Letters to the Churches of Asia - 28 - Philadelphia

Chapter 28: The Letter to the Church in Philadelphia

Revelation 3:7

These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and none shall shut, and that shutteth, and none openeth.

I know thy works: behold I have given before thee an opened door, which none can shut, because thou hast little strength, and didst keep my word, and didst not deny my name. Behold, I give of the synagogue of Satan, of them which say they are Jews, and they are not, but do lie; behold I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown.

He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out thence no more: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and mine own new name.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.

The address of the Philadelphian letter is conceived with evident reference to the topics mentioned in the body of the letter, and to the character and past history of the Church. The writer is "he that hath the key of David, that openeth and none shall shut"; and the history of Philadelphia and its Church has been determined in the past, and will in the future be determined, mainly by the fact that "I have set before thee a door opened, which none can shut."

The writer of the letter is "he that is true"; and the Philadelphian Church "kept my word and did not deny my name," but confessed the truth, whereas its enemies are they "which say they are Jews, and they are not, but do lie." The writer of the letter is, "he that is holy"; and the picture of Philadelphia that is given in the letter marks it beyond all others of the Seven as the holy city, which "I have loved," which kept my word and my injunction of endurance (a commendation twice repeated).

It may fairly be considered a complimentary form of address when the writer invests himself with the same character that he praises in the Church addressed. That is also the case in the Smyrnaean letter: there he "which was dead and lived" addresses the Church which, as he anticipates, will suffer to death and thereby gain the crown of life. But it is hardly the case in any other letter. In addressing Ephesus and Pergamum and Thyatira the writer speaks as holding that position and authority and power, which they are by their conduct losing. The writer to Sardis occupies the honourable position which Sardis has lost beyond hope of recovery. The writer to Laodicea is faithful and true, addressing a Church which is reproached for its irresolution and want of genuineness.

In this respect, then, the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia form a class by themselves; and the analogy extends to other characteristics. These two Churches are praised with far more cordiality and less reserve than any of the others. They have both had to contend with serious difficulties. The Smyrnaean Church was poor and oppressed, the Philadelphian Church had but little power. Before both there is held forth a prospect of suffering and trial; but in both cases a triumphant issue is confidently anticipated. Life for Smyrna, honour and dignity for Philadelphia, are promised--not for a residue amid the unfaithful, as at Thyatira or Sardis, but for the Church in both cities. It is an interesting coincidence that those are the two cities which have been the bulwark and the glory of Christian power in the country since it became Mohammedan; they are the two places where the Christian flag floated latest over a free and powerful city, and where even in slavery the Christians preserved cohesion among themselves and real influence among the Turkish conquerors.

Another analogy is that in those two letters alone is the Jewish Nationalist party mentioned. Now in every city where there was a body of Jews settled, either as resident strangers or as citizens of the town, the Nationalist party existed; and there can hardly be any doubt that in every important commercial centre in the Province Asia there was a body of Jews settled. In every one of the Seven Cities, we may be sure, there was a Nationalist Jewish party, opposing, hating, and annoying the Jewish Christians and with them the whole Church in the city. If that difficulty is mentioned only in those two cities, Smyrna and Philadelphia, the natural inference is that it had been more serious in them than in the others; and that can only be because the Jews were, for some reason or other, specially influential there. Doubtless the reason lay in their numbers and their wealth; and hence the weakness and poverty of the Christian party is specially mentioned in those two Churches, and in none of the other five.

The body of the letter begins with the usual statement that the writer is familiar with the history and activity of the Philadelphian Church: "I know thy works." Then follows, as usual, an outline of the past achievements and conduct of that Church; but this outline is couched in an unusual form. "See, I have given before thee a door opened, which no one is able to shut." There can be no doubt what the "opened door" means. It is a Pauline metaphor, which had passed into ordinary usage in the early Church. At Ephesus "a great door and effectual was opened" to him (1 Cor 16:9). At Troas also "a door was opened" for him (2 Cor 2:12). He asked the Colossians to pray "that God may open unto us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ" (Col 4:3). In these three Pauline expressions the meaning is clearly explained by the context: a "door opened" means a good opportunity for missionary work. In the Revelation this usage has become fixed, and the word "door" is almost a technical term, so that no explanation in the context is thought necessary; unless the Pauline use had become familiar and almost stereotyped, the expression in this letter would hardly have been possible.

The history of Philadelphian activity had been determined by its unique opportunity for missionary work; there had been given to it a door opened before it. The expression is strong: it is not merely "I have set before thee a door"; it is "I have given thee (the opportunity of) a door (which I have) opened before thee." This opportunity was a special gift and privilege and favour bestowed upon Philadelphia. Nothing of the kind is mentioned for any other city.

The situation of the city fully explains this saying. Philadelphia lay at the upper extremity of a long valley, which opens back from the sea. After passing Philadelphia the road along this valley ascends to the Phrygian land and the great Central Plateau, the main mass of Asia Minor. This road was one which led from the harbour of Smyrna to the northeastern parts of Asia Minor and the East in general, the one rival to the great route connecting Ephesus with the East, and the greatest Asian trade-route of medieval times.

The Imperial Post Road from Rome to the Provinces farther east and southeast coincided for some considerable distance with this trade-route. Through Troas, Pergamum, Thyatira, it reached Sardis; and from thence it was identical with the trade-route by Philadelphia up to the centre of Phrygia. Along this great route the new influence was steadily moving eastwards from Philadelphia in the strong current of communication that set from Rome across Phrygia towards the distant East. As we have seen in chapter 15, it had not yet penetrated beyond the centre of Phrygia into the northeast, so that there was abundant opportunity open before it.

Philadelphia, therefore, was the keeper of the gateway to the plateau; but the door had now been permanently opened before the Church, and the work of Philadelphia had been to go forth through the door and carry the gospel to the cities of the Phrygian land.

It is not stated explicitly that Philadelphia used the opportunity that had been given it; but that is clearly implied in the context. The door had been opened for the Philadelphia Church by Him who does nothing in vain: He did this because the opportunity would be used.

Here alone in all the Seven Letters is there an allusion to the fact which seems to explain why those special Seven Cities were marked out for "the Seven Churches of Asia." But it would be wrong to infer that Philadelphia alone among the Seven Cities had a door before it. Each of the Seven Cities stood at the door of a district. In truth every Church had its own opportunity; and all the Seven Churches had specially favourable opportunities opened to them by geographical situation and the convenience of communication. But it lies in the style and plan of the Seven Letters to mention only in one case what was a common characteristic of all the Seven Cities; and Philadelphia was selected, because in its history that fact--its relation to the cities on the near side of the Central Plateau--had been the determining factor. Philadelphia must have been pre-eminent among the Seven Cities as the missionary Church. We have no other evidence of this; but the situation marks out this line of activity as natural, and the letter clearly declares that the Philadelphian Church acted accordingly.

The construction of the following words in the Greek is obscure, and it is possible to translate in several ways. But the rendering given in the Authorised Version (abandoned unfortunately in the Revised Version) must be preferred: "I know thy works; see, I have given thee the opportunity of the opened door, because thou hast little power, and didst keep my word and didst not deny my name." The opened door is here explained to have been a peculiar favour granted to Philadelphia, because in spite of its want of strength it had been loyal and true.

If the Philadelphian Church had little power, so also had the city. It had suffered from earthquakes more than any other city of all Asia. In AD 17 a great earthquake had caused very serious damage; and the effects lasted for years after. The trembling of the earth continued for a long time, so that the inhabitants were afraid to repair the injured houses, or did so with careful provision against collapse. Two or three years later, when Strabo wrote, shocks of earthquake were an everyday occurrence. The walls of the houses were constantly gaping in cracks; and now one part of the city, now another part, was suffering. Few people ventured to live in the city; most spent their lives outside, and devoted themselves to cultivating the fertile Philadelphian territory. There is an obvious reference to this in a later sentence of the letter, where the promise is given to the faithful Philadelphians that they shall go out thence no more. Those who stayed in the city had to direct their attention to the motions of the earth, and guard against the danger of falling walls by devices of building and propping.

Such a calamity, and the terror it had inspired, naturally hindered the development and prosperity of Philadelphia. The Emperor Tiberius indeed treated Philadelphia and the other eleven Asian cities, which suffered about the same time, with great liberality; and aided them to regain their strength both by grants of money and by remission of taxation. Though at the moment of the great earthquake Sardis had suffered most severely, Philadelphia (as is clear from Strabo's account) was much slower in recovering from the effects, owing to the long-continuance of minor shocks and the reputation of the city as dangerous. The world in general thought, like Strabo, that Philadelphia was unsafe to enter, that only a rash person would live in it, and only fools could have ever founded it. No coins appear to have been struck in the city during the twenty years that followed the earthquake; and this is attributed by numismatists to the impoverishment and weakness caused by that disaster.

Gradually, as time passed, people recovered confidence. Subsequent history has shown that the situation about AD 17-20, as described by Strabo, was unusual. Philadelphia has not been more subject to earthquakes in subsequent time than other cities of Asia. So far as our scanty knowledge goes, Smyrna has suffered more. But when the Seven Letters were written the memory of that disastrous period was still fresh. People remembered, and perhaps still practised, camping out in the open country; and they appreciated the comfort implied in the promise, verse 12, "he shall go out thence no more." They appreciated, also, the guarantee that, as a reward for the Church's loyalty and obedience, "I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." The Philadelphians who had long lived in constant dread of "the hour of trial" would appreciate the special form in which this promise of help is expressed.

The concluding promise of the letter resumes this allusion. "He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out thence no more." The pillar is the symbol of stability, of the firm support on which the upper part of the temple rests. The victor shall be shaken by no disaster in the great day of trial; and the shall never again require to go out and take refuge in the open country. The city which had suffered so much and so long from instability was to be rewarded with the Divine firmness and steadfastness.

That is not the only gift that has been granted the Philadelphian Church. "See! I am giving of the Synagogue of Satan, who profess themselves to be Jews, and they are not, but do lie: see! I will make them come and do reverence before thy feet and know that I have loved thee." This statement takes us into the midst of the long conflict that had been going on in Philadelphia. The Jews and the Jewish Christians had been at bitter enmity; and it must be confessed that, to judge from the spirit shown in St. John's references to the opposite party, the provocation was not wholly on one side. The Jews boasted themselves to be the national and patriotic party, the true Jews, the chosen people, beloved and favoured of God, who were hereafter to be the victors and masters of the world when the Messiah should come in His kingdom. They upbraided and despised the Jewish Christians as traitors, unworthy of the name of Jews, the enemies of God. But the parts shall soon be reversed. The promise begins in the present tense, "I am giving"; but it breaks off in an incomplete sentence, and commences afresh in the future tense, "I will make them (who scorned you) to bow in reverence before you, and to know that you (and not they) are the true Jews whom I have loved."

A characteristic which distinguished Philadelphia from the rest of the Seven Cities was that it alone abandoned its old name and took in its place a name derived from the Imperial religion. The others were too proud, apparently, of their own ancient and historic names to abandon them even for an Imperial title. Sardis, indeed, which had suffered very severely from the earthquake in AD 17, and had been treated with special kindness by Tiberius, had assumed the title Caesareia then; but Caesareia was a mere epithet, which was used along with the old name and not in place of it; and the epithet soon fell into disuse, and is never used on coins later than the reign of Caligula 37-41. Some other less important cities of Asia had in like manner assumed an Imperial name in place of their own. Thus, for example, Hierokome in Lydia had abandoned its name, and in gratitude to Tiberius for his kindness in AD 17 had taken the name Hierocaesareia, which lasted through the subsequent history of the city. Similarly, Philadelphia assumed the name Neokaisareia and disused its own.

Now, according to the Roman regulations, it was not permitted to a city to assume an Imperial name when it pleased. Such a name was regarded as highly honourable, and as binding the city closely to the Imperial service. Permission had to be sought from the Senate, which governed Asia through the Proconsul whom it selected and sent for the purpose; but, of course, the Emperor's own will was decisive in the matter, and the Senate would never grant permission without ascertaining what he wished. Tiberius had crowned his kindness to the city by permitting it to style itself Neokaisareia, the city of the Young Caesar, viz., either himself or Germanicus, who was in the East on a special mission in AD 17-19, and had perhaps been the agent through whom the Imperial bounty was bestowed. A shrine of Germanicus was erected then.

Philadelphia was thereby specially consecrated to the service, i.e. the worship, of the Young Caesar. There can be no doubt that a shrine of the Neos Kaisar, with a priest and a regular ritual, was established soon after AD 17 and not later than 19. Philadelphia wrote on itself the name of the Imperial god, and called itself the city of its Imperial god present on earth to help it.

Erected in the time of Philadelphia's great poverty, immediately after the disaster that had tried its credit and weakened its resources, yet raised without aid from the Commune of the Province, this temple of the Young Caesar could not have been fit to compare with the splendid buildings for the Imperial worship in Smyrna or Pergamum or Ephesus. As the worship of Germanicus disappears completely from notice after AD 50, and as the other buildings of the city seem to have been in a perilous condition for years after the shock of AD 17, we may conjecture that the humble temple at Philadelphia had not withstood the assaults of earthquake and the slower influence of time: moreover, there was little temptation to maintain the worship of Germanicus (who did not rank among the regular Imperial gods) after the death of his son Caligula and his brother Claudius.

It may therefore be fairly gathered that the new shrine was in a state of dilapidation and decay when the Seven Letters were composed. We know from a letter of Pliny to Trajan, that the same thing had happened to a temple of Claudius, which stood on private ground in the wealthy city of Prusa in Bithynia; yet the soil on which that ruined temple had stood was declared by Trajan to be for ever exempted from profane and common use. Accordingly there would be an opening for a telling contrast, such as St. John so frequently aims at, between the shifting facts of ordinary city life and the more permanent character of the analogous institutions and promises of the Divine Author.

Here, on the one side, were the ruined temple and the obsolete worship of the Imperial god and the disused new name which for a time the city had been proud to bear--a name that commemorated a terrible disaster, a period of trial and weakness, and a dole of money from the Imperial purse: none of all these things had been permanent, and there remained from them nothing of which the city could now feel proud.

On the other hand the letter gives the pledge of safety from the hour of trial, of steadiness like the pillar of a temple, of everlasting guarantee against disaster and eviction, of exaltation above the enemies who now contemn and insult; and in token of this eternal security it promises that the name of God and of the city of God and of the Divine Author shall be written upon the victor. When a Philadelphian read those words, he could not fail to discover in them the reference to his own city's history. Like all the other cities he read the words as an engagement that the Author will do far better for his own everything that the enemy tries to do for the pagan city.

It is often incorrectly said that the victor receives three names--of God, of the Church, and of Christ; but the real meaning is that a name is written on him which has all three characters, and is at once the name of God, the name of the Church, and the new name of Christ. What that name shall be is a mystery, like the secret name written on the white tessera for the Pergamenian victor.

In the times when we can catch a glimpse of its condition, Philadelphia was living amid ceaseless dangers, of old from earthquakes, at last from Turkish attack. It was always in dread of the last hour of trial, and was always kept from it. It stood like a pillar, the symbol of stability and strength. In the middle ages it struggled on, a small and weak city against a nation of warriors, and did not deny the Name, but was patient to the end; and there has been written on its history a name that is imperishable, so long as heroic resistance against overwhelming odds, and persevering self-reliance, when deserted by the world, are held in honour and remembered.