The church to whom Jesus dictated his sixth letter was facing a problem. It was being forcibly rejected by those who were claiming to be the people of God. Our Lord dealt with that problem by giving them further insight into who He is and how sufficient He is for all the things they faced.
I. BACKGROUND ON THE CHURCH IN PHILADELPHIA.
A. This city was founded by either one of two rulers in the 2nd Century BC; Eumenes II, the king of Pergamum, or his younger brother Attalus II Philadelphus. A false rumor of Eumenes’ assassination led Attalus to accept his crown; but when he came back alive, he willingly relinquished it. On another occasion, Attalus resisted the pressure of the Roman Empire to overthrow his brother. The love of these two brothers is legendary; and hence the city became known as “Philadelphia”—the city of brotherly love. It had importance because of its location as a “gateway to the orient.” And it was founded with the intention of its being used as a base from which to spread Greek learning and culture. But something dreadful happened in the year 17 AD; a devastating earthquake severely leveled twelve cities of Asia Minor overnight— Philadelphia being one of them. It was rebuilt; but the aftershocks that rumbled through the city for years afterwards caused people to leave and live in the outskirts. The city was rebuilt by the Roman Empire after the earthquake; and the grateful city changed its name to Neocaesarea in response. Later, it changed its name to Flavia under the emperor Vespasian. It was nicknamed “Little Athens” because of its identification with Greek culture.
B. Based on what we read from this letter, we can speculate about the nature of the problem the Christians in Philadelphia faced. It appears that the main problem they dealt with was aggression from the Jewish community. It had “closed the door” of the synagogues to them; and it reviled them as worshiping a false Messiah—a criminal hung on a cross. It claimed that the Jews were the rightful objects of God’s love, and that the followers of Jesus were not. It may have even instigated severe civil persecution upon the believers.
C. All of this appears to have had the effect of giving the church what we might call 'an inferiority complex'. But we note in this letter that Jesus had no words of rebuke for the Philadelphian church. He responds to their need by revealing truths about Himself, commending them for what they have, and encouraging them to hold on until He comes.
II. JESUS' INTRODUCTION OF HIMSELF (v. 7).
A. He begins by calling Himself “He who is holy . . .” This speaks of His sinless character as the Son of God—though He is despised by this world (see Mark 1:24; Acts 3:14).
B. He also presents Himself as “He who is true . . .” And this speaks of His genuineness and authenticity in contrast to those who make false claims of themselves (see John 14:6).
C. He further presents Himself as the One “who has the key of David . . .” We see this spoken of in Isaiah 22:22 as a reference to the spiritual authority that God gives to someone to rule over the household of His covenant people. Whoever has these keys has authority (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus is the One who is presented as having the key of David; and as One “who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”. This may have some implications with respect to the spread of the gospel, as in Colossians 4:2-4; but the idea seems more to be that He—and not “those who say they are Jews and are not” (v. 9)—possesses complete authority over the matter of who may or may not enter into the blessings of His covenant.
III. JESUS' WELCOME TO HIS FAITHFUL PEOPLE (v. 8).
A. He lets them know that He knows their works. However the people of this world may exclude and slander our Lord's followers, He knows the truth about them.
B. He calls them to “see” that—in contrast to their persecutors—“I have set before you an open door”. He has welcomed them—which is nothing less than the welcome of salvation! What's more, it's an open door that no one can shut—not even the Jewish people of their day. Other’s may have rejected them; but He has warmly accepted them and opened the door to them. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
C. This door is not opened to them because they have earned their salvation; but rather, it is declared to be open to them because—by their faithfulness to Him in the midst of fierce opposition—they had already proven their true nature as those who belong to Him (see Matthew 10:22). This nature is shown in that . . .
1. They “have a little strength”. Praise God—their faithfulness didn't depend on their strength. But what strength they had was given to them by Jesus; and was used to faithfully cling to and obey the One through whom they were able to do "all things" (Philippians 4:13).
2. They “have kept” His “word”; that is, they clung to and obeyed the things He said. Their faithfulness to keep His word was a demonstration of their love for Him (see John 14:21, 23-24; see also 2 Timothy 1:13-14).
3. They “have not denied” His “name”. Jesus' "name" is a figure of speech for all that He is and does. In the face of fierce pressure, they didn't deny Him (see Matthew 10:32-33).
IV. JESUS' AFFIRMATION OF HIS LOVE FOR THEM (v. 9).
A. Jesus calls those who are opposing them “the synagogue of Satan”. This should not be taken as presenting Christianity as somehow “anti-semitic” (as some have suggested), because the gospel of Jesus Christ is always “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (see Romans 1:16; also 9:1-5). Rather it's an affirmation of the biblical fact that not all who are born Jewish by nationality or circumcision are actually “Jews” in heart before God (see Rom. 2:28-29; also John 8:39-44). These have said that they are Jewish; but Jesus' verdict is that they “are not, but lie”.
B. As an affirmation that the believers in Philadelphia were truly His, He promises to make those of Satan's synagogue “come and worship before your feet”. The word that's here translated “worship” (proskuneō) means 'to do homage before' someone by prostrating themselves before them. It's not that they would worship Jesus' followers; but that they would take the humble position at the feet of those who are accepted by Him as His followers, and as a recognition that those faithful Philadephian Christians were, indeed, received and loved by Him (see Isaiah 60:14-16). The most wonderful aspect of all this is that the covenant people of God will recognize that their Messiah loved these Christians as well (see Ephesians 2:11-13).
V. JESUS' PROMISE TO PRESERVE THEM (vv. 10-11).
A. Jesus first affirms the reason for His promise of protection. He says that it's because they "have kept My command to persevere" (or "to endure" as it is in the NIV). Literally, He says that they kept "the word of My patience" (see Revelation 1:9). Jesus spoke this word to His disciples in the Olivet discourse just before He Himself suffered on the cross. We find this 'word of patience' in Luke 21:12-18; and He concluded it with the promise that even though some of them would be put to death, "not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls" (vv. 18-19).
B. Now that these faithful saints in Philadelphia had proven themselves by keeping that word, He now promises, "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" (see Romans 5:9). The "hour of trial" that He speaks of here refers to the "great tribulation" that is promised in Matthew 24:15-24 and that is described in much of the third division of the Book of Revelation. Note that this is a time of testing for the whole world (see Revelation 13:3, 8); and the Lord here promises that it will come. But the Philadelphian believers would be spared that hour (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
C. Added to this promise another assuring promise from the Lord—"Behold, I am coming quickly!" He has promised that His return to this earth would be swift and unexpected (Matthew 24:36-44); and this should be an encouragement to His faithfully suffering saints. But it also comes as a call to "Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (see 2:25). The must not only be faithful now, but faithful always; because there is a danger of losing what one has—not of salvation, but of rewards (see 2 John 8). They must be "faithful until death"; and He would give them "the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10; see also 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
VI. JESUS' PROMISE TO REWARD THEM (v. 12).
A. He says that He will make the overcomer a "pillar in the temple of my God". The temple He speaks of is not the general temple area, but the very holy of holies within the temple—the very dwelling place of God; and a pillar symbolizes permanence and stability. They may have been kicked out of the places of Jewish worship; but they’ll never be made to leave God’s house.
B. What's more, they will be inscribed. He will write the name of His God on them, and the name of the city, the New Jerusalem, and His own new name. Three names! They are forever inscribed as His with the marks that symbolizes God's ownership of them., their citizenship in heaven, and the mark of full union with Christ.
We may not suffer rejection and opposition from the same sources as the believers at Philadelphia did; but we do suffer rejection in our day from a number of sources. The solution is the same for us as it was for them—to look to the Scriptures and gain a fresh appreciation of who Jesus is in His glorious attributes and character. This will encourage us, like the believers in Philadelphia to use the little strength we have; keep His word; stay faithful to His name; and keep His command to persevere until He comes.