The Church Christ Prefers

Revelation 3:7-13

What sort of church does Jesus prefer?


Perhaps we should ask it another way. Does he prefer . . .

Rural churches?
House churches?
City churches?
Multisite churches?
Church plants?
Independent churches?
New churches?
Old churches?

Maybe Jesus prefers . . .

Large buildings,

Thankfully, we are not left to wonder about the answer. Revelation 2-3 tells us what sort of church Jesus prefers. When we survey these seven churches, we discover that none of the things I listed is mentioned. When Jesus looks at a church, he’s not studying outward things. He’s looking for the deeper signs of growing faith, fervent love, and abiding hope. He wants his churches to be motivated by love, founded on the truth, strong under pressure, and unashamed of his name.

Of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia received no words of condemnation. And it is not coincidental that both churches were facing strong opposition because of their bold witness. Hard times generally make for strong churches, especially when the hard times come because the church refuses to compromise the gospel.

God rarely shows us the big picture in advance.

Revelation 3:7-13 records the letter to the church at Philadelphia, a city about 35 miles southeast of Sardis. Because it was located near a fault line, earthquakes were a constant threat. This city of “Brotherly Love” was intended to be a kind of “missionary city” to introduce Greek culture to the surrounding region. Built on a narrow pass between two mountain ranges, Philadelphia stood as a literal doorway to the rest of Asia Minor. The church in that city was the youngest and smallest of the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. Though small in size, our Lord had opened a huge door for this faithful congregation.

Here is a church Christ heartily approves. As we study this letter, let’s think about our own churches and consider how they measure up.

Consider Our Opportunity 

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (vv. 7-8).

A. Christ himself opens the doors.

When God opens a door, no one can shut it. And when he closes a door, no one can open it. Sometimes people ask me, “How can I know when God has opened a door?” There are various ways to answer that question, but the simplest answer is, “You won’t know until you go through the door.” It’s been my experience that sometimes the door is obvious and we just walk right through. Sometimes we run. And sometimes we need a little shove.

Last Sunday night we gave a presentation about the KBM China project in the Dining Room at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL. We had a wonderful time, of course, and enjoyed seeing many old friends, but it was a bit of déjà vu all over again because over the years I spent hundreds of hours in the Dining Room teaching my Wednesday night Pastor’s Class. I remarked to the folks that the last time I had been in the Dining Room for a service was during our farewell party in September 2005. Not very much was clear to us that night. We were moving forward in obedience to God’s call, not knowing what was to come next. Over the next few months a number of “doors” opened for us, but none seemed quite right. Little by little it became clear to us that we should start Keep Believing Ministries. At the farewell party we had no idea–none at all–about starting a ministry to China, much less a strategic partnership with Trans World Radio.

It’s a good thing that we don’t know the future because we couldn’t handle it.

It’s a good thing that we don’t know the future because we couldn’t handle it. The future with all its ups and downs, twists and turns, with all the unexpected things that we don’t see coming, it is all so overwhelming that if we knew what was coming, we would probably run the other way. Life is better lived one day at a time.

Open doors are like that. God rarely shows us the big picture in advance. The “open door” is usually a door pushed slightly open. We still have to summon up the courage to go through the door and see what’s on the other side.

Jesus himself, the one who is holy and true, the one who has all authority, opens doors for his people. It’s his job to open the doors. He’s very good at it, and he doesn’t need our help. Our job is to go through the doors he opens, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, going wherever he may lead us. One door may open, and then it may close. That’s okay. Another door may open. That’s okay too. We may have to sit still for a while waiting for a door to open. That’s also okay.

Jesus is sovereign over the doors of life.
We can trust him.

It’s his job to open the doors. He’s very good at it, and he doesn’t need our help.

I received an email from a friend with the title, “Where do I fit in?” And this one sentence, “I just can’t comprehend what God is doing.” It seems that my dear friend has been dealt a crushing blow by some other good friends. Nothing evil or nefarious. Nothing underhanded. Just a decision that left my friend very disheartened and confused.

That, too, is part of the life of faith.
Sometimes doors close.

So we bow before the Lord who opens and no man shuts, and who shuts and no man opens.

B. Christ honors faith, not strength.

Jesus said to the church at Philadelphia, “I know that you have little strength” (v. 8).

Little strength and great opportunity often go hand in hand. Sometimes small churches think there is little they can do for the Lord. But it is all a matter of perspective. The church at Philadelphia had little strength. We can assume that they didn’t have much money or many influential people.

But they had great faith.

Little strength and great opportunity often go hand in hand.

Here is a lesson for all of us. I may not be as wise or as eloquent as someone else, and I may not have the money or the influence of my neighbors. I may not be as educated or as well-connected. But I can trust the Lord just as well as anyone else.

What is it that God honors? Faith!
What is he looking for? Faith!
What does he reward? Faith!

And how much faith does he require? Not much. Faith like a mustard seed. Just a tiny smidgen of faith. Not the faith of many years and deep knowledge. He honors the faith of a child.

Simple faith.

Notice the two wonderful things Jesus says about this church:

“You kept my word.”
"You have not denied my name.”

The first involves holding fast to the words of Jesus. The second means you aren’t embarrassed by the first. Some people feel slightly ashamed of their faith. They follow Jesus but keep it to themselves. Don’t rock the boat, don’t cause problems, don’t stir up trouble. How sad.

Some people feel slightly ashamed of their faith. They follow Jesus but keep it to themselves. 

When Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica in Acts 17, their opponents tried to have them arrested. I love how the New King James Version records the charge their enemies made against them:  “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6).

How’s that for an insult? These men have “turned the world upside down."

Would anyone ever say that about us?

“The door of opportunity swings on the hinges of opposition.” 

They meant it as an accusation, but it is really a compliment. What a great thing to have said about you, that you managed to turn the world upside down. I can’t think of a greater compliment for a Christian.

Consider our Opposition  

Satan hates gospel preaching, and he hates gospel preachers.

Dr. Bob Jones Sr. used to say, “The door of opportunity swings on the hinges of opposition.” Sometimes we hear people talk about “easy places” to preach, but it is all pious nonsense.

There are no “easy places."

Let a man decide he is going to stand for Jesus, let him tell the community the whole counsel of God, let him firmly but kindly declare the saving gospel of Jesus, and he will have enemies soon enough. And not all of them will be outside the church. Some of his fiercest critics will be found among those who listen to him preach every Sunday. We live in a day when people, even good church people, would prefer to trim their sails so as not to offend the community. They want to be known as good people, good neighbors, fine and friendly folks, and a safe haven for the hurting. Who could object to that? Certainly not me. But there is a fine line between wanting to reach the community and not telling them the full truth of God. The gospel is good news, but before it is good news it is bad news, and unless we tell the bad news, the good news won’t seem very good.

We live in a day when people, even good church people, would prefer to trim their sails so as not to offend the community. 

In one of his books Francis Schaeffer remarked that if he were riding on a train and had only one hour to share the gospel with a fellow passenger, he would spend 45 minutes testifying about sin, righteousness, and judgment, and then he would spend the last 15 minutes on the gospel message.

I think the believers at Philadelphia would appreciate that approach. They cared enough about the truth that they had made some powerful enemies in the community. That was a mark of their faithfulness to Christ.

A.  We will be vindicated.

“I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars-I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (v. 9).

The “synagogue of Satan” refers to those Jews in Philadelphia who persecuted the early believers. Seeing Jesus as a threat to their way of life, they hated him and those who followed him. But, Jesus says, they are liars. And that’s not all.

The day will come when these hostile enemies will bow down and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Some commentators see this as a promise of vast gospel advance as the church preaches to the unreached people groups of the world. We must not be intimidated by those who today have no use for Christianity. Not only are they wrong in their current estimation of Jesus, but that will not be their final answer. Philippians 2:9-11 pictures a day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Some do it willingly today. In the Judgment Day those who have no use for Christ or for Christians will see how wrong they were.

We must not be intimidated by those who today have no use for Christianity. 

Football coaches tell their players, “Play as hard as you can, and when the game is over, look up at the scoreboard and see who’s ahead.” John is saying something like that to these Christians. Only he adds one key point, “Play hard even when you think you’re behind because when the game is over, you’re going to be on the winning team."

B. We will be protected.

“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (v. 10).

Sometimes the best you can do is just to “endure patiently." Spiritual warfare isn’t all roses and rainbows. Sometimes it means not giving up when you feel like throwing in the towel. Our Lord makes a precious promise to these suffering saints. He looks ahead to the “time of trial” that will engulf the whole world before Christ comes to establish his kingdom on the earth. In the Last Days things will be difficult indeed. Scripture often speaks of the time of trouble that will shake the earth and prepare the world for the coming of the Lord. Because they have been faithful, Jesus will keep his people from that time of trial.

Spiritual warfare isn’t all roses and rainbows.

Consider Our Obligation 

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (v. 11).

You can’t read this passage without getting a sense that the early believers expected Christ to come at any moment. He even said, “I am coming soon.” I wonder how many of us believe that? This text calls us to do two things while we look for the coming of Christ.

A. To wait for his return.

A few months ago I sat in a living room in Dalian, China and listened to a pastor and his wife tell of their sacrifices to bring the gospel to the Mongolian people. They had even lived apart for several years while the wife, along with several young women from their church, started a noodle kitchen where they engaged the Mongolians in conversation. The wife was not in good health, but she insisted that she must do this. When I asked why, she gave me a straightforward answer:

“Jesus is coming soon, and we must tell the Mongolians about him. They need to know Jesus. I know my health is not good, and I only have another year or two left so we must do this now.”

Jesus said, “I am coming soon.” I wonder how many of us believe that?


We are to live as if Jesus may come at any moment and work as though our time is short.

B. To overcome by faith.

“Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (vv. 12-13).

The challenge to overcome is one we face every single day. Not long ago I did a radio interview in which the host asked the listeners to name a time when they had faced a challenge and responded in faith. Most of the callers named big events like facing surgery or losing a job or dealing with a broken marriage. I do not doubt that those events call us to live by faith. But I wonder if we are not missing the truly great challenges:

“I will get out of bed today.”
"I will go to work even though I hate my job.”
"I will be kind instead of rude today.”
"I will forgive when it would be easier to get even.”
"I will not lose my temper with my children or my wife today.”

We are all called to be “overcomers” every single day because we all have a lot to overcome.

This is where overcomers are made. It’s easy to read Revelation 2-3 and imagine the “overcomers” as some special breed of Super Christians who live on a plane far above the rest of us mere mortals. But it is not so. We are all called to be “overcomers” every single day because we all have a lot to overcome:

Temptations galore.
Frustrations on every hand.
Disagreeable people.
Difficult situations.
Unexpected setbacks.
Angry critics.
Internal discouragement.
Chronic pain.
Friends who aren’t very friendly.
Personal failures known only to us.

There are always reasons to give up, always reasons to quit, always plenty of excuses if we want them. But to those who persevere, who will not give up even when they feel like it and when everything in them says, “Walk away from this mess,” to those brave souls who keep on keeping on, Christ makes two incredible promises.

1. We will be Safe and Secure.

Jesus promises his people that they will be pillars in God’s temple, and they will never leave God’s presence. These words meant a great deal because Philadelphia had been destroyed by a terrible earthquake and the citizens were used to evacuating the city. But those who trust in Jesus will be safe and secure forever.

There are always reasons to give up, always reasons to quit, always plenty of excuses if we want them.

It’s a great thing to have a place you can call home. It ought to be the one place where we are known and loved and always welcomed. Jesus is saying, “They may not like you so much in Philadelphia, but you’ve got a home with me in heaven. I’ll make you a pillar in my temple so that you will be close to me forever.”

2. We will be Named and Claimed.

The power to name is the power of ownership. Those whom God has redeemed will be named and claimed by him. All the old names won’t matter anymore:


Those whom God has redeemed will be named and claimed by him. 

Famous athlete.
Richest man.
Most influential woman.

But there are other names that won’t matter either:


In that great day, the blood of Jesus will wash away all the “tags” by which we know each other. Our “good” names won’t matter, and our “bad” names won’t be remembered. We will all stand on the same ground, saved, redeemed, renewed, and renamed by our Lord.

We will all stand on the same ground, saved, redeemed, renewed, and renamed by our Lord.

We will be given the name of the new Jerusalem because that’s where we will spend eternity. In just a few days Josh (our oldest son) and I will travel to India to spend two weeks ministering there. We both have passports that identify us as citizens of the United States of America. We also have visas granting us entrance into India. The passport tells where we come from and the visa tells where we can go. All believers in Jesus have a passport stamped “Citizen of heaven” and a visa guaranteeing them permanent entrance. No one can stop us, no one can hinder us, no one can say, “You have no right to be here.” We enter by the blood of Jesus, and in his name we find our place in the heavenly city.

Now this ought to encourage all of us. The world often takes Christians for granted and sees no value in us, but God honors his faithful servants. We may have no security down here. Indeed, any earthly “security” is slim at best. We lock our doors because thieves may enter, and we know that the stock market may collapse today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

All believers in Jesus have a passport stamped “Citizen of heaven” and a visa guaranteeing them permanent entrance.

If you want eternal security, you can find it only in Jesus Christ. One day we will have a new name, and we will live in a city that cannot be shaken.

When Horatius Bonar wrote on the church at Philadelphia, he came to this stirring conclusion:
Small may be our strength in these last days. The tide of error, and sin, and worldliness may be running very strong. It may not be easy to confess Christ, or to hold fast His truth. But His grace is sufficient for us; and woe be to us if we give way to the errors of the age, or conform to its vanities, or seek to please its multitudes, either under the dread of public opinion, or the fear of not being reputed ’men of progress,’ or the shrinking from more direct persecution and hatred! Faithfulness to Christ, and to His truth, is everything, especially in days when iniquity shall abound, and the love of many shall wax cold.
Fear not! The reward is glorious! The honor is beyond all earthly honors! The contempt and enmity are but for a day-the dignity and the blessedness are forever and ever!
Indeed it is so. God help us to be faithful to him who has done so much for us. Amen.
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