“Use it or lose it” is a principle we can observe in our everyday life.
An athlete continually practices to maintain a certain level of performance and grow better in his sport. A musician devotes time to practicing his instrument and learning the music in order to walk on stage and play a concert. Speaking another language requires a person to not only learn a language but speak it with others in order to retain the vocabulary he has acquired and grow more fluent at speaking the language.
Spiritually, we have to develop and use the gifts God has given us (2 Timothy 1:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 4:10-11), or our gifts will fall into disuse and decay. In addition, we are told in the New Testament to “make every effort” to grow spiritually and “confirm our calling and election” (2 Peter 1:5-11). So what exactly does it look like to do work that God commends?
While Jesus rebukes the church of Sardis in Revelation 3:1-5 for their apathy and lack of meaningful service, in contrast, Jesus commends the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-12 for their work. In this passage, we can find a clear picture of what it means to be a faithful steward of the gifts God has given us and engage in meaningful Christian service:
‘To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 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. 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. Since you have kept the command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one can take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. I will write on them 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 them my new name.’
What can we learn from this church about faithful service?
1. Faithfulness means standing firm.
Jesus’ commendation comes to the church of Philadelphia not because they were perfect and never sinned. His commendation comes to them because they had held firm to truth and used what little they had to advance the Gospel and honor His name.
Philadelphia had limited resources and small numbers. They didn’t have the resources or reputation for works that Sardis had, and yet, they had not compromised to receive approval from the community or given up in the midst of persecution. Jesus tells the church in the passage, “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (emphasis mine).
Later, in verse 10, He notes that they have kept His command to “endure patiently.” As I stated in my previous post, endurance or “holding firm” in the faith or “enduring patiently” is not merely holding our ground and sticking out the storm. Endurance is also active obedience in our difficult circumstances.
When James talks about perseverance or “patience” finishing its work in James 1:4, he refers to both endurance in the midst of trial and active obedience to God’s will. As Alexander MacLaren explains, the idea of “enduring patiently” includes the following:
The New Testament patience has in it the idea of perseverance as well as of endurance, and means, not only that we bow to the pain or the sorrow, but that nothing in sorrow, nothing in trial, nothing in temptation, nothing in antagonism, has the smallest power to divert us from doing what we know to be right. The man who will reach through the smoke of hell to lay hold of plain duty is the patient man of the New Testament.
In the King James Version of this passage and some other translations, verse 10 reads not, “Because you have endured patiently,” but, “Because thou has kept the word of my patience.” The “word of my patience” referred to here is the model given to us by Jesus of someone who does the will of God in the midst of affliction, temptation, and persecution. Just as Jesus obeyed the Father in the midst of great trouble and sorrow, the church of Philadelphia had also remained steadfast in their work — though it would have been easier to backslide and quit because of their small means and limited strength.
2. Faithfulness means walking through the doors God opens on our behalf.
Not only does Jesus encourage them with His commendation of their endurance and adherence to the Gospel, He encourages them earlier in the passage by telling them that He has placed an “open door” before them. By “open door,” we understand that He means opportunities for service.
In the passage, Jesus is identified as the One who “holds the keys of David” and “what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” The idea given is that God continually places before us opportunities in our service to Him, as we walk in His will, and it is up to us to walk through those doors into continual advancement and blessing in His kingdom. By “advancement and blessing” I don’t mean bigger cars and a larger following necessarily, but rather, spiritual blessings such as further understanding, spiritual growth, and opportunities for service.
While we are the ones that walk into the opportunities God places before us, it is clear that God is the One who orchestrates these opportunities. As we are faithful in a little, more will be given to us and opened for us (Luke 16:10; Matthew 25:23). A successful Christian life is one where we walk in His will by staying tuned into His Spirit through daily time in prayer and the reading of His Word (John 15:5). Our growth happens not by just attempting to fulfill a list of Christian “do’s and don’ts” — but by listening to His Spirit and doing what He says.
We all have our eye on a particular door of opportunity or advancement — and that will be opened to us (if God has promised it to us) when we are faithful in walking through the smaller doors set before us. Oftentimes, we focus on the large door and despise or neglect the small doors. In order to keep what we have and walk into greater things, we have to use what we have and walk through the doors (however small) Jesus puts before us (1 Corinthians 4:2).
3. Faithfulness means guarding what we have.
Although the words of Jesus to Philadelphia are a commendation, He admonishes them not to fall into apathy, saying, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one can take your crown.” Therefore, while the church of Philadelphia had been faithful, they still can fall into the situation of Sardis if not vigilant. Therefore, they are warned to “hold on” and not lose their crown.
Although many have interpreted “crown” to mean we can lose our salvation if we are not diligent in our work, as it says elsewhere in Scripture that salvation can’t be earned, I believe that this verse is actually referring to the rewards and blessings we miss out on when we don’t walk through the door of opportunity God places before us. The crown in the passage refers to the crown of victory awarded to a winner of ancient athletic games (like the Greek Olympics). The idea here is not that someone else can steal our crown, but rather, that when we are not faithful in using what God has given us, someone else will receive the opportunity that could have been ours.
We may watch as someone else excels and advances in area that we had hoped would be opened to us. Certainly, there are times that we watch others promoted because it’s a timing issue for us or is not the area God intends for us. However, we can lose our “crowns” when we do not accept the assignments God puts before us.
In the Parable of the Talents, the “wicked servant” was the one who buried the talent the Master gave him and did not use it. The other servants were commended for investing their talents and given more because they used and increased what the Master had given them (Matthew 25:29).
Holding Fast To What God Has Committed to Us
While the message to Philadelphia is a commendation, we can still find the words of Jesus about faithful service challenging. We may be painfully aware in the reading of these words of where we may be lacking. We may further feel this way in reading both the messages to Sardis and Philadelphia, comparing Jesus’ messages to them on sloth and diligence.
Maybe affliction has caused us to get complacent. Maybe fear or doubt or unbelief has crept in — and we’re in a place where we’re so tired that we fear we can’t take another step. Yet, we must remember why Jesus speaks these words to the churches in the first place: Jesus loves these churches and He loves us. He tells them what He does so that they can make the needed changes (as in the case of Sardis) and continue in the right path (as in the case of Philadelphia).
If we skip over to the end of chapter 3, it says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (v. 19, 20). He tells us the hard truths we need to hear because He loves us and wants to help us turn if we have strayed down the wrong path.
In addition, such a message to Philadelphia may make us fear that we will miss out on what God has for us and send us into a frenzy of activity or striving. Again, the work that Jesus commends is that we 1) Hold firm to His truth and actively seek to hear from Him and learn from Him through prayer and His Word 2) Act in obedience to His Spirit.
It can be very freeing to know that some work is just not our assignment. There have been times when I’ve tried to witness to someone or force a spiritual conversation without allowing the conversation to naturally open up or God to nudge me to have the conversation, and it went nowhere. The person was usually already a Christian!
Lastly, we must remember that “holding fast” isn’t an endeavor where we’re all alone trying to do it all in our own strength. God holds us! It says in Psalm 63:8: “I cling to Him; His right hand upholds me.” We do what we do in His strength and power. When we seek out His will, listen to His Spirit, and step out in obedience to His Spirit, God enables us to do His work. I love what James Vaughan in The Biblical Illustrator says on this point: “The only way to hold fast is to be held fast.”
Friend, knowing what door we want to walk through that we haven’t walked through can lead us to feeling like we have perform. We might feel an enormous amount of pressure to make things happen, but God makes doors open and close. We just have do what He asks of us. As Lysa Terkeurst says: “Big things are built one brick at a time. Victories are achieved once choice at a time. A life well lived is chosen one day at a time.”
Doing the work of God isn’t about perfection on our part — but mere willingness to listen to the Spirit of God and walk through the doors He opens on our behalf.
We might feel an enormous pressure to make things happen, but God makes doors open and close.
Are you tired of fighting a battle that doesn’t seem to quit and feel tempted to let up on your vigilance when it comes to keeping the faith? Join us for a brand new series “Holding Fast to Our Faith in Troubled Times.” The series draws lessons from Jesus’ messages to churches in Revelation 3 and will encourage you in those places where you feel despair and a lack of hope; help to revitalize the vitality in your relationship with God; and reveal steps, if needed, to help get you on the right track again.
Check out Part 1: “Stopping the Drift Into Spiritual Apathy” and Part 2: “Heeding God’s Warnings in Our Spiritual Life” to get a better understanding of what spiritual apathy is and how to guard against the drift in your life.
To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast where co-hosts Suzy Lolley and Carol Whitaker sit down at the Daily Grind Coffee Shop to chat about spiritual apathy. They walk through the points of the post but also add in a few bonus extras that you don’t get in the written version.
*Updated September 21. 2019.