So the last 5 weeks we covered the first 5 letters found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. We’ve looked at the letter to the churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and last week we covered the letter to the church at Sardis.
This week we cover the letter to the church in a place that sounds very familiar to us, but obviously is not the same place. Today we look at the letter to the church at Philadelphia found in Revelation 3:7-13.
The letter to the church at Philadelphia reads like this, “ “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. 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. 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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
As we have talked about with each and every letter, that there are some radically contextual word pictures, images, and thoughts that unless we do some background research on the city we will never truly understand what John is getting at. So let’s talk a little bit about the city of Philadelphia and see what we might learn about following Jesus from this church in the 1st century.
Philadelphia was a city that was located in central Turkey. It was founded in 140 BC at the junction of roads that led to Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia. Because of it’s location it was sometimes called the Gateway to the East. And also was prosperous city..partly because of it’s strategic location and partly because of the grapes that were grown there. Philadelphia was given the name by its founder Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamum. And the city was intended to be a center of missionary activity for the Hellenistic way of life. It was also the center of worship of the god Dionysus, which was the god of the grape harvest, fitting for a city known for it’s grapes.
Something else that we need to know about the region in Turkey that Philadelphia was situated in was that in the 1st century it was notorious for earthquakes. In fact Philadelphia had suffered one of the worst earthquakes in its history only 50 or so years before the book of Revelation was written. Much of the city was destroyed and only was rebuilt due to a grant from the emperor Tiberius. Also Philadelphia had also been given two other names in its history (which will show up in the text later). The first being Neocaesarea as a sign of gratitude to Tiberius for his help in rebuilding the city and later Flavia, after the family name of the emperor Vespasian.
Now that we know a little bit about the history of the city of Philadelphia, let’s look at the text and see what we might learn about this church and what it might say to us today gathered together 2,000 years later.
One thing you’ll notice right from the start about this letter is that this is the second of the two letters which have no criticism from Jesus, the other one being Smyrna.
In verse 7 we find the description of the risen Jesus as one 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.” There is a close tie in this verse to the description of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1:18 which says, “And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” So in this description we see that Jesus is holy and true. Jesus is holy which connects him with deity and true, which isn’t often used in the Bible when referring to anyone but God. This Holy and True One holds the key of David.
Now what is the key of David? To answer that question we need to look at Isaiah 22:22 which says, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Obviously this key is connected to the next part of the verse when John says that what Jesus “opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.” Jesus has the key to the door. This door, this opening, could mean many things. It could mean entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly city of David if you will. It could mean the open door is referring to open missionary opportunities. That Jesus is redefining for the church at Philadelphia what their missionary life is supposed to be about. It is no longer about being a missionary for the hellenistic way of life, but about being a missionary for the Kingdom of God way of life. Jesus opens the door for them to spread the culture of the Kingdom throughout the whole region. And from history we know they took that calling seriously and became a missional church and a church planting church. They sent missionaries all over Asia Minor and these missionaries planted new communities of faith wherever they went. So the question that I have for us today gathered here is are we a Philadelphian-like church? Are you and I and our community being missionaries to the places that God sends us everyday? Are we sending people out from us to other places to serve, bless, and be about the Kingdom of God and the gospel of Jesus? What open doors has God set before you? To whom is God sending you? To whom is God sending us? These are questions we’ll be returning to later in our time of discussion.
Another possible meaning to this idea of a closed door and open door is related to the fact that Philadelphia had a very large and influential Jewish population. This Jewish community probably had several thousand in it, had buildings and an active community life. The church on the other hand were probably not much more than 2 or 3 dozen. The Synagogue community was using their civic status to block the advancement of the message of the gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. They were the ones who were “attacking” the church, from the outside, unlike many of the other letters that we have looked at who were being “attacked” from inside the church. The door could refer to the synagogue versus the Kingdom of God. The believers were excluded from the synagogue. That door was shut. But the open door may refer to the opportunity to enter God’s Kingdom. Inclusion vs. Exclusion. God’s Kingdom is about inclusion not exclusion. People may close doors and exclude. But Jesus opens doors and includes. Are we more like Jesus in this or more like the Synagogue? Is our church an open-door for anyone and everyone? Or do we close our doors to people? I’m not saying that we think everything is open and up for grabs, that we don’t have values and beliefs and seek to live by them. I’m praying that we can be an inclusive community open to all while still hold to the Kingdom of God and the gospel. Jesus, through John encourages the small faith community at Philadelphia and shares with them what they are to be praised for. In verses 8-10 we read, “ 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. 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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”
In these verses we see the fact that this church was small and was seemingly insignificant in the eyes of the world. But not in the eyes of Jesus. That even in the midst of persecution, from the Jewish population of Philadelphia, these followers of Jesus held onto Jesus and never denied him. And here Jesus, through John is actually saying those who follower him are true Jews, and those who don’t, aren’t. This seems very harsh, even harsher than the equivalent statement in Revelation 2:9. But this is not an anti-Jewish statement, this is an inner-Jewish question. Which of these groups can properly claim to be the true Jews, bearing the torch of God’s ancient people? This was common question in 1st century Judaism. And in this Jesus is quite clear, those who follow him, the Davidic Messiah are the true Jews. And those who aren’t the true Jews will experience a reversal of fortunes. You see they expected to have Gentiles submit to them, which was pulled from Isaiah 60:14 which says, “The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
Jesus called on the followers of His in Philadelphia to patiently endure, to wait upon him, and to live out the Kingdom faithfully in their context. They were praised for 3 things: 1. Evangelistic opportunities and being missionaries for the Kingdom of God. 2. Reliance on Christ. 3. Faithfulness to Jesus. And because of those three things Jesus spells out in verses 11-13 what the church at Philadelphia will experience, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name.”
When the church, whether at Philadelphia or anyone, lives out and stays true to these 3 things they will be victorious. They will receive a crown, just like the believers at Philadelphia. This crown, is not a royal crown, and refers to a garland or wreath that was used to crown victors in a competition. And so these believers who have held on to Jesus will eventually be victorious, through the victory of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. And because of that victory they will also be a pillar in the temple. A Pillar that will never be shaken, rattled or destroyed. This is no doubt a reference to the many earthquakes and times that the city came crashing down all around them, and how it seems like pillars always remained standing. In fact if you go to Philadelphia right now you will still find standing pillars. And these believers are just like the pillars who stood whenever thing else crumbled.
And the last promises to the church at Philadelphia point to God’s faithful presence. They will never have to leave the presence of God ever. This obviously points to the many times that the people of Philadelphia would have to leave the city as an earthquake would hit and everything would begin to sway, move and crumble. They would go out in the countryside and wait. And when the earth had stopped moving beneath them they would then go back into the city. No more. These believers would be forever in his presence.
And they would also receive the tri-fold name of God on them and he would vouch for them. They would have a new name, a new identity. They would understand the power of a new name coming from a city that had several different names given to them.
In closing I want to quote NT Wright and what he has to say about the ending of this letter and its’ promises to the believers at Philadelphia. Wright says, “They are the ones, too, who carry the new name- now the triple name of God, of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of Jesus himself, bearing his new name of King and Lord. They are to be marked out publicly as God’s people, as Jesus’ people, as citizens of the city where heaven and earth will be joined for ever. No earthquakes there. Security, vindication, and the ultimate reward for patience. The time of trial is coming on the whole earth, and like a powerful searchlight it will reveal who is holding on to Jesus and his promise of a crown and who isn’t. The Philadelphian Christians are holding on a the moment, they must go on doing so and ‘conquer’ when the time comes. So must we.”
So what can we learn about following Jesus from those early followers of Jesus at Philadelphia? How can we walk through open doors that God has for us? Are we walking through those doors? Are we live as a sent community like Philadelphia? Are we opening doors or closing doors to people? These are some of the questions that we’ll unpack together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc..do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What open doors do you have in your life to share/live/expand the Kingdom of God? To Whom are you being sent to? How can we help you live out the Kingdom of God in the world?
3. Have you ever experienced a closed door in relation to a community of faith? How did that make you feel? How can we as Veritas been better known as an inclusive community and not an exclusive community?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?