The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are exceedingly precious to us today, especially in the light of the Lord's soon coming, for they show us what the Lord desires and intends to have in the last days.
Many times when we have considered the soon return of Christ, believing we have but a few years left at most, we have wondered what the Lord would especially like to obtain on earth before His coming. We asked ourselves, What would completely satisfy Him and fulfill His desire, what would accomplish His purpose for His testimony in the last days, what would even hasten His return?
We prayed: Lord, whatever You want to do in these last days, whatever you intend to have on the earth before You come, we pray that you will accomplish that - yet not clearly realizing exactly what "that" was, but only desiring to cooperate with Him for that, at least to pray for it.
It was certain that before the end the gospel of the kingdom must be proclaimed in every nation - Matthew 24:14 is explicit concerning that. It was also manifest that there needed to be persons walking with God, separated from the world, with all holy manner of life to hasten His return - 2 Peter 3:11-12 makes this very clear.
We also knew from Revelation 2 and 3 that in view of the church's degradation the Lord desires and is still calling individuals to rise up to be overcomers. But was there anything more? Was there something that would embody all that was in the Lord's heart and bring it to a conclusion? Was there one thing not fully completed that would hasten His return?
After a number of months, perhaps a year, of prayer and seeking, we realized from the holy Word that there is something that answers all these questions. It is shown to us in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, and it is all encapsulated in one word - Philadelphia. Oh, how much that word, that reality, embodies and implies! Brothers and sisters, we are very clear and deeply impressed, that is what the Lord wants and still intends to have on earth before His coming. That is what is still waiting to be completed and manifested, at least to Him if not to others.
When we know what the Lord wants, we can focus on it, bringing everything into line with it, and causing all to be subservient to it. It is vital, and it is so good, to know what the Lord is preeminently seeking in these last days, in our time. How fitting and timely in these days that we should have our eyes upon Philadelphia, learning from her, aspiring to be in that condition for the Lord's approval and satisfaction.
Undoubtedly, He still wants the gospel of the kingdom proclaimed in every nation, including the translation and wide distribution of His Holy Word; He still desires that we lead holy lives in the fear of the Lord and that we be the overcomers. We should wholeheartedly support, pray for, and be alive to all these things.
But above all we should aim at satisfying Him by giving ourselves for what He commends and approves to the uttermost - Philadelphia. The Spirit has actually been speaking concerning this for almost two centuries and is still moving among His people to obtain it. We need to see freshly and very impressively what Philadelphia is. This is a matter not only of our readiness for His coming, but of His satisfaction and readiness to come.
Let us read again the Lord's own words to Philadelphia that they may be freshly before us:
"And to the messenger of the church in Philadelphia write: These things say the holy One, the true One, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one will shut, and shuts and no one opens: I know your works; behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power and have kept My word and have not denied My name. Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are lying; behold, I will cause them to come and worship before your feet, and know that I have loved you. Because you have kept the word of My endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which is about to come on the whole inhabited earth, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have so that no one take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall by no means go out any more, and I will write upon him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which descends out of heaven from My God, and My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 3:7-13).
Four out of Seven, and One out of Four
In His letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, the all-knowing Lord judges everything with His eyes of flame. He is honest, frank, and righteous, neither sparing rebuke nor withholding praise, but rendering a perfect evaluation, portraying everything in each church exactly as it is.
It is a grievous picture on the whole with few bright spots, but in the midst of the gloom and decline there is one delightful and utterly desirable scene - Philadelphia. We thank God that there was an actual church on the earth as an example of what He unreservedly commends and what He intends we should attain! Others were found in that condition; thank God, we also may be. I believe it is really not that difficult if we love Him with our best love.
Bible students and lovers of the Word have seen that the letters to the seven churches are prophetic of seven successive epochs of the church's history, spanning this age from beginning to end. History, in retrospect, has confirmed the truth of this discovery. Moreover, these searchers of the Word have realized that the letters to the last four churches contain references to the Lord's coming again, whereas the first three do not, leading them to conclude that the churches represented by the last four - Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea - will remain concurrently on the earth until the Lord’s return. This also is borne out by history and coincides with the present situation of Christianity.
Let us consider briefly, as a background, the essential character of these four remaining churches, the churches that are still with us on earth today. This will cause Philadelphia to stand out in marked contrast to everything around us, and we may see very clearly where we should he and where we should not be.
The church in Thyatira very evidently signifies the great apostate Roman Catholic Church, blasphemous in heresies, incorrigible in idolatries, and implacable as Jezebel in opposition to the truth. Yet, remarkably, within her darksome bosom is a remnant (2:24) who have "not known the depths of Satan." To them the Lord says, "What you have hold fast until I come" (2:25). The Roman church with its somewhat hidden remnant is very much with us today and will be until the end, when God will judge with fire the unrepentant church (Rev. 2-21; 17:16-17) and reward the faithful remnant.
The next church, the church in Sardis, clearly represents the whole range of Protestant denominations who came out of Thyatira, the Roman church, and who, since that time, have spawned a multitude of Christian groups and affiliations, all outside the fold of Catholicism. Included in this category is the whole spectrum of old-line traditional denominations, fundamentalists, evangelicals, pentecostals, charismatics, etc. - almost all of Christianity not subject to the Pope. Sardis is also very evident and prevalent today. We may be part of it.
This church had a good beginning, for they had a reputation of being living; but they became generally dead and unwatchful and completed nothing (3:1-2). This is the Lord's verdict. He said that He would come upon them as a thief (3:3), a reference to His Parousia [presence, or coming], which will be a devastating loss to this church. Yet among them are a "few names who have not defiled their garments," and they will walk with the Lord in white for "they are worthy" (3:4) - an allusion to the rapture and reward of these blessed individuals. The word here implies that He who will come upon Sardis as a thief will take these who are "worthy" and leave the rest.
Then comes Philadelphia, a church with just "a little power" (3:8), yet immensely pleasing to the Lord and already with a crown (3:11). The Lord said that He would keep them "out of the hour of trial," the tribulation (3:10), indicating that these simple but faithful people were prepared as firstfruits for early rapture, which in itself is a great reward.
The Lord, knowing and feeling their touching affection for Him and desiring to preserve them in it, said to them as to no other church, "I come quickly! Hold fast what you have that no one take your crown" (3:11).
Historically, Philadelphia signifies those groups of saints who have come out of Sardis and all human organizations and systems, not for the sake of coming out, not with any divisive attitude, but solely desiring to be faithful to the Lord and His Word and with a heart of love to receive and be one with all believers without any sectarian limitations. They seek genuinely and diligently to keep the oneness of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace, holding to the truth in love (Eph. 4:3, 15).
The Lord is very happy with them. They do not consider themselves Philadelphia or designate themselves Philadelphia. If they do, they most probably are not Philadelphia and far from it. They are happy to leave all evaluation to the Lord, for He alone knows and discerns everything as it really is. How blessed is their state!
We believe that Philadelphia, or some approximation to it, is here on the earth today. Whoever they are and wherever they are, the Lord knows. While Thyatira, Sardis, and in some cases Laodicea are easy to identify, Philadelphia can best be described only as a condition, leaving the Lord to discern who or what groups of saints truly qualify.
Lastly we have Laodicea, the church characterized by lukewarmness and pride. It denotes those who have fallen from Philadelphia, no longer having Christ and the love of the brothers before them, but rather focusing on themselves, boasting in their knowledge and spiritual attainments. Toward Christ they are lukewarm and indifferent. He is outside; He has no place in Laodicea; yet He knocks for admittance and pledges to come in and dine with any individuals in Laodicea who repent and open to Him, setting before them the reign with Him in His Kingdom as the prize and motivation to overcome.
The existence of Laodicea, after plummeting from Philadelphian glory, may be seen today in a number of groups and affiliations of Christians that may be identified by those who know their history and their present state. It is a deep shame to any saints if Laodicean characteristics are found in them, yet they are all too prevalent.
Thus, out of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, four are still with us. Out of the four the Lord specially sets before us one that is according to His desire and represents His original intention for the church - Philadelphia. At the end of this age He intends to have Philadelphia on the earth in utter contrast to the corruptions of Thyatira, the lifelessness and halfway measures of Sardis, and the lukewarmness and pride of Laodieca. The question, of course, arises, Where are we?
In Thyatira there was a remnant that was faithful, in Sardis there were a few individuals who had not defiled their garments, and in Laodicea there was the possibility of a few who would open the door to Christ; but in Philadelphia the whole church - think of it! - is characterized by going after Christ, cherishing Him by keeping His word and not denying His name, and loving without any sectarian narrowness the brothers, the saints. They only need to hold fast what they already have. The crown is theirs; they only need to guard it jealously lest they lose it to others (Rev. 3:11). Every lover of Christ and His interests would surely want to be identified with them.
Philadelphia represents a great spiritual revival: it is what someone has called "a church revival." Many are praying today for revival. There have been a number of evangelical revivals in the past, and we welcome them. May we pray, however, for this kind of revival, a Philadelphia revival, among the Lord's people. However, unlike other revivals, it will probably remain largely hidden, not to the Lord but to the world's view.
Keeping His Word
Having glimpsed the preciousness to the Lord of Philadelphia, let us examine more deeply the basis for His delight in her that we may follow in her steps and be ready for rapture as they were. There are three fundamental virtues that we need to contemplate, which perhaps we have often considered. We pray that we may see them freshly that we may enter more fully into their reality, even to become Philadelphia. They are simply, keeping His word, not denying His name, and loving the brothers. (The first two are clearly mentioned in Revelation 3:8; the third is derived from the name Philadelphia, meaning brotherly love.) It was this that ravished the Lord's heart and above all prepared them for His coming. It was their crown that they should hold fast. We are burdened to share briefly on the first two and more thoroughly on the last.
To the church in Ephesus the Lord said with touching regret that they had left their first love (2:4). That tragic negligence precipitated the degradation of the whole church from that day till this. But, thank God, feeble but faithful Philadelphia accomplished a grand recovery - mostly unnoticed and unrecognized - back to the beginning, back to the original characteristics of the church, back to the first love. What Ephesus lost, Philadelphia regained. If they had not, the Lord would have reproved them for it as He did Ephesus. But He had no reproof, only commendation, for Philadelphia.
The church in Philadelphia was in the glow of the first and best love for the Lord. Hallelujah! Yet, very interestingly, the Lord does not mention their first love. Rather He says that they kept His word. The Lord notices here the fruit, the evidence, of first love, which is the keeping of His word. This is indeed the "acid test." By this He makes known that their heart, their affections, are wholly for Himself. By keeping His word and not denying His name, Philadelphia proves beyond any doubt that they are in the condition of first love. By this it is evident that Christ is everything to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia loved Christ by keeping His word; this is the only way to do it in reality. The Lord told His disciples: "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word," and on the other side, "He who does not love Me does not keep my words" (John 14:23,24). John, the apostle, echoed his Lord's assertion, saying, "Whoever keeps His word, truly in this one the love of God has been perfected" (1 John 2:5).
What a great thing it is to keep the word of God, to love it, to treasure it, to carry it out. Our Lord puts great stock in this; He looks for this. It is so simple, but it means everything.
Has the Lord instructed us in His Word regarding our attitudes, our living, our relationships with others? Has He shown us His desire for the church, for His expression, for the oneness of His Body, and for our relationship to it and participation in it? Are we obedient? Are we faithful to what He has shown us, especially regarding His Body? Philadelphia was. Or do we rationalize our way out of it, or postpone obedience? Our love is tested right here.
The Attitude We Need
It is possible to replace the Word of God with man's word, adulterate it with teachings of Christian leaders, make it void by our traditions, or simply to neglect it and not receive it earnestly and seriously. Thyatira and Sardis do these things all the time. Dare we like Philadelphia return to the pure Word of God and keep it faithfully, leaving the consequences with Him? Margaret Barber, that loyal Philadelphian wrote:
However, please notice, to obey like this and keep the Lord's word like Philadelphia requires an attitude that is sorely missing today. Very few seem to have it. The Lord said: "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isa. 66: 1,2). Where is the fear of the Lord that takes the Lord's word so seriously that we tremble at it and dare not disobey it? The author of Psalm 119 said, "My heart stands in awe of Thy words" (v. 161). Such a one loved the Lord's word profoundly and kept it with his whole heart (vv. 67,69,101). The keeping of the Lord's word, therefore, demands a very real and proper fear of the Lord, as well as a fervent love. Oh, may they be found in us! May this healthy trembling at His word enter into us.
Small Feet and a Large Heart
The matter in which our keeping the Lord's word is most tested is our church life and standing, our keeping the oneness of the Spirit, and our being practically built up together in Christ. A dear brother who has served the Lord for many years told me metaphorically, "We need small feet and a large heart." He explained: we need small feet to walk steadfastly in the narrow way of the Lord's word (Mt. 7:14), keeping it diligently. At the same time we need a large heart that embraces in love all the Lord's children and identifies with them, though not with any human systems.
The possession among the Lord's children of these two virtues in simultaneous practice, faithfully keeping the Lord's word on one hand, and abiding in the proper fellowship in love with all the Lord's children on the other, is a rare occurrence. We are dreadfully short of both, especially in confluence. Philadelphia has this blessed combination: they keep the Lord's word and they love the brothers - all the brothers.
The Word of His Endurance
But be sure, the keeping of the Lord's word like this will draw fire, especially from those with great ecclesiastical pretensions. This is exactly what happened to Philadelphia - they suffered from the "synagogue of Satan", from those "who call themselves Jews and are not" (Rev. 3:9). This is a religious system that purports to be something they have no right to claim. But the Lord will cause these pretenders to come and worship before lowly Philadelphia and know that He has loved her.
However, in all her affliction, Philadelphia keeps the word of His endurance, enduring in the same way, from the same source, and in the same spirit as her Lord on earth. Therefore the Lord will keep her out of the hour of trial, the great tribulation, which will come upon the whole earth. They keep; He keeps. They keep His word, and He keeps them, meaning He raptures them, taking them out of this scene before that dreadful tribulation will sweep the earth. The rapture referred to here is not an automatic rapture for all Christians, as some suppose, but for those who qualify as Philadelphia did. There are conditions attached to it. This is very clear.
Not Man’s Word
Before leaving this matter we must mention that it is the Lord’s word Philadelphia keeps, not man's. They exalt the Lord's word far above that of any human teacher or spiritual leader. The proper ministry of any servant of the Lord is to bring the Lord's people back to the pure Word of God and help them to keep it. It is through the word of the Lord, both His written Word and the word He speaks to them, that Philadelphia enjoys direct fellowship with Christ. There is no mediator between Philadelphia and Christ; there is no human instrument who stands in the way, though they would undoubtedly give due honor to any messenger who truly represented the Lord and His word. The personal pronoun stands out very strikingly in the Lord's words to Philadelphia: He says, "My word...MY name... the word of MY endurance."
Not Denying His Name
When we read of not denying His name, we are spontaneously reminded of the Lord's words in the Gospels, "Whoever shall deny Me before men, I also will deny him before My Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 10:33). We think also of Peter's triple denial of the Lord, which we too may have been guilty of in some form. But there is a denial implied in the letter to Philadelphia that is much more subjective, and one which most of us are guilty of perhaps every day. It is very serious, for it leads on, if we continue in it, to open, outright denial of the Lord. Let us consider this.
The Lord is not only a great speaker ("No man ever spoke like this man" - Jn. 7:46), but also a great writer, even the greatest of writers, for He intends to write upon us His name, i.e., Himself and all He is. In fact, upon the overcomers in Philadelphia the Lord says that He will write His new name, and much more (Rev. 3: 12). In the next age the writing He has already been doing in this age will be fully manifested. What does this mean for us practically? What does this have to do with not denying His name?
The Lord brings us to turning points every day when He attempts to write something of Himself freshly upon us. There is inwardly a fork in the road: we may go this way or that; we may choose our will or His; we may stand with our self, or stand with Him against our self. If we choose our self, our way, our will, we deny Him the opportunity to write more of Himself on our heart, we deny His name.
This is a very real inward denial of the Lord's name. We in effect are saying to the Lord, "I will not have it; I prefer my name, not Yours." Is this not a common occurrence with most of us? Then consider how much we have actually denied the Lord's name!
The characteristic of saints in Philadelphia is that they do not deny His name. They not only have the Lord's speaking - He speaks much to them, and they keep His word - but they have the Lord's writing - they allow Him to write the name of His God, the name of the city of His God, and His new name upon their being. They deny their self; they do not deny His name; and that is the only way not to deny His name.
We have many opportunities every day not to deny the Lord's name, but rather allow Him to write it upon us. If we will do it, our being will be changed; we will have a new name; we will bear another image and have another expression; we will be made in His likeness. Thus we will be ripe and ready for rapture, not otherwise. Amen! May we never deny His name, either inwardly or outwardly.
Along with this, we can be sure that Philadelphia would never exalt any name - whether the names of spiritual leaders or the titles of denominations - but only that of the Lord Jesus Christ. They glory in that name, rejecting every other. For them to do otherwise would also be to deny His name, as Thyatira and Sardis have done many times. Philadelphia goes all the way back to the beginning, where there was only one glorious name, on which the saints called, in which they prayed, and into which they gathered. They would say:
Loving the Brothers
Because Philadelphia is in her first and best love for Christ, she cannot fail to love what He loves, to give herself for what He gave Himself, and to pour out for what He poured out. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25), including all the dear saints, for He loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). With Christ, the church, His members, the saints are number one. Therefore Philadelphia loves the church, Christ's body, the saints, with the same love with which she loves Him.
It is impossible to love Christ and not love His body. Our love for Him is proved practically by loving all the brothers, Christ's members. "For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20).
Philadelphia does this in such reality and strength that her very name is called Philadelphia, brotherly love. Think of it! This characterizes her to the extent that she is known and renowned forever by this fact that she loves the brothers. How precious!
This is probably not the most striking feature of most of us, to put it mildly, or of the assembly where the Lord has placed us. But by His mercy we can repent for this and strive toward it. It is imperative to know that the Lord accounts love for the brothers a prime requirement of readiness for rapture.
A perusal of Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians, which stress the Second Coming, affords much evidence of this, for in those letters love for the brothers is repeatedly mentioned. If anyone is a brother (or sister), born of the same Father as us, sharing the same divine life as us, the Lord expects us to love him unconditionally, even as He loved us, regardless of how unattractive or incompatible with our theology he may be. His love in us is well sufficient for this. Let us thank and praise Him!
What does it mean to really love the brothers? We must investigate this from the Word as well as our experience, with much heart searching and admission of failure; otherwise we are multiplying mere platitudes and can never understand what it means to be Philadelphia. How can we define it in practical terms that will help us to practice brotherly love more truly and fully? By the Lord's gracious enabling let us try.
The Arch-type of Brotherly Love
When we speak of loving the brothers, we must refer to John 13 and the Lord's act of washing His disciples' feet, for it is the chief example of brotherly love and embodies all its qualities. Moreover, it was given to us directly by the Lord Himself with this end in view. From it we can learn volumes, but we may only speak briefly here.
The Scriptures recount His act in a few extraordinary verses: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all into His hands, and that He had come forth from God, and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded" (John 13:3-5).
He followed by saying, "If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, you also may do" (vv. 14-15). Then, in this very context He said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (v.34). In other words, "You must love one another, and the way to love others is to do to them what I have just done to you."
To summarize, three main points are covered in this passage (excluding the matter of Judas): 1) the Lord washes the disciples' feet, that means our feet; 2) we are to wash one another's feet; and 3) we must love one another. Putting them together we realize that the way to love one another is to wash one another's feet, just as the Lord has washed ours.
Brothers and Sisters, the Lord Jesus has shown us, not by lecture, but by His own loving example, how to love the brothers. It is by stooping to wash their feet. We may rarely do it physically and externally, but we certainly can do it in spiritual reality many times, the more the better. The Lord in fact has commanded us to do it, and He said, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (v. 17).
Volumes have been said and written concerning foot-washing, but we are burdened to see freshly what it really means to wash others' feet, for this is brotherly love, this is Philadelphia and preparation for rapture.
But at this point we must break off and continue in the next issue, Philadelphia, Part 2.
We have very much to say by the Lord's enabling regarding the washing of feet and the love of the brothers, that we may progress toward Philadelphia and the Lord may have such a testimony on the earth before His return.