PHILADELPHIA (Rev 3.7-13)
After the continuous decline seen in the previous three churches, Philadelphia comes like a breath of fresh air. As with the second church, Smyrna, this second last church receives no criticism from the Lord. Instead the saints receive a fresh presentation of His person, the reassurance of His power, His commendation, and His promise of retribution for their enemies, return for their deliverance, and reward for their faithfulness.
While there is no Biblical record of the formation or development of this church, much is made of the meaning of the name of the place. It literally means "to love a brother" and comes from the founder of the city who named it in tribute to his own brother. It cannot be without significance that this church, so well addressed and pleasing to the Lord, speaks to us of brotherly love. The importance of love in a local assembly cannot be overstated. In the upper room the Lord repeatedly emphasises the need to follow the "new commandment" that they "love one another"; He declares this to be the proof of their reality to the outside world (Jn 13.34-35). He follows this in John 17 with His prayer for both the disciples and those who would follow them, that they "may be one" (v.22), no doubt a product of true brotherly love. John tells us that "we know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren" (1 Jn 3.14), and Paul makes it clear that the absence of love in a local assembly negates all gift, service, and sacrifice, rendering them worthless (1 Cor 13.1-13). He closes that chapter by declaring the greatness and supremacy of love over all else. Well might we learn that the church so roundly praised and encouraged by the Saviour has a name that speaks of brotherly love.
A dispensational lesson
In this series we have intentionally not devoted much space to the dispensational or church history view of these churches, choosing rather to see them as existing together at one time and offering practical lessons for today. However, we will make brief comment on the dispensational view often put forward regarding this church.
Many suggest that Philadelphia represents exclusively the period of the last 150 years or so which started with many godly men and women realising the legal restrictions of denominationalism and leaving to form independent companies often referred to as the so called "Brethren movement". These good folks recovered much great truth regarding church order and prophesy in particular, and were and still are sometimes subject to disdain, prejudice, and ridicule by many in the denominations they left. They no doubt moved much closer to the New Testament pattern and we owe a great debt to them and a responsibility to maintain and build upon the Biblical principles and practices they helped recover. However, it is perhaps arrogant and proud for us to claim that they and we as their successors are the only reality of the so-called "Philadelphian period" of church history represented by this church.
In particular we must consider two contradictions to this. First, it appears that this church experienced real and dangerous persecution, something that most of us know very little of. In contrast to this, many godly saints in the centuries immediately prior to the 19th did experience real and brutal persecution - people like Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, were among those who sought to operated contrary to or outside the organised systems of religion and paid a heavy price. They were also followed by giants such as the Wesley brothers, Murray McCheyne, and many others. Do we have the right to exclude such from this period of the Lords approval? Surely we do better to leave that to His righteous judgment when the day shall declare it. Second, it is a sad reality that the so called "Brethren movement", and indeed our assemblies of today, can hardly claim to be marked by "brotherly love"! On the contrary we have been marked by division, strife, disputes, and disharmony. Rather than patting ourselves on the back, we should repent and display the reality of love for one another if we ever hope to receive the kind of approval and commendation that Philadelphia received from the Lord.
The revelation to the faithful
Those who please Christ will be given a greater revelation and appreciation of Him. This can be seen in v.7 where the presentation of the Lord is not taken from ch.1 as in the preceding churches, but is fresh and specific to their circumstances. The fourfold description seems to show the Lord Jesus as superior to all their enemies, "the synagogue of Satan" - those perhaps still clinging to mere religion in the form here of Judaism. As opposed to holy vessels, sanctuaries, and ordinances He is the intrinsically Holy One. In contrast to the figures of the past He is the "true" One or reality of the types. Quoting Isaiah 22.22, but not restricting Himself to "the house of" David, He shows Messianic supremacy beyond just Israel, and He alone has the sovereign power to open and close the door of opportunity and testimony, not their opponents. How precious to see that faithfulness is first rewarded by greater intimacy with Christ, a lesson for us all.
The church has only "a little strength" which has been displayed in faithfulness to the "word" and "His name". Some today seem to seek to remedy numerical and other weaknesses by departure from His word and denial of certain truths regarding His person, but the company which gets His approval stands firm on both and leaves their future in His hands (v.8). As a result of this He holds forth three promises to them (vv.9-12). Note that the bulk of the letter is taken up with the promises.
In v.9 it is retribution on their enemies before whom the faithful will one day be vindicated, most likely when Christ appears in glory with His people.
In vv.10 and 11 it is His return which will rescue them from a period of temptation or, better, testing. In the context of this book of Revelation it is difficult to see this as anything other than the "Tribulation", so offering additional proof of the Lords return for His own in advance of it. Notice that the period is limited, to an "hour" indicative of the shortness of the seven years compared to the "day" of grace, so far around 2,000 years. It is also geographically universal across "all the world" of mans habitation and will "try" all its occupants, but the Lords people await His imminent return to deliver them from it - He will "come quickly". Maybe some reading this article are in so called small struggling assemblies and somewhat discouraged. Take comfort, keep faithful to His word and person and leave it all in His hands. He alone will determine whether His testimony remains open or not, and soon He will come with His "crown" of reward. There is, however, a note of caution with the crown, for it can be lost to another! This "loss" is best illustrated in 1 Corinthians 3.1215: God will always have those faithful to Him and He will reward them accordingly, and we must ensure we are among them.
Finally, v.12 provides an expansive description of their reward. Those who overcome will have a prominent position in His Temple. This is not some pagan temple of Philadelphia or even a temple made with hands for Israel, but the Temple of God in the Heavenly city, the New Jerusalem described fully at the close of this book. They will not only have a place in it but be prominent, as "a pillar", and in it permanently to "go no more out". Additionally, those who have "not denied my name" (v.8), will be given three "names": that of "His God", that of His "city", and His own "new name", referred to in 19.12. What a beautiful contrast to the previous "dead" church at Sardis. They had "a name" in v.1, except that it was not real, but the faithful church at Philadelphia will be given these wondrous names. May this encourage us all to respond to the appeal of v.13 for all "the churches".
To be continued.