Philadelphia was a growing church. They were doing some things OK. The city was founded about 150 years before Jesus and was named Philadelphia because an early prominent leader had been so loyal to his brother that people had nicknamed him - “brother lover”. So the Greek name combining the two ideas of ‘brother’ and ‘love’ came together to give us the name … Philadelphia.
The city was poised right at the crossroads of different cultures. It was built to influence travellers and those who would come through that crossroads in Greek ideas and Greek thought. This church also faced open hostility from a ‘sect’ of people who considered themselves to be a higher “level” of Christian.
Jesus message to the Philadelphians, and to us, is that regardless of the culture, regardless of the increasing secularisation of the society, regardless of increasing anti-Christian sentiment, regardless of the opposition, regardless of the odds, God can do things through us, and through us as a church that are unstoppable.
This letter gives us another secret to growth and change to those of us who are feeling a
little bit complacent. Maybe we feel a little more bored than blessed when we connect with church … Perhaps we feel a lot more attached to this world than we’d like - (who doesn’t struggle with that?) and looking us straight in the eye Jesus says - “I want you to see your need as you never have before. Then I’d be able to meet your need as I never have before.”
John writes this way to the church in Laodicea - “To the angel of the church of Laodicea write, ‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds that you’re neither cold nor hot … I wish that you were one or the other … But you don’t realise you’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you get from me gold refined in the fire so you can become rich and white clothes to wear so you can cover your shameful nakedness salve to put on your eyes so you can see.”
(Revelation 3:14 ff)
Not easy words from Jesus but they end with his remarkable promise - “Look! I am standing at the door and I'm constantly knocking. If anyone opens the door I will come in and I’ll fellowship with him; I’ll relate to him, I’ll dine with him and he’ll fellowship with me.” (Revelation 3:20 – Message)
“I know your reputation. I know your deeds, that you have a reputation of being alive. But you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Jesus had some pretty tough words for the church in Sardis to hear. But if they were going to grow and if they were going to change, they needed to hear some tough words.
Sometimes we do too! And there’s a secret to growth and change in this letter to the Sardis church that we can appropriate - “don't give up, wake up!" When we feel like we’re at a dead-end, that's the time in life to wake up and see God's new direction in our lives. It’s a time to “… strengthen what remains and is about to die”.
When we’re at a “dead-end” we can pray –
Lord, help us see the gaps in our lives
Lord help us close the gaps in our lives, and
Lord, with you, thank you that we will overcome.
Revelation 2 describes 7 churches - Ephesus was a busy church, Smyrna was a suffering church, Pergamum was a confused church and the church in Thyatira; it was a tolerant church.
Thyatira was on an important trade route. Most of the trading that went on there was strong and growing. But there was a hitch for the local church. To survive economically at that time and to have a job it was really necessary to be a part of a trade guild - a bit like a union. That wouldn't have been so bad, except if you belonged to a guild, you were required to participate in banquets hosted by the guilds. And these banquets were legendary for their immorality.
Can you see some similarities today? Where the cultural path to living, to just putting food on the table and a roof over our head brings tension with our Christian life?
The encouragement of this letter is that – we not “drop our guard”; especially in light of the promise - “I will give (to the ones who hold fast) the morning star!” (Revelation 2:28)
Paul, writing to Timothy says – “Anyone who has a different teaching does not agree with the true teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that shows the true way to serve God (1Timothy 6:5)
One of the seven letters to churches that we read in Revelation 2 and 3 is to a church in a place called Pergamum. The people there had many struggles. And those struggles resulted in a lot of “confusion” in the church.
Jesus reminds this church (and he reminds us, as he talks to this church), that our doubts and confusion can grow out of our relationships. Because the Pergamum church had left truth behind, they were in danger, not from the books they were reading and not from the thoughts they were thinking but from the relationships they were allowing into their lives.
This letter shares Jesus’ concern when we leave ‘truth’ behind and it reminds us how important relationships are when it comes to knowing and living the truth.
If we could go to a coffee shop, sit down opposite Jesus, look him in the eye and ask him "Jesus, what do you think about what's going on in the Church today ... what do you think about what's going on in Christian's lives today ... if you could say anything to the Church, anything about the lives of Christians, what would you say?"
Well - we don't have to wonder too much because the message he shared with the 1st century church is the same message for the 21st century church.
When we open up Revelation we read the letters, the messages, he sent through the apostle John to seven churches. The church at Smyrna was a suffering church and Jesus says - “look up and look ahead”. Revelation 2 says – “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer … be faithful … and I will give you the crown of life.”
Revelation isn’t an easy read; not easy to grapple with nor understand. It’s like the Bible ends with a kaleidoscope of – vision and song, doom and deliverance, terror and triumph. There’s colour and sound and strange images and energy.
But at its heart, Revelation is a multi-layered act of Christian worship.
In Revelation 2 we get the first of seven messages to various churches throughout Asia. Jesus is delivering them through the apostle John. And these are churches like churches today. So, these are messages for us as well.
Revelation 2:1-7 is to the church at Ephesus. Jesus is saying to this church that "there's one thing, that's got to be in first place.” It's him. This one thing, above all other things. We’re not to put Jesus behind a busy life, even a busy Christian lifestyle.
We’re to put Jesus first in our lives. Our first love has to be Jesus and responding to his “follow me” is to be our number one priority.
Robert Louis Stephenson said - "There's nothing but God's grace. We walk on it. We breathe it. We live it, and we die by it. It makes the nails and axles of the universe."
Everything is by God's grace. We wouldn't even have our own lives if it wasn't for God's grace.
So, we might say - "This sounds like a good deal. I want to be saved, forgiven, sustained, healed, liberated, given talents, used, kept saved, transformed and matured. We want to receive God’s grace in our lives to the fullest extent possible.
Then the question is - how do we get it? How do we receive the grace of God?"
The Bible says it in three simple words: by trusting Christ.
John in his gospel says it this way - "The law was given through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17)
We’ve all experienced them. Let’s call them the ‘inevitables’ of life. The ‘inevitables’ that happen to us. We don't have a choice over them.
Paul, writing to the Philippian church says – "Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:5) So, how can we have an attitude, an attitude like Jesus when we’re living with the ‘inevitables’ of life? Only if we’re transformed by God's grace.
Scripture reminds us that God’s transformation occurs when –
we change the way we think,
we choose to focus on others,
we persevere through our difficulties, and
we determine to keep growing.