June 2, 2008

Revelation 3:7-13: The Letter to Philadelphia

“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.”’

Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love,” was about 38 miles southeast of Sardis. It was on a major highway and had thousands of visitors annually. Philadelphia was a dangerous place to live due the many earthquakes experienced by the region. The city was virtually destroyed in 17 A.D. in the same earthquake that destroyed Sardis and, like Sardis, was rebuilt by the Romans.

The government suspended taxes in Philadelphia because of the financial distress the earthquake had caused and provided financial aid to the people. This resulted in a strong bond between the population of Philadelphia and the Roman government and emperor. Nevertheless, most inhabitants chose to live in huts outside the city in the open country because of the earthquake danger. Verse 12 may have an allusion to this: “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.”

Philadelphia was unique. It was founded by the Greeks in the second century B.C. as what the Greeks called an “open door” city, with the intention of spreading Greek culture into Asia Minor. It worked so well that by the first century A.D. the region was culturally Greek and the language spoken was Greek.

The city was referred to as “Little Athens” because it had many temples of idolatry there. Philadelphia was known for worship of the Greek and Roman gods of wine. In addition, its hot springs were thought to have medicinal value, and many people from throughout Asia Minor visited and were exposed to the Greek cultural influence.

Christ’s letter to the church also has an allusion to the cultural history of Philadelphia, in verse 8: “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it.” There is one more allusion in this letter. In rebuilding Philadelphia after the earthquake in 17 A.D., the Romans built a large temple for emperor worship. On the temple was the inscription referring to the emperor as “the son of the holy one” or “son of the holy.” Now look at verse 7: “These things says He who is holy, He who is true.”

The reference in verse 7, “He who is holy,” means the one who is pure, separated from all sin. This is a strong theme in the Bible referring, in the Old Testament, to the prophesied Messiah and in the New Testament to Jesus the Christ (or in Hebrew, Messiah). Hebrews 4:15 tells us “but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin,” and Hebrews 7:26 adds: “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens.” Jesus’ claim of absolute holiness is true, unlike the claim of the Roman temple inscription to Caesar.

“He who is true” emphasizes Christ as the true and only God, the One possessing truth and in His very being Truth. We find this a strong theme in the gospel of John; for example, John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As the One “who is true,” He is the only true path to salvation. John 14:6 reports Jesus’ claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

In our passage today, verse 7 adds another description of our Lord: “He who has the key of David.” This is a reference to two prophecies of the Messiah found in Isaiah:

Isaiah 9:7: “Of the increase of His government and peace, there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”

Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David I will lay on His shoulder; so he shall open , and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.”

The key is a symbol of control and authority. Jesus’ point in verse 7 is to place emphasis on both His identity and authority, in contrast to the claim of the Caesar, so boldly inscribed on the Roman temple in Philadelphia.

Censure and praise (8-11)

No censure given to this congregation, but the Lord praises the church’s works (“I know your works,” verse 8) and states “I have set before you an open door” (a phrase that identifies with Philadelphia’s reputation as the Romans’ “open door city” to propagate of Greek and Roman culture in Asia Minor. This may be metaphor that recognizes the Philadelphian Christians’ communion with God and entrance into the Kingdom: an open door which no one can shut. This view, held by many commentators over the centuries, is bolstered by the Lord’s observation that the church has little strength but nevertheless has kept His word and not denied Him. Other teachers, me included, see the use of the phrase as a play on Philadelphia’s purpose for spreading western culture in Asia Minor. Just as the Romans used the city’s grand temples and worship of Caesar and the god of wine to spread western culture, so Jesus sees the church at Philadelphia as the open door for spreading the message of the gospel. Regardless of the interpretation, Jesus’ words are seen as positive and part of the praise He has for the church there.

One other observation I would make regarding verse 8 is that it is hard for us to appreciate just how difficult daily life was for these Christians. The culture was polytheistic. Philadelphia was governed by the Romans and the culture was decidedly Roman. But most inhabitants were not Roman citizens. Many adopted Roman ways, however, and worshiped Caesar at his temple, in addition to worshiping their pagan Gods. But the Christians evidently did not, a fact the Lord recognized in His praise. People who were not citizens and declined to worship Caesar were sort of second-class, with few rights and few opportunities to make a living. In order to work, sell produce or other goods in the marketplace, own property, and enjoy other benefits, one had to worship at the temple of Caesar. It is plain that the Christians at Philadelphia did not, and they suffered for it. Jesus pays them a very great complement when He told them “for you have a little strength, have kept My word and have not denied My name.”

Prophecies (9-10)

Verse 9 is a prophecy of the future kingdom, when we will reign with Christ, when every knee will bow to Him, and when all mankind will know the truth that He is Savior and Lord. The Israelites rejection of their Messiah is seen as a tool of Satan. Indeed, in these early decades, the Jewish leadership cooperated with the Romans in persecuting and executing Christians in order to rid the world of the Christian faith. Verse 10 tells them that because they had persevered in their trials (persecution, poverty brought about by keeping the faith and not worshiping Caesar, etc.), they will be spared from “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world.”

They had already endured trials, and in fact were still enduring trials, and had been found faithful. This is one of several references confirming the removal of the church from the future tribulation before Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth, a doctrine often hotly debated but which is inevitable for anyone who regards prophecy as literal truth. (Interestingly, some of the “health and wealth” proponents quote just one part of this verse (“I will keep you from the hour of trial”) to promote the idea that faithful Christians are promised worry-free, healthy, and materially prosperous lives.)

A warning and promise (11-12)

The Lord adds, “Hold fast to what you have, that no one may take your crown.” In other words, stay faithful just as you have been faithful up to now. Jesus promised to return for His church and said “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). So, Christians are told to hold fast to their relationship with Christ, hold fast to what is good, to listen to the Spirit, to stay faithful no matter what.

Verse 11 is another verse that has been the subject of friction between those who hold that the bond between the Christian and Christ can be broken by sin and those who hold it will not be broken for the person who has truly trusted Christ as Savior and Lord.

Verse 12, as I mentioned earlier, seems to use the fear of earthquakes to make the point that He will make the one who overcomes (that is, the authentic, faithful Christian) “a pillar in the temple of My God” (secure, immovable, indestructible, and permanently in place). In the New Testament, the term “overcome” in reference to Christians means one who holds fast to his or her faith even unto death against enemies, persecutors, and temptations. There is a contrast that would have been obvious to the Philadelphian Christians. All the pillars in the magnificent temple to Caesar in Philadelphia had fallen in the earthquake of 17 A.D., and the numerous tremors regularly toppled pillars and walls in the city every generation or so. But the figurative “temple of My God” stands strong and immovable, so that the overcomer “will go out no more” (refers to the people living in small dwellings outside the city to avoid being crushed in an earthquake). In other words, His promise is sure and God, the only true Holy One, is strong and immovable, dependable, sure, and true. Finally, in verse 12, Christians are once again promised to be forever in Christ’s presence in His Kingdom.

Conclusion

Once more, I want to review what we have learned about the Lord and His will so far in these letters to the churches.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.

And today, in His letter to the church at Philadelphia, we once more learn the great importance our Lord places on works of faith, keeping His word in all we do, persevering and overcoming persecution and sacrifices the faithful Christian may endure while holding fast to the faith he or she knows to be true, faith in “He who is holy, He who is true.”

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