Philadelphia-"Church of the Open Door" Revelation 3:7-13 The Letters to the Seven Churches
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Imagine the heartache of an athlete striving to qualify for the Olympic team, only to be disqualified by a technicality. Consider the feeling of rejection after being passed over for promotion. Try to appreciate the disappointment of a couple unable to have children. These are some of the closed doors of our lives. If we truly believe that God is in control, we will believe that He has the power to open and close doors of opportunity for us. Christ writes an encouraging letter to the church at Philadelphia, the church of the open door.
The city of Philadelphia-not the one in PA-was situated about 25 miles SE of Sardis, the next town a courier would reach on a circular tour of the 7 churches. Philadelphia was founded in 159 BC as a center of Greek language and Hellenistic culture, to bring the glory that was Greece to Asia Minor. It was renowned for its temples, vineyards, and cultural festivals, and for this reason it was nicknamed "Little Athens". The city was founded by Attalus II and was named for him-he was called Philadelphus because of his love for his brother Eumenes. Philos is a Greek word for love or affection, and adolphos means brother; so "Philadelphia" means the "city of brotherly love".
Verse 7…Christ introduces Himself as the "Holy One" (RSV), a familiar Jewish title for God. In Isaiah 43 God declares, "I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King" (vs 15). Holiness is an attribute of God alone. Jesus also says that He is "the true One"; in the original language (anathenos), the word means something real, genuine, authentic. In Jesus we find reality. When we consider Him, we’re confronted with Absolute Truth. Jesus is real.
In His hand is "the key of David". Jesus is our Messiah, the Son of David, the King of Israel. The "key" is an expression that indicates control over the royal household of God. The messianic prophecy of Isaiah states, "I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (22:22).
Verse 8…Some verses of Scripture sustain us over the years; here is one that has sustained me. Rev 3:8 has been my "career verse" and has characterized my vocational calling: "Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one can shut." The door stands open because the key is in the hand of Christ.
During my college days I spent weekends working at a Christian Servicemen’s Center near Fort Jackson, SC. It was there that God impressed me with the needs of soldiers and called me to the Chaplaincy. I applied, was accepted, but was told that there were no openings for the CCCC for active duty. At that time the Chaplaincy Department of Personnel made acquisitions according to set quotas. I was discouraged, yet I tried to accept this as God’s will. I was offered an opportunity to pastor a small Congregational church in Tennessee, and was active in the Army Reserves. During 4 years of waiting, God taught me valuable lessons in patience and maturity. I gained pastoral experience, earned an additional Master’s Degree, and worked with Laura as a volunteer at a suicide crisis center. Then one day I received a phone call from the Pentagon. Even though there still were no openings, I was invited to come on active duty. The lessons God taught me during my years of waiting helped me to more effectively serve Him when He opened the door. Faith means trusting God even when our sense of timing doesn’t agree with His. When I worry about the future, I am reminded of Rev 3:8. God stands before me and next to Him is an open door.
Christ stands before 2 open doors-doors of salvation and service. When we receive Him as Savior, He offers us opportunities to live for Him. The Apostle Paul knew that his ability to minister totally depended on God. He tells the Colossian church, "Pray for us that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ" (4:3). He also writes in II Cor that when he journeyed to Troas to preach the Gospel he "found that the Lord had opened a door" for him (2:12).
Jesus tells this struggling church, "I know that you have a little strength." The city also had little strength, as it was slowly recovering from an earthquake that devastated the area in AD 17.
Verse 9…Jesus implies in vs 9 that the believers of Philadelphia have been excluded, locked out of the synagogue. That door was shut, but the door of salvation was open wide. The Jewish leaders viewed the Christian church as a threat to their faith. This is sad and ironic, for the most Jewish thing you can do is to believe in Jesus! In spite of opposition, the church had an impact on the community-converts are portrayed here as captives on a battlefield.
Jesus says that the synagogue leaders are not true Jews. Paul explains in Rom 2, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly; no, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly." Then in Galatians he calls the Christian church the "Israel of God" (6:16) and states, "if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise" (3:29). This means that the day I became a Christian, I also became a Jew. Jesus makes us kosher!
Verse 10…There is no criticism or correction in this letter; only praise, encouragement and promises. In vs 10 the church is to be rewarded for enduring patiently through trials. We know from history that the church in Philadelphia stood firm throughout the Moslem invasion, until the city fell to the Turks in 1392 AD, long after the surrounding area had succumbed to the militant forces of Islam.
Jesus promises to keep the church "from the hour of trial." He pledges deliverance from tribulation. Paul assures us that "God did not appoint us to suffer wrath" (I Thes 5:9).
Verse 11…Jesus tells His church, "I am coming quickly". The "coming" of Christ to Ephesus, Pergamum, and Sardis was a coming in judgment, but His coming to Philadelphia was to bring an end to their time of suffering.
The "crown" offered was the laurel wreath awarded to winners of athletic contests. This promise was appropriate to a city known for its sporting events, and is a common NT symbol for rewarding faithful service. Paul writes to Timothy, shortly before his death:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not to me only, but to all who have longed for His appearing" (II Timothy 4:7-8).
Verse 12…Overcomers are told that they will be made "pillars" in the Temple of God, in vs 12. Not bad for those who were evicted from the synagogue.
In response to the earthquake of AD 17, the Roman emperor Tiberias suspended the paying of taxes and sent financial aid to Philadelphia. In gratitude, the city changed its name to Neocaesarea ("New Caesar", though it continued to be known as Philadelphia). Emperor worship was common throughout the realm, and so they wrote on themselves the name of their Imperial god. Christ tells His church that He will place on them a new name, the name of the One Who has delivered them from the power of sin and death. The Name of God is a seal of ownership-we belong to God. Believers may live in fear of earthquakes, but nothing will shake us when we stand as pillars in heaven.
In Asia Minor, when priests died after a lifetime of faithful service, people often would honor them by erecting a new pillar in the temple in their memory and by inscribing the name of the priest on it. The mark of love is upon all who belong to Christ, and along with love comes the seal of the Holy Spirit.
Philadelphia was a showcase for Greek culture, but it also prominently displayed the Gospel. After being conquered by Rome, roads were built connecting the city to points east (the 7 cities were all on or near the Mediterranean coast). Philadelphia has been called the "keeper of the gateway". The Philadephian church had an open door to spread far and wide the Good News of God’s grace.
God opens and closes doors for us. Wherever He sends us, He is sending the Gospel. Even life’s trials are opportunities for us to show our world how believers overcome all obstacles. Alexander Graham Bell once said, "When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us." We need to trust God’s power to intervene.
The key of salvation is in the hand of Christ, and the door to His Kingdom stands open today. We are able to enter because at the entrance of that door there stands a Cross. Our Lord’s sacrifice makes us worthy and authorizes us to enter and be healed of our sins. In John 10 Jesus declares, "I am the Door." Let’s come to Him for salvation and service.
The letters to the 7 churches have a four-fold meaning…
1. Primary Association-Each letter had a direct bearing on the local church to which it was written. Each was a measuring rod by which each church could know our Lord’s evaluation of its ministry.
2. Personal Application-Each letter ends with an appeal to individuals, even though each letter is addressed to an entire congregation.
3. Present Analysis-Each letter portrays a state of local church health which is still discernable worldwide. We all know churches like these today.
4. Prophetic Anticipation-Some scholars believe that there are similarities in these congregations to the history of the Christian Church, a revelation of the future health of the Body of Christ.