Before we start looking at this Letter, we should refresh some background about “other gods”.
The scriptures reference other gods in numerous places, often by the name by which they have revealed themselves to various peoples, such as Baal or Molech. Sometimes they are referenced by the term “gods”. This is not an open door to poly-theism, a belief in the existence of more than One. It is simply a matter of perspective: when a being that is superior to humans in every way (except one) reveals itself to a human, it will likely appear to be a divine being, a god. This is easily understood when we consider that we humans have almost no ability to define what a god is. The scriptures record that the originator of all things is the LORD (as named by the 4 Hebrew characters that do not form a pronounceable noise), the God Most High as he is referred to in ancient times in the scriptures. Those other beings that have not rebelled against God Most High generally ensure that humans do not mistake them for the supreme being. Those other beings that have rebelled against God Most High encourage deception regarding the heavenly order. They demand ultimate status for themselves or they promote a belief system (set of concepts) that diminishes or invalidates the supremacy of God Most High. Hence our salvation: all sin is forgiven except rejecting the work of the Spirit of God, who calls all humans to see who Jesus is: the LORD (~kurios – Greek word meaning supreme). This is the crux of the battle that has raged on this world since before humanity ate the powerful fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and became, like their new master, like god. But not like God Most High. A few sentences ago I stated that these other beings are superior to humans in every way but one, and that one characteristic in which humans are NOT inferior is the primary characteristic that distinguishes God Most High from the other beings: Love. We humans are Loved by God Most High. God Most High deeply desires that we choose to believe that He is separate (Holy means “set apart”) from all else by his Love. There is no other that Loves like God Most High. The Love of Jesus is why we are worth something. Believe it … or not. Your choice.
The other gods are powerful beings. Their ability to affect human life is tremendous. But they ultimately will be subject to God Most High. We who choose to believe must endure until the subjugation is finalized or until we are removed from this world individually. Soon, please. One way or the other, it will be soon.
Revelation 3:7-13 “Write to the angel of the church in Philadelphia:
The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens says: I know your works. Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name, look, I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close. Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying — note this — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming quickly. Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown. The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. 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 My new name. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
Jesus starts off with focusing on a part of his identity: The Holy and True One holds the keys of David. As with the other Letters, it is tied his statements and John’s observations at the beginning of the vision.
In Revelation 1: When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Now we will explore the scriptures and history to provide context to the One who holds the keys, the One who Opens and Shuts.
For consideration we will look at the passage that matches from the scriptures as known to John:
Isaiah 22:15-25 Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him: What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock? Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you and whirl you around and around, and throw you like a ball into a wide land. There you shall die, and there shall be your glorious chariots, you shame of your master’s house. I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way, and it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.”
To understand this oracle about Shebna and Eliakim we need some background on the current events for the time of Shebna and Eliakim:
– The Assyrian Kingdom was again on a quest for dominion. The Assyrian Empire had expanded and contracted for more than 1000 years, at great cost in human life. Not that they where much different than the many other governments that have dominated life throughout time. But at the time of Shebna and Eliakim, they were the current ruthless force with unstoppable strength. The Assyrians worshiped the other god Ashur, a god that claimed supreme authority,
– The Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians. This is after many years and a series of Kings and Queens in the northern kingdom that worship the other gods – such as Baal and Asherah.
– this worship of other gods has also existed in Judah, the southern Kingdom. But it has not been as completely dominant in the southern Kingdom. But certainly prevalent.
– Shebna and Eliakim are recorded in 2 Kings 18 and 19 (and Isaiah 36) as the spokesmen for King Hezekiah, both in dealing with the invading Assyrians and Isaiah the prophet. The passage in 2 Kings does not record the background for the prophecy against Shebna in Isaiah 22, so we are left to understand it with the context we do have. And we do have some context.
– In Isaiah 22, Shebna is described as being in charge of the palace. Then in 2 Kings, Shebna is described as a scribe, which is an expert in the Law or a secretary. Eliakim is described as being in charge of the palace, the position that Shebna had.
– Jewish history records that Shebna was working to promote alliance with Egypt as a defense against the massive force with which Assyria was conquering all the Kingdoms to the north and east.
– In Egyptian history, they would be in the period classified by current methods as the Third Intermediate Period. This period has among its characteristics a lack of a single human authority source. The age of the single supreme Pharaoh was past, although those leaders still existed. In this period, all governing decisions were made by direct involvement of the god Amun. According to some accounts, decisions were put directly to the idol in an options style. The god Amun would actually nod its head at the option preferred. Modern intellectual society utterly rejects the possibility of such things, as the god of our age is human intellect. Honest review of history does indicate significant quantities of events not explained by currently accepted rules of physics etc. You decide. The complete dominance of such history for eons, only to be turned off like a light switch at the arrival of modern thought, is very compelling. My point being that the Egypt of the era of Hezekiah was very spiritually in touch with an “other” god, Amun.
– Men facing great struggle cry out for help. Hezekiah, with his right hand man Shebna, are being drawn to the Egyptians for assistance against Assyria. They are drawn to call on Egypt, the kingdom of Amun, because they recognize that their situation is dire and they don’t have the resources “in house” to deal with the problem.
– Also of note is the Wife of Amun. This was a position occupied by a human woman associated with great authority and integral to the semi-sexual worship of Amun. Of note is that by the time of Hezekiah, the Wife of Amun was a position held by a woman, who must remain a virgin, but had some sort of “creative masturbation” duties to Amun. This type of association between women and other gods is mentioned in Genesis and indirectly in other places in the scriptures as well. It is also similar to the later Cult of Isis, one of the main competing religions during the rise of Christianity in Rome. And that is the point of the enemy of God Most High. Subterfuge, obfuscation, in addition to outright warfare. This is a point that provides further depth to our understanding of the warfare between the Kingdom of God Most High and the other gods. This war has been in progress from the beginning and human wars are a hellishly tangible extension of this situation. Such was the very tangible experience of Shebna and Eliakim.
– the worship of Amun involved a careful preparation for death with extensive procedures and elaborate crypts and mausoleums. Perhaps related to Shebna’s tomb?
– In Egyptian belief, passage to paradise after death is earned by a lack of violation of law, as it is in every system instituted after the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This can show us that there could some compatibility between the Egyptian culture and the Jewish culture. When you can see that the people of another culture hold the same values as important, the differences are diminished.
– While not as violent and oppressive as the Assyrian beliefs, the Egyptian gods are not God Most High.
– Isaiah gives oracles warning Hezekiah against association with Egypt. God Most High did not want Israel turning to Egypt for help. I think our previous points make it clear as to why.
– Shebna’s description in Isaiah 22 includes that he is building some type of tomb for himself.
– In 2 Kings 23, we see Josiah, Hezekiah’s grandson, cleansing the Kingdom of Judah from numerous locations and monuments built and used for the worship of the other gods. Included in the list of destruction of demon worship objects is this entry: “As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mountain. He sent someone to take the bones from the tombs and he burned them on the altar.” Perhaps this is the type of tomb that Shebna was building.
– God Most High is recorded throughout the scriptures as being exceedingly merciful, but being aroused to anger by the worship of other gods (because such things separate people from his Love).
– Given all of the above facts, the simplest conclusion is that Shebna was using his influence as a leader to promote alliance with the Egyptians. This would weaken the separation of God Most High from the Egyptian god Amun and the Wife of Amun. From my perspective, this type of subtle introduction of other gods is an echo of the cacophony of pre-flood, Nimrod, and Sodom.
In Isaiah 22, God Most High says he is going to remove Shebna from his position. In 2 Kings he is no longer the steward, but is called a Scribe or secretary, which could be an expert in the Law of Moses or it could be a record keeper. Either way, it does appear that Eliakim is now in charge. Perhaps the words of Isaiah and his removal from office encouraged Shebna to focus on God Most High. One can surmise that by the time the Assyrians are camped outside Jerusalem, the days of considering alliance with Egypt are past, although the commander of the Assyrian army may not know that yet.
Just to assure you that this is going somewhere: the Isaiah prophecy about Eliakim is referenced in Jesus’ Letter to the Philadelphia church. Jesus may have used those words by coincidence, but I don’t believe that. I believe he used those words to call our attention to the oracle of Isaiah in the context the oracle was given. But we still have more to understand to tie it all together.
Of Shebna and Eliakim the scripture only records the events of the encounter with the Assyrian commander and the prophecy in Isaiah 22. The events with the Assyrians are also recorded later in Isaiah and are nearly identical to the history in 2 Kings.
But from this prophetic account it is clear that Shebna did not hold a mind set that was leading closer to God Most High – and he had the authority to lead the people. God Most High is evidently pleased with the mind set of Eliakim, “he will be like a father”. Like who? Who is speaking? The Father.
God Most High says he will give Eliakim the authority of David, the sinner King that was in love with God Most High. He was “a man in pursuit of my heart”, who turned to God Most High, the author of the Law of Moses, for Mercy and Love. David turned to the Father for Mercy, when the Father had clearly said in the Law given to Moses that David must die.
In his Letter to Philadelphia, Jesus says he holds the keys of David. Jesus holds those keys that open the door to understanding the relationship David had with God Most High. And like Eliakim, Jesus opens the door of faith in the nature of God Most High. When Jesus says the door is open, it is open. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”
Shebna appears to have been making deals to preserve the Kingdom of Hezekiah. Before we condemn him, let us look at the situation. The Kingdom of Judah by itself has no hope of withstanding the Assyrians. The Egyptians would be the preferable super-power of the day and region. The other gods they worshiped were more similar in important ways to the view of God that can be derived from Law of Moses. The primary Egyptian deity cared about the well being of the people and promised blessing for good behavior. Of course, there were substantial differences, like the wrong god. But it would be close enough to join in alliance to defend against the looming and terrifying Assyrian forces destroying all Kingdoms to the north.
Shebna was leading the people of God Most High on a path that surely offered some hope in a very dark time. The Kingdom of Judah did not have the slightest hope of defeating the dark hordes from the north. The Assyrians forcefully assimilated conquered peoples into their way of life, although they kept the conquered scholars to add to their knowledge back in the capital. For the Jews, going through the door of alliance with a group that would not require them to violate the Law would appear a practical path.
The only other option is to trust God Most High. Context is of paramount importance here. In the Law of Moses, promises are made. If you obey the whole Law you will be blessed and defeat your enemies. However, if you do not obey the whole Law you will experience exactly what the Kingdom of Judah is facing: death at the hand of enemies, including starvation to the point of eating your children. That is part of the curse. And the Kingdom of Judah had not been obedient. Even if they had for a few years, the Law is clear, brutally clear: failure to obey the whole Law will result in curses for 4 generations! So to trust God Most High at this point requires that Hezekiah and Eliakim trust that God Most High will have Mercy. Extreme test of faith. You deserve destruction, will you turn to others to help or build a way out yourself or … will you turn for Mercy to the one who has promised destruction?
I believe that Eliakim chose to turn to God Most High. And became a prophetic image of the choices that face us. After God Most High handed the understanding and authority to him, he chose the path of depending on the Love and Mercy of God Most High. He shut the door to building a defense through their own efforts.
Summary of Eliakim based on the assumptions derived from the previous points:
Shebna was courting alliance with Egypt. God opposed that alliance because he wants his people to believe in His Mercy. Eliakim embraced that and became a model for understanding and knowing God like David understood and knew God. Trusting that God is Merciful to those that deserve death for violating his law. Once again, the principles of the Gospel.
Jesus has opened the door to God Most High. No one can close it. He has closed the other path to God Most High. It will not be opened.
With this introduction, this framing of the concepts with which to read, Jesus dives right into this Letter to Philadelphia.
Jesus has no correction for them!
“I know your works”. Recall from the previous Letter and from all the teachings of Jesus while his feet were on the ground of Palestine, he is interested in Faith, Hope, and Love. What glorious praise from Jesus: “I know your works” He knows. In Matthew 25 Jesus makes it clear that he knows the people who have Love that overflows from their hearts soaked in the Love of God Most High. There he said he knows them. Here he says he knows their works.
“Because you have little strength, have kept my word and not denied my Name, LOOK, I have placed an open door before you that no one can close.” Little strength … “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for they shall inherit the earth”. These are not people that have great spiritual strength, but they endure patiently the severe trials of facing an apparently unending state of being “less than”. Like the Israelites under Eliakim, the choice is down to either the Mercy of Jesus or giving up: “eat, drink… tomorrow we die”. And they choose to believe. They believe the teachings of Jesus. His teachings are very clear to the one who has ears to hear: The Kingdom of Heaven is not like the other Kingdom. It is not like every path to God defined through history after the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Kingdom of Heaven is not “perform or die”. The Kingdom of Heaven is Love. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him will not die but will have eternal life. This is the message, this is a way of saying the basis of all the teachings of Jesus. LOOK: an open door – the way, the truth, and the life.
Jesus says the people of the “synagogue of Satan “will come and bow down at your feet and will know that I have loved you.” Clearly, at the time of the vision, these people from the synagogue that serves the other Kingdom despise Philadelphia and even go so far as to say that God does not love Philadelphia. This might be related to their “Little strength”. Weak people are easily despised. But one day, these “synagogue of Satan” people will see the truth. When? Good question. Wish I knew the answer. (or maybe I’m glad I don’t know)
To understand this Letter it is not necessary to precisely define who these “synagogue of Satan” people were. However, there are clues to it in the conversations of Jesus during his “feet on the ground” ministry. See if you can identify which group Jesus described like that.
In Matthew 24 and 25 Jesus teaches a lot about enduring through the difficult times that would come after his “feet on the ground” ministry. Here in this Letter to Philadelphia, he reaffirms this for them and us. While we are enduring suffering, each day is unbearably long, but Jesus encourages us to keep holding that confidence that He is the Open Door as we learned about from the keys of David.
“I will keep you from the hour of testing that will come over the people of the whole earth”. It could be that Jesus is promising that Philadelphia will not go through the exceedingly difficult times that appear to be predicted in Matthew and Revelation, etc. I think that for some people in history, their personal experiences could not be exceeded by anything. The end times prophecies appear to predict such things on a large scale. But for the individual, the events of the tribulation have been occurring continuously. In fact, at the time John had this vision, a period of extreme tribulation had been sweeping the Roman Empire for many years. Many followers of Jesus had suffered beyond our ability to imagine.
I do not claim to understand future prophecy. And I am cautious with accepting other people’s views. If they can’t get the Gospel sorted out, how can they even begin on future prophecy?
One thing to note is the phrase “the hour of testing”. The Greek word for “testing” can mean calamity (although that may be circular as that definition uses this text as a proof). But it can also mean trial, as in a court hearing. If that is the intended meaning, this may be simply saying that the followers of Jesus get to hear “forgiven” at the great reckoning that is anticipated by all peoples.
Either way it is a blessing to avoid the hour of testing. And good to contemplate in the times requiring endurance.
“I am coming quickly” This is difficult from one perspective: it has been 2000 years. Some people have been daily tortured physically, or mentally, or both, for decades before they die. Some might feel reluctant to bring the word “Quickly” into their world. But we are not each other, you cannot live my experience and I cannot live yours. I know that my experience is such that “quickly” is like a distant flickering light whose existence brings little to endurance. But the little it brings is the entirety of Hope, at times. The reality is that without that distant flickering light, the intervening emptiness would envelop life. Come quickly, please. So, relative to emptiness, an over-extended definition of “quickly” is massive.
There are other ways of understanding the “come quickly” promise. It could mean the fact that each persons individual journey is certainly short. Or it could mean that 2000 years is short from God’s perspective.
Better than trying to understand why Jesus has not come in the way that ends all things, what if Jesus meant that he was coming to that group in Philadelphia the week after the Letter arrived? I expect he did, and he rewarded the endurance with his presence. Not to cheat and skip ahead, but in the next Letter that is exactly what he says. “Pay attention! I am right now knocking on the door, and I will right now come in.”
“Hold on to what you have” Jesus says in this Letter to Philadelphia.
This is a good time to recall that Philadelphia means “loving the brothers”. The city where this church is located was named after a prior King of the region: Attalos II Philadelphos. The “Philadelphos” part of the name is historically said to mean “loving the brothers”. And the relationship to the Greek words for “love” and “brothers” confirms that.
As I have studied these Letters, I have observed a relationship between the names of the cities /churches and the message for each church. Here it is very clear. Jesus has no correction: Philadelphia is full of Faith, Hope, and Love. They are named by “Loving the brothers”, not as the proof, but as a confirmation.
Jesus tells them to hold on to Faith, Hope, and Love.
“So that no one takes your crown” Jesus says. They are crowned with these joyous characteristics. When people accuse, hate, attack and destroy us, we enter into a time for endurance. Will we continue to believe in Love when we are reduced to pain-filled objects of scorn? If we don’t hold on to Love, the enemies will have taken our crown. How much better to pass through the Open Door with our crown of Love still on.
The one who endures all the scalding difficulties, still trusting the Bridegroom in some part of their being, will be permanently in His presence. “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desire of your heart”. This is what Jesus is saying: “endure – keep desiring me – and you will enjoy me forever”.
In fact, we will be branded forever with his ownership. The Father’s name, Jesus New Name, and the name of the Kingdom of Heaven. What peace that brings to anticipate that. Or to realize it already is true.
When? If you accept that Jesus can come to each person while in this life, this means it could be now, or tomorrow, or soon.
In summary, Jesus says I am the way and it is open. Philadelphia, you are full of Faith, Hope, and Love, you hold onto my teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven. Those mean spirited people that speak for Satan will come to a place of seeing the truth – I love you. As you have endured all the scorn and hatred, but still have Love, I remind you that one day you will see the reward in the great trial. I will bring comfort soon. Reminder: those who choose me are permanently in direct relationship with God Most High, and he proclaims to all the heavenly forces that you belong to him.
And, as usual, Jesus says to listen to the Spirit to hear what Jesus is saying in the Letter. Do not listen to me, I am nothing but a slave. These thoughts might help you, but you MUST listen to the Spirit, the power that filled and fills Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the LORD with us.