Promises, Promises: Revelation 3:8-13
By Thomas Schreiner –
We have a promise-making and promise-keeping God. He not only makes promises, but he also keeps them. If we understood God’s promises, we would do anything, I mean anything, to receive his promises. What we desire more than anything else is to live. We want to live and we want to rejoice in living. And God promises us life. He promises us never-ending happiness if we put our trust in him.
When I think of what God promises, and how many of us disbelieve, I am convinced that there is a devil. How could it be that so many would refuse to embrace such staggering promises? We are blinded by Satan and our own sin. If we had eyes to see, we would go through any door, we would follow any path, we would endure any sacrifice to experience life forever. Now consider with me Revelation 3:7-13:
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:7-13)
1. The Promise of an Open Door: (3:8)
The church of Philadelphia is only the second church that is not rebuked. Jesus only gives them encouragement and promises. Jesus commends them for having a little power, for keeping his word, and for not denying his name. In a situation where it was tough to stand as Christians, they were standing firm. But it is not as if the church had reached the spiritual heights. They only have a little power, but they can have great confidence with their limited power because Jesus has opened a door for them. What is the open door? It could be an open door for the gospel, for missionary witness. Paul uses an open door this way. But it is more likely that John uses it to refer to access to God’s presence. We think of Revelation 4:1 where an open door means that John is taken up into heaven. “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’” In the Gospel of John, which was written by the same author as the book of Revelation, the open door clearly refers to access to salvation. We read in John 10:9, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” These believers were facing persecution and strong opposition, but Jesus reminds them that no one can shut the door that he has opened.
Sometimes we feel so weak and small. The opposition to the gospel in our culture is strong. Sometimes that is even true in churches. Some of you may go into churches that are actually resistant to a gospel ministry. A dear friend wrote an email to me about a struggle in his church over the gospel. And you may face the same kind of disinterest or open hostility at your work or in your neighborhood. But Jesus reminds us that no one can shut the door he has opened for us. We have access to God. He is our kind and dear Father, and we are his children. And that door of salvation can never be closed. We are his forever.
Soon our earthly journey will be over. Soon we will be gathered together for the day of judgment, and he will declare before all: “John” you are my son. “Hannah” you are my daughter. “Rachel” you are my child. What a privilege it is to have an open door. What a joy it is to know God. In the midst of trials and difficulties we have a great comfort.
2. Promise of Vindication over Enemies (3:9)
“Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie–behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” This is the second time in Revelation that the Jews are called a synagogue of Satan. I will not rehearse again here why this is not Anti-Semitism. If you want to hear why this is not the case, I encourage you to go back and read what I wrote on Rev. 2:8-13. What John says here is quite shocking, for the Jews were God’s chosen people. The Lord had set his electing love upon them. They were quite confident that they belonged to God. And yet John says to Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus Christ that they belonged to Satan’s synagogue. They think they are Jews, but they are not true Jews, for true Jews believe Jesus is the Messiah. The true Jews, in other words, include all the Gentile believers in Philadelphia who believe in Jesus. They are the true Israel.
What John says here fits with what Paul says in Romans 2:26-29, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” So Jews who don’t believe in Jesus will be faced with a stunning reversal on judgment day. They will bow down before Gentile believers in Jesus and confess that Gentile believers in Jesus are the true Israel—the true people of God. Gentile Christians are those who have experienced the love of God.
Some think the bowing down of the Jews represents their salvation, but I think it more likely refers to their final judgment. For v. 9 speaks of Jesus making them come and bow down before believers in Jesus. This is the language of compulsion instead of the language of willing devotion. There is another reason that I don’t think John has salvation in mind here. The unbelieving Jews bow before Christians. In other words, they will admit on the last day that those who believe in Jesus are truly God’s people.
God has put within us the sense that what is right and true and good should be vindicated publicly. What is right and true and good will triumph. Evil will not have the last word. Our God will declare us to be his before the entire world.
What is quite astonishing is that John places Jews in the place of Gentiles in terms of OT prophecy. Isaiah 45:14 says, “Thus says the LORD: ‘The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush, and the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours; they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will plead with you, saying: ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him.’” John turns things upside down. The church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, and the Jews who disbelieve are Satan’s synagogue. John encourages the church here by reminding them that he has loved them.
What is the message for us? The Lord wants us to know that we are loved, even though we are out of step with our culture. C. S. Lewis says that we all long to be part of the inner ring where “the real action” is taking place. We feel alienated when we are on the outside instead of on the inside. Perhaps you feel that way at school, at work, or in your neighborhood. But we are part of the true inner ring, for we are children of God. If you are a child of God, you are deeply loved. You are accepted in the beloved. God will never forsake you or leave you. He rejoices over you with shouts of joy.
3. Promise of Protection (3:10)
In Revelation 3:10 we read, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” Jesus promises protection to the believers in Philadelphia because they have endured with him and followed him in obedience. He will keep these believers from the terrible trial that is coming upon the earth. John likely speaks here of the end time trial that is coming upon the world, for notice that he speaks of a trial coming on the whole world. This end-time trial is intended to test “those who dwell on the earth.” In Revelation “those who dwell upon the earth”—literally “the “earthdwellers” is a technical term for unbelievers. So, the time of testing that is coming is not given to test believers but unbelievers. Some understand Jesus to be saying that believers will be kept from the hour of testing by being raptured before the great trial comes upon the world. I would argue that this reading is unlikely. Jesus is not promising that believers will be kept from the time period when the testing occurs. They will be kept through the time of testing that is coming. They are like the Israelites when the plagues struck Egypt. The Israelites were not removed from Egypt but were preserved from the judgments that struck the Egyptians.
A most helpful parallel is found in John 17:15. Jesus says, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Notice that Jesus keeps them from the evil one, but they still are still in the world. So too here. Jesus keeps believers from the hour of testing by guarding and protecting them when testing comes. In other words, the testing will affect unbelievers and believers will be spared. Jesus is not teaching here that believers will be spared from persecution. Indeed, Revelation constantly warns believers that we will be persecuted. What Jesus promises here is that believers will be protected from the wrath of God. We serve a sovereign Lord, and he protects us and watches over us. He is our refuge and strength in times of trouble, so we don’t need to fear even in the midst of turmoil. If you want to escape the wrath of God, you must turn from your sins and give your life to Jesus Christ. You must ask him to be the Lord of your life and to forgive your sins. He promises to forgive all your sins, because he has taken the full punishment of sin upon himself when he died upon the cross. And he triumphed over sin when he was raised from the dead.
4. Promise of Reward (3:11-12)b
Believers will not obtain a reward and escape punishment unless they continue to trust in Jesus. So, Jesus says in Revelation 3:11-12, “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” Jesus is coming back, and believers must endure until he comes to receive a crown. The crown here is eternal life itself. This fits with the standard NT teaching that only the one who endures to the end shall be saved. Jesus elaborates on this in v. 12, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.” The one who conquers will become like a pillar in the temple of God. He will never be removed from the Lord’s temple. He will dwell in the Lord’s courts forever.
Now we must recognize that the language used here is symbolic. To say believers will be like a pillar in the temple is simply to say that if they overcome and conquer they will have a permanent place in God’s house. But Jesus is not talking about a literal temple here, for we are told in Revelation 21 that there is no temple in the new creation. To say believers will never go out of God’s temple is to say that they will never be removed from God’s presence. Another way of speaking of the final reward is to say God’s name will be written on us. If we have God’s name on us, then we belong to the Lord. We are his, for he has given us his name. That Jesus is speaking of our heavenly reward is clear from his description of the city of God, which is also the New Jerusalem. We learn from Revelation 21-22 that the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven when this present world ends. And Jesus promises that the name of this city will be on those who belong to him, to those who truly love the Lord.
All of us look forward to the future. We may be incredibly thankful for the past, or regret what happened in the past. But more likely we experience a combination of the two. What we truly long for is to experience profound joy in the future. When I played basketball, I always wanted our team to finish in first place, because I could not imagine a greater joy than being crowned as champions. Our team never got to that place. One year we finished second place in the tournament but never first. But Jesus promises us here staggering future joy. It is a joy so great that we cannot comprehend it. It is like the joy of getting married, or the rapture that is ours when we have a child, or the joy of being reunited again with someone we love. But this joy is far, very far, beyond any of these. Amen.
Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.