“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God.” (Revelation 3:12a)
Philadelphia–the city of brotherly love! What a beautiful name! But was it a fitting name? Not according to the Bible. Brotherly love can only exist and thrive where God is loved first of all, because love comes from Him. True brotherly love can only be found in the church of Jesus Christ where we love the Lord, and, from that love, also love each other.
That was the case in the congregation of Philadelphia. Of the seven letters in Revelation, this is one of the two where no criticism is heard. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, praises this congregation. He says: “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” What a beautiful recommendation! What a priceless blessing to hear the Lord speak in such terms about this church.
The goal of the church must ever be to please her Lord, to walk in His ways, to stick to His gospel, and to proclaim His most wonderful name. Only then does the church live up to her holy calling: to glorify God and to be a blessing in a dying world.
We are living in a time of church growth conferences and religious seminars that seek to make the gospel relevant to our modern society. Almost anything is used or advocated to get people interested. More and more we hear of business methods from which the church must learn. “The bigger the better” seems to be the recipe for a flourishing congregation. Huge churches have become the example of spiritual success. People travel from all over the world to learn how these congregations are able to draw thousands of worshippers to their services. Visitors are encouraged to “come as you are,” “feel free to explore,” “see what we have to offer,” “try what you like.” From day-care facilities and youth entertainment to retreats for battered women and dating services for singles, the modern church seeks to use any world-approved gimmick that comes along.
No, this meditation does not seek to make fun of the desire to have others come and know the Lord. There is always room for improvement. But to measure a church by its size or to claim that bigger is better, is not what we read in the Bible. We must let ourselves be taught by our Lord rather than by the hyped-up expectations and recommendations of a Christianity that no longer believes in the centrality of the Word. Needed today are faithful preaching, the proper use of the sacraments, and the obedient application of discipline as the means Christ uses to gather, preserve and increase His church.
Take the church at Philadelphia, for example. She was small in size and having little strength. Nevertheless she is praised by Christ! That praise comes not because she had a hundred and one programs to cater to everyone’s desires, but because she stuck to His Word. They loved God and each other as the summit of what Christianity is all about. They were not ashamed of Jesus Christ but confessed Him as the source of their whole life.
The result was that doors were opened! Only Christ can do that through His Word and Spirit. He holds the key! When He opens no one shuts, and when He shuts no one opens. It does not matter what you do. It is totally irrelevant how much money you spend and how much advertising you get involved in. Only the Word, only the faithful proclamation of the gospel and the lifestyle that flows from and submits to that gospel, are the means that make a church grow, first of all spiritually, but if God wills, also numerically.
We Christians have no strength in ourselves. We often feel so small and insignificant in this world. We would love to see many turn to Christ. Yet when we cling to the gospel of grace, when we hold on to the Word of God, when we refuse to deny the name of the Holy One, not only on Sundays but also during the week, in politics and social matters, in our work and in our holidays, then we witness that the great majority have no interest in our message. By far, most people do not care for the church, nor do they see it as the bulwark and pillar of the truth.
They are far more interested in having their felt needs met in ways and by means that cater to their own desires instead of by the sword of the Spirit. That sword cuts deep into our lives and it hurts. It has to hurt before it provides the only comfort that takes care of all our fears and anxieties.
The congregation in Philadelphia was praised by Jesus for having kept His word and not denying His name. This was not a matter of once or twice. This was not reserved for some special occasions, either. This is their way of life. That is how these believers lived. That was how this church presented herself in their unbelieving and idolatrous environment.
Denying yourself, refusing to opt for quick-fix solutions, fighting against your old nature and submitting to the Word of Christ in every facet of life, involves a constant war. But the rewards are glorious: not only is the Lord pleased to use your faithfulness so that others may be joined to His people, but great are the blessings that Christ has in store for everyone who overcomes or conquers.
The gospel of Jesus Christ does not promise you a life of health and wealth. Rather it speaks of suffering and patiently enduring the results of putting Christ and His Word first. You will not win popularity contests. You will not be wined and dined. Often you are only tolerated and sometimes not even that. But Christ says: I will preserve you amidst the troubles and hardships that belong to this life.
The concerted effort of the devil and his cronies is to deceive the elect, if that were possible. Do not worry, says our Lord, it will not happen. He will take care of that. Make sure you hold on to what you have. Fight the good fight of faith; treasure the gospel of grace; and do not be ashamed to confess His name. Society may ignore you and Christianity at large may pity you, but do not forget: when you are weak, then you are strong. When you do not expect it from yourself but live in dependence on His gracious power, then and only then will you overcome. And no one will take your crown.
This does not only apply to the Christians in Philadelphia, but also to the members of Christ’s church today. We also have little strength in ourselves. We are weak and often fearful, but by the grace of God, we cling to the Word of Christ and do not deny His Name. By the mercies of the Lord we have no other desire but to hold on to what we have. We treasure what God has given us in the Reformed doctrines of salvation, where His glory comes first, and where we love our brothers and sisters.
That is why we are comforted by the promise of our text. What does Jesus say to all who overcome by holding on to His Word and loving the Lord and fellow believers? “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.”
In the book of Psalms we read of believing Israelites longing to be in the temple where God dwelled. Jesus Christ says the day will dawn when all who overcome will be living with God in His holy temple. That is the new creation where God will dwell with His children. They will see Him face to face and always be in His blessed presence as pillars. God’s name will be on their foreheads as well as the name of the New Jerusalem and the new name of Jesus Christ.
This is obviously symbolic language. To carry someone’s name is a mark of ownership. Certainly, Christians already belong to the Lord, to the church, and to Jesus Christ. As yet, that is a matter of faith. As yet, we are constantly assailed by doubts and open to ridicule by those who oppose God and His people. But that will change! It is not going to last, for Jesus is coming. The New Jerusalem is already descending. It is only a matter of time. We do not know how long it will be, but the day will dawn when the heavens will rend, and our Savior will be seen on the clouds. He is not only coming in judgment for the unbelievers and hypocrites, but also to bring His children home, where they may live with God and Jesus Christ forever in the New Jerusalem.
As yet, we are strangers and exiles here on earth for our commonwealth is in heaven. When Christ returns, our pilgrimage will be over, and we will always be with our Lord. Then no one will ever have to doubt that we belong to God.
The redeemed creation has been purchased by the blood of Christ. We can not do without that blood for it is that blood upon which everything depends! That blood takes care of all our sins and proclaims that all is forgiven.
Let us glory in the grace of God and endeavor to be like the church of Philadelphia, the church of brotherly love. Let us together hold fast to what God has given us and accept all who rejoice with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us fight the good fight of faith. We remain weak in ourselves. We can not build the church, least of all open doors that others may come with us. Christ will do that. Only He has the key to the kingdom of God, but He uses that key in and thru our faithfulness to His word.
Christ does not measure His church by her size, but by her holding on to the Word of God. That Word not only needs to be preached, but lived as well. May that Word, that gospel of grace, bind us ever closer to the Lord and each other. May it cause us to long for the future, for we do not have an enduring city here, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
Rev. Garrelt Wieske is the pastor of the Rockway Canadian Reformed Church in Fenwick, Ontario.