Church of Philadelphia
This letter begins by describing Jesus as, “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (v.7). This description is different from the other descriptions used in the other six letters. The other letters use very specific quotes from the description of Jesus in chapter one. But the description found here in 3:8 only alludes to 1:18. In chapter one, Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades meaning that Jesus has absolute authority over death. Here in chapter three, Jesus has the key of David. Why the change? What does it mean that Jesus has the key of David?
The description of Jesus in 3:8 is actually a quotation from Isaiah 22:22, “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”
In Isaiah 22 we read that God is going to bring destruction on His people for their faithlessness. In verses 15-19 we read about a horrible leader named Shebna. Shebna is an indidvual who represents the national wickedness of Israel. While he thinks he is someone big and mighty, God will roll him up like a ball and toss him far into a field. (22:18). Next we see a man named Eliakim. Elikaim is a good leader who trusts in God. He is given the Key of David. He has the power and authority to care for God’s people and lead them in righteousness.
So what is the point? In 1:18, the point is that Jesus has the authority of death. In 3:8 the point is that Jesus comes as the far greater Eliakim. He comes with all the authority over the the Kingdom of God. Eliakim was a good leader but at the end of Isaiah 22, we see that even he fell short. Jesus comes as the perfect leader of His people and has all authority over those in His Kingdom. So when we put both verses together we see that Jesus has authority over all people, those who are within the Kingdom of God and those who are not.
Why is this important here in this letter? Because the church of Philadelphia is said to have “littler power.” But they are not weak because they are faithless, in fact, Jesus says they have kept His word and not denied His name. What does it mean they have little power? Perhaps it means they are small in number, perhaps they feel powerless because of the prolonged persecution they have endured from the Jewish population. Perhaps the Jews continually say this church is not the real people of God, perhaps they are trying to have this church circumcised and follow Jewish traditions that have been fulfilled by Jesus.
Regardless why they feel weak, Jesus is with them. Jesus is promising them, that while they might feel weak they are strong. Jesus’ presence is with this struggling church lifting their eyes to behold His might and strength in them.
On a side note, I find it interesting that the church of Philadelphia and Smyrna are the only churches not to be rebuked. They are both experiencing severe persecution by a common party, the Jews. In both letters the Jews are said to be the synagogue of Satan (2:9,3:9).
Jesus promises this church several things that will help them continue to persevere in their faith.
First, Jesus promises that many of the persecuting Jews will come and bow down at their feet and they will learn that Jesus has loved the church. So what does this mean? As John has already quoted from Isaiah, it seems natural that he will continue to pull many thoughts from this prophetic book. In Isaiah 60:14 we read a promise that God makes to His people, “the sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” It appears that Jesus is saying, “while you might feel powerless, I am going to use you to save some of the very Jews who are persecuting you that they will come and bow down and worship Me.” So here jesus is promising that the persecutor will join the persecuted in worshipping God.
Secondly, Jesus promises that He will protect this church from the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world? What is the hour of trial? Some have said this must refer to the Jesus’ second coming? But if this was the case then it seems like an interesting promise if Jesus was not planning on returning for at least 2000 years later. Therefore that does not appear to be a good answer. So what do we know about this hour of trial? We know this trial will be brief. It will target those who dwell on the earth (in Revelation the phrase “those who dwell on the earth” always refers to those who do not believe in Jesus). And lastly, this hour of trial will not come upon the church. Johnson in his commentary wrote, “God promises to protect his church not from suffering but from apostasy, we should not assume that Jesus will keep believers from this trial by removing them from the scene or shielding them from pain. Jesus has prayed, “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Whatever the hour of trial entails, Christ’s people know that no one can snatch us from the almighty hands of Jesus and His Father (John 10:28-29) and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:39)” (Johnson, 89).
And the last promise Jesus gives is that the one who continues to persevere in Jesus “will make him a pillar in the temple of my God” and He will write the name of God, the city of God, and His own name on them. To have the name of God on you is to be counted His. Here Jesus is promising this weak church absolute security in the Kingdom of God forever.
I cannot help but think of how many Christian brothers and sisters around the world feel weak. They feel as though the world is pressing in on them and they might be destroyed at any moment. How beautiful this letter is, promising that our King Jesus will strengthen us and protect us. And even if we die, we will not be separated from His Kingdom for His very name is upon our foreheads guaranteeing our security in the Kingdom of God.