The Church at Philadelphia
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
With just ‘a little strength’, the believers at Philadelphia were not finding life easy when the apostle John conveyed to them this letter from the Lord Jesus. Their closest neighbour to the north was the church at Sardis, gripped by the dead hand of formality. To the south was the church of the Laodiceans whose members boasted that they had everything, yet the Lord Himself was outside the door! This inspired letter assured the little assembly at Philadelphia that the risen Lord was well aware of their circumstances. He does not seek to censure or correct them, but places on the divine record a lovely word of encouragement which has been a source of strength to the people of God through the ages.
A very basic knowledge of New Testament Greek will determine the meaning of philadelphia as ‘brotherly love’ or ‘love of the brethren’. This is the vital ingredient for the wellbeing of any testimony of God’s people, as the Lord Jesus said to His own in the upper room, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35.
The Resources they had
In this letter to the church at Philadelphia, as in that to the suffering believers at Smyrna, there was no immediate need for corrective ministry, but in their weakness the Lord makes known to them the availability of infinite resources. In the One ‘that is holy’, they would be reminded of His priestly office, always accessible to minister ‘grace to help in time of need’, Heb. 4. 16. In His approach to them as ‘he that is true’, they would appreciate His prophetic character, able to apply the ‘word of truth’ to every situation; as the One who held ‘the key of David’; He is the sovereign Lord. To His people today, in a world of immorality, corruption and falsehood, He is holy and true, and while men try to exercise control with weak and failing systems of government He remains the only One with complete authority.
His authority is brought home to them in declaring Himself to be the One who opens and closes, gives or withholds, in accordance with His sovereign will. In the phrase ‘the key of David’, our minds are taken back to the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 22. King Hezekiah’s treasurer, Shebna, had ideas above his station. He was demoted and replaced by Eliakim to whom was given the key to all the treasures of the king’s house; he alone had authority to open and close doors. In far greater measure all the resources of heaven are under the hand of the risen Lord to use for His glory, and for the blessing of His people. So, for His beleaguered saints in Philadelphia, He opens a door of opportunity. The apostle Paul was able to recognize the Lord as the One who opened doors for him, e.g., 1 Cor. 16. 9; 2 Cor. 2. 12. He was able also to appreciate when a door was closed to him, e.g., Acts 16. 6-7.
The Lord then gives the reasons why He has opened this door. Not because they exhibited great gift and obvious ability, but because ‘thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name’. In other words, although there was evident weakness, there was obedience in their walk and faithfulness in their witness. If these features mark any assembly then the Lord will open doors for them that others may be blessed.
The Results assured
Passing through that opened door into the sphere of witness, the believers were confronted with the false religion which flourished in Philadelphia; not only idolatrous Gentile religions, but more particularly, opposition from the Jews. Such was their virulent hostility to the gospel that the Lord considered them unworthy of the name associated with His chosen earthly people, they ‘say they are Jews, and are not’. The same antagonism was experienced at Smyrna, resulting in martyrdom for some of the saints! There was no doubting the source of this enmity, perpetrated under the guise of religion; the Lord denounced them as ‘the synagogue of Satan’.
Yet, His blessing upon the obedience and faithfulness of this small assembly is seen at the end of verse 9. No doubt they passed through that open door of opportunity with some trepidation, but their witness resulted in salvation for some, even from among those who opposed them so actively! They would ‘come and worship (the Lord) before thy feet, and . . . know that I have loved thee’. They would acknowledge that the church was the evidence of God’s love to mankind. What an encouragement, and a responsibility, for us to recognize the open doors in our day and to seize the opportunities – the Lord alone knows what blessings will result! We know, of course, that ultimately every knee will bow to His authority and no false religion will prevail. How good it is to be assured in a ‘multi-faith’ society that our God is sovereign, and His purposes are eternal.
The Rewards given to the assembly
The promise which follows in verse 10 is an assurance to the believers at Philadelphia on account of the fact that ‘thou hast kept the word of my patience’. Patience is a feature of believers mentioned seven times in the book of Revelation. The Lord Jesus was the greatest example of patient endurance under suffering, Heb. 12. 3. Patience in time of trial and patient waiting for the fulfilment of the word of God will result in rewards. The promise here is also reciprocal, ‘because thou hast kept . . . I also will keep’. The Spirit of God now projects our minds to events yet future. He embraces the first-century saints at Philadelphia together with the rest of the church in the assurance that we shall be kept (guarded, preserved) from ‘the hour of temptation’. This does not refer to a local or historical event; it will yet ‘come upon all the world’. This is the ‘great’ tribulation and the subject of prophetic scripture, e.g., Jer. 30. 7; Matt. 24. 15-22. Further confirmation is given in the phrase, ‘to try them that dwell upon the earth’, and remembering that the church belongs to heaven! To teach that any part of the church will enter those tribulation days is to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of that awful time.
As a further pledge to the church at Philadelphia, the Lord tells them how this promise will be kept; He points them forward to His coming. To His disciples He had said, ‘If I go . . . I will come again’, John 14. 3, and this has been the Christian’s motive for service, incentive for faithfulness and reason for patience over the years. To ‘hold fast’ even though their strength was small, would reap a reward at the Judgement Seat of Christ, and none would rob them of their crown.
The Rewards given to the overcomer
As with all seven letters to these churches in Asia, the Lord anticipates that there will be individuals who respond to His word and as a result overcome, or gain the victory. The saints at Philadelphia who, though weak, remained faithful, in glory will be made ‘pillars in the temple’, strong, supporting witnesses to the faithfulness of God. Philadelphia was located in a region very susceptible to earthquakes. There were times when the citizens had to hurriedly vacate the temples and even the city itself to escape the results of the tremors. To these believers the Lord gives assurance of total peace and security in ‘the temple of my God’, they shall ‘go no more out’.
When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy describing the local assembly, he called it, ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’, 1 Tim. 3. 15, the pillar of witness upon which the truth is inscribed and made known to an unbelieving world. To the overcomers of Philadelphia with their witness on earth complete, the promise is given that three inscribed names will bear testimony to the faithfulness of their God in His word to them. The first of these is ‘the name of my God’ which indicates ownership. The world despised them; the Lord says, ‘I will mark them out as mine’. Secondly, ‘the name of the city of my God, which is New Jerusalem’, this represents freedom to enjoy all the benefits and blessings of that city as one who rightly belongs there. The third inscription is ‘my new name’. It is, of course, vain to speculate what this name is. It may equate to the ‘name written, that no man knew, but he himself’, Rev. 19. 12. Suffice it to say that for the believer the joy of heaven will be a whole, fresh revelation of Christ, and the glories associated with that new name. Will it not take an eternity to even begin to appreciate the wonders of His blessed Person?
The letter closes with the universal appeal to all to ‘take heed’ to the voice of the Spirit of God in His ministry to the churches. We are wise to receive this exhortation, for the time is short.