What do you say to a church that has had to face sustained pressure from fierce persecution? And I don’t mean minor inconveniences.
For instance, we help to support a missionary couple who are working to translate the Bible for South East Asian islanders who have never yet been able to read the Bible in their mother tongue. A few years ago the Christians among whom they lived for part of their time were on the receiving end of a ferocious onslaught from very violent anti-Christian Islamic factions. This couple ended up having to flee their home, and in their absence their house was burned to the ground. And they got off lightly in comparison to many of the local Christians. Thousands were slaughtered before the violence blew itself out. Many church buildings were destroyed. But the churches didn’t give up, and having been through all that, they began to rebuild their lives. What do you say to such churches?
Relatively, in this country, we live in peace and security. I don’t know how long it will last – let’s be praying that it does. But from our position of comfort, it’s hard to know what we can say. What we do know, though, is what the risen Christ would say to such churches. What we have in the early chapters of the book of Revelation is seven letters dictated by the Risen Christ to John and written down for us to learn from. We’ve been in turns challenged and encouraged by these letters over the last few weeks as we’ve worked our way through them one by one. This evening we come to the letter that we heard read earlier – the letter of the risen Christ to the church in Philadelphia. So that you can take a close look at it yourself, please make sure that you can see one of the Bibles that are spread around the pews. You’ll find the letter on p 1235 – it’s Revelation 3.7-13, headed ‘To the Church in Philadelphia’. Philadelphia was a city in Asia Minor and there was a church there that was under intense and sustained pressure, as we’ll see.
I have three headings I want to use as we steer our way through this, and you can see them on the back of the service sheet. They are, first, Jesus shows the character of God; secondly, Jesus loves the church that is faithful under duress; and thirdly, Jesus encourages the church to keep going.
First, JESUS SHOWS THE CHARACTER OF GOD
If you’re hard pressed and someone’s got something to say to you, then you need to know who they are and what qualifies them to speak, before you’re going to give them any credence. But when the risen Jesus speaks, you listen. Or you should. His qualifications are unimpeachable. And, as at the start of each of these letters, he reintroduces himself with information that’s especially relevant for the immediate situation. Take a look, then, at verse 7:
To the angel [don’t be distracted by the angel – this is a message spoken directly to the believers in Philadelphia] of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open.
Jesus reemphasises four things about himself there. He is holy – that is, what he does is right. He is true – that is, what he says is right. He is in control – that is, the way to heaven is through him. And he is invincible – that is, no one is stronger than him.
When he says that he is holy and true, he’s establishing again his divine character, because these things are only totally true of God himself. But Jesus is God. God says, “I, the Lord your God, am holy” [that’s Leviticus 19.1] And the Bible says “God is not a man, that he should lie…” [Numbers 23.19] and he is called “the God of truth”. So Jesus is saying “I am the Lord your God” - holy and true.
When Jesus says he “holds the key of David” he means that he controls entry into God’s kingdom. As the old Good Friday hymn puts it:
There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.
The door that he opens and shuts is the door to heaven, the gateway to eternal life and the presence of God, to the new creation, to paradise. The way to heaven is through Jesus and Jesus alone.
And when Jesus says that what he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open, he is reassuring those hard-pressed Christians in Philadelphia – and us in our turn – that whatever rebellions there might be against his rule, no-one and nothing can stop him. What he decides, goes. When he decides to act, no-one will stand in his way. And that’s what we need to know, isn’t it, when the going is tough and it doesn’t look or feel as if Jesus is control. The truth – the absolute truth – is that he is the supreme, invincible, irremovable power. As the Psalm says:
One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong,
and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Jesus is God, and Jesus not only cares about his hurting people, he is also strong enough to give them the help they need, in the face of any enemy.
Jesus shows the character of God. That’s the first thing to take to heart.
Secondly, JESUS LOVES THE CHURCH THAT IS FAITHFUL UNDER DURESS
That Jesus loves this church is not just a general truth that we know from elsewhere in the Bible – such as at the start of this book, where John gives glory, I quote, “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood”. We’ll look at verse 9 here again a bit later – but in that verse Jesus tells them that one day their enemies will have to admit “that I have loved you”. Do you see that there at the end of verse 9: “I have loved you”. What a humbling but wonderful thing to hear direct from Jesus! Jesus loves this church.
But what is it like, this church in Philadelphia? Listen to what the risen Jesus says about it. Verse 8:
I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no-one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Then in verse 10 he says…
… you have kept my command to endure patiently.
This is a church, then, first of all, that has little strength. In what sense is this a weak church? It is not, it seems, spiritually weak. This is one of only two of the seven churches that doesn’t find itself on the receiving end of criticism from Jesus. Perhaps it is weak in terms of numbers. It’s easy for us to be impressed by the megachurch with tens of thousands – or perhaps more often depressed by the village church with a handful still hanging on. One thing Jesus doesn’t do in these letters is to commend or criticise churches on the basis of how many of them there are. But numerical weakness does make you vulnerable – or feel vulnerable – in a hostile surrounding culture. They are a minority group.
It could be that, as well as that, they were weak in terms of their social standing. Perhaps many of them were mere slaves. Perhaps they came from the wrong side of the tracks and so the fact that they were Christian gave yet another excuse for people from higher up the social ladder to despise them.
And, linked to that, maybe we should understand their lack of strength more in terms of their lack of the kind of political influence that would have meant they could be sheltered from the worst of the persecution.
Whether their weakness was numerical, social or political – or, more likely, a combination of all three – what is quite clear is that Jesus knows their situation and he knows it makes life difficult for them. This is a church that has little strength.
Secondly, this is a church that does what Jesus says. “You have kept my word”, says Jesus to them.
Thirdly, this is a church that bears witness to Jesus name. Again in verse 8: “You have not denied my name”.
We’ve already seen how Jesus describes himself as “holy and true” – what he does is right and what he says is right. So this is a powerful commendation from Jesus here. They were no doubt far from perfect – that goes without saying. Nonetheless, these words of Jesus indicate that here is a church that is reflecting his own character. What this church does is right, and what this church says is right. It is obedient to his commands and it is faithful in speaking about him.
Fourthly, this is a church that stays true through long-term suffering. Jesus says that they “endure patiently”. That must mean both that they have suffered, and that their suffering was not quickly over. And because of what is said immediately following this in verse 9 about their enemies, it’s clear that this suffering is primarily in the form of persecution. It is inflicted on them by human enemies. But these enemies are acting as agents of Satan. Satan is out to get them, and he’s been making life very painful for them. If only they would abandon their faith and renounce Jesus, no doubt Satan would have left them alone to enjoy a quiet life. But they would not, so he did not.
And many in our day do the same. One such was Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian. He became a Christian as a young man and later joined an Assemblies of God church. In 1983, after the Iranian revolution, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial and tortured. He was eventually tried by an Islamic court, and sentenced to death on charges of apostasy. At his trial, Mehdi said: “I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honour of his holy name, but am ready to give up my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord.”
A friend of his who was a bishop generated publicity about his case around the world, and he was finally freed in 1994. But since then both he and the bishop have been murdered by agents in cold blood. His son, who was 19 at the time of his father’s murder, said this: “When I went to identify the body [of his father, that is] it was there that I was forced to face the reality of God. I knew that I couldn’t be a wishy washy Christian and rely on my father’s faith any more.”
There’s a family that would have felt at home in the church at Philadelphia. Jesus loves the church that is faithful under duress.
Thirdly, JESUS ENCOURAGES THE CHURCH TO KEEP GOING
Being on the receiving end of encouragement when you’re finding things hard going is – well, encouraging. Every bit of genuine encouragement enables you to keep on going that little bit longer. Let me give you an example:
The other week I ran in the Blaydon Race. Now in case you’re not familiar with it, let me explain that the Blaydon Race is one of the North East’s premier athletic events of the year, with a very select field. Or as the Journal put it, it attracts a lot of fun-runners. Fun-runners! There’s a misnomer if ever there was one. In scorching 35 degree heat (well that’s what it felt like to me), after 5 gruelling miles, and still no finish line in sight, I was just about done in. But a member of this church, who shall be nameless, was waiting by the side of the road to cheer me on. He’d already finished the race earlier, had a shower, had his dinner and then wandered down to see how I was doing. But his presence, his words, and his gestures as I staggered by gave me a boost. OK, I didn’t go any faster, but at least I didn’t stop. He’d already done it. He knew what it was like. And now he was helping me on. That’s real encouragement.
The great encourager is Jesus. In these verses Jesus communicates six things to the Philadelphians that they need to know. Each of them is a boost. Each of them, if they listen, will help to motivate them to keep going. Do you need help to keep going as a follower of Christ when things are hard? We can find encouragement here too. I’ve tried to sum up each of the encouragements that Jesus gives in a simple statement.
First, Jesus lets them know: “I will never let you go.” No one will snatch them from him. That, I take it, is the significance of what he says in verse 8:
I know your deeds. See I have placed before you an open door that no-one can shut.
What door? To my mind this must be the door into heaven – into eternal life. Once we get past these letters the whole of the rest of Revelation is essentially a vision of heaven through a door opened into it for John to enter through and see. Look at 4.1:
After this I looked and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.
So Jesus is reassuring them that they now have open access into God’s kingdom. Eternal life is theirs to anticipate. And nobody can take that from them, however severe the persecution gets.
Secondly, Jesus says: “I will show your enemies I’m on your side.” Or perhaps it would be better put by saying, “I will show your enemies that you are on my side and they are not.” 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.”
This is not vindictive – but it is a vital vindication. I don’t think we’ll ever really grasp how important and encouraging this promise of vindication is until and unless we’ve been on the receiving end of all that Satan can throw at us through human agents.
I remember being impressed, encouraged and inspired a few years ago at a conference when I heard a Nigerian Bishop called Ben Kwashi speak about the life of the church in Northern Nigeria, where he is Bishop. He told us about their hardships and struggles, but his faith in Christ was firm, joyful and infectious.
Then earlier this year reports appeared in the Church press about an attack on his family. When the Bishop was out of the country, a gang attacked his family home, evidently wanting to find him in order to kill him. His wife was attacked and tortured. She ended up in intensive care, needing surgery. His 19 year old son was beaten to the point of unconsciousness, and his seven year old son was severely injured on his face.
And their experience is just one example. In the area where they live and work, between 2001 and 2004 violence from Islamic extremists led to the burning of 173 churches and the death of 8 pastors. What Bishop Ben Kwashi says to us is, I quote: “Above all, please pray for us.” But such churches need the encouragement of knowing that they will be vindicated by God in the face of their enemies. Jesus promises them they will be.
Thirdly, Jesus says to these suffering Philadelphians: “I will protect you from future suffering.” 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 upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.
It’s hard to know exactly to what Jesus is referring by ‘the hour of trial’ but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jesus is letting them know that they will not be put through more than they can get through. They will not be utterly crushed.
Fourthly, Jesus galvanises them by saying: “I will come back soon.” Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback church in the US says that there are really only three kinds of motivation. There’s internal motivation where I do things because I’m motivated inside – but these are often built on pride. Then there’s external motivation like being given a trophy – but this doesn’t last. "If you’re going to make it to the finish line in the race of life, you need something different: eternal motivation… You’ve got to have an eternal perspective."
And that’s what Jesus gives here. Verse 11:
I am coming soon.
Fifthly, I take it that the essence of what Jesus is communicating in verse 12 is this: “I will bring you home.” Look at that:
Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him 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 him my new name.
The temple of God is the people of God, and these Philadelphians are going to be a fixture. Nothing will shake them.
Maybe when the risen Jesus uses that image of the pillar, he has in his mind the fact that Philadelphia was an earthquake zone. It was not at all uncommon for the ground to shake, and for buildings to be threatened with collapse. Indeed in AD17 – within the lifetime of the oldest surviving inhabitants – the city had been flattened by a severe earthquake. Think San Francisco, sitting uncomfortably as it does on the San Andreas fault and with memories of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake that killed hundreds. One eyewitness said:
"Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot - a labourer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm."
Living in an earthquake zone gives people a sense of insecurity and threat. But in Christ the Philadelphians will be secure for eternity. He will bring them home. He will keep them safe. Carved into them, so to speak, will be the name of God, the name of Christ, and the name of God’s people. They will belong.
Then the final spur, the sixth encouraging word, is more of a shove forwards than a pat on the back. It is encouragement by way of stern and loving command: “Don’t let go of me! – Hold on!” That’s back in verse 11:
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no-one will take your crown.
We can find encouragement in these tremendous words of Jesus. “I will never let you go – I will show your enemies I’m on your side – I will protect you from future suffering – I will come back soon – I will bring you home – Don’t let go of me! Hold on!”
But I don’t really think we can lay claim to being a persecuted church as Philadelphia was. We can take encouragement for our struggles, which are real enough, and sometimes, even, are desperate. But above all, we need to be praying for churches around the world who are suffering terribly. And we need to be doing what we can to help. There are many sources of information that we can use so that we can be faithful in prayer and support. Let me just mention one: the Barnabas Fund is a resource for prayer and aid for the persecuted church. If you use the internet, you can find it at www.barnabasfund.org.
What do you do to help a church that has had to face sustained pressure from fierce persecution? From our position of comfort, it’s hard to know. But Jesus knows. And he says it here in this letter. Jesus shows the character of God. He loves the church that is faithful under duress. And he encourages the church to keep going.