This year at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, where my family attends church, we observed the season of lent together as a spiritual body. Each Wednesday evening during lent we met together and different teachers taught on the seven churches of Asia Minor from Revelation 2 and 3. I personally had the privilege of teaching on several of these churches, one of which was the church in Philadelphia.
Since the letter to Philadelphia is short, and quickly readable, and because it is necessary to the remainder of my story, I’ll post the words here from the ESV translation.
English Standard Version (ESV)
7 “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.
8 “‘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.’
I began my study of this passage on the Thursday evening, one week out, from when I was scheduled to teach on it. My wife works second shift, three evenings a week, and was at work on this particular evening. After I had finished the bedtime routines with our two children I sat down on the easy chair in our living room and began to read these verses over and over.
After some time of repeated reading my eyes grew heavy and I found myself wondering deeper into dream than text. I closed my Bible and headed upstairs to our bedroom for the night. I fell asleep with the words “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” running again and again through my mind.
I drifted from light dozing into heavier sleep, the kind where you become semi-paralyzed with a drunken stupor. Within this state of unconsciousness my phone, placed just above my head on the headboard of our bed, began to vibrate and ring. I jerked awake and fumbled in the dark for my phone. Looking at the screen I saw that it was my wife, Julie, calling. I answered the phone thinking perhaps she was having car trouble. I was surprised to hear her say, “I can’t get the front door open, I guess my key isn’t working.”
I quickly rolled out of bed, stumbled across our room and headed downstairs to open the front door for Julie. I flipped on the light and saw that both the lock on the door handle and the dead bolt were unlocked. I reached for the knob and twisted and pulled, but the door refused to budge. Mustering my strength I reached a second time, this time gripping the doorknob with both hands and pulled hard. Still the door refused to move.
Please recall that I had just woken up out of deep sleep. So, perhaps not fully aware of my actions, I took several steps back and then lunged forward slamming my body up against the door. The whole house shook. Julie yelled through the door to stop because she had seen the whole door frame rattle. Still the door remained fixed.
Julie ended up walking around our house and came in through the basement. With it being so late we both headed to bed and left the mystery of the shut door for the following morning.
After lying back down in bed, whether because of the physical exertion of body slamming a door, or because of the oddity of the situation, I lay awake for a long time. Before finally reemerging into the recesses of sleep the words “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens, ” continued to run through my mind.
The next morning I took the doorknob apart and found that the quickset latch had completely locked and jammed into the door frame. Apparently this happens to people from time to time and some Google searches revealed some really funny stories of people getting locked in, or out, of different places for the same reason.
I can’t stop thinking about this experience. As annoying as it was at the time it has become one of those crazy, intimate experiences we are given with God that reveal His presence in an unusual way. Of all nights, of all times that the door decided to close in such a way!
The statement about doors from Jesus to the church in Philadelphia is taken from imagery found in Isaiah 22. Isaiah records the words of God, writing,
20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 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. 22 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. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. (Isaiah 22:20-23 ESV)
Both in the Isaiah passage and in the letter to Philadelphia the word picture represents access to the presence of God. For the church in Philadelphia the promise and assurance from Christ is a sweet one. Jesus says to them in verse 8, “Behold, I have set before you and open door, which no one is able to shut.” The Christians in Philadelphia, both of Jewish and Gentile heritages, had been kicked out of the Jewish community and the synagogue system. Excommunication from the synagogue meant that the Christians lost their exemption from government enforced Roman Emperor worship. Many Christians in Philadelphia were persecuted; some were martyred for their refusal to worship Caesar.
Within this context Jesus promises that His presence, His temple, His glory will not, and cannot, be denied them. The door is open and cannot be shut. Though the Christians in Philadelphia could not enter the synagogue, the doorway to God stood wide open.
Another door analogy appears in one of the other letters to the churches in Revelation. In the letter to the church of Laodicea John records the very well known words of Jesus, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20 ESV). How differently the door picture is presented to the church in Laodicea! To the church in Philadelphia Christ has presented an open door. But here, in Laodicea, the church has shut the door on Christ. He is on the outside knocking.
How wonderfully modest and meek is Christ. What God stands at a door and knocks, waiting to be admitted? All other gods would (attempt to) slam the door open, rip it off its hinges, and trample it beneath their feet.
But Jesus, who has all authority (and therefore ever-present access) in heaven and earth, stands at the door and knocks. He waits to be admitted.
Jesus promises to the person who opens the door that He will come into them and eat with them. Again, these are promises of presence. Christ is offering His presence to the Christians in Laodicea in the same way He promised it to the church in Philadelphia; in the same way He promises it to you and I.