Being excluded feels horrible.
Children in the playground, deliberately leaving out a child they don’t like. A group of work colleagues going out for a drink, deliberately not telling one of their number where they’re going.
Even worse is religious exclusion. Being told that you’re not a proper Christian, not a true member of the people of God. If you care about God and his purposes, that hurts.
This was the experience of the Christians in a town called Philadelphia, one of the 7 churches that Revelation was written to. It seems they’d been shut out by the local synagogue. The Jews said that they were the true followers of God; the Christians were not. What’s worse, anyone who attended the local church was not allowed to attend the synagogue. Some of the Christians had a Jewish background, and this would have stung with double the pain.
Christians today have the same experience. One Christian church being made to feel that they’re not the real thing by another. In parts of the world where Christians are in a minority, they sometimes get on fabulously with their Muslim neighbours. But elsewhere, they’re made to pay additional taxes, forbidden from starting a business. Told they’re not really a part of God’s plan for that country. They can do so little about it. Their numbers are too small to have any influence on the laws that get passed. And in the West, sometimes it’s Christians being given the cold shoulder by our secular society.
It hurts, and it can be hard to keep going if you get treated like that for long.
Which is why it’s wonderful to read the words that Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia. These are the words that will help us keep going, if ever we find ourselves in this position. These are the words that will help brothers and sisters around the world keep going, and that will help us to pray for them.
They are gentle words, kind words, positive words. Such a contrast to last week. It seemed the church in Sardis had nothing good about them. Then we come to Philadelphia, and we meet a church about which Jesus has nothing bad to say.
We’ve heard Jesus address other churches. Churches that thought they were fine upstanding Christians, and Jesus has had to tell them that they’re not. Maybe it’s their lack of love. Maybe it’s the way they draw their morality from the unbelieving world. But Jesus had to tell them they’re not true Christians after all.
With Philadelphia it’s the reverse. These were people being told by the world around them that they’re not true Christians. And Jesus just wants to reassure them. Gently. Encouragingly. Keep going. You are!
It’s just a reminder that we have to be careful applying these messages to the churches. There are 7 very different churches here. Between them, they cover the whole gamut of things that a church today may need to hear. So we need to make sure we apply the right bits for where we are. We mustn’t hear words of comfort when we need warning. We mustn’t hear words of warning when we need comfort.
Well, Philadelphia needed comfort. And Jesus gives it to them in spades.
Jesus Knows: They’re Small
Jesus knows this church well. And the one thing he knows about them is that they’re small, not desperately impressive, not terribly strong.
Verse 8, he says: “I know that you have little strength.”
It’s good to discover that small churches are in the Bible. We’re a church of about 100 in a village of 4 or 5000. Nothing desperately impressive about us, either.
And yet, they’ve kept going. “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” The pressure was on them to deny the name of Jesus. We don’t really follow him. Or to deny the word of Jesus. We don’t really believe those unpopular things he taught. They’ve done neither. In their smallness. In their weakness. They’ve kept going.
I’m sure you heard of Marmitegate in the news this week. In case you didn’t hear, Tesco stopped stocking marmite. Unilever make it, and they wanted to put up the wholesale price. You might think Tesco is a big company. They’re worth about 16 billion pounds. They can afford to put their foot down, demand whatever prices they want. Well, Unilever are worth about 105 billion pounds. They’re nearly seven times the size of Tesco. So they can afford to stand their ground, and refuse to bullied by little Tesco.
It’s a David and Goliath story. It’s all sorted out now, and Marmite is back on the shelves. Exactly how they sorted it out, we’ll never know.
The Christians in Philadelphia were in a far smaller minority. Goodness knows how they held their ground, held onto Jesus and his word, in such small numbers. They’ve done well. And now Jesus wants to tell them what he will do for them.
Jesus Will: Admit Them
First, he’ll admit them. Admit them.
Verse 8: “I know your deeds. See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”
These Christians may have been shut out of the local synagogue. Those that shut them out may have thought these Christians were shut out of heaven itself.
So Jesus will personally admit them. He stands there, with the door open, to welcome them. And because he’s on the door, nobody will shut it.
One really good thing that Trinity School set up from the day they opened was that the head teacher would stand at the door of the school to shake each child’s hand as they arrive for the day. It’s a simple thing. It treats every child with respect, as a person made in God’s image.
If heaven had a door, then Jesus stands at the door. He holds the keys. He decides who comes in and who stays out. And he’s there to welcome these Christians from Philadelphia. He’s there to welcome the Christians from Kemsing.
“See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”
He’ll admit them.
Jesus Will: Vindicate Them
Second, he’ll vindicate them. Vindicate them.
Verse 9: “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.”
They’re beautiful words. These Christians are being told that God’s not interested in them.
That may be what it looks like, unimpressive bunch that they are. The reality could not be more different. One day, the very people who are dismissing them will see the reality. They will “come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.”
The thing about God’s love is that you can’t see it. There’s no need to turn there, but Paul addresses that in Romans chapter 5. He says that you can see God’s love when you look at the death of Jesus.
What kind of person might someone want to lay down their life for? Just possibly for someone really good. A really decent and upstanding citizen. If you’re a Christian, Jesus died for you. What were you like when he did that? Not good or desirable at all? Selfish. Sinful. Under God’s judgement. Deserving his punishment. And he died for you, like that.
That’s real love. Maybe you don’t feel special to God. Maybe, at times, others make you feel like you’re nobody special to God. If you’re one of those for whom Jesus died, nothing could be further from the truth. He loves you deeply. He cares about you more than anyone else you’ve ever met.
And here’s the point: One day that will be visible for all to see. One day everyone will be able to see just how much God has loved you, just how much Jesus has loved you. And that will include those who told you God had no interest in you. Everyone will be fawning at your feet, eager to spend time with those who are so loved by God.
He’ll vindicate them.
Jesus Will: Protect Them
And then, third: He will protect them. Protect them.
Verse 10: “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”
There are more trials to come. They won’t just affect the Christians – they’ll affect everyone who lives in that part of the world. These Christians aren’t out of the woods yet. They’ve come through a tough time, and there’s more to come.
And when those future trials come, Jesus will protect them.
He says he’ll “keep you from the hour of trial”. That could mean that he’ll protect them from even experiencing the trials. They’ll be immune. That’s unlikely, given this is coming on the whole world.
It’s more likely that he’ll keep them from being hurt by the trials. They’ll be protected. They’ll have the strength they need to remain faithful to Jesus in what’s about to come.
The night before Jesus died, he prayed for his disciples. It’s in John 17 if you want to look later. He said this: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” They won’t be removed from the sphere of trouble, but they’ll be kept safe within it.
There’s a lovely story in the Old Testament in the time of Elisha the prophet. It’s 2 Kings chapter 6. The king of Aram attacks the nation of Israel. Elisha’s servant sees the massive army camped outside Samaria, and he panics. “What shall we do?” he asks.
Then we get 2 Kings chapter 6, verses 16 and 17: “‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.”
That’s the picture of this church as they go into the next time of testing. They won’t be able to see it, just as they cannot see God’s love for them, but they are being protected in those trials. If they choose to do so, they’ll be able to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus through them.
He’ll protect them.
They Must: Hold On
Which gives them all they need to do to hold on to what they have.
Verse 11: “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”
As we said with Smyrna, this is not the crown of a king. It’s the crown of the victor, the winner’s prize. The equivalent to our gold medal at the Olympic Games.
Jesus will hand out the prizes. The church in Philadelphia has been faithful under great pressure. The crown is theirs. All they have to do is keep going on as they are. Hold on!
And for those who do hold on to the end, Jesus gives them two wonderful pictures of the future.
The pillar and three names
In the Future: The Pillar
The pillar first. Verse 12: “The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it.”
You don’t need me to explain a pillar to you. A pillar stands for something permanent, stable and secure. These Christians will have a permanent place in God’s household, part of the furniture. They may have been kicked out of the synagogue, but they’ll never be kicked out of the Royal Household of God.
But there’s a risk that explaining the picture kills it slightly. The thing about picture language is that it’s meant to be vivid, enjoyed as a picture.
So think of it this way. They’ve had the doors shut on them by the local synagogue. But Jesus holds the keys. He opens the door. So that these Christians can not just come in, but be pillars no less in the palace.
In the Future: 3 Names
Then there’s the other picture. 3 names.
Verse 12 goes on: “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.”
I don’t know how to picture having a name written on you. I picture God getting out an indelible marker, and just writing these new names on their foreheads. Or it’s like the Old Testament high priest, who wore clothing with the names of the tribes of Israel engraved on. It’s like a badge. A uniform. They’re wearing the logo, the identity; they’re part of the team … of these three names.
The name of my God. They are part of the people of God. The name of the city of my God. They are citizens of heaven. Notice, though, that the ultimate hope is that heaven will come to earth, the city will come down. When it does, these folk will have every right to live there. And then Jesus speaks of “my new name”. They have a special and unique relationship to Jesus himself.
Some of you have obtained your British citizenship, or know others who have. You’ve jumped all the hoops. You’re qualified. Finally you hold in your hand your very own British passport. It says that this is where you belong. This country is home. You can come here any time you like without having to get permission to do so.
That’s the promise held out to every Christian who keeps going through the trials. They’re citizens of heaven, with every right to be there. God’s children. Jesus’ brothers and sisters. 3 wonderful new names written on them.
Sometimes you may be shut out, or made to feel small, because you follow Jesus. Sometimes you’ll see this happening to Christians in other parts of the world, on an epic scale, and it’s really depressing. We need to see the full picture. There are realities that we cannot see, but that Jesus tenderly speaks about as he addresses the church in Philadelphia.
No church is small. You may feel small, but you’re not if the king of heaven is on your side.
He holds the keys. He is the one who will admit you to heaven, who will vindicate you as the dearly loved person that you are, who will protect you.
So hold on to what you have. And don’t let anyone take away your crown.