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One could make a strong case that the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia are the most important of the seven, for in neither of them do we find a single word of complaint. They both receive unqualified praise and approval. These, then, are truly churches of which Christ heartily approves.

What makes this all the more remarkable is the statement by Jesus in Revelation 3:8 that the church in Philadelphia has “but little power” (ESV). This isn’t a rebuke. It’s a commendation! Let me clarify that. Jesus isn’t saying that having “little power” is inherently and always good. He’s simply saying that having “little power” isn’t inherently and always bad. In spite of your lack of size and influence, says Jesus, you faithfully kept my word and, in the face of persecution and perhaps even martyrdom, refused to deny my name. People threatened you. The culture mocked you. The Jewish community slandered you (cf. v. 9). The temptation to jump ship must have been intense. Yet you stood firm. Your lack of resources, money, and manpower proved no obstacle to your accomplishing great things for the kingdom of God!

It’s reassuring to know that size is no measure of success. As I’ve noted before, there is no sin in size, but neither is there in smallness. There are temptations in both circumstances. Those with “little power” can become bitter and resentful of those who outwardly prosper. Those with “great power” can become arrogant and condescending toward those of less stature. The “mini-church” may be tempted to think they’ve missed the mark or failed to articulate a vision that is pleasing to God. The “mega-church” may point to their sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as indicative of divine approval. They could both be wrong.

We don’t know if the Christians in Philadelphia were despondent or mired in self doubt. But the fact that Jesus applauds their efforts in spite of their modest dimensions would suggest they needed this word of encouragement. Our Lord’s declaration of what he has and will continue to do on their behalf (see vv. 8-11) is worthy of our close consideration. But first we need to look at his description of himself in v. 7.

Who is this one who speaks such uplifting words to this tiny congregation? He is “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” (v. 7).

I can’t be dogmatic on this point, but I strongly suspect that at the heart of their having “kept his word” and having “refused to deny his name” is their holding forth of Jesus as he has described himself to them. In other words, notwithstanding the vile threats and taunts they endured on a daily basis, these believers proclaimed Jesus as the holy one, the true one, the one who has the key of David!

The Philadelphian believers did more than simply not deny the name of Jesus. They loudly and proudly proclaimed him as “the Holy One”! Their boast was not in their property or multiplicity of programs but in the Holy One of Israel! This title is likely derived either from Isaiah 40:25, where Yahweh asks, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One,” or from Isaiah 43:15 where he again proclaims, “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King” (see also Job 6:10; Ezekiel 39:7; Hosea 11:9; Habakkuk 1:12; 3:3). According to Isaiah 57:15, his very name “is Holy”!

There is none with whom he can be compared or against whom he fails to measure up. He is altogether unique, transcendently other, truly in a class by himself! And note well: this glorious, almost indescribable, attribute of God is here predicated of Jesus! As I have written elsewhere (in Pleasures Evermore), holiness is that in virtue of which God alone is God alone. Holiness is moral majesty.

Does your church have “but little power”? Do you doubt the legitimacy of your existence? Do you wonder if your sacrifice is worth the effort? Perhaps the kingdom would be better off without you. If the Philadelphians were inclined to think in this way, I suspect they renewed their strength and re-ignited their passion by reflecting on the beauty of divine holiness. “He, our Lord, is the Holy One! How can we not keep his word and proclaim his name, for he is Holy, he is ours, and we are his!”

Second, he is called “the true one”. To the Greek mind this would mean “genuine,” or what is real and thus corresponds to reality. To the Hebrew mind it means “faithful” and “trustworthy,” deserving of our confidence, dependable, reliable, consistent and steadfast (see Ps. 146:5-6; Ex. 34:6; Deut. 7:9; 2 Tim. 2:13; Num. 23:19; Lam. 3:22-23). No one ever trusted our God and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in vain!

Third, he is the one “who has the key of David.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 22:22 and the role of Eliakim, steward of the household, who was given authority to control who was either admitted to or excluded from the king’s presence. This position was quite prominent, perhaps only secondary to the king himself. The point is that Jesus alone has the key to the Davidic or messianic kingdom and that he alone has the undisputed authority to admit or exclude from the New Jerusalem.

Fourth, and finally, he is the one “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” When he opens to his followers the door of the kingdom, no one can shut them out; and when he shuts the door on those who oppose his cause, none can reverse the decision.

Jesus loves the “mini-church”! He says it explicitly in Revelation 3:9 (about which more later). The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of the Savior whom it faithfully honors and passionately praises and confidently trusts. The “big” church is any church that boasts in a big God, attendance and acreage notwithstanding.

Were the Philadelphians envied by any? Probably not. Yet they had no lack, at least in what mattered. Keeping Christ’s word and not denying his name is easy for those who know him well. When he is small and unknown, he becomes dispensable, deniable, and easily dismissed for the sake of some grand vision of church growth. A “mega-church” without a “mega-Christ” is of little benefit to anyone. A “mini-church” with a “mega-Christ” makes them big in the eyes of him whose opinion is the only one that matters.