Church at Philadelphia

SYNOPSIS:  Like the church at Smyrna, Philadelphia receives no correction. She is faithful and, therefore, will be kept from the hour of trial – Revelation 3:7-13.

Photo by Alexis Subias on Unsplash
By Alexis Subias on Unsplash
The city of Philadelphia lay fifty kilometers southeast of Sardis, between it and the town of Laodicea. It straddled a major road into the interior, so trade with the other towns of Asia was vital to its economic life.

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

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

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 the one who overcomes may reflect this background (Revelation 3:12).

(Revelation 3:7-13):
And unto the messenger of the assembly, in Philadelphia, write:—
These things, saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no one shall shut, and shutteth, and no one openeth:
I know thy works,—lo! I have set before thee an open door, as to which, no one can shut it,—that thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. 
Lo! I give them of the synagogue of Satan, who are affirming themselves to beJews, and are not,—but say what is false,—lo! I will cause them, that they shall have come and shall bow down before thy feet, and shall get to know that, I loved thee. 
Because thou didst keep my word of endurance, I also will keep thee out of the hour of trial, which is about to come upon the whole habitable world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that, no one, take thy crown. 
He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, and outside shall he in nowise go forth any more; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and [I will write upon him] my new name. 
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying unto the assemblies.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

Jesus is 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 those “who say they are Jews and are not but do lie.” The description also anticipates the vision of the Rider on the White Horse, he who is “called faithful and true, and in righteousness, he is judging and making war” (Revelation 1:4-519:11-16).

He possesses the “key of David,” which enables him to “open and shut.” This alludes to the book of Isaiah and a prophecy to replace Shebna with Eliakim as a steward of Israel’s royal house.

(Isaiah 22:22) – “And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder,—And he shall open and none shall shut, And shut and none shall open.

Thus, Jesus has the sole and complete authority over God’s “house” and controls who may gain entry to it. The 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 in the city of Philadelphia.
As with the church at Smyrna, there is no condemnation or correction of the Philadelphian congregation. Because of its faithfulness, Jesus has set an “opened door” before it that “no one can shut.”
The idea is not a door of opportunity to evangelize but, instead, an entrance into the household of God. The one who overcomes “shall certainly not go forth any longer.” Instead, he or she will become “a pillar in the sanctuary of my God in the city of my God,” New Jerusalem. Christ controls entry into God’s house, not the synagogue.

The Philadelphians have “a little strength.” They have “kept his word” and “not denied his name.” From a human perspective, this group is marginalized and without any social, political, or economic influence. Nevertheless, the church has sufficient strength to maintain its testimony, despite the hostility of the local synagogue and others.

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

In the city, there is a “synagogue of Satan,” a group consisting of “them who say they are Jews but are not.” A similar group was seen in Smyrna.

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 three passages from the book of Isaiah:

(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 Isaiah, the expectation was for Gentile nations to bow before Israel and acknowledge her election by Yahweh. Now, Revelation applies that 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 to be His people (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).

The allusion to Isaiah is especially fitting. God will cause the very 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 hupomonés is a key theme in the book of Revelation. Believers “overcome” by maintaining their testimony in tribulations, not by escaping them (Compare - Revelation 12:11).

Because the Philadelphians have suffered already, the promise to be kept “from the hour of trial” cannot be a promise for them 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, one 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 another hour but, the hour. Whether “hour” is literal or figurative, it suggests a sudden and decisive event.

This hour is will be 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” or a synonym. The book nowhere equates “trial” with “tribulation.”

Photo by Nikolas Behrendt on Unsplash
The “trial” will come upon the “whole habitable earth.” This translates the Greek clause, tés oikumenés holés, 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” who are 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 for the sake of Jesus. “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” refers to God’s judicial response to the plea of the martyrs under the altar in the fifth seal. They pleaded 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 that will 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 in the historical context, it was made to Christians who lived in Philadelphia in the first century. If the promise meant escape from a future “Great Tribulation,” it was not applicable to the congregation that first received it. Because of death, none of the Philadelphians were ever in danger of undergoing a future “Great Tribulation,” and, by default, they have avoided it altogether. Therefore, if this was a promise to the Philadelphians of escape from any yet future event in this age, it was a hollow promise and a literary fiction.

The one who overcomes will be made “a pillar in the sanctuary of God” and will 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 in the book of Ezekiel in New Jerusalem, not in the thousand-year period described in Chapter 20 of the book of Revelation. This fulfillment of Ezekiel’s ideal temple in New Jerusalem becomes explicit in John’s final vision (Revelation 21:2-3).

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