To the church at Philadelphia

Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3

This is the sixth in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis.

Twenty-eight miles southeast of Sardis is Philadelphia, built by King Attalus Philadelphus of Pergamum. “Philadelphus” is similar to the Greek word philadelphia, meaning brotherly love, which occurs seven times in the New Testament. Known for its agricultural products, Philadelphia also is situated on a geological fault and therefore prone to earthquakes. In 17 B.C. a major earthquake destroyed Philadelphia, Sardis and 10 other cities. Its location is crucial, however, as it sits on a main route from Rome to the East and therefore is called “the gateway to the East.” It also is known as “little Athens” because of its many pagan temples.

The city hosts one of only two churches – the other being Smyrna – for which Christ has nothing but unvarnished praise. While the city’s good name preceded the church, the believers in Philadelphia no doubt enhance its reputation because of their love of Christ and love for one another. “But it is not enough to love God and our fellow believers; we must also love a lost world and seek to reach unbelievers with the Good News of the Cross,” writes Warren Wiersbe. “This church had a vision to reach a lost world, and God set before them an open door” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 3:7).

Christ’s self-description

Jesus identifies Himself as “The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens” (v. 7).  His declaration of holiness is a claim to deity, which the faithful saints in Philadelphia celebrate in contrast to the city’s numerous pagan gods. The “True One” undergirds this audacious claim to being, not just a deity, but the one true and living God to the exclusion of all others. The name also corresponds to Rev. 1:5, where Jesus is described as “the faithful witness.” In the words “the One who has the key of David,” Jesus tells us He has the authority as Messiah to open and close doors of ministry. He also has the keys of death and Hades (1:18) and ultimately tosses both into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). In the New Testament, an “open door” is an opportunity for the gospel’s advance (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). As the Head of the church, Jesus determines when and where the gospel will be effective (see Acts 16:6-10).

As the One who holds the key of David, Jesus is the antitype of Eliakim, to whom the key, the emblem of authority over the house of David, is given in Isa. 22:15-25. Taken away from Shebna, who is unfaithful and therefore unworthy, the key is given to Eliakim. In much the same way, Jesus takes authority over His people – indeed over the whole earth – because He alone is worthy to receive all authority from the Father (Matt. 28:18)..

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition

Jesus says, “I know your works” in the midst of limited strength. The believers in Philadelphia have “kept My word,” “not denied My name,” and “kept My command to endure” (vv. 8, 10). This is perhaps a reference to some particular unnamed trial in which the faithful, with little strength and few resources of their own, have found comfort in the words of Jesus to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Matthew Henry suggests that Jesus’ commendation is laced with a mild rebuke in the words “Because you have limited strength” (v. 8). Henry writes, “[T]hough Christ accepts a little strength, yet believers should not rest satisfied in a little, but should strive to grow in grace, to be strong in faith, giving glory to God. True grace, though weak, will do more than the greatest gifts or highest degrees of common grace, for it will enable the Christian to keep the word of Christ, and not to deny his name. Obedience, fidelity, and a free confession of the name of Christ, are the fruits of true grace, and are pleasing to Christ as such.” Other commentators see no hint of rebuke whatsoever in Christ’s words. Rather, they see Jesus praising the believers in Philadelphia for leveraging what little measure of faith they’ve been given. The apostle Paul tells us not everyone has the same capacity for faith in God (Rom. 12:3).

There appear to be two obstacles for the church in Philadelphia. The first is a lack of strength; evidently the church is neither large nor strong. Second, the church faces opposition from unbelieving Jews in Philadelphia. Jewish Christians perhaps are banned from the synagogue in the city. In addition, since Satan is “the father of liars” (John 8:44), believers in Philadelphia no doubt are the targets of slander and false accusations hatched from the “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). Warren Wiersbe writes, “Unbelief sees the obstacles, but faith sees the opportunities! And since the Lord holds the keys, He is in control of the outcome!” (Re 3:7).

Christ’s comfort and/or commands

Jesus offers three promises to the church: an open door, deliverance from enemies, and protection from an approaching time of trouble. As mentioned earlier, the New Testament uses the concept of an open door as an opportunity for ministry. Peter rightly opens the gospel door to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48), then wrongly tries to close it in part through hypocrisy in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-18). Paul on several occasions refers to an open door of ministry:

  • “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, because a wide door for effective ministry has opened for me …” (1 Cor. 16:8-9a).
  • “When I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ, a door was opened to me by the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12).
  • “At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah – for which I am in prison – so that I may reveal it as I am required to speak” (Col. 4:3).

It is clear that the Lord (referred to as Christ, the Holy Spirit or God) opens these doors of opportunity – and at times closes them. Luke records, for example, that the Holy Spirit prevents Paul and Timothy from speaking the gospel message in the province of Asia while empowering them to speak in the regions of Phrygia and Galatia. When they come to Mysia, the missionaries try to go into Bithynia but the “Spirit of Jesus” prevents them. Paul then has a vision in which he receives the Macedonian call and immediately sets sail, concluding that “God” has called him to evangelize there (Acts 16:6-10).

Jesus’ second promise to the church at Philadelphia is deliverance from its enemies: “Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying – note this – I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9). Matthew Henry notes, “Observe, First, The greatest honour and happiness any church can enjoy consist in the peculiar love and favour of Christ. Secondly, Christ can discover this his favour to his people in such a manner that their very enemies shall see it, and be forced to acknowledge it. Thirdly, This will, by the grace of Christ, soften the hearts of their enemies, and make them desirous to be admitted into communion with them” (Rev. 3:7-13). The promise to Philadelphia is greater than the Lord’s promise to Smyrna. Jesus tells the believers in Smyrna they will suffer at the hands of those in the “synagogue of Satan,” but He indicates to the faithful in Philadelphia that some of the Jews ultimately will turn in faith to Christ. At what point will the unbelieving Jews bow down at the Philadelphians’ feet? Perhaps when they are glorified and enthroned with Jesus, at which time every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).

The third promise of Jesus is deliverance from “the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). What is this hour of testing? And does it impact the entire earth or simply the known world of John’s day? Futurist scholars believe the “hour of testing” is the coming global tribulation. If so, Jesus’ message should comfort believers that we will not have to endure these unprecedented dark days. Preterists argue that a crisis affecting the Roman Empire satisfies the terminology of verse 10 since the term “the whole world” is used to designate the empire in Luke 2:1 and elsewhere. Since they place the writing of the Book of Revelation prior to 70 A.D., they say the “hour of testing” is the death of Nero in 68 A.D. and the civil wars that follow, along with the quelling of the Jewish rebellion, destruction of the temple, and scattering of the Jews in 70 A.D. Still others, such as idealists, say the time of trial is generic and applies to Christians who suffer throughout the church age. It is difficult to know with certainty which of these interpretations is correct – if any of them. However, Jesus’ promise must have meant something to the first-century believers in Philadelphia, even if there is a further fulfillment in later times.

Warren Wiersbe offers this view: “This is surely a reference to the time of Tribulation that John described in Revelation 6–19, ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble.’ This is not speaking about some local trial, because it involves ‘them that dwell on the earth’ (see Rev. 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:2, 8). The immediate reference would be to the official Roman persecutions that would come, but the ultimate reference is to the Tribulation that will encompass the earth before Jesus Christ returns to establish His kingdom. In many Bible scholars’ understanding, Revelation 3:10 is a promise that the church will not go through the Tribulation, but will be taken to heaven before it begins (see 1 Thes. 4:13–5:11). The admonition, ‘Behold, I come quickly,’ would strengthen this view” (Re 3:7).

Finally, Jesus exhorts His followers, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown” (v.  11). What do believers in Philadelphia have? Limited strength that compels them to trust God, faith in God’s promises, faithfulness to His name, and endurance in persecution. By the world’s standards, these are puny resources. But entrusted to God’s hands they are powerful weapons for waging spiritual battle, and believers who employ them will earn rewards (crowns) for faithful service. While a crown may be taken away, a believer’s salvation cannot. We should not conclude that Jesus is threatening to undo His finished work on the cross if the church in Philadelphia stumbles. On the contrary, He returns as a Lamb slain, bearing the marks of His crucifixion, and bringing His reward with Him.

Christ’s urge to listen

Jesus ends this letter with the familiar invitation: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” It is not a church’s membership roll, staff size, budget or programs that determine its greatness; rather, it is the degree to which it is ready – by faith in Christ and faithfulness to Him – to walk through an open door of ministry. In the Lord’s economy, some of the greatest churches are the smallest, poorest, and most obscure.

Christ’s promises to the victor

Jesus says, “The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. 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 My new name” (v. 12). Ancient cities often honor great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed. Pagan temples boast majestic pillars, as does the temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus has something far greater in mind. He tells the faithful in Philadelphia that He will make them pillars in the heavenly sanctuary and write God the Father’s name upon them, along with the name of the New Jerusalem, and His own new name. Matthew Henry adds: “On this pillar shall be recorded all the services the believer did to the church of God, how he asserted her rights, enlarged her borders, maintained her purity and honour; this will be a greater name than Asiaticus, or Africanus; a soldier under God in the wars of the church” (Re 3:7-13). And unlike the pillars of the temple in Jerusalem, which fell to the Romans, or the pillars of the pagan temple in Philadelphia that crumbled in an earthquake, the heavenly pillars will stand for eternity as a testimony to great men and women of faith – and to a greater Savior.

One final issue should be addressed: Why does Jesus refer to “My God” four times in verse 12? Is He denying His own deity? Quite the contrary. Jesus is expressing His intimacy with the Father and His unity of purpose with the Godhead. It is true that on the cross Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) Some argue from this that Jesus is not divine – a weak argument that collapses beneath the weight of Jesus’ own claims to the contrary (John 8:58 and 10:30, for example). Others more accurately observe that He is crying out in His humanity to the Father while experiencing the full weight of God’s wrath for mankind’s sin. Jesus does in fact became sin for us on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21) and bears the penalty of our sins (Rom. 5:8). Yet even during those dark moments before His physical death, when He experiences spiritual death as our substitute, He never ceases to be the eternal Son of God. When faced with challenges like the four-fold use of “My God” in Rev. 3:12, we do well to see these verses in the light of clear Scripture. There is no doubt Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and has never laid His deity aside.