“Marks of the Church: True Strength” November 23, 2008
SI: We’re studying the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3.
These are letters from Jesus Christ to seven churches in Asia minor,
written by the Apostle John as they were revealed to him.
Studying these letters makes us wonder:
What would Jesus say to us if he wrote Christ Covenant a letter?
The letter to the church in Philadelphia is full of praise.
Jesus does not rebuke this church for anything, he only praises them
for their faithfulness and good deeds and calls them to keep on doing
what they are doing.
It’s a picture for us of the church Jesus wants us to be by his grace.
INTRO: When I was a teenager, I worked for Wal-Mart for two summers.
We were often told in employee meetings that Wal-Mart was the third
largest retailer in America behind K-Mart and Sears.
We were told that Sam Walton and the stockholders and the managers
wanted Wal-Mart to be the biggest, to be number one.
They tried to motivate every employee,
even the lowliest stock-boy like me, to make that happen.
And you can see today, that my two summers of hard work paid off.
For Americans big and strong are good, small and weak are not good.
But in Christ’s kingdom, those categories don’t mean much—
in fact, they are sometimes reversed.
In Jesus’ economy, sometimes small and weak things produce great wealth.
Sometimes small things have big influence.
And sometimes weak things have incredible strength.
The church in the ancient city of Philadelphia was small and weak.
Jesus himself said, “You do not have much strength.”
This church did not have resources, influence, or numbers.
When I imagine the church of Philadelphia I picture a little store-front church
in a run-down shopping center, with a pawn shop and laundry mat.
Not a very impressive exterior.
And yet he praises this church for its deeds.
He says you’re doing what you’re called to do. Keep doing it.
If you were here last week, you can’t help comparing this letter to the last one.
The church in Sardis was probably a big church with lots of visible resources.
Everyone who knew the Sardis church said—That church is alive!
But remember what Jesus said to that congregation?
“You have a reputation for being alive but you are dead.”
Jesus was not impressed with the Sardis church being outwardly big and strong.
He praises the Philadelphia church even though it was outwardly small and weak.
It’s not that Jesus is against a church being outwardly big and strong,
or against a church having resources, influence, numbers.
But those things alone don’t impress him and they aren’t necessary
for effectiveness in the Kingdom of God.
This is just as true of individual believers as it is for the church.
No matter how little you are, or how weak—in God’s economy
you are capable of accomplishing great things.
You can have great strength, even in weakness.
And I’m sure many of you have known Christians like that.
Small and weak by outward standards, but strong in Christ.
The Apostle Paul himself spoke of this spiritual reality when he wrote:
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So what was the secret of the Philadelphia church?
We know it wasn’t money or numbers or influence.
It was simply this—they were a Christ-centered church.
Three things in particular stand out:
1. They had a Christ-centered identity.
2. They had a Christ-centered mission.
3. They had a Christ-centered strength.
Let’s look at each of these
and see how we can become more Christ-centered as a church and as believers.
MP#1 A Christ-centered identity
One of the symbols in this letter is doors being opened and shut.
And Jesus is depicted as the man with the key, the key of David.
He decides which doors will be opened and which ones shut.
Christians in Philadelphia had lots of doors shut in their faces.
This letter refers to opposition from Jews, just like the Smyrna church.
That means many believers in the Philadelphia church were Jewish.
They believed that Jesus was the Messiah.
That was blasphemy to the Jews, to call a crucified man the Messiah.
And so these believer were excommunicated.
They were told, you are no longer Jews.
And the doors to the synagogue were shut to them.
They were no longer in the Jewish community, their heritage.
They were stripped of their identity, we might say.
When that door to the synagogue slammed shut,
that caused them problems with Roman civil authorities.
Judaism was a legal religion, Christianity was not.
When the Jews told the Romans, these people aren’t Jews anymore,
then their religious beliefs were not protected.
They were expected to offer prayers to Caesar, and when they refused,
they were accused of being disloyal citizens. You’re not true Romans.
Once again, their identity was taken from them.
But what does Jesus say to this little church?
I will make those who claim to be Jews but are not—
“I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.”
Does that line surprise you? It surprises me.
I expect Jesus to say, I will make them fall down and acknowledge
that you are right and they are wrong. You are right that I’m the Messiah.
Instead, Jesus says, there will come a day when your true identity will be so
gloriously evident that even your enemies will fall down and say—
these are people loved by Jesus.
I think Jesus said that because that was how the Christians in this little
church already thought of themselves—We’re people loved by Jesus.
His words were simply an affirmation of what they already knew to be true.
Let me ask you a question: What is your identity?
I’ll be more specific, what is your Christian identity?
Is this your identity:
I’m right. I’m morally and theologically right.
I’ve got the right beliefs, and the right answers, and the right moral stance.
That’s a powerful identity and many a Christian has held up under pressure
just by knowing that he is in the right—and there’s a place for that.
The Christians in Philadelphia certainly said—We’re right about Jesus Christ.
He is the Messiah. Look at the fulfillment of the prophecies, at the resurrection.
Or we are right about the pagan temple feast, they are immoral.
But their deepest Christian identity, was not, We’re right—It was, we’re loved.
And that is what made this little church so big spiritually.
It was a congregation of people whose most basic Christian identity was—
We are loved. Churches like that, no matter how small, are great.
They create no barriers to knowing Jesus, but share him with joy.
I had a seminary professor named Jerram Barrs, he’s an Englishman.
He once told us the story of a Christian couple, friends of his back in England.
When this man and woman were young, they were drug-addicted hippies.
They found an abandoned house and were living in absolute filth and addiction.
But amongst all the garbage in this house, they found an old devotional book.
Between their drug binges, they started reading it and were born again.
They didn’t know what had happened, just that there was a change and
it had something to do with God and the needed to go to church.
So they left the abandoned house on Sunday and found in the village
a little Salvation Army chapel with just a handful of devout elderly women.
In came this dirty, wild-looking hippy couple—and these little old ladies
embraced them and said, “Let us tell you about Jesus.”
That was a great church, not because of its size or strength, but because
it was made up of people who knew they were loved.
You are loved by Jesus Christ. That is your identity.
You must grow into that identity. Open your heart to love of Christ.
When you take the broken bread, say—This is for me, he loves me.
Make every use of every means to grow in this identity. It will sustain you,
and make you a great and winsome witness for Jesus Christ.
That brings us perfectly to the next mark of this church’s greatness.
MP#2 A Christ-centered mission
What is the open door that Jesus has set before this church?
And why does he praise them right after mentioning this open door?
He says, You have kept my word and not denied my name.
An “open door” is the way the New Testament describes
opportunities for missions and evangelism.
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary trip,
they told supporting church how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
In 1 Corinthians Paul tells that a great door of effective work opened for him
in the city of Ephesus so he needed to stay there.
In another letter he asks for prayer that God will open a door for their message.
So Jesus is praising this church because it always took advantage of every
open door for missions and evangelism.
We don’t know exactly what this church was doing missions-wise.
Historians tell us that Philadelphia was called the Gateway to the East.
That’s because it stood at a major road that lead to the ancient eastern countries
of Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia. Somehow this church involved in efforts to reach.
And as individuals, the members of church were faithful in personal evangelism.
On a personal level, whether in families, workplace or neighborhood,
faithful in telling people about Christ as the doors were opened.
So even though this was a small church, a weak and marginalized church—
it was a church that Jesus thought was great because faithful to their mission.
Why is personal evangelism so hard?
Why is it so hard for many of us to share our faith?
It’s hard because no matter who we are, we feel small and weak.
We feel that the Christian message is out of step with most people.
And we risk humiliation and rejection when we speak.
So the Philadelphia church can teach us something.
These were Christians who were small and weak.
They had every reason to fear rejection and withdraw into their little circle.
But instead they took advantage of every open door.
What did they know? What motivated them?
There is a wonderfully honest confession of this fear of evangelism in
the autobiography of Alvin Plantinga.
Let me tell you who Alvin Plantinga is, in case you don’t know.
He’s one of the most influential and respected philosophers in America today.
He has a PhD from Yale, and has taught at Notre Dame for decades.
He’s a Christian. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church in Michigan,
in strong Calvinist home. His writings have defended and advanced Christianity.
Time magazine called him:
“America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.”
He’s not as well known to your average American as Brittany Spears—
but within high academic circles he is a force to be reckoned with.
And it’s good too know is on our side.
Anyway, this is what he wrote:
“A few years back I several times found myself thinking about a certain person, and feeling obliged to call him and speak with him about Christianity; this was a person for whom I had a lot of respect but who, I thought, had nothing but disdain for Christianity. I felt obliged to call [him], but always did my best to put the thought out of my mind, being impeded by fear and embarrassment: what would I say? ‘Hello, have you found Jesus?’ And wouldn’t [he] think I was completely out of my mind, not to mention really weird? Then later I heard that during this very time the person in question was in the process of becoming a Christian. I had been invited to take part in something of real importance and refused the invitation out of cowardice and stupidity.”
Two things interesting about his confession.
First, here was man with a great mind, who could demolish any arguments against
Christianity, and yet, he was afraid to share his faith because felt small and weak.
We often tell ourselves: I don’t know what to say. Not articulate. Not respected.
Even if you had all those things, could still fail to use the open door.
Second, interesting thing is that this man Plantinga was scared to talk to,
was drawn to faith anyway. Jesus opened a door, that could not be shut.
That’s why the Philadelphia Christians were faithful in evangelism.
They really believed, Jesus is the opener of doors.
He’s the one with the key of David. And if he’s opened a door for a person.
It doesn’t matter how weak or small or inarticulate we are—
We’re just called to give an invitation, point them to the open door.
If the Lord opens a door, if he gives opportunity, puts someone on your mind,
Be faithful in that mission. Tell them about your faith in Christ.
We’re living in uncertain times.
Economic and political problems may shake the foundations of many people.
And that may mean that are many more open doors.
People may speak more openly about their fears and desperation.
And you can say, Let me tell you why you don’t have to be afraid.
Jesus Christ is in control, he loves you and died for you, you need to trust him.
He’s been faithful to me.
And that brings us to the last mark of this church’s greatness
MP#3 A Christ-centered strength
Why didn’t this little church get discouraged?
Why didn’t they just shrink in on themselves?
How did they stand against the criticisms of those who hated them?
Where did they get the strength to keep doing good deeds
and making the most of every opportunity?
Certainly a big part of their strength came from knowing that they were loved
by Jesus and another part came from knowing that Jesus was the one with the
key, who is opening doors.
But the end of the letter shows us that they had another great source of strength.
Jesus said to them: I’m coming soon. Hold on to what you have.
And then he says there is a great city coming, New Jerusalem.
You are going to be pillars in the temple of that city, get a new name,
and you will never fall.
Historians tell us that the city of Philadelphia suffered a devastating earthquake
with numerous aftershocks, pillars toppled, temples crumbled.
It took the city decades to recover.
Many people so fearful of living in the city, being crushed by falling buildings,
that they lived spread out in the surrounding countryside.
And yet here was this little band of Christians, this little church,
living in the city, ministering in the city, not motivated by self-preservation,
but making the most of every opportunity to spread the faith.
The Philadelphia Christians ultimately got their strength from really
believing that Jesus is coming back, that his resurrection guarantees it.
And when he returns, he will set all things right.
Not only the big things—not only will the human race be set right—
but we will too, we will be pillars that will never fall.
When you believe that, it gives you incredible inner strength,
no matter how weak you are outwardly.
Because it enables you to put all troubles and setbacks and trials
and persecutions and griefs into a bigger picture—and live by faith.
Imagine that you had to miss the Alabama Auburn game—
but really wanted to see it so you recorded it to watch later.
And you very carefully avoided any newspapers or radio or tv—
because you didn’t want to know who won, wanted it to be a surprise.
So you are sitting down to watch and a friend comes in and says.
You recorded the game! Isn’t it great that your team won!
(You get to decide for this illustration if that’s Alabama or Auburn.)
But anyway he says, your team won. You say, why did you tell me that!
But, of course, you watch the game anyway.
And your team is doing terrible, fumbling, interceptions—
And you are getting more and more agitated—
You stand up and shout at the TV, Come on! They’re going to blow it!
And your friend looks at you and says—You’re crazy.
I told you already, your team won. What are you getting so worked up about?
That’s our life. We don’t know what’s going to happen and how hard
things are going to get because we haven’t seen the tape.
But we know who has already won.
We’ve seen the resurrection and we’ve been told how the game ends.
We’re just waiting for the clock to wind down so we can storm the field,
pull down the goalposts and start the party.
Christ-centered strength comes from having a Christ-centered perspective
of your life and of all history. Comes from really believing Jesus
when he says—Behold, I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have.
I’m going to make you a pillar. I’m going to write a name on you.
I’m going to give you a place of honor in the new Jerusalem.
Are you struggling? Are you feeling weak and small?
Make this your prayer: Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. And then be strong.
CONC: One of the greatest little churches in church history
was the Moravian church. Moravia a region in modern Czech Republic.
Moravian church was started 100 years before Martin Luther
by a man named John Hus. He was burned at the stake for preaching
that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.
The Catholic church killed him for that message.
So for centuries, this tiny church, held on and developed a remarkable
love for Jesus. They started a 24 hour, seven day a week prayer meeting.
Members of church would sign up to come and pray and different hours
of the week—and they did this for over 100 years.
Out of that came something even more remarkable.
They started sending missionaries all over the world.
They were a church of just 300 at the time—
but send members of congregation to North and South America, Africa, Asia.
And they wrote hymns. And this was one of their hymns.
Fear not, O little flock, the foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow;
Dread not his rage and power;
Although your courage sometimes faints,
His seeming triumph o’er God’s saints
Lasts but a little hour.
As true as God’s own word is true,
Not earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
A jest and by-word are they grown;
God is with us, we are His own,
Our victory cannot fail.
Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer!
Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare;
Fight for us once again
So shall thy saints and martyrs raise
A mighty chorus to Thy praise,
World without end.
You are loved by Jesus, he’s given you open doors to make him known,
be brave, and keep your eyes on his certain victory, and you will be strong.