Church at Philadelphia
Philadelphia, situated thirty-five miles southeast of Sardis, was located at the eastern end of a broad valley near the river Cogamis. The city was at the juncture of trade routes leading to Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia, earning Philadelphia the title, ‘gateway to the East’. Her economic prowess was based on agriculture and industry. Strabo, the historian, called Philadelphia ‘a city full of earthquakes’. The great earthquake of AD 17 hit Sardis but nearly destroyed Philadelphia. But by the time of John’s writing, the city, which had been rebuilt and was known as ‘little Athens’, was brimming with temples and religious festivals. The persecution that Christians experienced did not come from the pagans, however, it came primarily from hostile Jews.
Jesus reveals himself to the beloved of Philadelphia as the Lord of opportunity. He has the ‘key of David’, which controls the opening and closing of all doors (3:7). In this church we find a thrilling example of strength in weakness. This small, seemingly insignificant body of believers is called to go through a great door of opportunity into a life of substantive impact. What a paradox!
The gospel is full of such glorious paradoxes. The way to live is to die. The first shall be last. The way up is down. We find ourselves by losing ourselves. As Paul wrote, ‘We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us’ (2 Cor. 4:7).
As I read Jesus’ words to his bride in Philadelphia, I am both encouraged and rebuked. First of all, I am encouraged that he is the One through whom and by whom all ministry is realized. Jesus calls us, gifts us, and empowers us to be involved in his eternal purposes. The Great Commission, for example, is not a ‘job to get done’ but rather a reality in which we participate. We need to see our Kingdom service as the overflow of hearts filled with the grace of the gospel. Jesus uses his people to do things they cannot do in their own power. The church in Philadelphia was to see itself like Gideon’s army, a little people with a big and faithful God.
This letter also rebukes me, and perhaps many of us in the contemporary ‘fortress church’. Believers in Philadelphia were placed in a strategic location in a pagan culture. All they had to do was walk through the door of opportunity and ministry. Their calling was not to build a fortress and sit around singing ‘kumbaya’ holding on ‘till the end’. Their calling, and ours, is to be ‘salt and light’. We are not merely to plan for comfortable surroundings; we are to go through the door of opportunity King Jesus has prepared for us.
Kingdom work can get very messy, exhausting, and painful. Persecution is the predictable consequence of a commitment to witness faithfully. But Jesus promises, ‘I will make them [those who persecute us] come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you’ (3:9). What an image! What a promise! Ministry is following our Lord through any and every door that he opens.
The bottom line is this: Jesus is the ‘friend of sinners’. Are we? May God give us hearts like that of C. T. Studd, a 19th century missionary:
“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.”
Jesus has given us an open door; will we go through it? Will you join me in praying for our community? Praying for your friends and family who are without Christ? I hope that you will come this Sunday as we talk about the door that only Christ can open and only Christ can shut.
It is one of my greatest pleasures and privileges to serve you in Christ. And I give thanks to God for you as we gather to worship. May our God continue to show us his favor that we might see gospel reformation in our area and within our communities. I love you in Christ.
For His Glory,
This week: Revelation 3:7-13 focal, v8: ‘See, I have placed before you an open door’.