THE FAITHFUL CHURCH
by Bob Wheeler
The letters to the seven churches of Asia found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 contain many solemn warnings and gloomy predictions, and they are warnings which ought to be taken seriously by every church in every age. But interestingly there were two churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) to which no rebuke was given, and in the examples of these two churches we may take some measure of comfort.
The Philadelphia of which we speak, of course, is not the famous metropolis on the Delaware – it was an ancient city located in the Roman province of Asia, now a part of modern Turkey. Ancient Roman Philadelphia was situated further inland, on the edge of a fertile plateau. But it was also prone to earthquakes, and had been destroyed several times, most recently in A.D. 17. The church itself, we may gather from the letter, was small and not very influential, and subject to persecution. And yet through it all it remained faithful to the Lord, and was therefore commended.
As with the other letters to the seven churches, this one begins with a description of Christ, the One who is speaking to the church. “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’” (Rev. 3:7; NKJV). Here attention is drawn to Christ’s character: He is “holy” and “true,” the idea being that His motives are true and His word can be relied upon. The second half of the verse (“He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”) is a reference to a passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isa. 22:22) in which “the key of the house of David” apparently represents the authority of the royal steward, an official kind of like a modern prime minister. The reference in the letter to the church of Philadelphia points to Christ’s authority and control over events. No matter how difficult the circumstances, the church may safely trust in Christ to guide it through.
The letter goes on to say several positive things about the church itself. It says, “You have a little strength” – most commentators seem to think that it should be translated “you have but little power” (ESV; cf. NIV), emphasizing how little strength the church had, rather than the fact that it had any at all. Apparently it was a relatively small church, with little in the way of numbers and resources. It was evidently also a persecuted church – the letter refers to “those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie” (v. 9). Apparently the Christians in Philadelphia encountered the same kind of opposition from the Jewish community as did the church of Smyrna (Rev. 2:9). Yet in spite of all these disadvantages and obstacles the church at Philadelphia remained faithful. Our Lord says that they kept His word and did not deny His name (v. 8). In a word, they persevered (v. 10).
This, then, was the type of church which Christ commended. What, then, does our Lord promise it? First of all, He says “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it” (v. 8). The commentators are not entirely agreed as to what this means, but it apparently has reference to an open door of opportunity to serve the Lord, especially in evangelism.
Our Lord also tells them that He will make their persecutors “come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you” (v. 9). This may refer to a future conversion of Jews (Rom. 11:26-29), as well as the millennial reign of the saints with Christ (Rev. 20:4-6).
And then our Lord tells the church at Philadelphia, “I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth” (v. 10). Dispensationalists commonly use this verse as a proof text for a “Pretribulation Rapture,” the idea that the Christian church will be completely removed from the earth before the Great Tribulation of the end times begins. But that is probably reading a little too much into the text.
First of all, this is the only one of the seven churches that is told that it will be kept from “the hour of trial.” Two of the other churches, in fact (Smyrna, 2:10; and Thyatira, 2:22) are told to expect tribulation of some sort. Moreover the text doesn’t actually say that the church will be physically removed from the earth – it only says “I will also keep you from the hour of trial,” which might simply mean that Christ will preserve them from suffering during the Tribulation. Persecution does not always fall with equal force in every place. Philadelphia might be spared while Smyrna languishes. The important thing is that the church of Philadelphia will not suffer, at least not greatly. The tribulation will be an “hour of trial,” and their faith had already been tested and found genuine.
One might also ask then this “hour of trial” will take place? The church at Philadelphia, after all, existed 2,000 years ago and is no longer around today. How, then, was this promise to be fulfilled? It will be noted that a prophecy can have a double or even triple fulfillment. In this particular case the immediate reference may very well have been to the persecution under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian around “A.D. 95. But given the overall theme of the Book of Revelation the final, Great Tribulation of the end times must also be in view. And all through church history there have been churches like the one at Philadelphia which have been promised the Lord’s protection in the midst of the trials and difficulties they face.
This letter, like the others, ends with an exhortation and a promise. Christ tells the church at Philadelphia to “Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (v. 11). They are on the right path; they have served Christ well. They must just be careful to stay on that path and finish the race successfully. The “crown” was a wreath or garland that was given as a prize or honor. The crown was theirs because they had remained faithful to the Lord, but they could lose it if they became distracted like some of the other churches. That would be a tragedy indeed.
And then follows the promise to those who “overcome” (v. 12). In this case there are several promises. Christ tells them that He “will make them a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go forth no more.” Here we have the image of permanency and stability. And then He says that He will write on him several names – the name of God, the name of the city of God, and His own new name, all signifying ownership and belonging. All who genuinely love the Lord and serve Him faithfully have the assurance of His love and protection.
Today there are many small churches that are struggling to survive in a world that has largely grown indifferent towards religion. Circumstances like these should always call for self-examination. Are we truly serving the Lord, or are we merely “going through the motions” through force of habit and tradition? But assuming that our love for Christ is real and genuine, we can take hope. God does not need numbers, money, buildings or TV ministries. What He desires are the faithful few who are genuinely committed to serving Him. To them goes the crown of victory!