A Missional Reading of the Letter to Philadelphia

The city of Philadelphia sat just east of Sardis on a route that would take one on to Laodicea and then further east into Asia; hence the nickname “the gateway to the east.” Of the seven cities, Philadelphia was the most recently founded and had, from the outset, something of a missionary purpose. Ramsay writes, “The intention of its founding was to make it a centre of the Græco-Asiatic civilization and a means of spreading the Greek language and manners in the eastern parts of Lydia and in Phrygia. It was a missionary city from the beginning, founded to promote a certain unity of spirit, customs, and loyalty within the realm, the apostle of Hellenism in an Oriental land.”

Philadelphia was also a city that was plagued by frequent and sometimes violent earthquakes. The city was destroyed in AD17 by the earthquake that damaged many cities in the region. So devastating was this earthquake that the emperor remitted all taxes for five years and offered aid in rebuilding. And so frequent were the earthquakes that much of the population lived outside the city, away from structures that would become dangerous in the quakes.

The volcanic activity that made the region so unstable also made the ground highly suitable for vine growing, though less so for other crops such as grain. That the soil was unsuitable for other staple crops led to difficult times at the end of the first century. Hemer discusses the impact Domitian’s requirement (92AD) that farmers cut down half of their vines not to be replanted. The impetus behind this edict seems to have been twofold. First, it certainly would have helped the vine growers in Italy who faced competition from the Asian vine growers. Secondly, it aimed to reduce the impact of a famine that was afflicting Asia Minor hard during this time, forcing farmers to crow corn or grain instead of grapes.

Regardless the reason, the act was incredibly unpopular and was a source of tension in what was an otherwise very positive relationship between the city of Philadelphia and Rome. Domitian’s edict, when added to the stresses of constant earthquakes and the impact of the famine, made for a difficult economic situation in the city.

From the text of Revelation it is evident that there was an influential community of Jews present in the city. That there is no external evidence of Jewish community in Philadelphia during the first century leads one to surmise that the size of this community was likely smaller than in some of the other Asian cities. However, a letter from Ignatius of Antioch to the church at Philadelphia suggests that there was a Judaizing influence that was being felt in the church.

Jesus identifies himself as “the holy one, the true one”. In this letter the pattern of repeating an element of John’s vision from chapter one verbatim is set aside. This title, Beale asserts, is an expansion of the theme of Jesus being the “faithful witness”, here more strongly asserting Jesus’ deity. Again, where Jesus is said to hold the keys to Death and Hades in chapter one, here he holds the keys of David. John has combined elements of the vision from Revelation 1 with an allusion to Isaiah 22:22. Osborne explains, “In this context this describes Jesus as the Davidic Messiah who controls the entrance to God’s kingdom, the ‘New Jerusalem.’” Osborne suggests that the Christians had likely been excommunicated from the synagogue as was common (thus cutting them off from the support of this community in a time of dire economics), but Jesus reminds them he is the one who has the authority to open and shut, to admit them or cut them off from the kingdom. As in all the letters, Jesus affirms his direct and intimate knowledge of the church.

Two main options present themselves regarding the meaning of the “open door” Jesus sets before them. Many commentators take this as a reference to the missionary opportunity the church has, sitting as they do at the gateway to the east. Other commentators see this as a reference to the open door of the kingdom – Jesus is the one who has opened the kingdom to them, and though those who call themselves Jews have closed the door to the synagogue to the believer, they cannot bar entrance to Christ’s kingdom.

Here, as in the letter to the church at Smyrna, there is no rebuke. The church had remained faithful, though they have little power and face Satanic opposition. The church’s “little power” probably stems from her small numbers. Despite this, they have maintained their faithful witness, not denying the name of Jesus. They have understood and taken to heart their mission in the world. The parallel between the Smyrna church and the one in Philadelphia is close, and the description of the Jewish community in both furthers this connection. In both, those claiming to be Jews are actually said to be of the synagogue of Satan, an accusation proven by their rejection of Jesus the Messiah and their persecution of his body.

That the church will be vindicated in the sight of the Jewish community is clear; the nature of this vindication, however, is not. Some interpreters, including Beale, take Jesus promise to “make them come and bow down before your feet” as indicating the conversion of Jews. Because of the faithfulness of the church’s witness, the Jews will be converted. Beale argues, “Isaiah’s prophecies that the end-time salvation of Israel would spark off the salvation of the Gentiles has been fulfilled in an ironic manner.” While Osborne sees the attractiveness of this interpretation, he disagrees. Osborne contends, rightly, “The OT taught that the Gentiles would be forced to pay homage to the Jews at the eschaton, and now this promise is turned on its head: Jewish oppressors would be force to pay homage to Gentile believers…This is submission, not worship, and parallels 2:26-27, where the faithful saints are promised that they will participate in the judgment of their (and God’s) enemies.”

The faithfulness of the Philadelphian church will be rewarded with divine protection in the trials that are to befall the whole world. This trial is beyond what the local church is experiencing in the present, and points to a global trial preceding the parousia of Christ (as opposed to the local manifestation of persecution the church at Smyrna will face “for ten days”). The promise, rightly understood, is not to remove them from the trial but to protect them in the midst of it. It is not a promise that the church will be immune from persecution or martyrdom, but that they will not suffer the wrath of God that is soon coming upon the whole earth. Mounce summarizes, “The hour of trial is directed toward the entire non-Christian world, but the believer will be kept from it, not by some previous appearance of Christ to remove the church bodily from the world, but by the spiritual protection he provides against the forces of evil.” Christ does not promise physical protection from those who persecute the church, but divine exemption from wrath that will soon be poured out.

In the context of some of the other letters, Jesus’ words that he was “coming soon” would have been taken as a threat; here it is a wonderful consolation. In the meantime, the believers were to hold tightly to their faith so that no one might steal their crown. Alan Johnson writes, “Either Satan or men could rob them of their crown by diverting them from exclusive loyalty to Jesus.”

Thus far, the Philadelphian Christians had withstood the temptation to compromise with their ungodly culture and the pressure exerted upon them to reject Christ from the Jews. Their testimony was unstained; they were serving as faithful witnesses. Persevering as faithful witnesses would make them conquerors, and to the conqueror Jesus promises he will “make them a pillar in the temple of God.” These words would have been especially encouraging to the inhabitants of Philadelphia, for in a city that had so frequently been racked by earthquake pillars were a symbol of permanence and durability. When houses crumbled and walls cracked, the pillars stood. As Beale has pointed out, the whole of the new redeemed earth is a temple unto God. Hence, the promise is to give the overcomer a place of permanence in the new earth. In this new-earth-city-temple, they will never have to go out, fleeing from falling buildings or fires caused by quakes.

On this pillar Jesus will inscribe three names: the name of “my God,” the name of “the city of my God” (identified as the New Jerusalem), and “my own new name.” The inscribing of God’s name on his people speaks of possession and would also connote security: they bear his name, are his, and hence under his protection (see also Rev 7:3, 14:1 & 22:4). Bearing the name of city speaks of their citizenship in it. Finally, bearing Christ’s name conveys the same idea as the name of “my God”.

What Christ’s new name is here is unexplained, but has parallel in the later chapters of the Apocalypse (Rev 19:12. Additionally, bearing Christ’s name (or God’s name) is a way of speaking of his presence. In Deuteronomy 12:11 the Israelites are told that they will worship where God will “make his name dwell” in the land, referring to the future temple. Certainly this means more than just God’s name being on the doorposts to the temple, but is a synecdoche for God’s presence. Jesus promises to mark them as his people, under his protection, citizens in his kingdom and bless them with his abiding presence.