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Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Philadelphia

March 10, 2013

Seven Letters to Seven Churches:  The Letter to Philadelphia
Revelation 3:7-13

 

Today we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches, by considering Paul’s letter to the church at Philadelphia.  You will understand why this particular letter is my favorite as we progress through our study this morning.  Please turn with me to Revelation 3:7-13.  Hear now the Word of God.

 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. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 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. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

If you go to the far northwest corner of South Carolina, you will come to the Chattooga River.  Just above Burrells Ford, a beautiful place to camp and fish, is a trail that makes a very steep ascent to Ellicott Rock.  Years ago surveyors identified that rock as the point where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia meet.  If you had three feet, you could stand in all three states at one time.

Greeks founded the church of Philadelphia, located in Asia Minor, about 150 B.C. where three states came together.  The location was intended to serve as a point from which the Greek culture and language could spread into all three provinces.  A king who came from Pergamum named the city Philadelphia because of his admiration and love for his brother.  Philadelphia means “City of Brotherly Love.”  Our own historic American city in Pennsylvania is named for this city in the book of Revelation.

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia in Asia Minor was located on a fault line and subject to much seismic activity.  The area still experiences earthquakes.  The city, along with Sardis and some other nearby areas, was totally devastated by an earthquake in 17 A.D.  Jesus would have been a teenager at that time.  Rebuilding took a long time because of the numerous aftershocks.  People fled from the area because of their fear.

Tiberius Caesar sent his builders and engineers into Philadelphia to rebuild the city.  He changed the name to Neo-Caesar or Neo-Caesarea in honor of the Caesar.  Later, Emperor Vespasian named the city Flavia after his family.  Neither of these two Roman names stuck.  The name Philadelphia endured.

Apart from the earthquakes, this region also experienced some volcanic activity.  Lava fields surrounded the city, making it a virtual wasteland.  Farmers were able to grow few agricultural crops in that rocky soil, but they discovered that the ground was excellent for grape vineyards.  Philadelphia soon became known for its wine production.

The only temple in Philadelphia honored the god of wine, called Dionysius by the Greeks and  Bacchus among the Romans.  Wine production spurred the economy until about the time the book of Revelation and this letter were written.  Also about that time a severe famine spread through many parts of the Roman Empire.  The Emperor Domitian, the cruel tyrant who has appeared numerous times in connection with Revelation and who was responsible for persecuting the Christians terribly, decided that half of the vineyards surrounding Philadelphia must be destroyed.  He wanted to convert the land in order to produce grain.  Like many government programs, that decision proved to be an utter failure.  Economic disaster ensued, causing the city to endure an economic crisis.

John wrote his letter from the risen Christ about the same time as this crisis.  The church at Philadelphia was poor in a city that was also poor.  It is the smallest of the churches among the seven addressed.  The very foundations of the church had been shaken, not just by earthquakes, but also by this economic catastrophe.  The risen Christ identifies the opposition, which he calls the “synagogue of Satan.”  Strong Jewish resistance existed against this Christian church.

The church at Philadelphia is unique among the seven churches in that the Lord registered no complaint against it.  The faithfulness of the church delighted Christ.  You can understand why Philadelphia is my favorite of the seven.

The risen Christ revealed, “I know who you are.  I know your works.  I know your deeds.”  Allow those comments to soak in for just a moment.  Jesus was not addressing only the churches in Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Laodicea when he used those words.  He was also addressing Morningside.  Now apply those words – “I know who you are.  I know your works.  I know your deeds” – to Morningside Baptist Church.

Has it occurred to you that Christ knows everything about Morningside?  Has it occurred to you that Christ is the unseen presence in every worship service, including this one?  He is present at every discipleship event, every deacons’ meeting, every committee meeting, every missions meeting, every business conference, every Sunday School class of all age groups.  He accompanies every church trip.  Jesus Christ participates in every activity of the church.

He is also the silent listener to every conversation in the fellowship hall, the hallways, and the parking lots.  He hears every cell phone exchange.  The Lord Jesus reads every e-mail, every text message, every twitter, every Facebook entry, and every note scribbled on a worship bulletin.  He knows us, and he knows how we spend our time, our energy, and our money.

At a deeper level, Christ Jesus knows every thought, every motivation, and every intention.  He knows the stirrings in every heart, including our painful hurts, our bitter grudges, and our deepest affections.

Thomas Cranmer, a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I, wrote this ancient prayer appropriate for Lent:

Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid:  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Clovis G. Chappell, a renowned Methodist minister from the 20th century, was an outstanding preacher who said, “Were it my privilege to go back across the years and attend a service at one of these seven churches, I think I should choose the church at Philadelphia.”  It is not the largest and certainly not the wealthiest.  Christ said they had little strength:  “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”  Christ had examined the church in Philadelphia and found it to be absolutely faithful.

In all other letters Jesus used symbols to describe himself, symbols that came from the very first vision in Chapter 1.  In this letter, however, Jesus made no reference to that vision.  Instead he provided three comments about himself.  He claimed, “I am the holy one,” and “I am the one who is true.”  Think about those qualities.  Christ wants us to be the holy ones, the ones who are different from the world, the ones who are true, honest, and authentic.  Perhaps you know these words to a song, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.”  Christ wants each of us and each of his churches to be “pure and holy, tried and true.”

Third, Jesus claimed, “I hold the key of David,” a reference to Isaiah 22:22.  That statement meant that Christ is the one who opens the doors of opportunity for his faithful church.  Paul used that very expression when he described what happened on his missionary journeys.  He said that he wanted to go deeper into Asia Minor but was prevented from doing so.  Why he was prevented we do not know.  We do know that he experienced what is known as the Macedonian Call at a place called Troas.  He had a vision of a man in Macedonia, beckoning him and saying, “Come help us.”

The Apostle Paul responded to this open door by crossing a small body of water and going to the continent of Europe.  Imagine what would have happened if Paul had never crossed that channel.  He had not planned to take that route, and he had never been to the European continent before.  His journey changed the history of the church.  One door was closed, but he saw an open door.  Paul stated in I Corinthians that he responded to that open door.  He also stated that much opposition faced him.  Of course, it is true that whenever we decide to go through an open door, we can count on some resistance.

How does John’s letter to the church in Philadelphia apply to Morningside Baptist Church?  How has this church responded to open doors?

Exactly two months from today, June 10, I will have been the pastor of this church for seventeen years.  I would like to share with you, in retrospect, some of my experiences at Morningside.

I received a letter from the search committee of this church in December 1995, asking me to consider becoming the next pastor.  I showed it to Clare and said, “We are just going to pray about this.”  I put the letter aside on the dresser in our bedroom.

About a week later I walked into a service station to buy some gasoline.  A man working there shared a concern with me when he asked, “Our Sunday School class wants to help a family at Christmastime, but we do know the best way to locate a family in need.  Can you help us do that?

In talking with him, I inquired, “Where do you worship?”

He answered, “I’m a member of Morningside.”

Of course after giving him some information, I went home and told Clare of the man’s request.  “Today someone asked me a pastoral question.  This may be a sign from God that I need to respond to the letter from the search committee.”

I did respond.  My first meeting with the committee occurred on New Year’s Eve at the office in the church where I was serving.  I thought the meeting would be private, assuming that no one would suspect that I had scheduled a meeting with a search committee at 8:00 P.M. on New Year’s Eve.

The following day, New Year’s Day 1996, Clare and I met here with the chair of that committee.  Jackie Satterfield, who was the Minister of Music at the time, saw me.  Her eyes got about as big as silver dollars, which they still do on occasion.  I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Jackie, let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand.”

That morning Clare and I sat on the back row and prayed together.  When I asked her what she thought, she answered with a comment I will never forget: “Kirk, this church is a sleeping giant.”

I decided to allow my name to go forward.  The committee came back to me on the last day of January 1996, and we began the hiring process.

After preaching a trial sermon and meeting the congregation, I attended the deacons’ monthly meeting on June 10.  The topic of conversation that night was this pulpit, which a family in the church had donated.  Some thought it was too big and suggested that we not use it.  Others suggested that it be cut down in size.  The issue was not resolved that night.

After the meeting I sat on that front pew here in the Sanctuary and prayed, “Lord, please do not let us fuss about furniture.”  During the night an idea came to me.  The next morning I called Ed Cudd and Ed O’Shields and asked them to meet me in the Sanctuary.  Could any two people named Ed be more different than Ed Cudd and Ed O’Shields?  I doubt it.

I asked the men, “Could we move the pulpit forward off the platform onto another base that has been lowered eight inches?”

Ed Cudd asked, “When do you want that project completed?”

I answered, “By Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.”  We had only one service then.

He asked, “You don’t want much, do you?”

Ed O’Shields looked at me and said, “We can do it.”

Saturday when I came by the church the pulpit was resting on a new base.  From that day to this I have never heard one mumbling word about the size of the pulpit.  Though that issue was a trivial matter, I knew that God would work out any problem that arose.

Joe Paul Turner, who was on staff here, encouraged me, “Kirk, give the church your vision for Morningside.  Let the members share your vision.”

My vision was so flawed.  I had no idea what God was going to do in this church.

After my first Sunday here as pastor, I received a phone call from Tom Grier, the owner of the Reidman building next door.  Tom told me that he wanted to sell Morningside that building.  I do not negotiate property, but Ed Zimmerman agreed to serve as the point man.  He began the long process of negotiation.  In the meantime we got a line of credit from the bank for $100,000 in order to refurbish the buildings, including completing the balcony and installing a sound system.  The final cost of the renovations was close to $120,000, but we never had to touch the loan; Morningside members generously gave the money to complete the project.  Next, the church voted to purchase the Reidman building at a cost of $500,000.  We paid off the loan in six months. We used that facility during the later construction of the new educational wing.  The SPIHN Day Center and Scouts now use that space.

The church voted to tithe the building fund through Growing Together for God, allowing Morningside to assist other churches and ministries in whatever way God directed.  I knew that God was leading us; but if someone had told me, “Kirk, this is what is going to happen,” I would have been scared to death.  I could not have imagined all that God was going to do.

George Schrieffer, a church growth consultant, told us what to expect with an increased membership.  The last time George was here, he drew a sketch of Morningside with Christ above the church, praying for us.  I have often wondered what Christ might pray for this church.  Cliff Barrow sent me a note saying that God’s blessing for Morningside was Zechariah 3:17:  “…he will rejoice over you with singing.”  I have marked Ephesians 3:14-19 in my Bible.  I have often thought this passage is the prayer of Christ for Morningside:

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

We invited both a church architect to help us develop a master plan and another church growth consultant to tell us how we could better use our facilities.  We baffled the second consultant.  She said that Morningside is an anomaly and that I am the last of the breed.  She called me a dinosaur.

We realized the need to build a new educational wing and a fellowship hall.  We waited until we had $1,000,000 on hand before going forward with that building that has served us so well.  We were able to pay off the entire loan of $3.2 million in about three years.

Not too long afterwards, Caine Halter told me that he wanted to sell Morningside his building on the adjacent lot at a cost of $650,000.  Because we were still paying on the $3.2 million debt, I did not know how we could buy that building.  People I talk with about these matters asked, “How can we not buy a piece of property next to our campus?”  We prayed about the decision and decided to buy that building.  The contract was prepared and the paperwork signed, obligating ourselves.

About a week later a man in the church called me, asking Clare and me to go to supper with him, his wife, and Ed and Betty Zimmerman.  I remember that I was drinking a cup of coffee when he said, “My wife and I really want to give the Caine building to the church.”  We redid the paperwork and received the building as a gift.  The three non-profits now located in the Caine building use it rent-free but pay the upkeep.

Being a pastor at this church has given me the opportunity to see one door after another open.  I have learned the truth of Paul’s comments recorded in Ephesians 3:20:  “Now unto him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we asked or imagined, according to his power that is at work within us.  To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, forever and ever!  Amen.”

Morningside Baptist Church has been designated a Global Mission Church.  Since 1982 Morningside has sponsored eighty-seven mission trips with thirty-one in the United States, three in Southeast Asia, four in the Dominican Republic, and two in Kenya.  Teams have made eight trips to Belize, four to Romania, nine to Poland, eight to Brazil, and two to Russia.

The Funds of Theological Education has designated Morningside as a Calling Congregation.  Since 1950, nineteen members have gone into full-time Christian ministry.  Since 1996, we have hired seventeen interns, eight of whom have gone into full-time ministry.  We have sponsored numerous seminary students.  Our decision to participate in Growing Together for God, which tithes the building fund, and our ability to contribute other funds have allowed this church to plant or build eleven churches in Romania, Brazil, Venezuela, Poland, Russia, Siberia, and Southeast Asia.  We have sponsored and given financial support to sixteen churches and assisted twelve others.

How does a church like Morningside do this?  Like the church in Philadelphia, we are not the biggest and certainly not the wealthiest church.  Like Philadelphia, with its faithful group, we are faithful.

What does it mean for a Christian to be faithful?  It means that we try our best to live the way Christ Jesus wants us to live.  We keep his Word close to our heart.  We live a life of prayer.  We trust him beyond what we can see, which is often difficult and scary.

I so often return to the great stories of the Bible.  The only miracle included in all four Gospels – other than the incarnation and the resurrection – is the story of the feeding of the 5000.  You remember that the story begins with Jesus taking his disciples to an isolated place.

When it was time for supper, the disciples said, “Send the people away.”

Jesus instructed them to feed the people, but they protested, “We can’t do that!  That would take a half a year’s salary.”

Asked to bring what food they could find, they scrounged around and found five loaves and two fish.  Jesus took that meager amount of food, blessed it, multiplied it, and returned it to them so that they could feed the crowd.  Plenty of leftover food was gathered after all 5000 had eaten.

How do we accomplish God’s tasks?  Henry Blackaby says that we must pay attention to the ways that God is at work in the world around us.  We must pay attention to how God invites us to be a part of what He has for us to do.  God will give us an open door.  A faithful church will obey and be able to do immeasurably more than all they ever thought or imagined, not in their own strength, but in the strong name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I wonder today if you would make this your prayer:  “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, poor and holy, tried and true, with thanksgiving I will be a living sanctuary for You.”  If you have never accepted Christ, this is the day.  Come and be a part of a church that is faithful.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2013
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