Churches of Philadelphia and Laodicea

Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13): The city of Philadelphia lay fifty kilometers southeast of Sardis and between it and Laodicea. It straddled a major road into the interior; trade with other regions was vital to its economic life.

Philadelphia was established as a city around 189 B.C. by Eumenés II, king of Pergamos. He named it in honor of his brother and successor, Attalus II. The city came under Roman rule when the last king, Attalus III, bequeathed Pergamos to Rome in his will (133 B.C.).

As in the other major cities of Asia, Philadelphia was a proud participant in the imperial cult and featured a temple with images of the emperor. Its coins declared the city ‘Neokoron’ or “temple sweeper”; that is, the caretaker of the temple dedicated to the emperor.

The city was heavily damaged by an earthquake in A.D. 17. The emperor, Tiberius, responded by suspending tax obligations to alleviate its sufferings. In honor, the city changed its name for a time to Neocaesarea. Later, under Vespasian (reigned A.D. 69-79), the name was changed again to Flavia. By John’s time, popular usage caused a revival of the old name, Philadelphia. The promise of the Risen Christ to write “the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem…and my new name” on he who overcomes may reflect this background (Revelation 3:12).

In this letter, Jesus claims to be the one “who is holy and true.” This builds on the earlier description of him as the “faithful witness.” He bore true witness by faithful endurance even until death. This status is contrasted with them “who say they are Jews and are not but do lie” (Revelation 1:5, 3:9).

Christ possesses the “key of David” that authorizes him to “open and shut.” The verbiage is from Isaiah 22:22, a prophecy to replace Shebna with Eliakim as a steward of Israel’s royal house. Jesus has sole authority over God’s “house” and controls the entrance into it. This link to the line of David, combined with conflict with a “synagogue of Satan,” suggests the messianic status of Jesus was in dispute between the church and the local synagogue.

As with Smyrna, there is no condemnation or correction of the Philadelphian congregation. Because of the assembly’s faithfulness, Jesus has set before it an “opened door that no one can shut.” “Opened” represents a participle in the perfect tense, which signifies an act accomplished in the past with continuing results. It is not simply an “open” door but one that has been and remains “opened.”

The idea is not a door of opportunity to evangelize but rather for entrance into the household of God. The one who overcomes “shall certainly not go forth any longer.” Instead, he or she becomes “a pillar in the sanctuary of my God in the city of my God,” that is, in New Jerusalem. Christ, not the synagogue controls entry into God’s house.

The Philadelphians have “a little strength,” they have “kept Christ’s word,” they have “not denied his name.” From a human perspective, this is a marginalized group without social, political or economic influence. Nevertheless, the church has sufficient strength to maintain its testimony despite the hostility.

Rather than compromise, it “kept Christ’s word.” Refusal to deny Christ’s name indicates the church experienced hostility and perhaps persecution, though primarily in view is the conflict with the local synagogue.

In Revelation, to keep Christ’s word is to “keep the word of the prophecy of this book.” The book opens with promises for the one “who reads the words of the prophecy, and those who hear and keep what is written therein.” To do this is above all to remain faithful in witness, whatever the cost (Revelation 1:3. See also 2:26, 12:17, 14:12, 22:7-9).

In this city, there is a “synagogue of Satan,” a group consisting of “them who say they are Jews but are not.” A similar group was found in Smyrna and, likely, its members were non-Christian Jews that maligned the church before the local community. The underlying dispute may have been over Christ’s messianic status.

Because the Philadelphians remain faithful, Jesus will make them of the “synagogue of Satan to come and bow down at your feet.” The language echoes Isaiah 45:14, 45:14 and, especially, 60:14. Note the verbal parallels.

(Isaiah 45:14) – “The labor of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia and the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over to thee and they shall be thine: they shall go after thee, in chains they shall come over; and they shall fall down to thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, ‘Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God’.”
(Isaiah 49:23) – “And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of thy feet; and thou shall know that I am Yahweh; and they that wait for me shall not be put to shame.”
(Isaiah 60:14) – “And the sons of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; and they shall call thee the city of the lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”

In the book of Isaiah, the expectation was that Gentile nations would bow before Israel and acknowledge her election by Yahweh. Revelation applies the promise to the church at Philadelphia, but in a paradoxical way. Non-Christian Jews will prostrate themselves before (largely Gentile) Christians to acknowledge that God has chosen them as His people (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).

The allusion to Isaiah 60:14 is particularly fitting. God causes the ones who afflict His children to pronounce them His people and “the city of the Lord,” New Jerusalem. The promise to write the “name of the city of my God” on overcoming believers is not coincidental; it draws on the language of Isaiah 60:14.

Because you kept my word of perseverance, I also will keep you out of the hour of trial.” “Perseverance” or hupomonéis a key theme in Revelation, a fundamental action to which believers are called. To persevere is to remain faithful through all tribulations. Believers “overcome,” not by escaping persecution but by faithfully maintaining testimony in it (Revelation 12:11).

Because the Philadelphians have already suffered and persevered, the promise to be kept “from the hour of trial” cannot be a promise to escape persecution and tribulation. They will be kept from the hour of the trial. The Greek preposition means “from” or “out of,” and denotes origin or motion away from something. Here the latter sense is meant.

This is a promise to keep the Philadelphians from something, to avoid it altogether. Because they have endured and kept Christ’s word, they will not endure a specific impending event with dire consequences.

This fearful event is “the hour of trial.” “Hour” or hōra has a definite article or “the,” which indicates a specific and known event. It is not just any hour but the hour. Whether “hour” is literal or figurative, it suggests a sudden and decisive event.

This hour is defined as a “trial” or peirasmos. The Greek noun means “test, trial.” It was used in legal contexts for judicial proceedings. It only occurs here in Revelation and is not the same word used for “tribulation” (thlipsis). The book nowhere equates “trial” with “tribulation.”

The “trial” will come upon the “whole habitable earth.” This translates the Greek clause, tés oikumenés holes, the same clause that describes the target of Satan’s deceptions, “the whole habitable earth.” It also describes the kings of the “whole habitable earth” allied with the Beast and gathered to the final battle of the “Great Day of God Almighty.” In each case, “whole habitable earth” describes humanity in opposition to God. The “hour of trial” affects rebellious mankind, not the church (Revelation 12:9).

In contrast to the “hour of trial,” tribulation is always something God’s people endure because of faithfulness. “The tribulation” is already underway in John’s day (“fellow-participant in the tribulation”), and several of the Asian churches already have seen persecution, tribulation, and even martyrdom (Revelation 1:9, 2:9-10, 2:22, 7:14).

The “hour of trial” is God’s judicial response to the plea of the martyrs under the altar in the fifth seal. They plead for God to vindicate and avenge their blood on “those who dwell upon the earth” (Revelation 6:9-11).

The period of an “hour” occurs several times in Revelation to refer to an event of finality to occur at the end of the age, as follows: 
  1. (3:3) - For the unprepared, Jesus arrives at “an hour” they do not expect.
  2. (9:15) - Four angels are loosed to prepare for a specific “hour” to slay a third of mankind.
  3. (11:13-18) - In the “self-same hour,” the great city falls and the seventh trumpet sounds, the two witnesses ascend to heaven; the “hour” of final judgment.
  4. (14:6-20) - Men fear because “the hour of God’s judgment is come.”
  5. (14:15) – “The hour to reap has come,” the time of the final harvest.
  6. (17:12) - Ten kings receive power with the Beast for only “one hour.”
  7. (18:10) - Babylon’s judgment falls in only “one hour.”
  8. (19:2-3) – In “one hour” Babylon is laid waste.
The hour of trial is not an extended period of suffering but a time of final overthrow and judgment, whether for mankind, Babylon, the Beast or the kings of the earth. All who oppose the Lamb undergo this “trial.” The promise of escape is conceptually parallel with promises of escape from “the Second Death” and from having one’s name “blotted out of the book of life” (Revelation 2:11, 3:5).

Looking at the promise historically, it was made to Christians who lived in Philadelphia in the first century. If the promise of escape from the “hour of trial” means escape from a future “Great Tribulation,” it is not applicable to the congregations that first heard it. Because of death, none of the Philadelphians were ever in danger of undergoing a future “Great Tribulation”; they have by default avoided it. If this was a promise of escape from that, it was a hollow promise and literary fiction.

The one who overcomes will be made “a pillar in the sanctuary of God” and receive “the name of God and the name of the city of God.” These promises find fulfillment in “New Jerusalem,” the city that will descend to the earth from heaven in the New Creation. “Name of the city of God” alludes to Ezekiel 48:35 (“the name of the city from that day shall be Yahweh is there”).

Revelation places the ideal city and temple envisioned by Ezekiel in New Jerusalem, not in the thousand-year period described in the 20th chapter of the book. This placement of Ezekiel’s ideal temple becomes explicit in John’s final vision (Revelation 21:2-3).

Laodicea was built on the site of a village originally named Diospolis, the “city of Zeus.” It was founded around 260 B.C. by the Seleucid king Antiochus II who named it after his wife, Laodice. He settled two thousand Jewish families in Laodicea and by John’s time, there was a flourishing Jewish community.

The city was sixty-five kilometers southeast of Philadelphia and one hundred and sixty kilometers east of Ephesus. It was relatively close to the towns of Colossae and Hierapolis. Like the rest of Asia, Laodicea came under Roman rule in 133 B.C. Because of its location at the confluence of three trade routes, the city depended on regional trade. Laodicea featured baths, a stadium, theaters, pagan temples, and a gymnasium.

The city produced highly valued black wool from which it manufactured cloth and carpets. Laodicea had a medical school reputed for an eye salve called “Phrygian powder.” But the city lacked a good freshwater supply; local sources were brackish and lukewarm. Freshwater had to be piped in via an aqueduct.

An earthquake destroyed much of the city in A.D. 60. Laodicea refused Roman financial assistance to rebuild, choosing to rely on its own resources. This was a matter of great civic pride, perhaps a legacy reflected in the attitude of this church.

The church was formed relatively early and is mentioned in Colossians 2:1 and 4:13-16. A co-worker of the Apostle Paul, Epaphras, introduced the gospel to it (Colossians 1:7; 4:15).

Paul wrote a letter to this church that was either lost or survives as the epistle to the Ephesians. Possibly Ephesians was Paul’s letter intended for Laodicea. The house churches of Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis likely experienced similar problems and Paul instructed the church at Colossae to share his letter with Laodicea (Colossians 4:16).

This last “letter” opens with Jesus as the “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” “Amen” transliterates a Hebrew word with a root sense of strength and firmness; “amen” connotes “faithfulness, firmness, fidelity, truthfulness.” It emphasizes Christ as the faithful and true witness whose testimony is firm and utterly reliable, in contrast to the fickleness of this church and its ineffective testimony.

The scriptural background of Christ’s claims is Isaiah 65:16-17 where “amen” and the “creation of God” occur together. In Isaiah Yahweh is the “faithful” God of Israel who announces the new creation:

He who blesses himself in the earth will bless himself in the God of faithfulness (‘amén), and he who swears in the earth will swear by the God of faithfulness (‘amén), because the former troubles have been forgotten, and because they are hidden from my eyes. For, behold me, creating new heavens and a new earth.”

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the New Creation; he is the faithful witness to this new reality. This understanding is borne out by the earlier declaration that he is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.” The New Testament links Christ’s resurrection with the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 2 Corinthians 5:15-17).

He is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” Firstborn in Revelation and Colossians refers not to chronological sequence but to preeminence (Colossians 1:18 [“that in all things he might have the preeminence”]).

Jesus finds nothing praiseworthy in this church. It is prosperous materially, in contrast to the impoverished assembly at Smyrna, or the church with a little strength in Philadelphia. But it is, nonetheless, poor and naked in his eyes.

The description, “neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm,” is a local reference to poor water conditions. Located between Hierapolis with its thermal hot springs and Colossae with its cooler freshwater sources, the water supply at Laodicea was tepid and good for nothing; so likewise, the faith and testimony of its congregation. Lukewarm waters stress uselessness. Cool water quenches thirst and water from hot springs has medicinal properties. Tepid water is of no benefit.

This church did not recognize its precarious state (“you know not…”) and presumed its material prosperity reflected spiritual strength. The claim, “I am rich,” alludes to Hosea 12:8: “so Ephraim said, ‘Surely I have gotten me riches, I have found wealth for myself in all my labors they shall find in me no iniquity.” Israel attributed her prosperity to idols (Hosea 2:5, 2:8).

Likewise, the church of Laodicea acquired wealth by compromising with the city’s idolatrous culture. The accommodation was necessary to participate in its economic life, so this church’s economic success evidenced her compromise.

The claim to be rich and need nothing echoes Babylon’s boast: “I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.” Despite the Great Harlot’s confidence, “in one day shall her plagues come, death and mourning and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire.” The church’s boast demonstrates that Babylon has infiltrated the assembly; it is at risk of partaking of the Harlot’s plagues. Likewise, if the church does not repent, Jesus will vomit it out of his mouth (Revelation 18:7).

The church claims to be “rich” (plousios) but is spiritually poor. This is the opposite of Smyrna that in men’s eyes is “poor” but in the eyes of Christ is “rich” (plousios). Laodicea is “poor, blind and naked.” She needs to “buy gold refined by fire, white raiment and eye-salve” to correct her deficiencies.

Gold refined by fire” symbolizes refinement in the fires of persecution. That is the kind of “gold” that will alleviate this church’s poverty. “White garments” point to purity achieved by faithful perseverance (Revelation 2:9, 3:4-5, 6:11, 7:9-14).

Eye-salve is needed to heal spiritual blindness to see the true state of affairs and to make the necessary corrections. This image undoubtedly alludes to the locally produced eye-salve for which Laodicea was famous.

The exhortation to buy white raiment to cover nakedness is echoed in Revelation 16:15: “I come as a thief! Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments, lest he be walking naked and they see his shame.” Shockingly, this warning is found in the middle of the last three bowl judgments against the Beast and Babylon. This illustrates just who and what is the source of the idolatrous institutions of Laodicea.

Christ’s declaration of “tender love” and “discipline” demonstrates this church is not yet beyond redemption, there is still time to become “zealous and repent.” By renewing fellowship with Jesus, the church can still become an effective witness for Jesus, though doing so means inevitable resistance from a pagan society.

Overcoming Christians are destined to share in the reign of Jesus. However, like him, this is achieved by enduring tribulation, suffering, and sacrificial death. Just as the Lamb overcame and attained authority to rule from the Divine Throne through death, so his followers must do likewise (“To him who overcomes will I grant to sit in my throne, just as I also overcame to sit with my Father in his throne”).



Second Trumpet

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