The letter to Philadelphia – Part One (3:7-13)

We’re up to letter six today, written to the church at Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13). It’s most similar to the letter to Smyrna: the church is small, yet faithful, despite Jewish opposition. They’ve already suffered for their faith. Let’s take a look at the letter now.

3:7 To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

Jesus is described as the one who “holds the key of David.” Meanwhile, David is frantically checking his pockets, thinking “I was sure I had them…”

No, there’s a far more complicated background to it than that. We have to go back to the time of Isaiah, who prophesied against a guy called Shebna. He was the palace secretary during the time of King Hezekiah (one of David’s descendants), and one of his jobs was to be the “key holder” of the palace. It was a large, wooden key and fulfilled a practical function (it opened the door) but also a symbolic one – a bit like giving a celebrity the “keys to the city,” or a 21st birthday key that symbolises adulthood (ignoring the fact that you’ve had your own key to let yourself in after school since you were 12). Shebna’s key symbolised that he was the gatekeeper: he decided who got access to the king. But Shebna had become proud – full of his own ability and importance – and so Isaiah said he was going to be replaced by someone else. Isaiah has this to say about his replacement, Eliakim:

Isa 22:21-22 I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. 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.

So Jesus is described as a “new Eliakim,” being the new palace keyholder. But what’s that got to do with anything? Let’s look at the next part of the letter:

3:8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

So Jesus holds the key, but there’s a door that’s open anyway. And where does the door lead?

3:9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.

This is where it starts to come together. We had the phrase “synagogue of Satan” turn up in the letter to Smyrna, too. It was a way of describing in very negative terms the Jewish community which had rejected Jesus. Although they thought they were God’s synagogue, because they’d rejected his son they now belonged to the enemy. So the background here is persecution by Jews who had rejected Jesus as Messiah.

The door, then, is the door to the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying: don’t worry that the door to the synagogue has been closed to you – the door to the Messiah’s kingdom remains open. What’s more, the Jews used to be the “keyholders” to God’s palace, just like Shebna. But they’ve been replaced.  Jesus is now the one who holds the key (just like Eliakim), and he determines access to God.

So hold fast, says Jesus. You’re in the right place. And one day, your persecutors are going to have to acknowledge that you were right and they were wrong. In fact, this bit (v9) turns upside down the Jews’ expectations of the kingdom:

Isa 60:14 The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

The Jews were expecting their oppressors to come and bow before them, acknowledging their special status before God. But now, says Jesus, the tables are turned. The Jews who reject Jesus are oppressing God’s people, so they will be the ones who will have to bow down and admit they were wrong.

To think about

What have you been “shut out” of because of your faith in Jesus?

How does this message of ultimate vindication help you deal with this?

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