March 14, 2010
In your weakness, He can keep his promises of reversal.
I. His authority (Revelation 3:7-8)
II. Promised Reversals (Revelation 3:9-13)
Many of you know that I’ve had a long fascination with World War II. It probably started when I learned as a child that my father fought in the war, in Italy. I’ll tell his story sometime when I finish piecing it together. But the central influence in my fascination with the great, global catastrophe has been Herman Wouk, whose novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are still the best history of World War II I’ve ever read.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the European War is the personalities and stories of the war-time leaders: Hitler, of course, and Mussolini on the one side, and Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt on the other. Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was the oldest of these leaders. Born in 1874, descendant of an aristocratic family, he was sixty-five at the outbreak of World War II. Churchill had joined the British Army in college and served in Cuba, India and South Africa. He was also a journalist; he wrote a famous series of reports concerning his own capture and escape during the Boer War.
In World War I his main roles were administrative, most notably First Lord of the Admiralty, what’d call Secretary of the Navy. But his judgment wasn’t always good: he resigned after championing the disastrous invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli. After the war he continued to write, speak, and pursue politics. In the 20’s he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury Secretary. Always influential, he wasn’t always popular and was often on the wrong side of issues, like independence for India and women’s voting rights.
But he was on the right side on German re-armament and British appeasement of Hitler. As early as 1932 he began to sound this alarm, and was rewarded with almost entire exile from government influence. These are what are called his ‘Wilderness Years:’ He wasn’t the only voice in the wilderness by any means, but his was the oldest and most eloquent voice. In one of his speeches he said “The Government simply cannot make up their mind. . . . So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, all powerful for impotency. So we go on, preparing more months, more precious vital years for the locusts to eat."
This wilderness voice went un-headed. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought appeasement to its height in September 1938 when he virtually gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, returning to Britain to proclaim ‘peace with honor’ and ‘peace in our time’.
Less than a year later, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. To retain his position, Chamberlain was forced to declare war and to invite Winston Churchill to again be First Lord of the Admiralty, a position of influence but still a lonely voice in Chamberlain’s dispirited War Cabinet.
Then, in May 1940, seventy years ago, Hitler invaded France and Belgium and his armies blitzed their way to the English Channel. In the midst of this new crisis Churchill, the old lion, the voice in the wilderness, was called on to take the leadership of the British people, a task he performed magnificently, hardly flawlessly but always eloquently for the next six years.
He took office with these famous words: “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: "This was their finest hour"”. And it was, a complete reversal of his situation and of the British war effort.
And it led to a reversal no one but Churchill could quite imagine. The might of Hitler was wasted on the plains of Russia, bled on the edges of his empire and finally defeated on the beaches of Normandy and in the forests of the Ardennes. In a very real way the great reversal in Churchill’s life – from voice in the wilderness to voice of the nation led to the great reversal in the whole war – from Hitler astride Europe to his suicide in a Berlin bunker.
Startling reversals do happen in human events. But the greatest reversals are those in which God shows his hand directly. The rescue from Egypt, the battle of Jericho, the kingship of David, the return from Exile, all of these show God’s hand. Last weekend the women studied Esther, God's great reversal of yet another plan to destroy the Jews. But the greatest of all is the reversal of sin and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is that reversal which gives us confidence in the promises of God, promises of reversals in our own lives and fortunes, from weakness to strength, from tragedy to triumph.
Revelation 3:7-13, the words of Jesus to the church at Philadelphia, is a promise of reversal. It reminds us that our weakness he promises rescue. Revelation 3:7 “To the angel 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. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
9I 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. 10Since 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. 11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.
12Him 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. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
I. His authority (Revelation 3:7-8)
Philadelphia is at the eastern end of a broad valley that, passing through Sardis, some thirty miles west-northwest, leads to the Aegean Sea. Its location was strategic: the Roman ‘pony express’ passed through the city on the way to the East. The surrounding plain was fertile and suited to growing grapes, which contributed not only to its prosperity, but to the worship of Dionysus.
The city’s name, ‘brotherly love’ commemorates the loyalty and devotion of co-founder Attalus II to his brother and king, Eumenes. Founded around 150 BC, Philadelphia was a successful “missionary city,” bringing Greek culture and language to Lydia and Phrygia. Its major drawback was its susceptibility to earthquakes, including one in 17 AD that leveled twelve cities of Asia Minor. A long series of aftershocks slowed the Roman rebuilding of the city.
In verse 7 Jesus addresses this city as the Holy One, the True one. ‘Holy One’ is a familiar title for God. Isaiah 29:19 “Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” Combined with “the True One” it is used to describe God the Father in Revelation 6:10. Jesus not only shares the holiness of the Father, but his faithfulness as well.
Christ is next described as having the key of David. In chapter one he said “I hold the keys of Death and Hades.” In other words, he has sovereign control over God’s kingdom, over death and judgment. The background is Isaiah 22, an oracle against Shehna, King Hezekiah’s chief of staff. Isaiah prophesies that he will be removed and replaced with Eliakim: “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” The language of Isaiah is now used to present Christ as the Davidic Messiah with absolute power to control entrance to the heavenly kingdom. It may be an intentional contrast with verse 9, in which the local synagogue appears to have been locking out Christian Jews.
In verse 8 Jesus warmly commends this Philadelphian church: “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.” Some see the open door as a great opportunity for witness, since Paul sometimes uses the phrase that way. However, the context implies that this is the door to the eternal kingdom. Christ has opened it for them; it cannot be shut though the doors of the synagogue may have been closed to them.
Christ provides this reassurance because the church itself is weak, it has little strength. This is the key to this letter: it’s not written to a big prosperous church, it’s written to a small troubled church that had probably faced persecution. And yet despite that smallness and weakness, it receives these promises of an open door, and other reversals we will look at.
In fact the consistent teaching of Scripture is that what is weak in the sight of the world is made strong through the grace of God. The verses we read for the Scripture reading make this so clear: “He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death.” “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” He lives “in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” He “will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong [he] will destroy.”
The New Testament agrees: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him.” Paul writes “But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The church at Philadelphia was weak, in ways we can’t fully see from the text. But in the midst of that weakness they kept his word and did not deny his name. And you are weak, in ways I can’t fully see from this pulpit, in ways even your closest companions may not see. And I’m weak in many ways. But Jesus sees our weaknesses and knows them; they don’t daunt or disappoint him. In fact, if Paul’s example can be generalized, it is just in these areas of your weakness that God’s strength and grace can most be glorified. All he asks is that you cling to the centrality of his word and his presence and don’t go trying to solve these problems in your own way or the world’s way.
II. Promised Reversals (Revelation 3:9-13)
We need to rely on Jesus’ promises of reversal. For example, verse 9 reveals the serious conflict between church and synagogue in Philadelphia: “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.” The Jewish population was convinced that by national identity and religious heritage they were the people of God. The implication is that these Jews were telling the Christians, even the Jewish converts, that they as heretics they were the object of God’s hatred.
Not so, claimed the Christians. The apostle Paul taught that “a man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly. . . A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly: and circumcision is circumcision of the heart” In this sense, though God still had a plan for the nation of Israel, the true Jews were the believers, both Jewish and Gentile, and the sons of Satan were the ethnic Jews who opposed them.
The irony is that through the church God was beginning a process he’d promised, by which he would bring the nations to himself: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The Jews loved this promise, but they were turning away those who came. So, in a great reversal, these rejects are told that he Jews will come and fall to their knees and acknowledge that God loves these Christian converts. This implies either a forced or a voluntary reversal of their opinion of Jesus and his people. Apparently the rejection of the Messiah by his ethnic people will be reversed. As Paul says “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved.”
Do you see the reversal? Those who hate you now because of Christ will be forced by the appearance of the truth to acknowledge Christ. Notice especially what they acknowledge, that he has loved you. Jesus prayed this very thing in John 17:23 “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The hardest thing for the church’s enemies to acknowledge, through the years is the truth that God’s love is poured out on those who respond in faith.
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.” Patient endurance now, but deliverance assured. Apparently the trial they’re suffering now is nothing compared with the trial that will come on the whole earth. That could refer to one of the empire wide persecutions that began not too long after the book of Revelation was completed, or it could well refer to the world-wide tribulation fully described in Revelation that has not yet been fulfilled.
One interesting question is whether Christ is promising deliverance from the period of trial or safekeeping through the trial. Many commentators, like Walvoord, see this as promised rescue: we’ll be raptured, delivered from the tribulation period. Others feel this is a promise of strength through that tribulation. In my opinion you can’t decide the issue from this verse. We know on the one hand that Jesus will strengthen his followers through tribulation: he’s shown that in many lives. But he has also promised, ultimately, an eternal rescue.
I believe Jesus will remove his people from the period of utter world cataclysm that precedes the second coming. In other words, without feeling like it’s a critical doctrine, I hold that believers will be rescued before the wrath of God is poured out. We’ll see some of how that works later this spring in Revelation 6 and 7. It will be another great reversal: those who were persecuted are rescued, but those who did the persecuting are judged.
Verse 11: “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” Jesus promised to come to three of the churches we’ve studied so far, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Sardis. But he was coming to judge them. The “coming” to Philadelphia is to rescue those who hold on. He’ll end their trial and establish them as permanent citizens of the eternal kingdom. They are to hold on to the word of God and the name of Christ so as to receive the victor’s crown, awarded to the winner of an athletic contest, as would be well known in such a Greek city as Philadelphia.
To the overcomer, the one who holds on, is given the promise of being a pillar in the temple of God. This image is used several ways in the New Testament: James, Peter, and John were “reputed to be pillars,” Gal 2:9; the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” I Tim 3:15. As commonly used in many languages this image implies stability, permanence: being put in place never again to leave. To a city under the threat of earthquakes which could drive them out at any moment, this promise would have special meaning.
It’s a reversal: their lives are impermanent now, but will be established and eternal in the time to come. And on these pillars will be written eternal names sealing their future: “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 impact of the triple inscription is that the faithful belong to God, hold citizenship in the New Jerusalem, and are in a special way related to Christ. Those who suffered, and were hated, those who were weak, will be made strong and permanent, sealed with the very names of all that is eternal.
So what have we seen? That a church which in weakness clings to the word of God and the name of Jesus is not criticized by her Lord, but promised reversal and renewal and eternal victory. Winston Churchill captured this sense that all will come right for the British people in the midst of World War II. Here is one of his actual speeches, to a gathering of the leaders of the British Commonwealth in early June of 1941.
“Here before us on the table lie the title deeds of ten nations or states whose soil has been invaded and polluted and whose men women and children lie prostrate or writhing under the Hitler yoke. Such is the plight of once glorious Europe and such are the atrocities against which we are in arms. It is upon this foundation that Hitler, with his tattered lackey, Mussolini, at his tail and Admiral Darlan frisking by his side, pretends to build out of hatred, appetite and racial assertion a new order for Europe. Never did so mocking a fantasy obsess the mind of mortal man.
“We cannot tell what the course of this fell war will be as it spreads, remorseless, through ever wider regions. We know it will be hard; we expect it to be long, we cannot predict or measure its episodes or its tribulations. But one thing is certain, one thing is sure, one thing stands out stark and undeniable, massive and unassailable for all the world to see. We cannot yet see how deliverance will come or when it will come, but nothing is more certain that every trace of Hitler's footsteps, every stain of his infected, and corroding fingers will be sponged and purged and, if need be, blasted from the surface of the earth.
“This then, my lords and gentlemen, is the message which we send forth today to all states and nations, bound or free, to all the men in all the lands who care for freedom's cause. To our Allies and well-wishers in Europe, to our American friends and helpers drawing ever closer in their might across the ocean, this is the message-lift up your hearts, all will come right. Out of depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.
This then is the message: lift up your hearts; all will come right. Out of the depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind, the glory of the glory of eternity. Our God is a God of reversals; Jesus is a Savior who has gloriously rescued us from certain doom. He promises that out of this weakness that we feel, out of the struggles of living in a fallen world, all will come right. And he calls us now to hold fast to his Word and His Name.