The city of Philadelphia was different in several respects from the other cities that the Apostle John was instructed to write to in Revelation.
For one, it was the youngest of the cities in the region, founded in the second century B.C. King Eumnes of Pergamum gave this city its name in honor of his love of his brother (Greek, philadelphos), Attalus. For another, it is not known who founded the church. My research indicated that Christians from the city of Ephesus might have shared the Gospel there, starting this church.
Philadelphia's location also set it apart from the other cities in that region. The road system of the Roman Empire was well known for its engineering prowess and efficiency. Philadelphia sat on what was referred to as the Imperial Post Road, used to deliver important messages to various locations and to move military personnel quickly. Having a good road system had lots of advantages (safer travel, trade, etc.).
This city's location in a fertile valley floor also made it famous for its wine. Volcanic ash that settled in this valley left a rich soil. One of the city's major pagan gods was Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility. Philadelphia, as well as other places, often held Bacchanalias in honor of Bacchus-drunken parties where wine was consumed excessively, and illicit sex was the "worship service."
One last item distinguished Philadelphia; the way they constructed the foundations of their pagan temples. Since this area was known for its many earthquakes, they made the foundations with charcoal that was covered with fleece (fresh, untreated wool). This architectural innovation allowed the temple to sway with the movement of the earthquake keeping the structure intact. Each temple had many pillars, which gave added strength and made it more secure. While effective in most cases, an earthquake in A.D. 17 destroyed Philadelphia along with nearby Sardis.
Philadelphia also had a large Jewish population with much influence in the city and a synagogue for Jewish worshippers. Christ referred to it as the "synagogue of Satan." Christ uses this title for a synagogue only twice: once for the synagogue in Sardis and now for the synagogue in Philadelphia. His reasoning for this is not really known. Maybe the Jews that made up the congregation had become liberal, or may they may have been Hellenistic Jews that brought too much of the surrounding culture into worship. Another reason is that Jews would denounce Christian converts to the Roman officials.
While new Christians were persecuted by this pagan society, the main source of persecution of these new Christians was from the synagogue. In addition to physical persecution, those Jews who believed Christ were also psychologically persecuted because they were excommunicated from the synagogue. This meant these new Jewish Christians did not have the same protection from Rome their former community enjoyed. Along with this, they were considered dead to the community, shunned. They could not be a member of any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and relatives would not talk to them or help them in any way.
Into this context Christ told John to address this church: "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: "I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie-I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name." He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'" (Rev. 3:7-13).
Christ presents Himself in three ways, all of which have very significant meaning to the new Jewish Christians in Philadelphia.
First, He presents himself as one who is holy and true. To the Jews, this was very important, and this phrase is used in many locations in the Old Testament. It meant Christ was faithful, trustworthy and one who keeps His promise.
Second, Christ claims He has the key of David, symbolizing authority and control. Christ told them, through this letter, that they (in Him) now had the key of David, not those in the synagogue, even though those leaders did not know it had been taken from them.
Third, Christ presents Himself as the one who would open the door. Christ had the ability to open the correct door, and that this door would not be closed to them. Even though these new Christians had the door of the synagogue closed to them, the door to fellowship with God was open. This phrase of the "closed" and "open" doors is often lifted out of context. It means that all of synagogues had excommunicated these new Jewish Christians in the city of Philadelphia, but Christ was stating that He is the real keeper of which doors will be opened and closed, and He was opening the door to His Kingdom to these new Christians, and closing the doors of the synagogue. This would have been a great comfort for these believers, as it was very hard for them to be rejected from their Jewish heritage.
There is no condemnation listed for this church or the new Christians. The only thing that He tells to John to write to them is not to rest on past performance, but to continue being strong their faith and reaching out to others. It is this idea of reaching out that may be the reason Philadelphia is often referred to as a missionary church.
Christ's commendation to the church at Philadelphia is that they are holding fast to what they have in Him. He had protected them in the time of peace, and He promised them in the time of any persecution, now and in the future.
Christ's correction and consequence for this church is simple: they will have a pillar in heaven with a new name written on this pillar. Again, Christ is telling them something that Christians in the city of Philadelphia would have understood, because many of the pagan's temples had pillars with the names of famous person inscribed in them. All these Christians had to do to get this pillar with their name inscribed on it was to remain faithful.
Did they? Philadelphia prospered during the Byzantine era. In about the year 600, the domed Basilica of St. John was built, remains of which (pictured) are the main archaeological attraction in the modern city (Alaşehir, Turkey). The city maintained a church for many centuries, finally becoming a Muslim stronghold after the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923. The Greek city Nea Filadelfeia, a suburb of Athens, was founded by citizens of Philadelphia who were relocated to Greece at that time.
Next month, we will look at the last of the Seven Churches, Laodicea.
Ray P. Burriss is a marriage and family counselor and has served as a missionary in Puerto Rico.