38) Pillars of Beauty (Revelation 3:12-13)
The Bible has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misperceptions about who we are. When we are inclined to think of ourselves as orphans, the biblical text declares that we are the adopted children of God. If we are wracked with guilt, the inspired word reminds us that we are forgiven. The feeling of being stained and soiled by sin is overcome with the realization that we are cleansed by the blood of Christ and clothed in his righteousness.
It’s much the same when it comes to our place and role in the church. Many are inclined to view themselves as a blight or blemish on the body of Christ, a useless, transient appendage that contributes little to the advance of God’s kingdom. Utility becomes the measure of their worth. If they do little, they are little. Feeling ungifted and unqualified, they linger in the shadows, sitting on the back row, rarely if ever asked for their opinion and even less often willing to step forward and contribute positively to the welfare of the body as a whole.
Here in Revelation 3:12-13, the Word of God again graciously reminds us of God’s perspective and reverses the paralyzing impact of false perceptions. Our Lord’s words of promise and reassurance to those who persevere in faith have bolstered and buoyed our faith throughout the course of these seven letters. Nowhere is this more vividly seen and felt than in his comments to the church at Philadelphia. To the one who conquers, he again promises,
“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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:12-13).
The imagery of the individual Christian and the corporate church as the temple of God is a familiar one in Scripture. For example,
“Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16).
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19).
“in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22).
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
The metaphor is obviously fluid and thus there is no inconsistency in affirming that we are both the temple and the pillars within it. In declaring that he will make us pillars our Lord is honing in on one (or perhaps several) crucial truths about our relationship with him and our place in his purposes.
There are several Old Testament references that might serve as the possible backdrop for this portrait. We read in 1 Kings 7:13-22 of the two pillars constructed for Solomon’s temple, ornate and awesome in their beauty and strength.
The reference to the “pillar” may continue (from Rev. 3:7) the allusion to Isaiah 22:22 where Eliakim’s relatives achieve glory by hanging on him as a peg firmly attached to a wall (v. 24). Beale points out that “some Greek OT witnesses even refer to Eliakim as being set up as a ‘pillar’ in Isa. 22:23” (295). Thus, “in contrast to Eliakim’s dependents, who eventually lost their glory and position in the palace when he was finally removed (cf. Isa. 22:23-25), the followers of Jesus will never be removed from their position in the temple/palace because Jesus, the ‘true’ Messiah, will never lose his regal position in the presence of his Father” (295).
The concept of God’s people as a “pillar” is also found in Jeremiah 1:18 where the emphasis is on strength and stability and resistance to attack from the enemy. There is certainly NT precedence for describing God’s people as “pillars”, as seen in 1 Timothy 3:15 and Galatians 2:9.
So what point is Jesus making in Revelation 3:12? In what sense will he make the overcomer a “pillar in the temple” of his God?
A few have suggested that this is an allusion to the custom in which the provincial priest of the imperial cult, at the close of his tenure in office, erected in the temple area his statue or pillar inscribed with his name (together with the name of his father, his home town, and his years in office). However, Colin Hemer has pointed out that little evidence exists for this practice and that Philadelphia didn’t even have a temple dedicated to the imperial cult until early in the third century a.d.
Perhaps the language is simply a metaphor of eternal salvation. Special emphasis may be on the security of our position as God’s dwelling place in view of the assurance that “never shall he go out of it.” This declaration would have carried special significance for those in Philadelphia: although they are expelled from Satan’s synagogue (Rev. 3:9) they find a permanent place in God’s temple.
Furthermore, as Mounce has noted, “to a city that had experienced devastating earthquakes [a massive quake devastated the city in 17 a.d.] which caused people to flee into the countryside and establish temporary dwellings there, the promise of permanence within the New Jerusalem would have a special meaning” (120-21). Thus, to a people familiar with uncertainty and weakness (cf. 3:8), it certainly conveys the idea of stability and permanence in the believer’s relationship with God. H. B. Swete concurs: “As the pillar cannot be moved out of its place while the house stands, so a lapse from goodness will be impossible for the character which has been fixed by the final victory. A luchnia [‘lampstand’] may be removed (ii.6), but not a stulos [‘pillar’]” (57).
A friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, recently reminded me that the key to this passage may be found in Psalm 144:12 - “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace” (Psalm 144:12; or, “fashioned as for a palace,” NASV). From this we see that the purpose of a pillar was more than simply to uphold a palace, more than simply to provide support or serve a load-bearing function. Rather, pillars were designed to adorn a palace. Perhaps, then, it is the beauty of a pillar that is in view and not simply its utility.
He wrote to me of his many journeys throughout the Middle East and especially his visit to countless mosques. A number of pillars he saw were made of elaborately hand-carved wood, while others were covered with thousands of individually handcrafted ceramic tiles. He noted that “even the adjective ‘opulent’ seems too restrained for many of these pillars.” More important still, “the degree and level of the craftsmanship of a mosque is always in direct correlation to the status of the builder, its beauty a visible demonstration of the builder’s benevolence to the community.”
While such pillars may serve practical functions, “their aesthetic beauty deliberately overshadows their usefulness, and for the thoughtful soul this opens a wonderful window into the imagery” of Revelation 3.
“In much of the church world,” he astutely notes, “our usefulness is what seems to matter: if we can teach Sunday School, lead an outreach, or organize a committee, then we are ‘an asset to the church.’ But in his words to the church of Philadelphia, Jesus assures us that our place in God’s presence is not based on our utility – he certainly does not need us to uphold his temple!” Rather, we are placed near the King of kings, and adorned with his profound spiritual beauty in order to reflect the majesty and graciousness of the One in whom we “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).
Whatever struggle may be yours in trying to identify yourself and your place in the kingdom of God, never forget that you are his dwelling place, the heart of his abode, and as a pillar in this temple you will reflect his beauty and splendor forever and ever, never to go out of it, ever!