Obedience to Scripture does more than satisfy some neurotic desire for perfection.
When I was in fifth grade, my class played the telephone game. One person at the beginning of a chain is secretly given a sentence, then he whispers it to the next person until it reaches the end of a chain, when the last person reveals the sentence he or she has finally gotten.
But with twenty grade school kids participating, it’s hard to keep information accurate. Not to mention there are people like Ricky, the class clown, who sat next to me. Ricky wasn’t interested in keeping the word. He tried to change the sentence to include hot dogs. You probably know where that went.
Skeptics are concerned that this is how the New Testament was transmitted and that maybe it was corrupted while being handed down over time due to innocent mistakes and guys like Ricky. But the New Testament almost overlapped the events it reported. And it was written by those who had been there and seen the events themselves. The men who wrote it had been through the school of Christ and the discipline of the Holy Spirit, and they proved it by performing signs and miracles.
For Christians then, the real difficulty is not how the Word of God made it onto paper, but the process of how it gets off the page, into our hearts, and then into our lives. The challenge lies in keeping the Word.
This is important, because the authentic shining of the church is through keeping the Word of Christ.
The church in Philadelphia modeled this exercise and set a standard for the rest of us. Jesus therefore presents Himself to the believers in Philadelphia not to fix something broken, but to enable them to continue doing what was right.
Revelation 3:7 says, and to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, the words of the Holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.
He was the Holy One to them, a title God used in His interactions with Israel in the Old Testament. Holy means separate, different. Israel was a nation distinct from all others in the world because its God was different from anything in the world. Why does the church look peculiar, and sometimes out of step with society? Because we are in step with Him who is holy.
Jesus also identified Himself to the church as the true One. Unbelieving Jews had called Him an imposter and Messianic pretender, but on the contrary, He is the true Messiah. The reality of all God’s promises are in Him. And he has the key of David, referring to the authority of the Messianic kingdom. He can open the Kingdom of God to whomever he wishes, and He can close his kingdom door upon whomever he wishes. The church relies on Christ to be Holy, True, and authoritative to them—basic things. There are no surprises here.
If you ask a championship team the secret to its success, they probably won’t reveal a reliance on mojo of some type, like avoiding black cats, and putting four-leaf clovers in their pockets during game time. Instead, they’ll probably talk about their passing game or running game—basics of the sport. They are good because they’re better at the basics than their opponents.
If we could go back and talk to those Christians in Philadelphia, asking the secret of their success, I’m afraid we’d be looking for mojo as well—some kind of workaround, like a new strategy or evangelistic vibe. But it’s likely we’d find they stayed close to the holiness, truth, and authority in Christ.
Without having Christ as the Holy One, we won’t be interested in being what the Bible describes. Without the truth in Christ, Scripture seems unreal, irrelevant to us and our families. And without His opening authority, nothing the Bible portrays seems to open up for us in real life.
All this is to say we can’t keep the word without Jesus.
And the Word, especially for those in Philadelphia, was central to victorious church life.
Verse 8 says, I know your works. behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” This door may have included a special blessing on evangelistic endeavors, or more penetrating heavenly revelation, or spiritual opportunities in general for the church.
Why the open door? He gives the reason: “I know that you have but little power [few in number, limited resources], and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
Keeping the word of Jesus led to His opening the door. But to be clear, keeping has more significance to it than slavishly obeying scripture as though it were a recipe book. Years back a young agnostic Jew wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically. In it he logged his sometimes laughable efforts to literally practice every command of scripture, including the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.
Even if you successfully undertook this same challenge, you probably wouldn’t end up with much of anything biblical, because you’d be leaving out a relationship with the Holy One, the True One, the One who opens.
The keeping of the Word has a deep relational aspect to it, and profound effects. Besides producing an open door, verse 9 says, “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie, behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.”
This is sheer vindication, with Jesus literally promising He would manifest His love for the believers in front of their enemies. There must have been hostile religious pressure afoot. The synagogues of ancient times, especially in these cities of Asia, could be huge and imposing. In fact, the one in Sardis was the size of a football field. The rulers of these gatherings would have been like little kings, pronouncing who was in and who was out of favor with God. One negative comment from the front of the room could galvanize the membership to harass those rag-tag Christians meeting down the street.
The promise that these opponents would be subdued may come from the effectiveness of the gospel preached by the church, or it could simply refer to the judging power Christ. Either way, Christ vindicates the true keepers of His word in front of those who oppose them.
But the blessings of the kept word don’t stop there. Verse 10 says, “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.”
The translation here is a bit disappointing to me, because the phrase “kept my word about patient endurance” sounds as though patient endurance is a topic. The Greek suggests “kept My Word of patient endurance,” meaning the word of Jesus that calls for, that requires endurance to keep it—the word you’re tempted to relinquish, to compromise.
They kept those words.
Indeed, Jesus said to them “You have kept My word about patient endurance,” meaning they had already been through a season of intense pressure. He hadn’t removed them from it. Instead, He had preserved them through it.
But now He seemed to be saying that since they had successfully passed through the time of trial, He would keep them from an even larger one that would bring suffering upon the whole world. This is more than likely a reference to the great tribulation, a trial much broader in scope than any localized trouble they had experienced in Philadelphia. His promise to keep them from this event may have been a promise of rapture—His supernatural removal of them from the earth to meet Him in the air.¹
That was where the kept word was going to take them.
Verse 11 continues, saying, “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” They already had the crown, and the Lord’s only concern was that they wouldn’t lose what they already had.
Maybe you have some nightmare stories of your favorite team blowing a huge lead. At the third quarter the other side was sitting on dead zero. The outcome was so certain you actually thought about switching the channel. But fifteen minutes later, your team lost. On the sidelines the stunned players offered their reasons—bad calls, injuries—and you weren’t buying any of it. The bottom line was that somebody felt they had it in the bag, and stopped playing.
This is exactly what the Lord wants to keep from happening to us. Otherwise, we’ll be the ones giving all the excuses. We’ll cite our small numbers, lack of resources, and all the contemporary bells and whistles, subtly transferring responsibility to Him—Lord, if you had just done more for us, we would’ve made it. To this the Lord might reply, What did you need in order to keep my word? Did you really need a four thousand seat sanctuary? Does the keeping of my Word require more programs and a larger staff? The only real necessity is the kept Word.
Everything else is cake.
That little church, in its victory, became directly linked to God’s finished work at the end of the age.
Verse 12 says, the one who conquers [by holding fast the crown], I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.” These believers would not only be in the temple, but become columns, load bearing elements in the grand building work of God. “Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him 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. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.
Philadelphia, with its few members and bad coffee, was set to become internally connected to God’s fulfilled purpose at the end of Revelation in the New Jerusalem. A gathering of believers had kept the Word, and become a foretaste of the heavenly City, of God (His name), and the fresh new experiences of Christ (His new name).
This church was like an embassy in another country. No matter how foreign the host country is, when you step into that embassy, it provides recognizable features in miniature of the home country.
And that in essence is what we are hoping to do—introduce people into a reality, not a religious club. We hope to attach them to the holy city, and to the newness of Christ. This is fundamentally different from mindless church attendance, where purpose is not much bigger than the fragmented daydreams of the attendants, and where Christ quickly becomes threadbare. We hope to bring people into greater things through keeping His Word together with us.
Brett McCraken, author of Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, identifies three categories of uncomfortable word we feel tempted to relinquish.
1) the supernatural. The universe came into being by the Word of God, who then did miracles in the Old Testament. Jesus did them as well, most importantly dying and then rising from the dead, and that the apostles did them in His wake. That’s a difficult counter-cultural stand to adopt in a country where science and common sense begins with denial of the miraculous.
2) The exclusivity of Christ & God’s wrath. God has provided one Savior for all mankind, and those who reject Him will die in their sins and face condemnation. Such beliefs fly in the face of a misguided western sense of fairness. We hold them at the risk of sounding intolerant.
3) Sexual ethics. The Bible furnishes boundaries for human sexual conduct, and anything outside of them constitutes sin. Nothing offends American sensitivities more than the suggestion that the prohibitions of Scripture should limit personal autonomy. We risk sounding judgmental if we subscribe to such a thought.
Keeping the word of God is more involved than we think. We not only have to overcome social coercion and religious pressures outside of us, but the word has to penetrate a battery of subjective filters inside us, that is, blind spots, bias, opinions, culture, preference, not to mention our own sin. The word wants to get into these places and win our hearts. If you don’t love it, you won’t keep it, and if you won’t keep it you won’t conquer. I advise a close, warm relationship with the Word of God.
Pray down into the Word until you feel the holiness of it, the otherworldliness of its commands. Pray into it until you sense the truth of it contrasting the lies of everything else. And lean into the Word until you are bound by the authority of it and find yourself a slave to righteousness.
And then…just make sure you hold onto that crown.
¹ The Great Tribulation did not occur at that time, and the Philadelphian Christians were not raptured. The Lord reserves for Himself the right to speak to all believers at all times when He speaks to Philadelphia, even as He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” If we insist that all things spoken to each of the seven churches must have been literally carried out at that time with the fullest intent of meaning, then not only Philadelphia, but the other six churches will also seem to have unfulfilled promises as well. One simply cannot forget the prophetic nature of the addresses here—that the historical, futurist, and idealist intent of God must also be preserved.