Monday, August 2, 2021

21. The Revelation: Philadelphia - The Faithful Church (Revelation 3:7-13)


Like all churches, the one in Philadelphia had its imperfections. Yet the Lord commended its members for their faithfulness and loyalty. Along with Smyrna, they were the only two of the seven churches that did not receive condemnation from the Lord of the church. In spite of their struggles, the Christians at Philadelphia were faithful and obedient to the Lord. They provide an outstanding model of a loyal church.

The Correspondent

"He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this..." (Rev. 3:7b)

The Lord Jesus Christ, the divine author of the seven letters, always introduces Himself with a description reflecting His character. In the previous five letters, those descriptions had come from the vision recorded in 1:12–17. But this description of Him is unique and not drawn from that earlier vision. It has distinctly Old Testament features.

“He who is holy” refers to God, who alone possesses absolute holiness. The Old Testament repeatedly describes God as the Holy One (e.g., 2 Kings 19:22; Job 6:10; Psalms 71:22; 78:41). To say that God is holy is to say that He is completely separate from sin. Therefore His character is absolutely flawless.

The title “Holy One” is used in the New Testament as a messianic title for the Lord Jesus Christ. It is spoken by a demon (Mark 1:24), by an angel speaking to Mary (Luke 1:35), and by Peter (John 6:69; Acts 3:14). In John 6:69 Peter affirmed, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus’ identification of Himself as “He who is holy” reveals a direct claim to deity. Christ possesses the holy and sinless nature of God. Because Christ is holy, His church must be holy. As Peter wrote, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Peter 1:15). That the omniscient Holy One gave no condemnation to the Philadelphia church speaks very well of their view of Christ’s holiness.

Christ also describes Himself as “He who is true.” Truth is used in combination with holiness to describe God in Revelation 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:2, 11. The Greek word used here for “true” describes something that is genuine, authentic, and real. In the midst of the falsehood and error that fills the world, Jesus Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

Third, Christ describes Himself as the One who “has the key of David.” In Revelation 5:5 and 22:16, David symbolizes the role of the Messiah. A “key” in Scripture represents authority. Whoever holds a key has control (Revelation 1:18; 9:1; 20:1; Matthew 16:19). The term “the key of David” also appears in Isaiah 22:22, where it refers to Eliakim, the prime minister to Israel’s king. In his role, he controlled access to the top leader. As the holder of the key of David, Jesus alone has the authority to determine who enters His kingdom. Revelation 1:18 reveals that Jesus has the keys to death and hell. Here He is shown with the keys to salvation and blessing.

Finally, Jesus identifies Himself as He “who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens.” This description stresses Christ’s ultimate power. “I act and who can reverse it?” declared the Lord in Isaiah 43:13. No one can shut the doors to the kingdom or to blessing if He holds them open. No one can force them open if He holds them shut. Based on the promise of verse 8, Christ could also be referring to opening and shutting doors for service. In either case, the emphasis is on His sovereign control over His church.

The Church

"...the church in Philadelphia..." (Rev. 3:7a)

Little is known about the Philadelphia church apart from this passage. Like most of the other seven churches, it was probably founded during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). A few years after John wrote Revelation, the church father Ignatius passed through Philadelphia on his way to martyrdom at Rome. He later wrote the church a letter of encouragement and instruction. Some Christians from Philadelphia were martyred with Polycarp at Smyrna. The church lasted for centuries. The Christians in Philadelphia stood firm even after the region was overrun by the Muslims, until finally disappearing sometime during the fourteenth century.

The City

"...Philadelphia..." (Rev. 3:7a)

From the Hermus River valley, where Sardis and Smyrna were located, a smaller valley near the Cogamis River branches off to the southeast. A road through this valley provided the best means of ascending the 2,500 feet from the Hermus valley to the vast central plateau. In this valley, about thirty miles from Sardis, was the city of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities, founded sometime after 189 B.C. either by King Eumenes of Pergamum or his brother, Attalus II, who succeeded him as king. In either case, the city derived its name from Attalus II’s nickname Philadelphus (“brother lover”), which his loyalty to his brother Eumenes had earned him.

Though situated on an easily defensible site on an eight-hundred-foot-high hill overlooking an important road, Philadelphia was not founded primarily as a military outpost. Its founders intended it to be a center of Greek culture and language. Philadelphia succeeded in its mission so well that by A.D. 19 the Lydian language had been completely replaced by Greek.

Philadelphia benefited from its location at the junction of several important trade routes, earning it the title “gateway to the East.” The city was located on the edge of the Katakekaumene (the “burned land”), a volcanic region whose fertile soil was ideally suited for vineyards. Being near such a seismically active region had its drawbacks, however. In A.D. 17 a powerful earthquake rocked Philadelphia, along with Sardis and ten other nearby cities. Though the initial destruction was greater at Sardis, Philadelphia experienced frequent aftershocks during the coming years.

In gratitude for Caesar Tiberius’s financial aid in rebuilding their city, the Philadelphians joined with several other cities in constructing a monument to him. Going beyond the other cities, Philadelphia actually changed its name to Neocaesarea for a number of years. Several decades later, the city again changed its name to Flavia, in honor of the ruling Roman imperial family. It would be known by both names, Philadelphia and Flavia, throughout the second and third centuries.

The Commendation

"I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly..." (Rev. 3:8–11a)

Bypassing the concerns mentioned to five of the other churches, this letter moved on to commend the Christians at Philadelphia for four realities that characterized the church.

First, the Philadelphia church had “a little power.” That was not a negative comment about its weakness, but a commendation of its strength. The Philadelphia church was small in numbers, but had a powerful impact on its city. Most of its members may have been from the lower classes of society (1 Corinthians 1:26). Yet despite its small size, spiritual power flowed in the Philadelphia church.

The believers at Philadelphia were also marked by obedience; “you have kept My word.” Like Martin Luther, on trial before the Imperial Diet, they could say, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” They did not deviate from the pattern of obedience, proving the genuineness of their love for Christ (John 14:23–24; 15:13–14).

Third, they had “not denied [His] name,” despite the pressures they faced to do so. They remained loyal regardless of the cost. Revelation 14:12 describes the tribulation saints who refused to take the mark of the beast: “Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” Like them, the Philadelphia church would not turn from its faith.

Finally, the church had kept “the word of [His] perseverance.” The New International Version’s translation clarifies Christ’s meaning: “You have kept my command to endure patiently.” The Christians at Philadelphia persevered faithfully through all of their difficulties.

Because of its faithfulness, Christ made the Philadelphia church some astounding promises. First, He put before them an “open door which no one can shut.” Their salvation was secure. Their entrance into the blessings of salvation by grace and Christ’s future kingdom was guaranteed. The picture of Christ’s opening the door also symbolizes His giving the faithful Philadelphia church opportunities for service. In Scripture an open door depicts freedom to proclaim the gospel (1 Corintians 16:8–9; 2 Corintians 2:12; Colossians 4:2–3). Their city’s strategic location provided the Christians at Philadelphia with an excellent opportunity to spread the gospel.

Verse 9 records a second promise made by Christ to the Philadelphia church: “Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.” As was the case in Smyrna (2:9), Christians in Philadelphia faced hostility from unbelieving Jews. Ignatius later debated some hostile Jews during his visit to Philadelphia. Because of their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, they were not a synagogue of God, but a synagogue of Satan. Though they claimed they were Jews, their claim was a lie. They were Jews physically, but not spiritually (Romans 2:28–29).

Amazingly, Christ promised that some of the very Jews who were persecuting the Christians at Philadelphia would come and bow down at their feet. Bowing at someone’s feet depicts total submission. The Philadelphia church’s enemies would be completely humbled and defeated. This imagery comes from the Old Testament, which describes the future day when unbelieving Gentiles will bow down to the believing remnant of Israel (Isaiah 45:14; 49:23; 60:14). The Philadelphia church’s faithfulness would be rewarded by the salvation of some of the very Jews who were persecuting it.

Verse 10 contains a final promise to the faithful Philadelphia church: “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” Because the believers in Philadelphia had successfully passed so many tests, Jesus promised to spare them from the ultimate test. The sweeping nature of that promise extends far beyond the Philadelphia congregation to encompass all faithful churches throughout history. This verse promises that the church will be delivered from the tribulation, thus supporting a pretribulation rapture.

The rapture is the subject of three passages in the New Testament (John 14:1–4; 1 Corinthians 15:51–54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17), none of which speak of judgment but rather of the church being taken up to heaven. There are three views of the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation: that it comes at the end of the tribulation (posttribulationism), in the middle of the tribulation (midtribulationism), and the view that seems to be supported by this text, that the rapture takes place before the tribulation (pretribulationism).

Several aspects of this wonderful promise may be noted. First, the test is still for the future. Second, the test is for a limited time. Jesus described it as “the hour of testing.” Third, it is a test or trial that will expose people for what they really are. Fourth, the test is worldwide in scope, since it will “come upon the whole world.” Finally, and most significantly, its purpose is to test “those who dwell on the earth”—a phrase used as a technical term in the book of Revelation for unbelievers (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 17:2, 8). The hour of testing is Daniel’s Seventieth Week (Daniel 9:25–27), the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7), the seven-year tribulation period. The Lord promises to keep His church out of the future time of testing that will come on unbelievers.

Unbelievers will either pass the test by repenting, or fail it by refusing to repent. Revelation 6:9–11; 7:9–10, 14; 14:4; and 17:14 describe those who repent during the tribulation and are saved, passing the test. Revelation 6:15–17; 9:20; 16:11; and 19:17–18 describe those who refuse to repent, failing the test.

There has been much debate over the meaning of the phrase translated “keep from.” Those who argue that the church will go through the tribulation hold that this phrase means preservation through the time of judgment. They believe the church will go through the tribulation judgments and that God will preserve it in the midst of them. That view is unlikely, however, both on linguistic and biblical grounds. The basic meaning of the Greek preposition translated “from” (ek) is “from,” “out from,” or “away from.” If the Lord intended to convey that the church would be preserved in the midst of the tribulation, a different Greek preposition meaning “in” (en) or through” (dia) would have been more appropriate.

Another clear objection to interpreting this as a promise of preservation in the tribulation is that believers in the tribulation will not be preserved. In fact, many will be martyred (6:9–11; 7:9–14). Some hold that the promise of deliverance is only from God’s wrath during the tribulation. But a promise that God will not kill believers but will allow Satan and Antichrist to do so would provide small comfort to the suffering church at Philadelphia.

The coming that Christ refers to differs from those promised to others of the seven churches (2:5, 16; 3:3). Those earlier promises were warnings of impending judgment on sinning churches (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Corinthians 11:28–30). The coming spoken of here is to bring the hour of testing that culminates in Christ’s second coming. It is Christ’s coming to deliver the church (2 Thessalonians 2:1), not to bring judgment to it. “Quickly” depicts the imminency of Christ’s coming for His church. It could happen at any time.

The Command

"...hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown." (Rev. 3:11b)

Because of the Lord’s imminent return for His church, believers must hold fast what they have. The members of the Philadelphia church had been faithful to Christ. He commanded them to remain faithful. Those who persevere to the end thereby prove the genuineness of their salvation (Matthew 10:22; 24:13).

It is true that believers are eternally secure because of the power of God. Yet He secures them by providing believers with a persevering faith. Christians are saved by God’s power, but not apart from their constant, undying faith (Colossians 1:22–23). According to 1 John 2:19, those who abandon the faith reveal that they were never truly saved to begin with: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

Christ’s promise to the one who faithfully perseveres is “no one will take your crown.” Revelation 2:10 defines this crown as the “crown of life,” or as the Greek text literally reads, “the crown which is life.” The crown for those who faithfully endure to the end is eternal life with all its rewards. Second Timothy 4:8 describes it as a crown of righteousness, and 1 Peter 5:4 as one of glory. In our glorified state, we will be able to perfectly reflect God’s glory. Those whose faithful perseverance marks them as true children of God never need to fear losing their salvation.

The Counsel

"He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; 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 out of heaven from My God, and My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Rev. 3:12–13)

As He concluded the letter to the faithful church at Philadelphia, Christ promised four eternal blessings to the one “who overcomes.”

The first promise is that Christ will make him “a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore.” A pillar represents stability and permanence. Pillars can also represent honor. In pagan temples they were often carved to honor a particular deity. The marvelous promise Christ makes to believers is that they will have an eternal place of honor in the temple of God. To people used to fleeing their city because of earthquakes and enemies, the promise that they will not go out from heaven was understood as security in eternal glory.

Christ’s second promise is that He “will write on him the name of My God.” That depicts ownership, signifying that all true Christians belong to God. It also speaks of the intimate personal relationship we have with Him forever.

Third, Christ promises to write on believers “the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God.” Christians have eternal citizenship in heaven’s capital city, the New Jerusalem, described in detail in Revelation 21. That is yet another promise of security, safety, and glory.

Finally, Christ promises believers His “new name.” Christ’s name represents the fullness of His person. In heaven, believers will “see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2), and whatever we may have known of Him will not compare with the reality in which we will then see Him. The new name by which we will be privileged to call Him will reflect that glorious revelation of His Person.

The exhortation “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” closes all seven letters. Believers must obey the truths found in each letter, since the seven churches represent the types of churches that have existed throughout history. The letter to the faithful Philadelphia church reveals that the holy, omnipotent God pours out His blessings on churches that remain loyal to Him.