Philadelphia: The Church on Shaky Ground, Part 1

Revelation 3:7-13

Click on this link to read this passage.

Historical focus on the city of Philadelphia

(Ancient ruins of the Amphitheater at Philadelphia pictured above.)

vs. 7a And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write… .

I have already pointed out in earlier posts that the history and cultural climate of the city affect the churches in Asia Minor. We also need to see this is true of us today in the modern world. But first, Philadelphia of the first century.

Philadelphia_ruins 1875

Philadelphia (ruins pictured above in 1875) was the imperial outpost on the trade route from Troas to points East. Several violent earthquakes occurred there. One in A.D. 17 devastated the city. Tremors continued for years to come. There was a sense of being on unstable ground. Many moved outside the walls to the safer countryside.

The name “Philadelphia,” which means “brotherly love,” commemorated the love of Attalus II for his brother Eumenes II, King of Pergamum. On occasion, a false rumor was circulated that Eumenes had been assassinated. His brother Attalus assumed the crown of Pergamum. Upon learning that Eumenes was alive, his brother Attalus gave the crown back. The Romans constantly sought, in vain, to get Attalus to take the crown from his brother Eumenes, but Attalus steadfastly refused because of his love for his brother.

Sick_young_Bacchus_by_Caravaggio.jpgThe town was nicknamed “little Athens” because of the many pagan temples and practices in the city. Due to the prevalence of the wine industry there, it was the center for the worship of the god Dionysus (“Sick Young Baachus,” pictured left/above by Caravaggio, 1593; from WikiMedia).

Philadelphia was a “missionary” city spreading Greek culture East. It was the smallest of the seven cities in the Revelation. Yet, the city held out as a “Christian city” against the Moslem invaders until A.D. 1392. (see Background Material below).

Christ alone determines the circumstances of His people.

vs. 7b 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. [See ESV below.]

Christ is the Holy One and the True One in all His ways!  The two descriptive terms are not adjectives (as in the NIV), but titles of Christ (as in the ESV). (See Isaiah 40:25; Habakkuk 3:3; and Isaiah 46:1 where). The presence of the definite article (“the”) preceding each word make them titles of God the Father in the OT. Association with Christ in the NT again puts him squarely in the Trinity. (see Fee; p. 56,  below.)

Key of DavidThe background to the image of the key of David is Isaiah 22:20-23. The “key” is the symbol of office. It gave the holder the authority to exercise the power of his office. In this case, it signifies that Jesus is the true Messiah. He alone has the right to open and close the kingdom. Christ opens a sphere of ministry for us and no one can take it away. This truth is vital for those persecuted for the faith.

Christ alone causes our ministry to be successful.

John Calvin said this of success in Gospel proclamation

It is the will of our Master that his gospel [should] be preached. Let us obey his command, and follow wherever he calls. What the success will be it is not ours to inquire. Our only duty is to wish for what is best, and beseech it of the Lord in prayer; to strive with all zeal, solicitude, and diligence, to bring about the desired result, and, at the same time, to submit with patience to whatever that result may be. (see Necessity of Reforming the Church below.) 

vs. 8a I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.

The perfect tense signifies that the door had been opened in the past and still stood open in the present when John wrote. The open door could mean one of two things: either (1) an opportunity for missionary activity; or (2) the ability to enter the kingdom. In the past the city was founded to be the one which spread Greek culture and learning eastward. Jesus had much broader plans for the church in that city. And He has more for us than the spread of pop-culture to the rest of the world!

21st Century Application

We are witnessing the movement of large populations from outside our country to inside it. Political parties are divided as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. We as Christians must find a mission in our present circumstances.

Chaos always ensues when people from one nation invade another one. Yet, this is an opportunity for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unsaved people who could not hear the Gospel in their countries of origin can now hear it in the USA. Our task is to proclaim the Gospel to the immigrants. We are not to minister only to their physical needs. We are not to introduce them to the American way, customs, English, etc. We are to proclaim “sanctuary” for them in Christ as their hiding place and refuge from sin. (Psalm 119:114; see ESV below). 


Our physical resources do not make our ministry successful

vs. 8b I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

That “they had but little power” is possibly a reference to the fact that the church in Philadelphia was a small congregation. It had little influence in the community as far as size went.

How often we seek out people of influence to give us power and success in the modern world. We wrongly think they have the keys to open doors for us. I like what Vance Havner once said, “You don’t have to know key people when you know the One who holds the keys!”


Are you perhaps one of the “little people” in a “small place”? Is your church a little place made up of little people? You may feel you have little influence. Francis Schaeffer reminds us with God “there are no little places and no little people.” (To read Francis Schaefer’s encouraging sermon click on this link.)

I was privileged to be present at Reformed Theology Seminary in Jackson, MS for a speaker of unusual influence, Rev. John Reed Miller.

After being pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS from 1952-1968, he took the pastorate of Macon (MS) Presbyterian Church from 1969-1973.  Many asked him why he went from a large church to a smaller one. I will never forget his reply! “There are no small churches. All churches are large in the lives of its members.” 

After retirement from the full-time ministry in 1973, Dr. Miller “downsized further” when he returned to Jackson, MS, where he taught a weekly evening Bible study that was widely attended. He continued an active pastoral ministry with young and old, devoting much concern to young ministers and those preparing for the gospel ministry. (see John Reed Miller below).

“After physical infirmities confined him to a nursing home, he began speaking God’s Word in season to those around him.” He died in 1997 (at age 89).” (see Officers Training Manual, p. 23, below). 

God decides the when and where of our ministry. He also gives success whether we have large spheres of influence or small. Our task is to be faithful to the opportunities He has given to us. We leave the results to Him. Click on this link to read I Corinthians 3:5-9

More next time on Philadelphia churches.


Background Material. These facts are in most Bible Commentaries and Dictionaries. I used Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible for reference to this material. It is available in text form on

ESV. English Standard Version. Accessed from

Fee, G. (2010). Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series) Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

John Reed Miller. (1908-1997) FindaGrave Memorial ID#107962162. Accessed March 5, 2019 from; also contains information on Mrs. Elizabeth S[tover] Miller (1906-1986) on the same Tombstone

Necessity of Reforming the Church. (1543). Written by John Calvin. Accessed 5 August 2019 from

Officers Training Manual. (2008). First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS. Accessed March 5, 2019 from

© 2019 C. Richard Barbare All Rights Reserved


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