THE LETTER – “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 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. 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. 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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:7-13)
Background – Philadelphia was seventy-five miles southeast of Sardis. The adjacent region was celebrated as a wine-growing district, and its coins bore the head of Bacchus, the pagan wine god. The population included Jews, Jewish Christians, and gentile converts. It suffered from frequent earthquakes. Of the seven churches, it had the longest duration of prosperity as a Christian city. It still exists as a Turkish town under the name of Allah Shehr, City of God, with a sizeable Christian population to this day.
Greeting: What’s in A Name – In this letter, Jesus describes Himself as “Him who is holy,” which is tantamount to declaring that He is God. He is holy in His character, His words, His actions, and His purposes. As the Holy One, He is uniquely set apart from everything else. No other being outside of the Godhead (one in essence, three in persons) can compare to Him.
He also says that He is “true,” meaning that He is genuine, the authentic God and not a manufactured one or a copy. In this culture, there were hundreds of false gods and goddesses. Only Jesus Christ could rightfully claim to be the true God. These verses also allude to Isaiah 22:22. He holds “the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” One who had David’s key had full authorization to rule. Jewish Christians were typically excluded from the synagogue. Exclusion from the synagogue could lead to more direct persecution by the Roman authorities, as in Smyrna. This identification was Jesus’ encouragement that he who rightly ruled the house of David acknowledged them as His own people.
The name Philadelphia meant city of brotherly love. The city was called the Gateway (door) to the East, another possible reason that Jesus would allude to opening and shutting doors.
Praise: What’s Pretty Good – Jesus continues the door metaphor by saying “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” In the New Testament, an open door speaks of opportunity for ministry (Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12). See Figure 9.1.
Christ is the Lord of the harvest as well as the Head of the Church. He is the one who determines where and when His people will serve (Acts 16:6–10). He gave the church at Philadelphia a great opportunity for ministry. And if Christ provides an open door, He will see to it that they are able to walk through it.
That did not mean there would be no obstacles, because there were.
• Lack of Strength – The first obstacle facing Philadelphia was a lack of strength. Apparently, this was not a large or a strong church. Nevertheless, it was a faithful one, true to God’s Word and unafraid to bear His name. Despite their lack of strength, they had endured some kind of special testing and had proved faithful. There is an important lesson here. It is not the size or strength of a church (or an individual Christian) that determines success of ministry, but rather being faithful to the call and command of the Lord. If God calls you to it, He will see you through it.
• Opposition of the Jews – The second obstacle was the opposition of those “who claim to be Jews though they are not.” This was really the opposition of Satan, for our battle is not against flesh and blood. These people may have been Jews in the flesh, but they were not the true Israel in the New Testament sense (Romans 2:17–29). Jewish people undeniably have a great heritage, but it is not a guarantee of salvation.
How were these Jews opposing the church at Philadelphia? One was by excluding Jewish believers from the synagogue. Another was probably false accusation. This is the way the unbelieving Jews often attacked Paul (and Jesus). Satan is the ultimate accuser and he will use everything at his disposal, even “religious” people to assist him.
It is not easy to witness for Christ when the leading people in the community are spreading lies about you or when the majority of the culture is against you. But where unbelief sees obstacles (closed doors), faith sees the opportunities (open doors). And since the Lord holds the keys, He is in control of the outcome. So, what do we have to fear? Nobody can close the doors as long as God is the one holding them open.
Criticism: What’s Not So Good – The church in Philadelphia received no rebuke from Christ. Instead they were commended and given a promise because they had been willing to endure patiently. The promise was: “I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” The immediate reference was likely the Roman persecutions that were coming. But the ultimate reference could be the Tribulation that will encompass the “whole world” before Jesus Christ returns to establish His kingdom.
While this clearly is an explicit promise to the Philadelphia church, many Bible scholars believe that Revelation 3:10 is also an implicit promise that the universal true Church will not go through the Tribulation (or at least not through the worst part). Instead, they will be taken to heaven before the Tribulation begins (pre-tribulationalism) or before it becomes the Great Tribulation (mid-tribulationalism). These expositors claim that if Christ had meant to say that they would be preserved through a time of trouble, or would be taken out from within the Tribulation, a different verb and a different preposition would have been required. See Figure 9.2.
Clearly the saints in the church at Philadelphia passed away long before the time of trouble would come, and which still has not come. But if the church here is taken to be typical of the body of Christ standing true to the faith, the promise may go beyond the Philadelphia church to all those who are believers in Christ. Yet the question still remains for the end time tribulation believers: will Christ keep us from or remove us from?
Exhortation – Christ’s exhortation is a simple “I am coming soon. Hold on…” See Figure 9.3.
The promise that He would come soon, as discussed earlier, was not a reckoning of time as we understand time. If it was, then the promise was not kept in a literal chronological sense. Since we know that Christ keeps all His promises, it likely meant that He would come unexpectedly (when no one expects it) and suddenly (in the twinkling of an eye). This promise was and continues to be a great incentive to persevering in our faithfulness, and a consolation when undergoing trials or persecution.
Warning – Jesus warns the church to “hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” What they had was what He had just commended them for (“you have kept my word and have not denied my name… you have kept my command to endure patiently”). The specific word translated crown in this instance (there were many types of crowns) was the laurel wreath awarded to the victor at the games or a festive garland used on occasions of rejoicing. The crowns had no great intrinsic value, but were symbolic of honor and victory. Paul reminded the Corinthians that athletes strive “to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25). He tells Timothy that those who seek after the crown “competes according the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5).
Sometimes the crown is meant for the here and now, as when Paul thinks of his converts as his crown (Philippians. 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19). But it is more typically for the hereafter, as the “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day” (2 Timothy 4:8). There are also references to a “crown of life” (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10), and to “an unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). The Christians here are exhorted to hold fast rather than yield to the temptation lest their crown (the symbol of victory, not eternal life) be taken from them.
Promise to Overcomers – The promise to the overcomers in Philadelphia corresponds to their distinct conduct. Everyone who is an overcomer will become a pillar in the temple of God. This is symbolic of a permanent place in heaven for believers. In contrast to earthly temples and earthly pillars which fall, believers will continue forever in the Heavenly temple. The symbolism in this verse would be especially meaningful to people who lived in constant danger of earthquakes – the stability of a pillar that nothing could destroy.
Christ also specified that He would write on them “My new name.” (See also Revelation 2:17, 14:1, and 19:12). Because believers have identified with Christ by faith, He will identify Himself with them. Also relevant is the fact that ancient cities often honored great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed on them. God’s pillars are not made of stone, because there is no temple in the heavenly city (Revelation 21:22). His pillars are faithful people who bear His name for His glory (Galatians 2:9).
Reflection – Victory does not always belong to the strong or weakly opposed. Christ’s strength within the weakest, can overcome the strongest adversary, for when we weak (not self-reliant) we are strong (relying of Christ).
Next Up – The church in Laodecia.
Cited sources for Philadelphia
- Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Re 2:8). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 2:8). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
- Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 934). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 2:8). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 442). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 573). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.