Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 9

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Philadelphia (3:7-13)


Philadelphia was a smaller and more recently developed city than any of the other seven cities addressed in these letters. Because of its location it is often called the ‘gateway to the East.’ It was a fairly rich city with much productive agricultural land and some industry.
Although destroyed by an earthquake, as was much of the region surrounding it in 17 CE, it was quickly rebuilt through imperial aid and its people remained loyal to the emperor. Temples dedicated to the imperial cult as well as many pagan gods were in prominence and Christians in this city were in a similar situation to the others John has already addressed.


(7) The words of this letter are from “he who is holy and true.” The risen Christ, as in the previous letters, addresses the church. Christ himself is called the Holy One. This was a common title used for God in the Old Testament and here it affirms Christ’s deity. He is also the True One, an affirmation of his complete reliability. The One who is holy and true holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open. This is a loose reference to Isaiah
22:22-25 and is likely to refer to the fact that Christ, who is holy and true, exercises authority over whoever enters the new Jerusalem, the proverbial dwelling place of God. We may also have a polemic against the Jews who were persecuting Christians in Philadelphia and seemingly attempting to exclude them from the household of God.

(8) As for the church at Philadelphia, we again have the statement that Christ is completely aware of its works. Similar to the letter to Smyrna, he doesn’t have anything against believers here. The threat facing these churches in both letters is external, not internal. Both receive praise, not accusation.

The “open door” in verse 8, is likely to be a kind of parenthesis on the assessment of the church. It assures the Philadelphian Christians of Christ’s absolute authority over entrance to heavenly Jerusalem in spite of their present rejection by the Jews. At the same time, it may also have been intended to encourage them to continue in missionary efforts, both in Philadelphia and other regions. Christ knows they are weak, but that in the midst of this they have not rejected his word, nor renounced his name, therefore he encourages them.

Let us think of ourselves in this context. In our own weakness we too must hold on to Christ’s word and to his name. Even though we are weak (though usually not as a direct result of persecution), it is essential to realize that strength comes through holding on to Christ in these situations. The Philadelphians are an excellent example of Christians holding on, gritting it out, and standing firm in spite of having little strength.

(9) This reference to the Jews is similar to that which is in the letter to Smyrna. In both letters there is a conflict between those who are the people of God, namely the church, and those who claim to be the people of God, the Jews. Remember, in the New Testament a true Jew is a Christian. Those who claim to be Jews in this passage and are not are those who are not Christians. They are Jews in a physical sense, but not in a spiritual sense and will eventually acknowledge that Christians are the true people of God. Instead of all the nations coming to the feet of the Jews (Isa. 49:22-23), here we have a reversal of this prophecy in the sense that it is the nation of Israel—the physical descendents of Abraham—who now will come to realize that true Israel is the church, which Christ loves.

(10) Since they have held steadfast, the Philadelphian Christians are to be spared from the impending trial that is to come. “Those who live on the earth” is a phrase that is used many times in the Apocalypse to speak of those who are enemies of Christ and the church (6:10, 8:13, 11:10, 13:8). The coming hour of trial is to be a test of those who are not Christians. Yes, Christians will be persecuted and even martyred before Christ returns, but ultimately they are to be spared the wrath of God as he begins to destroy Satan. Christians are ultimately assured they will be spiritually protected through all that takes place.

(11) Another central motif that returns throughout the book is the
promise: “I am coming soon.” Christ will return with power and glory to complete his redeeming work and to consummate the rule of God, a rule which began in a unique way with his first coming. ‘Soon’ refers to a prophetic view of salvation history. In the b part of verse 11 they are again instructed to hold on (a present imperative) to what they have. In this case, the instruction is probably a reference to keeping Christ’s word, not denying his name and remaining steadfast. In other words, they are to hold fast to the integrity of their Christian lives so that no one will seduce or lure them away from victory.

(12-13) The one who overcomes will be given a secure place in the New Jerusalem. Philadelphia, remember, was located on ground that could not be trusted. Earthquakes forced people to abandon parts of the town and to live in outlying areas. The promise of a sure place in God’s presence would have brought great assurance and it should continue to do for us in our present circumstances. Christ additionally promises to write the name of his God, his God’s city, and his own new name on those who overcome. To have the name of God written on them shows that they ‘belong’ to God. The city, the New Jerusalem, written on them aims to show that they have citizenship in God’s city. Having Christ’s new name written on them infers seeing him in the fullness of who he is and this speaks of the special relationship of anyone who overcomes and the Christ who overcame. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”