Apocalyptic Philadelphia Freedom

Apocalyptic Philadelphia Freedom July 11, 2012

This past Sunday in my Sunday school class, we discussed the message addressed to the church in Philadelphia in Revelation chapter 3. There are a number of interesting details, but in this post I want to highlight one of them.

In Revelation 3:10, the author places this promise to the church in Philadelphia on the lips of Jesus:

Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

It doesn't take too much thought to realize what the implication is of taking these words seriously as a message to a specific first-century church about the tribulations that were expected to come upon the world in the lead-up to the end of the world and final judgment.

These Christians are being promised that they will be spared from it.

While some Christian readers' minds will immediately think “rapture,” I hope they will stop and think further. Were the Christians in the church in Philadelphia in Asia Minor in the first century raptured? If your answer is no, then you will agree that the text must be referring to something else.

But what can it then be referring to? The Christians in first-century Philadelphia died, and so did those in other churches that were not sent nearly as favorable messages. If all it meant was “You will die before the end of the world” then that wasn't much of a promise!

And so it becomes necessary to consider other options – such as that the troubles that were to come on the world referred to things already going on, or at least on the horizon, in the time of the author and original readers. Or perhaps more simply, one can accept that the author expected the end to come soon, within the lifetime of his readers, and was wrong about this.

But simply treating it as though it is about “end times” still in our future simply is not an option. That would involve not merely positing a secondary reference of the church in Philadelphia to a future generation, but positing that it only had that reference. And since that would make the author a liar and deceiver, who sent a message to the church in Philadelphia that was addressed to them but was not in fact for or about them, presumably nothing is gained by adopting this view.

What do others think? Is this a good verse for helping people trapped in a dispensationalist, futurist,”end times” framework of approaching Revelation see that the text includes details that do not seem to fit with such an interpretation?


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  • spinkham

    Given all the passages that imply an imminent end to the world, I’m not sure why is it would be beneficial to try force some other reading in.

    However, with the protestant view that the Bible is the source of authority, an eternal optimism buoys it up under all attacks, as the alternative is seen as the Christian death denying system falling apart. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that all parts of the Bible must be true, either literally or figuratively. The willingness to stretch the Bible to fit knows no bounds, and yet even that is not taken as evidence that something just might be wrong with that view.

    The Bible is not the perfect word of God, giving knowledge to man. It’s not that people just need more evidence to move them past this view: we’ve been pretty sure of that for well over 100 years, and yet in the US at least we scream the opposite at the heavens with all our might.

    Fosdick’s classic speech is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1922.

    Terror management theory from the secular, emperical side, and Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be from the religious and philosophical side explain our current religious fervor and inability to let go of fundamentalism and literalism. It has absolutely nothing to do with the facts on the ground.

    The problem is that the questioning of our meaning systems is scary, is felt as an attack on our very being and fought against with the same ferocity as loss of life itself. We can’t get anywhere until we are willing to take a diet from certainty, but that is the hardest thing of all to allow yourself to do.

    (edit: underlined links because the disqus theme makes them hard to see)

  • Koahjohnson

    If I remember correctly, I once did a timeline charting from Adam to Noah. By the time the floodwaters came, all of Noah’s forefathers had passed on. So in that day of judgement, those men were spared as Noah went forth in the ark. When Sodom and Gammorah was salted, God waited until the last of the righteous was fleeing for their lives out of the cities. Perhaps if this show’s God’s favor to His children, He may do the same on the day of the apocalypse and wait for all his Children to come home (or call them up during the rapture) before inflicting the Earth. — Just a thought.

  • Gary

    A few interesting points. Rev 3:9, “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan…”,
    Indicating, perhaps, that Rev was written after the separation of Jews and Christians?
    Rev 3:11, “I am coming soon”, indicating an event soon. Rev 3:12, “…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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name”. Philadelphia being in an earthquake zone, big earthquake in 17 AD, granted relief from taxes by Rome to rebuild, obviously favored by Rome, named Philadelphia Flavius in honor of Vespasian’s family, who also destroyed Jerusalem (Titus) – play on words for my “new name”, i.e. not Flavius; Rome taxes Jews, Jews are circumcised and worship in a synagogue, Christians are usually not circumcised, and by that time worship in private houses, out of sight of Roman officials. Does this indicate Rev written after 70 AD, and just made to look like it is predicting the future? Maybe. And the future prediction is 70 AD, when all the Jewish persecution of Christians pretty much goes away. Christians have it pretty good in Philly under Vespasian. “contra Iudaeos”?

    • If there was a separation, I would say it was into two competing synagogues. the author doesn’t yet have the term “Christian” at his disposal (or if he did, he avoided it). He views Jews who reject Christianity as “those who claim to be Jews but are not” and thus presumably views those to whom he writes as the “true Jews.” And so I think Revelation reflects a different sort of dynamic than we find in Paul, for example.