Philadelphia: The Church Without Compromise

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

July 12th, 2009

All around the world, people of all nations are feeling unsettled. The mortgage crisis in the United States, seen by many as the first domino to fall in the shaky world of international economics, has had a far reaching effect. As jobs are lost by American workers, their belts are tightened and they purchase less. That means less consumption of goods made within the country and goods that are imported. Like an earthquake with an epicenter, the damage of this shakeup reaches beyond the starting point out to the edges. People do not like to feel unsettled. We want to feel safe and secure. I suspect many have discovered that, though they believed their faith in God was their anchor, their worry has exposed the degree to which they were relying on a steady cash flow for security. Times of turbulence have that effect. We are forced to ask ourselves what it is we really rely on for peace of mind and soul. The Christians of the ancient city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor were much the same. They were tested by the pressures around them. And these pressures were many, from natural disaster to financial ruin to persecution for their faith. How did these adherents to this relatively new faith now known as Christianity respond? Of the seven cities addressed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Philadelphia is the smallest in population with a mere 20,000 people. Founded later than the others, in 156 BC, it was built on the ruins of another earlier settlement. 60 miles from the Aegean coast along the base of the Tmolus mountain range, it was a stop along the road headed inland. Philadelphia was never a great power. It was founded as an outpost of the kingdom of Pergamum. It was a small city with a small acropolis. Its unusual name, Greek for ‘brotherly love’, came from the story of two brothers in the Pergamene royal family, Attalus II and Eumenes II. When the rumor of Eumenes’ death in battle reached the royal palace, Attalus took the throne. But in a surprising turnaround, especially in ancient politics, Attalus relinquished the crown when his brother returned safely after all. Attalus also refused Roman aid to help him depose his brother. The city served as a gateway to the East. It was positioned strategically with the intent of spreading Greek culture further into Asia. These Hellenizing efforts were quite successful; by the time of Paul’s journeys, many of the cities further inland were completely Greek speaking, no longer using local language. Today Philadelphia is an even smaller city of around 10,000 people. The ancient ruins have not been excavated, so there is little to see. It is part of a very geologically active region: there are continuous tremors and volcanic rumblings. The soil, known as burnt soil because of its high volcanic content, along with the climate makes the area around ancient Philadelphia perfect for growing grapes. The surrounding area consists of mostly vineyards. But of course the active geology of the area is a mixed blessing. Over the centuries, Philadelphia has suffered greatly from earthquakes. An era of prosperity was interrupted by the earthquake of 17 AD, the same one that hit the city of Sardis, doing damage to that city’s Artemis temple. In fact, 12 cities were devastated by that event. And not long afterward, in the year 60 AD, there is record of a major earthquake which badly damaged nearby Laodicea. This quake would also have hit Philadelphia. As you might imagine, after such devastating quakes, the local people were terrified by aftershocks. The population moved outside the city and lived for a long time —years, in fact—in small huts to avoid being crushed by the falling stone of the major buildings. Strabo, the ancient Greek historian and geographer wrote the following: "The city of Philadelphia is full of earthquakes, for the walls never cease being cracked, and different parts of the city are constantly suffering damage. That is why the actual town has few inhabitants, but the majority live as farmers in the countryside, as they have fertile land. But one is surprised even at the few inhabitants, that they are so fond of the place where they have such insecure dwellings…" In fact, this same practice is not unheard of today. There are modern accounts of people living in pre—fabricated homes outside a devastated city for years during aftershocks. After the destruction, the people of Philadelphia turned to their Roman overlords for assistance. To express their thankfulness to Caesar for the financial aid received, the citizens renamed their city ‘Neocaesarea.’ And after yet another such disaster, the city was renamed again ‘Flavia,’ for the name of the Imperial family. But ultimately, these new names did not catch on. And in any case, such gestures did little to secure a place of favor with Rome. A later Emperor, in 92 AD ordered ½ of all Philadelphia’s vineyards uprooted and directed that wheat be planted instead, nominally to address a regional famine and to help feed the Roman army. This edict was widely seen as a veiled attempt to protect Italian grape growers, for wheat did not grow well in the volcanic soil and replanted grape vines took years to get re—established. Another characteristic of Philadelphia worth noting is the presence of a significant Jewish community. There is not a lot of direct, local evidence of this, since the city has not been excavated. But, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, large numbers of Jewish families were re—settled in the region and archaeological evidence shows large number of Jews in the surrounding cities such as Sardis and Laodicea. Many scholars estimate there were around 1 million Jews in Asia Minor at that time. In Philadelphia, the Jewish population was serious about their faith. A letter written by Ignatius of Antioch to the Christians of that city warned them to beware of those who would try to convert them to become Jews. The church had managed to establish itself despite what appears to be a hostile environment, and despite the lack of a visit by Paul, Peter or any of the other apostles. So the church’s founding is uncertain, but we do know that Paul’s teachings spread quickly throughout Asia Minor, probably along the active commercial trade routes and networks that connected Philadelphia to the other major cities of Asia Minor. Luke reported in Acts 19 that, while in Ephesus, Paul left the synagogue community and "took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord." The spread of the Christian faith was so significant that Demetrius, a non—Christian Ephesian silversmith, said this as he and others brought charges against Paul: "…you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia." So the church grew across Asia Minor through word of mouth, with converts from Ephesus and travelers from other cities bringing with them the message of the gospel wherever they went. And as the community of faith grew, it gathered often unwelcome attention from those that would seek to snuff the community out. But Jesus did not leave his new disciples in Philadelphia to fend for themselves. As with the other congregations we’ve met so far, Jesus gives a message to help ground them firmly in the one and only enduring hope which he offers. The Lord introduces himself as the one who is holy and true, the one who holds the key of David. These tiles are best understood against the background of a hostile Jewish community. Against Jewish claims that Jesus was not divine, he boldly claims the title found in Isaiah 29:19: "…the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel." This title, Holy One, occurs many times in the OT; it is found 29 times in Isaiah alone. Jesus is also the true Messiah, against Jewish voices that claimed Jesus was a false, pretender Messiah. Jesus’ title as the one who holds the key of David needs some explaining. There is again an important Old Testament background in Isaiah chapter 22. There we are told of the master of the king’s palace, a man named Shebna. His job was to control all access to the king and the royal residences—he was the number two person in the kingdom. But because of his pride, God was going to remove him from his position, and appoint another in his place, a man named Eliakim. God says of him, "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" — the very same words of Christ’s title here. Jesus is "the one 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"! Why is all this important in Philadelphia? In many places, for a while, Jewish Christians still participated in the social, economic and even parts of the religious life at the local synagogue. But in Philadelphia, the Christians were no longer welcome; they were excommunicated and persecuted by the Jewish community. This action is not without precedent or warning. In John 9 and 10, a man Jesus healed of blindness was thrown out of the synagogue because already at that time, "the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue." This introduction of Christ is intended to give them comfort: he is the real gatekeeper of the presence of the king, he is holy and true, and will welcome his disciples into the eternal kingdom. Jesus goes on to praise the church for their perseverance. He knows their deeds, their faithfulness, stated twice, both positively and negatively: "I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." Thus for them a door opened that no one can shut. And here, in the rhythm of Christ’s messages to the church, we would expect to find a word of correction. But there is none! Because that pattern is so regular, we need to take note of the absence of a complaint. We’ve seen this only once before: remember the church in the city of Smyrna—that church too had the honor of receiving only a commendation from Jesus. Like them, the Philadelphian Christians were faithful in the face of persecution. And while there is no word of correction, there is instead a command to hold on to what they have. Here, ‘holding on’ means continuing in perseverance. They are assured of entrance into the kingdom of God. Further, Jesus says, "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. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth." Jesus promises those who are faithful, despite opposition and persecution, future vindication before their oppressors. He also promises spiritual protection from the devil, through their time of trial. Some have interpreted this as part of the Biblical evidence for the rapture, but it can simply mean that Christ will keep them safe while others are tested, or that he will sustain them in the midst of trial. This interpretation is better in tune with Christ’s prayer for the church: "I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one." If the Christians of Philadelphia do not hold on, Jesus warns, their crown will be taken. This is not a royal kind of crown of gold and silver, but a victorious athlete’s head wreath, woven together from local greenery for athletic games. Throughout the New Testament, this is a metaphor for salvation, such as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." Another image of this blessing is given to the church at Philadelphia: "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God." A pillar was and is a solid, continuing presence. A pillar is strong and tall. Today we say of someone who is a leading citizen, benevolent and reliable, that he or she is a "pillar of the community." Again, these would be comforting words to those whom Christ could see were "of little strength." Yet the promise of Jesus goes beyond the image of the kinds of pillars familiar to the people of Philadelphia. Remember, they had seen the pillars of the pagan temples around them sway and collapse in recent earthquakes and aftershocks. The instability of those damages pillars were enough to keep the citizens out of the temples, and out of the city! Jesus promises the faithful that they will be abiding pillars in the eternal temple of God. They will be where God dwells, to enjoy his divine presence. They will never leave again, as many had in the aftermath of the earthquakes. The original language here has repetition within it and so is emphatic: it literally reads, "outside he will certainly not go out again." They will not be excluded or excommunicated again, because in Jesus they have an eternal security. Jesus makes mention of the New Jerusalem, their forever secure home: "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name." They will be named and claimed by Jesus, with his new name written on them, as temple pillars sometimes had. They shall belong to God. They shall be citizens of his New Jerusalem. The name they bear will reflect their relationship with Jesus. So to this persecuted but faithful church, Christ holds out for them the promise of welcome, embrace and security, a kind that on earth and in Philadelphia they had not known. There is here a word for Christians today. To be a disciple of Jesus is to face persecutions. This is a biblical principle taught again and again. Jesus said, "Everyone will hate you because of me." Paul wrote, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted." Peter warned his readers, "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." And John wrote "The devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution." For many today, that persecution takes the form of physical suffering. The Voice of the Martyrs is an organization dedicated to exposing the persecution of Christians in countries around the world. In their materials and on their website, they ask people to intervene as they can, through prayer and protest. For most of us listening today, I suspect the persecution we face is far more subtle. It may be unspoken pressure to keep our faith to ourselves. Perhaps there is economic pressure to look the other way. Or one may face a social pressure to go along with the crowd, in inappropriate joking, gossiping or other un—Christlike behaviors. I believe we often give in because we want security. We want to be included; especially if it is a group we’re already a part of. No one wants to lose their place, to be isolated from friends. We certainly don’t want to find ourselves on the outside. We don’t want to be alone. But when we roll over to such pressures, we forget. We forget the call to be faithful. We forget that God is and always will be faithful to us. We forget that we are never alone. Or maybe we do well at resisting social pressures and temptations, but deep down, we know we find security in our stuff: bank accounts, retirement funds, fine homes, well paying jobs or loving families. But all these things too are perishable; all these things will be forgotten in a hundred years. As he called the Philadelphian Christians, so Jesus calls us too, to hang on to what we have that is most valuable, most real, most eternal: our faith in him, and his love for us. He extends to us too the call to be faithful, despite subtle pressures and overt persecutions. I don’t pretend to know what pressures you face. I don’t know if it’s from friends or finances, from the outside or the inside. I do know that Christ invites you to lay it all aside. Let us live out what we know in our hearts to be true: a glorious righteousness awaits us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." And to Timothy he said "…there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—— and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." That is God’s promise to all who overcome—they will stand forever like pillars in his glorious presence. If you travel today to what was Philadelphia, you won’t find much from the ancient city. But you will find the ruins of the church of St. John, built by the Christian community there sometime in the 6th century. Not much of that is left either, the roof has caved in, the walls have disappeared, the floor is overgrown with grass and weeds. But there are yet three massive pillars, tall and solid, despite the continuing earthquakes have come and gone over the centuries. Three pillars of the church are still there, still standing, still strong, still a testimony today of the faithfulness of God. May that testimony continue to be made of us, for centuries to come, as the faithful church of Jesus Christ.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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