November 10, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:35 in the audio file.
Or, The Kingdom Has a Keeper
Most of my sermons follow a fairly simple pattern. A pattern isn’t necessarily bad; a good pattern can be comfortable, though it could become predictable in a way that makes one feel as if he’s heard it before. These messages to the churches in Revelation follow a pattern. Jesus identifies Himself, usually in some manner that is especially relevant to the church He’s addressing. Then He says what He knows about their works, good and bad. He gives them instructions about what they need to do and gives promises to the ones who conquer. And there is always a call to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
My messages about these messages, and probably most of my sermons, usually begin with some observation I’ve made that introduces a current problem with the answer to be found in the upcoming verses. I don’t feel like it’s my job to sell you on the idea that the Bible relevant; it is relevant. But I regularly start by trying to show some relevance, then return to the historical context of the city, then move into the verses themselves.
I also have a thing for paragraphs. That seems like the min/max level for good interpretation. Too many verses might make for too much material to grasp, too little and the context can be lost. Plus, paragraphs keep the study moving; I’m not trying to reach John Calvin numbers of dozens or hundreds of sermons per book of the Bible.
I say all that to say that I’m not following my typical path today, which will include asking you to take your copy of God’s Word and look with me at a couple other passages outside of Revelation. I want you to see some of the background for the allusions in Revelation, and how that sets us up to be both surprised and yet also confirmed in what we knew already. One of the goals is that we would be better equipped to keep God’s Word, including being gripped by the reality that God keeps His word first.
This is a good word to a small church of Christians who were being left out by those who weren’t actually in the position of getting to decide who should be left out. We’re only going to consider the first three verses in the Philadelphian message today because we need more time to consider the Kingdom Keeper.
The key idea in these verses is actually key, the “key of David.” The key is good for opening and shutting a door, and that door is the door in and out of the Messianic Kingdom. Jesus is the keeper of this key, He is this Kingdom’s Keeper, and He is also a Keeper of Promises, especially those related to His Kingdom.
None of the four pieces of the description of the Keeper are from John’s initial vision but all four work together. Here’s my translation for verse 7: “The holy, the true, the one having the key of David, the one opening (and no one closes) and one closing (and no one opens), says thus:”
In verse 8 Jesus wants the Christians to behold the door before them which He had made open. In verse 7 He’s identifying Himself related to that door.
He’s been set apart, consecrated for His office; He’s holy. There is no deception, no shading in His character; He’s true. He has authority as the key-holder, and this is authority over the royal household since it is the key of David, more about that in a moment. And it is not an authority in title only, but He exercises the authority of His office with total prerogative and without resistance; He is the one opening and closing, no one can overturn His policy.
This imagery comes from the chapter about the “valley of vision” in Isaiah 22. There was an unfaithful steward over King Hezekiah’s household named Shebna, who thought of himself to be the strong man (verse 17), who built himself a tomb like that for a king (verse 16), but whom the LORD questioned and overthrew (verses 16-18). The LORD purposed to pull down Shebna from his station, and establish a new keeper (verse 19).
“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Isaiah 22:20-22)
Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment and expansion of Eliakim on whom all the honor and rule of the house would fall (verse 24). Jesus is the keeper of the house, a universal and eternal kingdom, granting entrance and access to some and denying access and refusing others. Jesus is not just faithful as a servant-steward, but as the Son-King (see also Hebrews 3:6).
The Keeper knows the Philadelphian believers. In Greek verse 8 is only one sentence, rather than three as in the ESV. The “Behold” comes as a parenthesis, so let’s come back to that. Without the parenthesis it would sound like this: “I know your works, that you have micro power, and you kept my word, and you did not abandon my name.”
They have little power, mikran dunamin. This is not a criticism; Jesus gives no rebuke to this church. This is part of what He knows, but it belongs with the fact that they have been faithful. That is part of the point: they were faithful but not successful. They were faithful, but not very influential.
In that they kept my word and have not denied my name, they were willing to stand out, and be shut out, for sake of their allegiance to Jesus. Verse 9 identifies at least one of the groups discriminating against them.
The message to the Philadelphians is: just conquer discrimination. Discrimination is a buzz word in our culture, and according to our culture everyone is discriminated against for some reason, unless you’re a white male. But wanting not to be seen as separate has always been a temptation for Christians in the world. We don’t like being outside the circle, not having a seat at the table. We don’t like having little influence. We don’t like when others act like we don’t belong. The Philadelphians were in the minority, but they were not ashamed of Jesus by name or worried how keeping His word made them look.
This is why the parenthesis fits, connecting Jesus’ office of Keeper in verse 7 with the keeper-outers in verse 9. Jesus has set before you and open door. He is inviting these Gentiles into David’s house, into the Messiah’s Kingdom, into Jerusalem’s promise (see more in verse 12).
This is divine frustration. The frustration is not with the Philadelphian Christians, but with those who claimed to be the keepers of the kingdom. In one sense, it was their kingdom, but it was a kingdom they were to inherit, not a kingdom they were called to govern.
I use the word frustration because twice Jesus says Behold. Not just that, but the second “behold” comes because He doesn’t really finish the first “behold” since He is quick to call them Satan’s liars. The ESV punctuates with an em dash; the second “behold” picks up the purpose of the Keeper.
“Behold I will give (them),” but He doesn’t finish what He’s going to give them before saying something about them. The “them” are “those of the synagogue of Satan, the ones saying themselves to be Jews, and they are not, but they are lying.”
The Philadelphians knew their problems before Jesus pointed them out. We’re the ones who can start to see what the Christians were up against, though they would be encouraged that the Keeper knew.
It’s a similar message as the one to the church in Smyrna, the only other church among the seven who were not commanded to repent. There were slanderers in Smyrna “who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). Here Jesus switches the order and adds on emphatically that they lie, they are lying.
In the Bible there are two ways to be a Jew: 1) outwardly only and 2) outwardly and inwardly. An outward Jew is an Israelite by birth, with Jewish parents. An inward Jew is an ethnic Jew with faith in the Lord. Paul made the distinction (Romans 2:28), because Jesus made the distinction (John 8:39), because God made similar distinctions in the Old Testament (calling for inward circumcision of the heart rather than only external circumcision).
But how is the language being used? When Jesus confronted the Jews in John 8 who claimed that their father was Abraham, Jesus told them that Abraham was not their father (John 8:38, 41, 44). That is true, but it stings the way it does because they also were sons of Abraham in their family tree (which Jesus also acknowledges in John 8:37). National/ethnic identity was something, but it wasn’t enough. It certainly wasn’t what they thought.
The same sting happens in Revelation. They are saying that they are Jews, but their synagogues were gatherings of rebels and accusers like Satan. Abraham was their father in one way, but Satan was their spiritual father. When they discriminated against the Christians, they were making claims about doors they didn’t have keys for. They were not the keepers of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus is the Keeper, and they had rejected Jesus.
The second half of verse 9 gets to the next stage in the Keeper’s promise: “I will make them so that they will come and they will bow down before your feet and they will know that I loved you.”
This would have made the Jews angry enough on the surface. But it really would have gnawed at their heads knowing that this sounds exactly like a promise that the Lord gave to them except that the roles are reversed.
In a chapter of promise of future glory for Israel, Isaiah announced:
“The sons of those who afflicted you,
shall come bending low to you,
and all who despised you
shall bow down at your feet;
they shall call you the City of the LORD,
the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
There’s a lot of amazing truth in the entire chapter, but we need another couple verses:
“Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
with no one passing through,
I will make you majestic forever,
a joy from age to age.
You shall suck the milk of nations;
you shall nurse at the breast of kings;
and shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior
and your Redeemer,
the Mighty one of Jacob.”
This is the same chapter with cataclysmic luminescence:
“The sun shall be no more
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.”
Put Isaiah 60:14 and Revelation 3:9 next to each other, and this is the ultimate question: which promise is true? Is what the LORD promised to Israel, about Gentiles who afflicted them eventually coming to bow down before them, true? Or, is what the Lord promised to the church of many Gentiles in Philadelphia, about Jews who discriminated against them coming to bow down, true?
It must be both. It does not have to be both at the same time. Jesus already acknowledged that the Philadelphians were keepers of His Word (verse 8). His Word is sure. The Christians in Philadelphia believed Isaiah 60 about Israel’s eventual restoration. More than that, the promises to Israel in Isaiah 60 must be true because Jesus is THE TRUE Keeper of the key of David (verse 7).
The apostle Paul gives the most thorough explanation of the timeline in Romans 9-11, in which he makes a distinction between believers, both Jew and Gentile, and unbelieving Jews. For a time, in God’s plan of mercy, God hardened the hearts of generations of Jews for sake of spreading good news to the Gentiles. And in His time, in God’s plan of mercy, God will save a generation of Jews through the gospel that saved the Gentiles (Romans 11:25-26).
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
These last two verses quote Isaiah 59:20-21, leading into the promises we’ve seen from Isaiah 60.
In the first century, when Romans and Revelation were written, Jews who rejected the Messiah rejected those who believed in the Messiah. As unbelievers they will be judged, and the Christians will be vindicated. Jesus encourages the Philadelphians that at some point all the haters will know that Jesus loved them, which is a glorious mystery (Ephesians 3:4-6).
But this does not cancel the first, original promise. There is irony that should sting in Revelation 3:9, but this is not an undoing or a redefining or a reversal of the prophetic promise in Isaiah.
There are men who praise the authority of the Bible who also use Revelation 3:9 as the proof that the church replaces Israel. But that is a curious, if not corrupting, way to recognize the authority of God’s Word.
“what the Jews fondly expected from the Gentiles, they themselves will be forced to render to the Christians. They will play the role of the heathen and acknowledge that the church is the true Israel of God.” (Robert Mounce)
“This prophecy has been fulfilled ironically in the Gentile church, which has become true Israel by virtue of its faith in Christ. In contrast, ethnic Israel fulfills the role of the Gentiles because of their unbelief…. Isaiah’s prophecies that the end-time salvation of Israel would spark off the salvation of the Gentiles has been fulfilled in an ironic manner.” (G.K. Beale)
Beale at least thinks this refers to the salvation of ethnic Jews rather than to their judgment, but he still thinks that Isaiah 60 doesn’t happen like the Lord said. We do not want the Lord to fulfill His promises ironically.
“We are being given a glimpse of the theme of the entire book of Revelation: the replacement of the old Jerusalem with the New Jerusalem, the replacement of old Israel with new Israel, and the replacement of the nation of Israel with the cosmic and ultimate city, the Church.” (Douglas Wilson)
But an additional, similar, even ironic, promise and fulfillment does not cancel the original promise and fulfillment. He is the Keeper of His Kingdom, and we keep His Word because He keeps His word.
There is more about a pre-tribulation rapture (maybe), and discrimination and the conquer promise in the final part of Christ’s message to the Philadelphians to see.
Jesus is the Keeper of the kingdom, and He has opened the door for all who believe. Let us not be ashamed of Him or of the gospel of the salvation He offers. He is not only the Keeper, Jesus is King, and ruler of the kings on earth (Revelation 1:5). Spread the news.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28–29)