To the Church in Philadelphia
7 “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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 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. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7-13)
About the city of Philadelphia:
The city of Philadelphia was founded in 189 BC by King Eumenes II who was the king over Pergamum. He named the city the “city of brotherly love” for the love that he had for his own brother, Attalus II, who he wanted to succeed him as king. This name, unlike the Hollywood movie with Tom Hanks, was named after a close, healthy, relationship with a brother. It symbolized loyalty and genuine love.
The area around Philadelphia was a significant agricultural area, especially for production of wine. Because of this, Dionysus was a significant deity worshipped here along with the Emperor and other deities as well. Dionysus was not only the god of wine and fertility, but also erotic behavior and worshipped through sexual immorality.
Philadelphia was hit by a significant earthquake in 17 AD which destroyed most of the city. It was rebuilt by Emperor Tiberius. So, in the time of the early church it would have been a very nice city having just been rebuilt. It was destroyed by subsequent earthquakes.
About the Prophecy to the Church in Philadelphia:
Jesus starts the prophecy to Philadelphia by saying, “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” (Revelation 3:7).
Jesus first identifies himself with a characteristic which relates to the people. He identifies himself as the one who is holy and true and who “holds the key of David”. This is a significant verse. Apparently, much of the persecution that the Christians faced was from the Jewish synagogues, though clearly they faced other persecution as well. But it was here that Jesus spoke of the Jews as the “synagogue of Satan”. This is a very strong accusation for the Jews considered themselves the true followers of God. But here, Jesus identified himself as the one who “holds the key of David.” This means that he is the source and master of the Jewish people. Jesus was saying the synagogue had departed from God and no longer followed God, but Satan. They were persecuting the true followers of God, the believers in Jesus.
Jesus followed up by saying, “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” (Revelation 3:9). The people of God, Israel, will one day have to humble themselves and admit that Jesus loves the gentile followers of God too. They are all chosen people of God, Israel and Gentile. Clearly, the persecution from the Jewish people in Philadelphia was severe. In what should have been considered a “city of brotherly love” was not the case between the brothers of God, Israel and the Church.
Jesus also gave them a promise of protection. He said, “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” (Revelation 3:10). This promise is because of their obedience to Jesus and because they have “endured patiently”. Jesus promised to keep them in the hour of trial (probably a calamity) that is going to come to the whole world. This may have referred to divine protection in time of the cataclysmic earthquakes which hit the region in the first and second century, and may also refer to the coming of Christ. Jesus affirms them by saying that even though they are weak, they will have favor. He says, “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” (Revelation 3:7). Jesus sees all that they have done, even though they were a small community of believers.
Like other towns in the region, Philadelphia prospered through agriculture. The soil was suited to growing grapes. Wine was an important product, thus the city was a center of worship of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. The flocks that grazed in the area supplied wool and hides for textiles and leather production. Philadelphia was easily defended but the surrounding district was disastrously earthquake prone which ultimately led to the destruction of the city multiple times.
The final promise is for those who are obedient to Jesus and overcome. Jesus says, “11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 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.” (Revelation 3:11-12).
Jesus promises that he is coming and will be ushering in the Kingdom of God to Philadelphia, so he pleads with them to “hold on to what you have”. Don’t lose ground. Don’t give into the persecution and hardship. They have to remain committed. If they do so, he promises a victors crown (which was a crown of champions from the Olympics and sporting events held in ancient cities). He also speaks of making the church a “pillar” in which the name of God will be written, and the new name of the New Jerusalem will be written and a new name. This is in direct reference to giving honor to the church in Philadelphia.
In the next century, one of the church fathers named Ignatious when journeying from Antioch to Rome, before he was martyred, stopped in Philadelphia and wrote a letter to the church then commending them on their unity. It seems they took much of the prophecy and lived it out for some time.
Today, there is not much to see from the early city. The site is now covered by modern Alashehir (“city of Allah” or God). There are only a handful of believers of Jesus in this city.
What it means for believers today:
There are several things which I think the church can learn from the church in Philadelphia. The prophecy to the church applies to the churches of today as well. Most significantly, we can learn about brotherly love, obedience to Christ and persistence to overcome.
Brotherly love. Jesus was comparing the city of Philadelphia (brotherly love) with the Jews and the Christians, who hated each other. He referred to the Jews as the Temple of Satan. Considering the church today, how many times do we attack others who also believe in Jesus. We attack Baptists for their religion, Pentecostals for their legalistic following of the Holy Spirit, Charismatics for their shallowness, Methodists for their syncretism with the world. Small churches attack big ones, unknown leaders attack popular ones and generally, we just discard any believer who can’t act like one all the time. We won’t even speak of Catholics or Orthodox believers! They all, however, believe in Jesus. Probably not the exact way that you do, but they do believe in Jesus. Shouldn’t we be showing more brotherly love? I think we have a long way to go!
One of Jesus’ final prayers included, “20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Obedience to Christ. Jesus commended the church for their obedience to his commands. He told them to endure and they did. He told them to love each other and they did. Today, the church needs to come back to a place of obedience to Christ. I know it sounds strange to say that, but if you look at how we live our lives, we live in ritual and tradition mostly. We go to church because we are supposed to. We read our Bibles, because we are supposed to. We pray, once in a while, because that is what tradition dictates. But how many of us can say, “we denied ourselves, took up the cross of Christ, and followed him.” I think most of us will just hang our head in shame. Only obedience honors Christ and we have to come to a place in our lives where we really put Christ first.
Overcoming in Christ, persistence. To every church Jesus told them to “overcome”. Persistence is everything in the Christian life. Anyone can follow Jesus for 10 minutes, but how hard it is to live a life in obedience. Especially, when the people are persecuted for following Christ. There is coming a time in America, I believe, where the church will be tested by persecution. Those who overcome will be saved. Perseverance is a trait which we need to strive for and it demonstrates our faith.