Topical Scripture: Revelation 3:7-13
Do you know why Formula 409 is so named? Its developers experienced 408 failed attempts before their final product was created.
Edmund Mcilhenny operated a sugar plantation and saltworks in Louisiana before the Civil War. When Yankee troops invaded his area in 1863, he fled. Two years later he returned to find his plantation in ruins. Mcilhenny fell into deep despair. Surveying his once prosperous plantation, the only part he could find undamaged was a small plot of hot peppers growing in the corner of a garden. He made a sauce with the peppers to add to his meager dinner, and thus invented Tabasco Sauce. One hundred years later the Mcilhenny family still produces it.
What about your past still plagues your present and hinders your future? If you could live your life over again, what about the past would you change?
Would you work harder in school? Try for more degrees?
Would you like to go back and make things right with someone? Have another chance to deal with that problem or failure which still plagues you with guilt today? Avoid that ditch you drove into? Say “no” to that serpent whose temptation expelled you from your personal Garden of Eden?
What about your present hinders your future? What do you wish were different about your circumstances today? Where is life disappointing you? In what way are things not working out as you dreamed they would?
Are your children worrying you today? It’s been said that we’re never more happy than our unhappiest child. Is your marriage not what you dreamed it would be? How would you change your job if you could? Your finances? Your health?
Where is God in all of this? His word promises that he has “plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). We know that the sovereign, omnipotent Lord of the Universe is our Father, so we expected better treatment as his children. If Bill Gates was your father, you’d assume a certain standard of living. If your dad is Tiger Woods, you’d expect a certain advantage in the game. And you’d be right, but not in the way you might think.
When you’re living in Philadelphia
Philadelphia was the newest town in Revelation. It was founded in 140 B.C. by Attalus II, a man who so admired his brother Eumenes that his city was named “one who loves his brother.” Christians in Philadelphia must have thought the name a cruel joke.
Some cities have slogans or reputations. New York City is “the city that never sleeps.” Ft. Worth is “where the West begins.” Of course, they say that Dallas is “where the East peters out.”
Philadelphia was known to the culture as “the city of the open door.” She was situated on one of the great highways of their world, leading from the West to the Orient. She was placed on the eastern edge of the Greek civilization, intended to be an open door for the export of Greek language and culture to the larger world. But things hadn’t worked out that way. The Phrygians to the east refused Greek culture and ways. The “open door” the Greeks intended was not successful.
But Jesus says that his tiny church would do what the mighty Greek empire could not: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (v. 8). Things are not what they seem.
That’s what Jesus said, but it’s certainly not what their past or present would indicate.
This church had “little [micro in the Greek] strength” (v. 8). They were small in numbers, perhaps no more than a handful of believers. They were small in resources, for it was difficult for Christians to find work in Philadelphia. And they were small in status or significance. Many of them were slaves, street people, or other outcasts. They had no standing in their community whatever. Their present circumstances made future significance impossible.
They were oppressed by those in “the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars” (v. 9). These Jews in Philadelphia were happy to turn the Christians in their midst over to the Roman authorities, in return for ten percent of their confiscated goods. Their every neighbor was a threat to their future.
Those reading this letter must have wondered at Jesus’ providence and plans for them. No believers in Revelation were more hindered by their past and present from a glorious future of significance and joy.
But if they would “hold onto what you have” (v. 11), a remarkable future is indeed on the way. They would be a “pillar in the temple of my God” (v. 12a). Philadelphia was so filled with altars and statues that people called the town “little Athens.” However, earthquakes were so common in the region that people fled their temples at the first tremor, lest these marble pillars fall on them and crush them. By contrast, Jesus’ people would be such a pillar in his eternal temple that “never again will they leave it” (v. 12b).
He would “write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on him my new name” (v. 12c). When a leading citizen of Philadelphia did something noteworthy for the town, another pillar was erected with his name on it. Their pillars are just rubble today, but the name of God inscribed on our hearts and souls will endure forever.
The Christians of Philadelphia were exhorted by Jesus to look from their frustrated circumstances to their glorious Father. To look up rather than down, to look out rather than in, to look to God’s future rather than their past or present. This letter is in the Bible so that we can do the same today.
How to live in Philadelphia
But it’s not easy to do that, is it? How can God redeem your child’s death, or your parents’ divorce? How can he be at work in the discouragements and setbacks which have wounded your soul? How could an all-powerful, all-loving God permit you to be trapped in Philadelphia? How are you supposed to trust his heart when you cannot see his hand?
I have wrestled with this question a great deal over the years. In fact, it has been the issue which has most perplexed me in my Christian life. Over the years I have come to these conclusions.
First, not everything that happens expresses the perfect will of God. 2 Peter 3:9 seems clear: God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Yet many perish; many do not come to repentance. 1 Timothy 2:4 adds that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Yet many are not saved; many do not come to a knowledge of the truth.
Why is this? God made us to worship him; worship requires freedom; so God has chosen to honor the freedom he has given us. This is no denial or depreciation of his sovereignty: he has chosen to limit himself at the point of our freedom. When we misuse our freedom, the fault is not his. We have stepped from his perfect will to his permissive will. Tragically, this is a common experience for us all.
Second, when God’s perfect will includes suffering and judgment, he tells us. There are times in the Bible when he causes difficulty and pain for people. But he always makes sure we know why.
He brought the plagues against Egypt, but only after warning Pharaoh of the judgment to come. He brought Babylon to enslave the Jews for 70 years, but only after warning the people of his judgment if they would not repent of their sins.
I have concluded that if God causes suffering in life, if pain is part of his perfect will, he’ll make sure that I know it and the reasons for it. If I suddenly demanded Craig’s car keys or confined him to his bedroom with no explanation, leaving him to figure out what he may have done wrong, I’ve not been a very good parent. Given that he’s now taller than I am, I’m not a very smart parent, either.
When God brings hardship, it is always for a larger purpose. Always.
Third, God’s holiness causes him to redeem all that he permits. Everything that happens must come from God’s perfect will, or his permissive will. He must at least permit all that happens, or he is not God.
But he is holy and just in all his ways. Psalm 9:8 promises that God will “judge the world in righteousness and govern the peoples with justice.” He is perfect in every way. And so his holy nature leads him to redeem all that he permits. If he will not use bad for a greater good, if he will not redeem suffering for a greater purpose, he violates his own character.
If we are submitted to his will, we will join in the blessing which comes from his redemptive work. Joseph got to see the ways God redeemed his suffering at the hands of his brothers. Paul saw the salvation of the Philippian jailer who imprisoned him. John met Jesus in his prison cave on Patmos.
If we refuse his will, we will miss the ways he redeems bad for good. Pharaoh certainly never saw the Promised Land. Many of the Jews perished in the Babylonian captivity. According to tradition, Pilate committed suicide without ever trusting the risen Christ whose atoning death he arranged.
So when we’re in Philadelphia, when we have “micro” strength and our past and present seem to stifle our future, we can know that it’s not so.
We can know that so long as we are yielded to the Spirit of God, the open door he has set before us can never be closed. So long as we trust him to redeem all that he permits, he will. In ways we will see now, and ways we will not see until eternity is ours.
Beethoven lost his hearing and the music world thought his genius was at its end, but he later composed his best works. Louis Pasteur made his greatest discoveries after suffering a stroke which threatened his life. John Milton’s best poetry came after he lost his eyesight. William Cowper wrote his greatest hymns between periods of insanity. The lowest valleys can lead to the highest mountains.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Charles Darrow found himself out of work and money. He was an engineer with years of experience, but no job. He and his wife were barely surviving. One evening they made up a little game to take their minds off their troubles. They drew a circle on a piece of cardboard, and recalling a fun visit to Atlantic City, marked the circle with the names of its streets. Charles carved little houses and hotels out of pieces of wood, and they called their game Monopoly. In 1935 they sold the game nationally and became millionaires. Bad became good.
God’s holiness causes him to redeem whatever he permits. When you’re in Philadelphia, never give up or give in. Give yesterday to his forgiving grace. Get on your knees and do this. Then give today to his redeeming power. Ask him to use your present for his future. You have not because you ask not. Prayer positions you to receive all that God wants to give. Stay faithful to the last word from God, while open to the next. Know that success is obedience. And rejoice that the door God opens for you, no one can shut. Not today–not ever.
Giant pillars framed the door to the ancient church of Philadelphia. They are all that stands today of any of the churches of Revelation–the only visible remains of any of these congregations. In the smallest church, the greatest doors. And God is still using the faithful church they welcomed.
When I visited the site of the Philadelphia church, I was greeted by a Muslim government worker employed as the caretaker of this archaeological site. He gave me the only Christian literature I found in all my tour of Turkey: an extensive booklet on the Seven Churches of Revelation.
Written as an evangelistic witness, the brochure is available in three different languages, but only at the site of the Philadelphia church. This Muslim caretaker distributes hundreds a year, without fully understanding its content. These booklets clearly outline God’s plan of salvation, and are the only evangelical witness in that part of the country.
Even today God is using his “church of the open door.” And every Christian like her.
If you’re in Philadelphia, today is a day to rejoice. God redeems all that he permits. Your door is open, and the best is yet to be. This is the promise of God.