There’s something in a name
There is something in a name. The town where I grew up was populated with immigrant lineages from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland, so I grew up with O’Haras and Buffalinos, McManus’s and Popeleskis, Traviglianis and Auchenbachs, Koveleskis and Lucianos, even had a classmate whose last name is Pizza! Our names reveal something of who we are: where we’ve come from, a bit of who we are today, and what we bring to one another.
Names in Bible times carried significance as well. I want to take you this week on a field trip to Philadelphia. Not the one in Pennsylvania, but the first Philadelphia, located in what today is Turkey, and built in the year 189 BC by an ancient king in honor of his brother—hence the name Philadelphia, which means “the one who loves his brother.”
The final book of the Bible includes seven letters from Jesus, now reigning from heaven over his church. He gives the aging apostle John seven letters for seven churches, including the faithful little church in ancient Philadelphia.
Sometimes good things really do come in small packages
The church in Philadelphia is the smallest of the churches Jesus has a personal message to. And the fascinating thing is that Jesus’ letter to a faithful little church contains no criticism, only encouragement.
And so as we are back with in-person worship as a small church, my sense is that this is a good time to hear what our Lord would say to a church like ours.
If you have a Bible or Bible app, open it please to Revelation chapter three starting in verse seven.
As you turn there, let me set up the letter for you. 1st-century Philadelphia was on a geological fault line, so earthquakes brought constant fear of things falling apart and having to rebuild again. In the middle of the night in A.D. 17, for example, a massive earthquake devastated at least a dozen cities including Philadelphia. One historian at the time called it “the greatest earthquake in human memory.” (Pliny the Elder)
And each time Philadelphia had to rebuild, the Roman Empire renamed the city. So this was a city and a people who found themselves in a bit of an identity crisis and found themselves having to rebuild. What would Jesus say to such a church? We don’t have to wonder. Let’s read Jesus’ letter to a faithful small church, and then building on a study by Mike Breaux, hear what Jesus would say to a good small church. Revelation 3:7-13 we read…
“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. 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. 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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Imagine what it would have been like that first Sunday that John’s letter arrived. The pastor unrolls the scroll, announcing to the congregation that the Lord Jesus, reigning from heaven, has sent a personal message just for them. Can you imagine how it felt to hear this? Jesus has a word just for us!
What in your life feels shaky right now?
Before we unpack Jesus’ love letter to a small church, let’s make this personal: What in your life feels shaky right now?
· We have teachers among us who have experienced unprecedented levels of change spanning three different school years now.
· We have members who have changed jobs during this strange long season.
· Many of you shifted to working from home, and now some are back to the office, or a hybrid, or a constant change due to infections popping up in the building. Lots of uncertainty.
What would Jesus say to church members who find ourselves living in a time marked by uncertainty and sudden change? That’s what we find in this brief letter to the church in Philadelphia. Let’s lean in to hear what the Holy Spirit would say to us. The letter naturally falls into three key messages. If you like to take notes, here’s the first word from Jesus to a faithful small church in a shaky time. First…
God’s Word to a faithful small church
1. Jesus says, “I’ve opened a unique door for you to walk through.”
The letter begins with an introduction:
“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…See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” Revelation 3:7-8
The Lord Jesus speaks of a key, and open doors. The key of David is a prophetic reference from Isaiah 22:22, written some 700 years before Jesus. Looking ahead to the coming of the promised Messiah, the Holy Spirit led Isaiah to write, “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.”
Jesus, descended from David the king’s lineage, has a king’s authority. He holds the keys not just to a city or a political kingdom, but rather he holds the keys to the kingdom of God, the keys to heaven and hell, to the peace of God, to the power of God, and to God’s leading. The key of David is a prophetic image conveying that Jesus is in charge; he’s got us. He is Lord over the world and the Church.
And with that key, he sovereignly opens doors for ministry that only he can open and which no one can shut. So for a faithful little church, the opening of Jesus’ letter calls us to fix our eyes on Jesus’ greatness more than our smallness.
It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people
Because he has a unique calling for each church. It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. Some are reached by a mega church while others are drawn to Christ through the family of God that a good small church can be. Every church has the same mission from God, yet each church has unique open doors for advancing that mission. For example when this letter was written:
· The Jerusalem church had the Temple with its rituals and architecture as great visual aids to teach how Jesus fulfills everything the Temple and its rituals pointed toward.
· The church in Rome was given a unique open door to show and tell how Christ’s kingdom is different and better than the kingdoms of this world.
· The local church in Philippi had a unique open door for advancing Christ’s mission by giving generously so that Paul could plant churches full-time once he moved on from Philippi.
· And the faithful little church in Philadelphia had an open door to hold out peace and stability to their shaken neighbors. They had an open door to model rebuilding and persevering.
Hearing what the Spirit is saying to the local church
I’ve come to the conviction that discerning God’s will is all that complicated. There are habits in the life of Jesus which when followed will lead us as surely as God the Father led his Son. Jesus consistently started each day in prayer, for example. That was the secret to discerning which doors the Father was opening for ministry. And before significant decisions, Jesus spent extra time seeking the Father in prayer, such as when he was about to choose the twelve.
So just as Jesus listened for the Father’s leading to the right open doors, we as a church can pray and trust the Lord to lead.
Think about what you see in every NFL football game. Right after a play, you see the quarterback hold his hands over his ears and concentrate. Why? Because he’s listening. He’s listening to the offensive coordinator radioing him on what path to take, how best to move the ball down the field on that next play, against that day’s defense. All the quarterback has to do is listen for the coordinator and follow his voice.
Jesus’ first radio message to a faithful small church is, “I am holy. I am trustworthy. I have the authority to lead you well. I can see the end from the beginning. I have a great view from where I’m seated. So listen for my leading, and head through the doors I’ve opened for you, for this church in the place I have you.”
The Lord has opened unique doors for ministry in the YMCA
How does that apply to us? For yChurch, the Lord has opened a unique door in favor we have here. We literally have the keys to the building. Just about everything we ask, we get a yes. Every YMCA Board meeting begins with a Christian devotional that we get to lead. When we have offered free prayer here pre-pandemic, it was warmly welcomed. We’re going to experiment soon to see if people are ready for that again. There’s a level of open doors for ministry in the name of Jesus here that you rarely see in other businesses or in public schools. Jesus has pushed the door wide open here.
This is something the Holy Spirit is doing in various places around the world. The YMCA began 175 years ago with a prayer meeting and an evangelistic Bible study in a workplace: just three Christians who wanted to reach their work peers with the good news of Jesus. When there was zero spiritual interest, they prayed by name for their coworkers, and they began inviting those they prayed for to come study the Bible with them. One came and got saved, then two, then three, and so on, until they were twelve Christians, and they said, “We should call ourselves something.” The name they came up with was the Young Men’s Christian Association. There’s something in a name.
The Lord is early on in opening a door now called the CITY movement, CITY standing for Churches In The YMCA. That’s us. It’s a unique open door that Christ has opened for us and for others in other places. As a church we sought the Lord for his leading, and the door opened here to our surprise. We were the first church invited into a YMCA in the Indianapolis area in its more than 100-year history. We are the first to bring chaplaincy into this Y in its history. It’s a wide open door for ministry in Jesus’ name.
So to a faithful small church, Jesus’ first word of encouragement is, “I have good works prepared for you to carry out as a church. I’ve got the keys. I’m holding the door open for you. So listen for my leading, and walk through the doors that I open for you.”
You have a part to play in this, friends. Keep praying that the Lord opens doors for the ministries he wants us to give ourselves to, and look for where you can jump in. His message is for all of us.
Let’s keep moving.
Here’s the second word from Jesus to a good small church:
2. Jesus says, “I’ll give you strength to build what matters most.”
In verse 8 Jesus says to this faithful small church, “I know your deeds.” In six of the seven letters to the churches found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 Jesus says the same: “I know your deeds.” That is, “I am Lord. I am reigning from heaven. I see it all. You are my church, and my leading and loving gaze is on you.”
Usually in these seven personalized messages to these churches, the Lord Jesus goes on to rebuke them for something they’re doing wrong or how they’ve gotten off track. But not Philadelphia: Jesus has no words of rebuke for this faithful little church.
Instead, he says…
“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.” Revelation 3:8
Jesus says: I see how faithful you are. I see your courage every day. I know you’re not the biggest and wealthiest church around, yet I’m working in your midst, to build my kingdom, because you depend on me. My power is at work in this church. I have opened a door for you that nobody can shut: keep devoting yourselves to what matters most, to seeking my kingdom and righteousness above all.
Does small mean wrong?
You need to know that most churches around the world and throughout history are small congregations: faithful pastors and faithful parishioners discerning what doors for ministry the Lord is calling that congregation to, and then faithfully doing the work, week after week and year after year. Small churches don’t get the press. We don’t make the news stories. But in heaven’s eyes, faithfulness is what matters most.
It is Satan, the enemy of our souls, who whispered to the church in Philadelphia and who tempts every small church today, tempting, “Give up. Drop out. You’re ineffective. What could God ever do through you?”
The truth is, that is for God to answer, and it for us to stay focused on what matters most. And so Jesus’ second word to a faithful small church is, “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” Those are words of assurance and affirmation from the One whose opinion matters most!
And to answer a question you have every right to ask, yes, we want to be effective in ministry. We want to see the Lord lead us to our next worship team leader. We want to see more invitations to friends and neighbors to come join a good small church in a great community center.
But we don’t have to be big. We don’t have to be flashy. We do have to follow the Lord’s voice and keep walking through the doors he opens for us. Keep devoting ourselves to the things that matter most: gathering in worship, hearing and applying his Word, devoting ourselves to fellowship, serving in ministry, and sharing our faith with outsiders. Those are the essential purposes of the church, whatever size we are.
Here’s the third word from Jesus to a faithful small church:
3. Jesus says, “Reward is on the way!”
Listen to verses 9 & 10. The Lord Jesus, ruling from heaven, says…
“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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.” Revelation 3:9-10
When Jesus opened the door for the church in Philadelphia, they got some push-back, some persecution. Jesus has said already in this letter, “I know your deeds.” He has already said, “I know that you have little strength.” Here he adds, “I know you’re facing persecution. I will handle the troublemakers; you keep at what I’ve called you to, because reward is on the way.”
Paul reminds Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12-13…
“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
2 Timothy 3:12-13
It comes with the territory. When we follow Jesus faithfully, sticking with what God says in the Scriptures, there will be issues where the wind of popular opinion shifts, and suddenly Christians are labeled haters or on the wrong side of history.
How to respond to resistance
The solution, Jesus himself says, is not to engage in a culture war. It is not to engage in enemy-making. The solution is to stay focused on Jesus and the mission he has entrusted to us, unswayed and undeterred by attacks or criticisms. If someone asks you to explain why we believe what we do, we’re to do so gently and humbly, reflecting the character of Christ as we give reasons for our faith in Christ. Make sense? You can never win an enemy, only a friend. Our enemy is not people. We have a spiritual enemy, the Devil, but our focus is to remain on Jesus and the reward that awaits the faithful.
Jesus concludes with a promise to this faithful small congregation, in verses 11-13 saying…
“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3:11-13
Jesus says, “Stay faith-filled, hope-filled, and love-filled. Keep walking through the doors that I open for you, for this church.”
And he gives them an image that would have been deeply meaningful and stabilizing. “I will make you a pillar in my temple,” Jesus says. He’s speaking to people who have been shaken with earthquakes. Jesus’ word to them is, “Stick with me and stay on mission, and I will keep you secure. I will strengthen you. I will reward your faithfulness. Because nothing can shake you loose from my love for you.”
It’s a good thing to be reminded of that, from Romans chapter 8. Receive this, Romans chapter 8:31-39:
“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?…
No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:31-39
Friends, Jesus’ love letter to a faithful little church is them that nothing can shake them loose from him. He will never leave us. He sees our faithfulness. And he promises reward. Jesus says, “Stand firm. Keep walking through the doors that I open for you, for this church. Because when all is said and done and heaven tallies the score, you will find yourselves in a new city with a new name, secure and unshaken.”
There really is something about a name. A faithful little church hears from Jesus that the day is coming when he will give them a new name, his name.
Can you imagine how much that meant to members of that church, to those people? Can you appreciate what it means to you when Jesus says, “Soon enough, I will write my name on you?” That name, the name above all names, imparts security. It guarantees identity. It assures of valuable purpose. It speaks of stability. And it assures reward. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches—including to small churches, even this church.
Would you pray with me?
Lord Jesus, we believe that you are the head of the Church. You have led your church throughout history and in every nation, every city, town and village. Every church, each congregation, you know us, you see us, and you are well able to lead us. We only ask today for ears to hear what you are saying to us as a church: what doors you have opened for us to walk through. We pray for strength sufficient to faithfully fulfill your calling for us. Whatever opposition we face in the spiritual realm, we commit to your able hands, trusting you to judge rightly and in the right time and way.
May you find us faithful, we pray, until the day that you return or we come to you. Hear our prayer and be honored, we pray. For you alone are worthy of our all and our best. Amen!
Be our guest in-person at 9:30 a.m. next Sunday in the Fishers YMCA at 9012 E. 126th Street, Fishers, IN 46038. You can expect a warm welcome, an excellent hot cup of coffee, and a rich time with God and his people.