Seven Letters to Seven Churches

Philadelphia – Revival and Evangelism

Revelation 3:7-13

“7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. 8 I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, 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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’”.

Context

Philadelphia was established in 189 BC by King Eumenes II of Pergamum (197-160 BC). Eumenes II named the city for the love of his brother, who would be his successor, Attalus II (159-138 BC), whose loyalty earned him the nickname, “Philadelphos”, literally meaning “one who loves his brother”. Lacking an heir, Attalus III Philometer, the last of the Attalid kings of Pergamum, bequeathed his kingdom, including Philadelphia, to his Roman allies when he died in 133 BC.

Stone ruins at Philadelphia

Located along the Cogamus River, the valley connects with the Hermus River basin to the northwest, where Sardis stood 42 kilometres away, the city therefore fell in the administrative district of Sardis. Philadelphia was on an important arterial route connecting the interior of Asia Minor with the coastal ports. The city suffered badly in the great earthquake of AD 17 which destroyed Sardis , and the Roman Emperor Tiberius relieved it of having to pay taxes. In response, the city granted honours to Tiberius. This resulted in Philadelphia becoming home to an imperial cult. Continual earthquakes over the centuries have left little more than the Amphitheatre of the ancient city.

Philadelphia was at the centre of a great vineyard district and had a thriving business in wine. Because of this Bacchus the god of wine had many devotees there. The result was that drunkenness was a chronic social problem in the district.

Description of Christ (3:7)

“7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Rev. 3:7)

The letter describes Jesus as the one who has the key of David. What was this key that unlocked a door that could not be shut? The answer lies in analysing the key and door metaphor, which is found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, when he addresses two officials of Hezekiah in Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:15-25):

  1. Shebna, the overseer of the royal palace during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:18), was criticised by Isaiah for building a beautiful tomb high on a cliff, as in that day, this was a display of significant power and wealth. In this, Shebna personifies all of Jerusalem with his obsessive self-interest. Shebna had a high and honourable office, yet he used it to glorify himself, so God dismisses Shebna from high office – he was a worthless man.
  2. Eliakim (God will raise), was a worthy man whose heart was not focussed on prosperity but rather on service for the Lord. For this reason, God puts Eliakim in a place of authority as steward of the palace, with power to make binding decisions in the interest of the king. So, during the rule of the kings of Israel, the chief royal steward would have the large master key of the palace fastened to the shoulder of his tunic. The “key” of David therefore is not just access to the king, but also the power to make decisions on behalf of the king. This interpretation of keys is confirmed by Jesus when He gives the keys of the Kingdom to the disciples in Matthew 16:19. The disciples are given the authority of binding and losing in the Kingdom – this authority to release or bind Gentiles to laws is seen to be fulfilled in the first Jerusalem council, which was presided over by James, when the rules for Gentiles were determined.  

This narrative recorded in Isaiah serves as a prophecy of the Davidic Messiah. The metaphor of a key suggests that Jesus is the only one who can grant access to God. Jesus has given the church at Philadelphia access to God, and no one can deprive them of it.

There are many who hold to the belief that the Key and door metaphor is a pointer to Jesus opening the way to success in the mission field. The book of Revelation, uses imagery from the Old Testament to get across its message. Therefore, the use of the key and door metaphor in Isaiah, works against this idea of the key opening the door to evangelistic activity. The prophet Isaiah was speaking of access to the king, not evangelism to the world. The concept of access is also more in keeping with the context of Revelation. There is no evidence to support the interpretation of these passages as the Church’s missionary activity. The message given to Philadelphia is that Christ has the key of David, He opens the door for the Church — His royal household — and allows them to come into the presence of God. In short, Christ has granted believers access to God, no one can deprive them of that access. However, there is an implication that those committed to service of the Lord will receive preferential treatment, they are serving God, so God is there to serve and support them.

The key of David in Revelation does much more than open the way to talking with a national king. In Christ’s hand, the key opens the door into the presence of God, His kingdom and eternal life. Not only does Christ open the door, He is the door to the kingdom (John 10:7, 9). Thus, it is Jesus who presents Himself to the Church as the way to salvation (John 14:6), and then the believer is able to pass through the open door and connect with God the Father.

What Jesus Knows and Commendation

“‘8 I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev. 3:7).

Jesus praises the Church of Philadelphia for their “work,” theirs is not dead works of duty, they love the Lord and are obedient to His Word. They have an eternal mindset, and are not bound by the philosophies of man. They understood that although they only had a little power, they could always trust in the power of God. They trusted in God for their leading and guiding, and not in the ways of man. The “works” they are commended for, would also obviously include the command by Jesus to disciple the nations (brotherly love), Jesus would not commend a church that was not spreading the Good News.

Rebuke

There is no rebuke given by Jesus to this church, they were highly approved of by the Lord. They had a relationship of complete love for their saviour, which was confirmed by the “open door” policy Jesus had with them.

The Synagogue of Satan

“9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9).

The city of Philadelphia had a large population of Jews living there. Many of the church of Philadelphia would have been Messianic Jews who would have attended synagogue on a Saturday and Church on a Sunday. Ultimately the doors of the synagogue were closed to these Messianic Jews. The Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah and believed that the synagogue had the “keys of David”, and therefore to the Kingdom – Jesus calls them “liars”. Jesus says that these Jews will ultimately have to acknowledge that He loves the Church. They will recognize that the Church is composed of the true people of God, rather than the Jews as a nation. The Christians at Philadelphia would have been greatly encouraged when Jesus identified Himself as the true Messiah, and as one who controls access to the Eternal Kingdom. When He opens the door “no one is able to shut” – and, no one can prevent entry to the people for whom He opens it (3:7). The door to the synagogue may be closed to the Christian; the door to Christ’s heavenly kingdom however, is wide open.

Another Promise

“10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try (test) those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10).

Jesus commends the Philadelphian church for their perseverance, and His exhortation is an encouragement to hold fast to what the believers have learned and experienced in their walk with Him. He tells them they are doing fine and to keep up the good work.

In Rev. 3:10 Jesus tells the church that He will “keep [them] from the hour of trial.” This verse is wrongly interpreted by post-Tribulation rapture believers to mean, to keep through, or be protected through the Tribulation. The original Greek word for “keep” is ek tereo, which means “to keep from” not to “keep through.” And the original Greek word for “trial” means to try, to make trial of, to put to test in order to discover or reveal what kind of person someone is. An example of what this means would be if a student is excused from a test, he still may have to sit in the class while the others write the test. But if he is excused from the hour of testing, he can go home. The church of Philadelphia is representative of all true spirit-filled Christians, and the message is clear: they will be called home before the time of testing. Thus, the message Jesus is giving the prophetic future church of Philadelphia is that they will be raptured before the Tribulation and therefore kept from the trials which are to come upon the earth during the seven years of Tribulation. The population of the world will be tested. Satan’s counterfeit messiah, the Antichrist, is going to appear on the scene in power and authority as a counter to Jesus. The question put to the world by God will be “whom will you serve?” The Church already knows whom we serve. We do not need this last opportunity to decide, so we are exempt from the “hour of testing.”

Counsel

“11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev. 3:11).

To the church of Sardis Jesus warns that His return will be sudden “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev.3:3). Now, to the church at Philadelphia the warning is that His return is soon. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that His return will occur during the last church stage of Laodicea.

Unfortunately for the Laodicean church, their crown was seized, there will be no rewards in heaven for the apostate church.

Promise

“12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, 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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev. 3:12-13).

Most of this letter is composed of promises:

  • The “key of David” and an “open door” access to Jesus for believers. The head steward of the palace controlled access to the king, and was able to make decisions on the kings behalf. The Philadelphia church, was able – through Jesus – to have an open-door access to God.
  • Deliverance from the “time of testing,” being taken in the rapture before the Tribulation. This promise must be seen as going far beyond the little church in Philadelphia, as it speaks of a time when the “whole world” will be in turmoil.
  • The believers of Philadelphia are promised a Crown of Life (Rev 3:11) for their faithfulness. They are instructed to “hold fast” to their crown, indicating that it is possible for believers to lose their eternal rewards and blessings.

Now in verse 12 Jesus promises that the citizens in Philadelphia who accomplished something noteworthy, would have their names inscribed on one of the pillars of the temples in the city. God promised that He will not just honour overcomers by erecting a pillar in their name in heaven, as was the custom in Philadelphia – He will make them pillars in the spiritual temple of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22; cf. Gal. 2:9; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).

“The pillars of the temples”

An important reference is made to Jesus’ inscribing God’s name on the believers of Philadelphia. Satan counterfeits that which is of God, and in Revelation 13:16-18 we see that during the Great Tribulation the Antichrist will require all those that worship him to have the mark of the beast on their foreheads. Taking this mark will deny the receiver from ever being able to have the Lord’s name written upon them (Revelation 14:9-12), and therefore they will forfeit salvation.

The Philadelphia Age
Prophetic application: Great Awakening (1750-1925)

The prophetic application of the Philadelphian age was fulfilled after the Great Awakening revival that swept across England and America during the 1730s and 1740s. God used men like John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, DL Moody and Charles Spurgeon to light a fire in the hearts of people that burned brightly. The result was that there was a renewed passion in the Church and a recognition of the need to spread the Gospel message and make disciples for the Lord. Many organisations rose up with the goal of fulfilling the great commission, such as The China Inland Mission, the London Missionary Society, the Students Volunteer Movement, the Salvation Army and Church Ministry among the Jews (which established a base in Jerusalem), to name a few.

There was also a tremendous evangelical revival within the Anglican Church led by William Wilberforce and many others. Unfortunately, the global conflict of WWI stifled missionary activity, and enthusiasm for world missions never regained its momentum after the conflict, with only a few organisations continuing their stellar work.

As was mentioned in the introduction, all seven churches have existed throughout history, and the Philadelphia church is present and functioning in the Last Days. Evidence of that could be seen of that in the 10/40 Window missionaries, that looked to evangelise the unreached people groups of the world. Church missionary work has seen a mild resurgence, however, with the decline of Christianity in the West, there has been an interesting reversal, for example: South Africa, a previously a target for missionary groups is now planting churches in European countries.

Summary

Summary TopicPhiladelphia 3:7-13
Period describedAwakening revival, missions, Bibles printed and studied, 1750-1925
OpeningTo the angel of the church . . . write
Description of ChristHoly, true, who has the key of David
What Jesus knowsWorks
CommendationKept command to persevere, and did not deny Jesus
RebukeNone
CounselHold fast, preserve crown
WarningNone
What you haveA little strength, My word and name (Vs 11)
PromiseMade pillar, inscribed with new name
Other promisesSubmission of false Jews; Kept from hour of trial
ClosingListen to what the Spirit says to the churches

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