7 “And to the messenger of the Assembly in Philadelphia write:
Philadelphia stood on a low and yet easily defended hill at the foot of Mt. Tmolus, commanding the extensive and fertile territory of the Hermus River. The city was located roughly 45 kms east of Smyrna, 15 kms southwest of Sardis and 20 kms northwest of Laodicea. According to one account, it was originally established by King Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamum in 189 BC. Although another account ascribes its founding to Ptolemy Philadelphus. (Theocr., xvii.88) Together with Sardis, Pergamum, Ephesus and Smyrna, Philadelphia was part of the Roman province of Lydia.
It was founded with the expressed purpose of becoming an outpost of Hellenism (Greek culture and language). This outpost was meant to impact the provinces of Lydia and Phrygia and establish a new frontier for the bettering of the region (Hellenization). We can see that the city succeeded in its mission because by 19 CE the Lydians were already fully conversant in Greek and according to ancient reports, they had already forgotten their ancestral language. The spread of Greek culture to the city of Philadelphia had come in a peaceful and extremely successful way. Indeed, it was a Hellenistic frontier success story.
Because of its fruitful land as well as factors, this area was known throughout the Empire for its export of fine wines. However, in 17 C.E., a powerful earthquake had seriously damaged almost all the cities of Asia Minor. (Tac., ‘Ann.,’ ii.47) Philadelphia was also very badly damaged. For many years following the earthquake, the residents felt weaker earth tremors. Strabo wrote, “Philadelphia has no trustworthy walls, but daily in one direction or another they keep tottering and falling apart.” He was astonished that a city had been founded in such a place and questioned the sanity of its citizens who kept returning to it and repeatedly repopulating it. Especially after 17 C.E., life in Philadelphia was characterized by an atmosphere of constant insecurity. Most of the population lived outside the city in huts. The people feared to even walk on the city streets lest they should be killed by falling masonry. Those who still dared to live in the city were reckoned mad; they spent their time shoring up the shaking buildings and frequently fleeing to the open spaces for safety. Those days in Philadelphia were never completely forgotten, and the residents subconsciously waited for ground tremors, ready to flee for their lives to the open spaces outside the city.
When the earthquake of 17 C.E. devastated the city, Emperor Tiberius was as generous to Philadelphia as he had been to Sardis. In gratitude, the city council changed its name to Neocaesarea (the new city of Caesar). Later, in the days of Emperor Vespasian, Philadelphia changed its name yet again to Flavia. This was done to reflect the connection between it and its new imperial patron’s family name (Flavius). With time, however, the city again became known by its original name of Philadelphia.
Almost nothing is known about the Jewish community in Philadelphia. The only thing that can perhaps be implied is that it was not very different from the Jewish community of Smyrna, about which we know slightly more. These are the two congregations (Smyrna and Philadelphia) to whom Jesus speaks words confirming their true identity, disavows the claims of their non-Jewish persecutors, and accuses those who act as if they were of Judean origin. (Rev. 2:9b; 3:9) We will speak more about this later. What is very interesting is that these are the only two congregations from the list of seven that receive all praise and no criticism. In his addresses to them, Jesus also refers to the assembly of Satan that lies about its Judean/Jewish identity. So let us explore the message the High Priest of the Heavenly Tabernacle had for the congregation in Philadelphia.
He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one open says this:
Christ describes himself as holy, or as the wholly other who is true. We should see this description in light of the reference to his having the key of David and as the one who is able to open and close in such a way that no one would be able to reverse the action. In Isaiah 22 we read of Shebna (22:15) who is in charge of the household and yet whom the Lord has planned to depose (22:18-19). Instead of Shebna the imposter, the Lord God of Israel says that he will call upon his servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah. We read in Isaiah 22:20-23: “Then it will come about in that day, that I will summon My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your tunic and tie your sash securely about him. I will entrust him with your authority, and he will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open. I will drive him like a peg in a firm place, and he will become a throne of glory to his father’s house.” Jesus Christ claims here that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s words to Eliakim find their realization in Christ himself. He is the one who is holy and true, he is the one who carries the key of the house of David on his shoulder. His authority to open and close is both ultimate and firm.
8 ‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name.
Once Christ stated that he kept a close check on the life of the congregation in Philadelphia, he proceeded to say that using the key of David he was going to open a door for them that no one would be able to shut.
In Acts 15 we read about an internal Jewish apostolic debate dealing with issues of Israelite life-style that must remain binding on former pagan followers of the Jewish Christ. After an extensive discussion, Jacob, brother of Jesus, rules as follows: “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David which has fallen and I will rebuild its ruins, I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name., says the Lord, who makes these things known from the long ago.” (Acts 15:13-18)
The conversion of Roman pagans to Israel’s God, according to Acts 15, constitutes nothing less than the rebuilding of David’s tent as God’s house for all nations. The above quotation in Acts 15 is taken directly from Amos 9:11, but in Isaiah 16:5 another text with the same idea of David’s tent is also referred to. We read: “A throne will ever be established in lovingkindness, and a judge will sit on it in faithfulness in the tent of David; moreover, he will seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.” In other words, the prophets of old imagined a time in the future when the house of David (tent of David) would be merged with the house of God and would be open to all the nations of the earth. The ultimate Davidic servant of God will rule over them in justice and righteousness. By drawing this connection; Jesus, therefore, affirmed that this time has already come – He will open the door for the congregation in Philadelphia that no one can shut – it will be the door that welcomes Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ into the tent of David. Their testimony is powerful: even though they have little strength, they have kept the word of Christ and in spite of incredible pressures did not deny the name of Christ. To hear this from the lips of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords Himself is a joy that cannot be described.