Of the seven churches to which Jesus wrote in Revelation 2-3, the congregation at Philadelphia is probably the only one that didn’t get what I would call a scolding. All the others were rebuked for at least one thing that they were doing. Okay, so maybe not Smyrna, which was dealing with persecution. All the rest were taken to task for one reason or another, but Philadelphia’s letter seems almost congratulatory. Or was it? Jesus commends them for their great faithfulness despite their weakness, and yet, nestled in there is an exhortation to seize opportunities. And I think it is in that exhortation that we discover the stronghold which had taken hold of the church there. You see, the real distinction between the church at Philadelphia and the others was not that Philadelphia didn’t have a stronghold. It’s just that the stronghold was different. In each of the other cases (well, except Smyrna), the stronghold was manifest in something that the church – or someone in the church – was doing. In Philadelphia, the stronghold was demonstrated in what the church was not doing. Let me explain.
The letter to Philadelphia, like all the others, starts with Jesus identifying Himself. He calls Himself “The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens.” To be certain, “They Holy One, the True One” reminded the Philadelphian believers of essential attributes of Jesus which they had no doubt claimed and clung to on more than one occasion. But the bit that catches my attention today is “the One who has the key of David” and the stuff that follows. In essence, Jesus identifies Himself here as the Master of Opportunity, the God who determines whether doors will open or close. And my friends, that is extremely significant to the rest of the letter. But again, I get ahead of myself.
Immediately after the salutation, Jesus says, “I know your works.” Unlike when He addressed the church in Smyrna, this seems much more positive. Especially when He follows it with “Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” In other words, Jesus is acknowledging that they’ve done well despite many challenges and limitations. Indeed, they’ve “kept My word,” meaning that they’ve been faithful to do the stuff Jesus expected of them. And they “have not denied My name,” meaning that they remained faithful even when the going got tough.
But then comes the word “look.” And to be honest, as I look back, there was that word “Because” as well. And then comes this: “I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close.” There are three key discoveries to have in this eighth verse, and they’re all important to recognize if we’re going to catch the full significance of the stronghold they were facing.
First, we have a cause-effect relationship going on. “Because” identifies the reason for all the rest of the sentence: “Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” Notice, then, that there are three factors in Philadelphia which are contributing to what Jesus is about to say. The first is that they are relatively weak. Whether this means that their congregation is weak in numbers, finances, facilities, or even talent is impossible to say. As the pastor of a small church, I tend to think that the answer may be yes: they were weak in all these ways and more. The second is that they “have kept My word.” That is, they’ve been faithful to do what Jesus has asked of them. And the third is that they “have not denied My name.” That is, they continued to claim Jesus, even when it was easier – safer, probably – to do otherwise. All three of these things are the cause.
Second, check out what happens as a result of that cause: “I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close.” In other words, God has opened an opportunity for them that no one can take.
Second, notice the interjection in the middle of this sentence: “look.” In the original Greek, the word is “idou,” meaning “behold!” or “see!”. It is, in the simplest sense, an exclamation. Just like we would say, “Look, I need you to understand this.” But it’s also a clue as to what’s going on: the church at Philadelphia needed to open their eyes to see the opportunity Jesus had opened for them. Indeed, in verse nine, Jesus exclaimed again, “Take note!” and went on to describe all that He was going to do to keep that opportunity open.
So the problem in Philadelphia was not that they were weak, as many (myself included) have often assumed. In fact, that was actually a good thing according to Jesus! He was opening this opportunity specifically because they were weak! Rather, it was that they needed to pay attention and seize the opportunity. The question, then, is why? Why were they missing the opportunity?
I think the answer to that is simple: they were weak.
I know, I keep circling around and around. But bear with me for just a second. Here’s what I think was going on in Philadelphia. The believers there were discouraged because they weren’t a huge congregation. They didn’t have the resources of the churches at, say, Ephesus. And they weren’t seeing the explosive growth that some other congregations were, either. And so there were, naturally, things that they could not do as a congregation. The problem came when they started seeing all the things they could not do and stopped looking for things they could do. They became resigned to the fact that they couldn’t because they were weak.
Our church almost certainly suffers from this stronghold. How many times have I heard us comparing ourselves to the bigger churches in town in a negative way! Indeed, how many times have I done the comparing myself.
We say to ourselves that we don’t have a thousand people, so we can’t do a massive service project that changes the face of the community. We don’t have a million dollars we can give to make meals for a third-world country. We don’t have the facility to have a basketball league or laser tag. And so we assume there isn’t anything we can do at all.
To be frank, I don’t think our church is the only one that suffers under this stronghold. Indeed, statistics show that nearly 60% of all churches in America average less than 100 on Sunday morning. I can’t tell you how many pastors of such churches I’ve heard reciting the “We can’t…” mantra. And even beyond that, I think there are churches in the 100-250, 250-500, and even 500-1,000 person range that struggle with this. In fact, I think churches of any size can struggle with this stronghold when they focus on the things they can’t do instead of the things Jesus is opening the door so that they can.
The question, then, is how do we destroy this stronghold of weakness? Well, fortunately, Jesus does provide some hints here in His letter to the church at Philadelphia. And the answer is actually strikingly simple.
- “Look” (vs 8). “Take note!” (vs 9) The first thing we need to be doing is trusting that Jesus will, indeed, open doors of opportunity for our church, weak as we may be. These may be small at first, to encourage our confidence. But I would submit probably sooner than later, Jesus will open the door to something big that we can’t do. But He will do through us. Indeed, how many times does the Bible talk about how God brings people to the end of their strength so that He can be glorified? (Hint: It’s a lot.) So be watching for – seeking – Jesus-opened doors!
- The second thing Jesus offers is a series of promises. The first is that He will deal with those who oppose us (vs 9). The second is that He will rescue us from the testing that is coming (vs 10). The third promise is that He is coming. Imagine the trumpet blowing as the cavalry starts its charge! And the fourth is that He will elevate those who are faithful – however weak they may be in this life – to be pillars in the sanctuary in heaven. This fourth one is interesting because it means that those who are weak in this life will be supremely strong in the next. And our job in this is to have faith. Have faith that He will take care of all the obstacles. Have faith that He will preserve us through all the hardship and pain that any opportunity may bring. Have faith that He will, ultimately, redeem us so that, weak as we may be now, if we trust in Him, we will eventually be strong. Really strong.
- “Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown” (vs 11). We can translate this as “Don’t give up!” However bleak things look, Don’t give up! However weak you think you are, Don’t give up! However small or incapable we may be as a church, Don’t give up! Don’t give up! Don’t give up!
Now, I know that this last prescription seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom these days. I personally know of several churches which have closed their doors because they just couldn’t keep going. And I know a few others that have been closed by denomination officials because they were deemed too far gone. We do these things, more often than not, in the name of God’s will. And I’m not going to say that this is never the case. But as I contemplate and pray about this stronghold today, I find myself wondering if we don’t surrender to this stronghold of weakness more often than not.
Clearly, this stronghold of weakness is well entrenched and highly camouflaged.
And it is very, very real in our church and the Church right now.
So I guess that we had better start looking for the opportunities that Jesus is opening for us. And believing that He is indeed the God who saves, even from death! And absolutely, positively, never giving up!