seven letters  philadelphia part I

The name "Philadelphia" is well-known to many people in the 21st century because of the famous American city with that name. Now you may know about the important place that the city of Philadelphia holds in the founding of the United States but do you know how this American city got it's name? Well, the modern city of Philadelphia was named by a man called William Penn who took the name from the Biblical city of Philadelphia mentioned in Revelation chapter three, verses seven to thirteen (3:7-13).

The word "philadelphia" means "brotherly love" in the original language of Revelation and it explains why the modern-day city of Philadelphia is also known as the "City Of Brotherly Love." You can also find this word translated that way in other Biblical passages such as Romans 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:9 and Hebrews 13:1. While this word "philadelphia" shows up a number of times in the Bible, the first-century city with that name is mentioned only twice- once in Revelation chapter one and here again in Revelation chapter three. 

The ancient city of Philadelphia mentioned in the Bible was a kind of insignificant city that was located about 30 miles (48 km) southeast from the city of Sardis that we looked at last time. While Philadelphia wasn't a real important city in those days, it did have the impressive sounding title of "Gateway To The East" because it was located in a good spot on the road from Rome to areas heading east. This city was also known as "Little Athens" because it had a large number of temples that were dedicated to false gods there, just like the ancient city of Athens in Greece. 

Unlike other cities like Ephesus, Smyrna or Thyatira, life in Philadelphia was mostly centered on agriculture. The land in Philadelphia was good for farming and historians say that Philadelphia also had some really good vineyards. This was because the soil was especially rich due to a number of volcanic eruptions that had taken place in that area. However, this was something of a mixed blessing because Philadelphia happened to be located in a place that was especially prone to earthquakes. 

In fact, Philadelphia was destroyed by a major earthquake that took place in 17 AD, the same earthquake that affected the city of Sardis that we looked at earlier. Although the Roman government later rebuilt the city, it still suffered from aftershocks for years afterward. Unfortunately, a few of these aftershocks were so bad that some Philadelphians created a kind of "suburb" in the open areas outside the city limits just so they could live in a place where they felt a little safer. This may help to explain some of the comments that Jesus makes in His letter to this church but we'll get to that part a little later. 

In spite of these things, the Christians in Philadelphia stayed faithful in their relationship with Jesus. In fact, there are only two churches among the seven that Jesus wrote to in the book of Revelation that didn't receive any negative comments from Him. The first church was the one that was located in the city of Smyrna and the other is right here in Philadelphia. There's a lot of good things to learn from the message that Jesus gives to these Christians in Philadelphia, so let's take a look at what He has to say…

"Write this letter to the angel of the church in Philadelphia. This is the message from the one who is holy and true. He is the one who has the key of David. He opens doors, and no one can shut them; he shuts doors, and no one can open them" (Revelation 3:7 NLT).

Jesus begins His letter to this church by using two important words to identify Himself: holy and true. Now the word "holy' is an important word that is often used in connection with God. This word means "set apart" and it carries the idea of total, 100% moral purity. "Holiness" means that God is absolutely and completely separate from anything that may be wrong, dirty or impure. Then there is the word "true." This word refers to something that is entirely genuine and authentic, not phony, hypocritical or counterfeit. 

While there were many so-called "gods" back in the first century (just as there are today), none of them could claim to be totally pure and genuine. Only Jesus could make that claim and this remains just as true in the 21st century. Truth and holiness are not just characteristics that Jesus has- they are elements of His very being!

This verse goes on to say that Jesus holds the "key of David," a figure of speech that refers to Israel's king David.  You see, long before Jesus was born, God promised David that one of his descendants would rule forever (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13 and Acts 2:22-36). The "key of David" is a poetic way of saying that Jesus has the authority to open the door to eternal life. In fact, Jesus not only holds the key to eternal life, He serves as the very door that lets people into heaven as well (John 10:9). The Scriptures also tell us that Jesus holds some other keys in addition to this key of David too.

For example, Revelation 1:18 quotes Jesus as saying, "I hold the keys of death and Hades." Jesus also said to His disciple Peter, "...I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever doors you lock on earth shall be locked in heaven; and whatever doors you open on earth shall be open in heaven!" (Matthew 16:19). Now anyone who is familiar with things like keys and locks and doors knows that locks can be picked and doors can be pried open, right? Well, not in this case. You see, verse seven goes on to say, "What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (NIV)

What did this mean for the church at Philadelphia? Well, that's a story to be continued next time.


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Except as indicated, all Scriptural references taken from The Living Bible, 1971, Tyndale House Publishers

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