“The Church of the Open Door”
Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love,” was situated in Lydia along the Hermus River valley about 38 miles southeast of Sardis. It was backed by volcanic cliffs and though the land was rich and fertile from the volcanic residue, Philadelphia was a dangerous place to live due the many earthquakes experienced by the region. Because of its location, the city was in constant danger of earthquakes and experienced shocks as an everyday occurrence according to Strabo. As a result, many of its inhabitants chose to live in huts outside the city in the open country. Note the allusion to this in the promise of 3:12, “and he will not go out from it any more.” Like Athens, Philadelphia was a temple warden and gave to the emperor the title “The Son of the Holy One.” It is undoubtedly for this reason the Lord is called, “He who is holy, who is true” in verse 7.
Barclay points out another important historical feature about this city and one also alluded to in the statements of the message to the church there:
Philadelphia was founded for a special purpose and with a special intention. It was situated where the borders of Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia met. It was a border town. But it was not as a garrison town that Philadelphia was founded, for there was little danger there. It was founded with the deliberated intention that it might be a missionary of Greek culture and the Greek language to Lydia and Phrygia; and so well did it to its work that by A.D. 19 the Lydians had forgotten their own Lydian language and were all but Greeks … That is what the Risen Christ means when he speaks of the open door that is set before Philadelphia. Three centuries before Philadelphia had been given an open door to spread Greek ideas in the lands beyond; and now there has come to it another great missionary opportunity, an open door to carry to men who never knew it the message of the love of Jesus Christ.57
The symbols of the ‘crown’ and the ‘temple’ mentioned in verses 11 and 12 are undoubtedly allusions by way of contrast with the games and religious festivals that were a part of life in the city of Philadelphia. In contrast with the instability of life in a city prone to daily earthquakes, those who ‘overcome’ are promised the ultimate stability of being rewarded with special privileges in the temple of God. This church may picture the modern missionary era of church history.
Once again our risen Lord presents Himself in an aspect of His person and work which is fitting to the needs and problems of the assembly to ever remind us of the sufficiency of His life.
“He who is holy” asserts the Savior’s deity as the absolutely righteous One, the One totally set apart from sin. In Isaiah 40:25, Yahweh calls Himself “The Holy One.” It is a title of deity and contrasts Him with the claims of Emperor worship.
“Who is true.” “True” is the Greek word alhqinos. It means “the real, the genuine, the ideal,” and stands opposed to what is false and to what is only a picture or type of the real.
First He is the One of whom all the Old Testament spoke. There we find only pictures and shadows, but He is the reality and the substance (Col. 2:16-17).
Second, this places Him in contrast to all the deceptions of the world and the false and futile answers it offers to man. God’s answer for man is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).
“Who has the key of David.” In Revelation 1:18 the keys speak of Christ’s power to give salvation and victory over death and the unseen Satanic world which tenaciously tries to hold men under the dominion of sin and death (Heb. 2:14). Here, however, the key speaks of (1) His royal claims as Lord and Head of David’s house. It anticipates and looks to His rule and kingdom on earth. (2) But it also reminds us of His royal authority or sovereignty even now over heaven and earth (Matt. 28:19).
By way of application let us remember this. When men by their arrogance and ecclesiastical or political position and actions would strive to shut out true Bible believing believers from effective service, we need to remember His power and authority. Men may bind us, as they did John and Paul, but God’s Word is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9). But further, when we think we must compromise God’s principles of the ministry and resort to human gimmicks, Madison Avenue techniques, or any kind of worldly means to accomplish spiritual objectives or as the keys to open doors, we need to again reflect on the truth of this passage. The Lord holds the key to opening doors to ministry as well as the door to the hearts of men. So note the following description.
“The One opening …” (3:7b) In the final analysis it is always our Lord who opens all true doors of ministry to us. This church had a little strength, i.e., they were small in numbers by man’s standards as man counts success, but this must never disturb or discourage us.
“And who shuts and no one opens …” There is also an important lesson here as believers seek God’s guidance for ministry. Paul and His missionary team had planned to minister first in Asia, but were forbidden by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). Then they wanted to minister in Bithynia, but they were not permitted to minister there either (vs. 7). Instead, they were called to Macedonia. In other words, at that point at least, the Lord shut the doors to Asia and Bithynia, but opened them in other places. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul expressed his plans to eventually visit Corinth (16:5-7), but he carefully qualified this with “if the Lord permits” (vs. 7). However, for the moment, he was committed to staying at Ephesus to minister. Why? Because “a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (evidently a sign to Paul of God’s hand on his work at Ephesus)” (cf. vss. 8-9). But when we turn to 2 Corinthians, we find that Paul had to change his plans in regard to Corinth due to circumstances beyond his control and the sovereign leading of the Lord, the One who opens and closes doors. The obvious lesson is that we must learn to grab the opportunities when they come, but not push and get frustrated when the Lord isn’t opening the door. For other passages using the open door image see Acts 14:27; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3.
The statements of commendation flow out of the truth of Christ as the One who opens in verse 7. They were using the opportunities (the open doors) the Lord had given them as the door opener. This is implied in verse 8a. Christ knew their deeds, and so He put before them an open door of ministry. We should note that “put” of the NASB, or “set” of the KJV, or “placed” of the NIV is the perfect tense of Greek didwmi which literally means, “I give.” It is used according to context in the sense of “bestow, grant, supply, deliver, commit, and entrust.” While the idea here is clearly that of placing before the Philadelphian believers open doors of ministry, it should be noted that this word is used of entrusting something to someone for some type of stewardship: money for investment purposes (Matt. 25:14-15), the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19), and someone’s care (John 6:37, 39; 17:6, 9, 12, 24; Heb. 2:13). See also Luke 19:23 where didwmi is used of putting money in the bank to gain interest. There are two points to ponder here. First, open doors of opportunities, no matter how hard we think we have worked to open the doors to this ministry or that one, are gifts from the Savior because without Him, they would not open. Second, open doors are trusts given to us for faithful stewardship just as with our spiritual gifts or our finances.
Please note: If we will be faithful to live in the fullness of His life, He will bring opportunities of service and ministry.
“You have a little power.” They were small in number by comparison to the religious and idolatrous people of the city, but, small as they were, they did have power, spiritual capacity because they were operating from the source of Christ’s life and authority.
“And have kept My word.” This was the secret to their lives and ministry (Heb. 4:12). Keeping God’s Word and keeping our hearts dependent on and close to Him go hand in hand (Prov. 4:20-23). “Kept” is the Greek threw, “to watch over, guard, keep, preserve” and “give heed to, pay attention to, observe” especially of the Law, or the Word, or teaching, etc.58 Undoubtedly, both ideas are involved. They were committed to Christ’s Word or the Word about the Savior to preserve it from false ideas and adulterations, but they were also committed to observing its truth in their lives.
“And have not denied My Name.” This speaks of their spiritual fidelity and separation from the world. Remember, one may confess the Lord with his mouth and yet, in some way, deny Him with a life that is inconsistent with the truth of Scripture or the character of Christ.
“Those of the synagogue of Satan.” The synagogue refers to the place of Jewish worship and study.
“Of Satan” is a genitive of possession, Satan’s synagogue, that which belongs to him. Satan was its head and the power behind the scenes. More crime, evil and persecution have been perpetrated in the name of religion and by the religious, self-righteous type than almost any other one source of evil. Religion is Satan’s trump card, and one of his primary weapons that he uses to both deceive and hurt mankind. This is what we have here. Religious persecution by religious Jews operating under Satan’s control whether they realized it or not. The Lord’s word to the religious leaders in John 8:41-47 is fitting here:
41 “You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”
“Who say they are Jews and are not.” They were literal Jews, physical descendants of David and Abraham, but in claiming to be Jews they were also claiming to be God’s people, religious guides to the truth, and the means and access to God. The Apostle Paul comments on what constitutes a true child of Abraham in Romans 9:6-8. There he makes the clear distinction between racial Israel and regenerate Israel.
Rom. 9:6-8 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
They were not children of God regardless of their claims and religiosity. They had rejected God’s Son and revelation of God, they were of their father the Devil, as Christ plainly told them. To be a true Jew in the biblical sense one had to have the hope and faith of Abraham. Abraham was the possessor of faith in the promises of God to him and faith in the coming Messiah.
The promise: Since faithful believers will reign with Jesus Christ and share in His throne, these persecutors will in essence have to fall down at the believer’s feet in “operation footstool” (Phil. 2:10-11, Heb. 2:13).
“Because you have kept the word of my patience” (3:10a). “The Word of My patience” refers to the Word, the testimony of Scripture regarding the truth of Christ as the suffering, resurrected, and so also, the victorious Savior who endured the shame of rejection and the cross and who endures today as the resurrected and ascended Lord now sitting at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3 with 12:1-3).
“Kept” is again the Greek threw, “to guard, watch over, protect,” or “obey, observe” as with the principles and commands of Scripture. This is a non motion verb in contrast to verbs of motion like swzw, “to save, deliver,” and lambanw, “to take.” This is important because this same word is used of the promise which follows. We will see why when we consider the promise.
But what does it mean to keep the word of His endurance? It means to be a believer, one who has trusted in the person and work of Christ who now sits at God’s right hand for us. Rather than reject this message, they had kept it by faith.
“I will also keep you from the hour of testing, …” “Testing” is the Greek peirasmos, “a trial, temptation, or testing.” The context must determine the exact meaning of the word. Here the context shows us the reference is to a very specific meaning, that of world-wide testing or tribulation.
“Hour” is metaphorical for a shortened period. Because of the clause that follows, this clearly refers to more than the general trials or testings or temptations which people today may encounter. The hour is defined in three ways:
(1) It is “the” hour of trial. The presence of the Greek article specifies this as a very specific time of testing.
(2) It is to come upon the whole world. The term translated “world” is oikoumenh, meaning “the inhabited earth,” but modifying it is the adjective, %olos, “whole, complete.” The testing is worldwide.
(3) Finally, it is designed to test a certain category of people defined as “those who dwell upon the earth.” The verb “dwell” is katoikew from kata, “down” and oikew, “dwell, live.” Katoikew means “to live, dwell, reside, settle (down),” or it can mean “inhabit.”59 The construction of the Greek (a substantival present articular participle) describes the inhabitants as those who are characterized as earth dwellers. As used in Revelation, “those who dwell upon the earth” is basically a technical term for unbelievers because they are earthdwellers, i.e., people bound only to this life and what it can give (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8; Isa. 24:17f). In contrast to believers who are to think and live as sojourners or aliens, the earthdweller is quite at home on earth.
“The hour of trial,” sometimes referred to as “the Tribulation,” refers to the time of wrath or judgment described in chapters 6-19. This is the same as Daniel’s Seventieth Week (Dan. 9:27) and the time of Jacob’s trouble described by Jeremiah as unprecedented in its judgment (Jer. 30:7).
First, note that this is not a reward to the faithful. This will come in verses 11-12. Instead, this is a promise to the church as a whole. This is clear from 3:13 which broadens this as a promise to the churches at large. All believers are to listen to these messages and their warning, exhortations, and promises and act accordingly. As in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, this is to bring comfort to the church.
Second, the promise is “I will keep you from the hour …” i.e., from the Tribulation. This is very specific and carefully described in the Greek to emphasize and clearly teach the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. The Greek words for “keep out” are threw ek meaning “out of.” There are four other ways this could have been stated if John wanted to imply that church age believers would be in the Tribulation, but none of them were used.
Rather than any of the above, John chose to use threw ek, which means “to keep out.” This is a promise that believers will never get into the Tribulation. But how? Paul describes this for us 1 Thessalonians 4:13f. We can chart it like this:
Some have tried to argue that this construction means just the opposite of the above interpretation. Gundry, for instance, in his book, The Church and the Tribulation, believes it argues for a post-tribulational emergence of the saints. He writes, “As it is, ek lays all the emphasis on emergence, in this verse on the final, victorious outcome of the keeping-guarding.”60 Although this is generally true with ek, if ek is related to a non-motion verb like threw, the idea of motion out of something is negated by the static nature of the verb. The fact then, that a motion verb like swzw is used here with ek shows the fallacy of Gundry’s argument. However, even if a verb of motion were used, it would not prove Gundry’s argument. A good illustration is 2 Corinthians 1:10 which has r@uomai ek, “delivered us from death.” Certainly Paul did not mean that God had delivered them out of death through resurrection, but that He had kept them from death.61 Another illustration of this use of ek with a verb of motion is James 5:20, “save him from (the peril) of death,” swzw plusek.
As James 5:20 and 2 Corinthians 1:10 means saved from the peril of death, i.e., from dying. So likewise 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and Rev. 3:10 means delivered from the peril of wrath, the time of testing, the Tribulation.
His coming is promised to be “quickly.” This means “suddenly, unexpectedly, without announcement” and not necessarily soon. It implies imminency and so the charge here is to “hold fast,” a warning against spiritual carelessness and carnality. The warning reminds us to live in the light of His coming, to hold fast to Him in faith and service. For when He comes it will mean examination and rewards. He will not forget our service on His behalf, but we must hold fast to the hope and expectation of His coming for us or we will live carelessly, indifferently to our calling and purpose as believers. When that happens we lose our crowns, rewards for faithful service. So the Spirit quickly adds, “that no one take your crown.”
“That no one take your crown” is an interesting picture. To lose a crown is to be deprived of the honor or glory potentially available through faithful living.
There are two possible ideas here:
(1) It could refer to rewards which are lost and given to others because we failed to hold fast. Swete states, “‘The picture is not that of a thief snatching away what is feebly held, but rather of a competitor receiving a prize which has been forfeited.’”62 I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 9:24 where the apostle challenges us regarding rewards, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win (lit. lay hold of).” There is also the parable of Luke 19:24 where the Lord says regarding the unfaithful servant, “Take the mina away from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.”
(2) Or, it could refer to rewards lost because of the evil influences that we might allow to hinder us in the race of life (cf. Matt. 13:7, 22; Col. 2:18; 2 John 8; Rev. 2:20 with 2:25f).
Actually, both concepts are true as the above Scriptures make clear.
In verse 12, then, the believer who overcomes is promised three specific things:
First, he will have as a reward a special ministry as a permanent and prominent fixture in the temple of God (Eph. 2:21f). All believers are in the spiritual building and household of God (Eph. 2:21-22), but some will be pillars as special rewards. To be a pillar is a sign of special reward with a permanent position of honor and responsibilities in the millennium and eternal state. Pillars stood for stability, ornamentation, and service.
Second, he will never be removed from this place of preeminence in the eternal temple. The overcomer has a fixed eternal place of honor in the sanctuary of God. “He will not go out from it anymore.”
Third, he will have three special names: he will have written on him God’s name and the name of the new Jerusalem along with Christ’s own new name. This would all signify the priestly dignity and prominence given to the victors.
Finally the letter is closed with the usual charge to all the churches or to the church of God at large wherever it may exist in the world to hear and take this message to heart.