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Revelation 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Message to Philadelphia

In 1681, a London widow named Jane Lead took over the Philadelphian Society, a mystical, millenarian group that regarded itself as "the Germ of the commencement of the sole true Church, Virgin Bride of Jesus Christ, whose members, dispersed among the diverse Religions of the World, are soon to appear and unite with them, in order to form this pure and holy Church, such as the church of Philadelphia was at the birth of Christianity" (Schwartz 1980:4648). Even today there are preachers who regard the seven churches in Revelation as a kind of chronological portrait of the Christian church through the centuries. They seize upon the church at Philadelphia as a model for the true church--usually their own small but faithful congregation, in contrast to the mainstream but apostate "church at Laodicea"!

Philadelphia was a city of some importance founded in the second century B.C. by Attalus, king of Pergamum, in honor of his predecessor, Eumenes Philadelphus. The city was strategically situated in a fertile river valley on the main road from Sardis to Laodicea, directly east of Smyrna. The message to Philadelphia has captured the imagination of Christians through the centuries because no other message (not even the one to Smyrna) is so rich in promises. The Speaker's self-identification (v. 7) sets the stage for the first promise (v. 8), which is given unconditionally to the angel at Philadelphia and thus to the whole congregation. Like Eliakim, gatekeeper of the king's palace in Jerusalem (Is 22:20-22), he holds the key of David, so that what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (v. 7). Consequently, he places before the angel an open door (v. 8).

Preachers who claim this promise for their congregations tend to interpret the open door as a door to mission or evangelism, as in Acts 14:27. W. M. Ramsay (1904:391-400) called Philadelphia a "missionary city" because of its strategic location for the spread of Greek culture eastward into Lydia and Phrygia. Yet the open door in the message to Philadelphia is more likely a door into heaven (see 4:1) or into the temple of God or into the new Jerusalem (see v. 12) than a door for evangelism. The open door is simply a guarantee of salvation or eternal life, like the promises to the "overcomers" in all seven messages. Another way of saying it is that I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (v. 10). Like the "two witnesses" in 11:12 or the child born of the woman in 12:5, they will be "raptured," or taken up to God in heaven, before the wrath of God is poured out on the earth.

The problem here, as at Smyrna, is the presence of a synagogue of Satan, probably a group of Judaizing Gentiles who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars (v. 9; compare 2:9). Ignatius, as we have seen, mentioned Judaizing Gentiles in Philadelphia a few decades later (To the Philadelphians 6.1), and John's vision here is that Christ will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you (v. 9). The promise echoes such biblical passages as Isaiah 45:14, 49:23 and 60:14, in which Gentile nations come to pay homage to Israel and Israel's God. The message is a reminder that the synagogue of Satan are Gentiles after all, and that their present allegiance to Judaism is no more than a lie and a pretense to avoid persecution. In the end, the angel and his congregation will be vindicated against these bogus Jews, for even with little strength they have kept my word and have not denied my name (v. 8).

There are echoes here not only of Isaiah but also of Jesus' prayer for his disciples in the Gospel of John, for example (italics mine), "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word" (Jn 17:6 NRSV). "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name--the name you gave me. . . . While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me" (17:11-12). "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (17:15 KJV). "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (17:23). The italicized words in these several quotations point to parallels in the message to Philadelphia in the book of Revelation: not only kept my word and not denied my name (v. 8), but acknowledge that I have loved you (v. 9) and keep you from the hour of trial (v. 10).

The parallels by themselves do not prove common authorship of John and Revelation, nor are they close enough to suggest that either one is using the other as a source. They may be coincidental or traceable to terminology common to early Christian prayer and preaching. They do underscore the significance of the "name" of God or Jesus in affording protection and assurance to God's people. Actually, the message to Philadelphia mentions three names, the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem and my new name (v. 12). There is probably no fixity to these names, nor any meaningful distinction among them. Later we will learn that Christ's name can be one "that no one knows but he himself" (19:12) or it can be "the Word of God" (19:13) or "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (19:16). The redeemed bear on their foreheads "his name" (22:4) or, alternatively, "his name and his Father's name" (14:1). The effect is the same. Whether the city of God has a special name other than "the new Jerusalem" we are not told (see, however, Ezek 48:35, "and the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE").

Whatever the names may be, they represent to the angel at Philadelphia security, stability and divine protection. John may have remembered Eliakim again, who was "like a peg into a firm place," and a "seat of honor for the house of his father" (Is 22:23), but Eliakim turned out to be a peg that would not hold (Is 22:25). Instead, the risen Jesus extends to whoever "overcomes" at Philadelphia the hope of becoming a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it (v. 12). God's temple, or sanctuary, must be the temple in heaven, for there is no temple in the new Jerusalem (21:22). The image of being fixed as a pillar in the heavenly temple will come to life later in a graphic description of those "before the throne of God" who "serve him day and night in his temple" (7:15-17). In both passages, living in the temple of God becomes a metaphor for eternal salvation in the same way in which Christians have always understood the closing words of Psalm 23: "and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

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The Message to Sardis

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The Message to Laodicea

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