Bible Study on Revelation - 4/4

John Trevenna

Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13)Philadelphia (the name means 'brotherly love') was the newest of the seven cities written to and was founded by Attalus the Second who ruled Pergamum, and named it after his love for his brother Eumenes. This church receives praise, not because it is strong or influential, but because it has been faithful. Its faithfulness and endurance mean it will have special opportunities, protection and a promised reward. Laodicea's history helps us understand the contents of the letter. The phrase in v.12, '…he shall go out no more' (AV), could refer to the terrible earthquakes the city had for many years: the people had to be ready at any time of day or night to 'go out' of their homes! The thought of not having to 'go out' any more would have spoken volumes. They had also been shown generosity by the Emperor Tiberius, and in gratitude had renamed the city 'Neocaesarea' (the new City of Caesar), although it later reverted to Philadelphia. They knew all about receiving a 'new name', to which Christ refers in verse 12! Philadelphia also has one more historic claim to fame relevant to this letter. It was founded as a door for Greek culture and language into the region of Lydia. Three centuries later Christ says it is an open door for the gospel - a door that no-one can shut! In v. 7 Christ describes himself with three great titles:






  • 'He who is holy' reminds us of Isaiah's call (Isa 6:3), where the seraphim cry 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts'. 'Holy' means 'separated from, different' and emphasises the otherness a holy God before whom we are nothing, but who can imbue us with his holiness. Christ shares the very nature of God - therefore he is holy.
  • 'and true' - real or genuine. Jesus is 'the truth' (John 14:6), and 'leads us into all truth' (John 16:13). In him we discover what the whole meaning of the universe is about.
  • 'He who holds the key of David' refers back to Rev 1:18, Jesus holding the keys of Death and Hades. The one with the key has authority, and no-one can come in or go out without his say-so. Jesus has the full authority of God, and he alone gives access to the Father. These words are a quotation from Isaiah 22:22 - which is a word for Eliakim, but may also be taken as a prophesy of the Messiah – 'I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open'. Eliakim was the faithful steward given authority to admit and deny admittance into the presence of King Hezekiah. Jesus is the new and living way into the presence of the Father, and he alone holds the key.


In v.8 Jesus continues this theme of an open door as he addresses the church at Philadelphia. We are not told exactly what is meant by this 'open door', but in the New Testament it seems to refer to evangelistic opportunity (see 1 Cor 16:9). Philadelphia was the gateway to the east. Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia, three provinces of the Roman Empire, met at Philadelphia, and they had the open door of opportunity because Jesus had opened it up for them. When Jesus gives his church an opportunity for mission it is an open door to be entered in his strength. The church had a little strength, but this was more than made up for by their adherence to Jesus.


Christ gives a threefold reason why an open door is set before them: they have little power, have kept Christ's word, and have not denied his name. A church with little power depends on Christ's power. Compare the Philadelphian church to that in Laodicea (Rev 3:17). One has little strength but a wonderful door of opportunity; the other seemingly has everything but is impoverished before God. Christ needs his church to realise its own inadequacy and total dependency upon him, and then he can do anything with it - even with a handful of people!


Jesus says to the church at Philadelphia, 'You have kept my word'. The secret of a living church is obedience - God wants a people who will walk according to his word. A Jesus-centred, Bible-centred church is God's desire. He also says to Philadelphia 'You have not denied my name"; we belong to Jesus, not to Luther nor Wesley nor any man-made group. His is the name the church acknowledges, and nothing should be done that is not in the name of Jesus! We have seen the phrase 'synagogue of Satan' (v.9) before in the letter to Smyrna (Rev 2:9) - the Jews who persecute Christ are in fact doing Satan's work. Christ does not mince his words - he chastens both the church and God's chosen nation who have become a synagogue of Satan. It was the Jewish expectation that all nations would come and bow before them - (prophesied in Isa 45:14; 49:23; 60:14, Zech 8:22,23 and many other OT passages). Now Christ says he will make them (the Jews) fall down at the feet of the Christians and acknowledge that he has loved them. In v.10 we see that Christ is no man's debtor. He will honour those who honour him. 'Because ('Since' NIV) you have kept my word to endure - I will keep you....' (my translation). This word 'endurance' is one of Christ's favourite words of praise. It is that persistence, whatever the odds may be, that fixes its eyes on Christ and never gives up. Verses 11-13 record the promises of Christ to a faithful church beginning with 'I am coming soon' (v.11). The coming of Christ was expected imminently by first century Christians, though Jesus himself said he did not know when that day would be (Mark 13:32). But this verse may also be translated 'I am coming suddenly' (tacu [Gk] = quickly, speedily, forthwith). Here is a note of warning for the church to be prepared whenever his return may be. 'Hold fast' is the same word as is used of Christ holding the seven stars in his right hand (Rev 2:1). The warning that their crown can be taken away is not a question of someone else stealing it, but of Christ taking it away if they are unfaithful and giving it to someone who is faithful. Here is a warning against complacency - given to the church that is given total praise. Past faithfulness is no guarantee of future blessedness. Many financial advertisements say in tiny print, 'Past performance is no guarantee of future returns' - exactly! The crown was given to winners at the games – but there is a better crown for those who are faithful to Jesus. In Philadelphia one way of honouring a citizen was to place a pillar in a temple with his name carved upon it. The reference in v.12 is to faithful Christians who will be in God's presence for eternity. This verse is perhaps one of the most sublime promises made by Christ to the Christian believers. It assures us that we will be built into the very fabric of heaven - pillars are not adjuncts to the building, but part of its very fabric. It tells Christians of the new name and nature they will receive: the very name of God, revealed to Moses, too holy to be spoken by the Jews, and the name of Christ himself - 'I will also write on him my new name'. No-one but Christ himself knows what that new name will be (see Rev 19:11-12) – but what a promise, what hope, what assurance is ours! Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22)After Philadelphia comes Laodicea. Christ has nothing but praise for Philadelphia, but nothing but condemnation for Laodicea - the only church about which he has nothing good to say! Laodicea means 'the people's rights or opinions', a good name for this church. Things are settled by majority opinion, what the people think is right; the Lord's mind is not sought! Unlike Philadelphia, Laodicea is a wealthy church in a wealthy city and it has settled into complacency. The most difficult churches to motivate are those that have everything – 'We have a large congregation, a good choir, plenty of money laid by for future contingencies! We can settle back into a comfortable religion that makes no demands, and puts us to no inconvenience!' Three things made Laodicea a wealthy city: mineral springs that were lukewarm and tasted so horrible they made you sick; a clothing industry coming from a large sheep industry; and an eye-salve that was meant to cure blindness and was exported all over the Empire. The church claims to be wealthy, but in fact is poor; claims to see, but needs eye-salve from the Lord; and is naked and needs to ask him for white clothes to wear. This letter begins in v.14 with the most unusual of all the titles of Jesus in Revelation - 'the Amen'. Amen is a Hebrew word often put at the end of a solemn statement to guarantee its truth. There are actually two words at the end of this verse (nai, amen), the first in Greek meaning 'Yes, so be it', and the second the Hebrew 'amen' meaning exactly the same. It is a word of affirmation. However, here we have the only occasion in the whole Bible where the word 'Amen' is used as a name - a designation of Jesus. He is 'The Amen', the divine affirmation, and the very next words explain what 'Amen' means - 'the faithful and true witness...' In Jesus there is nothing but faithfulness and truth, however unfaithful and untrue the church may be. In verses 15-16 Jesus knows their deeds, a phrase repeated in Rev 2:2, 2:19, 3:1, 3:8 and here. There is nothing about us he does not know - and what he knows about the Laodicean church is that they are lukewarm. It may seem strange that Christ wishes they were cold or hot. Cold here means cold to the point of freezing - and frozen hearts can be melted by the love of and forgiveness of Jesus; hot in Greek is zestos, and people full of zest for the Lord can be directed in their zeal; but lukewarm people are too tepid to be melted and too cold to be on fire. Such people are of no use to man nor God. The word 'lukewarm' would be familiar to the Laodiceans because of their mineral springs whose tepid, nauseating taste they knew. Christ is nowhere more dramatic than here, although it is a pity that the NIV only goes half way when it says 'spit you out of my mouth', and the AV remains dated, 'I will spew thee out of my mouth'. A contemporary literal translation is, 'I am about to vomit you out of my mouth'. But notice the verb 'I am about to...' All is not lost, the lukewarm church is not irredeemable - it has not yet been vomited out! Verses 17-18 analyse where this lukewarmness lies. The church is unaware of its problems; it thinks it is rich and doesn't need a thing. Some churches have been left large endowments by wealthy members, so that even if no-one attended or gave any collection there would be enough income for the church to meet all its expenses! Don't envy such churches, for their danger is that of Laodicea – 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing'. Let's look at the three things Christ says the church in Laodicea needs to come to him for:






  • First, gold refined in the fire. Laodicea was so wealthy that when it was devastated by earthquake in 61AD, shortly before this letter was written, it refused to accept any state aid to help in its rebuilding. Peter talks of 'faith more precious than gold' (1 Peter 1:7), and Christ here is talking about the spiritually precious things: love, faith, joy and peace - things that make a church truly wealthy that he alone can give.
  • · Christ counsels them to come to him for white garments - white symbolising purity and holiness. It is possible that the church members were dressed in fine, expensive garments made from the wool for which Laodicea was famous. Before God, however, they were naked. Sometime ago a lady we know received a nasty phone call. There was heavy breathing at the other end and the man asked her, 'What are you wearing?' Without thinking, she replied, 'I am clothed in righteousness from Jesus, and so can you be if you repent of your sin and turn to Him', and she put the phone down! The church needs to come to Christ and be clothed with his righteousness.
  • The Laodiceans cannot see their real situation. Like the Pharisees in John 9:39-40 they think they can see, but are blind. They need to ask eye-salve of the Lord, an earthly commodity for which Laodicea was famous, in order that he might open their eyes to their true situation.


Verses 19-20 show that it is not too late. Jesus rebukes and disciplines them because he loves them, and his greatest desire is that they should repent (see Proverbs 3:12). The word for 'rebuke' means to show someone their fault with the intention of their rectifying it - like Nathan's rebuke to David after his adultery (2 Sam 12:1-14), resulting in his repentance and the wonderful Psalm 51 – 'Have mercy on me, O God...'. Christ's desire is never to reject his people, but for their repentance and turning back to him. It is not too late for Laodicea - nor for any church today. Revelation 3:20 is one of the most memorable verses in the Bible, made more so by Holman Hunt's famous picture of Jesus, the Light of the World, standing at the door and knocking. There is no handle on the outside, so the door can only be opened from inside. The present continuous tense here gives the verb the meaning 'I go on knocking'. Christ never gives up but is always there. Isn't it wonderful that the most glorious offer is made to the most recalcitrant church! The most sublime verse of Christ's persistent love is made to that church which has seemed to reject that love the most. I am always saddened when people leave a church because they say it is dead. If they are themselves alive in Christ, their very act of leaving will help to make the church of which they have been a part even more dead! If they stay, and have the patience of Christ, they may have the wonderful joy and reward of seeing the 'door' opened up and what they thought to be a dead church become one full of the life of Christ. We should never give up on others until Christ gives up on us - and that will never happen! Verses 21-22 show that It is still possible for Laodicean Christians to be overcomers. Years ago, when we were missionaries in Ceylon, we climbed the hill of Sigiriya on top of which had been a huge palace where the king reigned secure from his enemies. It had been a great palace, with beautiful mural paintings, some of which could still be seen. In the king's audience chamber was the throne - so wide that you could have got several of me onto it! I asked if the Sinhalese kings were extremely large, but was informed they were normal sized, but would invite their close friends to sit on the throne with them. A victorious general or an artist who had done a particularly beautiful painting, anyone the King wanted to reward, he would invite to sit on the throne with him. Here Jesus says that those who overcome will sit with him on his throne in glory. There can be no greater promise than this - to sit with Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, on his throne. He overcame by his death and resurrection, and is seated with his Father on his throne. By his grace we can be as he is.

The Revd John C Trevenna

Headline, Autumn 2003 pp14-16