This post, the eighth in a series on Revelation, looks at Christ’s letter to the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13). A recording of this session is available on the Shofar Durbanville YouTube channel as part of the Revelation Series.
During the reign of Domitian, emperor of Rome (AD 90-92), Christians were persecuted for refusing to worship him as “king of kings, lord of lords.” He charged the Roman army and Roman courts to cleanse his realm from any subjects who denied him this glory. Not only the state persecuted disciples of Jesus: the trade guilds of the day refused to do business with people who did not worship their pagan gods, claiming they were the cause for bad karma resulting in natural disasters. In addition, Jews especially hated the Christian “sect” who blasphemed their God by worshiping Jesus as his equal.
This left first century Christians generally poor (unemployable), persecuted by the state, hated by their Greek and Jewish neighbors, and pushed into the corners of society. These social pressures, in a world pursuing sensual pleasure and social power, filled with pagan spiritualism, left believers vulnerable to doubt, desertion and dualism (to believe in Christ and live like the pagans). After all, if indeed Christ is Lord of all, why should they suffer like this? Where was their God? Will he still return to reign?
These were the cries of the apostle John, when imprisoned on Patmos, Christ revealed himself as the One among the Lampstands – as present among his church. This letter to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) is the fifth church Christ addresses in the opening section of the Revelation (unveiling) John received.
Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) is situated in the fertile Kuzucay valley between Sardis and Laodicea. The city was built by the Pergamon king Eumenes who named it in honor of his love for his brother Attalus. During the first century the city was renamed often, from Decapolis, to Flavia (in honour of Emperor Vespasian AD 69-79), to Neo-kaisaria. The city was also called “Little Athens” because its many pagan temples and public buildings were set on propagating Greek culture within Asia.
This city was known for its quality of wine, for the color of its “burnt soil” (volcanic ash) and the frequent earth quakes it suffered. These tremors caused many to flee the safety of the city walls, choosing to stay outside the city in fear of the big structures collapsing on them. The size of the pillars that remain today give some indication of the tenacity of the early settlers to build a civilization in this unstable place – and this sets the background for the letter to the church in Philadelphia.
Revelation of Christ (3:7). In this volatile, insecure environment, Christ reveals himself to this congregation as “holy” and “trustworthy (true)” – one without corruption who can be trusted. He furthermore reveals himself as the one “who holds the key of David” who, like Eliakim, the gatekeeper in Isaiah 22:20-23, wields the power of God’s eternal kingdom. Christ has received the right and responsibility to govern the earth in the interest of his father.
Commendation and promise (3:8-12). There is no condemnation or correction for this faithful church – only praises and promises. Note that this church chose to stay in this city – persecuted by its officials, betrayed by its big Jewish community, impoverished by its trade guilds, and terrified by its earthquakes – to witness Christ and his kingdom among them. Therefore Christ, the one who holds the Key of David, promises this faithful church is to “an open door.” This may refer to a favorable season to witness the Gospel among the gentiles (as in Acts 14:27), or simply access into God’s throne room (as in Revelation 4:1), into Christ’s eternal kingdom (thus, assurance of their salvation). Christ probably implied an open door into his realm, but the heart behind the promise is reward and goodwill from the Lord.
Christ commends this church for keeping his “word” (holding on in faith to the Gospel), for “not denying (his) name” (faithful allegiance under persecution) and for “keeping (his) command to patiently endure” (steadfastness). Therefore the Lord will bring the persecuting Jews “who worship at the synagogue of Satan” (compare Revelation 2:9) to bow down in honor of these saints. This is an ironic play on Isaiah 45:14, 49:23 and 60:14 where God promised to vindicate oppressed Israel when their Gentile oppressors bow down to them. This allusion is a reminder to the shamed church in Philadelphia that they are indeed God’s covenant people, and these Jews are Gentiles at heart (unbelievers in God’s chosen Christ).
Because this church has remained faithful under persecution, Jesus promises to keep them “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (3:10). As we will see of the two faithfulness witnesses (11:12) and the woman who bore the child (12:5), this church will be spared from the wrath of Christ that comes to a rebellious world, being “raptured” into God’s eternal kingdom.
In this comforting letter to the church in Philadelphia we see several parallels with Jesus’s prayer for his disciples in John 17. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (v6). “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name–the name you gave me… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me” (v11-12). “I pray not that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (v15). “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). The italics above indicate similarity with Revelation 3:8-10 “you have kept my word and not denied my name… they will acknowledge that I have loved you… I will keep you from the hour of trial.” In reminding them of his prayer Christ comforts the church in his love and his grace which abounds towards them in their hardship.
The promise to this church is a dignity and security which they are denied in their world (3:12). Christ promises they will be as “pillar in the temple of my God” – a very strong image of prominence and permanence in ancient Philadelphia. He assures them that they “never again will leave it” as the citizens of this city need to flee the quakes; the eternal city “coming down from heaven” will be stable and be free of fear. Lastly, unlike their earthly city which changes names with every emperor, this city’s name is as unchanging as the Christ who will rule it forever.
Exhortation (3:11). The church is called to “hold” course, to patiently endure and faithfully witness as they do. Christ is “coming soon” and they will be rewarded with the prestigious Olympian wreath of victory (compare 2:10), reserved for those who endure in the race to the end.
Bringing it home
Creation is fallen. The fall of sin scarred society, human identity, and the earth itself. In our day we are as aware of the corruption of both society and creation as the Christians in Philadelphia were. Yet Christ promised them, if they remain faithful to the gospel, to him and the call as witnesses, they will share in his restored creation, his reign. In his kingdom there will be shalom – no division, no disaster, no dread.
Do you long for this restored creation, where the Prince of Peace reigns? Then “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:13) and patiently endure, hold on to Christ’s word and faithfully witness his coming reign in this passing age. There is a place prepared for you in the New Jerusalem among the saints through the ages.