The Church at Philadelphia
The ancient city of Philadelphia was located in the Cogamus Valley on a broad hill that gently descended from the Tmolus Mountains. This Cogamus Valley was often referred to as the “gateway to the East” because it connected such cities as Sardis, Smyrna and Philadelphia along with Mysia, Phrygia and Lydia. One hundred miles separated Sardis and Smyrna; twenty-six stood between Sardis and Philadelphia.
The Cogamus River cut between the city and the mountains, making Philadelphia such an impregnable fortress that, in later years, it took several Muslim attacks before the city was finally conquered.
Philadelphia was also a prosperous city. Its prosperity was due mostly to its plentiful grape harvest, although several other crops were also grown in the region.
The city had one major drawback, however. It was located on the earthquake belt of ancient Asia. In fact, the earthquake that devastated Sardis in AD 17, from which it took the city ten years to rebuild, did even more damage to Philadelphia. There were two reasons for this. First, Philadelphia was situated directly over the fault line. And second, Philadelphia also suffered a long series of tremors after the earthquake itself. Philadelphia’s citizens, however, were determined to rebuild their city and, with assistance from the empire, did so in less time that Sardis.
As for its religious background, Philadelphia was syncretistic. New deities were constantly being added to the old ones. In fact, Philadelphia had so many temples dedicated to pagan gods and goddesses that it was often called “little Athens.” The worship of Dionysus was its chief cult (cf. the letters to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamos) probably due to its grape industry. Philadelphia also had temples dedicated to the Roman emperors.
But in spite of the city’s idolatry, the church at Philadelphia had remained faithful. Christ commended it twice for having kept his word, once in verse 8 and again in verse 10. Here again we note a similarity between the church and the city in which it was located. The city, which was small by the standards of the day, withstood numerous earthquakes and Muslim assaults. The church similarly was of little strength (v. 8), yet it successfully withstood the challenge of Satan’s synagogue.
The Self-Disclosure of the Messiah
Christ’s practice, as we have observed in each of the preceding letters, was to introduce each message with a brief description of himself. The description that he gave to the church at Philadelphia reads as follows: These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth (v. 7).
The Lord’s self-descriptions in each of the preceding letters were adapted from the vision that John saw in chapter 1. However, the first part of Christ’s self-description in this letter is not as clearly so. Specifically, the adjectives holy and true do not even appear in the first chapter. But John did use a similar description that may have given occasion for what we find in our text. In Revelation 1:5 John referred to Jesus as called the faithful witness. Jesus himself connected these two descriptions in his letter to the church at Laodicea, where he called himself the faithful and true witness (ch. 3:14), thus combining the faithfulness of his witness with the truth of his witness. As Messiah, he testified to the Father’s love for his people. Here the implication is that he set his love specifically on the church at Philadelphia. But it also means that he will testify against the liars who disturbed his people in this church. They claimed to be Jews but really were not Jews at all (v. 9).
The adjective holy, on the other hand, refers to Christ’s deity. This can be seen, for example, in Revelation 6:10, which is also the only other passage in Scripture that unites both of these adjectives. The martyrs cry out, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? The implication of deity is even clearer in the book of Isaiah, where the prophet uses the word holy fifty-six times, most of which (thirty-nine) are descriptions of God. For example, God calls himself the Holy One five times, the Holy One of Israel twenty-five times, the Holy One of Jacob once, and the thrice holy one twice. Thus, by using the word holy Jesus reminded his readers that, as their Messiah, he was both God and man or the God-man. The second person of the Trinity assumed a complete human nature in order to carry out his messianic tasks.
Clearly, the point here is that the Lord Jesus, as the Messiah, has absolute control over access to his kingdom. In the second part of the Lord’s self-description he says that holds the key of David, opening and shutting as he will.
The key of David comes from Isaiah 22, where God said that he would remove Shebna, who had established an unlawful affiliation with Assyria, from a position of authority over the royal house of Hezekiah and replace him with Eliakim. The Lord said of Eliakim, And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Isa. 22:21–22). This passage serves as an indirect prophecy of Christ’s messianic rule. Just as Eliakim was put in charge of Hezekiah’s house, the Lord Jesus Christ would be in charge of his kingdom. He alone would have power over life and death.
But why did the Lord choose this particular self-description for the church at Philadelphia? Part of the answer is that Christ wanted his people to understand that it was he who set before them an open door, and that he did so as a sovereign act of his own invincible will (v. 8). It was his mercy that gave them the little strength that they had. Only his good pleasure made them strong enough to keep his word and not deny his name in the face of opposition.
But verse 9 suggests even more than this. It seems to indicate either that the local synagogue had the practice of excommunicating members who converted to Christianity, which frequently happened, or that the church leadership itself had been infiltrated by Jews, whose profession of faith was insincere, and then used their position of authority to disturb true believers. In either case, these “false Jews” at some point unjustly excommunicated Christ’s faithful disciples. They believed that they guarded heaven’s door. They thought that they had the power to exclude Christians from God’s favor.
But the Lord assured his people that this simply was not so. The false Jews were, in reality, nothing more than a synagogue of Satan, and one day they would be forced to recognize the sovereign authority of Jesus Christ. Verse 9 says, Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. And why would this be? Because Christ, the sovereign Messiah, possesses the key of David.
The Lord’s promise at the end of verse 9 is particularly fascinating in this regard. Unbelieving Jews had excommunicated true believers. How, then, would Christ demonstrate to the church that it was actually he who controlled access to his kingdom and not others? Very simply: he promised to cause at least some of these false Jews to become Christians. They would worship him in the presence of those who were already believers. By doing this, Christ will make them to understand the great love that he has for his people and allow them to rejoice in that love.
There’s quite a bit of irony in this. In the Old Testament, the Lord often said that the Gentiles would one day worship at the feet of Israel. One such passage is Isaiah 45:14, which says that Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sabeans shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee. A few verses later the prophet added that unto me [Jehovah] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear (v. 23). In the New Testament, Paul cites this passage to demonstrate that every one without distinction will eventually bow to Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 86:9; Isa. 49:23; 60:14; Phil. 2:11). Yet, in Revelation it isn’t Gentiles who bow before Jews, but rather unbelieving ethnic Jews who bow before the true spiritual seed of Abraham, which, of course, is composed of both Jews and Gentiles who put their trust in Jesus Christ. In a sense, we can say that verse 9 is John’s version of Romans 11, where Paul expressed his concern the gospel be widely distributed among the Gentiles as a means of provoking the Jews to jealousy so that they, too, might be saved.
An Open Door for the Church
In verse 8 Jesus specifically applied his sovereign rule to those in Philadelphia who remained faithful. He assured them that he had set before them an open door that no man can shut.
Commentators offer numerous explanations as to what this means. Some are more plausible than others. One unlikely explanation is that the open door is a door of prayer. Another is that it is the way of martyrdom. The problem is that neither prayer nor martyrdom is mentioned in the immediate context.
A third possibility is that the open door is Christ himself. He spoke of himself as a door in John 10:9. He said, I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. Here the subject is salvation. To be saved one must embrace Christ as the one who not only brings salvation to believers but is salvation himself. However, as attractive as this possibility may be, it doesn’t really fit the text. Why? There are two reasons for this: first, because this verse was written for those who were already Christians; and second, since Christ is the one who opens and closes the door, it is unlikely that he would also be the door.
The fourth possibility, and perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation, is that the open door is evangelism. In this case, Christ meant that would bring an abundant harvest of souls into the church at Philadelphia if it would commit itself to reaching the lost with the gospel message. Thus, the open door is not just evangelism per se, but it also Christ’s promise to make the church’s evangelism effective. This explanation seems to fit the context best.
In addition, there are a few places in the New Testament where the concept of an open door is used this way. In II Corinthians 2:12 Paul wrote, Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord.… And Colossians 4:3 reads, Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds.
This is how it all fits together. The key of David represents Christ’s kingdom authority, which he exercises by controlling access to the kingdom. The open door symbolizes entrance into kingdom life and the subsequent enjoyment of that life by believers. Christ had already opened this door for the faithful in the church of Philadelphia. And if they would persevere in evangelism, he promised to open the door to even more — he promised to let in those who once opposed his righteous reign, believing that they had power to open and close the door by their own determination. Thus, Christ demonstrated his sovereignty over his own church.
But even this doesn’t exhaust Christ’s authority. Note that it also extended far beyond membership in the church at Philadelphia. According to verses 10 and 11, he was about to send an hour of trial upon the whole world. The world belongs to him. In fact, that’s what most of the book of Revelation is about. The Jews and Romans had conspired together in the crucifixion of Christ. Later, each also persecuted the church. But the hour is coming in which Christ will hold them accountable. Jesus announced that he himself would come quickly to take care of this.
The Lord announced impending judgment in order to comfort his church. His coming meant that he would punish persecutors, and it assured his people that he would protect them from all evil.
In any case, this hour of temptation refers to something that occurred in the first century, since Christ explicitly promised the faithful of the church at Philadelphia that they would be spared (v. 10).
This truth has one very interesting theological implication. Arminians often argue that the word world, especially when it is modified by the adjective whole, includes each and every human being who ever has lived or ever will live. As is true in many other cases, this meaning is impossible here. For one thing, the word translated world (τῆς οἰκουμένης) is not the more common κόσμος, but a word that originally referred to the administration of a house. In fact, our word economy comes from it. In the New Testament, it usually refers either to the inhabited world or the civilized world. In the latter case, the Roman empire is generally in view. For example, Luke 2:1 says that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be taxed. Similarly, Romans 10:18 affirms that within thirty years of the Lord’s resurrection, the gospel had been declared unto the ends of the world (in fulfillment of Christ’s prediction in Matt. 24:14 that this would be done before the Roman armies invaded Jerusalem in AD 70). Revelation 12:9 describes Satan as he which deceiveth the whole world (repeated in Rev. 20:3 is some manuscripts), and Revelation 16:14 mentions the kings of the whole world, who stand in opposition to the Lord. The same word appears in each of these passages.
But even at that, the hour of trial will not afflict even the whole Roman empire. Christ promised the church at Philadelphia that it would be spared.
Promises of Strength to a Faithful Church
The brethren of the church at Philadelphia had been steadfast and faithful, even accepting excommunication rather than deny the truth of the gospel. To this church Christ promised security, permanence and stability. He said in verse 12, Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
The first promise mentioned here is that those who overcome would be made pillars in the temple of God. Pillars seem to last forever. The pillars of several ancient Greek buildings and temples continue to stand upright long after most of the building has collapsed. In the same way, we live in a world in which change and decay are common. But the true church, like the pillars of these ancient buildings, has been strengthened by the omnipotent and invincible grace of God. Having the gospel and the ministry the Spirit, the church is truly the pillar and ground of the truth, as Paul wrote to Timothy (I Tim. 3:15).
Citizens of Philadelphia knew well how quickly things could be destroyed. Earthquakes constantly threatened their buildings and their lives. Many of the people who first read the book of Revelation could probably remember the great earthquake of AD 17 that nearly destroyed their own city and nearby Sardis. The church at Philadelphia, likewise, knew well the dangers that threatened its existence. It has been oppressed false Jews, a synagogue of Satan, liars. But no more, for God himself will make it strong.
And secondly, Christ promised the church of Philadelphia a new name. But this was not an ordinary name. It was the name of God himself and the name of the city of God. This is what they would be called. There is no greater privilege that to be called a Christian.
Philadelphia was also well acquainted with name changes. In the first century, its name had been changed no less than three times. It was renamed Neocaesaria (meaning “new Caesar”) in appreciation to Rome for providing financial assistance after the aforementioned devastating earthquake. Then, sometime between AD 69–79, its name was changed to Flavia after the Flavian dynasty that governed Rome during this period. And finally the city became Neokoros (meaning “keeper of the temple”).
The continual changing of the city’s name indicated a lack of stability. But in contrast to this the church was promised the name of the sovereign God who reigns forever and the name of his city, which will also live forever by his grace.
In conclusion, the one point, above all else, that comes across in this sixth message is that God is faithful to those who look to him in faith, trusting his Son’s atonement. The church at Philadelphia had suffered greatly at the hands of the false Jews but it never betrayed the gospel. As a result, even though the whole world would soon experience an hour of trial, this one church would be spared. God knows how much his children can bear, and he never takes us beyond our limitations. This shows God’s love and care. Of course, he never gives us any less than we need either.
To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.