Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Challenge of Philadelphia: Sermon on Revelation 3:7-13

Attalus was nervous as he walked into the curia, ready to speak before the senate of the Roman Republic. If the clouds had battled the sun for space in the sky that day, well, it would only have mirrored the battle in his own deeply ambitious heart. Attalus, you see, was a prince... but the second son. His older brother Eumenes was the king of Pergamum. But mighty Rome was displeased with Eumenes. Senators had hinted to Attalus that, if he wanted the throne, it was his for the asking. And so began the struggle.

For years and years, the close-knit bonds of Eumenes and Attalus had been famous. Foreign kings had advised their own sons to be like Eumenes and Attalus, who together had grown the Kingdom of Pergamum from small beginnings into a burgeoning world power “by their concord and agreement and their faculty of mutual respect” (Polybius 23.11). Eumenes, the king, had long been an ally of the Roman Republic, helping them in assorted wars. The Peace of Apamea had given him many new territories. But when the Achaeans revoked the honors they'd once awarded Eumenes, making Eumenes severely depressed, Attalus vowed to travel there and intercede – asking the Achaeans to restore the honors, if not for the controversial Eumenes' sake, then as a personal favor to well-liked Attalus (Polybius 28.7) – it was proof of Attalus' “brotherly love” to Eumenes (Polybius 27.18).

All the meanwhile, Eumenes was helping the Romans in their war against the Macedonian king Perseus, who'd been stirring up trouble. But Eumenes foolishly traded secret messengers with Perseus – Eumenes had hoped for bribes to negotiate a fair end to the war, and was willing to withdraw support from the Romans to help even things out (Polybius 29.4-9). Eumenes had lost the Romans' trust and good will. In time, Perseus was beaten, and in the power vacuum, Eumenes' kingdom at Pergamum came under attack by the Galatians (Polybius 29.22) – and since Eumenes was persona non grata in Rome, he sent Attalus to ask the Roman Senate for help. It was there that some Romans enticed popular Attalus to ask for the Pergamene throne (Polybius 30.1). Temptation was nearly overwhelming – Attalus had always yearned to be king. But in the end, his loyalty to Eumenes won out – he faithfully executed what Eumenes had sent him to Rome to do, and left (Polybius 30.3). Attalus went home, loving his brother more than his own ambitions.

In time, Attalus' costly display of loyalty to his brother earned him a nickname. Because Attalus had shown so much brotherly love, he was nicknamed 'Brother-Lover' – or, in Greek, Philadelphos. Years later, either Attalus or Eumenes founded a new city at the border of the former regions of Lydia and Phrygia – a Greek city to help bring Greek culture to the locals. And they named it, after Attalus' nickname, the city of... Philadelphia. A city to forever remember Attalus' brotherly love for Eumenes.

Down through the years, Philadelphia grew into a fine little town. Situated on the south side of a local river, it was separated by a ridge of hills from a rich volcanic plain that people just called the 'Burnt Land.' It turned out to be very good soil for growing the grapes whose juice could be turned into wine, and so vine-growing became the cornerstone of Philadelphia's industry. The people lived out their days, falling in love with sports, cheering for the winners to get their trophies, wreaths, or crowns. But in the first century, things got troublesome for the city of Philadelphia. Earthquakes began to hit – the city was nearly atop a fault line. Every time one struck, the town was slow to recover. It suffered aftershocks for years. At times, the Philadelphians had to flee the city as it cracked and crumbled around them, and go live in the countryside for years. Over decades, they cried out for help. And some emperors sent it. The Philadelphians were so glad, they changed the city's name to honor the emperors – adding names like 'Neocaesarea' and 'Flavia' to their city. Just like Attalus, they wanted to be loyal, especially in the light of such generosity. Who wouldn't be grateful? The Philadelphians loved Caesar.

But then, just a few years before this letter, the Emperor Domitian – trying to rebalance the food supplies for the empire – wrote out an edict to rip up most every vineyard to free up land for corn production (Revelation 6:7). If put into effect, the idea would have killed Philadelphia – corn didn't grow well in their kind of dirt, they were totally dependent on their vineyards. The hot, piercing sting of betrayal ripped through the city – the very same emperor they trusted as their benefactor was the man who gave orders without the slightest thought to how it would devastate them. By the time John sees visions on Patmos, the people of Philadelphia are overwhelmed with a weary disaffection and disappointment with the imperial office – once bitten, twice shy.

In this vulnerable, shaken, resentful town, there lives a church. It isn't a big church. It isn't a rapidly growing church. It isn't a church of hustle and bustle. Jesus remarks that he knows that the church has “a little power” (Revelation 3:8c). Not a lot of power. Not no power. Not a typical amount of power. Just a little power, a bit of strength. There are perhaps no more people in the Philadelphian church than there are in ours. It's a small church. And it's stayed small for a while, because they haven't had a great deal of success in evangelizing their neighbors. Oh, they've tried – otherwise, they'd be catching the same flak over it that some other churches had. But their aspirations of growth are frustrated; they feel landlocked. They're small. And yet Jesus has chosen them, out of all the churches in Asia Minor, as one of the seven he'll speak to directly. In some of the other letters, Jesus has dealt with large churches in big, venerable cities. But the Philadelphian church, little and weak and poor though it might be, isn't left out. They, too, get to hear the voice of Jesus. Jesus has an eye on them. “I know your works,” he tells them (Revelation 3:8a). Jesus pays as much attention to the little Philadelphian church as he does to the bigger churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis. Their “little power” is no disqualifier from the attentions of Jesus Christ.

We find out that this frustrated little church has gone through some significant trials in the past – tribulations of the sort that have struck other churches – and this little church has been faithful and borne up under it. “You kept my word and did not deny my name,” Jesus tells them (Revelation 3:8d). “You kept my word of patient endurance” (Revelation 3:10a). When times were tough and times were dry, when the pressure was on, when it got hot, this little church stuck it out. It wasn't anything the world would call heroic. Didn't involve grand signs and wonders. It was just everyday faithfulness in tougher times. And Jesus noticed and appreciated it.

And yet there is a problem that now vexes this little church, and it isn't one for which any blame is laid at their feet. Just like in Smyrna, the letter to Philadelphia mentions a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 3:9a). The local synagogue was notoriously compromised, even from a mainstream Jewish perspective – the rabbis would later comment that “the wines and the baths” of this area “have separated the ten tribes from Israel” (b. Shabbat 147a). Yet evidently, this compromised synagogue was engaged in concerted efforts to bully the tiny church in their neighborhood. The synagogue community was legally exempt from the laws of emperor-worship, and yet they excluded and excommunicated Jesus-following Jews from their fellowship, casting them out and leaving them devoid of protection. They likely cursed Jesus-followers in their gatherings. And they were determined to win Jewish Christians back into their fold, and even convert Gentile Christians in Philadelphia. Their preferred tactic, it seems, was to de-legitimize and demoralize the church. The synagogue authorities were telling this struggling little church that there was no safety outside the synagogue, that there was no security outside of the synagogue, that there was no salvation outside of the synagogue. They told the church that God's kingdom was going to come for Israelites, and that those outside the synagogue's doors were going to miss out. They maybe quoted the verses from Isaiah about Gentiles coming and bowing at the Jews' feet (Isaiah 45:14; 49:23; 60:14).

Between their frustration in failed growth and the haunting voices of the synagogue's taunts, the Philadelphian church has become deeply discouraged. The light has faded from their eyes. They harbor no great thoughts for their church's future. They doubt their own salvation. They have nightmares about being shut out from God's presence because they picked the wrong version of Israel's faith. They've been faithful to Jesus, having kept to his name without denying it, but now these taunts have them struggling to defend their faith from the scriptures of Israel, and doubts are creeping in.

Are we anything like the church in Philadelphia? While a neighboring religious body may not taunt us and try to lure us away from the church, we are at times subject to discouraging voices. We, too, may be faced with the whispers of discouragement. Our hearts may hear whispers like, “You'll never do enough to overcome that past stain. Do more, it's never enough.” And when that whisper comes, we need to know that our stains have all been devoured by the glory that is in Christ Jesus – he saves to the uttermost, regardless of the worst of all our stains and all our weaknesses. But then comes the second whisper: “The difficulties you endure are proof that God doesn't love you, because would a loving God really lead you through what you're facing now?” And we need to know that it's true that “through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come,” but these are either gifts of God or else tools he'll tame for our blessing, if we only trust him enough to receive it. But then comes the third whisper: “Don't you know your religion has no place in the modern world? Get with the times! These outdated beliefs will fade into history.” So the whisper may say. But we need to know that the so-called 'modern world' is too small and artificial to last, but the gospel never expires, never grows stale – the gospel will always endure, for Christ is risen.

Ah, but then comes the fourth whisper: “Can't you see that you're too old to be useful? What could you possibly do that's of value now?” And when that whisper comes, we need to know that elderly believers have done marvelous things for God throughout history. Moses was in his eighties when he went up to get the Ten Commandments. Isaiah preached into his late eighties or nineties. Simeon and Anna, who held and announced the infant Messiah, were at least in their eighties. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was a bold witness for Jesus in his late eighties. Anthony, one of the first monks, was 87 when he left the desert to go help steer the church back to the right beliefs; he lived 'til 105. John the Silent, a later monk, lived to 104 and still gave helpful advice to anybody who visited with him. The eighties and nineties are not too old to be used mightily by God.

Oh, but then the fifth whisper attacks us: “Your church is so small. Your church doesn't grow. Look at all the big things around you. Can't you see that the big things are where it's at? Your church is insignificant. It can't possibly do any good.” So the fifth whisper might say! But the Philadelphian church was small. That church had not been growing. They surely heard this same whisper that we have. The things that discourage us, they faced too. And yet that whisper of discouragement is countered by the assuring voice of Jesus.

What does Jesus say? He introduces himself, first, as “the Holy One, the True One” (Revelation 3:7a). The local synagogue may have been casting doubt on Jesus. But Jesus opens for the church the prophecies of Isaiah, and there we find that Israel's God was called “the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:3), and that he'd one day be known especially as “the God of Truth” (Isaiah 65:16). Jesus reminds the church that he is the God who gave the Law and inspired the Prophets all along – a God “holy and true” (cf. Revelation 6:10).

And it's as Israel's holy and true God that Jesus can say to the little Philadelphian church: “I know your works” (Revelation 3:8a). He's said this to all the churches – sometimes what he sees isn't very healthy. But actually, Jesus doesn't have a single bad thing to say about the Philadelphian church. The last thing they need is another word of discouragement. There's enough of that in their lives already. And Jesus first of all just wants them to know that he sees them. They may be small and weak, but he pays as much attention to them as he does to the biggest churches. They are not beneath his notice. The Philadelphian church, to Jesus' eyes, is every bit as precious and valuable as the most active and lively megachurch. And the same must be true for us. If we live in faithfulness to Jesus, we can rest assured that his eyes have caught that. And not out of his peripheral vision. Jesus is looking straight at our church. The name of this church is spoken in heaven. And we are discussed and seen with the same attention as Petra or LCBC, Weaverland or Willow Street, even megachurches. Jesus takes no less notice of our works than of theirs. Jesus takes no less notice of any one of you than of kings and stars.

Not only that, but Jesus wants to say to the Philadelphian church and ours: “I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9c) – have loved and do love. Jesus looks at you, he knows your works, and he loves you! Jesus loves our church! Jesus loves each person here this morning! Jesus loves your family. Jesus loves your neighbor. And Jesus does – really does – love you. The whispers of discouragement, then and now, may try to cast a shadow over his love for you. They may heap up dark accounts of circumstances, they may raise question after question about events of hardship in the hands of a loving God. The whispers have had their say. Over them all, Jesus shouts, “I have loved you!” Oh, church, do you know this morning that Jesus loves you? He loves you infinitely more than Attalus loved Eumenes. Not once has Jesus considered turning his back on you – not even during your worst sin. Open your heart to his love! Let it wash over you in abundance, like the ocean flood surging into a teacup.

Another thing Jesus wants to say to the Philadelphian church and ours: “I am coming soon” (Revelation 3:11a). Jesus had warned some of the other churches that his spiritual presence was going to visit them and bring them punishment. He warned Ephesus that he'd “come... and remove [their] lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5), he warned Pergamum he'd “come soon and war against them with the sword of [his] mouth” (Revelation 2:16), he warned Sardis he'd “come like a thief” if they didn't wake up (Revelation 3:3). Here, Jesus will visit a church not to punish but to help – he'll come to bless and assist, to strengthen and protect them. He pledges that “because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10). Because they persevered earlier, so keeping his word, Jesus is going to keep them spiritually secure during the coming tribulations – the forces of the world may kill the body, but Jesus will seal the faithful believers' souls and keep them alive. He has no plan to leave us to eternally languish in internalized shame. If we trust him and hear his word, we're his, full stop.

Now, the synagogue in Philadelphia scoffs at all this. They make out that their door is the door of the world to come. They scold the church, discourage the church, as a tactic to lure people away from the church and into compliance with their understanding of the Law. They claim to have locked Jesus-followers out of the kingdom of God. But Jesus has a different idea. Jesus turns the pages of Isaiah to the twenty-second chapter, where we find the story of Shebna and Eliakim. Shebna had been the palace steward of King Hezekiah. Shebna had been the one overseeing the royal household, with control of Judah's finances and with the keys to the palace. But Isaiah warned that, due to mismanagement, Shebna was about to be demoted. His role would be given to a man named Eliakim: “I will clothe him with [Shebna's] robe..., and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah, and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none will open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house” (Isaiah 22:21-23). That's what God promised to give Eliakim. Eliakim was going to have 'the key of the house of David,' which would allow him to control access to the royal palace – and, hence, control the access of the people to their king. Eliakim would choose who could see Hezekiah and who couldn't. In later Jewish interpretation, Eliakim becomes a high priest with 'the key of the sanctuary' to control access even to God's temple (Exodus Rabbah 37.1; Targum Isaiah 22:22).

And Jesus says that he's the truer and greater Eliakim. Jesus is the one who “has the key of David – who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7b). Jesus controls access to everything in or beyond the universe. No one can get into anything unless Jesus unlocks it. And nobody can lock what he's left open for somebody. Jesus is the true gatekeeper. Jesus is the holy doorman. Jesus has the key of access – even access to God's kingdom. In calling the synagogue frauds and liars, he's shut their door, and nothing they do can open it. But to the little church he says, “I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut” (Revelation 3:8b). They don't have to listen to their local synagogue's taunts. Jesus has opened a door for them, and no one – not a synagogue leader, not a priest, not a governor, not an emperor, not devil or archangel – can budge that door and slam it in their faces. And Jesus has opened that same door of access for us. And nobody can shut the door on you. For you stands “a door... open in heaven” (Revelation 4:1), so long as Jesus opens it.

In just the same way that Jesus sets before them an open door of heavenly access, an open door to the kingdom and to the world-to-come, Jesus is also setting before them an open door to the mission field. God had once “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27), and “a wide door for effective work [had] opened” for Paul (1 Corinthians 16:9), and elsewhere Paul asked the church to pray “that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). And now, Jesus says, he's opening a similar door for gospel preaching to the Philadelphian church. Not only can they take their message straight to the synagogue again and trust the Spirit's presence, but they're also situated very well to send out missionaries to unreached nearby regions. They may be small, but Jesus can open doors for the gospel delivered by small churches. And he can open doors for us to “declare the mystery of Christ,” if we pray for doors to open. Jesus has the key.

Jesus promises that he will give fruitfulness to the Philadelphian church, in time. They may be subject to the whispers of discouragement and the pressures of persecution, but Jesus takes the triumphant prophecies of the synagogue and turns them around. Where the synagogue read Isaiah and expected the Gentiles to come bowing down to them, Jesus says that it's the discouragers from the Philadelphian synagogue whom Jesus “will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9bc). The church may be small, the church may be weak, the church may be belittled, but Jesus will vindicate them very openly and publicly one day. Their neighbors will learn that the God of Israel loves the church as his people. And there is the hope – we can hold out the hope – that what Jesus describes isn't just an unwilling submission but a joyful conversion: that the former discouragers, in awe, come and humble themselves to receive the good news that is available for them precisely through Jesus' love to his church. And just so, although the church is routinely mocked and derided in twenty-first-century America, nevertheless we may hear this promise: that one day, Jesus may well make the church's fiercest critics come bow before believers' feet – and we may hope that he'll do it in a joyful conversion, like he did with Saul of Tarsus.

Jesus has even more promises to give to the Philadelphian church – and to us. The Philadelphian church read the scriptures. They had to, especially in their conflict with the synagogue. And as they read those scriptures, they knew the story about how Solomon, in building the temple, had ordered “two pillars of bronze. … He set up the pillars at the vestibule of the temple. He set up the pillar on the south and called it Jachin, and he set up the pillar on the north and called it Boaz” (1 Kings 7:15, 21). And there those named pillars stood, looming sturdily in the court of God's temple. It was a beautiful picture of stability in God's presence. Years later, God had turned to his prophet Jeremiah and promised, “I make you this day... an iron pillar... against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, (says Yahweh), to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:18). Just like the temple's pillars of bronze, Jeremiah would be an iron pillar, unmoved by all the resistance of Judah. It would have sounded like quite the dream to the Philadelphian church, whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had been repeatedly chased out of their hometown by earthquakes.

And so, to them, Jesus vows, “The one who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it” (Revelation 3:12a). For all the demoralizing whispers that tell us we're outcasts, Jesus will answer that we have a place inside. For all the earthquake shocks of life that threaten to topple us, Jesus replies that we can be made sturdy pillars in God's temple. And never can we be chased out. The world and its forms may crumble around us, all else may be shaking and quaking, but we're receiving “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). And in that kingdom, we stand as sturdy pillars, never needing another place.

Jesus knows about Philadelphia's trouble with earthquake shocks. Jesus also knows how Philadelphia has taken on other names throughout the years, but been betrayed by her namesakes. Philadelphia had taken names to honor unworthy kings who left her deserted. Jesus knows that. So it's with great deliberateness that he offers a name that won't go sour: “I will write on him” – on the overcoming believer – “the name of my God and the name of the city of my God (the New Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven) and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12b). Later rabbis would say that, in the end time, the Messiah and the Holy City would both have the same name as God himself (Pesikta de Rab Kahana 22.5a; Midrash Psalms 21.2). It's all one name, one glorious name, the name that inextricably links God and Christ and Holy City. To bear the name of Jesus will be to belong to God. To bear the name of Jesus will be citizenship in the New Jerusalem. A single inscription will say it all. And Jesus will write that name on each believer's forehead, just as the high priest of Israel had a forehead-mounted gold plate with God's name on it (Exodus 28:36-38).

What Jesus is offering is a fabulously beautiful picture. It would have dazzled the little Philadelphian church. It should dazzle us just the same. In the face of the whispers of discouragement, Jesus sees us, Jesus pledges his love for us, Jesus opens doors into the kingdom for us, Jesus promises to vindicate us, Jesus promises to protect us, Jesus promises to prosper our ministry, Jesus welcomes us into God's temple, Jesus gives us a permanent place, Jesus gives us stability, Jesus makes his own name our access code and our identity. Jesus makes of us what our neighbors cannot dream. He gives the simplest believer a glory beyond Aaron and Moses. Young or old, big church or little church, it doesn't matter – Jesus' promises abide the same. And all he asks is this: “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:11b). Don't let any whispers of discouragement or earthquake shocks steal that trophy you're aiming to wear. “A little power,” sure and steady and sturdy, outlasts the race. Just “hold fast what you have!” Don't be demoralized, don't be discouraged. The risen Lord Jesus writes to assure you what you have in him. The future is bright for a faithful small church, only hold fast what you have in Jesus!

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