MESSAGE TO PHILADELPHIA
The name of this city is certainly unique. Many cities throughout the world can find the origin of their name in this text of scripture. The reason the name has been used to name so many other cities throughout the world is in the fact of what the name means. The name is composed of two Greek words, meaning “bother lover,” or “brotherly love.”
Philadelphia was probably founded by King Eumenes of Pergamum sometime in the second century B.C. His brother, Attalus II (159 – 138 B.C.), was very loyal to him, and thus, the city was given the name, Philadelphus.
The area where the city rested was subject to a great deal of earthquakes. In A.D. 17 a severe earthquake completely destroyed the city. Because of reoccurring earthquakes that prevailed throughout the area after the A.D. 17, the residents of the city set up dwellings outside the collapsed city ruins. With a grant from Tiberius in Rome, the city was later given the new name, Neocaesarea in appreciation for the relief grant from Rome to rebuild the city. Under Caesar Vespasian, the city was given another name, Flavia. But when Jesus addressed the city in Revelation, He addressed the city as Philadelphia, the original name that the local residents certainly continued because of the history from which this name was derived. They wanted to be known historically as a people of brotherly love.
The culture that the name Philadelphia developed after the relationship of Attalus II with his brother, seems to have been perpetuated throughout the history of the residents. The citizens sought to live up to the name of the city, and for this reason, there is no condemnation of the disciples of Philadelphia. As the culture of the Philadelphia residents influenced the character of the church as a whole, so through the church was reflected the exhortation of Peter to his audience: “Love the brotherhood” (1 Pt 2:17). The church also sought to live according to the name that had been with the city for over 200 years.
A. Description of the Christ:
What better way to express the loyalty of Christ to His people than to use the loyalty of Attalus II to his brother. So this address comes from the One “who is holy and true” (Rv 3:7). Jesus set Himself apart (“holy”) from the eternal God in order to provide redemption for His creation (Ph 2:5-11). And thus, He is true to those who join with Him on the cross, in the grave and resurrection (Rm 6:3-6). The word we would use to explain the behavior of Christians is reciprocity. Jesus first gave Himself for us, and now, we have reciprocated by giving ourselves to Him (Gl 2:20). We love because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). And since we have reciprocated His love and sacrifice, He will stay true to His promises that He has given to us.
In order for us to find assurance in His promises, we are informed that He “has the key of David” (Rv 3:7). “Key” is metaphorical of “authority.” And for those of His Jewish audience, Jesus here reminds them that He received this key in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah:
Then the key of the house of David I will lay upon his shoulder so that he will open and none will shut. And he will shut and none will open (Is 22:22).
It is significant to understand that the tense of the verb “has” in 3:7 is past tense. At the time the message was given, Jesus already had David’s key of authority. It was not something yet to come in the future, but was in the possession of Jesus as John wrote these words. There would be no encouragement for the local recipients of the letter if the key of authority were something that was yet in the future. As disciples of Jesus, we have great confidence because we know that Jesus has been given all authority over all things (Mt 28:18). The Father has placed Him in authority above all authorities on earth for the sake of His people (Ep 1:20-23).
And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that in all things He might have the preeminence (Cl 1:18).
If one would assert that Jesus will in the future assume some reign on this earth, then he must also believe that Jesus must give up the authority He now has in order to reign on a small particle of dust in one galaxy of the many throughout the universe. There is something discouraging about such a theology. Those who teach such have a hard time understanding the encouragement that Jesus here gives to the Philadelphia disciples. The encouragement was that at the time the message was stated by Jesus in the context of their history, He had already received the authority of David that was prophesied in Isaiah 22:22.
The authority of David has now gone galactic in Jesus, the Son of God. It was never prophesied that Jesus would reign over some parcel of land here on earth as King David did over Israel in Palestine. Those who think Jesus’ reign would be exactly as that of David, have certainly missed the extent to which the metaphor “key of David” was to signify the reign of the Messiah. We must remember that in the use of metaphor, something spiritual and greater is being signified. Jesus’ reign was to be far greater than the reign of David. It was prophesied that the Messiah would reign over the world from a heavenly throne (See Dn 2:44; 7:13,14). However, this reign of Jesus as the Messiah now extends far beyond this world, and certainly far beyond the extent of David’s reign. It is as the Holy Spirit stated, that He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (1 Pt 3:22). And now, He is “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Hb 1:3).
B. Commendation from the Christ:
If we were among any of the disciples of the seven churches, we would want to be among the disciples in Philadelphia. There is no condemnation of any teaching or behavior of these disciples. The culture of their fellowship certainly reflected the name of the city.
1. An open door: One historical note on the founding of this city is revealed in the opportunity that Jesus set before them: “I have set before you an open door and no one can shut it” (Rv 3:8). The original purpose for the founding of the city in 140 B.C. was to make the city a center for the spread of the Greek language and culture throughout the region. The city was located in a wide vale that opened into the Hermus Valley. The city subsequently became an outpost opportunity for the preaching of the gospel beyond the region of Philadelphia. This was the open door that no one could shut.
When Christians who are strategically located realize the opportunity that is given to them because of their location, they should seize the opportunity of the open door for the preaching of the gospel beyond their region. Those who are in strategic locations, but fail to see the opportunity for mission outreach beyond themselves, are short sited, if not introverted. They are not taking advantage of the open door that Jesus sets before them.
Paul was very perceptive to find open-door opportunities that were made possible by God. When he and Barnabas returned from the first mission journey, they “gathered the church together” and “reported all that God had done with them and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (At 14:27). God opens the doors. Christians must pray to perceive those doors. When in Ephesus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me …” (1 Co 16:8,9). Could this very open door have been the opportunity for Paul from Ephesus to reach cities as Philadelphia? It could have been an open door that led to the salvation of the saints in Philadelphia, and thus, Jesus was using their past experience of their receiving of the gospel in order to motivate them to do likewise for others. While in Ephesus on a mission journey Paul taught in the school of Tyrannus for two years, “so that all those who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (At 19:10). Could there have been a similar open door for the Philadelphia saints to do the same from where they were located?
It is the responsibility of leaders to be perceptive to doors of opportunity for evangelism. God opens these doors. And the fact that He does assumes that His people should take the opportunity to enter in order to preach the gospel. If we do not, then we are negligent in our duties as His children. This may have been the problem with the loss of the “first love” by the Ephesians and the deadness of the Sardis disciples. Ephesus was the gateway to all Asia Minor. God opened a door there once for Paul, but it seems that the Ephesians refused to continue the legacy of using their key location as an opportunity to continue to preach the gospel to the world. When Paul was in Troas on his last mission journey, and on his way to Corinth, he wrote ahead, “Now when I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, and a door was opened to me by the Lord …” (2 Co 2:12). Must we assume that this open door was only for the city of Troas? If we use Ephesus as an example, the open door was not simply for the city of Troas, but for those who lived beyond Troas. Every city of disciples must see how God is using them as an open door to reach beyond their city limits.
It is the responsibility of the disciples to find doors that are opened by God. And if a door is not opened, then it is the responsibility of the saints to pray that God open it. Open doors assume that they were first closed. And if closed, then we must trust that the One who opens doors will do so on behalf of the gospel. While in prison, Paul asked some Christians, “… continue praying for us so that God may open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ …” (Cl 4:3).
So we must ask ourselves, “When was the last time we prayed that God open some doors for us in order to preach the word?” If that prayer has not been on our lips for some time, then we can judge for ourselves that we have lost our first love. Some Christians are sometimes as those who were explained by a preacher, “When opportunity does knock, by some uncanny quirk, it often goes unrecognized, it so resembles work.” It seems that the opportunity to preach the gospel has to be advertised to some before they can perceive God working through open doors. We must pray for perception because the open door for preaching the word is often off its hinges in some places of the world and waiting for someone to enter. Unfortunately, and unlike those in Philadelphia, some people do not want to make the prayer for an open door because they feel that God will tap them on the shoulder to enter.
It would be good to listen to the public prayers of an assembly of disciples. If one never hears a public prayer for God to open doors for preaching the gospel, then we know that we are sitting among many dead disciples. If so, then we must heed the exhortation of Jesus to the Ephesians. We must restore our first love (Rv 3:1).
B. The promise of the Christ:
Jesus makes four promises to the Christians in Philadelphia, promises that would encourage them to continue their outreach through the open door that He would not allow anyone to shut.
“I will make those of the synagogue of Satan … come and fall down before your feet.” This is a significant statement in reference to the date of writing of the book. On the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, prophecy was fulfilled through the apostles’ speaking in languages (At 2:1-4). The fulfillment of this prophecy was God’s initial stamp of approval on the apostles through the languages that He was now working through the spiritual Israel, the ekklesia (church) of Christians.
Paul explained this “stamp of approval” by the use of languages when he wrote to the Corinthians. In quoting Isaiah 28:11,12, Paul argued that “languages are for a sign, not to those who believe, but for unbelievers” (1 Co 14:21,22). The languages that were miraculously spoken by Christians signalled to the unbelieving Jews that God was now working through those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God.
In the parable of the Tares, Jesus spoke of a time after His ministry when “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43). That time came on the cross in A.D. 30 with the termination of the Old Testament law of national Israel (Cl 2:14). Termination of the state of national Israel came in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus explained to the Philadelphia saints that when national Israel was fully consummated in the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24, it would be then that many of the formerly unbelieving Jews would “fall down before your feet” (Rv 3:9). Jewish persecution would cease (Rv 2:9). This would be the time about which Paul wrote,
For I do not want, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own minds, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rm 11:25).
God initially signalled to the Jewish nation in A.D. 30 by the apostles’ speaking in languages that He accepted as His people those who believed in Jesus (At 2:1-4). He then signalled to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem with the speaking in languages that He accepted the Gentiles (At 10,11). After this, the Jewish Christians went with force into the Gentile world through Paul and other evangelists. This happened for about thirty years after the cross, that is, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” After this “fullness of the Gentiles had come,” then “all Israel will be saved” (Rm 11:26). All Israel does not mean every single Jew, but only those who would accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. These would be those Jews, as the Gentiles, who “were disposed unto eternal life” (At 13:48). This number would be all of Israel who would obey the gospel.
Now to the Philadelphia disciples, this time was close. Therefore, some of those Jews who were persistent to claim to be God’s people (the synagogue of Satan), would eventually see the true people of God shine forth under the kingdom reign of Jesus. A.D. 70 would be the time when over one million unbelieving sojourning Jews to Jerusalem would be massacred in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70. The Roman Caesar Vespasian waited until the Passover/Pentecost feast, and then the Roman army made war with Israel, which war eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The 80,000 or more Jews who survived the war in Jerusalem were sold into captivity throughout the Roman Empire. It was a time when formerly unbelieving Jews figuratively bowed down before Christians as the Gentile Cornelius literally bowed down before the Jewish Peter (At 10:25,26). But this time, it would be the formerly unbelieving Jews who would finally confess that Jesus was the Messiah and figuratively bow down before Gentile Christians.
We would assume that the Christians in Philadelphia believed the prophecy of Matthew 24. But we would also assume that they had not yet experienced the fall of Jerusalem, for there was still opposition from the “synagogue of Satan.” But this opposition would soon be terminated, since many of the zealot Jews of the synagogue may have been killed in the A.D. 70 destruction when they traveled to Jerusalem for the annual Passover/Pentecost feast.
Through the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said that He would make the unbelieving Jews “know that I have loved you” (Rv 3:9). What would be significant to assume is that some surviving Jews who escaped the A.D. 70 war and possibly returned to Philadelphia, were warmly received by the Philadelphia Christians upon their repentance and obedience to the gospel. Such would not be uncommon behavior among true Christians, for Philip the evangelist later received Saul, now Paul, who had aided in the stoning of one of his best friends in Jerusalem many years before (See At 7:58; 8:1; 21:8). There is certainly power in the words that Jesus uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
2. “I also will keep you from the hour of trial that will come on the whole world” (Rv 3:10). There was a reward coming for the Philadelphia saints “because you have kept the word of My perseverance …” (Rv 3:10). The reward was that they would be kept “from the hour of trial that will come on the whole world ….”
Keeping the word of Jesus has its rewards in the time of trial. This promise reminds us of 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this name.” The Philadelphia disciples knew that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12; see Mt 5:10-12). The following words would be precious to the saints in Philadelphia as they passed through the coming trials:
Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he is tried, he will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him (Js 1:12).
The early Christians knew that before they could reach the promised land, they had to pass through the wilderness of tribulation. They knew that if one would seek to live the godly life, then there would be the trials of this life that godliness inherently engenders. But it is as someone said, “Trial is the structural steel that goes into the building of character.” So Peter would remind the Philadelphia disciples,
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been distressed by many trials, so that the proof of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is refined with fire, might be found to praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 1:6,7; see Js 1:2,3).
The phrase “whole world” in Revelation 3:10 must be interpreted with the dictionary of Luke 2:1. Caesar Augustus of the Roman Empire decreed that “a census be taken of all the world.” This certainly did not pertain to every person on earth. The terminology was taken from the Roman dictionary, in that the Roman’s thought that they reigned over the “whole world.” But we would ignore their arrogance by realizing that the census of Augustus was only of the citizens of the Roman Empire. And so we bring this definition into the context of Revelation 3:10 as Jesus’ meaning in the context. The “hour of trial” was coming when Rome would unleash its persecution against Christians throughout the Empire. This would be Jesus’ message of introduction to the encouragement of the visions that would begin in chapter 4 and continue throughout the book.
It seems that Jesus has in the context of His message to the Philadelphia saints turned from the destruction of Jerusalem that would take care of the limited Jewish persecution of the church, and moved on to the state persecution that would take place throughout the Roman Empire. The Empire would set itself against Christianity. A limited persecution of Christians had already begun with the personal vendetta of Nero against Christians during the 60s. But under Caesar Domitian (81-96), there would begin a state persecution for the next 150 years until Galerius eventually issued the Edict of Toleration in A.D. 311. But for some reason, this persecution did not come upon the disciples in Philadelphia, at least this seems to be the promise of Jesus in His message to these Christians. The city of Philadelphia may have been a small sanctuary for Christians throughout the Empire while Rome launched its fury against Christianity in other areas.
“I am coming quickly” cannot be a promise of coming at the end of time. This was a coming “in time.” Jesus would not have deceived the Philadelphia Christians into believing that He was coming in His final coming in their lifetime. Such a promise would have robbed them of the immediate comfort they needed. As James encouraged his readers around A.D. 66,67 to be patient for the “coming of the Lord” in His destruction of Jerusalem (Js 5:7,8), so here the promise may be to the Philadelphia Christians that there would be an end of Roman persecution, which end eventually came in A.D. 311. We are not told specifically in this address what the relief would be from the trials from which they would be delivered. The immediate disciples were simply promised that there would be relief from their hard times.
3. “I will make [him] a pillar in the temple of My God ” (Rv 3:12). The city of Philadelphia was devastated with an initial earthquake that levelled the pillars of the main buildings in A.D. 17. Subsequent earthquakes that took place in the years that followed finished the total destruction of all the buildings in the city. But in the promise of Jesus, the faithful would be made pillars that would never fall.
When someone in Roman society accomplished a good deed for the society, a pillar in a public building was often made and named after the person, as we today would name a street after someone. Jesus is saying that because the Christians in Philadelphia were remaining faithful, they would be “named pillars” in the house of God. They could be assured, however, that these named pillars would never lie in ruins as they witnessed every day the pillars of the old city laying on the ground in ruins.
4. “I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God.” The Greek word for “overcome” in 3:12 is a present participle. The action of the verb is continuous action in the present. Therefore, they were overcoming in their daily discipleship. Living the life of a disciple for the saints in Philadelphia was a daily struggle.
When the A.D. 17 earthquake came, people in mass fled the city for their lives. But when one is a pillar in the temple of God, he need not flee. On the contrary, he is the occasion for people to flee to him for protection and comfort (1 Pt 3:15). “The new Jerusalem” comes down from God in heaven. This is the church of the Lord. As people come into Christ, the church is pictured as coming down from its origin, that is God. So when one is obedient to the gospel, then he would be accepting the name about which Peter wrote, the name “Christian” (1 Pt 4:16). It would be to this name, and the refuge of the city of God, that people would seek refuge in times of trial.
After the destruction of the city of Philadelphia in A.D. 17, Caesar Tiberius appropriated funds for the rebuilding of the city. The name of the city was subsequently changed to honor him, but the name never stuck. When God names His people, the name can never be changed. Some in Corinth tried to change the name of their allegiance by calling themselves after the name of some man. Paul wrote that some say, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (1 Co 1:12). Paul admonished the disciples in Corinth for this divisive and disrespectful practice. He admonished, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Co 1:13).
The fact is that we wear the name of Christ because He was crucified for us, and we were baptized into His name. If Christ had not been crucified, then religious people could wear any name they choose. If one has not been baptized in the name of Christ, then again, it does not matter what name one would wear. But since all Christians have been baptized into the One who was crucified for them, then they are called “Christian” after Christ, of whom they are because they have been baptized into Him under the authority of His name (At 2:38; Rm 6:3).
Jesus warned, “Hold fast what you have so that no one take your crown” (Rv 3:11). The Greek word (krotein) for “hold fast” means to “hold on to tightly.” If they hold on to that which they have, then they will not lose their crown. The exhortation to “hold fast” assumes that one can let go, and thus, lose his crown. It is not that one is saved by the grace of God, and then cannot lose his crown. The very fact that Jesus here exhorts the disciples to hold on to that which they have (their salvation), assumes that they will lose it if they let go.
The exhortation to the Philadelphia disciples is similar to that given by Jude, but with an added responsibility on the part of Jesus. “Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy …” (Jd 24). Combined with the Revelation 3:11 exhortation, the individual disciple has the responsibility to keep himself saved, but he is helped by Him before whom he will be saved in eternity. The link that connects the two exhortations is Paul’s statement in Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us ….” Outside us, Jesus is working all things together for good (Rm 8:28). Inside us, we are struggling against the lust of the flesh in order that we not lose our salvation. There are things for which we are responsible in order to guarantee our salvation. “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble” (2 Pt 1:10; see 2 Pt 2:20-22). Since one can stumble, then we seek to watch and be faithful, for we remember Jesus’ promise to the Ephesians, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10). Flickering lamps need to give all diligence to add oil.
[Schedule for next lecture: March 24]