Philadelphia was the sixth church which Jesus addresses in Revelation. It was noted for its rich volcanic soil which was good for the raising of grapes. But the presence of volcanic soil also meant that the area was subjected to strong earthquakes. The aftershocks of one such quake was so strong that the inhabitants fled the city for the fields and stayed there for fear of being crushed by falling buildings.
The city also underwent several name changes over its history, After receiving Roman help in an earthquake, the city was named Neo Caesarea. Then it was changed back to Philadelphia again. Later on, it was renamed in honor of the Flavian dynasty. But when Domitian ordered half of the vines to be cut down to reduce the competition for the vineyards in Italy, it was changed back to its original name.
Philadelphia means “Brotherly Love” and was named in honor of a loyal brother to the king which founded the city.
We know from the text that there was a Jewish community in Philadelphia which seems to have served as the main opposition to the church. The church did not appear to be much affected by either the Pagan worship or emperor worship at this time, although this is an argument from silence.
Exposition of the Text
The message to the church begins with “Thus saith the Holy One, The Real One, the One who holds the key of David.” Unlike the other churches in which a piece of the vision of Jesus in chapter one is directly applied, there is not direct quote here. In the original vision, Jesus identifies Himself as having the keys of hell and of death, but not the Key of David. He is also identified in the first chapter as the “true witness”, but here we have simply “true (one).
In Jesus introduction of himself to the church at Philadelphia, Jesus is stressing His Old Testament credentials. He is the “Holy One (of Israel) which is one of the ways Yahweh reveals Himself to Israel. By saying this, Jesus is identifying Himself as the LORD of the covenant He made with Israel, the One who, Moses met on Mt. Sinai. As the “Truthful One”, Jesus indicates that he had been perfectly faithful to His side of the covenant which He had made which implies that the failure was entirely due to the unfaithfulness of the nation of Israel. When Jesus means that He has the key of David, an allusion to Isaiah 22, He is also stating His humanity as the Son of David. He is also claiming the legitimate authority He has as the King of Israel. So as the faithful LORD and King, He has the authority to rule over His people.
Jesus the LORD has the right to determine who has access to Him. By the failure of Israel and Judah to keep the stipulations of the covenant, they had forfeited all rights to access. The door was shut to them. Indeed, the only access to the presence of God would have to be by God’s sovereign grace. If Jew could not enter by merit, neither could the Gentile. The grace of God alone determines who can enter through the door. In the Gospel, Jesus calls himself the door to the sheepfold by which His sheep can enter and go out. To have the door open identifies the sheep as being His. He is then telling the church at Philadelphia that they are the legitimate Israel. He is also saying that those to whom the door is closed that they are not.
This door remains open for the church at Philadelphia to enter into the presence of God. God keeps it open, and no one else is able to shut them out. This of course implies that there are those who have tried. This church was having a difficult struggle with the Jewish community there. In this respect, it was similar to the situation the church at Smyrna faced with the synagogue, although we don’t know if the persecution had advanced to the same degree here. What seems likely here is that the Jewish synagogue had denounced the Christians and had probably excommunicated them.
This excommunication would have put the safety of the church on shaky ground. It would have removed the umbrella of protection that the legitimacy of Judaism in the eyes of Rome offered. As an illicit religion which made claims for Jesus that the Emperor reserved for himself, the Christians were in some danger of arrest and punishment. Part of the punishment that could have been inflicted would start with confiscation and exile. They faced being locked out of the city as they had been locked out of the synagogue.
Punishment of this sort was meant to make the offender rethink (repent) the situation with the intent that the person would come to his senses and a right understanding of things, at least in the eyes of those who did the excommunication. Their exclusion from the synagogue would be saying that these who were excluded were not real Jews at all, and therefore excluded from the covenant. Especially for the Christians who came from a Jewish background, this would be a crisis situation. This crisis of identity is dealt with at length in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which I feel was written at the same time as Revelation to the general area which Philadelphia was part.
To the church in a city known for its instability of ground and politics, Jesus firmly assures the believers at Philadelphia that they had made the right choice in keeping faithful to Jesus. Even though their loyalty to Jesus put them in a weakened and disadvantaged position in the world, they had remained true to King Jesus, the son of David. They were the true Israel, not the synagogue, whom Jesus calls here as in Smyrna, the “synagogue of Satan”. By doing this, Jesus is pronouncing excommunication against Judaism. They called themselves the “true Israel”, but the LORD who made the covenant at Sinai says that these are “not my people”. Instead, those who had been called “not my people” in the book of Hosea are instead called “the children of the living God”. The strong Greek “but” here reverses their claim. They claimed to be God’s chosen people, but instead they are called “liars” by God.
Jesus tells the church that the time will come that instead of the church which was excommunicated from the synagogue coming to its senses and returning in submission to the synagogue to beg for readmittance, it will be the Jews who will come in submission to the church to beg for admittance. If this is the way the text is to be understood, it is then a promise of grace to the synagogue there. There is nothing in their conduct which would deserve this grace. To the contrary, it would be as miraculous as the conversion of Paul. These Jews would have to come admitting that the church is the true Israel. If it is not the offering of hope to the disobedient synagogue, then they would have to bow at the Last Judgment and admit this. We can only hope the latter is true, but in any case, the situation of the church and synagogue was to be dramatically reversed.
To the church whom Jesus loves, He promises to keep from the hour of trouble which was about to happen to the entire inhabited world. To some, they see this as being the Rapture of the church before the Great Tribulation. If, and I do say, if, the Rapture of the church is taught anywhere in Revelation, it is here. The Greek word used here for “earth” is not the usual one which could be translated “earth” or “land”, but rather refers to the entire inhabited earth as a whole. The usual term translated “earth” such as “the tribes of the earth shall mourn” could be as well or better “the tribes of the land (Israel) shall mourn”. If Ralph Bass is correct in seeing the Book of Revelation referring to the divorce of Judah by God and the taking up of the Church as the new bride of Yahweh, then much of the judgments of Revelation were unleashed against Israel in AD 66-70, the three and a half year war. What could be considered the Rapture was when during a lull in the siege caused by the death of Nero and the struggle of Rome to replace him. The church in Jerusalem either received a prophecy or acted upon the earlier prophecies of Jesus to immediately leave Jerusalem. In this mid-tribulation rapture of the church of Jerusalem, the church left the city for Pella. The Romans soon returned to complete the destruction of Jerusalem.
The trouble which was about to shake the Roman world here may have been the death of Nero and the civil war which broke out among the generals to replace him. If we are looking at this prophecy as being words of comfort to be fulfilled in the immediate future to offer comfort to the church at Philadelphia, then this would be the best candidate for its fulfillment that we know of.
Jesus challenges the church at Philadelphia to continue to hold on and let nothing cheat them out of the laurel wreath of victory. Like Smyrna, He offers them the stability as pillars in God’s unshakable Temple. In this, the strength given to the church would act as a witness to the community who lived in constant fear. Perhaps the very perseverance of the church under trying circumstances would serve to convert others looking for true stability. Then endurance of the church then was its greatest strength. The strength and stability of these pillars is God Himself who has stamped His mark of ownership and quality upon them. The One who is Genuine guarantees the genuineness of His Temple.
The believers at Philadelphia are reminded that they are citizens of the true Jerusalem which is coming down from heaven. Their inheritance is assured and comes from the true Joshua (Jesus’s name in Hebrew).
At the beginning of this study, I showed how Scripture often has a double fulfillment, one in the immediate future as well as an ultimate fulfillment. We saw this in the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah as well as other places. The immediate fulfillment acts as a guarantee of a later fulfillment and establishes the word of the prophet as true. The reason that the church recognized that Revelation was a true prophecy from the Lord is that it came to pass in the immediate future. Yet there was also a sense that more was intended in its fulfillment. So this time of trouble coming to the inhabited world in the time of the writing of Revelation and was fulfilled is a sign of the trouble which will happen at the end of time. The devastation of the land of Israel serves as a type of the catastrophic destruction of the entire inhabited world at the end of time. The promise given to the church of Philadelphia to be kept through the time of trouble would also serve as a promise to the church in the end times to be kept from or through the Great Tribulation. If this means Rapture, all well and good. But if it means we continue through this time, being persecuted to the point of death by the world, so be it. Whether we are subject to the wrath of God or not, we are not going to be subject to the greater wrath of God.
But we must remain faithful in order to be overcomers and partakers of the blessing. Our unstable circumstances which are punctuated by wars, rumors of wars, plagues, famines, rejections, persecutions, and other distresses will soon be replaced by God’s unshakable kingdom. The laurel wreath given to the victor in the agony of the games is ours, so long as we guard it and finish the course. We shall be spiritual pillars in God’s Temple. We already possess the citizenship of the only country that matters. If the world demands its citizenship back, let them have it. If a group that calls itself “the church” demands its membership back, let them have it. The true citizenship of Israel is enrolled in heaven where no one may snatch it out of our hands because it isn’t our hands that hold it, but God’s. The true Israel presses on to that city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Let us labor in our agony now for the promise of our rest is assured. Let us then now rest our hope in the unshakable promises of God.