The letter to the church at Philadelphia is the one to which most current church members relate. Upon analyzing Revelation 2 and 3, the vast majority among us consider it to be the best of the churches through the ages. This rosy evaluation is suspect from the standpoint that we also think it is the church era to which we believe we belong. Is our evaluation of Philadelphia justified, or have we allowed our bias to color our understanding?
Is Philadelphia a faithful church? Does she have any faults? Should every Christian strive to be "Philadelphian"? Could spiritual pride have entered this church, causing God to tear her apart and scatter her? We need to examine the letter to Philadelphia honestly, considering recent church history before and since the death of Herbert W. Armstrong, to see if our bias is warranted.
1. Did Philadelphia have the key of David? Is it possible other organizations have this key following the scattering of Worldwide Church of God (WCG)? Revelation 3:7; Isaiah 22:22; 9:6; Matthew 28:18.
Comment: A misunderstanding of this symbol may have fostered abuses of church or ministerial authority. For decades, the church interpreted Revelation 3:7 to mean the church had "God's government," and the ministry too often wielded this club with a heavy hand (Ezekiel 34:1-10; Jeremiah 23:1-3). Revelation 3:7, however, is clear that the key of David belongs, not to the church, but to the One who is holy and true, Jesus Christ. He alone has the authority to govern the church and to open and shut doors before it.
Jeremiah 23:20 predicts that we will fully understand this problem "in the latter days." Having experienced man's misuse of Christ's authority and the church's scattering, we should now see that in its administration the church must be very careful to stay within the bounds of true Christianity and not usurp God's prerogatives. Have we learned this lesson?
2. Recent history appears to show that Philadelphia had an open door. Is it still open? Revelation 3:7-8.
Comment: Christ says He has the power both to open and to shut. WCG grew incredibly fast for several decades, we thought, because of this "open door." However, WCG has declined to the point that she has repudiated the doctrines of the true church. In the past decade the daughter churches that split from her have had scant success in reviving what she was and did. With apostasy and scattering still in progress, it appears that Christ has slammed the door in the Philadelphia church's face.
Late in his life, Herbert Armstrong postulated—and it has since become apparent—that all seven churches exist as end-time attitudes, not just as a succession of eras over the past 2000 years. Individuals still have Philadelphian characteristics, but the Philadelphia "era" seems to have ended. When Christ shuts a door, no man can open it!
3. Philadelphia has some fine characteristics: She keeps God's Word and upholds His name. But is she strong? Revelation 3:8; Matthew 24:2, 9-12.
Comment: Due to the open door, WCG grew rapidly and God called many through her. However, Christ says she has only "a little strength." We see this proved by the apostasy, offense, betrayal, deception and iniquity that has thrived in the scattering of the church. Jesus' end-time prophecy of not one stone being left upon another in the spiritual Temple, the church, is occurring apace. Thus, it is not the Philadelphians' spiritual strength but Christ's opening of doors that empowers the church's accomplishments.
4. Both Smyrna and Philadelphia are beset by those who claim to be Jews but are not. Who are they? Revelation 3:9; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
Comment: Before WCG's apostasy, this prophecy was mystifying, but it is now obvious that many members and ministers entered the church as wolves in sheep's clothing. They were not Philadelphian at all, nor apparently even converted. Ultimately, these harmful tares will worship before the feet of the faithful.
5. Does patience pay off? Revelation 3:10; 12:14-16; Matthew 24:13-22; Luke 21:34-36.
Comment: God will protect those who patiently cling to His Word from the imminent Great Tribulation. Though her small spiritual strength caused her destruction, a remnant from Philadelphia will faithfully endure to the end.
6. Does Philadelphia have what God requires for salvation? Revelation 3:11.
Comment: True Philadelphians have enough doctrinal truth, devotion, obedience and the grace of God to attain salvation if they hold fast. As an organization and era, Philadelphia has virtually disappeared, but individual Philadelphians can ensure their salvation by guarding the truth God reveals (I Timothy 4:16; II Timothy 1:13-14; 3:14; Jude 3). Sadly, a majority of them have already apostatized.
7. Is "just being there" enough? Revelation 3:12; I John 5:4.
Comment: Because Christ criticizes Philadelphia very little, opens doors before her and offers protection from the Tribulation, it is easy to think we "have it made" if we were or are part of Philadelphia. Yet Christ admonishes Philadelphia just as He does the other churches: Overcome! A Christian must never rest on his oars, no matter what his situation or era. We all must overcome the world, our nature and Satan to be granted salvation, and if we do, entrance to God's Kingdom is an absolute promise!