Summary: The persecuted church in Philadelphia is part of the true Israel
Unto the Church in Philadelphia, Write
Philadelphia was the sixth church which Jesus addresses in Revelation. It was noted for its rich volcanic soil which was good for the raising of grapes. But the presence of volcanic soil also meant that the area was subjected to strong earthquakes. The aftershocks of one such quake was so strong that the inhabitants fled the city for the fields and stayed there for fear of being crushed by falling buildings.
The city also underwent several name changes over its history, After receiving Roman help in an earthquake, the city was named Neo Caesarea. Then it was changed back to Philadelphia again. Later on, it was renamed in honor of the Flavian dynasty. But when Domitian ordered half of the vines to be cut down to reduce the competition for the vineyards in Italy, it was changed back to its original name.
Philadelphia means “Brotherly Love” and was named in honor of a loyal brother to the king which founded the city.
We know from the text that there was a Jewish community in Philadelphia which seems to have served as the main opposition to the church. The church did not appear to be much affected by either the Pagan worship or emperor worship at this time, although this is an argument from silence.
Exposition of the Text
The message to the church begins with “Thus saith the Holy One, The Real One, the One who holds the key of David.” Unlike the other churches in which a piece of the vision of Jesus in chapter one is directly applied, there is not direct quote here. In the original vision, Jesus identifies Himself as having the keys of hell and of death, but not the Key of David. He is also identified in the first chapter as the “true witness”, but here we have simply “true (one).
In Jesus introduction of himself to the church at Philadelphia, Jesus is stressing His Old Testament credentials. He is the “Holy One (of Israel) which is one of the ways Yahweh reveals Himself to Israel. By saying this, Jesus is identifying Himself as the LORD of the covenant He made with Israel, the One who, Moses met on Mt. Sinai. As the “Truthful One”, Jesus indicates that he had been perfectly faithful to His side of the covenant which He had made which implies that the failure was entirely due to the unfaithfulness of the nation of Israel. When Jesus means that He has the key of David, an allusion to Isaiah 22, He is also stating His humanity as the Son of David. He is also claiming the legitimate authority He has as the King of Israel. So as the faithful LORD and King, He has the authority to rule over His people.
Jesus the LORD has the right to determine who has access to Him. By the failure of Israel and Judah to keep the stipulations of the covenant, they had forfeited all rights to access. The door was shut to them. Indeed, the only access to the presence of God would have to be by God’s sovereign grace. If Jew could not enter by merit, neither could the Gentile. The grace of God alone determines who can enter through the door. In the Gospel, Jesus calls himself the door to the sheepfold by which His sheep can enter and go out. To have the door open identifies the sheep as being His. He is then telling the church at Philadelphia that they are the legitimate Israel. He is also saying that those to whom the door is closed that they are not.
This door remains open for the church at Philadelphia to enter into the presence of God. God keeps it open, and no one else is able to shut them out. This of course implies that there are those who have tried. This church was having a difficult struggle with the Jewish community there. In this respect, it was similar to the situation the church at Smyrna faced with the synagogue, although we don’t know if the persecution had advanced to the same degree here. What seems likely here is that the Jewish synagogue had denounced the Christians and had probably excommunicated them.
This excommunication would have put the safety of the church on shaky ground. It would have removed the umbrella of protection that the legitimacy of Judaism in the eyes of Rome offered. As an illicit religion which made claims for Jesus that the Emperor reserved for himself, the Christians were in some danger of arrest and punishment. Part of the punishment that could have been inflicted would start with confiscation and exile. They faced being locked out of the city as they had been locked out of the synagogue.