Philadelphia

REVELATION 3

Philadelphia (modern Alashehir) was founded in the third century B.C. by one of the Pergamenian kings and named after Attalus II (159–138 B.C.) who, in spite of Roman pressure, maintained “loyalty/love” for his brother, Eumenes II (197–159 B.C.)— thus the name “Philadelphia” (brotherly love). It is located about 80 mi. east of Smyrna (Izmir) in western Turkey. In New Testament times it was at an important junction of one of the greatest highways in the world which led the East to the West, terminating at Smyrna; and a diagonal route that ran from Pergamum 111 mi. [178 km.] to the northwest to Attalia, 187 mi. to the southeast. It was the youngest of the seven cities.

In ancient sources, Philadelphia was known for housing a number of temples and in A.D. 17 it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake. In Revelation 3:12, the believer who “overcomes” is compared to a pillar (stability) in the temple of God, and on him/it three names will be written — compare the names inscribed on the columns of the temple of Zeus at Euromos. It had so many gods and so many temples that sometimes it was called “Little Athens.”

The city of Philadelphia was also known for its beautiful buildings and architecture. Because of its volcanic fertile soil, there were many grape vineyards. Thus it was the center of the worship of the Greek god Dionysius, the god of wine. The city was backed by volcanic cliffs and though the land was rich and fertile from the volcanic residue. It was a dangerous place to live due the many earthquakes experienced by the region.

According to Strabo, the city was in constant danger of earthquakes and experienced shocks as an everyday occurrence because of its location. As a result, many of its inhabitants chose to live in huts outside the city in the open country. Note the allusion to this in the promise of Rev, 3:12, “and he will not go out from it any more.” Like Athens, Philadelphia was a temple warden and gave to the emperor the title “The Son of the Holy One.” This is undoubtedly for this reason the Lord is called, “He who is holy, who is true” in verse 7.

Philadelphia was founded for a special purpose and with a special intention. It was situated where the borders of Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia met. It was a border town. Nearby Phrygia was known for its barbarian tribes, which was why Philadelphia was founded with the deliberate intention that it might be a missionary of Greek culture and the Greek language to Lydia and Phrygia; and it worked so well that by A.D. 19 the Lydians had forgotten their own Lydian language and were all but Greeks.

The symbols of the ‘crown’ and the ‘temple’ mentioned in verses 11 and 12 are undoubtedly allusions by way of contrast with the games and religious festivals that were a part of life in the city of Philadelphia. In contrast with the instability of life in a city prone to daily earthquakes, those who ‘overcome’ are promised the ultimate stability of being rewarded with special privileges in the temple of God. This church may picture the modern missionary era of church history.

Once again Jesus presents Himself in an aspect of His person and work which is fitting to the needs and problems of the assembly to ever remind us of the sufficiency of His life. “He who is holy” asserts the Savior’s deity as the absolutely righteous One; the One totally set apart from sin. It is a title of deity and contrasts Him with the claims of Emperor worship.

“Who is true?” “True” is the Greek word (alhqinos). It means “the real, the genuine, the ideal,” and stands opposed to what is false and to what is only a picture or type of the real. First He is the One of whom all the Old Testament spoke. There we find only pictures and shadows, but He is the reality and the substance (Col. 2:16-17). Second, this places Him in contrast to all the deceptions of the world and the false and futile answers they offer to man. God’s answer for man is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

“Who has the key of David?” In Revelation 1:18 the keys speak of Christ’s power to give salvation and victory over death and the unseen Satanic world which tenaciously tries to hold men under the dominion of sin and death (Heb. 2:14). Here, however, the key speaks of (1) His royal claims as Lord and Head of David’s house. It anticipates and looks to His rule and kingdom on earth. (2) And it also reminds us of His royal authority or sovereignty even now over heaven and earth (Matt. 28:19).

By way of application let us remember this: when men by their arrogance or religion or political position and actions would strive to shut out true Bible believing believers from effective service, we need to remember His power and authority. Men may bind us, as they did John and Paul, but God’s Word is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9). But further, when we think we must compromise God’s principles of the ministry and resort to technology, manipulation, or any kind of worldly means to accomplish spiritual objectives or as the keys to open doors, we need to again reflect on the truth of this passage. The Lord holds the key to opening doors to ministry as well as the door to the hearts of men.

“The One opening …” (3:7b) It is always our Lord who opens all true doors of ministry to us. This church had a little strength, i.e., they were small in numbers by man’s standards as man counts success, but this must never disturb or discourage us. Instead of looking to culture to compete with Hollywood or technology let’s remember that Hollywood can never compete with holiness. The power we have far surpasses even the greatest technological advances or cultural changes and when we allow the holiness of God to open doors, they truly remain open.

“And who shuts and no one opens …” (3:7b) There is also an important lesson here for us as believers who seek God’s guidance for ministry. Paul and His missionary team had planned to minister first in Asia, but were forbidden by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). Then they wanted to minister in Bithynia, but they were not permitted to minister there either (vs. 7). Instead, they were called to Macedonia. In other words, at that point at least, the Lord shut the doors to Asia and Bithynia, but opened them in other places. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul expressed his plans to eventually visit Corinth (16:5-7), but he carefully qualified this with “if the Lord permits” (vs. 7).

However, for the moment, he was committed to staying at Ephesus to minister. Why? Because “a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (evidently a sign to Paul of God’s hand on his work at Ephesus)” (cf. vss. 8-9). But when we turn to 2 Corinthians, we find that Paul had to change his plans in regard to Corinth due to circumstances beyond his control and the sovereign leading of the Lord, the One who opens and closes doors. The obvious lesson is that we must learn to grab the opportunities when they come, but not push and get frustrated when the Lord isn’t opening the door. (For other passages using the open door image look to Acts 14:27; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3.)

A man who had been touched for Jesus came to Spurgeon and asked how he could win others to Jesus. Spurgeon asked him, “What are you? What do you do?” The man said, “I’m an engine driver on a train.” “Then,” said Spurgeon, “Is the man who shovels coal on your train a Christian?” “I don’t know,” said the man. “Go back,” said Spurgeon, “And find out and start on him.”

There may be another sense to this open door. These Christians in Philadelphia seem to have been excluded from the synagogue (Revelation 3:9). The open door may also speak of their opportunity to enter God’s kingdom in contrast with their exclusion from the synagogue.

“And no one can shut it…” (3:8a) The emphasis is on unhindered openness. There is nothing that can keep them from their access to this door. Since Jesus is He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens (Revelation 3:7), He has the authority to keep this door open for the Christians in Philadelphia.

“David could shut or open the kingdom of Israel to whom he pleased. He was not bound to leave the kingdom even to his eldest son. He could choose whom he pleased to succeed him. The kingdom of the Gospel, and the kingdom of heaven, is at the disposal of Christ.” (Clarke)

God opens doors for ministry and ministers today. “I would like to bear witness that I have proved this Philadelphian promise of the open door through years of ministry and it has never failed. Promotion does not come from the south, east, or west, but from God; and if we commit our way unto Him and trust Him, He will bring it to pass . . . God’s man is not dependent on religious talent scouts nor is his ministry in the hand of ecclesiastical officials. His headquarters is heaven and his itinerary is made up by the Lord of the Open Door.” (Havner)

Because Jesus has opened the door, He gets the glory for it. “Neither wealth or influence, neither promotional schemes nor the eloquence of its pulpit, nor the harmonies of its musicians can give it an effective ministry. The Lord alone has opened the door; the Lord alone has ‘given the increase.’” (Morris)

“For you have a little strength…” (3:8) The term a little strength does not imply weakness, but real strength. They were weak enough to be strong in the Lord. We can be “too strong” or “too big” or too sure of ourselves for God to really use us. The church in Philadelphia had the poverty of spirit to know they really needed God’s strength. “It is not a matter of great strength, not great ability but great dependability. Samson had great ability but poor dependability. A little strength faithfully used means more than much strength flashily and fitfully used.” (Havner)

The Apostle Paul was a great example of this dynamic of weakness and strength. God’s strength was made evident in his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). “Have kept My word, and have not denied My name…” (3:8b) The church in Philadelphia also was faithful to Jesus and His word. The idea behind have not denied My name is not only that they expressed their allegiance to Jesus, but that they lived in a way that was faithful to the name and character of Jesus.

Look at the features of the church in Philadelphia:

  • Evangelistic opportunity (I have set before you an open door)
  • Reliance on God (You have a little strength)
  • Faithfulness to Jesus (have kept My word, and have not denied My name)

In some ways, these features seem “unspectacular.” They should be commonplace among churches. Yet Jesus was completely pleased with this church. He has nothing negative to say to the church at Philadelphia.

“The church of Philadelphia is commended for keeping the Word of the Lord and not denying His Name. Success in Christian work is not to be measured by any other standard of achievement. It is not rise in ecclesiastical position. It is not the number of new buildings which have been built through a man’s ministry. It is not the crowds that flock to listen to any human voice. All of these things are frequently used as yardsticks of success, but they are earthly and not heavenly measures.” (Barnhouse)

What Jesus will do for the Christians of Philadelphia: (3:9-10)

“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.”

“I will make those of the synagogue of Satan…” (3:9) Apparently, the Christians in Philadelphia were persecuted by Jewish people (the synagogue). However, these persecuting Jews were Jews in name only (who say they are Jews and are not, but lie). In fact, they have no spiritual connection to Abraham or to the people of faith.

In this, Jesus does not speak against all Jewish people. It would be entirely wrong to speak of the Jewish people as a whole as the synagogue of Satan or those who say they are Jews and are not. Jesus spoke of this specific group of Jewish people in Philadelphia who persecuted the Christians during that period.

“I will make them come and worship before your feet..” (3:9b) In this, Jesus promises that He will vindicate His people and make sure that their persecutors recognize they are wrong, and that Jesus and His followers are right. The thought is of vindication before self-righteous “spiritual” persecutors. God promises that the church in Philadelphia will be vindicated before their persecutors.

“And to know that I have loved you…” (3:9b) As those who were once their enemies worship along side them, they are destroyed as enemies. They now know that Jesus has loved these people they once persecuted. The best way to destroy the enemies of the gospel is to pray that God would change them into friends.

Persecuted people often long for justice against their persecutors (Revelation 6:10). A passage from a second century Christian shows this: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy and exultation? As I see all those kings, those great kings . . . groaning in the depths of darkness! And the magistrates who persecuted in the name of Jesus, liquefying in fiercer flames than they kindled in their rage against the Christians!” (Tertullian, cited in Barclay)

What Jesus wants the church of Philadelphia to do: (3:11-12)

“Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.” (3:11)

“Behold, I am coming quickly… “(3:11) First, the church at Philadelphia must remember that Jesus is coming quickly, and they must prepare for His coming. “The expression ‘quickly’ is to be understood as something which is sudden and unexpected, not necessarily immediate.” (Walvoord)

“Hold fast what you have…” (3:11) The church at Philadelphia must not depart from its solid foundation, as described in Revelation:

  • Evangelistic opportunity (I have set before you an open door)
  • Reliance on God (You have a little strength)
  • Faithfulness to Jesus (have kept My word, and have not denied My name)

These things can and must continue among the church in Philadelphia, but it will only happen if they hold fast to what they have. “That no one may take your crown…” (3:11b) If they fail to hold fast, their crown might be given to another. The idea is not that it might be stolen by another, but given.

This is not a crown of royalty, given because of royal birth. This is a crown of victory. Jesus encourages His saints to finish their course with victory, to “play the second half” just as strongly as they “played the first half.” “Never forget that the man most likely to steal your crown is yourself. ‘Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life’ (Proverbs 4:23). You are in no greater danger from anyone or anything than from yourself.” (Havner)

“He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. And 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.” (3:12)

“He, who overcomes, I will make him a pillar…” (3:12) Overcomers are told that they will be as a pillar in the temple of My God. Pillars were pictures of strength, stability, and dignified beauty.

The ancient city of Philadelphia suffered from frequent earthquakes. When a building collapsed in an earthquake often all that remained were the huge pillars. Jesus offers us this same strength, to remain standing in Him when everything around us crumbles. The pillar holds up the building. The only thing supporting the pillar is the foundation. True pillars in the church support the church, and they look to Jesus as their support foundation.

“He shall go out no more…” (3:12) The overcomer will have a place of permanence and stability with God, in contrast to an uncertain place in this world. “The citizens of Philadelphia lived an unsettled and tremulous life. Whenever the earthquake tremors came, and they came often, the people of Philadelphia fled from the city out into the open country, to escape the falling masonry and the flying stones which accompanied a severe earthquake shock. Then, when the earth was quiet again, they returned. In their fear the people of Philadelphia were always going out and coming in; they were always fleeing from the city and then returning to it.” (Barclay)

“I will write on him the name of My God . . . I will write on him My new name.” (3:12b) The overcomer also receives many names – of God, the New Jerusalem, and the new name of Jesus. These names are marks of identification because they show who we belong to. They are marks of intimacy, because it shows we are privileged to know Him in ways others are not.

This works together well with the image of a pillar. In the ancient world, having a special inscribed pillar added to one of the temples sometimes honored a faithful city servant or distinguished priest. “Philadelphia honored its illustrious sons by putting their names on the pillars of its temples, so that all who came to worship might see and remember.” (Barclay)

A general exhortation to all who will hear: “He, who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He, who has an ear, let him hear.” (3:13) We all want to hear the praise and encouragement Jesus gives to the church at Philadelphia. If we would be like this church, we must stay on their foundation, which was Jesus’ name and Jesus’ word.  – Billy Sanderson

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