Before I begin, I should note that I’m assuming here a fair bit of historical information which is important in understanding this letter, but which I don’t have time to get into this morning. If you’re interested, there will be more posted on the sermon blog.
For now, let me just say that Philadelphia sat in a zone of high volcanic activity and suffered from frequent earthquakes; it had been devastated more than once, to the point of needing extensive aid from Rome, and twice the city had shown its gratitude by taking a new name in honor of Caesar. Even when there were no major earthquakes, there were enough little ones that the city was never truly rebuilt—the walls were always cracked and crumbling. But people stayed; the volcanic soil was very good for growing wine grapes, and most people actually lived outside the city, among the farms and vineyards. In ordinary times, the production of wine was enough to keep the economy going, if not strong. And then in 92 AD, Caesar Domitian ordered that half the vineyards in the provinces of the empire be cut down, which was a greater disaster for the city than any earthquake. Philadelphia had put its faith in Caesar; Caesar had proven faithless.
And so Christ addresses the believers here, a powerless church in a struggling city, as the one who is holy and faithful, who will never fail them. He is the only one who can say that. Psalm 146 says, “Put not your trust in princes, because they’re only human and they can’t save you”; we would say, “Put not your trust in politicians,” because they always promise more than they can deliver. We might also say, “Put not your trust in corporations,” as I know this week’s news from Zimmer has rattled a lot of people, and created some real anxiety; even good corporations exist for their own purposes, not for yours, and to expect them to put your agenda ahead of their own is simply not wise. Only Jesus deserves your full trust and confidence; he alone is always faithful.
Jesus praises the church in Philadelphia because in their weakness, they haven’t backed down or compromised their faith; they have continued to proclaim their faith in Christ and keep his word, no matter how unpopular that might have been. Their weakness hasn’t moved them to stop trusting Jesus, it’s moved them to greater trust—to depend utterly on him for everything they need. And so he says, “I have set before you an open door that no one can shut.” They may have little power, but it isn’t their power that matters; what matters is Christ’s power. They were being persecuted by the Jewish leaders in the city, who had shut them out of the synagogue, but Jesus has opened a greater door for them, into the kingdom of God; and he has opened other doors for them as well, opportunities for them to continue to bear witness to their faith.