Revelation (Part 42): Churches—Sardis and Philadelphia
Jesus promises reward to the Thyatiran overcomers of authority over the nations. The Greek translated authority is often translated as right (e.g., I Cor 9:6). It doesn’t mean here ruling mastery of subservient vassals. The authority granted here means the right of the God-focused over (or better, over against—opposed to) the Human-focused. God gives us the right to reign with him. We have discussed reigning both earlier in Revelation and in Matthew. Reigning with God means the shared activity we have with him in living out his truth, goodness, and beauty. That is the structural goal of all created life. We will always reign with Christ, even long after sin and evil have been forever put away. The reigning will not require subjects over which to hold dominance. The reigning involves our activity in the TGB that sources only in God.
Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 2:9 (which is also mentioned of Christ in Rev 19). The passage speaks of the shepherd ruling his people with a rod of iron. In both Psalm 2 and Rev 19, the focus is on the separation that the iron rod will enforce. It is a dividing rod used to guide his sheep and fend off attackers. We see it used here in separation of the God-focused from the Human-focused.
Additionally, a reward of the morning star is promised. The morning star has always been used to describe that which shines brighter than the rest. The morning star constrasts both with the dark of night that has just been extinguished and with the other stars that no longer shine brightly in the sky. Jesus is called the bright morning star in Rev 22:16. Satan was called a morning star before he fell (Is 14:12). The implication here in Revelation 3 is to tie that representation of Christ as morning star to the hope of the redeemed. Matthew does this at the beginning of his Gospel by showing that morning star in conjunction with the birth (life) of Jesus, called Immanuel (God with us). Just so do the overcomers realize that birth of life forever with God.
Sardis has a rich history in more ways than one. Croesus was king of the Lydians in the sixth century BC. The expression “rich as Croesus” still survives today. The wealthy Croesus lived in Sardis, the capital of the Lydian empire (what is now western Turkey). Part of his wealth came from gold and silver deposits in the region. (The first common standard currency of gold and silver coins was established in Sardis.) Another part came from the strategic position of Sardis along the land route that connected the Greek world with the Eastern (or what we would now call the Middle Eastern) world.
As Babylon lost its empire to the Persians in the sixth century, Croesus became nervous of Cyrus’s expanding empire. Croesus consulted the Delphi oracle who told him that if he were to attack Persian, he would destroy a great empire. So Croesus traveled to Persia to attack. The battle however ended in a stalemate and Croesus returned home to sit out the winter. Cyrus, however, not content to spend a winter with Croesus on the loose, followed him back to Sardis and engaged in battle.
The city of Sardis was on a hill that had three sides of sheer rock cliff to guard it. Defense, then, had to be made only on one side, and it is difficult for any army to attack moving uphill. Therefore, Cyrus could not overcome Sardis. But legend tells us that at a time between attempts to attack the city, a Sardian guard dropped his helmet from high up on the city wall. This guard scampered down the rock wall fortress by way of a secret trail to retrieve his helmet. A Persian soldier witnessed his descent, told his commanders, and the Persians were able to sneak up to the city by way of this hidden trail to surprise Croesus in his fortress and so defeat him. So as the Delphi oracle had predicted, an empire was destroyed. But it was not, as Croesus imagined, the Persian empire that was destroyed. Rather it was Croesus’s own Lydian empire that was defeated. What we gain from the history of the city, then, is an understanding of the rich and secure attitude those in Sardis had. They had wealth and they had a fortress they thought was impregnable. But their rich security made them lax, and they were defeated.
The letter in Rev 3:1–6 shows the same attitude of the church in Sardis. Jesus is described as the one who has the seven spirits of God and the one who has the seven stars. This identification as the only holder of divine access seems to imply that those in Sardis were thinking themselves secure without pursuit of Jesus, the only one who held access to God. There is nothing in the letter that Jesus says to commend those in Sardis. He says only that they had a reputation of being alive but were dead. Even this reference to life and death seems to be taken from the situation of the city.
The city was know for its acropolis—the high point of public function—as well as its necropolis, its graveyard. As you traveled to Sardis, even from a distance of seven miles away, the city seemed to have “a thousand hills” through its landscape. Upon arrival, however, you realized that the thousand hills were actually burial mounds in their necropolis. But of course, this physical reality just served as a spiritual lesson of the attitudes of the Sardis Christians. Their works, Jesus described, were not complete, not perfect, unfulfilled. And they were incomplete, specifically “before God” (3:2), meaning that they were not done in the truth, goodness, and beauty of shared relationship in God.
Jesus calls on them to be alert and repent or he will come as a thief (probably a reference to their history and the capture of their fortress by stealth).
To the one who overcomes, white clothes are promised. Of course, white reflects purity. And Jesus emphasizes that that purity comes to those not only who have not been lax in their pursuit of Christ, but also to those who repent of their faithlessness. This point reiterates that although Christ expects works to flow from right relationship with God, it is not the works that put us into right relationship. Faith and trust in God make relationship possible. The works, then, flow from that faith (as James insists in chapter 2 of his letter).
Jesus also says he will never erase their names from the book of life. They may be secure—not in themselves, but as they trust in God.
The next letter is directed to the church in Philadelphia. The city was founded by Attalus II. Attalus was the second son of Attalus I Soter, king of Pergamum. The first son was Eumenes, who became king after their father died. Attalus II was an accomplished military commander and at one point fought alongside the Romans in a campaign. Because of his friendship and abilities, the Romans offered to help him overthrow his brother to become the king of Pergamum. Attalus refused, earning him the nickname Philadelphus, or brother lover. Attalus apparently appreciated the name since he named a city he founded Philadelphia. The name comes from two Greek words phileo (love) and adelphos (brother). Some people confuse the phileo love as a minor, friendly, or brother-like love. However, phileo by itself (without the added adelphos) is a love of heart and passion (as opposed to the thinking, reasoned love of agape).
Philadelphia was located along a fault line. A particularly strong earthquake in AD 17 left the city in ruins. Tiberius not only did not demand tribute from them that year, but also helped fund the rebuilding of the city. But the death toll to the Philadelphians scared the people so that most built homes outside the city to avoid being buried in their sleep by a potential future earthquake. Thus, while Sardis had problems in thinking themselves overly secure, the Philadelphians were the opposite—worried in insecurity.
Jesus describes himself to the insecure Christians of Philadelphia as the Holy One, the true One, the One who has the key of David, opening what no one else can shut and shutting what no one else can open. That phrase is taken from Isaiah 22:22. In Isaiah 22, God reprimands one court clerk—Shebna—who, in the midst of Israel’s troubles, spends his time building an elaborate burial memorial for himself. His problem was arrogance. God says he will give his position to another who will be like a peg firmly hammered into a wall. But God says of this peg that Israel will hang its hopes on him and the peg will loosen and fall. In other words, God was saying don’t place your hope and trust in people—the arrogant or the seemingly able. Trust in God. He is the only one to carry you through. The people of Philadelphia needed to have confidence in following their God.