The Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (3:7-13)
One could make a strong case that the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia are the most important ones of the seven, for in neither of them do we find one word of complaint. They both receive unqualified praise and approval. These, then, are truly churches of which Christ heartily approves.
Here we find a four-fold description of Jesus, again taken from the visionary portrait of him in chapter one.
First, he is called The Holy One – An unmistakable title for Yahweh in the OT (Isa. 40:25) here applied to Jesus. See also Rev. 6:10 where “holy”, along with “true,” is an attribute of deity.
Second, he is called The True One – To the Greek mind this would mean “genuine,” that which is real and thus corresponds to reality. To the Hebrew mind it means “faithful” and “trustworthy,” deserving of our confidence, dependable, reliable, consistent and steadfast. See Ps. 146:5-6; Ex. 34:6; Deut. 7:9; 2 Tim. 2:13; Num. 23:19; Lam. 3:22-23. No one ever trusted God in vain!
Third, he is The One who has the Key of David – He has the undisputed authority to admit or exclude from the New Jerusalem. The idea is that Jesus has the key to the Davidic or messianic kingdom.
This statement concerning Jesus is a reference to Isaiah 22:22 and the role of Eliakim, steward of the household, who was given authority to control who was admitted and who was excluded from the king’s presence. This position was quite prominent, perhaps only secondary to the king himself. Jesus is the one who determines who shall enter the Davidic kingdom.
Fourth, he is The One who opens and no one shuts, the One who shuts and no one opens – When he opens to his followers the door of the kingdom, no one can shut them out; and when he shuts the door on those who oppose his cause, none can reverse the decision.
Because of their faithful adherence to Jesus and his Word and their persistent endurance in the face of external hostilities, he assures them of three things. But before noting the promise, let’s note the reason for it.
Three things are said of these believers: they have “kept” Christ’s “word” and have “not denied” his “name,” both of which would appear to refer to faithfully bearing public witness to the gospel in the face of persecution and slander and possible martyrdom. But what is meant when Jesus says they “have a little power”? This is not a rebuke but a reference to the smallness in both size and influence which proved no obstacle to their accomplishing great things for the kingdom of God. Size is no measure of success. They did much with what little resources they had. Here, then, is what Jesus promises to do for them.
(1) Entrance into the Messianic kingdom – What is the “open door”? Is it great opportunity for missionary activity (cf. 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). Perhaps. But the preceding verse spoke of a messianic kingdom, access to which is under the absolute control of Christ. He is the one who possesses the key and can open and shut at his own will. Here in v. 8 he reminds the Christians at Philadelphia who may have been excommunicated from the local synagogue that he has placed before them an open door into the eternal kingdom and no one can shut them out.
(2) Vindication as the beloved of God – 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. (Aune contends 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’ 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 (v. 9) 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:
“And the sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you, and all those who despised you will bow themselves at the soles of your feet; and they will call you the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 60:14).
“Thus says the Lord, ‘The products of Egyppt and the merchandise of Cush and the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to you and will be yours; they will walk behind you, they will come over in chains and will bow down to you; they will make supplication to you: “Surely, God is with you, and there is none else, no other God”’” (Isa 45:14).
“And kings will be your guardians, and their princesses your nurses. They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of your feet; and you will know that I am the Lord; those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame” (Isa. 49:23).
Aune’s comments are worth pondering:
“The ironical use of this motif is clear: in all these passages the Gentiles are expected to grovel before Israel, while in Rev. 3:9 it is the Jews who are expected to grovel before the feet of this (largely gentile) Christian community” (1:237-38).
What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that in Isa. 60:14 “they” (the Gentiles) will call “you” (the Israelites) “the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel”. This is precisely what we see in Rev. 3:12, except that in the latter it is said of the Church! There we read that these very overcomers before whom these Jews prostrate themselves are given the name of . . . “the city of My God, the new Jerusalem”! And be it noted that the name by which Jesus identifies himself to the Philadelphian believers is “the Holy One” (thereby reinforcing the link between Rev. 3 and Isaiah 60).
Similarly, the words they will “know that I have loved you” may be an allusion to Isa. 43:4 (“Since you [Israel] are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you . . .”), thereby reinforcing the notion that John 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).
(3) Protection from the hour of testing – For spiritual protection in the midst of physical tribulation, see Rev. 7:1ff.; 11:1-2; 12:6,14-17.
What is the “hour of testing”? Of this we may be sure: its focus is the judgment of unbelievers, for “those who dwell on the earth” is a stock phrase in Revelation that always refers to pagan persecutors of the church (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8,12,14; 14:6; 17:2,8).
When is the “hour of testing”? Is this a reference to a specific period of time reserved for the end of human history that many call “The Great Tribulation”? If so, it seems odd (dare I say, impossible) that Jesus would promise one church in Asia Minor in the first century that they were to be protected from an event that not one single individual in that church would ever see, indeed, an event that would not transpire for at least another 1,900 years! How could this “hour of testing” be an event centuries after the Philadelphian Christians lived, especially since their protection from it is the very specific reward to them of their very specific, and historically identifiable, resistance to persecution and steadfast faithfulness in proclaiming the word of God? They are promised protection because they “kept the word” of Christ’s perseverance. Perhaps John is referring to that “tribulation” (thlipsis) which has already begun for Christians (including the Philadelphians) and will continue throughout the present age, see 1:9; 2:9-10 (and perhaps 7:14). In other words, “the hour of testing” may be a reference to the entire inter-advent church age, during which there will always be suffering, trial, and tribulation for those who stand firm in their witness for Christ. Or it may refer to one particular season of intensified persecution that was imminent for believers in Asia Minor.
What relevance, if any, does this text have for the on-going debate between Pre and Post-tribulational rapture advocates? See John 17:15 for the only other NT occurrence of the phrase “keep from” (tereo ek).
This “coming” of Jesus sounds more like the second advent at the close of history than a historical coming in judgment. After all, given the obedience of the Philadelphian church, there was no need for Jesus to “come” to them in disciplinary judgment (as was the case with Ephesus in 2:5, Pergamum in 2:16, Sardis in 3:3).
The promise to the one who overcomes is three-fold.
First, “I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God” (v. 12a) – A few have suggested that this is an allusion to the custom in which the provincial priest of the imperial cult, at the close of his tenure in office, erected in the temple area his statue or pillar inscribed with his name (together with the name of his father, his home town, and his years in office). Hemer has pointed out, however, that little evidence exists for this practice and that Philadelphia didn’t even have a temple dedicated to the imperial cult until early in the third century a.d. Perhaps the language is simply a metaphor of eternal salvation. For the church corporately and the Christian individually as the temple of God, see 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:18-22; 1 Peter 2:4-8.
Second, “he will not go out from it anymore” (v. 12b) – As Mounce has noted, “to a city that had experienced devastating earthquakes which caused people to flee into the countryside and establish temporary dwellings there, the promise of permanence within the New Jerusalem would have a special meaning” (120-21). Thus it certainly conveys the idea of stability and permanence in the believer’s relationship with God.
Third, he will have written on him three new names (v. 12c) –
“the name of My God” – This is clearly a metaphor of both divine ownership and the dedication to God of the one who bears this name (cf. Rev. 14:1). See esp. Exod. 28:36-38, “where instructions are given for writing the inscription ‘Holy to the Lord’ on a gold plate to be mounted on the front of Aaron’s high priestly headdress, on his forehead” (Aune, 1:242). See also Isa. 43:7 where God’s people are referred to as “everyone who is called by My name.”
“the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem” – This isn’t surprising, given the fact that in Rev. 21:2-8 the people of God are virtually identified with the city of God (cf. Isa. 56:5; Ezek. 48:35).
“and My new name” – Being given a new name in biblical tradition is most often associated with the idea of receiving a new status, function, or change in character and calling, etc.