1. The History of Philadelphia
2. The Letter to Philadelphia
i. The Key of David
ii. The True and Holy One
b. I know...
c. I will...
i. I will make them...
ii. I will keep you...
iii. I am coming soon...
d. The Promise
1. The History of Philadelphia
Philadelphia lay on the lower slopes of the Tmolus on the southern side of the valley of the Cogamus river and, according to NIDBA, contains nothing of archaeological interest, the ancient city believed to lie below the modern Turkish city of Alasehir at an altitude of approximately 950 feet above sea level.
It lay at the eastern end of a long valley which led down to the city of Sardis some thirty miles away and then on to the Aegean Sea near Smyrna. The Cogamus river flowed through the valley, emptying out into the Hermus near Sardis.
In a region of vineyards situated mainly to the north of its location, which was labelled, by translation, ‘the burnt land’, this large volcanic plain was fertile enough and well-suited to grape-growing.
It was the centre of the cult of Dionysius even though there were many other temples which were built and served in the city, so much so that in the fifth century AD it was called ‘little Athens’. The exact state of the city four centuries before at the time of John’s writing is difficult to determine, however.
In 190BC, after the defeat of Antiochus IV at Magnesia, the area of Lydia passed into Pergamene control and the city of Philadelphia was founded during this period of rule around 140BC (though dates range from 189BC when Eumenes II took the throne through to 138BC when Attalus II died), Attalus II Philadelphus usually being attributed with its construction (even though his elder brother Eumenes II is often attributed) and it was laid out at the junction of the roads which lead to the regions of Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia (a short way from the pass which leads from the Hermus to the Maender valley) and was intended to be a kind of missionary city for the promotion of Hellenism into two areas that had recently been acquired by the Lydian kingdom. It appears that this had been successful as, two years prior to the great earthquake of 17AD, it has been noted that the language of Lydia had been nearly totally replaced by Greek.
There does not appear to have been any great city or town previously situated here and its founding may therefore have been as a strategic outpost to protect the Lydian kingdom’s eastern flank.
It’s name, which means ‘brotherly love’, was given to it as a reflection of the love and commitment that Attalus II showed to his elder brother Eumenes who ruled throughout Lydia before him.
Mounce gives two examples of Attalus demonstration of his brotherly love:
‘1. A false rumour of Eumenes’ assassination led Attalus to accept the crown, which he then relinquished when his brother returned from Greece...
‘2. Attalus’ resistance to Roman encouragement to overthrow his brother and become king’
It’s prosperity was partly due to its situation on the trade route which led to these three principle regions (though partly also, it would appear, due to the richness of its viticulture). It was through Philadelphia that the Imperial post route passed from Rome and it continued eastward into the higher central plain.
It was nicknamed ‘the gateway to the east’ because it was cited on the main east-west route into the interior. Some commentators see an allusion to this title of Philadelphia in Jesus’ words (Rev 3:8) that
‘...I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut...’
but the word employed here (Strongs Gk number 2374) is used, according to Kittel, to denote the outer or inner door of a house, the gate of the temple (he cites this only as a possibility and uses Acts 3:21 and 21:30 as examples) or the entrance to a tomb. These are indicative of small fixtures rather than the word used to denote a gateway though, to be fair, it could also indicate a small obstruction as denoted by the former word.
However, it is the only word of the two which seems to have been used to denote the large gateways to cities and the like. The parallel of Jesus’ words in the letter to Philadelphia with the phrase ‘gateway to the east’ appears to be a little contrived (as much as it would be nice to find a parallel in it).
Seismic activity caused there to be hot springs in the area but it was always in danger of sudden and unpredictable earthquakes, the worst of which occurred in 17AD and laid waste much of the surrounding area with repeated after-shocks which the other cities around seem to have not experienced to any great degree.
Strabo (12.8.18 and 13.4.10) recorded the existence of a series of earth tremors in the area when he wrote in 20AD which would indicate that the great earthquake continued with after-shocks which made the rebuilding of the city difficult.
In the latter of these two references, he notes
‘...[the] city of Philadelphia [is] subject to constant earthquakes. The walls of the houses are incessantly opening and sometimes one, sometimes another, part of the city is experiencing some damage. The majority of the people (for few persons live in the city) pass their lives in the country, employing themselves in agriculture and cultivate a good soil. Yet it is surprising that there should be even a few persons so much attached to a place where their dwellings are insecure; but one may marvel more at those who founded the city’
While Pliny (Natural History ii.86.200) simply records that during one night 12 cities of Asia Minor were destroyed and fails to name either the cities or the type of devastation that was caused, Tacitus (Annals 2.47 - on the web at http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html) records at least some details when he writes
‘That same year twelve famous cities of Asia fell by an earthquake in the night, so that the destruction was all the more unforeseen and fearful. Nor were there the means of escape usual in, such a disaster, by rushing out into the open country, for there people were swallowed up by the yawning earth. Vast mountains, it is said, collapsed; what had been level ground seemed to be raised aloft, and fires blazed out amid the ruin. The calamity fell most fatally on the inhabitants of Sardis, and it attracted to them the largest share of sympathy. The emperor promised ten million sesterces, and remitted for five years all they paid to the exchequer or to the emperor's purse. Magnesia, under Mount Sipylus, was considered to come next in loss and in need of help. The people of Temnus, Philadelpheia, Aegae, Apollonis, the Mostenians, and Hyrcanian Macedonians, as they were called, with the towns of Hierocaesarea, Myrina, Cyme, and Tmolus, were; it was decided, to be exempted from tribute for the same time, and some one was to be sent from the Senate to examine their actual condition and to relieve them. Marcus Aletus, one of the expraetors, was chosen, from a fear that, as an exconsul was governor of Asia, there might be rivalry between men of equal rank, and consequent embarrassment’
In gratitude for the large amount of relief that was bestowed upon the city, coinage indicates that it changed its name to Neocaesarea shortly afterwards but it appears not to have been popular and Philadelphia was quickly reverted to. Some commentators think that this ‘new name’ is what is being alluded to in Rev 3:12 but the parallel seems a bit strained considering the renaming was short-lived and occurred before Jesus even began his earthly ministry.
It also instituted the cult of Germanicus, the adopted son of the emperor, as a response to the help received.
Coinage struck under Vespasian (69-79 AD) also indicates the name ‘Flavian’ but this, also, seems not to have been popular.
Ignatius, writing around 100AD to the church at Philadelphia from Troas, notes that there were certain dissensions amongst the fellowship (7) which seem to have been based upon the entry into the ranks of some form of Judaism (6 and 8). Jesus’ letter in Revelation mentions no problems within the church at the time of writing but Ignatius’ letter is an indication that the church in this city may have been made up of a large proportion of Jews (see Rev 3:9).
It was one of the last cities to stand against the onslaught of the Turks and fell in 1392 after many years of resistance when it is likened to an island in the sea of Turkish domination.
From the little we know concerning Philadelphia from ancient history, there is almost nothing that gives us a good background to the context of Jesus’ letter to the church within the city.
2. The Letter to Philadelphia
Though the previous introductions to the letters have depended upon the description of Jesus drawn from Rev 1:12-20 with certain variations and additions (notably Sardis’ ‘the seven spirits of God’), the words to Philadelphia depart totally from this description if the parallel ‘keys of Death and Hades’ (Rev 1:18) is taken as distinct from ‘the key of David’ (3:7).
There were certainly descriptions of Jesus that have gone unused (such as the voice that was the sound of many waters - 1:15) but these are put to one side both here and in the following letter to Laodicea for generally original descriptions.
I have decided to deal with the characteristics of Jesus mentioned in this verse in reverse order as the teaching flows more logically this way round.
i. The Key of David
‘The words of [the One] who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens’
As I have mentioned above, this could be taken to be a rewording of the description of Jesus in 1:18 which speaks of Him as having ‘the keys of Death and Hades’ but the former phrase here is more inclusive and covers a wider range of meaning than the latter which speaks only of the authority that Jesus has over two specific areas.
The ‘key’, which is rarely used in this way in Scripture, is indicative of authority - it is the person who holds the key who has the power both to unlock and lock a partition so that no person may have access according to the will of the owner.
The parallel passage in the OT is Is 22:15-25 where Isaiah prophecies over two individuals within the household of the king, Shebna and Eliakim. Both individuals will fall, though the undoing of the latter of these two individuals is more likely to have initially been the fault of the people than any problem in the individual himself even though weakness is noted.
Shebna was over the king’s household (22:15), a position which would have demanded his attention to make sure that the welfare of the king and of his family was paramount. He was the type of person who was concerned, however, to make a great name and reputation for himself so that he would be remembered long after he was dead and buried - therefore, he is spoken of as carving out a tomb for himself high up in the rocks which many would be able to see and his ‘splendid chariots’ (22:18) are also mentioned in connection with his downfall.
As Motyer writes
‘Shebna found his identity as a person in the “this-worldly” benefits of his office, and he set about securing his “place in history” by his own efforts...He was, therefore, individually what the nation was collectively: wedded to present satisfactions and self-confident in the face of the future’
Even though this self-reliant man struggled hard to establish himself in the people’s eyes, God was going to remove him from office (22:19) and establish Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, as his replacement (22:20). His care for the people of God in Jerusalem would be paramount rather than care for himself (22:21), and (22:22)
‘...I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; he shall shut, and none shall open’
that is, he would be allowed to make decisions that would be binding and fulfilled because his heart lay in the welfare of God’s people rather than in his own concerns and reputation before the people. This authority, then, is not to be seen as some egoistic acquisition that is to be striven for so that a person’s will can be done wherever they desire - but it is a provision for the job of the welfare of God’s people. Decisions need to be made and laws established that will care for even the poorest and weakest members of God’s society and these need protection from forces which would seek to subvert the decisions for selfish aims.
Even though Eliakim was initially found to be reliable and people looked to him for their welfare (22:23), he was to become so reliable that the people would begin to rely upon him rather than upon the One who had given him to them for their welfare (22:24), causing too much burden to be placed on that one man, the external force of the dependency proving too great (22:25 - ‘the burden that was upon it’) for the weakness that it was within the man (22:25 - ‘the peg...will give way’).
As Motyer concludes
‘Eliakim...ran the risk of becoming the one whom others trust...and in this exposes another alternative to the way of true faith. The reliable office-holder attracts to himself the respect and confidence of the people, but should this become a reliance on a human person replacing reliance on the Lord, the end is calamity...’
Interestingly, we read of this Eliakim in connection with the proposed attack on Jerusalem by Sennacherib, king of Assyria (Is 36:3), and a Shebna is there who is labelled as the secretary of the throne. This Shebna may not be the Shebna of the Isaiah 22 passage but, if it is, then God had already begun to fulfil His word in the king’s household by establishing Eliakim as the head over the king’s affairs and demoting Shebna.
When we come to the mention of the key of David in Rev 3:7, we shouldn’t think that the authority of David spoken of here is absolute authority - even though this is quite true of Jesus from other passages in the NT (Mtw 28:18) but, because it parallels almost exactly the usage in Isaiah 22, see the declaration of authority here as indicative of the need to care and provide for those people who are within the household of God that Jesus is set over (Heb 3:6, 10:21, I Peter 4:17).
Jesus exercises His authority, then, for the benefit of the people within His household - that was the reason in the OT why Eliakim was given such provision, so that the children of Israel might be well provided for and that no man might stand against his will. Similarly, Jesus is given the same area of authority in order that His people might not perish but continue to prosper under His care and through His provision.
ii. The true and holy One
‘The words of the holy One, the true One...’
The words ‘holy’ (Strongs Gk Number 40) and ‘true’ (Strongs Gk Number 228) are spoken of God later in Revelation when the martyrs cry out with a loud voice (6:10)
‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before Thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?’
and the coincidence is deliberate.
It is used as a declaration that contrasts the weaknesses that seem to have been part of the reason why Eliakim was torn down by the burden that was placed upon him in the OT and why Shebna was removed from office. Here, though, Jesus is both true and holy.
He is ‘reliable’ (as Kittels on the Gk word for ‘true’) and will uphold reliance upon God rather than upon human men and women who detract from the all-sufficiency of God (something that many christian leaders would do well to learn from) and He is fully ‘set apart’ to God (the literal translation of the Gk word), a faithful minister over God’s household, concerned to do the Father’s will in all things.
He is unlike Shebna who failed to provide for those under his charge, looking rather to his own welfare, glory and remembrance and unlike Eliakim in that He will point to God the father as the source of all provision and reliance. The weight of bearing the people’s problems proved to be too much for Eliakim and his inherent weakness (see above) was part of the reason why the ‘peg’ (indicative of himself) gave way when the burden proved too great.
Even the title given Him is one that God alone is given so that we can see that it is no mere man who is set over the household of God, but God Himself, He who will never fall and can never be crushed by the weight of His people’s problems.
Christ here, then, declares Himself as the faithful ‘steward’ over all of God’s House, with authority to implement decisions in the will of God and for the benefit of His people. Rather than speak vaguely concerning all authority, the Philadelphians’ specific need is to know that there is Someone who is watching over them, One who will move on their behalf so that, what little power they have (Rev 3:8) becomes immaterial before the authority and power of Christ.
b. I know...
Well, I’m no Greek scholar but the way this verse runs needs to be resolved and, from the possibilities open to the translator as detailed in the various commentaries, it would seem that there are quite a number of possible translations, each of which need some comprehending!
Mounce suggests that ‘the most satisfying solution’ is to accept the RSV’s rendition of the verse, making a full-stop after the first ‘works’ and adding ‘I know’ to begin the sentence ‘that you have but little power’. This divides the verse up into three sentences and tends to obliterate any possible interrelation between them. With this translation, I also struggle to find anything meaningful in the words that holds the verse together and connections need to be made that are not obvious in the text before us.
Morris’ explanation is better when he writes
‘The words “See...can shut” are best taken as a parenthesis. The main thought is then “I know your works, for you have little power and yet you have kept my word”’
so that the verse according to him (by amending RSV’s translation) should run
‘I know your works (behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut) that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’
But this, again, seems to obscure any simple meaning of the verse that may be there - one is left trying to find a reason for the parenthesis which could, perhaps be, that Jesus knows the believers’ works is that He has caused the ‘open door’ that their works need to be performed because they have little power.
Much, much better from an English point of view is Chilton’s rendering (my italics) which reads
‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My Word, and have not denied My name’
The reason for this italicised word is, as Mounce explains, that
‘If a major stop occurs after “works”, then the word “that”...is better translated “because” and supplies the reason for the open door being placed before the church’
The translation may be far from perfect but it does link the second and third sentences together. This is the translation that I shall be following here.
Commentators tend to attempt to tie down Jesus’ words that He has ‘set before you an open door’ into some specific action when there appears to be no real point in trying to do so. The Gk word for ‘door’ in the verse is the same as that used in at least four other passages in the NT where evangelism is normally taken to be the key to understanding each one (Acts 14:27, I Cor 16:8-9, II Cor 2:12-13, Col 4:3) even though this is far from certain.
For instance, though Col 4:3 is definitely recording Paul requesting prayer that
‘...God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ...’
the interpretation is too limiting when applied to I Cor 16:9 where Paul tells his readers that
‘...a wide door for effective work has opened me, and there are many adversaries’
This could equally well apply to the founding of the local church upon spiritual principles and of grounding new believers in the Truth of the Gospel - not just the evangelisation of the unsaved/non-believers.
If it is taken that ‘evangelism’ is the key to the Revelation passage, the objection is that nowhere in the NT does God speak of closing the door for the preaching of the Gospel - in all the passages cited, it is only ever God who is opening a door for evangelism first in one city, then in the next - and the context of the words here is that Jesus is the One who both opens and closes doors that cannot be either respectively closed or opened by anyone else.
As we never read of evangelism being ‘closed’ (except that it is about to be opened once and for all), the interpretation that accepts it to refer to this is unlikely to be correct if it is limited in scope solely to this one point.
Much is also made of the natural situation of the city of Philadelphia in that it was the ‘gateway’ or ‘door’ into the more central region which lay beyond it to the east, but, as I noted above, the Gk word used here more rightly means a small door rather than a large gateway which appears to have been what was intended by the city’s title in the ancient world.
Morris’ brief consideration concludes by noting that
‘Others think of the door as Christ Himself...others again think of an opened door in contrast to the closed door of the synagogue, and yet others of the door of prayer’
but opts for the interpretation of ‘entrance into the messianic glory’.
The reason for the open door, however, is ‘because you have but little power’ - that is, contrasted to the Sardian church which had the name of being alive even though it was dead (possibly meaning that they were well regarded within the society of its day), the Philadelphians have little natural power and influence within their city. Therefore, Jesus has stepped in on their behalf as the One over the household of God and has opened a door that they would not have otherwise been able to open.
These believers, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit, have the power of God at their disposal through His abiding presence (Acts 1:8, II Cor 10:4) but their standing within their society would give them insufficient opportunity to effectively establish the Kingdom of God throughout their city. This appears to be the necessary interpretation of the word ‘power’.
This could mean a number of things - from the opportunity to evangelise through to christian input on matters and policies that would influence large sections of their city. We shouldn’t tie it down solely to the former but see that, because the fellowship has little natural/political power, Jesus is determined to open the door for them so that they may have opportunity to do as He chooses them to do.
Though God provides this open door because of the believers’ position within the city, it has been granted also because
‘...you have kept My word and have not denied My name’
Mounce notes that
‘The two aorist verbs point to a particular period of trial in the past’
while Morris simply states that
‘Evidently there had been persecution of some sort, but the people of Philadelphia had stood firm’
the mention of the ‘synagogue of satan’ in the following verse probably giving an adequate origin.
The point is that their steadfastness through adversity and tribulation had compelled Jesus to open a door for them because of their little natural power within the city. Their unswerving commitment to hold fast to Christ even when they faced difficult times proved themselves to be a fellowship who would use the opportunity granted it by the opening of the door.
This verse, then, is a high commendation for the fellowship at Philadelphia (and, indeed, like Smyrna it is only one of two churches that receive no points of condemnation from Jesus throughout their letter) - their faithfulness in times past when they had little natural standing and protection within their society has resulted in a door being opened to them which they have used for the sake of the advance of the Kingdom of Christ.
c. I will...
I have lumped these three verses together as they appear to represent three distinct actions of Jesus as spoken to the Philadelphians (‘I will make them...’, ‘I will keep you...’ and ‘I am coming soon...’), even though recounted actions of the fellowship and commands to persevere are an integral part of the overall message.
This is the point in most of the other letters, where the church’s faults would have been shown to it, but there are no faults mentioned here by Jesus - not because there weren’t any, no doubt, but because there are none that are undermining the witness and life of the local church.
i. I will make them...
We have previously noted the label ‘the synagogue of satan’ being mentioned in Rev 2:9 and commented on it there. It does not have to imply that the Jews who were present in the area were practising occultic rites or magic arts, only that, in rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, they had unwittingly allied themselves with satan who opposes the true Church.
As Chilton rightly points out (though I believe he goes too far with some of his other comments which follow this quote - at the very least, they need some clarification and expansion)
‘Again, there is no such thing as “orthodox” Judaism; there is no such thing as a genuine belief in the Old Testament that is consistent with a rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and God. Those who do not believe in Christ do not believe the Old Testament either’
The actual Greek here runs slightly different than the RSV’s translation. The first part of the verse should read, it appears, something like ‘I will give some of the synagogue...’ rather than to use the same verb in the second part and so render it ‘I will make’ which breaks with the thought halfway through the sentence and leaves the reader hanging in mid-air wondering what it is that Jesus will ‘make’ the synagogue do.
What Jesus is saying is that He will give some of the synagogue over into the hands of the true believers - not for destruction and annihilation, but either for present salvation or future final judgment (though this latter event is, in my opinion, only very weakly alluded to here for the reasons set out below).
There is sad irony in Jesus’ words, seeing as what the Jews will experience from their rejected Messiah will be the very same thing that they will be expecting to receive from their Messiah when He is to appear - the submission of the Gentile nations beneath the Kingdom of Israel.
As Is 60:14 states
‘The sons of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you; and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet...’
Even though they looked to YHWH to make them the ‘head’ of the nations, the reality is that they must come to serve those whom they have rejected as being in the purposes of God and to acknowledge that God loves them (something that they would have found abhorrent in their present state. Perhaps we also lose the force of Jesus’ words here - it is worthy of conjecture that Scriptures such as Mal 1:2-3 could have been cited by the synagogue of the Jews to put down the christian church in the city so that Jesus’ words forcefully refute their allegations that God stands opposed to them. This is no more than conjecture, though!).
This shouldn’t be taken to teach that the Jews will be subjugated in the present age in that city, in a similar manner as a conquering enemy is forced to serve an oppressing master. The implication appears to be that ‘some’ of the synagogue will come and acknowledge that God is with the church, that they will recognise that Jesus Christ is the long awaited Messiah.
The commentators mention that those who will not ‘acknowledge’ God’s love for His people, the christians, will be finally judged at the end of time and that this is most likely to be the meaning behind the action of Christ, seeing as most of the letters deal with ‘eschatological matters’, but the selective words of the first half of the verse (the ‘some of the synagogue’) make it more likely that conversion to Jesus Christ is likely, otherwise He would surely have said that all the Jewish synagogue was to come and bow down before them - either for belief in this present life or for judgment in the next.
Ironic though it is, the Jew who pursued supremacy over the nations of the world in their Messiah who was to come, find that they have become the servant rather than the master because of their rejection of the purposes of God. This is not cause for the christian to rejoice - rather he should be sad that God’s nation Israel have fallen away from grace - and neither is it cause for him to actively seek to dominate the Jew (as many groups and nations have done throughout the era of the Church).
It is a fact to be noted - not an action that is to be pursued.
This action of Christ, however, is specifically promised to the Philadelphian fellowship and it is they who can expect that, shortly, many of those whom they had labelled as enemies will turn round to embrace the belief that they had actively sought to destroy and to become their friends ‘in Christ’.
ii. I will keep you...
I find it incongruous that Jesus may have spoken here concerning Him keeping the Philadelphians ‘from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world’ and then read in the commentaries that Jesus is stating either that ‘the whole world’ must mean some localised tribulation or that they were ‘kept’ from that time by their death in old age.
In my web page on Prophecy and Matthew chapter 24 here I examined the nature of Prophecy and, hopefully, satisfied the reader that prophetic utterances are not pre-written events of subsequent history but promises which, throughout Scripture, are not obliged to take place if they do not meet with a correct response in the hearers to whom they are given.
Therefore, I do not see a need to try and turn the verse round to make it say something that confirms subsequent events of known history or to project it forward into the distant future as relating to the time, still to come, when the hope of the christian Church is that Christ will return from heaven and raise all the believers who have died with active faith in Him from the grave.
The Philadelphians, as far as I can see from the verse, expected world tribulation to take place in their lifetime (paralleled by Rev 6:16-17?) but that they would also be kept from that period of earth history (either delivered out of it or sustained through it so that it does not affect their walk with God Himself) by the same One who told them that it was about to take place (see also Rev 1:1 and 22:6 which speaks of the contents of Revelation containing events which ‘must soon take place’ and 22:7 and 22:12 where Jesus is quoted as saying that He is ‘coming soon’ not after some two thousand years. God doesn’t say things to mislead His own people - though He may do His enemies - and what they hear is what they get).
Taking prophecy to be merely pre-written history has compelled commentators through the ages to see either a fulfilment of the events outlined within Revelation as happening only a few years after their recording (and are usually associated with the fall of Jerusalem c.70AD - thus assigning an early date to the writing of the book which, incidentally, I have no problem with) or to project them forward to a future date, making the words to the Philadelphian church to represent an age of the Church, sixth in line from the apostles and immediately prior to the last type of Church resident on the earth before the Lord returns.
Hughes opts for another ploy, however, and interprets ‘the hour of trial’ as representing the final judgment, commenting that
‘Just as the incarnate Son was nailed to a cross which was prepared for someone else, so His “hour of trial” at Calvary was in their place. By it they are delivered from the judgment impending over the whole unregenerate world’
while both Mounce and Morris note that the ‘final tribulation’ before the Lord’s return must be meant without offering any detailed explanation of whether we should expect to see a reformed Philadelphian fellowship at the time immediately before the end, whether what is said to the Philadelphians was not ultimately meant for them but for a fellowship who has showed itself to be similarly faithful in years to come or whether, why what was promised to them never took place (or, if it did, how).
These are important considerations for they tell us much about how subsequent Scripture within this Book will be interpreted.
Moving on, though, the reason for Jesus keeping them from the coming trial is that they have learnt by the steadfastness of Christ - that is, they have understood the steadfastness of Christ through His sufferings and so demonstrated a similar attitude in the things they have experienced (there is a similar example of this thought in Heb 12:1-2 where perseverance in the believer is allied with the example of Christ in the cross and in His sufferings).
Morris notes that the phrase of the RSV - ‘you have kept My word of patient endurance’ is more literally ‘the word of my steadfastness’, going on to note that, following Swete, the meaning is something like ‘the teaching which was exemplified in my steadfastness’.
They have not just learnt a commandment of men but have perceived and understood the endurance that is demonstrated in the cross and have lived that out. As they have ‘kept’ that word (that is, as they have lived out the reality of it) so Jesus will ‘keep’ them from the coming trial - and all because they have reflected the knowledge they have received through the outworkings of their lives.
Let me conclude by pointing out that the Philadelphian fellowship expected the ‘hour of trial’ to come upon the earth imminently not following a period of two thousand years or more. That we cannot show that this did take place is only worrying if prophecy is taken to have to be interpreted as pre-written history rather than dependent upon the response that it meets with in its hearers.
iii. I am coming soon...
Jesus’ ‘I am coming soon’ could be a similar phrase to His words in Rev 2:5, 2:16 and 3:3 where a localised visitation is meant upon the Ephesian, Pergamene and Sardian fellowship respectively, or the final return of the Lord to the earth as mentioned in such places as Rev 22:7, 22:12 and 22:20. In view of the context of the previous verse, the latter of these two options appears to be the most likely.
As Mounce notes here
‘The promise is not that Christ’s coming will take place quickly whenever it happens [as Hughes seems to interpret the passage], but that it will take place without delay’
in keeping with the verses which have preceded it.
It is important, says Jesus, that the Philadelphians cling on to what they have in order that they may receive the crown they already possess (that is, a reward for their faithfulness independent of their right to eternal life) and make sure that they do not forfeit their possession - there is so little time before the Lord will return, that their perseverance is not required to be long-standing but of short duration and then they will be seen to be one of Christ’s faithful churches.
Concluding, though they had received, presumably, opposition from the Jewish synagogue (whether in verbal form or in the inciting of the city against them), some of their persecutors would shortly come to recognise that the church was God’s special possession within the city and so join their ranks through conversion.
Meanwhile, because they had applied the example of Christ through the cross to their own lives and were living steadfastly and faithfully for God, He would prevent the final time of tribulation from either touching them at all or from stumbling them and removing them from a pure devotion to Him.
Finally, the Philadelphians were expecting Jesus to return as promised in their own lifetime and were urged to hold on to what they already possessed in order that no one else might be rewarded with what was rightfully theirs.
d. The Promise
Why would the Lord say ‘To Him who overcomes...’ when there does not appear to be anything that is set before them to overcome and they already are in possession of the crown (Rev 3:11)?
Even in Smyrna where there is nothing negative that Jesus says concerning the fellowship, His word of overcoming can be seen in the context of the shortly to be realised event where satan is to imprison some of the believers for ten days after which time they would be killed (Rev 2:10), but here in Philadelphia, there is absolutely nothing (as far as I can see) that Jesus is expecting them to overcome or which may stand in their way to a correct relationship with God.
The answer probably lies in the fact that, even though they are living in the favour of God, there still remains obstacles that will need to be overcome if they are to continue in their faithfulness towards God. Day to day living demands that obstacles be negotiated and problems subjected to the will of God in Christ so that a fellowship that God specifies no problems in does not mean that they are not experiencing troubles - rather, it means that they have, so far, come to terms with them and have not given in.
Some of the words of promise to the other churches which follow the similar phrase will also therefore relate to normal christian living and may have only partial relevance to the believers who are living opposed to the will of God or who are about to undergo some sort of trial.
The promise is singular, even though it has many qualifying statements. The overcomer will be made to be
‘...a pillar in the temple of My God...’
The word for ‘pillar’ is used rarely in the NT but, where it is, it denotes permanence and dependability. Therefore Paul writes that James, Cephas (Peter) and John had the reputation of being ‘pillars’ (Gal 2:9) and that the Church of Christ is established as the pillar of the Truth (I Tim 3:15 - what a shame that, all too often, the label has come to be associated with groups of people who have been anything but). Even in the OT (Jer 1:18-19), an ‘iron pillar’ is used to show Jeremiah that, although he will be fought against, his enemies (and, therefore, the enemies of God) will not prevail against him.
This individual pillar in the ‘temple of God’ speaks of steadfastness and immovability, a point of specific relevance to the city of Philadelphia who probably fared the worst in the great earthquake of 17AD when almost the entire city was destroyed in one night (see the ‘History’ for further details). Though the area was unstable due to earth movements, the overcomer is promised an unshakeable establishing in the presence of God forever, just as Paul speaks of believers being built into the Temple of God so that God might dwell among them by His Spirit (Eph 2:20-22).
There may also be an allusion here to the ‘peg of Eliakim’ which came to mind in Rev 3:7-8 though the parallel may be somewhat contrived. Though Eliakim, chosen by God to look after His people, became a reliable peg upon which His people came to depend, internal weaknesses and over-expectation caused him to fall from effective office and from fulfilling a long-standing establishment over the king’s household. The overcomer here, however, is permanent and forever abiding, immovable and steadfast, and totally dependable.
David’s prayer that he would ‘...dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Ps 23:6) is found to become a reality in the overcomers’ lives at Philadelphia through their continued dependency upon Christ and their demonstration of patient endurance in the face of adversity (Rev 3:10).
This pillar (the person himself) does not stand undefined, but will have three names written on him - the name of God, the new Jerusalem and the new name of Christ.
These three names represent different aspects of the believer’s standing.
Firstly, having the name of God written on them is indicative of ownership (the action is further mentioned in Revelation at 14:1 and 22:4, but actually finding enough evidence within Scripture to support the ‘ownership’ view is difficult - believe me, I tried! - but it does seem to be the best interpretation), that the believer rightfully belongs in the presence of God through God’s Sovereign choice. When Aaron was commanded to bless Israel (Num 6:22-26), He was commanded that by so uttering the phrase recorded that He would ‘...put My name upon the people of Israel...’ (Num 6:27) denoting sole ownership and possession that He would watch over them to bless them abundantly.
Having God stake a claim to one’s life is to be eternally secure.
Secondly, the name of the New Jerusalem denotes citizenship of the eternal dwelling place of God which is later detailed in chapters 21-22. Just what the recipients of this letter at Philadelphia understood by the phrase is difficult to know even though the concept of the New Jerusalem was a part of standard christian teaching of the time (see, for instance, Gal 4:26 and Heb 12:22) and not unknown in the OT (Is 65:17-19) - but it is not until the final chapters are read out to the hearers that they would have come to realise all that the promise meant.
The ‘new name’ of Christ (mentioned again in Rev 14:1) is a bit more difficult but there seems little reason to suppose that anything other than ownership is meant - perhaps the implication here is that the believer has been purchased with the blood of Christ (I Peter 1:18-19, I Cor 6:19-20).
Mounce sees the name as symbolising
‘...the full revelation of His character, which awaits the second advent...[it] reflects man’s current inability to grasp the full theological significance of the incarnation’
There are no defining phrases for us to determine the validity of this but it certainly will not be far from the Truth. Having these three names show the overcomer that they rightly belong to God and to be established permanently in the eternal dwelling place of God through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. No better security could possibly exist.
Finally, the ‘new’ name of Christ is often paralleled with the new name that the city received shortly after the earthquake of 17AD and in the reign of Emperor Vespasian (the latter only being significant if a late date for the authorship of the entire Book is accepted as it would have occurred after 69AD) but there is hardly any spiritual significance in seeing this. It is not in the bestowing of a new name that an overcomer is rewarded but in being inscribed with Christ’s new name - different to the promise of Rev 2:17 where a new name is actually given to the overcoming believer.
Concluding, the steadfastness that the believers have already shown through their reliance upon the Gospel and in its defence (Rev 2:10) will be echoed in the reward that their continued overcoming will win for themselves - established and immovable in the Truth in this life calls for the secure establishing of the believer in the life to come.