Previous posts in this series are here.
1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
“Name” is often used to mean “reputation” in the scriptures.
Another way to translate the final line is “that thou livest but art dead.” It seems that they are Christians in name only.
More on the seven Spirits and stars in the post that covers the end of chapter one.
2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
Even though these people are in sorry shape, the Lord still gives them instruction (“strengthen the things that remain”) as to how they can move in a positive direction. This makes me think about how we do re-activation work: are we obsessed with getting Brother Jones to stop smoking or do we focus on getting him even more involved in the family history work that he loves? This verse suggests that the Lord would have even the weakest of us build on, and emphasize, our strengths.
Remember that “perfect” can mean “complete.” In other words, they aren’t being criticized for being (what we would call) imperfect but rather for having left some things incomplete.
3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
“How” can mean “what.”
It’s interesting to me that the implication of this verse seems to be that if you do watch, then the coming won’t be as a thief in the night. Compare Matthew 24:36 which reads, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” I’m not entirely sure how best to reconcile those two statements. One possibility is that the phrase “thou shalt not know what hour I will come” applies to everyone (watchful or not) but the “I will come on thee as a thief” applies only to those who don’t watch. In other words, the coming will be as unpleasant as the coming of a thief to those who don’t watch; the coming will be pleasant to those who do watch, but no one will know when He will come.
4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
I imagine that this remembrance of those in Sardis who were doing OK would have been incredibly significant to that doubly-alienated minority.
5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
Note that the principle trade in Sardis was manufacturing and dyeing cloth, so there is great local flavor in v4 and v5: this images of defiled garments, walking in white, and being clothed in white raiment would have been immediately meaningful to them.
6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;
The “key of David” is control over the royal house (see Isaiah 22:22), which is quoted in this verse.
Another way to translate the end of this verse is: “what he openeth, no man shutteth [in the sense of: is capable of shutting]; what he shutteth, no man [is capable of] opening.”
8 I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
The “open door” may refer to the temple in v12. If it does, it suggests that that which was formerly restricted to the priests would be accessible to all people. This imagery fits nicely since we learned in the previous verse that Christ has the key to the door and is the only one with control over who is (dis)allowed to enter–that’s a great metaphor for the atonement. These people are assured that no matter what happens around them, Christ has opened the door for them and they will be allowed to enter.
“For thou hast a little strength” means “for thou hast little strength”–big difference! However, the next two phrases (about keeping the word and not denying the name) suggest that these people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. At the same time, they do not have the strength to open the door–that’s Christ’s job.
9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
“Worship” means “fall down before.” I don’t think it has the full implications of ‘worship’ in this verse. This is ironic because the OT promises that Gentiles will bow down before the house of Israel but here, some ‘who say they are Jews’ will bow down before these (at least partially) Gentile Christians. This verse makes clear that promises are predicated on individual choices and not on lineage.
Some scholars have suggested that this section–about opening/shutting doors and ‘fake Jews’–implies that the Philadelphian saints have been kicked out of the synagogue (a common fate for early Christians) and are therefore feeling adrift.
The line “to know that I have loved thee” alludes to Isaiah 43:4 and, as is usually the case in Revelation, Old Testament quotations have a politically subversive edge: read the surrounding verses in Isaiah and you’ll see that the context is that the Lord will show (and has shown) love to Israel by subduing her enemies. Take that, Roman overlords!
10 Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
“The word of my patience” means ‘my commandment to be patient.’
“Temptation” can be translated as “trial.”
11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
It is hard to tell if the ‘coming’ in this verse means the second coming or the private coming of the Spirit of the Lord to those in their hour of trial. If you think it means the Second Coming, the “quickly” might seem a little odd 2000 years later, but may be thought of as meaning “without delay.”
12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
The idea of spending eternity as a pillar of the temple may not sound terribly appealing, but this is another bit of local color: Philadelphia was known for its earthquakes and so the suggestion is that these people will be strong enough to support that largest and most important of structures no matter what is happening around them. This is quite a promise given that the Lord noted above that now they have but little strength. (And if they were in fact just kicked out of the synagogue, to suggest that they will someday be pillars in the temple would have been quite reassuring.)
13 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Summary thought: I really like the contrast between these two letters: I find it reassuring to know that God will chastise me like Sardis when I need it but will comfort me like Philadelphia when I need it. The chastisement means that God hasn’t given up on me and knows I can do better and wants to help me to do better; the comfort means that God is aware of my struggles and will guide me through them.