Christ calls us to trust that we will always belong to him regardless of the challenges we might face as faithful believers.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the setting of the Philadelphian church.
Be encouraged to faithful endurance in the face of trials and persecution.
Rest in the knowledge that we belong to Christ.
Catching up on the Story
The letter to the church in Philadelphia is the sixth of seven letters that Jesus writes to the churches in Asia. For the most part, each church has been commended for some form of faithfulness. Similarly, most of the churches have been chastised for some form of unfaithfulness. The chastised churches have been given an opportunity to amend their ways and return to faithfulness.
As we have looked at these letters, we have examined the political, economic, and social worlds these churches inhabit. Common to all the churches is a pluralistic religious climate. Gods of all kinds abounded. Cities had patron gods, and so did the trade guilds to which most people belonged. Failure to participate in the worship practices of the city or the guilds would lead to social and economic consequences. One risked being relegated to the margins of society and the economy by refusing to participate. At the same time, the religious scene was deeply connected with the political climate. The Roman emperor was often deified and worshiped as a “son of god.” In many places, citizens were made to burn a bit of incense in honor of and worship to the emperor once a year. Failure to do so risked the possibility that a person might be branded a political subversive who was a threat to the empire.
Trouble came not only from the civil, political, and economic structures of the Roman Empire it also came from the Jewish population. The Jews had been granted privileges and exemptions from emperor worship if they continued to pay their taxes. In many places, the Jews saw Christians as a threat to the fragile peace and security they had built. It was not uncommon for Christians to be reported to the authorities under charges of “atheism” or not worshiping the gods or emperor.
The situation is no different for the church whose letter we read today, Philadelphia.
The Key of David
As the other letters have started, the letter to Philadelphia begins with a greeting from Jesus. The salutation is longer than the other letters and contains a quotation from Isaiah 22:22. In the Isaiah passage, the steward Eliakim is presented with the keys to the house of King David. Possessing the keys grants Eliakim the power to determine who can and cannot enter into the king’s presence (Blount, 74).
The image that arises from the use of Isaiah 22 is one of access to God’s kingdom. Since Jesus is of the line of David, the keys of David’s kingdom are the keys to Jesus’ kingdom, too. Only Jesus holds the key that will allow entrance into his presence.
The image becomes more apparent as we move into verse 8, “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” As with several of the other cities to which Jesus has written, the church in Philadelphia faced rejection and persecution by the Jews of the city. Jesus refers to those in authority in the synagogue as Jews “who say that they are Jews and are not.” Jesus refers to them as “the synagogue of Satan!”
Jesus labels the Jews in this way not because they are “satanic” in the way that we might understand it. The word “satan” literally means the one who works against or the advisory. In the same way that the spiritual forces of evil have worked against the plans and purposes of God in the world, by persecuting the Christians, the Jews are working against the very God they claim to worship.
One day, however, Jesus promises that the Jews of the city will come to fully know the error of their ways. The Jews will know that God doesn’t just love them, but that God loves the Christians, too.
The problem the Christians had with the Jews is likely part of the reason that Jesus describes the Philadelphian Christians as having “but little power.” It is likely that the church there was small and comprised of materially poor and non-influential people. Despite their smallness and insignificance, Jesus praises the Christians for their faithful endurance. The Christians in Philadelphia are resilient.
Daniels argues that these Christians faced the challenges of their world and, instead of shrinking away in defeat, viewed those challenges as opportunities to proclaim the message of God’s salvation. They overcame a spirit of fear and later became one of the strongest churches in Asia (Daniels, 110). The courageous endurance of the Philadelphian church will be met with a blessing of greater protection and stamina as the church will experience even greater trials.
“I am coming soon”
Jesus begins to round out the letter by promising to return soon. In verse 12, Jesus communicates what the reward will be for continued faithfulness. If the church in Philadelphia remains faithful, Jesus promises to make them “a pillar in the temple of my God.” It was common practice for the city of Philadelphia to honor a significant citizen of the community by erecting a pillar in one of the city’s many temples after the person had died. This honor was reserved for those who had been faithful in helping the city to thrive. They would be remembered forever by a pillar with their name inscribed on it (Daniels, 115). By making such a promise, Jesus is expressing how important he thinks the church in Philadelphia has been to God’s work in the world. Furthermore, Jesus promises that they will never leave the place of God’s presence.
In the second half of verse 12, Jesus shifts the image slightly. Instead of inscribing the faithful’s name on temple pillars, Jesus would write his name on them and “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem.”
The city of Philadelphia was situated in an area of volcanic instability. As a consequence, the area was prone to earthquakes. Whenever an earthquake struck, the city’s people would flee and not return until the aftershocks had stopped. In 17 CE, the area was devastated by a massive earthquake, leaving the city nearly destroyed (Daniels, 105-106). When the city began to rebuild, it received help from the Roman Empire. Subsequently, the city renamed itself “Neocaesarea, the city of the Young Caesar” (Daniels 108). The new name signified that the city had entered into a special covenant with the emperor. The emperor would provide funds, and the city would honor and worship the emperor. In the ancient world, names were significant, indicating something about the place and to whom it belonged. The name change marks the city as belonging to the emperor.
By writing his name on the Christians in the city, Jesus is making a significant counterclaim to that of the emperor. Regardless of who the city belongs to, those faithful within it belong to Jesus. Jesus makes another counterclaim when he declares that a “new Jerusalem” will come down out of heaven with Jesus’ name on it. The people and things of this world belong not to Caesar but to Jesus, who will always be faithful.
What does this letter to a poor and insignificant bunch of Christians in an ancient city have to do with us? Most of the other letters to the churches provided us with challenges to our way of living and Christian life based on their failures; the message to Philadelphia is all positive. What can we learn from their faithfulness?
The first thing I believe we can learn is that faithfulness when we are surrounded by systems and powers that threaten us is not impossible. If we are kicked out of the economic centers of society, we can be faithful because we belong to Christ. If we are threatened with violence because we refuse to give ourselves in worship to other gods, Christ will guide and strengthen us in faithfulness. We bear Christ’s name. We are in good company if we are mocked or reviled because of our faith. We belong to Jesus.
The challenges we may face because we choose to be faithful are opportunities for us to grow. Challenges are invitations to allow God to shape our imagination for mission in this world. Our challenges are not the same as those of the church in Philadelphia, but we have challenges nonetheless. Like the Christians in Philadelphia, we have a choice. We can adopt a spirit of fear which leads us to compromise our faithfulness. Or, we can assume a spirit of trust rooted in the fact that we belong to Jesus.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
The message to the church in Philadelphia is all good. What had they done to receive so much praise?
How do you think the Christians in Philadelphia handled their relationship with the Jews?
Read Isaiah 22:15-25. Jesus quotes verse 22 in the opening of this letter. Why would he do that? What do you think Jesus is trying to communicate here?
In verse 8, Jesus says that “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” What does he mean?
Jesus describes the church in Philadelphia as having “little power.” Why would this church have little power? What kind of people do you think would make up the church there?
In verse 9, Jesus that the Jews are not really Jews and that they worship in a “synagogue of Satan.” Why would he say that the Jews in Philadelphia aren’t really Jews? What does Jesus mean by “synagogue of Satan?”
Why would the Jews need to learn of Jesus’ love for the Christians?
Jesus promises that if the church in Philadelphia remains faithful that he will “make you a pillar in the temple of my God.” Why would Jesus make them into a pillar?
What do you think “I will write on you the name of my God” means (verse 12)?
Why would Jesus write the name of the new Jerusalem on the faithful?
How would you feel if this letter was written to our church?
Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, 1st Ed., The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
Daniels, Scott T., Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation’s Letters for Today’s Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 2009.