Religion and the Church at Philadelpha

Revelation 3:7-13

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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 Revelation series

   The city of Philadelphia was located approximately 60 miles east of Smyrna. It was built on a plateau which was about 700 feet above the Hermus river valley. The area was very fertile and there were many vineyards planted in that vicinity. It is not surprising, therefore, that there was a temple to the Greek god, Dionysius, the god of wine, located in Philadelphia.

   The Greek influence in Philadelphia was quite evident. The city was originally founded in the second century B.C. when Attalus II imported a number of Macedonian veterans to the site in order to build a city that would become the "gateway to the East." Attalus was a Pergamene king who was known as Attalus Philadelphus. The surname "Philadelphus" was added because he was very loyal to his brother, Eumenes II. So the name of the city, "Philadelphia," named after its founder, Attalus Philadelphus, means "lover of a brother," or "the city of brotherly love."

   This particular city seems to have been quite enamored of seeking identification with important people and changing its name to reflect such. Early in the first century, in 17 A.D., a particularly severe earthquake had devastated the city. Tiberius was the Roman Caesar at the time and contributed funding to rebuild the city. In appreciation the citizens of Philadelphia changed the name of their city to Neoceasarea, meaning "the new city of Caesar." Later, when Flavius Nespasian was emperor of Rome, they changed their name to Philadelphia Flavia. In the third century A.D., they changed their name to Philadelphia Neokoros, indicating that they were the "keepers of the temples" which honored the Roman emperors. The temples that had been erected to the Roman emperors and the Greek gods had become so numerous and such beautiful structures that Philadelphia became known as "the little Athens."

   Near the end of the first century when Jesus addressed the church in the city of Philadelphia, the city was an important trade center which was quite prosperous. Religious temples were continually being built to honor Roman emperors and Greek gods. The Jewish religion had a synagogue in Philadelphia. The prevailing religious attitude toward Christians who refused to worship any God other than the Lord Jesus Christ, was not one of friendly co-existence.

   Jesus identifies Himself to the Philadelphian Christians as "He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens" (3:7). In the midst of the many religious offerings in Philadelphia, Jesus indicates that He is the One who is "set apart" from all others as having the character of holiness. Religion is more concerned with hierarchy, heritage and heresy, than they are with holiness. Jesus also says He is the One who is the true God, the reality of deity that gives meaning to all of creation. Whereas religion engages in the mere shadows of reality, Christ is the substance. Later in the Revelation the Christian martyrs will refer to Jesus as the "Lord, holy and true" (6:10).

   Jesus also explains to the Christians of Philadelphia that He is the One who "has the key of David." This is an obvious reference to King David of the Old Testament. God spoken through the prophet Nathan saying, "I will establish the throne of his (David's) kingdom forever" (II Sam. 7:13). It was a Messianic prophecy. The prophet Isaiah said concerning the coming Messiah, "There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over His kingdom" (Isa. 9:7). Later God says through Isaiah, "I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder; when he opens no one will shut; when he shuts no one will open" (Isa. 22:22). This latter prophecy of Isaiah seems to be that which Jesus claims to fulfill in His self-identification to the Christians in Philadelphia. The angel had already declared at His birth that "the Lord God will give Him (Jesus) the throne of His father, David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob, and His kingdom will have no end" (Luke 1:32). At the end of the Revelation, Jesus explains, "I am the...offspring of David" (22:16).

   What does it mean to have "the key of David?" The one who has the key has authority. The one who has the key controls ingress and egress, those who go in and those who go out, those who enter and those who exit. Jesus Christ is the One who has sovereign authority over God's kingdom which was pictorially pre-figured in the physical kingdom of David. Jesus Christ is the sole basis of access and life and residency in the Kingdom of God, the divine household, the new city of David, the "New Jerusalem." When He opens access through Himself, no one can shut that door. When He shuts it, no one can open it. Religionists set up their own little false-kingdoms in the institutional churches. They want to be in control of who goes in and who goes out, of who may enter and who will exit by excommunication. They want to have the authority to invite or debar, to determine who is in and who is out. Jesus asserts that He is the only One who has authority over the Kingdom of God, and He is "faithful over God's household" (Heb. 3:6), and "head over the Church" (Eph. 1:22).

   Jesus proceeds to make His observation of the church in Philadelphia, saying, "I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name" (3:8). The observation Jesus makes of the Philadelphian Christians is generally favorable. This is one of only two of the seven churches of which Jesus makes no direct charges of misconduct (the other was Smyrna). This does not mean the Christians in Philadelphia were perfect in their faithfulness, but that there was not any direct reversion to religion that Jesus saw need to point out. He knew their deeds, as indeed He knows all of our deeds and the motivations inspiring such, and apparently the deeds of the Philadelphians were being "wrought in God" (John 3:21), activated by His grace (II Cor. 9:8).

   Again Jesus indicates that He "had put before them an open door which no one could shut." Isaiah had prophesied that God would "open the gates, that the righteous nation may enter" (Isa. 26:2). Jesus came and opened the door to the presence of God, to the Messianic kingdom of God. He is that "door" (John 15:7). He is "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6), the "new and living way" to enter the holy place of God (Heb. 10:19,20). The Christians of Philadelphia had entered through the door of Jesus Christ, as have Christians throughout the world in every age since then, and there is no one more powerful than Jesus Christ to shut them out.

   That no one else has the power to shut them out is evidenced by the fact that the Philadelphian Christians "had little power, and yet they kept Christ's word and did not deny His name" (3:8). Religionists were doing all they could to shut down Christianity in the region, but the few Christians in Philadelphia remained faithful. They did not have much power. They did not have political clout. They were probably a small congregation who relied on Christ's strength to be exercised in their weakness (II Cor. 12:9). Religion today looks down their noses in disdain at a small congregation of Christians which focuses on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ in their lives. They are regarded as unsuccessful, having little power or impact upon society. But if they have entered through the door of the Person and work of Jesus Christ into the kingdom of God, then no one can shut them out despite the worldly expectations of religion.

   Continuing His observation of the situation in Philadelphia, Jesus says, "Behold I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews, and are not, but lie ­ behold, I will make them to come and bow down at your feet, and to know that I have loved you" (3:9). The Jewish religionists in Philadelphia at the end of the first-century were as persecutive of the early Christians as were the other forms of religion. Historically the adherents of Jewish religion have portrayed themselves as the foremost victims of religious persecution, and they have certainly had their share, but they have also administered discriminatory persecution of others through the ages and are still doing so today.

   There was a Jewish synagogue in Philadelphia, but the risen Lord Jesus calls it a "synagogue of Satan." This is similar to the time when Jesus told the Jewish leaders who were claiming that they were of their father, Abraham, "You are of your father, the devil" (John 8:44).

   The Jewish religionists in Philadelphia claimed to be Jews, but Jesus declares that they were not Jews. Race, religion or heritage does not constitute a true Jew in the sight of God. The word "Jew" means "to the praise of God." The Israelite people of the Old Testament were selected to be the pictorial pre-figuring of the "people of God" who would function "to the praise of God." They did not function as such in faithfulness and thus did not serve as an adequate picture of the "people of God" in Christ Jesus, the Christian community. They forfeited their designation as "Jews," as "Israel," as the "People of God," the "chosen people." Racial and religious and nationalistic Jews who carry an Israeli passport are not real Jews in the sight of God any longer. Paul explains that "he is a Jew, who is one the circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" (Rom. 2:29). The apostle goes on to explain that "they are not all Israel, who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6), but that Christians now formulate the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16). Christians are now the real Jews in the sight of God, the spiritual "people of God" who are to function "to the praise of God" in Jesus Christ. Anyone who claims to be a Jew and is not a Christian is telling a lie. Jesus explained that those who went to the synagogue in Philadelphia and claimed to be Jews, were really not Jews, and were lying. Of course, Jesus had told the Jewish leaders on a previous occasion that they were identified with "their father, the devil...he is a liar, and the father of lies" (John 8:44).

   Jesus went on to explain to the Philadelphian Christians that He would "make them (the physical and religious Jews) to come and bow down at your (the Christian's) feet, and to know that I have loved you" (3:9). This is consistent with the prophecy of Isaiah when he said, "the sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you (the true Israel), and all those who despised you will bow themselves at the soles of your feet; and they will call you the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel" (Isa. 60:14). Eventually all men will have to recognize that Christians are the "people of God," and "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10). Eventually all men will know that God has expressed His love for us in His Son Jesus Christ. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). When we receive Jesus Christ by faith we become Christians, the chosen "people of God," true Jews, the "Israel of God." "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulations, distress, persecution?... Nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35-39). The Christians of Philadelphia understood that sufficiency and security of God's love, recognizing that no one could shut the door on such, and that eventually it would be revealed for all to see who God's loved ones, God's people, really are ­ Christians.

   In the meantime, of course, religionists always claim to be "God's people." They are really gatherings of the adversary, the antagonist, for all religion is satan's attempt to obscure and obstruct the church of Jesus Christ. Disguised "as an angel of light,...his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (II Cor. 11:14,15). Religion is a false profession of identification with God that formulates a parody of Christ's church.

   Based on His observation of their situation in Philadelphia, Jesus assures them, "Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the earth" (3:10). What is Jesus telling the Philadelphian Christians, and all Christians of every age, in this verse? The key word, used twice in Jesus' sentence, is keep. The Philadelphian Christians have "kept" Christ's word to "bear fruit with perseverance" (Luke 8:15). They have "kept His commandments" (John 14:15,23; 15:10; 17:6), "kept the faith" (II Tim. 4:7); "kept themselves in the love of God" (Jude 21). Jesus explains that He will "keep them from the hour of testing, which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the earth." Although some interpret this to mean that Jesus was promising to keep the entire church out of the final tribulation by rapturing it in what was still the far-off future for the Christians of the first-century, it seems more consistent with the rest of Scripture to interpret Jesus' words in accord with how He previously used the verb keep when He asked the Father "to keep them (all Christians) from the evil one" (John 17:15). Jesus "keeps us from the evil one" (I John 5:18). We are "strengthen and protected" (II Thess. 3:3) by "the power of God" (I Peter 1:5), "rescued from temptation" (II Peter 2:9), for "God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able" (I Cor. 10:13). We are kept by the Spirit of Christ from "caving in" under the pressures and apostatizing. Jesus is not promising an escapist deliverance from the tribulations of life, but is promising the Christians of Philadelphia and the Christians of all time that He will provide what is necessary for their safekeeping in the midst of the many trials, hardships, and persecutions even unto death that will continually occur within this world.

   Jesus seems to indicate that the "hour of testing" is to provide trials for "those who dwell upon the earth." These earth-dwellers are those who are "of this world" (John 17:14), identified with the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), employing "earthly wisdom" (James 3:15). Both Christians and non-Christians have trials in life, but the purpose of trials in the life of a non-Christian are to reveal that he does "not have what it takes" to deal with them, whereas the Christian recognizes therein that he "has what it takes" to endure and persevere through the trials by the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. When Jesus warns that He is "coming quickly" (3:11), the most likely meaning is that He will soon be bringing punitive judgment upon those non-Christian "earth-dwellers" who were persecuting the Philadelphian Christians. Christians, on the other hand, are "heaven-dwellers" who are "seated in the heavenlies" (Eph. 2:6) and "citizens of heaven" (Phil. 3:20), and they recognize the spiritual provision of Jesus Christ that "keeps" them through all the providential situations of life.

   Religionists are "earth-dwellers" who employ earthly and worldly ways, "which seem right to a man, but the ends thereof are death" (Prov. 14:12). Often, in identification with the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), they offer a false "easy way out" from the trials of life. Whenever religion offers an escapism from present problems and future tribulation, beware that they are not offering the "keeping power" that Jesus was extending to the Philadelphian Christians and Christians in every age.

   The command of Jesus to the Philadelphians was to "hold fast what you have, in order that no one take your crown" (3:11). What did they "have" to which they were to "hold fast?" They had "all things" (I Cor. 3:21-23) in Christ, who is the "sum of all spiritual things" (Eph. 1:10). They were to "hold fast" to Christ in faith, to "hold fast their profession" (Heb. 4:14), and "hold fast His name (Rev. 2:13). In so doing no one could take away that imperishable victory wreath (I Cor. 9:25), that "crown of righteousness that is laid up...for all who have loved His appearing" (II Tim. 4:8). Like the "crown of life" promised to the Christians at Smyrna, this is the crown of victory (stephanos), which Christians expect to receive at the ultimate victory celebration when Christ's victory is consummated for all time.

   The promises of the risen Lord Jesus to the Philadelphian Christians are then expressed when Jesus says, "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it any more; and I will write upon him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name" (3:12). To all who overcome the temptation to revert to religion by "holding fast" to the Overcomer (John 16:33), Jesus promises that they will be made "a pillar in the temple of God."

   Religion is so quick to pervert this, for they are most concerned with pillars and spires in physical buildings or temples, as evidenced by the temples that abounded in Philadelphia. They fail to understand that "God does not dwell in houses built by hands" (Acts 7:48; 17:24). In addition, religion encourages men to aspire to become "pillars" of leadership in the church (Gal. 2:9), often without any understanding of how Christ leads His church.

   Jesus is telling Christians that by faithful receptivity of His life and ministry, they become an integral part of the church. The church is "the temple of the living God" (I Cor. 3:16; II Cor. 6:16), "fitted together, growing into a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20-22). Christians are "living stones, being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood" (I Peter 2:5). Functioning now as the collective "temple" in which God dwells and reigns, we look forward to the heavenly "temple" (Rev. 7:15; 21:22) and the perfect reign of God in Christ. Jesus goes on to explain that when we are a functioning part of the Church, the temple of God, in spiritual union with the Overcomer, Jesus Christ, we have an assurance that we have identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, and "will not go out from it any more" for we have found everything we need in Him. Some have speculated that Jesus may have been making a reference to the fact that the Philadelphians had "gone out" and fled the temples of their city many times when the unsettling earthquakes came, but since Christians are part of a spiritual temple, they never need to go out regardless of how unsettling the circumstances around them.

   Furthermore Jesus promises Christians who overcome in Christ that He will write upon them the name of God, the name of the city of God, and His new name. Why all this emphasis on names? It might be an allusion to the Philadelphian tendency to keep changing the name of their city to identify with a Roman emperor, something they had already done twice in the century prior to Jesus' address here in the Revelation. This is indicative of religion to clamor after "names" of celebrities and important people. Jesus is promising Christians far more than a titular name. He is promising a permanent identification with the character of God. The prophet Isaiah indicated that God was going to provide "in My house and within My walls a memorial, ...I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off" (Isa. 56:5). Christians do receive a new everlasting name in Christ; we become "Christ-ones" in whom Christ lives forever.

   In Christ we are identified as citizens of the "city of God, the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city." Religion has tried to engage in "city-building" ever since they tried to build the "tower of Babel" (Gen. 11:4-9). Again and again they have attempted to construct social community, but the city that religious man builds is but an evil Babylon that is nothing more than a parody of the City of God. But Christians who are faithfully functioning as overcomers participate in the New Jerusalem, the new spiritual "city of peace" "whose builder is God" (Heb. 11:10,16). We have "come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22), and "the Jerusalem above is free" (Gal. 4:26). The genuine interpersonal relationships that the personal, triune God intended for man are to be found only in true Christian community in the Body of Christ, the church. Therein we are free to relate to one another in love and joy and peace and patience, expressing God's character one to another and functioning as God intended man to function, unto His glory.

   In order to do so, we must continue to listen to God, to be discerning and obedient. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (3:13). Apart from that constant spiritual communion with God we cannot experience all that God has for us in Jesus Christ.



 Revelation Series