PHILADELPHIA AND THE OPEN DOOR
A Study in Revelation 3.7-13. (Part 1)
K. W. H. Howard
Philadelphia was a missionary city from the beginning, not in a Gospel sense, but rather from a pagan standpoint. Pagan religions were spread abroad with great zeal from Philadelphia. In fact, the city was so noted for its pagan temples and festivities that it was sometimes called ‘Little Athens’. Like Sardis, Philadelphia suffered in that terrible earthquake of AD 17, but unlike Sardis, Philadelphia suffered a great many more earthquakes after that because it lies upon a fault-line, and also in the vicinity of a volcanic area. The people of Philadelphia were always at the ready to run;
they were always ready to move quickly and to leave the city and go into the safety of the countryside. It may be that fact which is reflected in the reference in verse 12 of this chapter to those who shall ‘go no more out’.
Philadelphia still exists though it does not carry that name any more, it has an Arabic name which means Red Earth, and that red earth is the volcanic ash and dust that has been spread around the area. Now, there was a Christian Church in this pagan city toward the end of the first century. We do not know how it originated, or by whom it was instrumentally brought into being. We know only that to it, the Lord Jesus sent this letter by the hand and pen of the Apostle John.
Like the letter to the Church at Smyrna, this letter contains no complaint and no censure, only commendation and counsel. Of these seven Churches only two were cleared of complaint and censure, and Philadelphia was one of them. We have two things to consider. The first is the commendation which the Lord Jesus gives, and the second is the counsel which the Lord Jesus offers to this Church.
1 The Speaker
Firstly then, we think of the commendation given to the Church of Christ in Philadelphia. It is there in essence in verse 7: ‘And to the
angel of the Church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.’ He says here two things regarding his own character. The first is that He is holy; I who write, he says, am holy, holy in my person, I am the Holy One of Israel; I am the spotless Lamb of God, I am the sinless One. As the Holy One, He speaks to the Church at Philadelphia. He also describes Himself as, He that is true, the true One. He is true and righteous altogether in Himself and in what He says to each and to all of these Churches. He is the very opposite of all that is false. He is the embodiment of all that is true. He is the one who as the Truth stood before Pontius Pilate who asked. What is truth? So, He is the real King and the real Head of all His Churches. He is holy in His truth, and He is true in His holiness. Here is His character. Commendation from One with such a character is commendation indeed!
He goes further than that, and He designates His authority to write. His authority to speak, His authority to have anything at all to say and to do with this, and with the other Churches. He says, ‘I am He that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth;
and shutteth, and no man openeth.’ Here is the position of the writer of this letter. It is a position of authority. Here is the administration of His own Kingdom; He holds the key of David. What is that? Well, it was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, and every Hebrew Christian in Philadelphia would know it and would remember it immediately this letter was read to them. In Isaiah 22 and verse 22, it was said of Eliakim, ‘The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut;
and he shall shut, and none shall open.’ Here in this letter Jesus claims the supreme fulfilment of that prophecy in His own person;
He said ‘I am He, I have the key of David,’ because He was indeed great David’s greater Son.
The key is the symbol of His authority, the authority with which He administers His kingdom, the authority that is His as King and Head of His Church. With that key, Christ admits to and excludes from His kingdom. That key He has delegated to the officers of His Church to do the same in His name, hence the ‘power of the keys’. The particular reference here to the use of the key it seems to me, is that Christ is here saying that He is opening the door of opportunity and of usefulness for His Church. Sometimes He opens that door, and sometimes He closes it. The history of the Church is never on an even plane all the while; there are changes, there are periods of flourishing, and periods of languishing. There are times when Christ opens the door, and there are times when He shuts it. When He opens, none can stop, and when He shuts none can produce
prosperity of any kind. You see instances of it in the New Testament. There was the occasion in Acts 16 when Paul found the door shut against Gospel witness to him in Bithynia. Do what he would, he could not get there, but at the same time, the door was opened for Christian witness and testimony in Macedonia, and so Paul went to Europe.
So Christ comes to the Church here at Philadelphia as One who is in total control of His own Church. He does not ask for the keys; He has them. He uses them, and He opens so that none can shut, and shuts so that none can open. This is the glorious Lord who commends this Church at Philadelphia. He is holy, and He is true, and He has the key of supreme authority in His Church. His commendation is worth having; His commendation is given to this particular Church.
Like the other Churches, Christ commends Philadelphia for their works. In verse 8, He says, ‘I know thy works,’ but then He goes on and He gives three reasons why He is pleased with their works. ‘I know thy works: behold I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.’
2. Faithfulness commended
The first reason for Christ’s commendation is their faithfulness in a particular situation. Faithfulness, that is, in relation to this door that Christ opened. ‘I have set before thee an open door.’ The One with the key used the key. He opened the door of opportunity for the Church at Philadelphia and gave them the opportunity to fulfil their missionary mandate, to preach the Gospel, to speak of Him before the pagan world. Now, we are not given the detail of what or where this particular opportunity was, but I submit that it is at least possible, and it is at least likely that the door of opportunity was among the members of the local Jewish synagogue. A witness begins at home. This local Jewish synagogue, in verse 9, is called by Jesus a synagogue of Satan, for the Lord says concerning some of those Jews in that synagogue, ‘I will make them come and worship before my feet, and to know that I have loved thee.’ Now, should the Jews be converted and be brought to worship with the Christians, the Jews should be enabled to know and to respect the love that Christ has for His people and this could only be as a result of the Gospel being preached among them. If that were to happen in Philadelphia, it must mean that the Gospel was preached, or presented, or lived, in one way or another before the Jewish community in connection with that local synagogue. I suggest that the door of opportunity which was opened, as indicated in verse 8, was probably in relation to the community of Jews in the city of Philadelphia.
Whether this was so or not, Christ certainly opened a door, and the Christians in Philadelphia entered it; they exploited the opportunity that was given them of witnessing to Christ and the Gospel. So does Christ give His Churches opportunities to witness, and so must His churches respond to those opportunities, and not shun them, and not spurn them. We are guilty if Christ opens the door and we fail to go through it. In relation to this open door at Philadelphia and their response to it, our Lord graciously commends the Philadelphian Christians.
3. Keeping Christ’s Word
Now let us look at this briefly. ‘Thou hast kept my word’ in relation to the open door; that is, going through that open door of opportunity with the word of Christ. The Christians at Philadelphia were true ambassadors for Christ; they did not tamper with the King’s message, they went through the open door, they took the Gospel with them, and in one way or another, whether by preaching or by conversation, or whether by the simple consistency of their Christian life, they presented the Gospel where they were. That is what keeping Christ’s word means here. Now, no one keeps Christ’s word who does not keep it as doctrine, who does not keep it as sound teaching, for the Word of Christ is the word of authority through which He addresses men and women. It is the word by which He tells them of sin, it is the word of His grace through which He speaks. It is the word of His promise through which He brings Gospel salvation. You will notice also in verse 10 that the Lord describes His word as the word of my patience, and He says, not only in verse 8, ‘thou hast kept my word,’ He says in verse 10, ‘Thou hast kept the word of my patience.’ What patience is needed in Christian work!
This means that they kept the word by which Christ encourages patience and endurance in believers as they seek to go on in His service, and to serve Him through the open door which He gives. The service of Christ requires patience, because it does not produce automatic results, it does not produce immediate consequences, it does not give instantaneous success. Not only did they go through the door, but they went on going through the door. Not only did they witness, they went on witnessing. Not only did they begin, they continued. Patient endurance in well doing, is required in Christian service. In Philadelphia they had it, and they used it, and for it the Lord commends them. ‘Thou hast kept my word, the word of my patience.’
I said that no one keeps the word of Christ who does not keep it as doctrine, and that is true, but equally no one keeps the word of Christ who keeps it to himself. Those who have been born again,
who have been called by grace, into whose mind and heart the living word of Christ has been placed have the door of opportunity open before them. They must not then refuse to make use of the Gospel word by way of testimony and witness and teaching and living. No one keeps the word of Christ who keeps it to himself. You have to ask yourself whether you have stood before an open door and there has been a guilty silence, or a guilty inactivity in Christian service or Christian witness. When Christ opens the door, we must not simply say, ‘I have got the word’, we must bear witness to the word. Again and again, the doors are opening, so often it seems that men and women themselves open the doors in common conversation day by day. Now if we are silent, we are guilty; if we go through the door, we keep the word of Christ. At Philadelphia there was an open door, and they went through and they regarded the word, not selfishly, but selflessly by testifying to it. ‘Thou hast kept my word,’ and for that Christ commended the Church at Philadelphia.
In this commendation there is another factor, and that is this. Thou hast not denied my name.’ As the Christians at Philadelphia were loyal to Christ’s word, so were they also loyal to His name, to His person. Wherever there is a tendency to under-value the word, there is a greater readiness to downgrade the person of Christ, to deny His Deity, to deny His humanity or to deny His right to hold the key of David and open the doors as He sovereignly sees fit. This invariably follows from low views of the word of Christ. You never met anyone who had low views of the person of Christ who thoroughly believed in the inspiration of the Scripture. Oh, my friends, let us hold fast to belief in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures, and then we shall be all the more loyal to the person of Christ and to His divine power. Hold loose views regarding the Scriptures, and you will very quickly have loose views regarding the person of Christ. The Christians at Philadelphia learned this lesson because they kept Christ’s word, they neither denied His name nor His person. Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.’ Such was their faithfulness in a particular situation, and for it they were commended. That is the first reason for their commendation. Open doors were placed before them, and they were faithful on the one hand as to the word of God, they were Faithful on the other hand as to the name of the person of Jesus Christ.
5. Difficulties overcome
The second reason for their commendation was their faithfulness in the face of difficulties; two difficulties in fact. One was internal
and one was external. One was a difficulty in the Church, one was a difficulty outside the Church. The internal difficulty in the Church was this, verse 8, ‘Thou hast a little strength.’ They were not a strong Church, numerically, financially, influentially. They were just the reverse of Sardis where everything prospered, where all the resources were to hand. At Philadelphia it was just the opposite; it was a little Church, small in numbers, small no doubt in terms of worldly influence.
Now, there is a difficulty. A little church always has difficulty that does not exist when a church is larger. When a church is small in numbers, and in outward influence, we are inclined to think there is nothing we can do for the Lord. It is only the big battalions that take part in the Lord’s service, and because we think that way, we are inclined to act that way and do nothing, because we have but little strength. Because we are only a little church, we are inclined to give up, to conclude that there is little point in doing anything. We are so small, we are so insignificant that we rejoice in downgrading ourselves, and the result is that we do what we do as a matter of dead routine. Now that is a real difficulty, and it is also a danger. It is a danger that was overcome at Philadelphia. They had little strength, but they evidently did not go on in a dead routine. This ‘little strength syndrome’ that takes possession of mens’ minds in that situation convinces them that because they are little in strength, or few in numbers, they can do nothing. But who said so? I want you to notice that the Lord Jesus did not censure the Church at Philadelphia because of their smallness, because they were little in their strength. Why not? Because that did not dissuade them from doing their duty. When the doors were opened, they went through. They kept the word of Christ, and they were loyal to the name of Christ. When the doors were opened, they fulfilled their missionary mandate. That is why they were commended. ‘Thou hast a little strength.’ There is all the difference in the world between a little and nothing. There is all the difference in the world between a few Christians who are alive in Christ, and a few people who have got an empty dead profession – they have nothing.
There surely is a very necessary lesson for us in the conduct of this Philadelphian Church. We are far too ready to fall into the snare of thinking that we are too small to do anything and too small to get a hearing for Christ. It is far too easy for us to get the idea that only if our premises are bursting at the seams can any real work of grace be done. Who said so? That thinking is born of the devil; that is a philosophy the devil loves to cultivate. Why? Because it discourages Christians, because it multiplies discouragements, because it produces the dead routine that so often, sadly, follows.
Mind you, this little strength could be a valid argument if the
Church was on its own in the world, but the Church of Christ is not on its own in the world. Our help is in the Lord’s great name, the Maker of heaven and earth. Can we say we have tried to be loyal to His word, and to His name? Do we believe that He is with us? It is therefore not a valid argument to say that because we have little strength, we can expect to do nothing for Him, or that He will do nothing for us. ‘Behold, I have set before thee’, this little Church, ‘an open door’, and when He opens doors. He means them to be entered. Whether the Church is little or big, is irrelevant; this false argument that lessens our activity and dissuades us from the fulfilment of our Christian duty as a Church is more our enemy than our small size. Greater is He that is for His Church than all those that are against His Church. This is a lesson that we can learn from the little church at Philadelphia. Big is not necessarily beautiful, and big is not necessarily successful, and big is not necessarily powerful. They had bigness at Sardis, but they were anything but beautiful, and anything but successful in a truly spiritual way. They were anything but powerful in accomplishing the real work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us learn the lesson that a church is not blessed because it is weak or because it is strong; it is not blessed because it is not influential or because it is in some backwater. A church is blessed because it is loyal to the Word of Christ, and to the person of Christ. What is required in a steward is that he is to be found faithful. Jesus does not say to this church at Philadelphia, you must increase your numbers, you must boost the membership, you must become strong, and outwardly and visibly numerous: He does not say that. What He says is this, even though you have little strength, by relying on Me, by relying on My word, and in going by faith through the door I opened before you, you can do My will. You do it in My strength, not yours; and you see, Christ did not put open doors before the Church at Sardis for all their prosperity, but He did put open doors before Philadelphia in spite of all her weakness. Oh, God’s ways are not man’s ways, and this Church at Philadelphia was commended for not allowing this internal difficulty of her smallness of strength to obstruct her testimony and her witness to Christ and to His Gospel. She was commended because in spite of that internal difficulty, she was found faithful.
I said that there was also an external difficulty. It was this. The external difficulty faced by this little Church at Philadelphia concerned the synagogue of Satan, verse 9, our Lord says, ‘They say they are Jews, and are not.’ Well, what are they then? What our Lord is saying is this, they are not orthodox Jews, and they are not godly Jews, they are apostate Jews. They are what in today’s terms would be called liberal Jews. Therefore, says Jesus, they do lie as to
their identity; they say they are Jews, and they are not. Well, by blood and race – yes, but by what they profess to be-no, they are liars. Now, you remember that at Smyrna, they had a synagogue of Satan, and it is interesting that at Smyrna and at Philadelphia with this external problem in common, they are the only two Churches that were free of the Lord’s censure, and the Lord’s complaint. In Philadelphia the opposition came not from the pagan outside world, but from those who professed to worship the one true and living God at the local synagogue. The Jews slandered the Christians, they yilified them, they assaulted their practices. The Jews did not wish to see a Christian church in Philadelphia. They were evidently fanatical Jews; they were extremists, and their influence was clearly Satanic. They were motivated by Satan, otherwise Jesus would never have described them as the synagogue of Satan.
Now, that was the external difficulty in face of which the Church of Philadelphia went on with its witness. In spite of that opposition they persevered, they entered the opened doors. They were not deterred by these apostate Jews, they did not whittle away their message on account of them. Weak in numbers, they were strong in faith. They were unafraid of what men could do, and for that this little Church at Philadelphia was commended by the Lord of glory, the Lord who knew the situation, and knew it from within. Oh my friends, better to be in a little Church with Christ’s approval than in a big one without. Better be in a little Church with Christ’s commendation than in a big one like Sardis without it.
Let me draw to a conclusion. Here is the Lord’s commendation of the Church at Philadelphia, and to all Christian churches like her. The reason for the Lord’s approval was her faithfulness. It was not her success, it was not her outward prosperity; it was her Faithfulness not her size. When Christ set before her an open door of Gospel opportunity, they went in. They witnessed to His word and person. When they found difficulties both internally and externally, they were faithful still. The church that is faithful in those ways is a church that is successful in God’s sight. You see, their spirit was right. Their dominant concern was not to fill every pew in the place. Their dominant concern was to be faithful to Jesus Christ, and that is why they were blessed. That is why they were commended; their spirit was right, their motive was right. Against fewness of numbers, against hostile opposition they kept Christ’s word. They were loyal to Christ’s person. When Christ opened doors they went in, and that is the church the Lord loves. Oh, might we have something of this spirit. The name to live in Sardis – what is it worth compared with this? A name to live when in fact they were dead, everything outwardly prosperous, but inwardly they were dead. Here at Philadelphia with a little strength, they had the smile of the Lord’s
approval. They honoured Him; they did His work, and He explicitly says at the end of verse 9, ‘I have loved thee.’ In Philadelphia it was a little Church with a great God, and the head of the Church opened the doors in spite of many adversaries, and His people went through in His strength. They had the Lord’s approbation. When Christ’s Church is concerned with the greatness of Christ’s name, she has no need to worry about her own name. ‘Behold, I have set before thee an open door,… and because thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name, …. I have loved thee.’ To be continued.