By Philippe R. Sterling
Jesus judged the church at Philadelphia that was faithful (3:7-13).
“Here Comes the Sun” was written by George Harrison and was featured on the Beatles’ album Abbey Road in 1969. The lyrics reflect his relief at the arrival of spring and the temporary respite he was experiencing from the band’s business affairs.
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
I’ve titled this article on Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia as “Here Comes the Son.” Jesus is coming soon. What effect should it have on my thoughts and actions when I realize that Jesus is coming soon?
Philadelphia was founded about 189 BC at a junction of the approaches to the regions of Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia in Asia Minor. It was called “the gateway to the East.” It also was called “little Athens” because of the many temples in the city. Many believe the city was built by and named in honor of Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamum. He intended it to be a center of missionary activity for the Hellenistic way of life.
Volcanic activity caused earthquakes from time to time. A devastating earthquake in AD 17 leveled twelve cities of Asia Minor, including Philadelphia. The emperor Tiberius rebuilt the city after the earthquake. In gratitude, the city changed its name to “New Caesar.” Later the name Philadelphia reappeared.
The church at Philadelphia was one of the strongest of the seven congregations of Revelation 2-3. Outwardly, it was small. But inwardly, it was a dynamic and faithful church. The letter contains no censure and is full of commendation.
PORTRAYAL OF JESUS
Jesus described Himself as holy and true. Jesus is holy in His character, His words, His actions, and His purposes. “The Holy One” is a common title for the Messiah. He also personifies truth.
Jesus held the key of David. The background of this imagery is Isa 22:15-25. Assyria had invaded Judah, and the Jewish leaders were trusting Egypt, not God, to deliver the nation. One of the treacherous leaders was Shebna, who was using his office for his own gain. Shebna was removed from office, and a faithful man, Eliakim, was put in his place and given the keys of authority. He held the office of key-holder in the king’s palace. His office gave him full authority to act on behalf of the king. If he unlocked a palace door, it remained unlocked. If he opened a palace door, it remained opened. Eliakim foreshadowed Jesus, the ultimate Key-holder, the dependable Administrator of the affairs of God’s people. He opens and closes doors. He also has the keys of hades and of death (Rev 1:18).
PRAISE FOR THE CHURCH
Jesus had a thorough knowledge of the situation in Philadelphia. Before He finished His acknowledgement of their works, He immediately injected words of encouragement. As He thought of the quality of their works, He took the unique step of expressing His support.
He put before them an open door. William Ramsey explained the expression in terms of Philadelphia’s geographic position at the eastern end of the valley leading up onto the great central plain. As the “keeper of the gateway to the plateau,” it had been given a unique opportunity to carry the good news concerning Jesus and the promise of everlasting life to the cities of Phrygia. Jesus still puts open doors before faithful believers for the proclamation of the life message and the making of disciples even in difficult places. For example, when the Communists took over in China, they cracked down on the churches. In spite of crackdowns, believers have continued to multiply in China. The word of God is not bound (2 Tim 2:9).
Philadelphia had “little strength” (v 8). The city was relatively small compared to the other cities of Asia Minor. Its greatest distinction was that it was strategically located on the Roman road. As believers went east or west, they would have open access to Europe and Asia. The church at Philadelphia had only a “little strength,” but our Lord promised to do great things through them. It is not the size or strength of a church but its faithfulness which determines its fruitfulness. This church not only believed the Word of Christ, but they also obeyed it. They were a small group of people, and yet they stood boldly for Christ.
The believers experienced persecution from the local Jewish synagogue (verse 9). The false religionists who persecuted believers will one day bow before them and know that Jesus loved them.
Jesus promised to keep them “from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the earth.” The Lord sometimes protects a faithful church from tribulation in this age and will rapture all believers before the Tribulation.
The “hour of trial” could refer to a time of trouble that the entire Roman world would undergo in the readers’ lifetimes. Jesus assured believers in Philadelphia that they would have His protection during that time of turmoil.
The apostle John went on to describe in Revelation 6–19 the Tribulation that will encompass the earth before Jesus returns to establish His kingdom. Revelation 3:10 is consistent with the promise that believers will not go through the Tribulation but will be taken to be with Christ before it begins (1 Thess 1:10; 4:13–5:11). The statement “I am coming quickly” strengthens this understanding. John Niemelä provides a grammatical analysis of Rev 3:10 that disconnects the promise from the command to persevere. He gives this punctuation of the text (note the first period, which is a comma in most texts): “I have loved you, because you have kept my command to persevere. I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” (John C. Niemelä, “Revelation 3:10 and the Rapture: A New Departure,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 2017), 37).
CRITICISM OF THE CHURCH
There is no criticism of this church. Jesus highly approved of the church.
PENALTY OR REWARD
There are no penalties for this church. Many rewards have already been mentioned.
Jesus said, “I am coming quickly” (see 22:7, 12, 20). The Lord’s coming for believers can occur at any time. This provides an encouragement for faithfulness.
Jesus went on to exhort, “Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (cf. 2:25). In essence, He was telling them that they were doing great and to keep up the good work! Not holding fast would result in the loss of a crown. A crown represents rule and authority in the kingdom of Christ.
We are to hold fast what we have so that no one will take our crown. Don’t forfeit your crown. Eternal life is a free gift and cannot be lost, but the reward of ruling with Christ forever requires faithfulness to the end (cf. 2:10).
PROMISE TO OVERCOMERS
Most of this letter is composed of promises. Jesus went on to promise several eternal rewards to the overcoming believer.
The overcoming believer will be “a pillar in the temple of My God” (3:12). We know from Rev 21:22 that in the New Jerusalem, “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” This reward could involve a special nearness to God the Father and God the Son and a prominent supportive position in the administration of the New Jerusalem and of the new creation. The following phrase “he shall go out no more” (3:12) could indicate the permanence of the position.
The symbolism would be meaningful to people who lived in constant danger of earthquakes. These pillars will never be shaken. There will never be a need to flee the city.
Ancient cities often honored great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed on them. God’s pillars are not made of stone. His pillars are faithful people who bear His name.
Jesus will write three names upon the overcoming believer: the name of the Father, the name of the New Jerusalem, and His name. God’s name reveals facets of His person. There are facets of the person of the Father and of the Son which have not yet been made known, but which Jesus will make known to the overcomer. We may wonder why the overcomer would also carry the name of the New Jerusalem. Some are given the “key to a city” to honor their connection to that city. Having the name of the New Jerusalem would reflect the overcomer’s special connection to the city.
The letter ends with the general admonition, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This indicates that the instructions and promises of our Lord to these local churches are not limited to any particular era of church history. Rather, the instructions and promises are applicable to all the churches of the church age.
What Would Jesus Say (WWJS) to the faithful church: “Hold fast. I’m coming soon, and I will reward you.”
Philippe Sterling is the pastor of Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship in Lewisville, TX. He and his wife of 45 years, Brenda, live in Denton, TX, near their daughter, Sarah, son in law, Ben, and grandkids.