Those who know me, know I love scuba diving. Over the years, I have used scuba diving for sermon illustrations and object lessons. I’ve even been known to scuba dive in a baptistry. Every year, around this time of year, I start getting the yearning to go diving. March is usually the month for my first dive of the year.
I have a bucket-list of places I would like to dive. The Red Sea, the Galapagos Islands, and the Bonne Terre mines in Missouri are on the top of that list. But number one on my list is the Silfra fissure in Silfra, Iceland. Located in the glacier filled Lake Thingvellir (think-ve-nir), the fissure is actually a crack in the earth, separating the North American continent from the European continent. As you swim through the crack, in 40-degree water, you can actually touch North America with one hand and Europe with the other hand. How cool is that! Diving between two continents! Two worlds, so to speak. If you get thirsty on your dive, which you will, the water in the lake is the most pristine on earth. At any time during the dive, you can take a drink. Pretty neat! With depths between 20 to 60 feet, Lake Thingvellir (think-ve-nir) is the only place on earth where you can stretch your arms and touch two worlds. I think that would be awesome!
The Church at Philadelphia
On our journey through the seven churches of Revelation, as we leave Sardis and travel 30-miles to the south-east, we come to the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. King Eumenes II of Pergamum, founded the city in 140 B.C. He named the city after his brother, Attalus II Philadelphus, meaning, “one who loves his brother.” Attalus II earned that nickname because of his extreme loyalty to his brother, the king. Instead of brotherly love, however, the Christians in Philadelphia faced hate and persecution.
Like the city of Sardis, Philadelphia sat on a fault line that resulted in frequent earthquakes. In 17 A.D., a massive earthquake rocked the area, devastating the city. Tiberius, the Roman Emperor at the time of the earthquake, helped Philadelphia rebuild by making a large financial contribution, and remitting taxes until the city was back up and running. To show their appreciation, the city renamed itself Neocaesarea (the New Town of Caesar). After Tiberius died, the city went back to the name, Philadelphia.
Of all the seven cities, Philadelphia was the most strategic. Philadelphia bordered three countries—Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia. Philadelphia stood between two worlds—the Great Roman Empire to the West, and the unknown, barbarian lands to the East. Philadelphia was the gateway to unknown lands and new opportunities. The Romans considered Philadelphia a “missionary city.” Not to spread the gospel, but to spread the Roman culture, the Roman Empire, the Roman way of life, and the Greek language. “Philadelphia was intended to be the missionary of Hellenism to the wilds of Phrygia.” Early in our country’s history, the cry was to go West. For the Romans, the cry was to go East. When the Roman Empire decided to spread East, Philadelphia was the gateway to new opportunities.
The letter begins with an image of Christ. “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Revelation 3:7). In the Greek language, the article “the” precedes the word “holy” and the word “true.” The idea is that Jesus is “the holy One” (more holy then anyone or anything else), and “the true One” (more true then anyone or anything else). Thus, “holy and true” are not adjectives describing Jesus, but titles given to Him. The significance of these titles is that they are titles only given to God. In Revelation chapter 6, the souls of martyrs, underneath the altar of God the Father, cry “out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6”10). To call anyone else holy and true besides God would be blasphemy. Thus, Jesus is claiming He is not just the Son of God, but God Himself! As God, He holds the key to the throne room, the very presence of God. There is no access to God the Father accept through Jesus the Son. To the church in Philadelphia Jesus is reiterating the truth that He is “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is Salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Next, Jesus commends the church, saying, “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (Revelation 3:8a). The opening and closing of doors is something that was prophesied about the Messiah in Isaiah 22:22, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Isaiah’s prophecy was about the Messiah getting rid of the old religious system, based on law and works, and replacing it with the new covenant of grace and mercy.
Opening and closing of doors also has to do with opportunities. To the Romans, Philadelphia was the open door of opportunity to spread Hellenism to the badlands of the East. But for the church, the opportunity was to spread the gospel to all the world. From Jerusalem the gospel had spread to the most eastern part of the Roman Empire, the known world at the time. Now, Jesus was telling the church to keep moving, exploring, spreading the gospel to new lands. He is still telling us to do the same thing today. Every day, Jesus opens up the doors of opportunity for us to spread His love and message, and every day He closes doors. Our responsibility is to take advantage of the opportunities He gives us! Our job is to walk through open doors and leave closed doors shut. Even if we don’t feel like it, or if we are tired and beat down, we are to walk through the doors of opportunity, as missionaries, spreading the kingdom of God.
Jesus continues, “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8b). The Christians in Philadelphia were being persecuted. They were being arrested, losing their jobs, and maybe even killed. They were tired, and had very little strength left. Yet, they had not denied Jesus! What a commendation!
Who was persecuted them? It was the Jewish religious leaders! Jesus says, “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9). Like Smyrna, where the phrase, “synagogue of Satan” is also used, there was a large Jewish population in Philadelphia. More than likely there were thousands of Jews and only a handful of Christians. Yet, these Christians claimed to believe in the God of Abraham, and also claimed that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead. To the Jews, this was blasphemy!
Here is harsh reality: Anytime you take a stand for Jesus, claiming He is the risen Savior, expect persecution from religious people and religious leaders. Truth is always seen as combative to those caught in a lie. Personally, at times, I have been treated better by atheists then those who claim to follow Jesus.
Jesus’ challenge to the church was to continue to stay strong, even though tough days were coming. He says, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Revelation 3:10). In its historical context, “the hour of trial” was about the coming destruction by the Roman Army in 70 A.D. Eschatologically, it may refer to tribulation and the Second Coming, but that is not how the first readers would have interpreted it. Contextually, leading up to this time, the Jews started rebelling against Rome. The Roman Army marched through these seven cities on their way to squash the revolt and destroy Jerusalem. Since Philadelphia was home to a large number of Jews, and since the Romans considered Christians to be part of Judaism, the Christians in Philadelphia, who are already suffering, were about to go through hell on earth. Jesus promises that through the destruction He would keep the believers safe, and that in the end, they would be free from the persecution caused by the Jewish leaders. In fact, He says, those who tortured them, would eventually bow down to them (v. 9).
Jesus continues His challenge and promise by saying, “I am coming soon. (Not thousands of years later, but soon.) Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave” (Revelation 3:11-12a). Again, the immediacy of Jesus’ return had to do with the coming judgment upon the Jewish faith through the Roman Army. In Revelation, a “crown” is the reward for persecuted Christians who persevere and stay faithful to Christ. Furthermore, the memories of the massive earthquake in 17 A.D. were still real. Thus, every time the earth started to shake, the citizens of Philadelphia would flee the city in fear. Once the shaking stopped, they would return. Over time, this forsaking the city and returning to the city become part of life. Also, in Philadelphia, temples were built with earthquakes in mind. “After digging out the foundation for a new temple, the builders would first lay down a layer of charcoal. Atop that they put wool fleeces and then the foundation stones, clamped together with metal brackets. This design gave the foundation fluidity and enabled it to move without collapsing the temple. When the earth would shake, the temple would float on top of this moving base.” If you put all this together, Jesus is promising that those who believe in Him will never be destroyed, will stand tall and strong, will receive a reward, and will never live in fear.
But the promise continues, “I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:12b-13). Writing names on pillars of buildings (especially temples) was a common practice in that day. It would be a special honor, if, after a long life of service to the community, your name was written on a pillar in the temple of your chosen god. Once again, Jesus is promising that those who remain faithful to the end will be honored in the holy temple of God. In the same way Philadelphia was rebuilt and renamed after the earthquake, so faithful followers of Jesus will have citizenship in a new city, the new Jerusalem, after they have endured the “hour of trial.”
“This is the amazing picture we get of the church in Philadelphia. Though they were experiencing tremendous persecution, Jesus promises that judgment will soon come upon the Jews who are persecuting them. In light of this, the believers are encouraged to persevere just a little longer. Judgment is knocking at the door. When it comes, the false Jews will see the truth, some will turn to Christ. Through it all, Christ will strengthen them as unshakable pillars and call them His own. This letter of encouragement, from beginning to end, is exactly what the believers in Philadelphia needed.”
Whether or not I ever get to dive in Lake Thingvellir (think-ve-nir) and touch two continents at the same time, I do not know. But I do know that I presently live in two worlds, caught between the now and not yet of the kingdom of God. Sometimes living between two worlds can be discouraging. Since encouragement is the theme of the letter to Philadelphia, and since life can be very discouraging, let me end with three truths based on this letter, that I hope will encourage you as you live life caught between two worlds, with one hand touching the present and the other hand touching eternity. First, Jesus is sovereign. He is the One and only Holy and True God. He can be trusted. He knows what you are gong through. Nothing catches Him off guard. He, and He alone is sovereign! Second, trials will pass. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” Don’t quit! Whatever you are going through it is nothing more than an “hour of trial.” It too will pass. Use your experience to make you better, not bitter. Third, there is a better day coming. Jesus is coming soon. When He does come, He will usher in a new kingdom, a new city. Stand strong and remain faithful because things will get better. If the Christians in Philadelphia can live out their faith in their city, surely we can live out our faith in our city.
 Hellenism refers to the principles, ideals, and pursuits associated with classical Greek civilization
 William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches (1982), John Knox Westminster Press, Louisville, KY (p. 69).
 Parenthesis added for emphasis.
 Jonathan Welton, Understanding the Seven Churches of Revelation (2015). Welton Academy, Rochester, NY, pp. 132-133).
 Jonathan Welton, p. 136.