The Church of Philadelphia
I would like to present a wonderful writing to our many regular site visitors. It is part of the late Herman Hoeksema's Behold He Cometh, which is his commentary on Revelation. This is the section which focuses on Revelation's messages to the churches and Hoeksema takes the opportunity to say quite a lot about the church which was at Philadelphia in the late 90s AD. This wonderful writing should be required reading for all preachers of the unbiblical prosperity message. The apostle John makes it clear that the church at Philadelphia were especially poor in a physical sense (though they were spiritually rich) and it is to be hoped that this message makes those who spend their time coming up with various financially-motivated church growth structures/initiatives feel distinctly uneasy!
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
The Church of Philadelphia
By Herman Hoeksema
The Outward Condition Of Philadelphia
One of the chief characteristics of the church in Philadelphia is undoubtedly expressed in the words of the Savior, "Thou hast a little strength." This describes her outward condition in the world. The meaning is that the church was small. This was one of her most emphatic traits.
We understand, of course, that this does not imply that the other churches were outwardly great and strong: for this was not the case. In fact, we may undoubtedly say that the church in general, the true church of Jesus Christ, is always of little power if compared with the strength of the world. It is always comparatively small in numbers. It usually is financially poor. It does not count among its numbers the rich and the great of the world. And therefore, it is evident that in a general sense what the Savior here writes about the church in Philadelphia may be said of all the churches addressed thus far. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis,-all were small and poor and of little strength according to the measure of the world. Nevertheless, of the church in Philadelphia this was especially and emphatically true. It was not the chief characteristic of the other churches, but it was one of the main features of the church in Philadelphia. We may take it, therefore, that in this little sentence the Lord gives a brief description of the peculiar situation in the church of Philadelphia from an external point of view.
However, when the Lord addresses the church in Philadelphia thus, and remarks that she has but little strength, this refers only to her outward position in the world. It does not describe her spiritual condition. Spiritually the little church in Philadelphia was not weak, but strong indeed. That this is true is evident from rest of the letter addressed to her.
The Lord commends her for having kept His Word, which implies that the church remained faithful to the truth of the gospel. And thus to keep the Word of Jesus certainly requires spiritual strength. The church that is spiritually weak certainly will not keep the Word of Jesus. Always the enemies encompass the church of Jesus Christ in the world; and always those enemies attack her especially from the viewpoint of the truth. It requires strength, spiritual strength, the exercise of the power of faith, to be faithful to the truth and to keep the Word of the Lord. This is emphasized in what follows immediately. It is evident that the church had not only kept the Word of Jesus, but also confessed His name. For the Lord writes to her: "Thou hast not denied my name." The negative form of this expression implies that the enemies, perhaps especially the Jews of Philadelphia, had exerted all their influence to make the church deny the name of Christ. They persecuted her and left her but little standing room in the midst of the world. But this negative expression also implies, by way of contrast, that the church in Philadelphia had openly confessed the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. They could not and did not keep still about that name of their glorious Lord and Redeemer, in Whom they believed and Whom they loved, Who had delivered them from sin and death and merited for them everlasting life and glory. Of course, all this points to real spiritual strength.
To confess the name of the Lord is from a natural point of view by no means an easy matter, especially over against the enemy and especially when the confession of that name instigates persecution and hatred on the part of the world. This certainly had been the case in Philadelphia. This is evident from what the Lord continues to write to her: "Thou hast kept the word of my patience." Patience, in the Scriptural sense of the word, always presupposes suffering for Christ's sake, the bearing of His cross. The confession of the name of Jesus, the preaching of His Word, had caused the saints in Philadelphia suffering and persecution. But they had been faithful in the midst of the suffering of this present time and had not denied His name. They had kept and proclaimed the Word of Jesus Christ, and for it they had suffered affliction and persecution; and thus they had kept the Word of Christ's patience, the Word which always exhorted them to be patient and to suffer and bear the cross for Christ's sake.
It must not be said, therefore, that the little church in Philadelphia had little strength spiritually. No, in grace she was strong, very strong indeed. But outwardly, according to the measure of the world, the little church was weak in every respect of the word. She was small in numbers, no doubt. Perhaps the church was hardly known in the city; she counted but few members. Neither did this small band belong to the great of the world. The financial resources of the congregation were practically none. She had no wealth. She possessed little property. The little band did not belong to the wealthy and influential in the city. According to the standard of the world, the church in Philadelphia had indeed but little strength. From an outward aspect one would judge that the church could exert no influence at all. If Philadelphia existed in our day, she would no doubt receive the advice to unite with some other church as soon as possible. In her small and isolated condition, so we would judge, she can be of no influence and power in the world. The sooner she becomes member of a larger body, the better it will be for her.
But Philadelphia did not think so. At least, from the letter we receive the impression that the church had been busy preaching the gospel and witnessing for Christ. No doubt, they had witnessed for the name of the Lord also with a view to gaining converts, and that especially among the powerful and influential Jews in the city. That this is true is evident from the entire letter. In the first place, the Lord in this letter announces Himself as the One that has the key of David, that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth. The expression "key of David" is derived from Isaiah 22:22. The prophet there pronounces judgment upon Shebna, the king's treasurer and most important officer over his house. This office shall be taken away from him and shall be given to Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who was found to be more worthy than Shebna. And it is in this connection that Isaiah uses the expression "key of David." Says he: "And 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." This power of the key, therefore, symbolized general supervision over the king's business, and included specifically the authority to determine who were allowed to enter into the king's presence and into his service. Now then, Christ possesses the key of David. That is, He has the authority to open and shut the door of the Father's kingdom. He, and He alone, determines who shall enter into that kingdom and who shall remain without. It is He, therefore, Who adds to the church. And this announcement, no doubt, points to the hope and the desire of the little congregation in Philadelphia, as well as to her activity in regard to witnessing for Jesus and in respect to the proclamation of the gospel, that the little church may increase in numbers and that converts may be gained. In that respect she was a true missionary church. True, the congregation was of little strength; yet they had been very active. And though they had remained small, and though their labors had been crowned with but little success, yet the Lord reminds them that He is the One from Whom alone the growth of the church must be expected. They must be faithful, and they must preach, and they must witness. But the Lord holds the key of David. He alone opens and shuts the door of His Father's kingdom.
In the second place, the Lord tells the congregation: "Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it." Different interpretations have been given of this figurative expression; yet, in the light of Scripture in general, the meaning can hardly be dubious. When Paul and Barnabas return from their missionary journey and report to the church of their labors and the fruit upon these labors, we read that the church rejoiced because the Lord had given an open door unto the Gentiles, Acts 14:27. In II Corinthians 16:9 the apostle writes: "For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries." And again, in II Corinthians 2:12 he writes: "Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ's gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus, my brother: but taking leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia." And once more, in Colossians 4:3 the apostle writes: "Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds." The meaning of the open door, therefore, is evidently that the Lord would create an opportunity and a receptivity for the preaching and the hearing of the gospel of Christ. And if we may conclude, as certainly we may, that this promise is in harmony with the desire and longing of the congregation, we see that also this expression points to the fact that the church in Philadelphia was characterized by zeal for the Lord's cause and was bent upon the extension of the kingdom of God. They were small, but faithful, and purposed to add to their little band by means of preaching of the gospel.
This picture is of great significance for the church today. For it tells us that the Lord fulfills His strength in weakness. The church of today seems to be quite forgetful of the fact that she is in herself of little strength. The talk of the day is of money and funds and men and organizations. The church is united into a powerful army. Long, so it is said, the church has been forgetful of her great task to bring the world to Christ. But now she will accomplish that tremendous task. But what we need is organization. What we need is men and means. What we need is sound business methods. And surely, we do not oppose all these. We surely may employ the very best methods, even in the extension of the kingdom of God. We surely need men who will preach the gospel. We surely need funds, even for the extension of the kingdom. But we fear that the expectation is more and more from these than from Him Who holds the keys of David. After all, let us never forget that we do not open and shut, but the Lord only. He will use His church as an instrument; but that church must always be mindful of the saying of Jesus, "Thou art of little strength."
Secondly, the picture of the little church in Philadelphia reminds us that the church must not force the fruits when they do not immediately become evident. Today this is often the case. In her anxiety to force men into the kingdom the church not so infrequently compromises on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Word of God. It does no longer emphasize the essential truths. It feels that perhaps men are repelled by the preaching of sin and total depravity, of wrath and condemnation, not to speak of the fundamental truths of election and reprobation. These truths, therefore, are no longer preached. Instead, a certain shallow gospel of love takes its place, in order to attract men and to force them into the church. Gradually the gospel loses its strength and its true content. And the result is that rather than bringing the world to Christ, we bring the church into the world. Philadelphia had not adopted this method. She had labored faithfully and seen no fruit. For still she was small. But she had kept the Word of Christ's patience and had in no wise denied His name. And therefore, finally, in Philadelphia we have the true picture of the faithful mission church. Mindful of her smallness and of her dependence on Christ, mindful that He must open the door, she remains a faithful witness and does not deny the truth.
Glorious promises are given unto this church for the present as well as for the future.
First of all, the Lord promises that she shall see fruit upon her labors. This promise is already suggested in the manner in which Christ appears to the church of Philadelphia. He is the holy and true One, upon Whose Word the congregation may rely. He holds the key of David, and has the authority to open and to shut. In these words there is already a faint suggestion that presently the Lord will open the gate of the kingdom and cause some of them among whom they had witnessed and labored to enter in. This inference becomes practically a certainty when the Lord tells them: "Behold, I have set before thee an open door, which no man can shut." Hitherto it had seemed as if with all their activity they had only aroused enmity and bitter hatred against the Lord and His church. The enemy appeared not even to be approachable. The hearts were closed. But now the Lord would open the door. They would find entrance. They would henceforth experience that the attitude of the enemy had changed. Their witnessing would meet with a certain eagerness to listen to the truth of the gospel. The Lord would prepare the field for them. And, finally, this fact is raised beyond all doubt, and is at the same time stated more definitely, when the Lord adds: "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, of them that say they are Jews, but are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee." There was in Philadelphia a synagogue of the Jews. They were filled with bitter hatred against Christ and His people. They had no doubt slandered the congregation. From them the church had suffered much. But over against them the little church had witnessed faithfully. Only, hitherto it had all seemed to be in vain. The door was closed. They could not be approached. They did not appear open to conviction. They met their gospel with -bitterness and scorn. But now, behold, the Lord would finally crown their labors with blessing unexpected. Some of those very Jews who hated them and persecuted them would be converted. These very enemies would come and worship before the feet of the church, that is, in all humility; expressing in their attitude that the church is the beloved, the bride of the Messiah, these Jews would come and take their place among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Long, therefore, they may have labored in vain; but glorious is the victory.
And the same is true today. Long all our labors may appear to be fruitless and without result. Let us never forget that the Lord will surely bring His own, and that also through our labors.
The Promise Of Being Kept From The Hour Of Temptation.
Neither is this the only promise the Lord gives to the church of Philadelphia for the present time. Troublous times were approaching for the church, also for the faithful in Philadelphia. They must have been filled with apprehension of this fact even at this very time. The clouds of persecution appeared at the historical horizon. Presently they would cover the firmament and burst forth their black darkness over the church. The Lord speaks of those times that are about to come when He writes: "I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." The hour of trial, or of temptation, here mentioned refers, of course, in the first place, to a wave of persecution which swept over the church of Christ at that time. Likely it was the same hour of persecution which would come over the church of Smyrna. It would sweep over the entire then-known world, and try men with a view to their loyalty to Christ Jesus.
But although this hour of temptation refers, in the first place, in the literal sense of the word to a time of persecution which would arrive for the church of Philadelphia, yet it remains true that this same hour of temptation was repeated several times in the history of the world. It was repeated when the Mohammedan half-moon rode high over the Christian world. It was repeated when the harlot church...... sent the sons of the Reformation to scaffold and stake. And after all, it will find its complete fulfillment no sooner than the time of Antichrist, when days so terrible are still to arrive for the church that even the elect would not endure if they were not shortened. All these hours of temptation, repeated several times in history wherever the church was persecuted, are after all but faint types and forebodings of what will come when the Man of Sin shall reach his full development and power. The hour of tribulation will come, will surely come, perhaps will come soon.
And what now is the promise to the church of Philadelphia and also to the church of the present time? This: that she will be kept from the hour of temptation that shall come upon the whole world.
Does that mean that the church will not be subjected to that hour of trial? Does it mean with regard to the church of Philadelphia that she will be kept by the Lord and in some wonderful manner remain unmolested when that hour of temptation sweeps the world? And does it mean with a view to the final period of suffering that the Lord will first receive His faithful church up to heaven, before that final suffering comes? Thus is the view of many. If the church is faithful and keeps the Word of Christ's patience, she shall meet the Lord in the air before the persecution by the Man of Sin breaks loose in all its fury.
But I do not believe that this is the meaning of these words. In the first place, the question arises: why should the church of Smyrna be cast into the midst of that tribulation and the church of Philadelphia be excused? In the second place, we may notice that the entire conception that the faithful church shall be delivered before the persecution of Antichrist comes is false and dangerous. It is false, for it is not in harmony with Scripture. Christ warns His people more than once that this hour shall come, and that they must remain faithful unto the end. Why all these warnings of tribulation, with which Scripture abounds, if they that are faithful shall not be in the hour of temptation? And dangerous this conception is, because it puts the church to sleep. The church which expects to be received in the air before the great tribulation comes does not prepare itself for the battle and for the hour of temptation. That hour shall catch her unexpectedly. And therefore, we must not labor under this illusion, but must expect to be in tribulation, and must prepare for the evil day, putting on the whole armor of God. In the third place, the tribulation which is mentioned here is pictured as coming over the whole earth; and it is not likely that the faithful little church of Philadelphia would escape the attention of the enemy. It is exactly the faithful church which must endure persecution. In the fourth place, the original may very well be interpreted to signify that the little church of Philadelphia would indeed be cast into the midst of temptation and be tried with all the world, but that in that tribulation the Lord would keep her, so that she would come out of it unharmed.
The latter is indeed the meaning. Not that the church shall be kept from tribulation is her glory and comfort. Not that she shall not meet with tribulation must be her assurance: for it would be false. But that in the midst of suffering and persecution, when the enemy rages and the temptation to deny the Lord is strong and fierce, the Lord by His grace will be sufficient to keep the church, so that she endures to the very end, -that is the meaning of the text. That is the assurance the church may have. That is the comfort which the church needs. Also with a view to the great tribulation which is still to come, the church is in need of that consolation. Who does never tremble at the thought of what must still come to pass? Who of God's children, when he thinks of the terrible suffering that is connected with the persecution of the church in the last days, never asks himself the anxious and all-important question whether he shall be faithful even unto death? The church, therefore, has need of that comfort, the comfort that the grace of God will be sufficient even in the hour of trial.
Finally, this interpretation is in harmony with the admonition which immediately follows this announcement: "Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown."
It is exactly in times of tribulation and persecution that the church has need of the comforting assurance that the Lord is coming quickly. For the coming of the Lord will mean her victory and final deliverance. And again, it is not when the church escapes persecution, but when she is in the midst of it that she needs the admonition, coming directly from the Lord: "Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown."
And therefore, this, we take it, is the meaning of this assurance. The church of Philadelphia, and the church of all ages. and the church of the latter days especially, may expect the hour of temptation which shall come over all the world. She will be cast right into the midst of it. But in the midst of suffering and trial, the vision of the Lord may always be before her, holding the keys of David, calling Himself the faithful and true, and giving the church the assurance that she need not be afraid, for His grace will be sufficient to keep His faithful ones out of the hour of temptation, so that no one shall take their crown.
The Promise Of Future Blessing.
But the Lord has still more promises. He does not only come with promises for the present time, but also with promises of glorious blessings for the future: "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name."
Let us notice, first of all, the important fact that this promise is given in general to him that overcometh. The glory of the Messianic kingdom is preceded by the suffering of this present time. And the rule remains without exception that we must suffer with Christ in order to be glorified together. Christ and His people have a common cause. They are inseparably united. But they also suffer a common lot in the world. If they have hated Him, they shall also hate us. And if they have persecuted Him, they shall also persecute those that are His. Hence, only for him that overcometh is this future promise. Not for him who is defeated; not for him who falls by the wayside; not for him who succumbs to the devil; not for him who does not keep the Word of Christ's patience; not for him who denies the name of Jesus; but only for him that overcometh is this promise. For the unfaithful the Word of the Lord has no promises. But he that overcometh shall be made a pillar in the temple of Christ's God.
Is it necessary to mention in this connection that there is no reference here to a literal temple, made with hands? If temple is taken literally, pillars must also be taken in the same sense. And it would be a poor consolation indeed for the people of God to learn that they all will be changed into pillars in the future. No, the sense is symbolical. Temple is symbolic of the dwelling of God with man, of His most intimate communion, of the full realization of God's covenant of friendship. God's temple is His people, living in most intimate communion and union with Himself. The pillar is figure of abiding firmness. The Lord Himself supplies the commentary on this expression when He adds: "and he shall go out no more." To be made pillars in the temple of God, therefore, is to enter lastingly and abidingly into the eternal covenant communion with God,the God of Jesus Christ our Lord. They that overcome in the present struggle, they that are firm in the hour of trial, shall finally enter into that eternal covenant communion with God which is life eternal.
The Lord further makes mention of a three-fold name which they shall bear who thus overcome. They shall bear the name of God; they shall bear the name of the city of God; and they shall bear the new name of Jesus.
The name is the manifestation of their being. It is the expression of what they are. If, therefore, the Lord here promises that the faithful shall receive the name of God, He expresses that the image of God shall have reached its highest possible development. There shall be the highest possible degree of likeness between God's people and Himself, so that true and perfect covenant communion is possible, and they shall see Him as He is. We shall bear His name. We shall be like Him. No, we shall not be God; but the highest possible affinity that is conceivable in the creature shall exist between God and His people. And in that relation they shall see Him face to face, and He shall speak to them as a friend with his friends.
They shall bear the name of the city of God. It is not necessary to go into detail as to the reality and the meaning of this new Jerusalem. Suffice it to say that it represents the society of the elect in glory, the body of Christ, the complete assembly of all the saints. In that society every individual shall have his own name. Individuality shall not be lost. Yet his name shall always be the name of that city, that is, his individual being and manifestation shall be in harmony with the general society of all the saints, so that all together they shall form one grand harmony, manifesting the glory of God's grace. Besides, the communion of saints shall there be perfect, when they shall all bear that common name of the city of God, the new Jerusalem that cometh down out of heaven. Now that city is being prepared, and one by one the company of the elect are being gathered in heaven. But once it shall come down out of heaven from God into the new creation, there to live forever to the glory of the grace of the Almighty.
Lastly, the Lord mentions His own new name. It is the name which was given Him at His exaltation at the right hand of God, a name of glory and power and strength and majesty. It denotes our Lord Jesus Christ as the Lord of all! For in the new creation He shall be King forever. That name shall also be bestowed upon His saints, that is, they shall share in His dory. With Him they shall reign. With Him they shall walk in the light of God. With Him they shall be prophets, priests, and kings of God forevermore!
Hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches! What doth the Spirit say?
In the first place, that the church is of little strength outwardly. This is true today as it was at the time of the early church. In the task she is called to perform, in the tribulation she will have to suffer, she may continually bear in mind that she is of little strength. She need not, she may not, rely on that strength. In the second place, the Lord is faithful and powerful. He has the key of David. He opens, and no one shuts; He shuts, and no one opens. No one shall pluck us out of His hand. No one shall root us out of His kingdom. And in all our work in the kingdom of God, our reliance should be on Him alone. Of little strength itself, the church is mighty in her mighty Lord, faithful and true. In the third place, tribulation shall come; and temptation the church must expect. But in the midst of tribulation and suffering for Christ's sake, the vision of the mighty King of kings may always be before us! He shall keep us, so that we shall never fall. And with our eyes on Him we may be sure of the victory!
That victory may surely be our consolation!
It shall be the victory of eternal glory in the new Jerusalem, in the temple of God and His tabernacle with men, where we shall see Him face to face and love Him forever, as He hath loved us!
(This is taken from Behold He Cometh which is Herman Hoeksema's commentary on Revelation. We do not claim any copyright to it. In 2005, we tried to clarify the copyright/public domain status of this writing without success. It appears on the The Bible Centre website).