The sixth letter in chaps. 2-3 is addressed to the city of “the one dear to (his) brother” (Greek fila/delfo$, philádelphos), surname of the Pergamene king (Attalos II) who founded the city in the mid-second century B.C. Today it is known by the name Alashehir. The brotherly affection (or loyalty) indicated by the name filade/lfeia (philadélpheia) takes on a new significance for early Christians, based on their use of the words fila/delfo$ and filade/lfeia, where the fondness/affection (fi/lo$) is understood in terms of the love (a)ga/ph) believers share with one another in Christ (cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Thess 4:9; Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:8; 2 Pet 1:7, and note the interchange of file/w and a)gapa/w in Jn 21:15-17).
In this letter, for the first time, the introduction to the risen Jesus does not draw upon the vision in 1:11-16ff; however, it continues the blending of Messianic and Divine attributes which especially characterizes the portrait of Jesus in the book of Revelation. It begins with titles properly applied to God the Father (YHWH):
“the Holy (One), the True (One)…”
o( a%gio$ o( a)lh/qino$
The first title, “Holy One”, occurs in Isa 40:25; Hab 3:3 (cf. also Job 6:10; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:19ff, etc), and relates to the idea of God’s holiness, expressed many times in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 3:5; 15:13; Lev 19:2; Deut 26:15ff; Josh 24:19; Psalm 99:3ff; Isa 6:3; Luke 1:49, etc). It is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, usually in the form “the Holy One of God” (o( a%gio$ tou= qeou=)—Mark 1:24 par; John 6:69; also Acts 3:14 (“Holy and Just [One]”); and Acts 2:27; 4:27, 30; 13:35 (“your Holy [One]”). In these passages the sense is primarily Messianic, influenced, in part, by the wording in Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:27; 13:35). However, there can be no doubt that the title “Holy (One)”, would have been associated in the minds of early (Jewish) Christians, with God Himself (cf. Rev 16:5, to be discussed). The association of the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) with the title “Son of God”, in Luke 1:35, may point in this direction. There would also have been an obvious association with the Holy Spirit for early Christians as well (cf. 1 John 2:20; Luke 1:35).
The second title “True One”, “the One (who is) True”, using the adjective a)lhqino/$ (“true”, par a)lhqh/$), is less common, but draws upon truth (a)lh/qeia) as an attribute of God—cf. 2 Sam 7:28; 22:31 (Ps 18:30); 2 Chron 15:3; Psalm 25:5; 43:3; Prov 30:5; Isa 10:20; 45:19; 65:16; Jer 10:10; Rom 3:4ff; 1 Thess 1:9, etc. Both noun and adjective are especially prominent in the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and Letters), where the terms are variously applied to God (the Father), Jesus (the Son), and/or the Spirit. Of the many occurrences, note especially: Jn 1:9; 3:33; 4:23-24; 5:32; 6:32 (and v. 55; 15:1); 7:18, 28; 8:14ff, 26, 32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37f; 1 Jn 2:8, 27; 5:20. The Spirit is specifically connected with the Truth of God (and Christ)—Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6. The declarations in Jn 17:3 and 1 Jn 5:20 are central to Johannine theology, and must be studied closely. In the book of Revelation, “true” as a divine title, is applied to God the Father (i.e. YHWH) and Jesus interchangably, as can be seen in 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:11, etc. The twin attributes “holy” and “true” are used together again in 6:10 (to be discussed).
Following these (divine) titles, we find the descriptive phrase:
“The (one) holding the key of Dawid, the (one) opening up and no one closes, and (the one) closing and no one opens up”
This is essentially a quotation of Isa 22:22, which came to interpreted in a Messianic sense, due to the expression “key of David” (klei/$ Daui/d). The key symbolizes both authority and rule (i.e. within the house or kingdom). The one holding the key typically would be a trusted servant acting with the ruler’s authority, giving/granting access and administering the household (or kingdom), etc. It is especially appropriate as an image for the risen Jesus, who was exalted to the right hand of God in heaven, and was given authority (as judge, etc) over the world. His actions/judgments cannot be reversed—what he opens cannot be closed, and what he closed cannot be opened. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciples in Matt 16:19 (cf. also Jn 20:23). In Rev 1:18, the risen Jesus declared “I hold the keys of Death and (the) Unseen realm (of the Dead) [i.e. ‘Hades’]”. There the keys are unquestionably connected to Jesus’ resurrection; the significance of the image is also eschatological—as are the keys held by the heavenly Messengers in 9:1; 20:1.
The message to the believers in Philadelphia is entirely one of praise and encouragement (there is no blame/rebuke section beginning “but I hold [this] against you…”). The praise is emphasized at the start in verse 8:
“I have seen your works—see! I have given (you) a door having been opened up in your sight, (of) which no one can close it—(in) that you hold little power, and (yet) you (have) kept watch (over) my word [lo/go$], and you did not deny my name.”
The praiseworthy “works” are clearly summarized: the believers in Philadelphia have little power (i.e. in a socio-political or religious-cultural sense), and yet they have been faithful, in the face of the pressures (and persecution?) surrounding them in the city. Here the “word [lo/go$]” is best understood in terms of the Gospel message (which includes the teachings of Jesus), often referred to in the New Testament as the “account/word [lo/go$] of God”. They have been faithful in a two-fold sense: (a) keeping watch over the Gospel, and (b) not denying the “name” of Jesus (i.e. their faith in him and religious identity as believers). The latter implies some measure of persecution, or at least pressure (from the surrounding culture) to abandon one’s Christian identity. The idea of “keeping watch” (vb. thre/w) over the word/account (i.e. Gospel) may indicate the danger of false teachings, but could just as easily refer to influence from Greco-Roman (pagan) religion and culture—cf. the use of the verb in 1 Thess 5:23 (note the eschatological context); 1 Tim 5:22; 6:14; 2 Tim 4:7; James 1:27. The specific idea of keeping watch over the word (or ‘command’) of Jesus is especially prominent in the Johannine writings—Jn 8:51-52; 12:47; 14:15, 21, 23-24; 15:10, 20; 1 Jn 2:3-5; 3:22ff; 5:3. In the Johannine tradition, this ‘command’—better understood as the charge/duty laid upon believers—is two-fold [1 Jn 3:23-24]: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for one another, following the example of Jesus.
On the suffering and persecution of believers being tied specifically to the name of Jesus, cf. Mark 13:13 par; Matt 10:22; Luke 21:12; John 15:21; Acts 5:41; 9:16; 15:26; 26:9, etc. The similarity of language between Rev 3:8 and the earlier wording used in 2:13 (letter to Pergamum) strongly indicates that the believers in Philadelphia were facing danger (and/or active oppression) from the provincial government (Roman magistrate, etc) due to their Christian identity.
The “door” that is opened up, relates back to verse 7, and the key held by Jesus; this door should be understood symbolically in terms of the believer’s entry into Eternal Life. On this basic motif in Jesus’ teaching, cf. Matt 7:13-14; Luke 13:24-25; John 10:1-2, 7ff. For the idea that Jesus provides access to God the Father, cf. the famous saying in John 14:6. The image of the “open door” will appear again in Rev 3:20 and 4:1.
As with the situation in Smyrna (2:8-11, cf. the earlier note), the believers in Philadelphia were dealing with opposition from the Jewish community. The same harsh language and terminology from 2:9 is used here. The nature of this conflict is not entirely clear; at Smyrna, it may have involved the denunciation of Christians to the authorities. Certainly, it had to be serious enough to bring about the condemnation (and punishment) described here:
“See, I will make them (so) that they will come and will kiss toward (you) in the sight of your feet, even (so that) they should know that I (have) loved you.”
This is a stark reversal of the traditional (eschatological) image of the Gentiles coming to Judea/Jerusalem to worship the one true God, and submitting or giving homage to God’s people Israel (cf. Isa 60:14, etc). It entails the love God has for his chosen ones (Exod 15:13; Deut 7:7; 33:3; Hos 3:1; 11:1; Isa 63:7; Psalm 98:3; Ezra 3:11, etc; and note especially the wording in Isa 43:4), which here is expressed in terms of Jesus’ love for his faithful followers—the people of God in the New Covenant. The idea of Jews bowing down (in submission), giving homage to Christians, will doubtless make many believers today a bit uncomfortable, in light of the sad legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish persecution. It is important to remember, however, the emphasis here in the book of Revelation, and elsewhere in the New Testament, which is fundamentally Messianic (and Christological)—true Israelites and Jews (i.e. those who are truly God’s people) would recognize and accept Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Their opposition to believers, however this was manifest, shows that they do not accept Jesus, and, indeed, are opposed to him.
Here, Jesus expounds upon the idea of keeping watch over his word (lo/go$), using a bit of wordplay (with the verb thre/w):
“(In) that [i.e. because] you kept [e)th/rhsa$] my account [lo/go$] of remaining under, I also will keep [thrh/sw] you out of the hour of the test(ing) th(at) is about to come the whole inhabited (worl)d to test the (one)s putting down house upon [i.e. inhabiting] the earth.”
The expression o( lo/go$ th=$ u(pomonh=$ mou is somewhat ambiguous, and can be read one of two ways:
- “the account of my remaining under”—that is, of Jesus’ willingness to endure suffering and death, as expressed in the Gospels; it would mean specifically following his own example
- “my word (to you) of [i.e. about] remaining under”—this would refer to Jesus’ instruction to his followers, regarding how they should conduct themselves in the face of persecution and suffering
The motif of “remaining under”, rendering the noun u(pomonh/ literally, entails both patience and commitment, continuing to follow Jesus and remaining faithful to him. It is used frequently in the New Testament (more than 30 times, including 7 in the book of Revelation), and is often translated as “patience” or “endurance”. The reward, or result, of this faithfulness, is presented here as being reciprocal: just as believers kept Jesus’ word, so he will keep them out of the time of testing which is about to come upon the world. According to the eschatological view of many Christians (today), this refers to the so-called “Rapture” of believers which is to occur before the “Great Tribulation”. However, this certainly reads far too much into the text, and, even in its general premise, does not appear to reflect accurately what the text actually describes. Note that Jesus does not say that he will remove the believers of Philadelphia from the world, but only that they will be kept out of the time of testing, implying that they will still be in the world, but will be protected from the suffering and evil (temptation, etc) that is to come. This is very much akin to Jesus’ words in John 17:15 (and almost certainly expresses the same idea), as well as the famous petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13 par).
It also seems clear that Jesus is not speaking here of something that will take place in the distant future (i.e. our time today, or thereafter); rather, in addressing believers at the end of the 1st century A.D., he speaks of “the hour…that is about to come”. This is one of several definite indications of an imminent eschatology, which we have already seen in the first chapters of the book. The doctrinal difficulties involved in this, for us today, will be addressed in a special upcoming study. The same sense of imminence is found in the following declaration of verse 11:
“I come quickly [taxu/]—grab firmly (to that) which you hold, (so) that no one should take your crown.”
Here the nuance of the Greek is often lost in translation—believers already hold (vb. e&xw) faith, life, etc, in Jesus; they are exhorted grab hold firmly (vb. krate/w) to these things. The adverb taxu/ (“quickly, [with] speed”) was used previously in 2:16, and will occur 4 more times in the book, always in reference to the end-time coming (vb. e&rxomai) of Jesus. The wreath, or “crown” (ste/fano$) was mentioned as a symbol of heavenly honor/reward in 2:10.
The final promise (and exhortation) in the letter-format always involves the eternal/heavenly reward which the faithful believer will receive. Here it is expressed with two statements:
- “I will make him (to be) a standing post [i.e. pillar] in the shrine of my God, even (so) he should not (ever) go out(side of it) any more”
- “I will write upon him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God…and my new name”
The first image draws upon the ancient Temple design (1 Kings 7:15ff; Ezek 40:49; 11QTemple 10:4ff; 35:10; Josephus Jewish War 5.190ff), which involved supporting columns or pillars (Grk. stu/lo$)—in other words, the individual believer has a fundamental place and position in the overall design (and structure) of the Temple. The word nao/$ properly refers to the inner shrine, or sanctuary, but can also be used for the entire Temple building-complex. The Temple in Jerusalem, of course, was central to ancient Israelite religion, and early Christians made use of it, in a figurative (and spiritual) sense, referring to individual believers, and to believers collectively, as the Temple (or “house”) of God—cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Heb 10:21; 1 Pet 2:5; 2 Clement 9:3; Ignatius, Philadelphians 7:2; Barnabas 4:11; 6:15. In the vision of the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22), there is no longer any Temple building, being replaced by the personal presence of God and Christ (v. 22). The idea of Jesus as the real/true Temple is likewise expressed, or suggested, at various points in the New Testament and early Christian tradition (John 2:19-21; Matt 12:6; cf. also Mk 15:38 par; Acts 17:24; Ignatius, Magnesians 7:2; Barnabas 16. Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians (9:1) refers to believers as the stones of the Temple, an idea not so different from that in the book of Revelation here.
The second reward involves three “names” which will be written on the believer: (1) the name of God, (2) the name of God’s city, the “new Jerusalem”, and (3) the “new name” of the risen Jesus. All of these should be understood similarly to the “new name” which the believer will receive (2:17). The image presumably is that of God’s name being written on the forehead of the believer (14:1; 22:4). The symbolism indicates that the believer belongs to God (and Christ). In light of the pillar/temple imagery in the first half of the verse, there may be an allusion here to the inscription/dedication of pillars, etc, in temples and other public buildings, known from the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world (cf. Koester, p. 327).
The city of God (i.e. Jerusalem) is specifically identified as “the new Yerushalaim th(at is) stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven from my God”. This makes clear that it is not the current, earthly Jerusalem, but a heavenly/eternal “city”. The meaning of this image will be discussed later on when addressing the final vision(s) of the book in chapters 21-22. There are precedents for it elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:1; Gal 4:25-26; Heb 12:22).
With regard to the “new name” of Jesus, the most reliable line of interpretation is to be found further on in the book, at conclusion of 19:11-16 (to be discussed in turn). However, there are a few other passages in the New Testament which may be relevant, such as the great prayer-discourse in the Gospel of John (chap. 17), which is vital to an understanding of Johannine theology (and Christology). God gives his own name to Jesus, who, in turn, makes it known to his followers (vv. 6, 11-12, 26). An interesting parallel is also to be found in Phil 2:9-10 (cf. also Heb 1:4; Eph 1:21). It is important to realize that the “name that is over every name”, like the “new name” in Rev 3:12, contrary to popular belief, is not simply “Jesus/Yeshua”, but that which reflects the essential identity and (divine) nature/status which Jesus (the Son) shares with God (the Father). In the earliest preaching, this was understood almost entirely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God. Eventually, it came to encompass the idea of divine pre-existence and eternal Sonship (to be glimpsed already in Phil 2:6-11).