Week Of March 3, 2019

The Church at Philadelphia

Read Revelation 3:7-13
—> What is the “key of David” (Isaiah 22:20-25)?
—> What is the “open door” (1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 2:12)?
—> How do these relate to each other and to the Christian life?
—> What is so special about the perseverance of the Philadelphians?

Describe their enemies.

—> What open doors has Christ placed before you? How have you taken advantage of the pathways He has made available to you?
—> What are some closed doors He has placed in your path? How discouraged do you get when you run into a closed door? What emotional response do you usually have?

—> In what ways are you like the Christians in Philadelphia? Unlike them? Why?
—> What is the Spirit saying to you? How will you act on this today?

EXPOSITORY NOTES Revelation 3:7-13 Philadelphia

The One Who Writes (3:7)

Jesus sent this letter to a church that we do not have any previous knowledge about. It is not otherwise mentioned in the New Testament. But we can put some historical context to the city of Philadelphia. The literal name for the place is “the city of brotherly love” (based on the Greek root words of the name). It was founded about 140 BC and was positioned on a major trade route. In a great earthquake occurring in AD 17, the city was devastated. The citizens lived in great fear of future tremors; which would have some potential application to a later point of the letter. The Roman emperor Tiberius stepped in and exempted the city’s residents from taxes while they rebuilt. He also sent them financial aid for the work. In response, the city was renamed Neocaesarea (new city of Caesar) in his honor. When Vespasian became the emperor, the city called itself Flavia to honor him since his full name was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus. The renaming of the city would also have some bearing in our understanding of Jesus’ promises made to this church.

Philadelphia’s residents were dependent upon agriculture; specifically vine-growing plants. The patron deity that they worshiped was apparently Dionysus, the god of wine. There is also

evidence of a Jewish community within the city. Taken all together, we witness a city in the Roman Empire with worshipful appreciation for the emperors, polytheistic practices, Jewish residents, and a Christian community. In effect, the church was a minority of a minority within the city. Into this context, the Lord described Himself to His followers in a way that would bring about immense confidence. The Lord began by saying that He was the Holy One and the true one. Such descriptors create tension. The titles Jesus attributed to Himself stand in direct contrast to the Roman emperor cult worship and the polytheistic culture of the city. Jesus claimed perfect character and nature by calling Himself holy. He claimed to be the standard for what is true. It was a claim that He is the real deal. Jesus’ genuine character would depose any other powers that claimed to hold a position of authority.

Further, Jesus’ self-description is that He is the one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and who closes and no one opens. The declaration connects to the account in Isaiah 22 where God placed Eliakim as the steward over King Hezekiah’s household. God said of Eliakim, “I will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one can close; what he closes, no one can open” (Isa. 22:22). In essence, Eliakim had total power over the comings and goings from the king’s house. For a Jew, the imagery associated with David was the pinnacle of ruling power. The Christ is from the lineage of the house of David. Despite his failings, David was declared to be a man after God’s own heart. His household represents the house of God. The key of David is the authority for opening and closing a door, not just to an earthly palace but to the heavenly home of God.

Jesus claimed the messianic power that accompanied the key into David’s home. It was for Him to decide who entered God’s kingdom; not the emperor or Dionysus or any other power. After the many years of change, tragedy, and dependency that characterized the city of Philadelphia, the believers within its walls were personally hearing from the One who held the true power for entrance into the eternal city of God. Jesus addressed them from the position of divine authority. If this were the only line in the message, it would have been worth it to those who suffered under the ever-shifting allegiance of the city to the emperor of the moment. The eternal and true God had sent the reliable Christ to open the true doorway into His kingdom.

Keeping Your Word (3:8-9)

With the background of Philadelphia’s culture, Jesus then delivered an encouraging word to the Philadelphian believers. Among the seven letters, it is in the minority in that there is no criticism delivered for some sinful posture or behavior. In similar form that He had said in other places, the Lord said I know your works. The church had operated in somewhat obscurity as it is not mentioned in the rest of the New Testament. But even when we are obscure to the world, God has still taken notice of us. Not operating in a major center of the Christian faith did not mean the Philadelphian believers had fallen from God’s mindfulness.

Jesus’ next statement related to His own introduction when He said Look, I have placed before you an open door that no one can close because you have but little power. Some take the door imagery as a doorway into the missionary enterprise to outer parts of the empire’s lands. That certainly fits the city’s history, which had been founded in part to serve as a missionary center for spreading Greek culture and language into the surrounding region, a role it had very successfully accomplished.

A second understanding should also be seen, that of Christ’s opening the way into His kingdom. This understanding aligns with the messianic understanding of Isaiah 22 and how Revelation 3:7 reflects the idea of Christ’s stewardship over who enters God’s household. It is

Jesus who has opened the door. He is the arbiter of who opens and closes the entryway into God’s kingdom. The Philadelphian church will inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus had opened a door for them to eternal life and no one had the authority or ability to deny them access to what God had promised.1

The qualification about the Philadelphian church and their works is given in the phrasebecause you have but little power. It is not a rebuke that they were not a spiritually strong people. The rest of the letter is a word of encouragement for their stalwart faith. Rather it is more likely a signal of the size of their congregation. They were small in number, especially in comparison to the whole of the city. It was not so different from when Jesus referred to His followers as a little flock in Luke 12:32. The number of believers was small in comparison to the population of a city and the overall empire. Yet it was of no consequence in the commendation that Christ offered to the church. In fact, the compliment from Jesus was bolstered by their small numbers. In a culture where they were hopelessly outnumbered, this band of believers had persisted in faith. Their persistence points out why every believer in every age can persist. The work that we trust in for salvation and strength does not come from our internal abilities. It is faith in the One who holds the keys and has opened the door to the kingdom of God. By trusting so fully in Jesus, the numbers of the group were of no consequence because the power of faith is rooted in the One in whom we have faith.

Despite their small number, Jesus highlighted why they were such a shining testimony for Him. According to Jesus, the Philadelphian church had kept my word and have not denied my name. Both the kept and not denied phrases are aorist tense verbs indicating that the action took place in one point in time. They refer to “a specific historical trial faced by these people, a trial through which they passed victoriously.”2 The faithfulness is in contrast to the deceitfulness of those they faced. The opposing side claim to be Jews and are not. These enemies are described as the synagogue of Satan. The combination of a place of worship and teaching with the deceitfulness of the adversary can indicate that they were attempting to spread false teachings. Whether lying about the church or simply harboring false doctrine, King Jesus would demand their humility before His faithful followers. The humbling work that Jesus did in the lives of the unrepentant is both a sign of His power and of His covenant. It is a fascinating pattern that begins in Revelation that the people of the world will bow down before Jesus and He will have them bow before His own people. It is not because God’s people are intrinsically good but because God has loved them through His covenant of salvation. The Greek word agapao is utilized by Jesus in this instance to indicate the selfless love that the Philadelphian Christians had received from God. The faithfulness of God’s people is always rewarded, often in unexpected ways. Sometimes it is how God vindicates His people.

Protected from Future Persecution (3:10-11)

Jesus’ reward of the Philadelphian church was not reserved for a future state. Jesus indicated that they would enjoy strength from Him in their current conditions. Faithfulness from Christ had been answered in their lives by keeping the faith. So Jesus stated, Because you have kept my command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing. There is debate as to when Jesus will remove the church from the earth in regards to the timing of a great testing upon the earth. This time of testing is often referred to as the Tribulation. The three general views is that the removal of the church comes at the end of the Tribulation (post-tribulation), in the middle of it (mid-tribulation), or before it occurs (pre-tribulation). Along the way, there is a smattering of various forms of these three views. Though these are fascinating theological discussions, it is not

necessarily what is in play with this letter. The text before us is not necessarily a timeline. We should learn why Christ was lauding the Philadelphian Christians. They had followed the command of Jesus to endure under the current pressures doled out by the world and the adversary. This was a celebration by the Lord over His followers because they were enduring regardless of His physical presence with them or their departure to be with Him. He gave a command and they were faithfully following it. It is a principle that should be evident in all arenas of our lives and specifically in terms of enduring hardship for the faith.

Jesus did then remind them that the time of testing to come would be on the whole world to test those who live on the earth. The idea of testing is tied in with the apocalyptic meaning of the whole Book of Revelation. It refers to a time of purging and distress upon the inhabitants of the world. Note that the phrase is not referring to the groundwork of the earth but the people who live here. It is people who are going to be tried, not the planet we inhabit. God has plans for the physical creation that are referred to later on in the book. For the word to the Philadelphians, they are told that everyone would be tested. No one would be immune from what would happen in this test by God. Many see this as a “worldwide conflagration, the messianic judgments of the rest of the book [Revelation].”3 The term used for test can mean temptation, examination, scrutinization, or trial. It is the legal idea of a judgment or trial taking place that should arrest the attention. God’s purpose in sending this occurrence would be to make a judicial decision upon the people of the earth. It should motivate believers both to be faithful and to be witnesses as no one will escape God’s judicial work.

Further motivation for us comes in the form of Jesus’ declaration: I am coming soon. For the unbeliever, it should be a terrifying thought that the rightful Judge of the universe could appear at any moment. For the Christian, we know that our reward is coming to us; it is Jesus Himself. The unknown timing of Jesus’ appearance along with the certainty communicated spurs us on to live faithfully. The final sentence is the command of Jesus to remain faithful: Hold on to what you have. The only way that we can wear the crown is for it to be given by the King. Our Lord gives us life and rewards according to our faith in Him rather than in our own intrinsic righteousness. The Philadelphians were commended for their fidelity to Jesus. With the combined ideas of Jesus’ soon arrival and the award of a crown for our faithful living, the Lord told what He expected from them in the future. They were to continue in their faithful living. We are almost 2,000 years removed from their time, but the Lord’s expectation has not changed. His arrival is closer now than it was then. We should then even more live with an awareness of His imminent appearing and live in a way that we are fitting of the crown He awards.

The Promise to Become a Pillar (3:12-13)
As Christians, the Philadelphian church had become the one who conquers and were being promised a reward. On the heels of the reiteration that a period of testing would come and Jesus was returning soon, He initiated the closing statement of the letter with some promises to the believers. Jesus had used the imagery of the synagogue earlier in the letter, referring to those who were deceiving the church and were more aligned with Satan than Jesus. The Christians would be made into a pillar in the temple of my God. The image carries numerous implications. A pillar was an image of permanence and stability of a building. In ancient times, a pillar could also be erected in order to pay honor to a person. In the New Testament, the pillar imagery was used to recognize those who lived as faithful leaders. Galatians 2:9 refers to James, Cephas (Peter), and John as pillars in the church. The three early leaders were recorded for their importance in the spread of the gospel message. Paul used the image again in 1 Timothy 3:15

where he described the church as “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” The idea of stability of the faith related quite well to the need for stability in the lives of Philadelphian believers. As recorded earlier, the earthquake in AD 17 caused massive destruction and because of the aftershock tremors, many people chose to live outside of the city walls for a time. It was in the cultural memory that the physical buildings were not reliable. Jesus used this idea to remind the believers of the stability they had shown and how God could use them in His work. God had made them conquerors in the face of trials and would give them a permanent place in His eternal temple. He assured their place within by saying that they will never go out again. It was a promise of salvific assurance for Christians.

Jesus ended His promise statement with offering to write three names on the believer: 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. It is a threefold assurance of their salvation by the use of the names assigned by Jesus. It was in contrast to the ever-changing name of the city where they lived. At least twice before, the city received a new name. The believers would receive names that are rooted in eternity and have no need to change. These names would be inscribed upon the believers, giving them permanence. Receiving the name of my God was tantamount to ownership and adoption. Being given the name of the heavenly Father meant you served Him, were owned by Him, and were adopted by Him. All of these are descriptions for believers within the New Testament. Having the name of the new city of God communicated citizenship. They would no longer worry about the earthly rulers, overlords, soldiers, and governors. They would be citizens of the heavenly realm where the good and rightful King reigns for eternity. The third inscribed name is Jesus’ new name, but we are not told what it is. As it will be new at the time of His second coming, it must relate to His completed and consummating work in history. How we have known Him as Savior and Lord will come into a greater focus. He will reveal something deeper, newer, and more wondrous about Himself. Whatever that might be will become characteristic of who we as His people are because we’ll wear His name. These promises concerning the end reinforce God’s protective work over His people. Our role is to believe, and He will give us a permanent home with Him, in His kingdom, and characterized by His good name.


We know little about the Philadelphian church, but their faithfulness stands as a challenging testimony to us. While the political environment shifted around them, they remained true to Christ. Whether God’s people live in Egypt, Israel, Babylon, the Roman Empire, or our contemporary nation, we are called to the same level of faithfulness. Blessedly, God sees and rewards us as we live for His glory.

1. Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation of John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2005) 89.

2. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1992) 279.
3. Grant R. Osborne, “Revelation” in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker

Academic, 2002) 193.