Philadelphia - Overcomers
Although there is blessing, and thank God for that, principally the book of the Revelation describes to us judgment. The Lord is seen walking in the midst of the seven candlesticks with discriminating gaze to encourage what is of Himself and to condemn what is contrary to His mind (chapters 1-3). Then we get a glimpse of things happening in heaven, particularly chapter 5, and then following upon that we get a tremendous succession of events describing judgment upon the earth. However, while that is so, the main thing that the book of the Revelation teaches us is the ultimate triumph of God over every opposing element, and those powers of evil are strong, formidable powers indeed. The power of God through Christ operating against evil will be such a power that it will overcome it, and the evil one himself will be consigned to the lake of fire forever, and the great thought of God will be brought into being as we see in chapter 21. This reminds us that, however difficult the pathway might be now and in other ages, eventually God's will will prevail. This is extremely encouraging.
Tonight I want to engage your attention for a few moments with the Lord's address to the church at Philadelphia.
"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write......"
This city's very name means 'brotherly love'. Oh how we lack brotherly love! We often engage our thoughts with looking at the end of the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians (vv.13-18), but perhaps we do not pay enough attention to the portions preceding it which deal with holy living (vv.1-8) and brotherly love (vv.9-12). One would like to think, dear brethren, that before the Lord comes there will be those that are marked with those features, keeping clear of evil, not only in gross forms but also in its seductive forms, and expressing brotherly love amongst the saints. What an ideal situation that would be for the Lord coming to claim His own, that they keep clear of evil and they have this love for each other.
This church in Philadelphia, I believe, was marked by those features and perhaps one of the reasons why they were is found at the end of verse 9 where it says, "I have loved thee". This really is the basis of all our love to each other, that first of all the Lord has loved us (1 John 4:19), and what a love that has been, dear brethren! in bringing us into this wonderful circle of divine favour in which the great thoughts of God have been made known to us and all this creating in us the desire to maintain what is right to the Lord and to have love towards each other! I think there has been the evidence of that today, dear brethren, as we met each other, have shaken hands with each other, and looked at each other. How glad we are to see each other and to be gathered together in this way, in fellowship and under the ministry of God's word.
"......These things saith he that is holy, he that is true......"
Well, then, God writes to the church at Philadelphia. We have often been taught (and rightly we believe) that the Lord presents Himself to each church in a different way according to the conditions that prevailed in that church. He has nothing of a condemnatory character to say to Philadelphia and we believe He addresses Himself to them as the holy and true because there were conditions there that answered to that; holy because all evil, unclean, wicked things were excluded from the company, and truth because it has in all its parts been maintained, nothing erroneous was allowed to creep in amongst the saints. That being so, He was happy to refer to Himself and to present Himself in this way to the believers.
"......he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth......"
He also refers to Himself as the One supremely who has administration in relation to the working out of His own mind and will and for the benefit of His beloved people. Dear brethren, what a happy thing it would be in the Christian testimony if all companies of believers were marked by those features answering to the holy and the true having nothing of an evil character allowed amongst them, no erroneous teaching circulating amongst them, but instead, to have all things that met with the Lord's approval so that unhinderedly He could present Himself in this way.
"......I know thy works......"
It would be a sad thing if in any Christian company there was not an evidence of works that met with the Lord's approval, practical living, day by day, works that produced encouragement for the saints, and also were a benefit for the unconverted. The works are not specified but, in the New Testament, oh, what a great presentation we find of this idea. Indeed the epistle of Paul to Titus is a continual reference to good works and Paul desiring that the saints might be marked by this and might show diligence and zeal in the working out of those good works whatever they were. What a happy thing it is then when we see this in expression in a Christian company. The Lord does not elaborate on the matter, He says, "I know thy works". Thank God for that. The Lord taught His disciples saying, "let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (Matt.6:3), that is, we are not to publicise what we are doing, we are not to blow a trumpet and make a great show for our own glory, the Lord knows, and we do it for Him. Thank God He remembers, He retains it, and in due time, He will reward it. What a happy thing then if in some way or other we perform good works for the Lord.
"......behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it......"
I believe this has happened because of the other things that are mentioned. In the Authorised we do not have the word "because", which is included in Mr. Darby's translation, "Because thou hast a little strength and hast kept my word and hast not denied my name". That is, the Lord is keeping opened this door, a door that the Philadelphian saints can go into (they can come out too if necessary), but the door is open and they can take advantage of it, and the reason why this door is kept open is because they have a little strength, because they have kept His word, and because they have not denied His name. Now we want to speak about these three things very simply and briefly.
"......for thou hast a little strength......"
The word "little" does not necessarily mean that it is insignificant. The Lord Jesus uses this word often, and I want to draw your attention to two references. Firstly He says to the disciples, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). The Christian testimony has always been small relative to the large mass of people who are unbelievers, and here they are referred to in this way as a "little flock" yet the Father's good pleasure is connected with them. Then again the Lord said, "Verily I say to you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein" (Luke 18:17), there indicating the necessity for humility and the absence of arrogance and assertiveness. This kind of character is so pleasing to the Lord. One more reference in the Old Testament, "There are four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceedingly wise...... the ants...... the badgers...... the locusts...... the spider" (Prov.30:24-28). So when the Lord says of Philadelphia, "thou hast a little strength" I believe it has to be seen in the context of the seven churches.
We have Thyatira with all the pretension of Popery, we have Sardis in all its deadness, the deadness of Protestantism, and then we have Laodicea, the materialism of the last days, having nothing for the Lord, and yet in the midst of those conditions there is a company that has a little strength. I believe that little strength is because they are in direct contact with the source who supplies that strength because there is holy living amongst them, and because there is an absence of error amongst them. Where this is the case the Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus provide this little strength. What a wonderful thing to have this strength. What does it do? It maintains the good and refuses the evil. It carries on with the things that are pleasing to the Lord without presumption and arrogance, and conscious of the weakness that is marked by the term "a little strength" but nevertheless it encourages to go on for the Lord.
One of the benefits of travelling amongst the assemblies is that it gives one the opportunity to visit many little groups of believers gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus, and I think if you saw it as some of us see it, you would realise how courageous they are. They are like the little limpets that stick to the rocks. They are very small, but they are holding on and nothing moves them. They are determined to go on with the Lord and with the truth that has been made known to them, and thank God for them, and may they be encouraged to go on and not to succumb to the largeness that is often attractive outwardly but, sad to say, so very often contains much that is error. So we say this little strength is something that we see continually amongst those who gather to the name of the Lord in humility and yet have this desire to maintain what is pleasing to the Lord.
"......and hast kept my word......"
The next thing to be mentioned is that they kept His word. I am perfectly sure you will agree with me that that does not mean they had a Bible in the house. It is much more than that. There is a proliferation of Bibles and this is a great day for the distribution of Bibles. Thank God for it. We have heard of the distribution of Bibles in the Middle East and elsewhere and we are thankful for it, but the main thing is the keeping of His word, what He has made known, what He has granted to the saints in days of difficulty, what has been recovered, or should I say, what the saints have been recovered to. The Bible was always there. The truth was always there. The fact is the saints were very often far away from the truth and had to be recovered to it. What a wonderful thing to have this commendation from the Lord that those believers had kept His word.
In this respect one often thinks of a man like Ezra who came out of Babylon. There is another reference to 'little' in the way he prayed to the Lord, that the Lord had granted to them "a little reviving" out of their bondage, away from the country where they could not sing the songs of Zion (Ezra 9:8) in order for them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and the walls of the city. Ezra "prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments" (Ezra 7:10). There was a man who not only learnt the word, but he kept the word by doing it and was morally competent to teach those things to other people. Oh, that this was so more and more! Not only are we to know the Bible, know the truths that are in the Bible, but those truths are to govern us so that we are able to pass them on to others. What a wonderful thing it is that the Lord could say to this company at Philadelphia, "Thou hast kept my word".
Paul, when he wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, said, "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (14:37). If that word is kept, if that word is maintained as we believe it was in Corinth because there was recovery as the second epistle showed, oh what blessing there is! Truth operates in us and there is great blessing amongst us if evil is excluded and wrong doctrine is put away. The Lord said of Abraham, "I know [Abraham], that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord" (Gen.18:19). The Lord Jesus said of the disciples to His Father "They have kept thy word" (John 17:6). As we read the gospel narratives, we might say, 'Whenever did they keep His word?' But the Lord credited them with keeping His word and thank God for that. Here is another company and the Lord says they have "kept my word". Have we, dear brethren? Have we kept His word? Are we giving up, are we letting truths go that once were held tenaciously? Do we hold them lightly? Our brother reminded us of so-called 'brethren traditions'. Do not throw them overboard until you are absolutely assured that they are traditions and not the word of God. They proved themselves to be a help and a blessing in many difficult times and we want to hold on to them, we want to make sure these are the things that are really worthwhile to have and to follow because they are the things that honour our Lord Jesus Christ.
"......and hast not denied my name......"
There was no compromise. What a wonderful thing that is in any believer or any company of believers. Poor Peter always comes before us as one who denied the Lord, but he was not the only one. We know this in our own lives. We know how easy it is to succumb to circumstances and to opposition. We know how easy it is to turn away and to deny the Lord when there is an opportunity to say something for Him, and the fear of man and the fear of the sneer and the turn of the lip closes our lips and we do not confess Him. But oh, the Lord Jesus is so glad that here is a company that has not denied His name. We have often been taught, and rightly so, that to do something "in His name" indicates that the Lord is absent, and also that the name is descriptive of the person. If we profess to gather to the name of the Lord Jesus, it is unthinkable that anything should be allowed in the company that is not in consistency with that name. I believe that is what is meant by the Lord saying to this company, "Thou hast not denied my name".
"......Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee......"
We see here a company with a religious flavour attaching to them who are very definitely under the guidance and control of Satan in direct opposition to all that represents the name of the Lord Jesus. What I would suggest is that in them there is an entire reversal of attitudes. Here is a company that one moment is offensive and in opposition against the Lord and the Lord's people, and the next moment, instead of opposing, they are going to come and bow before this company and they will know that the Lord has loved them. Whatever else it means, I believe the tables are going to be turned, just as they are going to be turned in the future in connection with the Man of Calvary. The world's decision regarding the reproached, despised Man, the Man who they set at nought, is going to be reversed completely and the world will bow and will confess that He is Lord to God the Father's glory.
There is one illustration of this that I have often found helpful and very encouraging and that is in the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that astrologers and wise men could not interpret for him and Daniel, the man of God, came and was helped by God to give the interpretation of the dream to this mighty monarch (Dan.2). What happens? Why, the emperor himself, this great and mighty monarch bows down before the captive (v.46). What a strange reversal of positions! This great man commanding absolute sway over the lives of so many bows down at the feet of one of his captives. I think this is the kind of thing that is illustrated here, that the ones who are despised and rejected will one day be acknowledged as those whom the Lord has loved.
"......Because thou hast kept the word of my patience (or, 'endurance'), I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly......"
This verse has often been used to confute the idea that the church will go through the tribulation. The Lord is saying that He will keep His saints from the terrible hour of trial that will come upon the whole earth to try it - and we believe that. We believe the Lord Jesus Christ, when He comes for His church, will take them out of this world and all its sorrows and difficulties and that the things that we read of later in the book of Revelation, the seal, the trumpet, and the vial judgments, which are connected with these things, are thrown upon the earth visiting judgment upon those who deserve to be judged. Then we believe there will come that wonderful moment when the Lord will be seen publicly throughout the whole world, all nations of the earth shall wail because of Him. It will be a public manifestation. There is a difference between the Greek words 'epiphaneia' meaning 'the outshining', which we believe has to do with His glory, and 'apokalypsis' which has to do with revelation, when the unseen One will be seen publicly, "every eye shall see Him". What a reversal! I think the consternation of that will mark the world when suddenly the Man who was despised, rejected and refused will be seen to be the glorified One, the One who is supreme in the Father's thoughts and the One who will be supreme in this world in an unqualified way. What a reversal!
I want to show how this wrong teaching came in regarding the church going through the tribulation. For the first three centuries of the church's testimony publicly upon earth there was intense persecution against it, persecution after persecution rolled against the church, and of course the truth of the Lord's coming was very much kept alive. The believers encouraged one another saying, 'The Lord is coming! The Lord is coming!' This was their hope amidst all the trials and persecutions that they passed through. But at the beginning of the fourth century there came a change. Constantine, the Roman emperor, embraced Christianity (although it was truth to say that he was not baptised until he was on his death bed), and made Christianity popular. Then instead of the Christians being persecuted they were feted and honoured. Suddenly Christianity became a very popular thing. It became something worth having, and, of course, there was a great deal of searching after Christianity in order to get these places of privilege and honour which the emperor so freely bestowed upon those known as Christians and Christian leaders. Now the truth of the Lord's imminent return was lost, Christians said, 'Who wants to wait for the Lord's coming when we are being showered with presents and honours and with positions in this world? We do not want the Lord to come, we want to enjoy what is here'. So from this time we find a change in the teaching, people taught that all the glowing prophecies in the Old Testament were now being fulfilled! All the wonderful Old Testament prophecies regarding prosperity upon earth and the Lord blessing His servants and glory coming upon His own were being fulfilled then! They have reached the time of the kingdom! And so the truth of the church became inextricably tied up and therein exists the beginning of the confusion. When the Reformers came along they did not give up this teaching regarding the kingdom, they embraced it, perhaps modified it, brought in a few other thoughts, but it was still retained, and, dear brethren, it is still retained today. That is why we still have this confusion regarding the church going through the tribulation and I want to explain why.
The church was thought upon by God long before time began. Its origin is in glory, its destiny is in glory, it too should be marked by features of glory in its pathway here; it is heavenly in origin, heavenly in destiny, and it ought to be heavenly in character. That is why we do not find times (fixed periods) and seasons (definite characteristics) connected with the church because this would bring us down to prophecy and exact times or periods; the church is not reckoned in time, the kingdom is. When we turn to the Old Testament we find specific statements regarding the kingdom, how long it will be and also its end. Herein is a very important principle concerning the interpretation of Scripture. Do we spiritualise the little statements of the Old Testament or do we take them at their face value? Well, it is very wise to take them at their face value and see that all prophecy connected with the kingdom and the blessing of it hang upon two definite covenants - one made with Abraham (Gen.12:2-3), and one made with David (2 Sam.7:4-16). The one made with Abraham is that there will be a land given and in that land there will be a seed and also that all nations of the earth would be blessed in that man of faith. That is God's covenant with Abraham, and up until this present moment, it has not yet been fulfilled, and all its terms have to be fulfilled literally upon earth. Secondly, the covenant made with David was that there would be a king upon the throne of David and that king would reign forever over the kingdom. That too has yet to be fulfilled. We believe that these literal covenants will be fulfilled literally, to the letter, upon earth in relation to the nation of Israel and in relation to the nations of the world. It is because these two things have been mixed up, the truth of the kingdom, which principally belongs to earth, Israel and the nations, and the truth of the church, which is heavenly in origin, destiny and character, that it is quite easy to connect the church going through the tribulation, but it will not. The Lord Jesus is going to come for it to take it out of this world altogether in answer to God's eternal purpose. Thank God for that.
"......hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown......"
About 150 years ago (in the 1830's) there was a giving of light upon Scriptural matters to those who desired to be faithful that has been unsurpassed since apostolic days. The truth of the rapture was given to Mr. Darby and his contemporaries and it produced a revolution in their lives. I am sure if we knew how they lived and compared ourselves with them we might well be humbled. They were devoted, they were unworldly, they were upright and true and knew what sacrifice was. They knew what it was to suffer, but they were governed by the truths that God made known to them. These truths have been handed down to us. The ministry that we have in our hands is the legacy that has been given to us. This word to the church at Philadelphia is to us this evening. We are to hold fast to the truth of the church in its function, away from organisation or man's interference, away from everything that speaks of man and his intrusion into the things of the Lord, holding fast the truths that have been made known to us and seeking to carry them out in humility and in the power that the Lord gives to us however little that strength may be. What a wonderful thing it will be to be found in faithfulness at His return. How wonderful to be found in the way that is pleasing to the Lord.
Many wonderful things have been given to us by God since that wonderful revival 150 years ago. Let us hold fast, do not let us loose them, do not let us even be ashamed of them, but let us propagate them and seek to win others for them, knowing them ourselves, enjoying them ourselves, and without any presumption or arrogance or self assertiveness guard them until the coming of the Lord. They are worth having. The joy that we are experiencing this afternoon are things which have been fought for and brethren have had to suffer for in order to maintain them. Let us not fritter them away through negligence or through carelessness. The Lord is saying, "I am coming quickly", hold fast, do not give up, keep going on. These things belong to me He says, they are worthwhile having, defend them with all your strength.
"......Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God......"
I wish I had the ability to open out this passage, it is so choice, there is so much in it, so much that is dignified, that is glorious, that is great, but we will make an attempt at suggesting a few things. The "pillar in the temple of my God" is right in the innermost place, not in the outside place of reproach and testing and difficulty and trial, but inside. I do not think its purpose is to hold up the temple as a pillar of strength, rather the idea is more in the way of ornamentation. This pillar is in the innermost place of the temple of God, the evidence that things had been maintained, and now they receive a place of honour and distinction in the very presence of God. What an honour dear friends! What an honour for those who are holding fast and being faithful. Oh, you say, only those who are faithful? We thought that all the church would have a place of distinction. Quite so, beyond all possible doubt, the church will be in the presence of God and in the presence of Christ according to purpose, but here is a special blessing for those who overcome, we believe seen principally in the world to come in a time of display. What a wonderful blessing for those who are faithful to the Lord. Would we not like a place in the innermost part of the temple, not some lone place within the door, but rather a place of distinction, a place of dignity, a place of honour? Well, we get that place by qualifying for it by being an overcomer. Overcoming what? Overcoming perhaps all the surrounding influences and tendencies. Remember, the seven churches were in close proximity to each other. We find Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea, all are quite near at hand and all the tendencies in them were liable to spill over into Philadelphia. Smyrna was the other church of which had God nothing to say in the way of condemnation. We are to overcome them all, every one of them: the materialism, the wrong teaching, the wrong attitude toward sin, and sinful habits, all that kind of thing, we are to overcome those tendencies that are around us every day of our lives and that we see so much abroad in Christendom at the present time. 'Overcome, overcome,' says the Lord, 'to those that overcome there will be a distinctive reward'.
"......and he shall go no more out......"
The time of testimony, the time of fighting, the time of reproach is over, we are inside, no more to go out at the Lord's bidding, but to remain inside and find this place of glory and blessing.
"...... and I will write upon him the name of my God......"
What can we say about that, dear brethren, to have God's name written upon us? On the high priest's garments, the names of the children of Israel were engraved upon the onyx stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod and also upon on the twelve stones on the breastplate. I want to draw attention to the word 'engraved'. It was engraved in such a way that it could not possibly be eliminated, there is a permanency about them. I believe this is the same idea here, God permanently is connected with those who overcome to indicate the tremendous favour that God shows to those who were ready to be true to His name. It is not everyone that God connects His name to. He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. I think you might find it very difficult to find any other passage where God Himself speaks directly to a person and says, "I am your God", and mentions his name, other than in the case of David. There are many other portions where God is connected with names. Many references are made to "thy God" throughout Scripture, and Darius speaks of "the God of Daniel" and Nebuchadnezzar speaks of "the God of Shadrach, Mesach and Abed-nego", but this verse in Revelation is God writing His name personally upon us to indicate that close affinity between Himself and the believer that He is not ashamed to be called their God. He implants His name upon them in an indelible way, a permanency that cannot be removed.
"......and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God......"
To be born in Jerusalem, the city of the great king, Zion, was a great and distinct blessing (Ps.87), but this here is not the earthly Jerusalem, this is the heavenly Jerusalem, and to belong to that is surely a supreme blessing. How wonderful! Oh, dear brethren, through infinite mercy and grace we have been called to have our part in this great company that shall administer for the glory of God in the world to come and then will be seen coming down out of heaven from God. Oh, how wonderful, the bride taking her place beside Christ, unblemished, not in any way impaired by a thousand years of reign, freshness and glory marking her for the delight of the heart of Christ, and also to be filled with the glory of God. This is a wonderful company and, through infinite grace, we have our part in it.
"......and I will write upon him my new name......"
I am not going to speculate on this verse, I think it would be very unwise to do so. Perhaps some brother has something to suggest, but "my new name" indicates a secrecy and special blessing that will be between the Lord and the overcomer, and that is very wonderful. Mr. Darby wrote in one of his hymns:
"Called by that secret name
Of undisclosed delight,
(Blest answer to reproach and shame)
Graved on the stone of white.
There in effulgence bright,
Saviour and Guide, with Thee
I'll walk, and in Thy heavenly light
Whiter my robe shall be."
We look forward to a very special day, if we are overcomers, when we shall be given this new name.
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
This is the last word that the Lord gives to Philadelphia, and notice it is not to the church particularly at Philadelphia, this word is applicable to all the churches. When Paul wrote to the Colossians he said, "When this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans" (4:16). What was good for the Colossians was good for the Laodiceans. Would that they had listened to that marvellous epistle that spoke of the greatness and glory of Christ. So here the Lord is saying, "He that hath an eat, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches". Dear brethren, one of the things that the little strength secures is to hear constantly the voice of the Spirit until the Lord comes. That is a great blessing. It is something we can be thankful for. This is why we have 'open meetings', not that some brother should be given the opportunity to speak on his favourite subject, that is not the point, we have an open meeting to let the Lord speak to us through the Spirit in relation to specific matters that require help and adjustment amongst the saints, or for very special encouragement. How wonderful it is to wait and let the Spirit's voice be heard as we gather to the Lord's name. The Lord is speaking to us now by His Spirit as we read the address to the church at Philadelphia. That voice was to them, that voice is to us, and whatever else we may forget may we remember the Lord says, "I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast". May it be so for His name's sake.