Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities addressed in these oracles. As an agricultural center located at the intersection of major trade routes, it was an important city though its significance was less than other major areas such as Ephesus or Smyrna. The region was known for is vineyards and wine.
When destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE imperial interests assisted in the rebuilding of the city (specifically Tiberius who exempted it from taxes). The city was renamed Neocaesareia (New Ceasar) and later, after Emperor Vespasian (69-79) honored the city, it was further named “Flavia.” Ultimately, over a hundred years after the writing of Revelation, Philadelphia also received the title of Neokoros (guardian of the temple) which indicates the strength of the imperial cultus in the city.
Philadelphia, then, was an important agricultural and economic center that was also significantly invested in the imperial cult. Syncretistic accommodation was a strong temptation for Christians in this city as their economic interests were tied to the city’s status and indebtedness to the Emperors.
Addressor: “the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who pens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
As “holy” and “true,” Jesus is the “real deal;” he is wholly authentic. But more fundamentally he is what is truly real in the cosmos. Holiness projects justice and truth embodies reality (how the cosmos really is). As the holder of the “key of David,” this one will do what is just and right.
While many interpreters connect the “key of David” with the “keys of Death and Hades” in Revelation 1, this is a misidentification. The latter is plural but the former is singular. The latter is about death, but the former is about authority. The keys of Hades open the door of death, but the “key of David” opens for some and locks out others.
The “key of David” alludes to the function of the royal administrator in Isaiah 22:22. Eliakim was clothed with a robe and sash to symbolize his status in the kingdom and God placed “authority” in his hands. He controlled access to the house of David, perhaps much like a Chief of Staff does for the US President. In other words, no one has access to the king except through Eliakim who has the “key of the house of David.”
In the same way, no one has access to the throne room of God–to the kingdom of God–except through or by the permission (authority) of the one who is holy and true, Jesus the Messiah. With the key, Jesus will open the door so that some might enter (like Philadelphia), but he will shut the door to prevent access to others (like Sardis).
Acknowledgement: “I know your works.”
Unlike Sardis, Jesus affirms what he knows about Philadelphia’s works. He knows they have “kept [his] word,” confessed his name, and endured the struggles of living in a hostile culture as a small, powerless group of believers. In response to their faithfulness (even “because” of their faithfulness), Jesus announces his blessing. He signals this with the double use of “Behold” (once in 3:8 and twice in 3:9). “Behold” calls our attention to something significant to which the reader is to pay special attention.
“Behold, I have set before you an open door.” Unfortunately, many have understood this in terms of Philadelphia’s grand opportunities like an “open door” for evangelism or something like that. But this ignores the previous mention of the “key of David” which opens and shuts doors. The open door has been unlocked by the key of David, that is, it gives Philadelphia entrance into the fullness of the kingdom of God. They have access to the King, even entrance into the throne room of God.
“Behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet.” Apparently, there was a synagogue in Philadelphia that was particularly hostile to Christians. To describe this synagogue as “of Satan” (perhaps belong to or is empowered by Satan) is not a general description of Jews but reflects the local hostility present in Philadelphia. This synagogue, like the Roman powers themselves, is dominated by Satanic impulses that oppose the kingdom of God. Satan represent the powers in the world that oppose God’s reign.
The promise, however, is that though these Jews claim to be the people of God and the heirs of the prophetic promises, they will discover otherwise. The prophets envisioned the nations coming to Jerusalem to honor the Jewish nation and learn about God from them (e.g., Isaiah 60:14). Jesus reverses this here. Instead the Jews will come to the believers in Philadelphia (representing the nations) to honor them and learn about God. In that moment they will learn that God has loved the nations in Christ. Like the prophet Hosea (1:9), this oracle envisions a role reversal. Though hated by their culture, the believing Philadelphians are loved by God.
There is yet, however, one more promise for Philadelphia given their past endurance and faithfulness to Jesus’ message. “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”
Richard Oster’s discussion of Revelation 3:10 is particularly enlightening (Seven Congregations, 177-180). This promise is directed specifically to Philadelphia (“you” is singular); it does not apply, for example, to Sardis. The believers in Philadelphia are promised special care here because of their faithfulness. When God tries the “whole world,” he will protect Philadelphia through it.
The divine trial is not an eschatological one in the sense of some end-time event. Rather, it is a trial through which Philadelphia will be protected as the world experiences divine judgment within history, that is, within the history of the original audience addressed in this oracle. The “hour of trial” is not about length of time as much as it is about the nature of the event–God will test the hearts of the inhabitants of the earth.
The “whole world” should not be read to include Asia, Africa, North America, etc. Rather, it is the Roman world. This what Oster calls “fictive globalism” (pp. 213-215) rather than a literal globalism. It is the way the Roman world referred to itself as they regarded themselves as the “whole world” even though they knew others lived beyond their borders. In other words, the “whole world” addresses the imperial reality of the Roman empire. This is the world, at least in this oracle, that is tried and through which the believers in Philadelphia will be protected.
As Oster notes, “the inhabitants of the earth” is a way of describing pagans within the Roman empire, or more generally, those who oppose the kingdom of God (p. 179-180). It is the way the Septuagint describes the Canaanites who inhabited Israel’s promised land (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:7). The language is apocalyptic as it describes those who oppose the kingdom of God and, consequently, will be tried and judged.
The theological idea of “trial” or “testing” is a significant theme in the biblical narrative. God tested Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-4), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists pray for it (26:2) and biblical authors assume God is constantly testing hearts (Proverbs 17:3; Jeremiah 17:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Testing is part of spiritual formation. When God tries the world–whether persons like Abraham or the pagans of the Roman empire)–God discerns what is truly in human hearts and responds accordingly.
Encouragement: “I am coming soon.”
While for Sardis this announcement was a warning, for Philadelphia it is an encouragement. Like with Sardis this is not about an eschatological end-time event but is rather about how Jesus will come to protect and comfort Philadelphia during the “hour of trial” that the Roman empire is about to undergo. In consequence, Jesus calls them to hold on and continue in their present course. Otherwise someone may steal their laurel wreath (crown; 3:11). Victory is within their grasp but they must stay the course and endure the “hour of trial.”
Promise: “The one who conquers, I will make a pillar in the temple of God.”
The promise embraces an eschatological perspective as it looks forward to the descent of the new Jerusalem out of heaven onto a new heaven and new earth (cf. Revelation 22:1-4). Indeed, they will become part of the temple of God itself; they will stand as pillars in the temple. They will stand in the sanctuary of God as a permanent fixture.
Greg Stevenson points out that sculpting human figures as pillars in sacred architecture was common in the ancient world (cited by Oster, 181-2). The most famous example is the Erectheum on the acropolis of Athens (Greece). The figures are Caryatids on what is known as the “porch of maidens.”
The promise, illustrated by these figures, incorporates the people of God into the temple. In some sense, the people of God become the temple. We are the temple of God, or, to put it in words that reflect the picture in Revelation 21, we live in the New Jerusalem which is the temple of God since that is the eternal dwelling place of God among redeemed humanity.
As pillars in the temple of God, we are inscribed with the name of God, the name of God’s city, and the “new name” of the risen One. The picture is similar to the end of Zechariah when everything in the whole city, in the whole world, will be inscribed “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Everything in the new heaven and new earth will be dedicated to and participate in the life of the God of Israel.
Admonition: “whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Are we listening?