Just before the service we were having a discussion over weather the code in the image the left was in binary or hexadecimal code... I used it because when it comes to the letters to the seven churches they can seem to be written in code... maybe not machine code but code none the less and the letter to the church at Philadelphia seems full of intrigue and mystery with its talk of a key and an open door and a pillar. We need to decipher the code that John uses to speak to the heart of this church facing difficulties and suffering. It’s a code worth deciphering so we can hear the message that this letter has for us. That we can hear the message Grant Osbourne says “every small church in a difficult area of ministry will find encouraging.” That we can hear the message that “every Christian uncertain of his or her gifts and place in the church as a whole will be comforted by” That we can hear the message that “God is more interested in our faithfulness that success.” That we can hear what the spirit is saying to the churches, and in particular what the spirit is saying to us.
We’ve just been doing a church survey and thank you to everyone who filled out the survey, its part of the on-going process of honestly evaluating where we are now so we can plan and look to the future. The seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelations are like that review process, like Jesus filled out the survey, looking at where the church was at, assessing its strengths and weaknesses. Some of the things that are said may seem rather hard and harsh, but they are not intended to write off the churches, to judge or condemn them, but rather to right the church, putting them back on track. The letter to the church at Philadelphia does not receive any criticism only encouragement about possibilities even in the face suffering and opposition.
Revelations is a book designed to comfort and prepare the church to face what is to come… and it starts by evaluating where the church is at, an honest assessment from the one who walks amongst the seven lampstands, Christ who sees and knows their deeds. That is why we are looking at these letters and seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches… Christ loves us, Christ knows us and Christ is with us and speaks to prepare us for what is to come or more importantly for the one who is to come.
Philadelphia is about 44 km’s to the south east of Sardis, and it is the next logical stop for the postman delivering these letters. It is the youngest of the cities in the region. It was founded by Pergamum in 198bc and given its name because of the love the king of Pergamum had for his brother. If we were going to do comparisons with New Zealand cities, you could say it was the Christchurch of the province.
Firstly it was designed to be a little bit of Greek culture transplanted to the province of Asia, I guess a little bit like Christchurch was designed to be a taste of ol’England down under, or Dunedin was to be the Edinburgh of the south. It was strategically placed at the cross roads of the provinces in the interior of Asia, and was designed to showcase and spread Greco-Roman culture throughout those regions.
Secondly, this is how the Greek historian and geographer Strabo described the city
“Philadelphia has not even its walls secure, but they are daily shaken and split in some degree. The people continually pay attention to earth tremors and plan their buildings with this factor in mind… It is a city full of earthquakes.”
As we’ve worked our way through the seven letters the 17ad earthquake has often featured and while other cities had been damaged by the earthquake Philadelphia was at its epicentre. People moved out of the city into the country side around it in fear of earthquakes. AS a major winegrowing area it was also hit hard when the roman emperor Domitian decreed that wine production in the empire should be cut in half to encourage corn to be grown to feed his army.
We don’t know much about the church in Philadelphia except from what we have in this letter. It was a church that had little strength…it was possibly small and did not have much status in Roman society. It had faced persecution and suffering. We see the synagogue of Satan mentioned again, the church was originally seen as a Jewish sect, which meant that it was afforded some protection in roman society who valued civilizations that were older than their own. But it seems that here the door to the synagogue had been closed, the Christians are cut off, thrown out, Jewish believers were disowned by family members and neighbours. They were said to no longer be part of God’s people. Even in the face of this and the hardships of living in a quake filled city their faith was not shaken, they had held on and not denied Jesus name.
It’s with this back ground that we look at what the spirit is saying to this church.
We are introduced to the one who is speaking as the one, who is holy and true, or more precisely to the Holy one and the true one, Old Testament titles for God, the synagogue may have written the believers off but Israel’s God the Holy one and the True one had not. He is further seen as the one who holds the keys of David in his hand. In Isaiah 22:22 there is a prophecy against the Stewart in King Hezekiah’s court that the keys of David will be taken away from him and given to another, to Eliakim son of Hilkiah. The person who had the keys was the person who controlled entry to the palace and also access to the king’s presence as well. Here Jesus is saying that he is the one who holds the keys now to the kingdom of David’s descendant. While the Synagogue of Satan may have said the Christians were cut off from God but the truth is that Christ who has the keys has opened the door, and no one but him can close it. It is encouragement to the church that despite what they have suffered and been through that Jesus is the door that leads to life, and by his death and resurrection he has opened it, they are not shut out.
The door to the kingdom is open and in Christ we are all invited to come on in. It’s Christ’s invitation. But also for a church that has faced such hardship and suffering it also encourages them that even though they don’t seem that strong and big and important, that the door is open for mission and evangelism and service. They had done a good job in the difficult times holding on to their faith, but the one who knows their deeds is inviting them to see that he has opened doors for them as well. It is easy when you lack strength and are tired to simply find yourself with tunnel vision, focusing on the difficulties and the problems and you can miss the opportunities that God has placed before us. It is easy perhaps to have our eyes full of the doors that have been slammed in our faces so we do not see the open doors. AS I mentioned before Philadelphia was built as a missionary town, to pass on Greco-Roman culture it was at the intersection of roads to the provinces around it that may not have been as fully churched as the province of Asia and that was a possibility it had before it. Verse nine talks of some from the synagogue of Satan coming and bowing down to them and acknowledging that they are indeed God’s beloved, it speaks not only of a future time like in Old Testament prophecies when the gentile nations will come and acknowledge Israel’s God, but speaks of the fact that even those who oppress the church who seem closed to the gospel may well respond and come to Christ. They may have closed the door but Christ is the one who has the keys and the door to the kingdom of God is open.
The message to this church struggling and without much strength is that Christ has opened door for them and they are to keep faithfully witnessing to Jesus Christ. One of the good definitions for mission is the reality that God is at work in the world by his Spirit and our call is to go and find where the spirit is at work in the world and join in what the spirit is doing, in terms of people being open to the gospel, in terms of showing love on a personal level, in service in the community and in the wider world. We can keep on banging our heads on doors that have been closed, on ways things used to be, or we think they should be and actually miss the open doors that are before us. When I worked at the university I spent time with Harry Morgan at St Andrews Symonds Street and the church there had been wrestling with the change of demographics in the area around them, it was so different than the traditional congregation of anglo-scots. Harry’s response was that it was a door of opportunity not a closed door… so they changed the service title to an international service in English, which was very welcoming and inviting to a very cosmopolitan and international community in the city centre. They started conversational English class and bible study. They asked the international folk who had started coming to the church to make suggestions on how they could be more inviting and welcoming… It’s still a church that struggles but it has had an impact on people all round the world from seeing that simple opportunity…
In the end Jesus command to the church at Philadelphia was patient endurance, to keep on being faithful witnesses to the gospel, to the door that Christ had opened for all to come to him and to keep on looking for the doors of service and witness that Christ had opened for them to step through. I tell you what it’s easy to try and look for a silver bullet that will solve everything, but we are not offered that rather open doors opportunities for patient endurance.
Then in verse 10 there is the assurance that the Holy one the true one will keep them through the trials that the whole world is to go through. This has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as Christ’s assurance that while they go through trials and suffering now he will spare them the final judgement. Others have seen it as a reference to what some call the rapture, a belief that God will come back and take his church away before the final tribulation comes… But in keeping with Christ’s call that they endure patiently it is more likely a promise that Christ is able to keep them through what is to come. They and we although we may not have much strength can rely on Christ to be with us and bring us through. It’s not even an assurance that bad things will not happen to us, it is the experience of God’s people down through history that there is death and martyrdom, the seven churches mentioned in this book and even the cities have not stood the test of time. Rather it is the assurance that Christ will be with us and see us through, just as God was with Christ and saw him through the cross and raised him from the dead. The call is to trust and to continue doing what we are called to do… to witness to love and to serve. The success of that is not in our hands but in Christ’s.
The letter finishes with a promise to those who overcome; they will be accepted into God’s temple and his presence. Not only that but they will be made into a pillar in the temple and never again will they be made to leave it. What great encouragement and promise to a church that had suffered being shut out, for a church without much strength being given pride of place and seen as a pillar. What comfort for a people from a city where they have had to move out to be safe from earthquakes, that they are welcomed in to a place of security. We live in a time of celebrity pastors and mega churches and people look at them as being places of great success and many of them are the result of lots of prayer and hard work, but in God’s kingdom I wonder if we will not see those who have faithfully worked and witnessed in the hard places and difficult and sometime unrewarding places take pride of place. I’m not saying we shun actually growing and succeeding in the world today, I just think we are to realise that Christ’s call is to faithfulness…
Those who overcome are also promised that they will receive a name. In biblical times it was a common practise to write inscriptions on pillars… In 2 chronicles 3 Solomon planted two pillars in the temple and inscribed a name on each Jachin which means ‘he establishes’ and Boaz which means ‘in him is strength’ and for the people in the church at Philadelphia to be reminded of those inscriptions would have been encouraging as it is for us to be reminded of that… maybe we should inscribe that on our front pillars here… But also to the church that had been ostracised for the sake of Christ they are promised that he will write his name, and the name of the city that is to come God’s city on them, that they belong to him. We belong to him.
I want us to stop… and be still… to take stock and hear what the spirit is saying to you individually and to us as a church…
Christ offers an open door into his kingdom and in to his presence… this morning is the spirit telling you, “you need to step through that door”, you need to come to Christ accept him as your lord and saviour.
As you look around you at your life and around the community what are the open doors that Christ is calling you to step through for service and witness.
Finally we may feel weak and have little strength but do you hear what the spirit is saying to the church… Christ has the keys… Christ has opened the door… Christ will bring us through… Christ will welcome us home and establish us.