Philadelphia was founded by King Attalus II around 139 B.C. Attalus' second name was Philadelphus, “brotherly love.” The name was given to him as a result of his loyalty to his brother, Eumenes, with whom he shared leadership of the city. Philadelphia was an important commercial center and was called the "Gateway to the East." Along with twelve other cities of Asia Minor, Philadelphia was destroyed in A.D. 17 by a great earthquake. It was rebuilt by the generosity of Tiberius, who gave the citizens a five-year tax exemption, which enhanced Rome’s prestige and strengthened the emperor cult in the city. Christ’s church in Philadelphia was founded in the A.D. 50’s by Paul's missionary endeavors.
Christ Possesses the Key of David (v. 7)
He Is Holy and Faithful
If we are to grow in grace, we must know our Lord’s glory, offices, and works. He is the “holy and the true.” In 6:10, “Holy and true” is the cry of the first-century martyrs to the Lord God as they ask the Lord to vindicate them. God is thrice holy in that he is exalted high above the creature and separate from all sin (4:8; 15:4). Used with reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, "holy" proclaims him to be the holy Son of God, the true God, not Tiberius or Nero. "True" is best taken in the Old Testament sense of "faithful." Our Lord identified himself as the "faithful witness" (1:5; 3:14; 19:11). As the believers in Philadelphia gave a faithful witness, the Lord identifies closely with them. By his faithfulness, he will be with them and enable them to maintain a faithful witness and walk during the trials facing them.
He Possesses God’s Kingdom
The image of "David's key" is from Isaiah 22:20-23: "Then it shall be in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe and strengthen him with your belt; I will commit your government into his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him as a peg in a secure place, and he will become a glorious throne to his father's house." The Lord rewarded Eliakim’s faithful service to Hezekiah with the key to David’s house, custodianship of the royal lineage of Israel and thus of Messiah’s line (36:3,22; 37:2).
Eliakim is a type of Christ, and Isaiah 22:22 is a prophecy of the Messiah and his kingdom. The mention of the keys of David's house lying on Eliakim's shoulder recalls Isaiah 9:6-7 – the government of God’s kingdom will rest on the shoulders of Messiah, His Son and Servant. The implication in Revelation 3:7 is clear. As the Lord elevated Eliakim to wield authority over David’s house, so Christ now possesses that throne and kingdom. For Christ to hold these keys indicates that the universal reign and kingdom promised to David and his seed has now arrived in his person and work (Luke 1:32,69; Acts 2:34-35; 15:16-17). He is the Davidic Messiah (5:5; 22:16). God’s promise to David’s greater Son never envisioned a geo-political kingdom in Palestine but Christ’s universal dominion at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1-2). He is the King of the nations, and the government rests upon his shoulders. All men and nations must kiss him lest they find his kingdom closed off to them and dedicated to their destruction (Ps. 2:7-10).
He Opens and Shuts the Door
Unbelieving Jews were the chief enemy of the Philadelphian church. In dreadful irony, our Lord exposes the fraudulent Jewish claim to be heirs of David’s kingdom. He alone holds the key of David and wields the right to open and shut that kingdom. The Jewish nation by rejecting the Messiah has forfeited its share in David’s kingdom (Matt. 21:38). In claiming to possess the key of David, the Lord Jesus identifies himself as the only way by which the kingdom may be entered. No one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6). He is the only Door (John 10:7,9). To be received by the Father as his children, justified and adopted, we must come to Jesus Christ. We must submit to him as Lord, follow him as our Master, and trust him as our Savior. He is the door to heaven, the door to peace, and the door to strength on earth to seek God’s kingdom and endure hardships patiently.
Christ Opens the Door for His Faithful Church (vv. 8-11)
(Interlude of Open Door)
By a grammatical interlude, the Lord emphasizes the open door. Christ has set before this congregation an open door. Hard times do not mean Christ is not working, or that we should be discouraged, or that all hope is gone. Far from it. Men cannot shut what Jesus Christ has opened. Regardless of what the apostate Jews and pagan Romans might do to them, Christ holds open the door to those who believe in him. No one can shut it against them if they persevere in faith and obedience.
Part of this open door refers to the opportunities our Lord gave them for effective ministry among the Jewish population of the city. Paul often uses the symbol of an "open door" to indicate an opportunity to spread the gospel (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). In the immediate context, it seems that the congregation has faithfully stood for Christ and the gospel. Their past faithfulness in Christ’s strength is his pledge of future opportunities to spread his gospel. Let us be faithful with the doors the Lord has opened to us now and pray for more open doors, and the grace to walk through them in faith and obedience.
That Christ holds this door of opportunity open for them is especially important because this congregation "has only a little strength." They were a small body and without great influence in the city of Philadelphia. Our weakness is no hindrance to the Lord’s mighty works! The reigning Son of David has opened a door for them, and he holds that door open. He will enable them to accomplish much for his kingdom and gospel. Let small congregations and individual believers rejoice in this promise – usefulness for Christ is not tied to money, influence, and power. He exalts the lowly and brings down the high and mighty (Luke 1:51-53; 1 Cor. 1:26-31). He gives grace and strength even to weak congregations that they might have a share in Christ’s mighty works in a faithful church.
He Commends His Faithful Church
Though the congregation was weak and despised in the eyes of the world, they held fast to Christ's word. They maintained sound doctrine and defended their Master’s gospel. The Lord is rewarding their faithfulness with an open door of future usefulness. If we will use the talents and opportunities the Lord gives us, he will give more (Luke 16:10; 19:17). Part of keeping Christ’s word is not denying his name. The verb tense indicates a specific time of testing in the past during which they did not deny but confessed him before men. Our Lord so highly commends confessing him because he confessed us before his Father, all the way to the cross (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 2:13). Christ’s name can be denied in a variety of ways: a denial that Jesus Christ is our Lord (Matt. 10:33), a behavioral denial of the faith (1 Tim. 5:8; Tit. 1:16), or by failing to maintain sound doctrine about him (1 John 2:22).
The congregation also kept "the word of Christ's patience." They followed Christ's example of suffering patiently (1 Pet. 4:12-16). He left us an example of endurance during suffering, and he strongly exhorts us to "consider him who endured such opposition of sinners against himself, lest we be weary and faint in our minds" (Heb. 12:3). His example of patient perseverance must be continually before the eye of our faith, that we might not give up halfway through the race. Why did he overcome but so that from his exalted place in heaven he might empower us and pray for us that our faith fail not!
He Promises Victories to His Faithful Church
The Lord calls the Jews in Philadelphia the "the synagogue of Satan." They are inspired by him and carry out his work (John 8:44). The Jewish religion has ceased to follow God and is become the servant of Satan. They continue to say that they are Jews, the descendants of Abraham and the heirs of the Davidic kingdom, but they are not. Now that Christ has come and established his kingdom, the true Israel of God is those who embrace the Messiah as did Abraham (John 8:56; Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 3:26-29; Phil. 3:3). God’s kingdom has been taken from the Jewish nation and given to God’s holy nation, his church, Jew and Gentile in one body (Matt. 21:43; 1 Pet. 2:9).
In Isaiah 45:14, 49:23, and 60:16, the Lord promises that the Gentiles will come and bow down to his people and recognize that Israel is the favorite of heaven. “They shall come over in chains; and they shall bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other; there is no other God.’” In time, the Lord will bring back the captivity of his people, and the nations will see God’s faithfulness to Israel. “Bowing down” likely implies personal faith and worship of the surrounding nations, the fulfillment of Genesis 12:1-3. This promise is the Old Testament background for the second half of verse 9: “indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.”
Ironically, the Lord Jesus applies these passages not to Gentile obeisance to Israel, but to Israel’s obeisance to his church. The Jews will be compelled to recognize that the Church of Christ is the true Israel of God, to fall down in allegiance and loyalty to her, and to admit that she is the beloved of the Lord. How is this image to be realized in the Philadelphian congregation? The Jews will come and show profound reverence for the church. Through the faithful witness of the congregation, many Jews will come to recognize that the church of Christ is the true Israel of God and will freely convert to Christianity. At the least, when the Lord judges Jerusalem, the Jews will stop persecuting the church and stand in awe of her. Taking a broader view and incorporating Romans 11, the Jews must eventually embrace Jesus Christ and be engrafted back onto the olive tree of faith. Locally, through the faithfulness of the Philadelphians to the open door of missionary opportunity Christ is placing before them, their opponents will either be converted or recognize the church’s legitimate position as the true people of God. Let this be a strong motivation to us to speak God’s truth, even to our enemies, for the Lord, we pray, holds open a door of opportunity to his faithful, witnessing church.
Christ Warns His Faithful Church
In verse 10, the Lord warns his faithful church of the coming hour of trial. I believe this “hour of trial” refers to the coming conflagration between A.D. 66-70. The entire Roman world was thrown into convulsion by the death of Nero, the rapid succession of weak rulers, the revolt of Judea from the Roman power, and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. By saying that this trial shall come upon the whole world, John means the entire Roman world (Luke 2:1), all those who wonder after the beast and worship his image (Rev. 13:8). When the Lord Jesus brings down Jerusalem, all his people, Jew and Gentile, will feel the tremendous effects of his wrath (Mark 14:62).
His people in Philadelphia have loved him and kept his word. He will keep her during these trials. Our Lord does not promise to snatch us out of trouble but to preserve us during it. He will give us every needed grace (Phil. 4:19). This is closely akin to Christ’s prayer in John 17:15: “Father, I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should deliver them from the evil one.” Christ’s prayer for the church in every age is for its protection and faithfulness during testing and periods of judgment. He never prays for us to be removed from the very trials that test and purify our faith.
The imminence of these events for the Philadelphians and the entire Roman world is emphasized in verse 11: “Behold, I am coming quickly.” This statement confirms the first-century context and sense of immediacy that dominates most of Revelation. Because Christ is coming soon, his people must faithfully use whatever witness and influence she possesses. We must resist carelessness, compromise, and fear. We must not sink into despair at our humble condition or tremble at the threats of the wicked. Christ urges us to “hold fast,” that no one may take your crown, the victor’s wreath. Only those who persevere in faith and obedience to the end of the race will receive the victor’s crown (1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:7). The promise of a victor’s crown is a tremendous encouragement to the faithful child of God, for it reminds him that there is a direct relationship between faithfulness in history and reward at the conclusion of history, that his earthly actions and faithfulness have eternal consequences.
Christ’s Promises to His Faithful Church (vv. 12-13)
I Will Make You a Pillar in God’s Temple
Do we want the Lord Jesus to be with us when trouble is near? Draw near to him. Do not seek to escape this world and its trials but to overcome by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20). To overcome is to complete our course and maintain the faith. It is to believe and love God’s word in an age that hates it, to obey God when disobedience is rampant, to be pure when filth is praised. This is all by Christ’s strength, not ours (2 Cor. 12:9; Phil. 4:13). The Lord Jesus will reward all faithfulness to him. In Philadelphia, earthquakes were common. The mention of a pillar would call to mind permanence and stability. If we build upon Christ, no one can move us. We cannot be toppled if we build upon him and his word. As this pillar is in God’s house, the Lord proclaims that his church will be finally victorious over all her enemies. His people will be eternally blessed, secure, and at peace with God. Let the world deride the church; let us remember that the church of God is the only thing of lasting value in this world. When all else is crumbled to dust by the wrath of the Lamb, his faithful followers will stand strong like a pillar. She will abide forever, and those who overcome will be blessed throughout eternity.
I Will Write the Name of God’s City upon You
For God to write upon us his name and the name of his city is to stress his divine ownership and protection over us. The Father claims as his own the ones who hold fast to Christ and overcome. We are his, and we are secure under his powerful hand and blessing. We are precious to him. For God to call us by his name is the highest privilege we possess. It means that we are brought into the greatest blessedness and honor any creature may enjoy: life in the presence of God, fellowship with him, and protection by him. It means that we are adopted into his family, heirs of him, joint heirs with Christ, with our names written upon the register of God’s eternal city.
I Will Write My New Name upon You
As if God’s name were insufficient, the Lord Jesus also promises to write his new name upon us as we overcome. “New name” is somewhat cryptic, and various theories are suggested. It seems safest to understand by this phrase all the glories and blessedness now possessed by Christ and revealed to his faithful people as a result of his triumph over sin and death. He presently possesses the name that is above every name: Lord and Christ. For him to write his name upon us (cf. 22:4) indicates that we are in the closest possible relationship with him, that he loves us, and that he exerts all of his power and grace to secure us in the faith. With respect to his future name, we shall enter into and fully share in his unseen glory and the unnamed blessedness that awaits the triumphant Lamb and his Church at the consummation of all things. While the world may scoff at these blessings, they are our dearest treasures. To possess and be with Christ and be owned by him is our highest glory (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
These glories are promised to those who overcome today. The battle that rages is the same. The pressure to compromise is great. Satan is stalking and deceiving, and wicked men are threatening and working away at their kingdom counterfeit, Babel. We must keep our eyes settled upon the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is in his glory and kingdom. We must think of his offices, his person, and his heavenly intercession. He is preparing a place of glory for all who overcome in his strength. The King will make all things right; he will reward his faithful servants. He will perfect and consummate his kingdom, and it is impossible now to speak of the tremendous joys, privileges, and sights that await his Bride. Until then, however, we must look at the things that are unseen, lest the things that are seen take away our crown, fill us with anxiety and fear, or tempt us to compromise the faith once for all given to the saints.