Philadelphia: Small but Steady

Philadelphia: Small but Steady

Philadelphia: Small but Steady

Please Read Revelation 3:7-13.

A city rebuilt after a devastating earthquake. An outpost city, out on the frontier, designed to advance Greek culture. A temple built for emperor worship. Another temple maintained for ritual worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and debauchery. A relatively new, small city with a Christian church to match. An antagonistic pseudo-Jewish community. This is the 1st Century town of Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love.”

Key of David. In His letter’s introduction, Jesus quotes directly from Isaiah 22:22. The context in Isaiah is the pronouncement that the king’s prime minister had the authority to control access to the king. The key is the symbol of authority and control. David is the messianic figure who controls the access to the Father and His Kingdom. Only Jesus has the authority to open doors and close doors to God, to heaven. Jesus is the only one who can judge in God’s Name, who can admit to the new city of David, or exclude to that city. When He opens the door to the Kingdom, salvation is assured. When He closes the door, judgment is also certain. Jesus wields the key to eternal life, to God on His throne.

Philadelphia. A frontier city built to further Greek culture, it was also intended to keep out the barbarians from that region. In a sense, it was designed to be a missionary city for the Roman empire. Unfortunately, it was built in a dangerous volcanic area, and thus always subject to earthquakes and aftershocks. A devastating earthquake leveled the city early in the 1st Century, but the residents simply rebuilt the entire town. The city had its share of pagan temples, since it was so fully Greco-Roman, including one designed for emperor worship, and another in honor of Dionysus, the god of self-indulgent excess. Philadelphia was the newest and smallest of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, and the Christian church there was thus also rather unimpressive by human standards.

The Church. The Christians who settled in Philadelphia realized they were a missionary church, built to spread the good news of Christ. The Roman Empire wanted the city to spread the word and world of the emperor, but the church of course had a different identity in mind. Jesus said He has opened a door that will not be closed, an open door of opportunity to share and witness to God’s grace and power. Paul would talk about open doors and opportunities as well, including to the believers in Colossae (Colossians 4:3) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:9). Jesus said that their church had little strength, being so small. But it was nonetheless faithful and obedient to Christ. Here is a church the size of a mustard seed, yet still able to accomplish great things for God by persevering in the midst of difficulty and opposition. Jesus had no words of correction for this church, no judgment, no reproach, no stern warnings.

Jewish Community. Similar to Smyrna, there was an antagonistic Jewish community in Philadelphia. Jesus, though, once again, didn’t consider them certified Jews in His mind. They say they are Jewish, but they have strayed from the essence of Judaism. Their synagogue in Philadelphia evidently excommunicated all the Christians from their assembly, and openly antagonized the Christian believers in town. Jesus seems to reflect the thought of St. Paul when he said in Romans 2:28-29 that those non-Jews were not biblical. Their hearts were not right with God, they didn’t experience a change of heart by the Spirit of God. So Jesus used harsh words in referring to this group of non-Jews as a “synagogue of Satan.” They were not a true synagogue of Yahweh, they were doing the works of Satan. It seems that the non-Jews oppressed the Christians to the extent that they were collaborators with the Roman authorities in their Christian harassment. Jesus is saying that even if the non-Jews closed the door to their assembly, Jesus will simply open another door into full fellowship with Yahweh. Jesus affirmed that at some point these non-Jews will humble themselves before the Christians and admit that the Christian believers are at the heart of true Israel.

Tribulation. “… I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to the world.” These words of Jesus have been understood to mean several different things. Some believe this means that God will take all believers out of the world before a future time of world-wide tribulation, sparing believers from that difficult time. Others are convinced that believers will need to go through this time of testing, but God will strengthen them to endure it. Still others interpret this to point to a more general time of ongoing great distress in the world, and believers will need to participate in that time of testing whenever it happens. As one prays around the world these days, it is clear that many believers are currently in a time of great testing, and we can point to scores of believers who have had to endure a tribulation in times past. For many today, their time of tribulation has arrived. The one truth we can count on is that Jesus has promised to protect our souls for eternal life, no matter what we experience. As Jesus says in Luke 21:16-19, “You can expect betrayal even by your parents, your brothers, your  relatives and friends – and yes some of you will die as martyrs. You will be hated by all because of my Name. But don’t worry. My grace will never desert you or depart from your life. And by standing firm with patient endurance you will find your soul’s deliverance.” (TPT). No matter what happens, believers will not suffer spiritual loss, but will be saved for eternal life with Him. Jesus has opened that door, and no one can close it.

Soon? “I am coming soon.” Jesus spoke clearly about this. He repeated Himself four different times just in RevelationThe time is near; I am coming quickly; I am coming soon. How do we take this? The early church took Him literally. They fully believed Jesus was returning in clouds of glory soon in their life times, coming back to bring them all to heaven with Him. But obviously, this monumental event has not taken place yet, and this is the 21st Century. So, Jesus didn’t mean for us to take Him literally. A thousand days is as one day for Him, a thousand years is like a second in time. Jesus is outside of time. He will return when He’s good and ready. Our job is to remain faithful, patiently endure whatever life throws our way, and be an overcomer, a victorious one, who receives the victor’s crown, the laurel wreath, the trophy of the winner of the race.  The crown is our reward, the heavenly symbol of achievement. Like St. Paul, we need God’s strength and stamina to fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7). And “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). At some point, and it may be soon, we will wear that starry crown.

Pillar. To the victorious ones, the overcomers, the winners of the race, Jesus said we will be pillars. To the believers in Philadelphia, a pillar was a meaningful symbol. A pillar was a sign of permanence, of stability and support. With the constant threat of earthquakes, any sign of spiritual stability was welcome. The pillar was “a fixed positive, upholding and supporting the Kingdom purposes of God.” (B. Simmons). This position of honor, this pillar, will have, instead of the Emperor’s name, it will have God’s Name written on it, as well as the name of God’s city, and to top it all off, Jesus’ new Name as well. We will become permanent fixtures of God’s Kingdom, and we will enjoy the honor of bearing God’s very own autograph.

New Jerusalem. The city of God. The future dwelling place of believers in God. The holy place of eternal fellowship, where believers will confirm their citizenship in the Kingdom. This new city is coming down from heaven to earth, when all things are new, all things are securely in their eternal place. This is the marriage, the union, of heaven and earth, the bride receiving the bridegroom. All creation will be transformed, released from bondage. The New Jerusalem is the city that Abraham was looking for, “the city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10). As children of Abraham, we realize too that “Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14).

Final Thought. It’s interesting that heaven seems to be a city. The New Jerusalem, the city of God. It’s not a rural setting, or a fancy suburb, or a lush garden like the first paradise. It’s not an island resort, or a mountain village, or a lake house retreat. Paradise is a city, of all things. When people want to get away for vacation for peace and quiet, to decompress and relax, they tend to go as far away from the city as possible. But God has a different idea in mind. The eternal resting place is a city, the permanent paradise is a city. It all makes sense at a certain level. Heaven will be a place where we all get along, we all will treat each other with love and respect and honor. Lives in pitch-perfect harmony. We all will see Jesus face to face, and embrace Him as the Righteous King of the city. All of us together, a living symphony. That actually would be heaven on earth. Actually, we can’t even imagine life in the New Jerusalem, but we do know it will be a city redeemed.