For those people who take Revelation 2 and 3 from the historicist perspective, viewing them as a succession of ages, it is a common tendency to label oneself as Philadelphian and to label one’s rivals as Laodicean, or worse . The language of Revelation is complex, both because it is written on at least four layers, all of which offer valid aspects of its interpretation, and because some elements of the Book of Revelation offer unwary readers the immense possibility of wish fulfillment, or of writing oneself into the cosmic story of the end times. Not being someone who wishes to speculate on prophetic matters in the manner of some, nevertheless it is vital to address the key biblical concerns of such a book, especially where many different elements of a particular passage relate together into one coherent picture. In light of the glowing praise given to the church at Philadelphia, let us look at one particular element of the message and use it as a key to uncover often neglected meaning that ties the whole passage together into one unified whole.
The passage in question, the blessing given to the Church of God at Philadelphia, is written in Revelation 3:7-13 as follows: “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 one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’”
There is a lot that is being said in this passage, and in the short space that will be devoted to this passage it is not my intention to uncover or untangle all of the mysteries of this passage. One has to leave something for future writing, after all. Part of the blessing given to the brethren of Philadelphia, however one defines them, is particularly significant and mysterious: What does it mean to be a pillar in the temple of our God? In a physical structure, a pillar is often used for two purposes. For one, pillars are an attractive architectural element, often associated with religious buildings, like the temple, as well as the enthronement of Israel’s kings . On a related note, pillars are an important structural element as well, in that they help carry the weight of the building from the roof and bring it down to the foundation. This is obviously significant in a symbolic way as well, since the foundation we are built upon is Jesus Christ, and pillars in a symbolic sense are those that help the body of Christ as a whole bear their burdens by resting firmly on the foundation, not through their own strength alone but through the strength of the system of which they are an honored part. Do we bear one another’s burdens in love? If so, we are fulfilling the purpose of this blessing. That which may seem to be a thankless chore when it comes to the lives that we live can be preparation for great blessings in the future.
This mystery is related to others. All too often, the blessings of Philadelphia are taken to be matters of knowledge. There are people who profess to be prophets who claim that the Key of David, for example, consists of the intellectual knowledge of certain aspects of eschatology. Yet the knowledge that the Bible speaks over and over again as being the most important is the sort of knowledge that involves a zealous love of God’s ways, and a love for other people . This is related to the whole theme of the passage and ties together much of what it says. Indeed, it may be said that love, particularly a love and outgoing concern for others flowing out of loving obedience to God, is what unifies the blessings and praise of the passage as a whole. The fact that this is not often well understood is a mystery in itself, because love is at the heart of everything that is spoken of the Philadelphians from their very name, which means “the city of brotherly love,” as the town of Philadelphia was named because of the love and respect that two brothers of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamos had for each other, which was rare in a time where sibling rivalry sometimes reached murderous proportions.
Besides the fact that love is connected with the name of Philadelphia itself, and with the burdens that we bear for others, and with the knowledge that God wants for us to be not merely head knowledge, but for us to be the embodiment of the truths we believe and practice. Let us add to these observations a note that the Church at Philadelphia was highly praised for possessing the key of David. King David, of course, is known for being a man after God’s own heart, possessed of a zealous love for God’s ways that was able to endure despite a very rocky life . Furthermore, let us note that according to John 13:34-35, the defining sign of believers would be that they loved one another. The message given to the Church of God at Philadelphia contains the ominous warning that even obedience of the Sabbath, if it is not accompanied by a love for one’s fellow brethren, could make one a part of the synagogue of Satan instead of the Church of God. Let us make sure that it can be said of none of us that we are filled with hatred and contempt for any of our brethren.
What does this mean for us? If everyone wants to be called a Philadelphian, why do we not speak of or even better practice the sort of love that is expected of those of Philadelphia? Why do we not act graciously and kindly to others, show a willingness to forgive, a desire to be at peace and in unity with others? Why do we seek every possible occasion, it seems, to be offended at our brothers and sisters, to treat them coldly and with contempt, not encouraging, not praising, not edifying? Why do we refuse to communicate with others of like mind, or even at times to recognize their presence unless it is positively forced by circumstances? Why do we want to be considered as belonging to Philadelphia if we do not practice according to what made that city and its congregation a place of brotherly love? Perhaps that is the biggest mystery of all about this passage.
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