June 28, 2008

Trials and Discouragement: 1 Peter 1:1-12

1 Peter 1:1-12:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

(Note that I am using the New International Version in this study of Peter’s letters; The NIV translators did an excellent job of translating both the literal words and the thought of the text.)

Introduction

Recently, I read a news article about a minister from a prominent Dallas-area megachurch. He had been caught in an Internet sex sting and charged with online solicitation of a minor. According to the article, undercover police officers posing as a 13-year-old girl communicated with the 52-year-old pastor from Plano, Texas, for two weeks in online conversations that were sexually explicit. Finally, the pastor suggested in the online exchange that the girl meet him in person. After making the arrangements, he drove 200 miles to meet her in Bryan, Texas, where was arrested by police. The pastor was one of 40 ministers at the church, which is one of the largest churches in the country with 26,000 members. His assigned ministry at the church was to teach and counsel married adults.

Our culture dismisses these kinds of actions as just another prominent hypocritical American pastor who was caught. Many or most of them are hypocritical, Americans largely believe; they are “just like we are”—the priests, the televangelist caught hiring prostitutes, the ministry convicted of fraud, the nationally respected evangelical association president whose homosexual trysts were revealed; the list goes on and on. So many are viewed as “just like we are”—self-centered, out to gain another dollar, addicted to power and influence, driven by lust—but “not like we are” in that they profess a high standard of morals and righteousness.

The accurate perspective on all this is that the world is indwelt by Satan and his demons, who seek not only to keep people enslaved to self-centered sinful natures, but perhaps most of all, to discredit the church and minimize its reputation. An effective way is to tempt and expose Christians not living consistently with the faith they claim, and then parade them before the world. The message to the culture is that Christians are not different as they profess to be; that the church is, in reality, false, a sham.

This has been the case from the beginning, and it is the setting for Peter’s epistles to Christians in the first century, who are described in 1 Peter 1:1 as having “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”

Perhaps the first question is, what made it necessary for the Christians to scatter?

The general answer is persecution, and specifically in this case, the persecution involved the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. In mid-July, 64 A.D., a fire started in Rome and burned for five days, completely destroying about 1/3 of the city, mostly residential neighborhoods and market areas. Historians generally agree that the emperor, Nero, had the fire set in order to rid the city of its extensive lower-class areas. After the fire, Nero used a large part of the burned-out area to build a new palace, whose grounds spread over 100 acres (some historical accounts say the new palace grounds covered as many as 300 acres). He required large payments, called tribute, from all of Rome’s provinces and conquered territories to pay for the new luxurious home.

The fire was a big blow to the city’s culture. Temples to the Greek and Roman gods burned along with thousands of houses and shops, each of which contained idols thought to provide guidance and protection to the inhabitants. The destruction from the fire thus had great religious implications in that the Romans realized that their many deities were not only unable to protect them, but also were themselves consumed by the fire.

The many thousands of Romans who had lost everything were homeless for many months. Their suspicion and resentment quickly grew as Nero immediately had the land cleared and started construction of his new palace. The people suspected Nero of arson so he could take over the land he wanted, and Nero needed someone to blame.

Nero chose the Christians, who were already hated for their association with the Jews and their hostility to Roman culture and rejection of its pagan idols and temples. The Christians were a convenient scapegoat. There was already widespread persecution of the Christians in much of the Roman empire and in Judea a growing insurrection among the Jews (with whom the Christians were identified, since the Christian faith grew out of Judaism). It was the ideal timing for Nero and his governors to spread the word through the Roman empire that the Christians had burned Rome.

The widespread persecution of Christians quickly intensified, with thousands of Christian families slaughtered and crucified. The Romans had their scapegoat and sought with abandon to rid the empire of its Christians. Consequently, a great migration took place as Christians left the cities to seek the relative safety of distant and rural areas of the empire, as far away from the government-led persecution as possible.

This is the scene in which Peter wrote the epistles of 1 and 2 Peter, addressed to “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered” throughout the rural eastern parts of the Roman empire, primarily in what is today northern Turkey.

While we don’t face the same kind of uncertainty as his first readers, Peter’s epistle speaks to us today. In their own way, our lives can sometimes be difficult, too. Technology has made us more comfortable, more mobile, and better informed. But like those early Christians, we still live in an intolerant world in which Satan seeks to discredit the only true God. In the early centuries of Christianity, Satan accomplished the persecution openly and violently against the Christians, who rejected the polytheism of their cultures. Today it is more subtle: through the well-publicized sin of a high-profile pastor that discredits the reality of the new birth and new nature, through unbelievers seeing Christians around them as not really much different in giving in to temptations of greed and the pleasures of sin, or the so-called Christian despots pursuing ethnic cleansing in third-world regions.

Peter tells us that times of trial will not go away, and, in fact, evil and difficult times will increase as the return of Christ approaches. His prescription is to rise above Satan’s influence and experience the hope that is in our God and Lord. His reassurances about our hope in our Savior and Lord are applicable to us as we, too, live in a world in which Satan’s goal continues to be to discredit us and discredit our Lord and the church.

In these introductory verses, our Lord gives us four reasons to be positive in days of discouragement:

God has a great interest in us (1:1-2)

When I think of strangers in the world, the phrase Peter uses in verse 1, I think of the nomadic tribal people groups in north Africa, living in tents. We refer to them generally as Bedouins, but there are many tribal groups. Many still are literally nomadic, living in tents and traveling from oasis to oasis. Others have chosen to settle in permanent homes, farm the land, and raise livestock. While those who choose to live in permanent homes are no longer literally nomadic, anthropologists say their nomadic tradition dominates their thinking and world view. They are, in a sense, strangers in their own world.

That may be pretty close illustration of what Peter means in addressing his readers as “God’s elect, strangers in the world.” As Christians living in this world, we’re similar to these nomads, spiritually speaking. Like these early Christians, we, too, are living in surroundings that seem strange or foreign if we truly are following Christ as our Lord. Our mindset and view of the world are not shaped by our surroundings and, in fact, are in most ways opposite of the world view of unbelievers around us.

We know that Peter’s early readers were literally scattered in strange surroundings. There is an analogy between them and the typical authentic Christian of any age, including today. Paul expresses this in Philippians 3:20, as he contrasts the unbeliever with the believer: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Peter’s epistle went out to Christians who were strangers because they had fled from their familiar surroundings to live in a region foreign to them. They were also strangers in the world as a whole, just as we are. Those scattered Christians of Peter’s day were subject to the misunderstandings, threats, insults, persecution, and other abuse that a pagan culture often inflicts on followers of Christ.

Peter gives encouragement to these alienated Christians, starting verse 2. He tells us that we should be encouraged because the Father chose us. Don’t worry about the term “chosen” (literally, “elect”). There are honest differences of opinion about the doctrine of election. No matter our interpretation of the issue, we can’t fully understand it. What we know for sure is that the world consists of believers, for whom Christ is Savior and Lord, and unbelievers, for whom He is not. The fact is, we chose to believe, and the Father chose to make us His children.

Peter writes that we should be encouraged because the Son shed His blood for us. Paul explains this in Romans 6:8-9: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.” Most of these early Christians had a Jewish background. They understood the blood atonement and the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies for the remission of sins. They would have completely understood Peter’s reference in verse 2 to the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, not in the temple, but on the throne of God the Father.

One of Peter’s major points is that we should be encouraged because the Spirit works in us. This work is called sanctification (“to set apart” or “make holy”). God does not just save us and walk away. The Holy Spirit continually sanctifies us to greater and greater spiritual maturity.

Peter ends his salutation: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” In other words, there is immeasurable joy and peace in knowing that God has such a profound interest in us. It is in that that we can rejoice as strangers in the world.

Another reason to be positive in days of discouragement is:

God has given us a new birth (3-5)

Peter doesn’t stop at the fact of our new birth. He explains some of its results. He tells us that we have a living hope (some versions, “lively” hope), the context of our living hope being the hope that exists through the resurrection of the Lord. Our resurrection is possible only because of Jesus’ resurrection; we have this certain expectation because of our new birth. Peter also makes the point that we have an inheritance that is certain: it is incorruptible; it will never perish, spoil, or fade; “kept in heaven for you,” which means reserved, guarded, sure to happen, and guaranteed by our Father in heaven.

He also stresses that we have the assurance of our ultimate redemption when Christ returns (we are “shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time”, verse 5). Peter uses the term “salvation” for both the initial trust in Christ as Savior and our final redemption at the second advent. Paul says it is indescribable: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4). We are “shielded by God’s power” until that day comes. “Shielded” is a military term referring to a military garrison quartered in a city to protect it.

Then Peter gives a third reason Christians should be positive in days of discouragement:

God has a purpose for our trials (6-9)

Notice the contrast in verse 6: we can rejoice in what God has done for us (positive), though now for awhile we suffer grief in trials (negative). Just as Paul teaches us in Philippians, Peter tells us that the Christian’s joy is not dependent on his or her circumstances. We can be encouraged that our trials are temporary (“for a little while”; some versions “for a season”).

Another comforting fact about trials (verse 7) is one we often find hard to swallow: trials are for our own good. Trials purify our faith, prove to us our faith is genuine. Our faith is of greater worth (some versions, “more precious”) than gold. Peter is alluding to the refining fire that melts the gold and separates it from the impurities in it. In other words, God uses trials to make us better; it is the result, not the process, that is important. Note that Peter here is not referring to “trials” that Christians bring on themselves with sinful behavior, but to trials and persecution resulting from the stand they take as followers of Christ as the only true Savior and Lord.

Finally, Peter gives us another reason to be positive in days of discouragement:

God has allowed us to live in a special time (1:10-12)

When the Old Testament prophets prophesied about the Messiah and the coming salvation and grace, Peter writes, they did not really understand what the future would be like in much detail. But as Christians, we do, because we are living in the age in which He has revealed Himself. To the prophets, God revealed some truths about the Messiah and gave them prophecies that were remarkably accurate about His first advent—His birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and the salvation and communion with God the Father which He was to reveal to mankind. Those prophecies energized and gave hope to the Israelites, but the picture they had of Jesus was faint and shadowy. But, as Peter points out, we live in an age in which we know Him. This does not mean merely that we know the story and can read about and research His life and ministry and their meanings. But we know Him intimately, through the experience of salvation and the continuing process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit Who lives in us, guides us, and counsels us.

And to emphasize even more strongly the relationship Christians have with the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter adds, “Even angels long to look into these things” (verse 12). Even the angels, who are God’s messengers and servants and who have the experience of being in His heavenly presence, fall short of the communion we have. They long to know the intimacy with God the Father which only authentic Christians can experience.


(Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also compare the English rendering with the Greek New Testament. For those not fluent in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance in revealing the original nuances of meaning of words and grammatical structure. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to the Strong's for concise definitions of the original terms. The most helpful Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are extremely accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and are invaluable in providing the accurate scriptural backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines derived from the literal view of Scripture. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)


June 4, 2008

Revelation 3:14-22: The Letter to Laodicea


“And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The city of Laodicea was founded in 3rd century B.C. by Syrian ruler Antiochus II. He named the city after his wife, Laodice. Laodicea has been called the ancient “Wall Street” of Asia Minor. It was the leading commercial city of Asia Minor, with large money transactions, a banking system, and textiles. It was also known as a health resort because of the nearby hot springs. Located in the city was a medical school and known for salve for ears and eyes. It was famous for its black cloth manufactured from the glossy-black wool produced in the valley, said to be of a soft texture, almost like silk. The Laodiceans wore black garments with pride.

Laodicea was in the Lycus River Valley, through which busy east-west and north-south travel routes ran. The Laodiceans minted their own money, used as a medium of exchange throughout the region, which is today southwestern Turkey. A five-mile aqueduct ran from the hot springs into the city, and by the time the water reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm, a characteristic that the Lord used in His letter describing the spiritual state of the church there.

Like Sardis and Philadelphia, Laodicea was damaged by earthquake in 17 A.D., and another stronger earthquake nearly destroyed it in 43 years later. The Roman government offered to pay for rebuilding, but the Laodiceans refused and paid for the restoration of the city themselves. This self-sufficiency made the city famous and admired throughout the Roman empire.

The wealthy Laodiceans decorated the city with large temples and monuments, two large amphitheatres, and huge 900-foot-long stadium, with a sports field 600 feet long. Inscriptions on Laodicean coins indicate that the people worshiped Zeus, Ɔsculapius, Apollo, and the Roman emperors.

Paul mentions the church in the letter to the Colossians. In Colossians 2:1, he indicates his desire to visit, and in 4:13-16, he sends greetings to the church there, mentioning one individual in whose house the church met, and asks the Colossians to make sure his letter is read to the Laodicean church also. Colossians 4:16 also mentions a letter to the Laodicean church from Paul, which has been lost to history.

In reading the history of Laodicea and Jesus’ letter to the church there, I am reminded of the truth of 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

Jesus’ letter to the church at Laodicea

In this letter, Jesus refers to Himself as “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.”

“Amen” is a Hebrew word. When spoken by God or about God, it meant “it is and shall be so,” and is translated “true”, “sure,” or “faithful.” Examples of its use include Deuteronomy 7:9 (“Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.”); Psalm 19:7 (“The testimony of the Lord is sure.”); and, among others, Hosea 5:9 (“Among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure.”). From this we learn that when God says something He means business; He is the Amen.

“The Faithful and True Witness”: This is the Greek word “martus,” from which we get “martyr,” one who bears witness by his death. It refers to one who has experienced something, who has seen and heard and knows. Jesus is asserting that what He says is absolutely true.

“The Beginning of the creation of God”: This particular word (“arche,” translated “beginning”) did not mean the first of a series, but rather the cause of something (“that by which anything begins to be, the origin, the active cause”-Strong). Referring to Jesus, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:16: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible” and in verse 17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (consist: united, whole). So in Jesus’ introduction to His letter to the Laodicean church, we see Him as Creator, the True Witness, and the One Who Is and Shall Be.

The message to the Laodiceans

The Lord gives the Laodicean church a sorrowful, even depressing, message, with no commendations and only stern rebuke. He observes that the Christians there are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm (verses 15-16). He is rebuking their view of the faith, a kind of so-so attitude. We can see perhaps a frustration with this attitude on Jesus’ part.

A lukewarm faith atmosphere in the church damages its witness and reputation more than Christians just turning away from the faith. A person who professes to be Christian yet fails to demonstrate it to others brings judgment and reproach not primarily on himself or herself, but also on the church. It is better that he or she renounce his or her faith than to demonstrate to the world what might be called lip service—proclaiming one spiritual commitment while living another.

Lukewarm faith is something Jesus especially hates. Jesus expresses this thought when he tells them, “I could wish you were cold or hot” (rather than lukewarm in their faith).

The letter to Laodicea is the only instance in Scripture in which He indicates He is nauseated or sickened by a sin. As with other examples in the letters to the churches, Jesus alludes in this letter to a familiar characteristic of that particular city. The water flowing in the aqueduct from the hot springs was lukewarm and therefore pretty useless—too warm for drinking and too cool for bathing. In addition, the hot springs at its source contained calcium, sulfur, and other minerals. The minerals leached out in the aqueduct, and it required periodic scraping. When the mineral deposits built up in the aqueduct, the water in Laodicea was smelly and nauseating.

In verse 17, Jesus explains their problem: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.’” The problem was, they lived like everyone else in the culture, seeking self sufficiency, not God sufficiency, self reliance, focused on wealth, the true source (in their minds) of comfort, peace, and happiness.

If one had asked anyone in Laodicea what was different about the Christians, he probably would have gotten the response “not much, except they worship a different God” or something like that. Like the pagan culture, they were proud of their personal wealth and the prosperity of their city, their reputation for medical treatment, fine black wool textiles, and their hot springs; so proud of who they were and what they were known for that they saw Jesus as a kind of social or religious affiliation perhaps, and not the One who died for their sins.

That seems familiar to us, doesn’t it? How do we see this attitude in the western church now? We see it in a western culture that claims its Christian roots, but disregards the Christian faith, a culture that, like the Laodiceans, often proclaims spiritual hyperbole while worshiping its wealth and its self-sufficiency, where by and large many Christians may be known for their testimony of faith but lives of selfish indulgence not unlike their unsaved neighbors.

Jesus—the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the One who created all—tells the Laodiceans their real spiritual condition in verse 17: wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Then, in verses 18 and 19, He gives them the solution: faithfulness can come only through acquiring true wealth—spiritual wealth. “Buy from Me gold refined in the fire”; that is, choose to be 100 percent committed; conform to the truth and righteousness from Him. Pursue holiness, rightness, truth, Christlikeness, rather than bending biblical principles to conform to the lifestyle we prefer. In other words, be like Him.

Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17 that we would be sanctified, a process of growing and maturing in the faith and becoming further and further separated from the evil one and the values and attitudes of the world. That is the gold refined in fire He refers to in the letter to Laodicea. It is that process of refinement as we mature in Christ and put more and more distance between the world’s values and our values. Refining separates the impure from the pure.

He tells them, “Buy from Me . . . white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” White garments in the Bible signify purity, holiness, separation from sin. “And anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” Clearly, this is a reference not only to recognizing the truth of their faith, but also to realizing how it must change their lives if it is real. Notice Jesus’ allusions in verse 18. He shows them the spiritual wealth as counterparts to the city’s three major industries that had brought them so much worldly wealth: gold refined in the fire (banking), white garments of purity (the fine black wool textiles they were so proud of), and eye salve so they can see the truth (the medical industry in Laodicea, well known for its eye salve).

Notice also that God still loved these wayward people: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” Like any good parent, he rebukes and corrects His children. That comes from His love, His wanting what is best for us, His standards for us. A severe rebuke, whether from the pages of Scripture or something we experience, is a sign of His continuing love.

Finally, notice that He not only wants us to repent when we stray, but He wants us to be zealous in our faith; our faith should permeate our entire being.

Verse 20, often quoted as an evangelistic invitation, is instead an invitation to Christians on their journey of faith: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” No matter how much we struggle with the pressure to conform to our culture, the temptation of personal sin, wrong attitudes, anger, vengeful thoughts, etc., He is always standing at the door and inviting us to be restored to Him.

Conclusion

Once more, I want to review what we have learned about the Lord and His will so far in these letters to the churches.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.

In His letter to the church at Philadelphia, we once more learn the great importance our Lord places on works of faith, keeping His word in all we do, persevering and overcoming persecution and sacrifices the faithful Christian may endure while holding fast to the faith he or she knows to be true, faith in “He who is holy, He who is true.”

And today, we find once more the Lord praising the works of the church. He counsels the Christians at Laodicea, whose doctrines and practice of their faith were decidedly influenced too much by the culture around them, to have zeal for the faith, to have faith in Him and not in themselves, and to take their eyes off their culture’s polluting values of wealth and self-reliance and focus on the only values that are true, the values of their eternal hope.

June 2, 2008

Revelation 3:7-13: The Letter to Philadelphia

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, ‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. 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 out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’

Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love,” was about 38 miles southeast of Sardis. It was on a major highway and had thousands of visitors annually. Philadelphia was a dangerous place to live due the many earthquakes experienced by the region. The city was virtually destroyed in 17 A.D. in the same earthquake that destroyed Sardis and, like Sardis, was rebuilt by the Romans.

The government suspended taxes in Philadelphia because of the financial distress the earthquake had caused and provided financial aid to the people. This resulted in a strong bond between the population of Philadelphia and the Roman government and emperor. Nevertheless, most inhabitants chose to live in huts outside the city in the open country because of the earthquake danger. Verse 12 may have an allusion to this: “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.”

Philadelphia was unique. It was founded by the Greeks in the second century B.C. as what the Greeks called an “open door” city, with the intention of spreading Greek culture into Asia Minor. It worked so well that by the first century A.D. the region was culturally Greek and the language spoken was Greek.

The city was referred to as “Little Athens” because it had many temples of idolatry there. Philadelphia was known for worship of the Greek and Roman gods of wine. In addition, its hot springs were thought to have medicinal value, and many people from throughout Asia Minor visited and were exposed to the Greek cultural influence.

Christ’s letter to the church also has an allusion to the cultural history of Philadelphia, in verse 8: “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it.” There is one more allusion in this letter. In rebuilding Philadelphia after the earthquake in 17 A.D., the Romans built a large temple for emperor worship. On the temple was the inscription referring to the emperor as “the son of the holy one” or “son of the holy.” Now look at verse 7: “These things says He who is holy, He who is true.”

The reference in verse 7, “He who is holy,” means the one who is pure, separated from all sin. This is a strong theme in the Bible referring, in the Old Testament, to the prophesied Messiah and in the New Testament to Jesus the Christ (or in Hebrew, Messiah). Hebrews 4:15 tells us “but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin,” and Hebrews 7:26 adds: “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens.” Jesus’ claim of absolute holiness is true, unlike the claim of the Roman temple inscription to Caesar.

“He who is true” emphasizes Christ as the true and only God, the One possessing truth and in His very being Truth. We find this a strong theme in the gospel of John; for example, John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As the One “who is true,” He is the only true path to salvation. John 14:6 reports Jesus’ claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

In our passage today, verse 7 adds another description of our Lord: “He who has the key of David.” This is a reference to two prophecies of the Messiah found in Isaiah:

Isaiah 9:7: “Of the increase of His government and peace, there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”

Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David I will lay on His shoulder; so he shall open , and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.”

The key is a symbol of control and authority. Jesus’ point in verse 7 is to place emphasis on both His identity and authority, in contrast to the claim of the Caesar, so boldly inscribed on the Roman temple in Philadelphia.

Censure and praise (8-11)

No censure given to this congregation, but the Lord praises the church’s works (“I know your works,” verse 8) and states “I have set before you an open door” (a phrase that identifies with Philadelphia’s reputation as the Romans’ “open door city” to propagate of Greek and Roman culture in Asia Minor. This may be metaphor that recognizes the Philadelphian Christians’ communion with God and entrance into the Kingdom: an open door which no one can shut. This view, held by many commentators over the centuries, is bolstered by the Lord’s observation that the church has little strength but nevertheless has kept His word and not denied Him. Other teachers, me included, see the use of the phrase as a play on Philadelphia’s purpose for spreading western culture in Asia Minor. Just as the Romans used the city’s grand temples and worship of Caesar and the god of wine to spread western culture, so Jesus sees the church at Philadelphia as the open door for spreading the message of the gospel. Regardless of the interpretation, Jesus’ words are seen as positive and part of the praise He has for the church there.

One other observation I would make regarding verse 8 is that it is hard for us to appreciate just how difficult daily life was for these Christians. The culture was polytheistic. Philadelphia was governed by the Romans and the culture was decidedly Roman. But most inhabitants were not Roman citizens. Many adopted Roman ways, however, and worshiped Caesar at his temple, in addition to worshiping their pagan Gods. But the Christians evidently did not, a fact the Lord recognized in His praise. People who were not citizens and declined to worship Caesar were sort of second-class, with few rights and few opportunities to make a living. In order to work, sell produce or other goods in the marketplace, own property, and enjoy other benefits, one had to worship at the temple of Caesar. It is plain that the Christians at Philadelphia did not, and they suffered for it. Jesus pays them a very great complement when He told them “for you have a little strength, have kept My word and have not denied My name.”

Prophecies (9-10)

Verse 9 is a prophecy of the future kingdom, when we will reign with Christ, when every knee will bow to Him, and when all mankind will know the truth that He is Savior and Lord. The Israelites rejection of their Messiah is seen as a tool of Satan. Indeed, in these early decades, the Jewish leadership cooperated with the Romans in persecuting and executing Christians in order to rid the world of the Christian faith. Verse 10 tells them that because they had persevered in their trials (persecution, poverty brought about by keeping the faith and not worshiping Caesar, etc.), they will be spared from “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world.”

They had already endured trials, and in fact were still enduring trials, and had been found faithful. This is one of several references confirming the removal of the church from the future tribulation before Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth, a doctrine often hotly debated but which is inevitable for anyone who regards prophecy as literal truth. (Interestingly, some of the “health and wealth” proponents quote just one part of this verse (“I will keep you from the hour of trial”) to promote the idea that faithful Christians are promised worry-free, healthy, and materially prosperous lives.)

A warning and promise (11-12)

The Lord adds, “Hold fast to what you have, that no one may take your crown.” In other words, stay faithful just as you have been faithful up to now. Jesus promised to return for His church and said “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). So, Christians are told to hold fast to their relationship with Christ, hold fast to what is good, to listen to the Spirit, to stay faithful no matter what.

Verse 11 is another verse that has been the subject of friction between those who hold that the bond between the Christian and Christ can be broken by sin and those who hold it will not be broken for the person who has truly trusted Christ as Savior and Lord.

Verse 12, as I mentioned earlier, seems to use the fear of earthquakes to make the point that He will make the one who overcomes (that is, the authentic, faithful Christian) “a pillar in the temple of My God” (secure, immovable, indestructible, and permanently in place). In the New Testament, the term “overcome” in reference to Christians means one who holds fast to his or her faith even unto death against enemies, persecutors, and temptations. There is a contrast that would have been obvious to the Philadelphian Christians. All the pillars in the magnificent temple to Caesar in Philadelphia had fallen in the earthquake of 17 A.D., and the numerous tremors regularly toppled pillars and walls in the city every generation or so. But the figurative “temple of My God” stands strong and immovable, so that the overcomer “will go out no more” (refers to the people living in small dwellings outside the city to avoid being crushed in an earthquake). In other words, His promise is sure and God, the only true Holy One, is strong and immovable, dependable, sure, and true. Finally, in verse 12, Christians are once again promised to be forever in Christ’s presence in His Kingdom.

Conclusion

Once more, I want to review what we have learned about the Lord and His will so far in these letters to the churches.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.

And today, in His letter to the church at Philadelphia, we once more learn the great importance our Lord places on works of faith, keeping His word in all we do, persevering and overcoming persecution and sacrifices the faithful Christian may endure while holding fast to the faith he or she knows to be true, faith in “He who is holy, He who is true.”

Revelation 3:1-6: The Letter to Sardis

Sardis was another important city, located about a hundred miles inland from Ephesus and Smyrna and 40 miles south of Thyatira. Sardis had been occupied by the Persians for centuries, then taken by the Greeks, conquered again by the Persians, and finally captured by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Under the Romans, it was the capital city of Lydia, a large Roman province.

The people worshipped the Roman goddess Diana at Sardis. One of the largest Roman temples to Diana was built there. It is not known how the Christian merchants and craftspeople accommodated the requirement to worship the Roman god and the emperor in order to earn a living, and it is not raised as an issue in the letter to the church.

Sardis, like Thyatira, was a manufacturing area, known for its production of dyed wool cloth and carpets. There was also a thriving gold- and silver-mining industry from nearby Mt. Tmolus. The river running through the city was known for its “golden sand” because of the gold nuggets on the river bottom.

But Sardis diminished in importance by the first century A.D. Its location was not on a major trade route, the gold veins played out, and by the first century A.D. it had become a city of little commercial significance. An earthquake in 17 A.D. virtually destroyed the city. The Romans rebuilt the city, but it never achieved its former importance.

Today, the site is the Turkish village of Sart and the area is largely agricultural. There are spectacular ruins there, including a huge roman bath and gymnasium covering five acres, the temple of Diana, a large Jewish synagogue, and several homes and shops.

Sardis has left a lasting legacy, in addition to being singled out by Christ in the letters the seven churches. In the 8th or 9th century B.C., the craftsmen at Sardis minted the first coins in history.

Revelation 3:1-6

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’

Our Lord’s charge against the church

“I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

Sardis is usually referred to as the dead church. What do you think of when you hear the term “dead church”? What are its characteristics?

We have a few clues from the text: “I know your works. You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” What was Jesus inferring in the statement “I know your works”? It could be a positive statement (such as “I know you do good works”) or negative (“I see through the faƧade and know how you really are”).He continues, “You have a name that you are alive”: the church had a positive reputation in the community, a positive reputation among other churches, or both. This was due possibly to its works. Perhaps they were known for caring for each other, ceremonial worship, giving to the church in Jerusalem, and caring for the poor and diseased.

But then comes the bombshell: “But you are dead.” Like the church at Ephesus, the Sardis church was deficient. We find some more clues in vv. 2-4. Jesus tells them, “Be watchful” or perhaps a better translation, “Become watchful.” The phrase “Be watchful” in the New Testament has to do with protecting and preserving doctrine and truth. A watchman protected the city or region by watching for enemies approaching. The metaphor, as applied to the church, means to protect accurate doctrine from the enemy, which is false doctrine and false teaching about the gospel and the Christian faith.

The Lord continues, “And strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.” The Christians at Sardis had not turned away from the faith, but evidently were allowing false or inaccurate doctrines into the teaching and management of the church. Some suggest they had just gotten lazy, with worship that was ceremonial but not spiritually transforming, focus on social service rather than the Savior, and perhaps not standing up to or objecting to the teaching of doctrines they knew, or should have known, to be false. Whatever the particulars, like the Ephesian church, they were in danger of losing their first love, the pure, unchanged doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Whatever the case, we know from this letter that they had let some things slide, and whatever was going on, they had lost some intensity of their faith, and Jesus tells them “Remember how you received and heard; hold fast and repent.”

This is an important clue to me that the church just had become complacent, perhaps ceremonial without strong, empowering faith. The thrust of Jesus statement is that it was “what you received and heard” is what they had grown to regard as not relevant, or just incidental, to their faith: the gospel, awareness of the love, grace, and awesomeness of God, the excitement of daily knowing God a little better, spontaneous worship and praise.

And they are to hold fast to what they had received and heard and to repent of their current situation. Repent means to change one’s mind and behavior. In other words, “stop doing what you are doing and start doing what I told you to do.”

Significantly, Jesus refers to the condition in Sardis as defilement in verse 4: “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” The church in Sardis had “a few” people who had held fast to His teachings. The majority were “defiled” (stained, contaminated, impure).

Verse 4 continues: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” “He who overcomes” refers to Christians who remain true to their faith against temptations, persecutions, or even the threat of death, and the phrase “shall be clothed in white garments” indicates they shall stand holy and blameless before God and receive the promised reward, an eternity with Christ.

Jesus continues, “and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life”; that is, shall not be condemned. This is a key Arminian passage, the assumption being that one’s name can, indeed, be removed from the Book of Life (that a Christian can lose his or her salvation). The term means to obliterate, cover, or wipe off. The Calvinist response is this is figurative language, that God knew who would be His from eternity past and that to “blot out” is to reveal the truth to one who thought he or she was saved but really was not.

Prophetic View

In the prophetic view of the letters to the seven churches, the letter to Sardis corresponds to a very dark time in history for Christianity. From the 11th to 16th centuries, the church did not preach the simple gospel of salvation through faith. Like Sardis, the church during this period had strayed from what it had received and heard in the beginning. It was in a period of papal power and authority on a level that has been called papal tyranny. The church had taken authority over most civil affairs. Priests and bishops were above everyone and above any law.

To enforce its authority, the church instituted the inquisitions, in which anyone, including priests and bishops, could be charged and brought to trial even for expressing any ideas contrary to church. This included ideas not only about doctrine, but about science, medicine, civil laws—anything the church had a doctrine or opinion about, and the church had an opinion about everything.

Profession of faith during this period was less a profession of actual belief and more a profession of allegiance to the church and the pope. During this period, the church, like the church in Sardis, had a reputation for being true and alive, but was, in fact, dead to the gospel and the doctrines established by the Lord and the early apostles and disciples.

The only reason Martin Luther escaped the inquisition is that he hid from church authorities. It was his objection to papal authority on matters such as the sale of indulgences and banning copies of scripture from anyone but priests, as well as the church's abandonment of the core doctrines of the faith, that set him at odds with the church. His actions led to the protestant reformation.

So far, we have learned a number of details from the letters to the churches about God’s will for the church as a whole and individual Christians.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.