In recent weeks, I’ve been studying the letters to seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. One of the resources I have been using is Sam Storms’ book, TO THE ONE WHO CONQUERS (Crossway). Storms has become one of my favorite writers of “pastoral” theology, and this book is an excellent study of the messages of Christ to these churches – and to the church today. Concerning the church at Philadelphia, consider these thoughts from Storms as to what makes for a church that truly pleases the Lord.
The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and shuts and no one opens. Revelation 3:7
One could make a strong case that the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia [in Revelation 2 thru 3] are the most important of the seven, for in neither of them do we find a single word of complaint. They both receive unqualified praise and approval. These, then, are truly churches of which Christ heartily approves.
What makes this all the more remarkable is the statement by Jesus in Revelation 3:8 that the church in Philadelphia has “but little power.” This isn’t a rebuke. It’s a commendation. In spite of your lack of size and influence, says Jesus, you faithfully kept my word and, in the face of persecution and perhaps even martyrdom, refused to deny my name. People threatened you. The culture mocked you. The temptation to jump ship must have been intense. Yet you stood firm. Your lack of resources, money, and manpower proved no obstacle to your accomplishing great things for the kingdom of God!
It’s reassuring to know that size is no measure of success. Those with little power can become bitter and resentful of those who outwardly prosper. Those with great power can become arrogant and condescending toward those of less stature. The mini-church may be tempted to think they’ve missed the mark or failed to articulate a vision that is pleasing to God. The mega-church may point to their sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as indicative of divine approval. They could both be wrong.
The Philadelphian believers did more than simply not deny the name of Jesus. They loudly and proudly proclaimed him as the Holy One. Their boast was not in their property or multiplicity of programs but in the Holy One of Israel. There is none with whom he can be compared or against whom he fails to measure up. He is altogether unique, transcendently other, truly in a class by himself. Does your church have but little power? Do you doubt the legitimacy of your existence? Do you wonder if your sacrifice is worth the effort? Perhaps the kingdom would be better off without you. If the Philadelphians were inclined to think in this way, I suspect they renewed their strength and re-ignited their passion by reflecting on the beauty of divine holiness. “He, our Lord, is the Holy One. How can we not keep his word and proclaim his name, for he is holy, he is ours, and we are his.”
[Jesus] is called “the true one.” To the Greek mind this would mean “genuine.” To the Hebrew mind it means “faithful” and “trustworthy.” No one ever trusted our God and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in vain. Jesus alone has the key to the Davidic or messianic kingdom and he alone has the undisputed authority to admit or exclude from the New Jerusalem. When he opens to his followers the door of the kingdom, no one can shut them out; and when he shuts the door on those who oppose his cause, none can reverse the decision.
Jesus loves the mini-church. The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of the Savior whom it faithfully honors, passionately praises, and confidently trusts. The big church is any church that boasts in a big God, attendance and acreage notwithstanding. Keeping Christ’s word and not denying his name is easy for those who know him well. When he is small and unknown, he becomes dispensable, deniable, and easily dismissed for the sake of some grand vision of church growth. A mega-church without a mega-Christ is of little benefit to anyone. A mini-church with a mega-Christ makes them big in the eyes of him whose opinion is the only one that matters.