36) Vindication as the Beloved of God (Revelation 3:9)
Whatever God promises, God fulfills. This marvelous truth puts legs beneath our Lord’s declaration that the door he has opened for us no one can shut (v. 8). But there’s yet more in his promise to the faithful in Philadelphia and therefore more in his promise to you and me:
“Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9).
We’ve already encountered the presence of those who “lie” about being Jewish (see Rev. 2:8-9 and Meditation #10), so I refer you to my comments there. What is especially noteworthy here is how our Lord describes his vindication of those who’ve remained faithful in the face of persecution. Literally, Jesus says he will “give” these false Jews of “the synagogue of Satan” to the church at Philadelphia, i.e., he will cause them to bow down at their feet and to know that Jesus has loved them.
Does this imply that these Jewish opponents will become Christians? Some say Yes and contend that the “open door” of v. 8 pertains specifically to evangelistic opportunity and success among the Jewish population of the city. Appeal is also made to the word translated “bow down” (proskuneo), used elsewhere on several occasions in Revelation of voluntary worship. However, if they were to be saved, it would be strange for them to bow down in worship at the feet of fellow-Christians. David Aune is probably right in saying that “this prostration has no religious significance but is simply the traditional (oriental) expression of homage and honor” (1:238).
It may be that recognition on their part that Jesus loves the church is the occasion (indeed, the stimulus) for their conversion, much in line with Paul’s thought in Romans 11 where he describes the Jews being provoked to jealousy upon seeing Gentiles savingly grafted into the olive tree. It must be admitted, however, that “make them to come” is odd language for conversion.Furthermore, the point of their being “made” to prostrate themselves before Christians is so that they might acknowledge the love Jesus has for the church. But if they are no less converted, i.e., no less Christian, than the church, they too would be the objects of Jesus’ saving love. But is not his point to demonstrate to the persecutors of the church that God’s love is precisely for those seemingly insignificant and weak believers in Philadelphia (irrespective of ethnic identity)?
Perhaps, then, John has in mind either (1) some event (or process) by which these Jews are compelled to acknowledge that the Philadelphian believers are the beloved people of God and that such status is not the result of ethnic heritage or national affiliation but rather faith in Jesus, or (2) the final judgment day at which “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
The most intriguing feature of this passage is that it appears to be an allusion to several OT texts in which it is prophesied that Gentiles will come and bow down before Israel in the last days. For example, “The sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 60:14).
In Isaiah 45:14 we read how Gentile peoples will “come over to you [Israel] and will be yours; they will walk behind you, they will come over in chains and will bow down to you.” Once again, “with their faces to the ground they [the Gentiles] shall bow down to you [Israel], and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 49:23).
The irony here is so thick you could cut it with a knife! In all these OT texts it is the Gentiles who grovel before Israel, whereas in Revelation 3:9 it is the Jews who will bow at the feet of this predominantly Gentile Christian church.
The irony intensifies when we note that in Isaiah 60:14 (see above) it is the Gentiles who will call the Israelites “the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” But now, in Revelation 3:12, the tables are turned: it is the CHURCH that is described in such glorious terms. There we read that the overcomers before whom these Jews prostrate themselves are given the name of “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem”! Be it noted that the name by which Jesus identifies himself to the Philadelphian believers is “the Holy One” (Rev. 3:7), thereby reinforcing the link between Revelation 3 and Isaiah 60.
We should also note that the words they will “know that I have loved you” may be an allusion to Isaiah 43:4 (“Because you [Israel] are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you . . .”). Again this reinforces the notion that Jesus saw in the church the fulfillment of these OT prophetic promises. In other words, the fulfillment of these Isaianic prophecies “will be the reverse of what the Philadelphian Jews expect: they will have to ‘bow down before your feet’, and acknowledge ‘that I have loved you’. Let the Christians take heart, for it is on them that the Lord has set his favour” (Wilcock, 54).
Beyond the theological (and eschatological) implications of what this says about the Church as the true Israel of God is the profoundly encouraging boost it gives to the oppressed heart seeking to stand firm in faith for Jesus. These believers in Philadelphia were no doubt hearing the taunts of their oppressors, similar to what David often lamented in the Psalms: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God” (Psalm 3:1-2). Or again, in Psalm 71:11, the psalmist refers to his enemies as declaring, “God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.”
The pagan world looked with disdain on the church in Philadelphia and concluded that people who suffered in this way must be unloved by their God, if not entirely abandoned by him. Perhaps you’ve heard similar words: “What kind of God is it who permits his children to endure such pain and oppression? He obviously doesn’t love you very much. You matter little to him. Otherwise he’d heal you. If his love were genuine, he’d spare you such distress. Where is he when you need him most? If he cared, he would long ago have delivered you from people like us.”
There’s no guarantee that vindication will come in this life. We may die with such blasphemous words echoing in our ears. But the affection of our great God will not forever remain hidden from view. Jesus assures us that a day is coming when the world will know, all too painfully, that we are loved with an immutable and infinitely intense passion. All ridicule will be redressed, every scoff will be silenced, each sneer wiped from their faces. Then there will be an indescribable display of divine delight and loud celebration as Jesus will say (shout? sing?), for all to hear, and show, for all to see, that he truly loves his own!