There are no perfect churches.
That should not come as a shock to Christians, but it often does. If we’re honest about our own faults and shortcomings, we know we’re not perfect; no believer is. We all fall short of God’s standard of absolute and complete holiness. And as a collection of imperfect Christians, the church itself cannot help but be imperfect, too.
At the same time, believers need to realize there isn’t always a better church, either. Too many Christians have developed nomadic tendencies when it comes to a church. They’re restlessly looking over the fence to see where the grass might be greener. Some constantly shift between congregations, looking for something they can’t find. Maybe it’s a different style of service, better music, a more convenient location, or a more affluent and energetic congregation. Not all the reasons are selfish or unbiblical; some people simply want to find a stronger, more biblical preacher or a better Sunday school program for their children.
But the inability (or unwillingness) of so many Christians to commit to a local church and stay faithful comes at a high cost. How can a pastor grow in his shepherding abilities if his sheep won’t stay put? How does a church improve its worship, programs, or administration if people with any aptitude in those areas of ministry keep leaving for churches that already have them figured out? More Christians need to be willing to invest in their local churches, to look for ways to serve, sacrifice, and be part of the solution rather than bolt at the first sign of a problem.
We ought to be thankful that the Lord isn’t so fickle when it comes to the church, that He doesn’t withhold His blessing from struggling and imperfect congregations. He’s not interested in only the most popular and polished. As we see in the letter to the church at Philadelphia, what matters to God is faithfulness.
Christ in All His Majesty
Like His letter to the church at Smyrna, the Lord’s words to the believers in Philadelphia contain no rebuke or condemnation. There are no threats here, no warnings of judgment. The letter is free from criticism of any kind. Instead, it’s a note of commendation and praise for this faithful little church, and some promises of divine blessing to come.
In his exile on Patmos, the apostle John wrote under the Lord’s divine inspiration. To identify His authorship of the letter, Christ describes Himself as “He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7). This is the first time in the opening of a letter that Christ has not harkened back to John’s initial vision of Him in Revelation 1:12–17. Instead, He draws on some Old Testament phrases and images to assert His deity and depict His relationship to the Philadelphian church.
The phrase “He who is holy” can refer only to God. Holiness describes God’s utter separation from sin; it signifies His unblemished perfection. Throughout Scripture, the holiness of God is consistently affirmed and praised. The psalmist writes, “I will also praise You with a harp, even Your truth, O my God; to You I will sing praises with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 71:22). In the prophet Isaiah’s vision, the angels call out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The four living creatures in the throne room of heaven perpetually proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
In the New Testament, references to Christ’s holiness are frequently tied to His role as Messiah. The angel who announced His birth to Mary identified Him as “the holy Child” (Luke 1:35). Early in Christ’s ministry, a frightened demon cried out in His presence, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). The disciples also affirmed Christ’s holiness. Peter said, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). In his sermon in Acts 3, Peter rebuked those who cried out for Christ’s crucifixion, saying, “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you” (v. 14).
Christ’s assertion of His holiness in Revelation 3 affirms both His deity as the Son of God and His humanity as the Messiah. It unites Him in character and nature with the Father, and it signifies His role as incarnate Savior to the believers in Philadelphia.
That could have been a frightening introduction, because holiness cannot tolerate sin. Holiness cannot look upon iniquity or evil. In 1 Peter 1:15, the church is commanded, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” But this was no prelude to judgment. Instead, it is the Holy One Himself who speaks well of the church in Philadelphia.
In addition to His holiness, Christ writes that He is the One “who is true” (Revelation 3:7). The Greek word here (alēthinos) does not refer to a true statement but rather to One who is authentic, as opposed to someone who is a fraud. It speaks to His purity, fidelity, credibility, dependability, and genuineness. He is the true God, not a false one. He is the holy and genuine Lord, perfect in righteousness and true in His character and all that He says. Again, it’s remarkable that He introduces Himself this way and that there is no condemnation to follow. He is the true God who has no place for error or falsehood, and He does not rebuke this church.
Christ further identifies Himself in verse 7 as the One “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens.” In God’s Word, keys are emblematic of authority, control, and sovereignty. The language here is a direct reference to Isaiah 22:22 and the authority entrusted to the king’s steward, Eliakim: “Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open.” As the steward, Eliakim determined who would be admitted into the king’s presence and who would be denied. He also controlled access to the royal treasury and had authority to dispense its riches.
Applied to Christ, this is a reference to His absolute authority, especially over His messianic kingdom. As Peter declared in Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Christ alone determines who gains access into His eternal kingdom. He is the ultimate authority over the riches of heaven and He pours them out according to His sovereign will.
Earlier, in Revelation 1:18, the Lord reminded the apostle John, “I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Both images illustrate Christ’s sovereign authority over both eternal blessing and eternal judgment. As Christ said to His disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
This is the Lord Jesus Christ in all His majesty. He is holy and one with the Father. He is true, and there is none other like Him. He is omniscient, sovereign, and omnipotent, and the keys to eternal blessing are His alone. This is the Lord who looks at the church in Philadelphia and finds nothing to rebuke them for, nothing to condemn. This is wondrously, graciously encouraging, not because they were a perfect church—they weren’t—but because they were faithful. And the Lord and Head of the church blesses faithfulness.
Four Qualities of a Faithful Church
Christ made some magnificent promises to the believers in Philadelphia. But before we consider the fruits of their faithfulness, we need to see what marked them as faithful in the first place.
In Revelation 3:8, the Lord writes, “I know your deeds. . . . [Y]ou have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” The holy, sovereign, powerful Lord knows everything there is to know about this church. He never spells out the specifics of their deeds. All we know is that they were acceptable to the Lord, as He affirms them as a church He will bless. But He does give us some indication of what characterized this faithful congregation.
First, He says, “You have a little power.” This doesn’t mean it was a weak church, but that it was few in number. Their power was not limited by sin or a lack of spiritual maturity; they had “a little power” because they were a little church. It’s also possible—even likely—that the church was made up of slaves and poor believers. That would fit with what Paul tells us about God’s design for the church in general:
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
In fact, the Philadelphian church could say confidently with Paul, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The church was small, limited in number but not in spiritual power. The implication is that they were true worshipers, true lovers of Christ, and true to the Word of God. That’s further reinforced by the next characteristic of their faithfulness.
The Lord writes, “And [you] have kept My word” (Revelation 3:8). They were bound to divine revelation. They didn’t deviate from the path of obedience to the Lord. They followed the example of Job, who said, “I have not departed from the command of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).
Before He was arrested, Christ repeatedly stressed the importance of faithful obedience to His disciples: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me . . . . If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word . . . . He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:21, 23–24). Later that evening, He promised, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:10). In his first epistle, John presents the acid test of saving faith: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected” (1 John 2:3–5). Their love for the Lord was proven by their obedience to His Word.
They were also marked by loyalty. Christ notes that the Philadelphian believers “have not denied My name” (Revelation 3:8), implying they were under pressure to do so. The church at Pergamum was similarly commended for their loyalty to Christ: “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (2:13). Both churches faced the threat of persecution and refused to deny the Lord’s name. They were loyal, regardless of what their loyalty cost them. Describing the believers during the Tribulation who refuse the mark of the beast, John writes, “Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (14:12). The Philadelphian believers were not intimidated by persecution. They stayed loyal to Christ, no matter the cost.
Finally, the Lord says the church at Philadelphia was characterized by endurance. In Revelation 3:10, He commends them, “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance.” This also indicates that the church was facing persecution. But that was not unique to this particular church; it’s the life of every Christian. In Matthew 10:22, Jesus warned His disciples, “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (see also Matthew 24:13). Christ commands His people to endure faithfully against the intense hostility of the world. As an encouragement in that constant struggle, Paul wrote to another church, “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5). Through trials and persecution, these faithful Christians patiently endured and never wavered in their commitment to Christ.
So did the faithful in the church at Philadelphia. The power of the Holy Spirit was at work in and through them. They obeyed God’s Word. They were loyal to Christ in the face of persecution. And they endured trials and hostility, proving their love for Christ. Those were the qualities that united to create their faithfulness. And those remain the qualities every church must cultivate to be known by the Lord as faithful.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church.)