Modern church life is quite different than life in the early Church, but believers today should emulate the faithfulness of the church at Philadelphia. Christ commended the believers for four principles that are often lost among the practices and programs of modern church culture.
Although Christ addressed Revelation 3:7-13 to the church in Philadelphia as a body, His words of commendation were for every believer, then and now. The faith of individual believers determines the strength of their churches.
Let’s consider four ways the Philadelphian believers demonstrated faithfulness and how we can learn from their example.
Lesson 1: They had an open door
Christ opened His letter to Philadelphia by revealing His sovereignty. He is the One who “has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7). This alludes to Eliakim, a king in the line of David who held the key to all the king’s treasures (Isaiah 22:22). When Eliakim opened the door, it was opened. When he closed the door, it was closed. In the same way, Jesus possesses the key to the kingdom of God and entrance into eternal life. With that in mind, He told the church in Philadelphia, “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it.” When the Lord opens a door for someone to hear His Word, nothing can prevail against it.
This notion of an open door appears several times in the New Testament. In each case, the “open door” represents an opportunity for ministry. Paul talked about doors for ministry that opened in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8-9) and in Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12). In each of these passages, the door opened apart from Paul’s plans. When the door opened in Ephesus, it caused him to change his plans. When the door opened in Troas, it conflicted with Paul’s desire to find Titus. It’s significant that Paul did not force the doors open. Rather, the Lord opened these doors.
The late John Stott of England suggests great discernment when seeking open doors for ministry:
“Christ has the keys and He opens the doors. Then let us not barge our way unceremoniously through doors which are still closed. We must wait for Him to make openings for us. Damage is continually being done to the cause of Christ by rude or blatant testimony. It is indeed right to seek to win for Christ our friends and relatives at home and at work, but we are sometimes in a greater hurry than God is. Be patient, pray hard, love much, and wait expectantly for the opportunity of witness. The same applies to our future. More mistakes are probably made by speed than by sloth, by impatience than by deleteriousness. God’s purposes often ripen slowly and if the door is shut, don’t put your shoulder to it. Wait till Christ takes out the key and opens it up.”1
In Colossians 4:3, Paul encouraged praying “that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.” While believers cannot force doors open, we can certainly pray for God to open them. Such a door is a blessing to those who have the privilege of sharing the Gospel as well as those on the other side of the door who need to hear the message.
Philadelphia was a gateway city to a large region that included other cities. It was strategically located for ministry. How has God placed you in a strategic place for ministry? Where is God opening doors for you to share the Gospel? Which doors are you trying to force open? How will you commit to praying for God to open them?
Lesson 2: They had a little strength
After assuring the Philadelphia church that their door would remain open, Christ made a rather strange commendation. He remarked that He would hold it open, “for you have a little strength.” What did He mean?
Literally, the Greek text conveys this idea: You have “but little strength.” Christ presents their situation as almost problematic: You have a big opportunity but only a little strength. The implication is that their strength is not what’s important—Christ’s strength is. This echoes Christ’s words to Paul: “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul understood his weakness was not an obstacle in light of Christ’s strength, which was more than sufficient. Likewise, the minimal strength of the church at Philadelphia was no barrier to Christ’s plans.
This is the message of Christ for His Church in all places and in all ages. Our own strength is insufficient for today, but Christ’s strength is sufficient for eternity. How have you been relying on your own strength? What will you entrust to the Lord’s power today?
Lesson 3: They had kept the Word of God
Next, Christ commended the church in Philadelphia for their fidelity to the Word of God: “[You] have kept My Word.”
After my book I Never Thought I’d See the Day! was published, I was interviewed on a number of radio shows. The most frequently asked question was: “What is the one thing that is most responsible for erosion of biblical standards in the Church?” I didn’t need to think about that for long. The greatest threat to biblical soundness in the Church today is the removal of God’s Word from the pulpits. When Christians don’t know God’s desires and standards, how can they obey Him?
Second Kings 22 recounts the story of Judah’s King Josiah. The record indicates Josiah was a godly king who sought to follow God. However, when Josiah assumed the throne, the Book of the Law was missing, so he did not know all that it contained. As soon as the Law was read to Josiah, he tore his clothes because he knew his people were in trouble. He instructed Hilkiah, the priest:
Josiah was right to be concerned. The Lord was furious with Judah, and His holy anger demanded a wrathful response. Recognizing Josiah’s humility and repentance, the Lord promised him personal peace, but Josiah’s reforms were too late to rescue his nation.
Friend, we have no such excuse. The Bible is readily available to us in many translations and formats with scads of study tools. How are you leveraging the opportunity to study the Bible? What commitment will you make to keeping His commands?
One of the reasons the church in Philadelphia was blessed by God was because of their faithfulness to His Word. Make a commitment right now to remain faithful to the Word of God. Hide it in your heart so that you might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11).
Lesson 4: They had not denied the Lord
Finally, Christ commended the church in Philadelphia because they had not denied His name. They were faithful not only to the Word of the Lord but to the Lord Himself. Persecution was rampant in Rome. Of Jesus’s apostles, John was the only one who did not die a violent death, and he died imprisoned on Patmos. Like the apostles, the believers at Philadelphia would not worship Caesar or participate in other forms of idolatry. Even in the face of persecution, they did not deny the name of Christ.
America is blessed with a high degree of religious freedom. For us, persecution is subtle. It is more likely to involve delayed promotions at work or exclusion from social gatherings than physical harm, yet these circumstances often deter God’s people from proclaiming His name in the public arena. Let us resolve to worship the Lord no matter the cost. Resolve to serve Christ with your whole heart. Testifying of God’s grace and mercy to a lost and dying world is far more important that personal pride or promotional opportunities.
In anticipation of coming persecution, the Lord warned us to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We are to exercise discernment in our relationships, confidently expect the Holy Spirit to speak through us when our faith is scrutinized, and endure hardships because God is our salvation (Matthew 10:16-25). He loves and protects us (Matthew 10:26-33).
How have you experienced persecution? What was your response? Are their unwise relationships you need to reconsider? How are you living in humility, gentleness, and integrity?
If we want to please Christ by making an impact for the kingdom of God, we need to walk through open doors of ministry, depend on His strength, and remain true to Him and to His Word.
Companion article: 4 Steps to Spiritual Awakening From Revelation.
1John Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 111.