We are on the sixth of the seven churches today. So far five of the churches have been in need of some serious correction and only Smyrna has been declared a faithful body. As we meet the church of Philadelphia today, we will meet Smyrna’s sister church. Like the Smyrneans, those in Philadelphia are also is faithful and the Lord has nothing bad to say and no words of correction or reproof to give this body. What an encouragement these Philadelphians must have received when they got these encouraging words from the Lord, for like the other letters Christ tailors the message he has for his church and he his personal description to the circumstances of the city and the people he is addressing.
So let us begin by learning a little about Philadelphia so we can understand the message and the hope he gives. The city was founded by King Eumenes of Pergamum in the second century B.C. in a prosperous agricultural area that connected the coast and the interior. It lay on a major trade route into the heart of Asia Minor and was dubbed the “gateway to Asia”. It received its name Philadelphia because King Eumenes’ brother was so loyal and faithful that he was nicknamed Philadelphus, or loving brother, and as a reward he was given charge of the city that the King had named after him. There was just one problem. Philadelphia lay in a seismically active area and in AD17 the city along with 11 others was destroyed by a series of earthquakes so utterly and completely that one ancient historian called it the greatest disaster in human history (Pliny HN 2.86.200).1
Because of the severity of the destruction the people in the area had to live outside the city for years because of the fear of the unstable structures within the city. But the histories also recount the help the Philadelphians received from the roman emperor to rebuild. Tiberius Caesar remitted the taxes of the people for 5 years in order to allow them the money needed to reconstruct and as an expression of thanks the people renamed the city Neocaesarea, and then a number of decades later in an effort to honor one of the Caesar’s, they changed the name of the city to Flavia as well (Anchor).
Kim Riddlebarger rightly notes,
“All of these things, from the city being an open door to both east and west, to the fact that people lived in constant fear of further earthquakes, many people choosing to dwell outside the city rather than in it, as well as the renaming of the city, will be mentioned by our Lord in his commendation of this particular congregation.”2
Given that background information, let us see how Jesus describes himself and what he declares in this letter. Jesus begins his introduction by describing himself as him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David (Rv 3:7). Because of the difficulty of translating languages, the English seems to imply that Jesus possesses these character traits. Jesus possesses holiness and trueness, the NIV translates these as adjectives, but the Greek is very different, these words are all nouns, and in fact they are the subjects of the address. They are titles of Christ, but even more than being a title, Jesus is the very embodiment of these words. His name is synonomous with these terms: He isn’t just holy; he is the Holy One. Likewise, he isn’t just true; he is the True One. So Jesus begins his address by declaring: The Holy One, the True One and The One who holds the key of David, The One after opening no one will shut and the one after shutting no one opens, [he] is saying these things:
All four of these titles are directly related to the persecution the Church is facing from the Jews in Philadelphia. The Jews of the synagogue didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, furthermore they thought he was a heretic and so they were mounting a strong attack against the Christians, even casting them out of the synagogue and declaring them cut off from the people of God. In a city like that, Jesus begins by telling his people, “I am the Holy One. I am the True One. I am the one who opens the door for God’s people. And I am the one who closes the door.”
Wouldn’t that be assuring for a believer living in a hostile city? To hear Jesus say I am The Holy One would be a declaration of his sovereign divinity. It would be a direct challenge to all those who said Jesus was a heretic. He is the Holy One of God and as Revelation 15:4 goes on to declare “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” Jesus is the embodiment of holiness as pictured in chapter 1:12-16 where he is dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet…along with eyes like blazing fire…feet like burnished bronze and…a face shining like the sun in all its brilliance.
Wouldn’t it be assuring to hear Jesus say I am the True One? My words are true. My ways are true. My life is true. My teaching is true. My interpretation is true. My judgment is true. Again this is an allusion back to the opening words of Revelation where Jesus is declared the faithful witness (Rv 1:5). He can be relied upon. You can trust him. When others seek to discredit and defame the name of Christ and belief in Him, you can stake your claim for righteousness on Christ and his kingdom.
Which leads us to the third and fourth Titles that Christ assumes. He is the one holding the Key of David and opening and closing things. Again this is a word of encouragement to the church and a direct challenge to the synagogue. The synagogue Jews is claiming that they alone control entrance into the people of God. If you are not welcomed by them and into them then you are not part of God’s people and God’s covenant. Jesus disagrees. He holds the Key of David.
What is this key? Well, there is a lot of debate about that. The Key of David is only referenced in one other place in the Scriptures. In Isaiah 22 there is a prophecy about Jerusalem and the fact that the current leadership of the nation of Israel will be replaced. No longer will Shebna control access to the king, now Eliakim will control that access, for the passage say that Eliakim will be given the “key to the house of David, what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open” (Isa 22:22). But the passage goes on to state that even Eliakim will lose his position and won’t bring honor back to the Kingdom in the face of Assyrian opposition. That is important because the Jews of the city have been claiming they are the ones who control access into the throne room of YHWH but Jesus is declaring that like the transition that happened in Isaiah’s time, so an even greater keeper of the Key is present. And unlike Eliakim, he will never lose his position of authority and he will always ensure the honor and dignity of the House of God. He opens the way to the throne room of God and no one or no thing can change that opening. Furthermore, he shuts the way to all other ways or means of entering into the presence of God except through himself.
All of these are encouraging statements to a believer being told that Christ is not the gate to the Kingdom of God. Like Jesus says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). The one who holds the key of David is also the one who is the very door through which we can come before God and not only does he control access into heaven, but he also is the one who holds the keys of death and hades (Rv 1:18). He controls the entrance into life and he controls the exit from death. These are wonderful words of encouragement to a church being told the exact opposite.
Now after assuring him of who he is, what is his message to this church? Well, the faithful, true, holy guardian of the Kingdom of God says, “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rv 3:8). He knows the weakness and frailty of the church of Philadelphia but even in their weakness, they have stood strong. They have been faithful in word and deed. He knows this!
The good news here is that the church and the individual need not be strong in order to be faithful. We don’t need to be large, have lots of influence, be wealthy, have charisma, or the greatest media departments or anything else in order to be faithful. Faithfulness and fidelity to Christ is not built upon anything other than obedience to Christ – you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rv 3:8).. As Paul tells Titus there are a group of people who “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16). This isn’t the Philadelphians. They keep Christ’s word and have not denied his name. They are faithful, in the midst of a faithless world even though they are weak. Truly they are Philadelphians, people loyal and faithful, just as the brother of King Eumenes who founded the city.
Jesus goes on to tell this weak but faithful church, “Hold on to what you have” (Rv 3:11). Essentially, he is saying, “Keep on living faithful and speaking truly of your love for me. Take my word to heart and obey it even when everyone else around you is chiding you, ridiculing you or even calling you to walk away from me.” This is a command to hold onto Christ in every area of life. In your home live for Christ and speak of Christ. In your work manage for Christ and confess his name. When you play, enjoy the things Christ enjoys and declare his joy to the world. In your schooling learn for Christ and about Christ and teach for Christ and Christ’s truth. In short, Hold on to what you have.
Why is Christ so worried about his church holding on to the truth in word and deed? Simply put, because he wants to reward his church. In fact he wants to reward his people very handsomely as this passage makes clear. There are 7 promises or rewards Christ makes to the Philadelphians. Hold on to what you have so that you can inherit all that I want to give. The first promise or reward Jesus declares is the open door that no one can shut found in verse 8. There are 2 main ways of understanding this and truthfully I think both have merit though I lean more towards the second option.
The first option is this: The promise of the open door is the promise of successful evangelism. For those who hold this interpretation, the appeal is made to Paul’s various letters where he talks about the open doors he has been given to share the gospel. Paul stayed in Ephesus “because a great door for effective work has opened to me” (1Cor. 16:9). He went to “Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for [him]” (2Cor. 2:12 ). He asked the Colossians to “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains” (Col. 4:3). This I believe is a valid interpretation of the text and certainly a promise Christ makes in other places in the gospel that the faithful will see the conversion of others because of their faithful life. The promise of harvest is always held out to those who are laboring in the vineyard with word and deed.
That said, I believe the second option is more contextually correct for this letter. As I said earlier, Jesus is promising his faithful church unhindered access to the throne room of God. Sure they are weak, but even if they were strong, they wouldn’t be strong enough to open the door into the courts of God, but Jesus, has ushered us into the holy of holies by his blood. As Hebrews 4:16 encourages us, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Jesus has grafted these gentiles into the people of God as Romans 11:19 declares, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” This is the first promise. A place in the people of God and the presence of God.
The second promise/reward is the promise of being kept by God from the hour of trial (Rv 3:10). Unfortunately, the English seems to say that we will be kept from, as in we won’t experience the hour of trial. But that conflicts with so many other Scriptures in Revelation where the people of God must live through difficulty. And certainly that is in opposition to Jesus’ own words where he declares, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Jesus isn’t promising that hardship and difficulty and persecution won’t come upon the church, rather he is promising to guard and protect them in the midst of the trial. He will sustain them and uphold them by his powerful hand. Oh Scott, you are changing the word of God, some of you are thinking, but I am not. The Greek word that is translated keep in this passage can also be translated guard or protect. Christ is promising his weak but faithful church that he will preserve them in the midst of trial. And that is exactly what he has done for two thousand years. The church of Philadelphia is the only church of the 7 that still exists today and has been guarded and protected throughout the centuries. It still boasts an active Greek Orthodox community replete with a metropolitan bishop.
His third promise or reward for the faithful church is that they will be made a pillar in the temple of my God (Rv 3:12). In a region that is seismically unstable, to be promised a foundational role in a structure would be a great honor. This weak church is being promised that the actual worship of God will rest upon their lives. This is a great reward for a people who appear weak and frail to the world but who are actually strong in the Lord, faithful and worthy of resting the temple structure upon. They won’t be shaken or destroyed by any earthquake for the temple of the lord is eternal and nothing can destroy it.
The fourth promise builds on the third by declaring that Never again will ‘the overcomers’ leave [the temple] (Rv 3:12). These people who have been forced to live outside their city so often because of the earthquakes will never again be forced to leave the protection of God’s presence. They will live and breathe and eat and play and rest and work in the presence of the living God where nothing will ever harm or endanger them again. As Romans 8:38-39 declares, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Do you see how these promises and rewards would be encouraging and how they are intensifying in their nature?
The fifth, sixth and seventh promises all refer to the receiving of new names. If you will recall, Philadelphia, as a city had changed its name twice in its history, each time thinking the new name a greater honor to ‘the god Caesar’ than the previous name. Jesus tells these name-changing citizens that part of their reward will be 3 new names better than any imperial name for these names will be the very names of God written upon their life. I will write on him 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 him my new name (Rv 3:12).
Think about that for a moment. God is the living God, who never dies, never changes, and never is overthrown or defeated. And this all-powerful, all radiant, all holy, all wonderful living God is promising to write his name upon us. We will be known as his and what is more we will belong to him. And to make it even more magnificent, in the ancient world, the act of naming something was considered the ability to impart the qualities of the name onto the person. So, if I call someone Peter, I am imparting the qualities of strength and hardness to them. If I call someone Sophia, I am imparting the qualities of wisdom to them. So given that cultural understanding, Jesus is promising that the faithful overcomer, the one who lives his life and keeps his words in conformity with the Christ’s will actually become an inheritor of God’s qualities and his nature and his kingdom and his son – He/She will be faithful, Holy, True, Alive… Does that just boggle your mind. No wonder the scriptures declare, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3).
I don’t know about you, but those rewards sound pretty amazing and appealing and quite a good payoff for the suffering and persecution that one is bound to undergo in this world. So people of God, hear the words of Christ, pay attention, weigh his command, consider his promises and determine whether or not you will keep his words in your life and confess his name with your mouth and so be saved to enjoy the full reward of God.
1 “The greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory was in the reign of Tiberius3, by which twelve cities of Asia were laid prostrate in one night.” Note 3 “U.C. 770; A.D. 17. We have an account of this event in Strabo, xii. 57; in Tacitus, Ann. ii. 47; and in the Universal History, xiv. 129, 130. We are informed by Hardouin, that coins are still in existence which were struck to commemorate the liberality of the emperor on the occasion, inscribed “civitatibus Asiæ restitutis.” Lemaire, i. 410.” At http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D86 accessed 10 Sept 2013 1:46 p.m.
2 Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, Sermon 8 on Rev 3:7-13 in Revelation series, http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/downloadable-sermons-on-the-bo/