Servants' News

Jan/Feb 2003

Down-trodden Philadelphians?

by Norman Edwards

Over the centuries, many church groups have claimed to be the “Philadelphian church” (Rev 3:7–13). There is little criticism of that church and it is promised protection from “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” (Rev 3:10). Of the “seven churches” (Rev 2, 3), only the only other one that is not corrected is Smyrna, but it suffers great trials (Rev 2:10). So thousands of people have diligently stayed in a church organization that promised its members that they were the present-day fulfillment of the Philadelphia church.

Oddly enough, many of the groups that have claimed to be the “Philadelphian church” have also claimed to be the main group powerfully doing God’s work. Is that how the church at Philadelphia is described? Or does its description better fit small groups of down-trodden believers struggling to follow God? Let us reread those verses to see exactly what is said to the church in Philadelphia.

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, ‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’” (Rev 3:7)

Christ’s first statement to each church is about Himself—what He does for that church (Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). For example, those in Smyrna who were about to be martyred needed to remember that Christ “was dead, and came to life”. It is not the church in Philadelphia that has the key of David or opens and shuts doors, but they are reminded that Christ does these things. The meaning of this verse is explained in the book of Isaiah:

“The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open” (Isa 22:22).

Christ compares himself to Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, a man that God raised up to have authority and be a “father” to Israel (Is 22:20–25, v 25 is a reference to His crucifixion). The name “Eliakim” means “God raises” or “God sets up”. The church in Philadelphia is being reminded that it is Christ who sets people up to do His will. This is the kind of encouragement that a small or scattered group would need.

“I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (Rev 3:8).

Christ reminds this group that He has given them things to do, even though they have little strength. The word translated “strength” here is from the Greek dunamis which means innate power—frequently miracle-working power. This word often describes the miracles of Jesus (Matt 11:20–23, etc.) and His apostles (Acts 2:22). Have you ever thought that a lack of miracles in your congregation is one sign of being “Philadelphian”? Indeed it may be the one criticism of this church. Indeed, the more isolated believer has a great struggle continuing to “keep His word” and to “not deny His name”. By contrast, a big church organization often watches its members and disciplines them if they begin to stray.

“Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you” (Rev 3:9).

Many Bible teachers identify the “Synagogue of Satan” as a specific group of evil Jews, Christians or politicians. But a single group in one time period does not seem likely as the “Synagogue of Satan” also affected the Church in Smyrna (Rev 2:9), and it affects many believers throughout history since all are commanded to listen to every message to every church.

A “synagogue” is an assembly of men for a religious purpose. “Of Satan” means that they are serving Satan’s purposes rather than God’s purposes. Someone who falsely claims to be a Jew is lying about his relationship with God, acting in Satan’s deceptive mode, pretending to be righteous (2Cor 11:14–15; Rev 12:9). (Satan can also operate in a fearsome mode, like as a roaring lion 1Pet 5:8.) If any group is pretending to be “God’s people” but are really serving Satan, are not they part of the Synagogue of Satan?

Why will God, in the future, have to bring the members of the Synagogue of Satan to the Philadelphian believers and make sure that they “know that I have loved them”? So those in Satan’s Synagogue will know that God was working with them. Which believers are the most rejected people? Before answering that question, let us distinguish between persecuted and rejected believers. Well-recognized church groups are more likely to be the target of persecutions—financial discrimination, mass imprisonment or even executions. Larger groups are persecuted by the “Synagogue of Satan” because they are recognized by them.

But diligent, God-fearing believers who are not part of any big organization are frequently rejected as “nuts”. For example, when someone asks for time off from their job or school to observe the Sabbath or Feast days, or asks to forgo vaccination or military service, they are usually asked “What’s your religion?” When one responds, “this is my personal understanding of the Bible”, they are often asked “What’s your religion?” again. Most people in worldly systems cannot imagine that anyone would risk losing their position at work or school unless some religious group required it. They would also expect the church organization to get involved in defense of its members’ beliefs if necessary. “My group versus your group” is something that carnal people understand well.

Christ reminds this group that He has given them things to do, even though they have little strength. The word translated “strength” here is from the Greek dunamis which means innate power—frequently miracle-working power

Individual believers making major life-decisions by their own understanding of the Bible seems strange, today, and causes believers to be rejected by many potential friends, business associates, schools, governments and even churches. Many churches talk about “trusting in Christ” and “having a personal relationship with Him”, but in reality many professing Christians just do what their church organization expects. (There is nothing unbiblical about serving in local church congregations and international evangelistic ministries, but church groups should not undermine individual responsibility to do right: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin”—Jms 4:17; see also John 9:41; 13:17; 15:22.)

In summary, Revelation 3:9 shows that the Synagogue of Satan—people who claim to be Godly but who are deceiving others—will someday recognize that God was with those downtrodden non-denominational believers who obeyed Him.

“Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 3:10).

Deliverance from trouble is offered to those who persevere. Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties among non-denominational believers is that they do not persevere and become lax—like the church in Ephesus that “left its first love” (Rev 2:4). Numerous scriptures indicate that not all believers will be spared great trials (Matt 5:11; John 15:20; 16:2, etc.), but they need not worry, Christ will help them as needed (Luke 21:14–15; Matt 10:27–29).

“Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Rev 3:11)

Again, Christ reminds the church in Philadelphia not to give up. They need to continue to live by the power of Christ, use their spiritual gifts and do everything that they know is right. He does not talk about a “great commission” that He has given them to do.

“He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. And I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name” (Rev 3:12).

The end of each of the letters to the seven churches contains a promise of a reward. The church at Philadelphia is not specifically promised salvation, rulership or valuables like some of the others. Rather they are promised that they will never have to leave God and that they will be identified with Him forever. This continues the theme of hope for the rejected believer.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:13).

Each of the seven messages end by telling everyone to listen to all of the messages to the churches (plural). We should read and study them all and think how they apply to us. We will see that Christ promises rewards to individuals who repent and overcome.

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