Church of Philadelphia, the 6th letter
Revelation 3:7: "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things says he who is holy, he who is true, he who has the key of David, he who opens, and no man shuts; and shuts, and no man opens."
This is the second letter of these seven that has nothing negative to say about the recipient church. As with the others it is addressed to the angel of the church of Philadelphia. The word "Philadelphia" occurs some six times in the New Testament. It also occurs in Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 2:7. Each of these focus on the Christian virtue of brotherly love, but it is only here that it refers to a geographical location, a place name.
The history of Philadelphia is necessary to understand some of the emphases in this evaluation. The city was located near the upper end of a very fertile plateau. The region became widely known for its vineyards and its wine production. That became a key element in their economy. The location was such that it was along the best path ascending from the Hermas Valley to the higher plateau which was an ascent up from 550 feet in elevation to 1500 feet in elevation, and it became the second most important trade route in western Turkey. Think about that in terms of economics. It brought a tremendous amount of prosperity to each of these cities that were located along these major routes. It also meant that these areas would be popular for attack from enemies and so they had to be well fortified and they were defended against attacks through the years quite well. By the later Byzantine period it was the greatest trade route in this part of the world.
The city was founded initially for an interesting purpose, as a missionary hub for the communication of Greek culture. It was founded to consolidate the administration of the region and to be a hub for promoting a teaching Greek civilization throughout all of the more rural areas in this part of western Turkey. Thus it became an apostle of Greek culture from ancient time and was known as a missionary city. That is important as background because the Lord Jesus Christ in His evaluation of the city and in His commendation for them will pick up on that cultural element and apply that to the fact that He is giving them an open door for evangelism. So this is referred to as the missionary city of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 & 3.
Philadelphia was in an earthquake-prone area and the city was located on the edge of a major fault which was very active during this time. Along this fault line in the ancient world there were a number of volcanoes. The volcanic ash had contributed to the fertility of the valley which laid a strong agricultural base in that area. In AD 17, during the reign of Tiberius, there was a massive earthquake which virtually wiped out Philadelphia, as it did also to Sardis. Tiberius poured enormous amounts of money into the two cities in order to rebuild. During the time Paul was travelling through this part of the world there were a number of major earthquakes.
Since it was a major wine producing area it is not surprising that the local deity was Dionysius, the god of wine. So there would be the festivals and the priestesses of Dionysius who were going up into the scared groves and getting drunk in order to have a closer involvement with their god. The idea was that the more wine you drank and as you got inebriated then the spirit of the god would enter into you, and if you were very fortunate and very spiritual then the god would speak through you in ecstatic utterances. That was the counterfeit gift of tongues, and that is why in Corinth there was this problem with tongues because they were confusing this counterfeit glossolalia that was practiced there and around the ancient world with the miraculous spiritual gift of giving people the ability to speak in a language that other people could understand for the communication of doctrinal truth.
In AD 92, just a few years before the writing of this evaluation report, there was a famine that occurred throughout this part of the world and the emperor Domitian, the same emperor who exiled John to Patmos, decreed that half the vineyards were to be cut down and no new ones planted in their place. They were to grow corn for eating. This did not work very well because during this time of famine and drought in the area they were not able to produce enough corn to really feed the people or to export. This exacerbated the whole situation. (This is what happens when a government gets involved in trying to solve problems)
Later on in history, in the 14th century, the citizens of Philadelphia put up a fierce opposition to the invasion of the Moslem Turks before they were ultimately defeated.
This gives us a picture of the city, the people, the culture of Philadelphia. It was deeply rooted in Greco-Roman culture, in their religious thought. They had this fierce pride in that culture and they had been founded to export that and promote that in the cities and areas around them. In the same way, the Lord is going to encourage them to do that with the gospel.
In our verse we read, "These things says," and then we get a list of attributes of the Lord Jesus Christ, the character of the one who is writing this evaluation report: "… he who is holy, he who is true, he who has the key of David, he who opens, and no man shuts; and shuts, and no man opens." There is a list here and they are not joined at any point by a conjunction. This is designed for emphasis, to grab our attention. So as the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking about Himself He outlines four attributes. So to what do these attributes refer and to what do they emphasize?
The first attribute is that He is holy. "Holy" is one of those religious words that people use a lot but most folk, due to over use, don't really understand that holiness is all about. They sing the Doxology, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty" and they don't know where it came from or what it means. It comes from Isaiah 6:3 as Isaiah is transported in some way to the very throne of God and he realizes how totally distinct, how totally other, how totally perfect God is, and that he is a tainted sinner. Holiness has the basic idea of that which is set apart to the service of deity. That is the core idea. It comes from the Hebrew root Kadash, which refers to that which is set apart for the use of deity. It doesn't refer necessarily to that which is morally pure. Both the masculine noun and the feminine noun related to Kadash referred to the male and female prostitutes in the practice of the fertility worship of the Baalim in the Old Testament. That is certainly not a moral concept, and what the emphasis was was that those prostitutes in the practice of the fertility religions were dedicated to the service of their god. They had given their bodies over to the service of their gods. So the core idea in holiness is that which is totally dedicated to the service of God. From that it gets this idea of being set apart or distinct or unique. So when Jesus refers to Himself as HAGIOS [a(gioj], "he who is holy," it is emphasizing His uniqueness. It is ascribing to Him an attribute that belongs only to God. So there is an emphasis here on His deity, that He is fully God.
The second attribute, which is a further development of this idea, "he who is true," ALETHINOS [a)lhqinoj], meaning real, genuine, or the true one. It is the cognate noun ALETHES [a)lhqhj] which emphasizes what is true as fact in contrast to error. It is the adjective ALETHEIA [a)lhqeia] where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He is making a claim here to being the true one. What we see in the context is that there is an emphasis on that which is real as opposed to that which is not real, that which is genuine as opposed to that which is false. The emphasis here is that Jesus is the real or genuine Messiah. "Messiah" is from the Hebrew word which means the anointed one. Throughout the Old Testament there was the anticipation of the coming savior who was called the anointed one. The word also has an emphasis that goes back to the Old Testament concept. The root word for truth in the Old Testament comes from the verb amen, which has to do ultimately with that which is steadfast or faithful. It refers in one place to the foundation stone under the pillars of the temple, so it has to do with that which is unshakeable, that which is completely stable, that which is always dependable. So there is a nuance of this word ALETHINOS which is not only emphasizing that Jesus is the true Messiah as opposed to the false Messiah, but because He is the true Messiah He is always dependable, His message is always true, you can always rely upon Him.
"he who has the key of David" is a metaphor. What is the significance of a key? A key is that which enables you to unlock that which is locked, it is that which unlocks a door so that you can have access to what is on the other side of the door. The one who holds the key controls access. Jesus is the one who holds the key and therefore He is the one who controls access to the Davidic kingdom. It is called the key of David because it is bringing into the forefront of our consciousness here the Davidic covenant. Why is He mentioning the key of David? If we look at what has been said so far in terms of His attributes, this is the only letter that mentions a series of attributes that don't go back to the vision of Jesus Christ in the first chapter. None of those attributes mentioned in chapter one are mentioned here. However, in 1:19 it does mention that He has the key of Hades and of death. So the key emphasizes His ultimate authority, that He is the one who is the determiner of who has access to the kingdom. This is a quote from Isaiah 22:22 which says, "And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open." Ultimate authority on who enters heaven and who does not resides in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what he said in Matthew 28:18, "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All authority has been given to me in heaven and in earth." Cf. John 5:22 which indicates that this authority relates to judgment and this judgment has now been delegated to Him from the Father. It is not the Father who judges but the Son, by virtue of the fact that in His hypostatic union He has gone through everything that we have gone through—"tested in all points as we are"—yet without sin, so He is our peer judge. We are not going to be able to pull the wool over His eyes at the judgment seat of Christ. John 5:27 says also, "And has given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man." That term "Son of Man" is the prophetic one that Daniel used in Daniel 7, and it speaks of the Son of Man who comes at a certain point yet future to establish His kingdom, to destroy the kingdoms of man and establish His own. The emphasis in Scripture is that Jesus Christ holds the key because He is the one who paid the penalty for our sins and the only way to enter is by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It is only because we possess the perfect righteousness of God that we are allowed to enter into heaven.
John 14:6: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me." What is He saying at the beginning? "I am." "I am" in the Greek are EGO EIMI [e)gw e)imi], and when that phrase was used, if you were a Jew listening to that you would hear a little sub-text going on that was an implicit claim to deity, because the proper name for God in the Old Testament was Yahweh, based on YHWH, the sacred Tetragrammaton, that was derived from a root verb in Hebrew meaning to be. That name was understood to be I AM THAT I AM, so whenever someone used that phrase I AM it resonated with a claim to deity. The Jews understood that when Jesus used that particular phrase, and couple of times they looked for stones to stone Him because they knew he was claiming by the very use of this phrase to be God. He uses the same phrase in John 11:25. It was this claim to deity that so enraged and angered the Jews.
Note Revelation 3:9: "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; indeed, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you." There is a reference here to the fact that the believers in Philadelphia were under persecution and attack from the Jewish community within Philadelphia. Jews by the late first century hated Christians and did everything they could to promote persecution of them because they deemed Christianity a threat to Judaism. One of the Main reasons the Christians in Philadelphia were under persecution from the Jews was that they believed Jesus was God. The early church clearly understood the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.