And typical of its time, Philadelphia hosted numerous pagan religions, including worship of Dionysos, Athena, Asklepios, and a sun-god. They had a cult to Germanicus (a popular Roman general adopted as a son by Tiberius and the father of Caligula). Also, as our passage today highlights, there was an influential Jewish presence in Philadelphia, including a synagogue.
In the letter to the church in Philadelphia, Jesus touches on several important themes that resonate throughout the whole book of Revelation. In particular, he speaks to his judgment on apostate Judaism and the exaltation of his church, which are seen in a series of contrasts.
Jesus, in v. 7, identifies himself as “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.” In the OT, “the holy one” is a reference to Yahweh, the Lord (Isa. 1:4, Hab. 3:3), and the Messiah (Ps. 16:10, quoted in Acts 2:25-28). Jesus, the Christ, is making a point as to his identity, which is confessed by the Christians, in contrast to his rejection by the Jews. Jesus then hones in on his messianic role by referencing Isa. 22:22, which says, “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.” There, the context is the Lord’s raising Eliakim, Hezekiah’s servant, to the role of steward of the kingdom. Jesus, as the one who sits on the eternal throne of David, is saying he is the fulfillment of the one who controls entry into the Kingdom. Whereas Eliakim ultimately was brought down, Jesus is eternal, with supreme authority and power. Jesus alone has the authority to admit or bar entrance into the Messianic Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. As the “the holy one” his decisions are perfect and righteous. As the “true one,” he is absolute. Anything or anyone opposing him is false, and he is unquestionably reliable and unassailably final in his decisions of office, for “He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
Contending against Jesus and his people are those who reject him. The Jewish persecution of Christians is well documented, as we’ve seen repeatedly in our study of Acts and as we’ve moved along here in Revelation. In a nutshell, the Jews denied the Christian faith as being the fulfillment of Judaism, denying that Christians (both Jew and Gentile) are heirs to the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. Historically, too, we know the Jews’ denial of Jesus brought down persecution upon the Christians from the Romans, as they lost the protections afforded to the Jews.
However, Jesus puts the lie to the Jews’ claim to even being Jews. Those who rejected Christ were (and are) not true Jews. In their rejection of Jesus, they rejected Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In rejecting Jesus, they rejected their heritage and all the promises of God, so were thus apostate. The true Jews, in fact, were (and are) the Christians (Gal. 3:29). Thus, in v. 9 (like in his letter to Smyrna), Jesus calls the apostate Jews “those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie.” This is the authoritative pronouncement of the one who controls entry into the Kingdom of God. In their rejection of the Messiah, in their denial of the name of Jesus, the apostate Jews have been denied entry. No longer can they be called Jews in truth. Their lot is with the pagans. In their rejection of Jesus, they voided their place in his Kingdom. They rejected his name, thus Jesus removed the name of the Lord from them, for they proved their lord was not Yahweh, but Satan. Their father was not Abraham, but the devil (John 8:44). By rejecting Christ and persecuting his people, they proved to be an unfaithful bride. Therefore God had divorced them from himself, and the wrath of his judgment is their fate.
Thus, vv. 10-11:
10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.
Twice already in Revelation, the nearness of Jesus’ return (in judgment upon apostate Judaism) has been referenced, which we discussed when we looked at those passages (Rev. 1:1, 3, also Matt. 24:30, 34 in the Olivet Discourse). Jesus was not referring here to some coming thousands of years later, which would have been a pointless pronouncement to the harrowed church in Philadelphia. No, Jesus here refers to the calamities that were coming in the very near future.