7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “Thus saith the Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, the One opening and no-one will close, and closing and no-one opens. 8 I know your works (behold I have placed before you an opened door that no-one is able to close) that you have little power yet you kept my word and you did not deny my name. 9 Behold I will give some of the synagogue of Satan–of those calling themselves to be Jews, but they are not, but they are lying–behold I will make them so that they will come and they will bow down before your feet and know that I myself have loved you.
This week we started looking at the Lord’s letter to the church in Philadelphia. Once again, time flew by and we only got through the first three verses, so rather than rush to the end, we’re splitting this study over two sessions. As with the other churches, the church in Philadelphia is undergoing persecution of some kind. While not explicitly stated, I think it’s fair to assume they are feeling the pressure of the pagan culture in which they live–there were few “Christian-friendly” places in the Roman Empire at this time. Also, the mention of a “synagogue of Satan” points to attacks from the Jewish community in the area. As with the church in Smyrna, they were probably experiencing hostility from the local synagogue, perhaps even to the point of being “ratted out” to the local authorities. In light of all this, Jesus writes them a letter of encouragement.
The ancient city of Philadelphia was about 28 miles south-east of Sardis, and about 60 miles east of Smyrna. The area around the city was very fertile with rich volcanic soil that was a cornerstone of their economy. However, the city had also experienced a number of earthquakes, some devastating. One in particular, in 17 AD, had flattened Philadelphia along with twelve other cities.
In verse 7, Jesus presents himself to the church as “the Holy One, the True One.” Back in 1:5 John described Jesus as the “faithful witness”–the one who faithfully represented and testified of the Father. Jesus was true to his calling, and true in all he said and did with regard to God. And, especially in contrast to the “false Jews” of verse 9, Jesus is the “real deal”–he’s genuine, and can be taken at his word. And he is, of course, holy, not only in the sense that he was set apart by God the Father for a specific role in salvation history, but also in the sense that he is unlike the rest of humanity. He is the God-man, perfect and sinless in all his thoughts, words, and actions. To this struggling group of believers who were trying to please the Lord with their witness and conduct within a hostile environment, I think it would encourage them to see Jesus, one who was also persecuted, as their example of holiness and fidelity. Despite all Jesus endured, he remained holy and true; the Philadelphians can draw strength from this as they strive to persevere.
Interestingly, the phrase “holy and true” crops up again in Revelation 6:10 where the saints cry out to God, referring to Him as “the Holy and True.” It’s a phrase Isaiah also uses of God, so it certainly has divine connotations. The fact that Jesus would use this same phrase of himself puts the lie to the claim often made that Jesus never said he was God.
Jesus also says that he has the “key of David.” In 1:18 he said that he has the “keys of death and Hades,” which pointed to his sovereignty not only over when someone dies, but what happens to them after death (another indication of Jesus’ exalted status–no mere prophet would claim such power). It would comfort the persecuted believer to know that the one in whom he has placed his trust, and even his life, is indeed the one who has the ultimate say in such matters. But this is a singular “key” and it is ascribed to David. While it’s a different key, the meaning is connected. In Isaiah 22:15-25, we read of God’s appointment of Eliakim as steward of the household, and one who would hold the key of David. In that capacity, he would be responsible for who enters the sanctuary, and would have charge of the general administration of the kingdom of Judah. Christ is, of course, more than a steward–he is the fulfillment of David, and his kingdom is the fulfillment of kingdom of Judah (i.e., as Judah consisted of God’s faithful, so the church consists of those who are truly the Lord’s). The key of David Jesus holds does not, therefore, grant admission to an earthly sanctuary nor does it signify administration of an earthly kingdom. Rather it grants admission to the presence of God in eternity. So this is yet another affirmation of Christ’s sovereign control over life, death, and the destiny of every soul. Perhaps the Philadelphian Jews were telling the Christians they have no claim upon heaven because they are following Christ, and in response Jesus tells the Philadelphian church that such things are within his power to determine. Since it is only in Christ one can be received into God’s presence, then those who are faithful to him have nothing to worry about. And if Jesus has opened the door to receive the Philadelphian Christians, no-one can close that door on them. Conversely, if Jesus has closed the door on the “synagogue of Satan,” then no-one can open the door for them.
We then come to the point in the letter where Jesus usually lists the faults of the church. However, as with the church in Smyrna, Jesus has nothing against them. Indeed, of all seven churches these two churches stand out as ones that seem to be doing right. We should note, however, that this doesn’t exempt them from suffering and persecution. There is an interesting parenthetical comment in verse 8–at least I put it in parentheses since that seems to me the best way to make sense of the Greek; other translations may differ. Jesus wants the church to know right up front that he has put before them an “open door.” From what he just said in the previous verse, I would take this to mean that they can be secure in their salvation, despite the fact that they have “little power.” They might be a small church, and/or a church with very limited resources and influence. Perhaps they feel beaten down, weak, and helpless against the culture in which they live. Nevertheless, their faithfulness to Christ’s word and his name have demonstrated that they are truly his people. Just as Jesus was a faithful witness, so these Christians are maintaining a faithful witness of Christ despite the cost.
Their witness will not be in vain: the Lord will cause some of the “synagogue of Satan” to bow down to the Christians and recognize who they are before God. I take this as a long way around saying that they will be saved. This is the power of a faithful church, even when it’s weak in human terms. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say he’ll persuade some of these Jews to come to the Philadelphia church, nor will he entice them, or give them a choice hoping they’ll do the right thing. He says he will make them; divine will shall overcome the sinful desires of these “false Jews.” Their hard hearts will be softened by the Spirit of God, and they will recognize the love of God in these helpless believers. The verb translated “bow down” here (Greek proskuneô) is often used in terms of worship, but not always. The context here demands the sense of humility, submission, and giving honor: a recognition that the love of God is upon the Philadelphian Christians.
There is a parallel with verse 9 in Isaiah 60:10-14, except in Isaiah the Lord is speaking to Israel. The irony is that in Isaiah, the nations will bow down to Israel, and here, people from the synagogue take the place of “the nations” bowing down to the true Israel, the church. We’ll see Isaiah 60:11 referenced again in Revelation 21:25-26 where the nations enter into the new Jerusalem, further underscoring this point.
We’ll pick up at verse 10 next time…