal treasures. God expected that Eliakim would use this power faithfully and wisely for his people.
Eliakim is, in this respect, a type or symbol of Christ. As the man who had the keys to the royal treasury, Eliakim had full control of the material blessings of the kingdom and the authority to bestow or withhold them. In the same way (but in a highly elevated sense), Jesus has the keys to all the treasures of heaven and the power to bestow or withhold them according to his will.
And here is the great news: Jesus bestows those spiritual blessings of forgiveness and eternal life to us and all who believe in him as our Savior from sin. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus unlocks the door to heaven – not just for the faithful in Philadelphia, but for us as well. And if Jesus opens the door, no one can shut it. More on this in a minute.
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.
We’re not exactly sure what the description of “little strength” means. But we can guess. Perhaps the Christian church in Philadelphia was numerically small. Maybe it didn’t have a high profile or especially charismatic pastor. Maybe the members struggled with their self-image and were not sure of their place in God’s big picture.
Whatever it meant, this much we do know – and for this Jesus commended them: they were steadfast and faithful and loyal to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And they remained strong, firm, and steadfast even in the face of opposition.
In a previous letter we’ve already encountered those “who claim to be Jews, but are not.” It’s a reference to those who troubled the early church by claiming they were God’s chosen people, when they really were anything but. The true Israel of God, as Paul tells us, consisted of those who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.
The Christians of Philadelphia gave these imposters no quarter. They did not find their claims to be true and recognized them for the spiritual frauds and liars that they were.
Furthermore, Jesus tells this church with “little strength” that the day will come when those who troubled them will “fall down at your feet” and acknowledge Jesus’ love for his people.
This would seem to indicate that some of these adversaries of Christianity would ultimately be converted. Those who opposed the Philadelphian Christians would then, by the grace of God, “fall down at their feet” in the sense that they would see the error of their ways and embrace the Gospel message they once rejected.
In a broader way the recognition of Christ’s love for his people will happen when Jesus returns for his second Advent. Because on Judgment Day every knee – including unbelieving knees – will bow and confess Jesus Christ as Lord. And all the world will see firsthand Jesus’ love for his people as he ushers them into the glory of eternity.
Jesus also tells this young church that difficult days lay ahead. Some think this refers to the various government-sponsored persecutions the Christian Church underwent in those first centuries. Or it may be a more general statement along the lines of what Jesus told his disciples in the upper room on Maundy Thursday: “In this world you will have trouble…” Or maybe Jesus is talking about the particular time of distress that he said will precede his Second Coming.
Regardless, Jesus promises protrection and strength to all, like the Philadelphia Christians, who remain strong and steadfast in his words and promises. Because “a mighty fortress is our God,” and when we reside within the walls of God’s Word and promises, we are safe from all the slings and arrows of adversity the world may send our way.
In the midst of everything this little church was and would be going through, Jesus concludes this letter with these final words of assurance and encouragement:
I am coming soon. (Meanwhile) 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.
In the descriptive terms of pillars and temples Jesus promises the permanence of heaven to those who believe in him as the Savior from our sin. Jesus also talks about writing three different names on us: the name of God and the name of the city of God, and a new name.
Our name is our most personal possession. It tells people who we are. It denotes our identity. We put our name on the things we own. Jesus has made us his own through faith. In baptism God put his name on us and said “you are mine.” When we get to heaven Jesus will inscribe his new name upon us. We’re not told what that new name is. Some have suggested “Christ Victorious” or something along those lines; something that signifies that the final victory over sin and death can be celebrated and the consummation of the ages now begins.
Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, we’ll bear it proudly and gratefully – and for all eternity.
So what is Jesus conveying to us in this letter? This is a letter of pure comfort and pure encouragement. Three things come to mind…
Number one. This letter provides blessed assurance. Our sin bars our entrance into heaven. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection we have the forgivness of sins, which unlocks the door to heaven. Jesus, the Key of David, opens that door for us. And we walk through it by faith in the Son of God.
We live on this earth for a time. But heaven – the city of my God – is our permanent residence. And the treasures of that kingdom await us.
Number two. This letter is a call to persevere and patiently endure. Jesus wants us to know that despite what the world throws at us, we are safe and secure in his Word and promises. This letter is reminiscent of the question Paul asks in Romans 8. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? He lists all kinds of things that could seemingly trouble us, but then declares that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As we stay close to him in Word and sacrament, we remain firmly in the grip of God’s grace. Knowing this, we patiently endure.
And number three. This letter speaks of our significance in the eyes of God and the love he has for us – both as indivduals and as a congregation of believers.
Like the Philidelphian church, sometimes we may feel we have little strength. We wrestle with varous issues on a personal or congregational level. Thus it has always been and thus it will always be, because we’re not home yet. But as Paul tells, when we are weak, we are strong – because God, who has promised to never leave us or forsake us, gives us the strength to meet each new day and each new challenge.
That’s what Jesus told the Christians at Philadelphia. And through them, that is what Jesus tells us today. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Amen.