Philadelphia, the Faithful Church (Rev. 3:7–13)
As most people know, Philadelphia means “love of the brethren.” Certainly, brotherly love is an important mark of the Christian. We are “taught of God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9), but it is not enough to love God and our fellow believers; we must also love a lost world and seek to reach unbelievers with the Good News of the Cross. This church had a vision to reach a lost world and God set before them an open door.
Jesus Christ presented Himself to the church as “He that is holy.” Jesus Christ is holy in His character, His words, His actions, and His purposes. As the Holy One, He is uniquely set apart from everything else and nothing can be compared to Him. He is also the One who is “true”—that is, genuine. He is the original, not a copy; the authentic God and not a manufactured one. There were hundreds of false gods and goddesses in those days (1 Cor. 8:5–6), but only Jesus Christ could rightfully claim to be the true God. It is worth noting that when the martyrs in heaven addressed the Lord, they called Him “holy and true” (Rev. 6:10). Their argument was because He was holy, He had to judge sin and because He was true, He had to vindicate His people who had been wickedly slain.
Not only is He holy and true, but He has the authority to open and close doors. The background of this imagery is Isaiah 22:15–25. Assyria had invaded Judah (as Isaiah had warned), but the Jewish leaders were trusting Egypt, not God, to deliver the nation. One of the treacherous leaders was a man named Shebna who had used his office, not for the good of the people, but for his own private gain. God saw to it that Shebna was removed from office and that a faithful man, Eliakim, was put in his place and given the keys of authority. Eliakim was a picture of Jesus Christ, a dependable administrator of the affairs of God’s people.
In the New Testament, an “open door” speaks of opportunity for ministry (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). Christ is the Lord of the harvest and the Head of the church, and it is He who determines where and when His people will serve (Acts 16:6–10). He gave the church at Philadelphia a great opportunity for ministry.
But could they take advantage of it? There were at least two obstacles to overcome. The first was their own lack of strength (Rev. 3:8). Apparently, this was not a large or a strong church; however, it was a faithful one. They were true to God’s Word and unafraid to bear His name. Revelation 3:10 suggests they had endured some special testing and had proved faithful. It is not the size or strength of a church that determines its ministry, but faith in the call and command of the Lord. God’s commandments are God’s enablements. If Jesus Christ gave them an open door, then He would see to it that they were able to walk through it!
The second obstacle they had to overcome was the opposition of the Jews in the city (Rev. 3:9). Of course, this was really the opposition of Satan, for we do not battle against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). These people may have been Jews in the flesh, but they were not “true Israel” in the New Testament sense (Rom. 2:17–29). Jewish people certainly have a great heritage, but it is no guarantee of salvation (Matt. 3:7–12; John 8:33).
How were these Jews opposing the church at Philadelphia? For one thing, by excluding Jewish believers from the synagogue. Another weapon was probably false accusation, for this is the way the unbelieving Jews often attacked Paul. Satan is the accuser and he uses even religious people to assist him (Rev. 12:10). It is not easy to witness for Christ when the leading people in the community are spreading lies about you. The church at Smyrna faced the same kind of opposition (Rev. 2:9).
The believers in Philadelphia were in a similar situation to that of Paul when he wrote 1 Corinthians 16:9—there were both opportunities and obstacles! Unbelief sees the obstacles; faith sees the opportunities! Since the Lord holds the keys, He is in control of the outcome! Nobody can close the doors as long as He keeps them open. Fear, unbelief, and delay have caused the church to miss many God-given opportunities.
The Savior gave three wonderful and encouraging promises to this church. First, He would take care of their enemies (Rev. 3:9). One day, these people would have to acknowledge the Christians were right! (Isa. 60:14; Phil. 2:10–11) If we take care of God’s work, He will take care of our battles.
Second, He would keep them from Tribulation (Rev. 3:10). This is surely a reference to the time of Tribulation John described in Revelation 6–19, “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” This is not speaking about some local trial because it involves “them that dwell on the earth” (Rev. 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:2, 8). The immediate reference would be to the official Roman persecutions that would come, but the ultimate reference is to the Tribulation that will encompass the earth before Jesus Christ returns to establish His kingdom. In many Bible scholars’ understanding, Revelation 3:10 is a promise that the church will not go through the Tribulation, but will be taken to heaven before it begins (1 Thes. 4:13–5:11).
The third promise to the Philadelphians is God would honor them (Rev. 3:12). The symbolism in this verse would be especially meaningful to people who lived in constant danger of earthquakes: the stability of the pillar, no need to go out or to flee, a heavenly city that nothing could destroy. Ancient cities often honored great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed on them. God’s pillars are not made of stone because there is no temple in the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). His pillars are faithful people who bear His name for His glory (Gal. 2:9).
In a very real sense the church today is like the Philadelphian church. God has set before us many open doors of opportunity. If He opens the doors, we must work; if He shuts the doors, we must wait. Above all, we must be faithful to Him and see the opportunities, not the obstacles. If we miss our opportunities, we lose our rewards (crowns) and this means being ashamed before Him when He comes (1 John 2:28).
In Part 5, we will look at Christ’s message to the church at Laodicea, the lukewarm church.