“And to the church in Philadelphia write,
‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”: ‘I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. 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. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. 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.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”‘ (NKJV)
1. The City of the Epistle, v. 7.
The city got its name from Attalus II, 159-138 B.C., whose truth and loyalty to his ailing brother Eumenes won for him the epithet, Philadelphus (“brother-loving”). Philadelphia was founded as a center for the consolidation and spread of the Greek culture and language, so was a “missionary” city from the beginning.
The city obtained world-wide fame through a disaster. Philadelphia lay on the edge of a now extinct volcanic field, but in AD 17 a severe earthquake destroyed 12 cities, including Sardis and Philadelphia. Evidently, the aftershocks continued for some time and so terrorized the inhabitants that most of them remained outside the city. Those who did return to the city lived in constant fear of another earthquake.
The Emperor Tiberius helped these stricken cities and in commemoration of his generosity, Philadelphia took on a new name: “Neokaisareia,” “New Caesarea,” though this name was gradually abandoned.
Philadelphia was distinguished from the other cities by several things: it was a “missionary” city, there was constant danger, much of the population remained outside the city, and the city took on a new name from the imperial god.
In the last stages of the struggle of the decaying Roman Empire and the growing Turkish power, Philadelphia played a heroic part and held aloft the Christian banner long after the surrounding countryside had been conquered. During the fourteenth century, it stood practically alone against the entire Turkish power as a free and self-governing city against and amidst the Turkish lands which surrounded it. Twice, Turkish armies reduced the city to starvation, yet the city stood. Finally, about 1370-1390, it fell to a combined Turkish and Byzantine army. What the Turks could not do by themselves, they did by taking advantage of the division and jealousy among the Christians.
2. The Christ of the Epistle, v. 7.
1. “Holy.” This refers to His inward character. As Hebrews 7:26 puts it, He is holy, harmless, undefiled.
2. “True.” – “genuine,” as opposed to the claims of “those who say” in v. 9. This refers to the outward manifestation of the inward character. In the final analysis, what we do is determined by what we are.
His Power, “opens” and “shuts” and no one hinders. We greatly need the assurance of this in our day. There’s too much of the idea that we can somehow “hinder” or “frustrate” the God who created everything. While we in no way deny our responsibilities or that our actions have consequences, we do deny that these in any way “mess up” the God of heaven. I firmly believe this is why the churches – and indeed, the world – are in the shape they’re in. We have the (false) idea that we can “mess Him up”. The end and obvious result of such a view is the blatant skepticism and atheism we see all around us. Who wants so feeble a god?
3. The Content of the Epistle, vs. 8-13.
The letter has three promises here:
Operation, “An open door”. This clause is a perfect participle, meaning that the door is still open.
“able to shut,” implying that someone or is trying to shut the door and stop the missionary effort, but is not able to interfere with the Lord who keeps it open.
“no one” – not even Satan, though he certainly would like to.
1. No one can shut the door because the church “has a little strength”. This is a great encouragement. The church was evidently small, unimportant and feeble, especially when compared to the church at Pentecost, yet there is nothing but commendation. No church can be judged, or may judge itself, by any other church.
2. No one can shut the door because the church “kept My word.” Cf. John 14:23. This implies obedience to, as well as, belief in Scripture. This is a great responsibility. Too much of our preaching and teaching is out of some commentary – what men say about the Bible. While such things have their place and can be useful, we need to go to our primary source, the Word of God itself. What does the Scripture say? Romans 4:3, not “what does this source or that source say the Scripture says.”
3. No one can shut the door because the church has not “denied My name.” With reference to the typical teaching from the church, perhaps this is a hint as to the great hour of trial yet to come upon the world – to deny Christ by receiving the “mark of the beast”.
Vindication, v. 9. There are two interpretations of this verse:
1. The Jews will be forced to confess to the truth of Christianity at the Judgment, or,
2. Some Jews, now opponents, will be saved.
Both interpretations might be said to be true, though we believe the first one is more correct.
Many people, including Christians, forget that this life is not all there is to life. A preacher of another generation, Rolfe Barnard, used to tell a story, something like this:
“There was a little country church surrounded by the fields of an ardent atheist. One year, he decided to show his contempt for the church and what it taught. The church had no air conditioning and so, in the spring and summer, had to have its windows open. This atheist decided to plow his fields on Sunday, to cultivate his crops on Sunday, and finally, to harvest them on Sunday. When the season was over, he wrote a letter to the paper in that town. He said, ‘I planted my crops on Sunday, took care of them on Sunday, and harvested them on Sunday. And I have a bumper crop. A bumper crop.’
“The editor replied, ‘My friend, God doesn’t always settle His accounts in October’.”
“God doesn’t always settle His accounts in October.”
Countless millions have died, and are dying at this very moment, and their graves are unsung and unhonored. Their names are cast out as evil. Perhaps a believer will be killed while you read these lines. Even those who aren’t called on to give their physical life are often called on to suffer persecution in one form or another. Even in our culture, businesses are forced to close because the owners will not do things which violate their faith. Things which once were unthinkable are now said to be “rights” and woe to those who don’t agree.
God doesn’t always settle His accounts in October.
There is coming a time, however, when He will settle those accounts, a time when righteousness is at home, 2 Peter 3:13. Many Scriptures speak of this and it is unwise indeed to expect real justice in a time when justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off. For truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. So truth fails and he who departs from iniquity makes himself a prey, Isaiah 59:14, 15. Though Isaiah was speaking directly to his own time, what he said of his nation and culture is applicable to this one.
“a synagogue of Satan.” Because they had rejected the Messiah, no longer was their worship acceptable to God, nor was their synagogue of God, even though they carried the name “Jews,” and nominally worshiped Jehovah. I wonder if God thinks that of those churches of our day and time which deny every truth of His Word.
“but lie”. Romans 2:28, 29 describe a “real” Jew: one who not only has the outward symbol of circumcision, but the inward reality that his circumcision symbolizes – the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in his life.
Separation, v. 10, “I will keep you from the hour of trial which will come upon the whole earth.”
There are several elements to this.
1. A recognition of past faithfulness, because you have kept My command to persevere…. Contrary to what a popular Gospel song used to teach – that the Christian life is “without a care,” we’re called upon not simply to “believe” something, but to live as if that something were true. While it’s certainly true that we have responsibilities in this present world – we’re children, siblings, parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, bosses, etc. – we have an ultimate responsibility with a view to the next world: it is appointed for men once to die, but after this, the judgment, Hebrews 9:27. It isn’t always smooth sailing, sometime we have to go through flood or fire, figuratively speaking, Isaiah 43:2.
2. A promise of future protection, I also will keep you from the hour of trial…. In Luke 21:18, after a description of what the disciples would be likely to suffer, even to death, our Lord promised that “not a hair of your head shall be lost.” But in v. 19, he finished, “By your patience [endurance] possess your souls.” All that’s not limited to the first disciples. I think we see it playing out before our very eyes. In parts of this world, men and women are suffering unbelievable, indescribable, things for the name of the Lord Jesus. But they will stand before Him perfect, complete, whole, having lost nothing, but having gained everything.
As far as “the hour of trial which will come upon the whole world,” I’m not sure exactly what that might have meant to the actual church at Philadelphia. Severe persecution under Diocletian was on the way. It might have been that. Or something else we don’t know about. As far as any typical teaching might be concerned, and again, there is discussion about this, it seems to me that the Lord is promising that believers will be spared from that coming time of trouble in which He said that unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved, Matthew 24:22.
3. a plea for present faithfulness, v. 11, “Hold fast.” It isn’t enough that we can look back and see how the Lord has blessed us, or what service we might have performed. Nor is it enough simply to look ahead to that time when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Right now, there’s something for us to do. To be.
The reason for that is that there’s a danger of loss. Not our salvation, as some teach, but our Lord warned the Philadelphians that they could lose their “crown,” that is, lose the rewards they might have had. John had something to say about this in one of his epistles. In 2 John 8, he was concerned that his readers receive a full reward. And Paul gives the picture of a person going through the judgment and discovering that everything he did was nothing but wood, hay and stubble, and losing everything, though he himself is saved, [yet] as through fire, 1 Corinthians 3:15.
As an encouragement, the Lord said He is coming “quickly.” From the world’s standpoint, it’s been a long time since these words were written. From an eternal standpoint, it’s only been a second or two. Jesus may come before this day is over, or I finish writing this post, or you finish reading it.
John closes this letter with our Lord saying some things that it’s difficult to understand, to picture. I won’t even begin to attempt it. But there’s a feeling of permanence, of “belonging,” of things this world knows nothing about. Our “hope” isn’t in this world, but in the One coming to straighten things out in it.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.