Jesus’ Letter to Philadelphia
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write… Revelation 3:7 NIV
Philadelphia was the sixth of the seven churches in the book of Revelation to whom the Apostle John wrote letters. The only preserved remains of Philadelphia are the pillars of a 6th Century AD Byzantine church located on a city block in what is now the modern city of Alasehir, Turkey. Philadelphia was founded in 189 BC by King Attalus I of Pergamum as a military outpost to protect the junction where two major trade routes intersected. It also was strategically located near the border of Phrygia, where the Greco-Roman world of the West met the “uncivilized” barbarian world of the East. As such it was also intended to be a kind of mission base for spreading the civilized worldview of Hellenism and the Greek language.
The Greek word from which the city’s name derives is a combination of two words, “philo” for love and “delphia” for brother, thus meaning “he who loves his brother.” It was designated as such by Attalus to honor his brother Eumenes in defiance of the Romans who were attempting at the time to drive a wedge between them.
As the city developed and was adorned with many pagan temples and public buildings, it had the distinction of becoming known as “Little Athens.” Because of the surrounding volcanic soil, conducive for growing grapes, the city was a center for the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. The Roman poet Virgil wrote extolling the excellence of the wine of Philadelphia. Under Roman rule during the life of Jesus in 17 AD the city was nearly destroyed when it suffered significant damage when a major earthquake hit the area. Emperor Tiberius, in an attempt to aid in the city’s recovery allowed Philadelphia to remain free from taxation. Other emperors who followed continued that exemption for well over 100 years.
The small band of believers in Philadelphia faced opposition both from Jews and the pagan culture around them, not unlike all the other churches of Revelation. However we see from Jesus’ words that they were exemplary in their response and endurance, putting them in elite company with just one other church, Smyrna. Below is an overview of their letter from the Book of Revelation with some explanatory comments (3:7-13 NIV). It follows the pattern and order used in all seven of the letters as outlined in the introductory blog post on the Letters to the Seven Churches.
1. Revelation of Jesus– “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (v. 7). This revelatory image of Jesus is unique from all the other six churches in that only a portion of it appears previously in Revelation chapter one, specifically the reference to Him holding “keys ” – “And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (1:18b). Although the “key of David” promised to the overcomers at Philadelphia appears to be different from the “keys of death and Hades,” in essence it represents the same thing – the right or denial of access into the presence of God. The “keys to death and Hades” is a denial of access by the authority of Jesus confining the Devil and those who serve him to an eternity separated from the holy presence of God. The “key of David” is all about granting access into God’s presence.
The only other mention of the “key of David,” is in a Messianic prophecy found in the book of Isaiah. There God levels a judgment upon a palace administrator mandating his replacement with a man named Eliakim declaring that he will be given “the key to the house of David” and “what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Isaiah 22:22 NIV). As with many prophecies in the Old Testament that describe the Messiah who is to come, this passage utilizes an historical person and event, in this case Eliakim’s courtyard appointment, as a representation of Christ and some future redemptive action on His part. The authority granted to Eliakim as a gatekeeper to control access into the courtyard of the king of Judah is used to point to the Messiah who is to come who will provide open access into the courtyards of heaven and very throne room of God.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, in fulfillment of this prophecy, He acknowledges His possession of these keys in a conversation with Peter and His disciples. Referring to them as the “keys of the kingdom of heaven“ He promises to pass them on to Peter (and indirectly to all who follow in Peter’s footsteps of faith) when he confesses his acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 16:19).
2. Commendation– “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (vs. 8-9). The open door that Jesus has set before the believers in Philadelphia carries a twofold meaning. First and foremost, as stated above, He has set before them a “new and living way” into God’s presence through His death, burial and resurrection (Hebrews 10:20). Secondly, it is an open door of ministry for them to serve Christ’s purposes in their city and use the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” to preach the gospel. This is an important word of encouragement consistent with the fact that as residents of a city designated originally as an outpost to Hellenize the barbarian world they are now being commissioned as believers to Christianize the Greco-Roman pagan world. He commends their faithfulness, despite apparent weakness and opposition, for using that open door to both dwell in His presence and be His witnesses to the world around them.
3. Corrective Rebuke – None is mentioned which puts them in enviable company with Smyrna as the only two churches which receive NO rebuke. This, as we shall see, is not the only thing this church shares with Smyrna.
4. Predictive Warning or Counsel– “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (vs. 9-11). This is the second and only other time in the seven letters where Jesus points out the presence of those in the church who are of the “synagogue of Satan” claiming “to be Jews though they are not.” Smyrna had essentially the same warning which in their case led to many being martyred for their faith. In fact, eleven people from Philadelphia, who were in Smyrna at the time of Polycarp’s martyrdom in 156 AD, also lost their lives. But those dwelling in Philadelphia at the time of this letter, for reasons only God knows, were told that they would be kept from the trials confronting believers the world over if they would but cling to Jesus. Throughout the ages, the contrast between those believers who escape the horrors of persecution and those who must endure it has always been a stark one. Only when we all finally see God face to face can we hope to understand this mystery of why some survive the fire while others perish in it.
5. Overcomer’s Promise– “The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (vs. 12-13). The promise of being made a pillar in the temple of God carries with it the express intent on His part to ensure the overcomer will always have a place in His presence (key of David access) as an example of patient endurance for His namesake. It is the highest of honors and an acknowledgement of inestimable worth to be designated a pillar of anything, especially in the temple of God.
Added to that, the promise of having God Himself inscribe His own name and the name of the New Jerusalem upon a believer is a declaration of His claim upon that person as His own treasured possession. It carries with it the stamp of His identity and ownership upon that individual, forever establishing both who they are in Him and whose they are.
Be sure to check out the three minute video posted above which was filmed at the Philadelphia ruins for a first-hand look at this historic city. Stay tuned for more videos and blog posts on the remaining church of Laodicea soon to follow!
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