One may say, with unquestionable justification, that the central theme of the Bible is love, the most salient aspect of which is God’s love for mankind, His special creation. But the Bible is likewise profuse in instruction for God’s children to reflect His great love by loving others, both the saved as well as the unsaved. In this regard, Jesus often told His listeners parables, such as that of the Good Samaritan, to illustrate what true love is and how it is shown. Interestingly, Jesus also illustrates the many ramifications of love to us by means of an exemplary church, the Church of Philadelphia. This, then, will be the focus of our continuing series in the Seven Churches of Revelation.
Before we can begin a proper study of Jesus’ message to the believers in Philadelphia, it is important to recognize the astounding relationships to be seen between the character and needs of the seven Asian churches to whom Jesus directs His letters and the cities in which the various churches are located. Nowhere is this phenomenon as evident as it is in the Church of Philadelphia.
With this in mind, let us begin our penultimate study of the Churches of Revelation by examining the character and attitude of the Philadelphian believers and the historical background of the city in which they ministered. In this way, we find not only valuable lessons for our Christian lives but encouraging and sustaining promises as well.
Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven churches that Jesus Christ addressed, having been established in 189 BC by the King of Pergamum, Attalus II. King Attalus was well-known for his devotion to his brother Eumenes, and subsequently acquired the name Philaldelphias, meaning “brotherly love.” As is true with the other cities to which Jesus addresses His letters, the name Philadelphia has special significance with regard to the nature of the church there.
Philadelphia was located between two mountains, in a narrow pass, and lay along an important trade route between Sardis and Smyrna. Most significantly, it was situated where the borders of Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia met. This strategic location was chosen in order that the city could serve to promulgate a Hellenic culture and lifestyle to the tribes to the east. In other words, Philadelphia was established to be a “missionary city.”
Unfortunately, the city was sited in a zone of considerable seismic activity. Earthquakes were frequent and the people, who lived in fear of collapsing buildings and walls, would often flee from the city when temblors were felt. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, many inhabitants chose to live in huts outside the city walls or in the open country to avoid being trapped or crushed in the event of an earthquake.
Interestingly, Philadelphia was the last of the seven cities of Revelation to lose its Christian testimony. The Muslims eventually conquered the city around the year AD 1000. The modern town of Alasehir is now located at the site of ancient ruins.
In summary, there are several important points to note as we continue our study:
- Philadelphia was the city of brotherly love.
- Philadelphia was established as a missionary city.
- The inhabitants would often flee the city.
- It was difficult for Christians because of Jewish opposition
- The Church of Philadelphia represents the church age from 1750-1925 AD. This age saw the Great Awakenings as genuine revival spread across America and the British Isles. It was then that the great missionary movement began.
With this in mind, let us read the message which Jesus sent to the church:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens. I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on 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 I will 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 NKJV
Jesus’ Description of Himself
In His letters to the seven churches, the Lord generally begins with a description of Himself derived from John’s representation of Him in the first chapter of the book of Revelation. To the Philadelphian Christians, however, Jesus deviates from this pattern and rather presents Himself as “He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.” This is an allusion to an Old Testament reference (Isaiah 22:20-25) and is clearly a promise of Christ that He is sovereign over all matters, even those which seem impossible to us.
Scholars have proposed three interpretations of Christ’s words, each of which has a degree of biblical support:
- Seemingly the most obvious interpretation is to regard the door as one of opportunity for evangelism. One is reminded, for example, of Paul’s experience in being forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia but rather directed toward the open door of Europe (Acts 16:6-10). This interpretation enjoys the contextual support of the passage—Philadelphia was a missionary church and Christ, in His sovereignty, would open (or conversely, close) doors of opportunity to witness.
- Another perspective is that the Christ is the door of salvation. This idea is supported by Jesus’ own words in John 6 (verse 9). Christ offers the opportunity for salvation to all but repeated rejection can result in the door being closed, as in the moment in which God Himself closed the door of the ark in the days of Noah.
- Finally, some believe that Jesus is referring to the blessings Jesus is able to abundantly bestow on His children. As seen in Malachi 3:10, service to God will result in an outpouring of His goodness.
While each of the above interpretations is scripturally correct, I believe that principally Jesus is assuring us that He will faithfully be with us in our service for His Name, in spite of all opposition. Among Jesus’ final words while on earth were, “Go ye therefore…Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
As Jesus continues His message for the Philadelphian Christians His promises are seen to extend far beyond their present troubled situation. He tells them (and remember, these promises are applicable to us as well!) that they will be kept from “the hour of trial,” undoubtedly a reference to the coming seven years of tribulation during which the earth will be judged.
Additionally, Jesus assures the Christians that they will be pillars in the temple of God. This is reminiscent of the two pillars that Solomon constructed in the courtyard of the first temple. These pillars were called “Jachin,” meaning “establish” and “Boaz,” meaning strength (1 Kings 7:13-21). Although the Philadelphians had little strength at the time (verse 8) and lived in unsettled and transient circumstances, Jesus promises them that will be established in positions of strength and power as co-heirs of Christ’s millennial kingdom. They need never worry again about oppression or persecution because Jesus will write His very Name on them.
Jesus tells the Christians that they “will no more go out” in reference to their security in the New Jerusalem. Remember that the people of Philadelphia frequently fled the city when they sensed that another earthquake was imminent. The New Jerusalem, however, will be a perfect place in which fear and flight are completely unknown.
Jesus ends His commentary to the Philadelphians by declaring, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Of the promises given, this is perhaps the most precious. Jesus proclaims that His words are not just for an isolated community in Asia Minor which existed two thousand years ago. Those same promises enumerated to the Philadelphians are just as valid for Christians throughout the centuries and living in any part of the world. The promises of Christ are to us! He is with us always and we have the assurance of a glorious and secure future in His presence forevermore.