The Philadelphians are often esteemed as a model church because Jesus never rebuked them—as though escaping censure was the high point of Christian living. (What a sad way to read these love letters from Jesus. “I got a letter from the Lord and he didn’t scold or threaten to kill me. I’m so blessed.”) Each of the seven letters reveals something of the goodness of God, but nowhere does God’s grace and kindness shine brighter than in this letter to the powerless Philadelphians. In less than 250 words, the Lord gives one of the most stunning summaries of the hope held out in the gospel, and he does this by making promises.
Because many people don’t know what makes the new covenant new, they miss these treasures. They read these letters with an old covenant mindset and come away quaking in their boots. This is why it’s essential to understand the difference between the old and new covenants.
The old covenant was characterized by people making promises to God, but the new covenant of grace is based on God’s unbreakable promises to us. In the old covenant people said, “We will,” as in, “We will do everything the Lord says” (Ex. 19:8). But in the new covenant God says “I will.” The old covenant failed because we can’t keep our promises, but the new endures because God is eternally faithful.
In each of the seven letters, Jesus says “I will” at least one time. By making promises to us, Jesus is speaking the language of the new covenant. But to the Philadelphians Jesus says, “I will” no less than eight times:
- I will make them come and bow down at your feet (Rev. 3:9)
- I will make them know that I have loved you. (Rev. 3:9)
- I will keep you from the hour of testing (Rev. 3:10)
- I will come quickly (Rev. 3:11)
- I will make you a pillar (Rev. 3:12)
- I will write on you the name of my God (Rev. 3:12)
- I will write on you the name of the city of my God (Rev. 3:12)
- I will write on you my new name (Rev. 3:12)
These promises are not carrots to induce proper behavior. Nor are they performance incentives offered to high achievers. They are pledges from a good God who longs to bless us and who always keeps his word. They are vows guaranteed by the perfect work of Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
The Philadelphians were highly favored to receive eight beautiful promises. Does this mean they were more special than the rest of us? Not at all. Christ’s words for them are for all the churches.
So how come the other six churches never got these promises? They weren’t ready. The Ephesians had wandered, the Smyrneans were in trouble, the Pergamenes and Thyatirans were conflicted, the Laodiceans were lukewarm, and the Sardians were dead. The other churches all had major problems and Jesus needed to deal with those first.
The Philadelphians were different. They were drinking grace straight from the tap. They did not get more promises because they were better or more deserving but because they were believing-believers. They took God at his word. They had those little fridge magnets that said, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Because they treasured the promises of God, Jesus blessed them with more. They who had been faithful with a little, found themselves with a lot.
Extracted from Paul’s new book, Letters from Jesus.
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