For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him- 2nd Chronicles 16:9 NKJV
The city of Philadelphia was a scary place to live.
The city was built on a fault line and prone to frequent and fierce earthquakes. The entire city was completely leveled by a massive earthquake in A.D. 117. The residents of Philadelphia lived much of their lives either in fear of the next big natural disaster or figuring out how to recover from the last big natural disaster.
Philadelphia was an even scarier place to be a Christian.
Christians struggled with all of the same difficulties everyone else did. They also had the misfortune of living in a city that was extraordinarily devoted to Rome.
After Philadelphia was destroyed in A.D. 117, Rome cancelled tax payments for the city. This gift provided the capital necessary to entirely rebuild the city. The residents of Philadelphia were naturally super grateful. They chose to express their appreciation by turning their city into a hotbed of Emperor worship (for details on Emperor worship and how it worked read the blogs in this series on Smyrna and Pergamum).
Emperor worship was the most common form of religious expression in the city but it was far from being the only one. Philadelphia was so jam-packed with idols and pagan temples it was called “little Athens” after the city in Greece celebrated for being the most “religious” (idolatrous) city on earth (Acts 17:17-34). Between the idolatry and the Caesar worship Christians lived under the constant threat of death or of becoming unemployable due to their refusal to join trade unions that demanded idol worship as a condition of employment (for more on trade unions read the blog in this series on Pergamum).
The Jews in Philadelphia could have made life easier for Christians by allowing Christianity to be recognized as an offshoot of Judaism. Instead, they did their level best to just generally make life as difficult as possible for them (Revelation 3:9). They were so horrible to the church Jesus calls the Jews in Philadelphia a “synagogue of Satan” and promises to “force them to bow down” to the Christians there. This is a promise to personally repay their enemies for all the trouble and pain they were caused.
In spite of all the stress they lived under, the Christians in Philadelphia remained unwaveringly faithful to Jesus. They refused to cave to the almost unbearable pressure coming at them from all sides.
It is just one of two letters that contains no criticism whatsoever.
Jesus praises the Christians in Philadelphia for their deeds (Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 2:10-11, James 2:14, James 3:13) and for going through a “door” He had opened for them (Revelation 3:8). The history of the city helps us understand what Jesus meant and why He was pleased with the Christians there. The city of Philadelphia was intended from its inception to be a gateway or a door between the cultures in the region. Philadelphia butted up against three city/states (Mysia, Lydia, Phrygia) and led to what was a “great unknown” at the time. The goal of the city planners was to make Philadelphia a launching pad to spread Hellenism around the world.
Jesus had other plans for Philadelphia. Jesus used men who had no idea what they were doing to create an open door for His message to go out to all the world. Before any of the Christians in Philadelphia were even born God set the city up as one of the major missionary hubs of the first century.
In spite of all of the persecution and trouble the Christians in Philadelphia experienced, they were off-the-charts successful at doing what Jesus called them to do. At great cost to themselves they went through the door Jesus opened for them. They remained faithful to biblical truth and the missionary call even though it had cost some of them their lives (Revelation, 3:8, Revelation 3:10).
Jesus’ words give us an intriguing glimpse into the power and sovereignty of our God. Nothing in this life is an accident. Every opportunity we have, every connection we make, every good thing we are blessed with is given to us by God for a purpose. He has a plan and is constantly working to bring that plan to fulfillment. There are times when God is doing more in our lives than we are even capable of understanding (Ephesians 3:20), and sometimes the situations that appear on the surface to be least ideal and most painful are sometimes the ones that will bear the most fruit for eternity.
We cannot know the future. Sometimes we struggle to even understand the present. It is not our job to understand. It is our job to obediently go through the doors God opens on our behalf.
Jesus wants His people to be future focused, especially when the present feels dark and uncertain.
He ends His letter to the faithful in Philadelphia with some promises any Christian walking through dark times can hang onto. He promises a “crown” to the few who remain faithful to Him. This crown will be a public acknowledgement of their fidelity that will be obvious to everyone for all of eternity. Then He says they will become pillars in His Holy temple. This is a guarantee they will live in His presence for all of eternity. Those who go through the doors God opens and remain faithful to Him will have the peace, safety and blessing in heaven they lacked on earth.