The Open Door

A sermon on Revelation 3:7-13 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 4/3/2005

John Paton was a 19th century missionary to the islands now known as Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Just 19 years before his arrival, the first missionaries to these islands, John Williams and James Harris, had been on shore only a few minutes before being clubbed to death, cooked, and then eaten by cannibals.

Indeed, one of the elders in his church, a Mr Dickson, rebuked him for wanting to go to these islands, saying, "You will be eaten by cannibals!" Paton replied:

Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten    by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer. (p. 56)

This courage was to be tested. Paton faced tragedy from the very beginning of his labors. His wife and infant son died of disease less than four months after his arrival; he dug their graves with his own hands. He writes:

Stunned by that dreadful loss, in entering upon this field of labor to which the Lord had Himself so evidently led me, my reason seemed for a time almost to give way. . . . But for Jesus, and the fellowship he vouchsafed to me there, I must have gone mad and died beside the lonely grave!

Paton labored for four years on this island and saw almost no fruit. There were only a handful of converts, and he faced continuous threatening opposition; murder seemed a possibility almost every day.

Finally, the situation got to the point where he knew to stay meant certain death. He fled his house, pursued by those intent upon killing him. He writes:

They encircled us in a deadly ring and one kept urging another to strike the first blow or fire the first shot. My heart rose up to the Lord Jesus. I saw Him watching all the scene. My peace came back to me like a wave from God. I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work with me was done. The assurance came to me as if a voice out of Heaven had spoken, that not a musket would be fired to wound us, not a club prevail to strike us, not a spear leave the hand in which it was held vibrating to be thrown, not an arrow leave the bow . . . without the permission of Jesus Christ, who is all power on heaven and earth. He rules All Nature, animate and inanimate, and restrains even the Savage of the South Seas. (emphasis added)

What do you hold on to in the face of danger?

If your life is threatened – by a person, by disease – where is your hope?

If to speak the truth of the Gospel seems to doom you  -  either to doom your life, as in Paton’s case, or to doom your career (more likely in this country) – what do you do?

Today we consider the letter Jesus writes to the church in Philadelphia. Not Philadelphia PA (meaning Pennsylvania), but Philadelphia PA, meaning “Province of Asia”, in what is now Turkey. “Philadelphia” means “city of brotherly love” but I don’t think those terms are very descriptive of either Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Philadelphia, Province of Asia. Indeed, the church in Philadelphia was faced with dangerous opposition that seemed to threaten its very existence. But Jesus tells this church two things.

The threats and dangers we face differ from those in Philadelphia. But we need to hear this word just as they do. For we too easily fall prey to fear; we too easily fall prey to worry. So those of you who have ears, hear what Jesus writes to this church:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 'The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. 8 "'I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie- behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and 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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3:7-13

We’ll look at this under four headings: Two things you need to know, and then two results, two condsequences of what you know.

Know: Who is Jesus?

In verse 7: Jesus begins by defining Himself as the “Holy One.”  Who is the holy one?

This expression appears 59 times in the ESV, and the vast majority refer explicitly to God. The majority of the biblical appearances of this phrase are in the book of Isaiah - and this letter to Philadelphia alludes to Isaiah in almost every line. Every single case of “Holy One” in Isaiah refers to God.

Some other translations, such as the New American Standard and the NIV, render this “He who is holy,” because there is no word for “one” present in the Greek text of Revelation 3:7. Literally, the Greek reads, “the Holy, the True.” But Revelation echoes Isaiah even in this. The Greek translation of the Old Testament renders “The Holy One of Israel” in Isaiah 55:5, for example, as “ ‘The Holy of Israel.” Thus, in introducing Himself, Jesus echoes one of Isaiah’s favorite names for God. Jesus says He is God Himself.

Jesus continues, describing Himself as, “The true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” This is another clear allusion to Isaiah – in this case to chapter 22 - but I confess that I don’t find that passage helpful in defining what this expression means. So let’s just consider it in the context of Revelation 3:

“True one” could mean “the one who speaks truth in general.” But here I think the reference is to a specific truth. Look ahead to verse 9:

those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie-

We found same expression in the letter to Smyrna, in Revelation 2:9 (see sermon). Ethnic Jews in Smyrna and Philadelphia are attacking the Christians, saying that they themselves are the only true Israel, saying they themselves are awaiting the true Messiah, saying that Jesus is not the Messiah. They persecute the Christians by telling the Roman authorities that these Christians should not fall under the special dispensation given to Jews; they should be forced to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Thus because of the opposition of the Jews, the Christians in Smyrna and Philadelphia are persecuted by the Romans.

In this context, “the true one, who has key of David” refers to Jesus as the true Messiah. Jesus thus is saying, “I am God! I am the Messiah! I am the promised descendant of King David! No one else has the key of David – the authority to allow anyone in to enjoy the covenant promises, and to shut the door to exclude anyone from the covenant promises. Those who reject me are not true Israel!”

Do you know this yourself? Do you know that Jesus is God? Do you know that Jesus is the true Messiah? Do you know that Jesus alone is the One who will open the door to those who will receive His blessings; Jesus alone is the One who will close the door on others? Do you know that He is Supreme?

To fight fear, to fight worry, we must know who Jesus is.

Know: Who are you?

Jesus reminds the church in Philadelphia of four things about themselves, four things they must remember:

a) They are weak!

Verse 8: “I know that you have but little power.” They face the opposition of Jews. And Jesus even calls the Jews the “synagogue of Satan.” This is hardly comforting! Not only are they facing hostile Jews, the Philadelphian Christians are facing Satan himself! Furthermore, because of the activity of the Jews, they face the might and power of the Roman Empire.

When you know you are weak and you are under threat from strong opponents, how do you feel? Hopeless! Afraid!

Consider: How do generals speak to their troops when they are facing long odds in an upcoming battle? How does a coach speak to his players when they face a vaunted opponent, and opponent with a much stronger record?

Generals and coaches generally will call on the pride of their soldiers or players. They will remind them of all their training. They will try to convince them that though they may look weak, they really are strong. They are likely to say something like, “You can do anything if you believe! So believe in yourself!”

But that’s not at all what Jesus does. Indeed, it seems like He does the opposite. He says, “You have but little power, and your opponents are mighty!”

So why does Jesus remind them of their weakness? Jesus always emphasizes our weakness and His strength. Remember John 15, when He says to His disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). In effect, Jesus says, “I know in and of yourself you are weak. I expect nothing more from you. I do not count on your becoming strong on your own. You are supposed to be weak. Don’t let that trouble you. For I am strong!”

Recall what Jesus says to Paul when he prays to have a weakness removed from him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

“My power is made perfect in weakness.” Just so in today’s passage. Jesus reminds the Philadelphian church of their weakness, and then reminds them of three ways that He will exert His power on their behalf. These three ways and the second through fourth reminders that He gives them.

b) He will keep them from harm

What will happen to these Jews, this synagogue of Satan? Will they harm the church? Jesus says in verse 9,

I will make them come and bow down before your feet.

We’ll look at that more in a second, but now just note: They won’t harm the Philadelphian church in any real sense! They may look threatening, but Jesus will make them perfectly harmless

Furthermore, Jesus makes a more general promise in the second part of verse 10:  

I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

Some interpret this to mean that the church won’t have to face the most serious time of tribulation at the end of the world. They argue that this phrase should be translated, “I will keep you OUT OF the hour of trial.”

But there are several reasons why that interpretation seems unlikely. First: Jesus uses the same Greek construction as in John 17:15, when He clearly means that we will face trials, but God will protect us from them:  

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. John 17:15 (emphasis added)

Second: Already in Revelation, John has put much emphasis on the times of tribulation that all believers must face. Recall that John introduces himself in this way in 1:9:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus (emphasis added).

Of course, John himself faces serious tribulation – that is why he is on Patmos.

Third: Recall that in the introductory sermon to this series, we emphasized the promise of blessing in Revelation 1:3 to all who read, hear, and keep what is written in this book. Thus, the blessings must be available, must be applicable to all believers living at all times after the writing of the book. How does this promise help believers in Philadelphia in 95AD if those who receive the promise won’t live for 2000 or more years? How does it help them in the midst of persecution from the Jews and Romans in their city? It doesn’t seem to help them at all.

Thus, it is unlikely that this is a promise about the end of time.

How then are we to understand this promise? What does Jesus mean when He says, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world”?

The word translated “keep” can also mean “guard” or “protect”. Jesus is saying, “I will guard you, I will protect you from the hour of trial that all men must face.” In other words, Jesus says, “You are weak! Don’t forget that! But I am strong! My power is made perfect in weakness! I will protect you from the trials you know – some of the Jews will actually bow down before you! And I will protect you from future trials, all the trials that come in this world. You need not fear. Nothing will happen to you apart from my permission.”

So Jesus reminds them: They are weak, but He protects them now and on into the future – all the trials they will face. Third, he reminds them:

c) He Himself opens the way into the very presence of God

Verse 8: “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” What is the meaning of the door? First, the door is the door to God’s presence. Verse 12 makes this absolutely clear:

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and 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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

Remember, the temple is a picture of the presence of God among men. Jerusalem, the temple city, is a similar picture. Indeed, the last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel - which describe a new temple and the new Jerusalem - end with these words:

 And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is there. Ezekiel 48:35

God’s presence! To be in the temple of God, to be in the new Jerusalem, is to be in God’s presence.

Furthermore, these believers in Philadelphia, weak as they are, become what? Pillars! So strong that they hold up the temple itself! And they are stamped with God’s name, never to depart from His presence.

So Jesus is saying, “Whatever threats you may face, whatever dangers you might face, whatever suffering you may have to endure - even whatever martyrdom you may experience - know and remember this: I am the one who opens the door to the presence of God. If I open it, no one can shut it. No matter what you may face here, I will bring you FOREVER into the presence of My Father.”

As Jesus said the night He was betrayed:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." John 16:33

They are weak; He protects them while they are in the world; He brings them into God’s presence when they leave this world. But that is not all. They are not only to endure. They are to accomplish a task:

d) Jesus opens to door of ministry – even to effective witness to those who oppose the Gospel

In several other New Testament passages, an “open door” is a door to ministry opportunities. For example, consider Colossians 4:3:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ.

Is that a connotation of the open door in our passage? Yes! Look at verse 9 again.

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie- behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.

What is going on here? Is Jesus taking rebellious Jews and forcing them to bow down before the church, while all the while they are gritting their teeth, hating to do it? Or do the Jews themselves come to love Him, come to see Him as Savior and Lord?

There are three reasons to think that the latter is the case, at least for some of them. First, the word translated “bow down” appears 23 other times in Revelation, and in all cases the worship appear voluntary. In most cases, the bowing down is in response to God’s glory. In some cases, it refers to wrong worship: responding to the power of the beast or, in two cases, John responding to angelic power and wisdom. But regardless of the object, this bowing down appears to be voluntary.

Second, this is another clear allusion to Isaiah. Several times in Isaiah, the nations come to Israel and bow down, acknowledging that God is with them. Isaiah 4514 is one example:

Thus says the LORD: "The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush, and the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours; they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will plead with you, saying: 'Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him.'"

That seems to be salvation! The nations here seem to be recipients of the free offer of salvation given in Isaiah 55. Through the Jews, they see who God is, and they then bow down and worship, willingly, voluntarily.

“But, Coty,” you might say, “In Revelation it is the opposite: the Jews are bowing down to the church.”

Exactly. God fulfills Isaiah not through the physical descendants of Abraham but through the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:16-17, 9:6-8). The ethnic Jews for the most part have rejected God’s Messiah; God then raises up a predominantly Gentile church, and uses that church to bring ethnic Jews to Himself.

Third, this is exactly what Paul said would happen in Romans 11:

a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  26 And in this way all Israel will be saved,  . . . . 30 Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,  31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. Romans 11:25, 26, 30, 31 

So God opens a door to ministry – even to the Jews, even to the enemies who persecute them! And since God has opened this door, since God has guaranteed that He will indeed bring many Jews to Himself, no one can shut that door!

So Jesus says: “Know Who I am! I am God! I am the Messiah! Know who you are:

This reminders lead to two conclusions:

Therefore Keep Your Passion!

Verse 8 tells us that in the past they had kept or guarded His word, and had not denied His name. Verse 10 is similar: They had kept or guarded His word of patient endurance (or “the word of His patient endurance”).

So He says in v 11:

Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown

Keep holding onto what they have – What is that? What do they have? The Word! The knowledge of His patient endurance in the face of suffering!

As author of Hebrews says,

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Heb 12:1-3

That is the word of His patient endurance. He had the joy set before Him of redeeming humanity for the glory of God. We have the joy set before us of being in His presence, being used by Him now. So hold on to that passion! Fight for your joy! Don’t be distracted, don’t be frightened into seeking second-rate pleasures! Look to God for your happiness!

For the crown you will receive is same as the crown mentioned in 2:10, the crown of life – the award of eternal life – which is Jesus Himself! So Jesus says, “Keep your passion! Stay faithful! Hold on! And you will receive your passion! You will get what you most desire: An eternity with Me!”

But don’t just hold on. He also says:

Therefore Spread Your Passion!

Remember, why was this church persecuted in the first place? If they had not been witnessing, if they had not been trying to spread a passion for God, they would not have been persecuted. So He says, “Hold on to what you have – your witness! I have placed before you and open door – walk through it! Be bold! Despise the shame! No one can shut this door – so pray for more open doors, and walk through them!”

This is the mission of Desiring God Community Church: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. How do work that out?

Let’s return to John Paton. By God’s grace, he escaped that night from the island of Tanna. But he escaped only with his life (and his loyal Scottish terrier!). He had lost his wife and child earlier; now he lost all his possessions. Seemingly he has nothing to show for four years of his life.

But Paton knew his calling. He returned to another island in Vanuatu, the island of Aniwa. After years of ministry, the whole island came to Christ. After relating the celebration of the first communion on Aniwa, he writes:

For 3 years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those . . . hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss, till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus Himself.

An open door to ministry. He walked through that door, despite the pain, despite the tribulation, knowing that God would use him, despite the pain.

What is your open door? Do you fear the suffering that may accompany it?

Paton writes:

My heart often says within itself – when, when will men’s eyes at home be opened? When will the rich and the learned . . . renounce their shallow frivolities, and go to live amongst the poor, the ignorant, the outcast, and the lost, and write their eternal fame on the souls by them blessed and brought to the Savior? Those who have tasted this highest joy, "The joy of the Lord," will never again ask – Is Life worth living? Life, any life, would be well spent, under any conceivable conditions, in bringing one human soul to know and love and serve God and His Son, and thereby securing for yourself at least one temple where your name and memory would be held for ever and for ever in affectionate praise, - a regenerated Heart in heaven. That fame will prove immortal, when all the poems and monuments and pyramids of Earth have gone into dust" (pp. 411-412).

My friends, you are weak. But Jesus is the true Messiah, God Himself! He is mighty!

Do you know Him? Not do you know about Him, but do you know Him? The door is open for you. We read earlier from Isaiah 55, “Come, everyone who thirsts. Come to the water!” Jesus is that deeply satisfying water. All else is a false pleasure, a pseudo-happiness. So acknowledge your sinfulness. Repent. And find your delight in Him. Trust in the Son! He is the only hope!

If you do: He will guard you and protect you – like John Paton, you will be immortal till your master’s work with you is done. And, like Paton, he will place an open door before you for ministry.

Will you walk through your door?

Are you willing to say, “I will go anywhere you send me, I will do anything you ask. All my resources, all my time belong to you. And I know that this is no sacrifice – even if it costs me all my possessions, even if it costs me my life. For to follow you is great delight. To be involved in fulfilling your purposes is what life is all about. Take me! Use me! May I play a role in spreading a passion for your supremacy for the joy of all peoples!”

How is he calling you? What holds you back? Will you step out in faith? For your joy and the joy of all peoples?

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 4/3/05. John Paton’s Autobriography (Banner of Truth, 1965; originally published 1889) is the source for the Paton quotes. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful as usual.Michael Wilcock’s The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened (Inter-Varsity Press, 1975) is particularly helpful on this passage.

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