A number of references in John's letter to Philadelphia apply to specific aspects of life both in the town and in the Christian church there. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, the Philadelphia of John's day served as the key city of the adjacent area. A vale passing up from the main valley through the mountains to the upper plateau and central regions of Asia Minor gave Philadelphia a frontier position in which she held the key as the keeper of the gateway. God's message to her was, "These things saith he ... that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; . . . Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (Rev. 3:7, 8). Philadelphia was the open door to the regions beyond, and held the key of that door.
Ignatius, a contemporary of John, writing also to the Philadelphia church, speaks of the Christians there as being especially subject to opposition from the Jewish synagogue. God's letter to them, through John, declared, "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" (verse 9).
The city experienced so many earth quakes that Strabo, the Greek geographer, writing in A.D. 20, said, "Philadelphia is full of earthquakes...." Because of these reoccurring disturbances, escape to the surrounding countryside was a common experience. We can appreciate, then, the promise, "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out" (verse 12).
No Roman remains are evident in Philadelphia today, but its position and history proclaim a meaningful message. The words of this apocalyptic letter are especially appropriate to the period of great religious awakening in the eighteenth century and the missionary movement that followed. The church became the key, the open door, to a new age of personal piety and missionary expansion.
In America the first sparks of revival were kindled by Jonathan Edwards, who in 1734 in his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, preached a series of sermons on righteousness by faith. A religious awakening spread through the city and adjoining regions, an awakening that was renewed and enlarged by the visit of George Whitefield to Northampton and the colonies in 1740. The revival spread, in turn, to England by means of published reports of what was happening in America.
In 1729 John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and a few others, while still students at Oxford, had joined to form the "holy club." In an upstairs room appearing much today as it did then, they met to pray and encourage one another in the holy life. On May 14, 1738, in a chapel on Aldersgate Street, John Wesley, listening to the reading of the introduction to Luther's commentary on Romans, with its emphasis on righteousness by faith, suddenly felt his heart "strangely warmed." Added impetus was given to his preaching the following spring when he learned of the work of Jonathan Edwards in New England and then of the results of the outdoor preaching of his family friend, George Whitefield.
Whitefield's outdoor preaching had begun on Kingswood Hill, a few miles out of Bristol, when the pulpits of the churches were closed to him. On February 17, 1739, he addressed an unlikely audience of about 200 miners who stood on the field below him. The immediate results were so amazing that he sent word to London for Wesley to join him. Wesley, who thought it not proper to preach in the open air, responded reluctantly, but after listening he became equally committed to this method. Within a month Whitefield was preaching to crowds of up to 20,000 using the fields as his meetinghouse and employing a trumpetlike speaking voice. An aver age day saw Wesley traveling by horse fifteen to twenty miles and preaching four or five sermons. During the course of his life he rode 250,000 miles and preached 42,000 sermons! A visit to his chapels at Bristol and on City Road in London causes the heart to beat a bit faster at the thought of their association with this great man of God. The London Chapel, closed several years for refurbishing, is now open again. Next to it is Wesley's house, now a museum, where are displayed reminders of a truly inspired ministry.
The Philadelphia period gave birth also to a great missionary expansion be ginning in 1793 with William Carey's departure for India. Carey was known as the "father of modern missions," and his work included translation of the Bible into some 40 languages and dialects. Robert Moffat in 1816, at the age of 21, sailed for Cape Town, South Africa, spending fifty-four years in the "dark continent." In 1841 David Livingstone, inspired by Moffat, joined him in Africa and later married his oldest daughter. Livingstone's entire life was devoted to opening the door of the gospel in that vast undeveloped region.
In 1858, at about the age of 34, John Paton and his new bride sailed on their way to the South Pacific in spite of the news that previous missionaries there had been murdered and eaten by cannibals. Paton lived to see his Aniwa New Testament printed and missionaries on twenty-five of the thirty New Hebrides islands.
At the age of 4 James Hudson Taylor was heard to say, "When I am a man I will be a missionary and go to China." He went there in 1853, about the time Paton went to the South Pacific. In 1865 Taylor established the China Inland Mission, where much of his life was spent recruiting missionaries. Before his death in Changsha, China, in 1905, he had established 205 mission stations with 849 missionaries.
During this period of revival and missionary expansion the Bible was translated, printed, and circulated as never before. The British and Foreign Bible Society, formed in 1804 and followed in 1816 by the American Bible Society, gave tremendous impetus to this work.
The letters to the church of Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia all refer to the great consummation when Jesus would return to earth as He had promised be fore going away to heaven. To Thyatira the counsel was given, "I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come" (Rev. 2:24, 25). God said to the church at Sardis, "Remember . . . hold fast. ... If therefore thou shall not watch, I will come on thee as a thief" (chap. 3:3). The promise to Philadelphia was, "Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast" (verse 11).
The events of this period represented by the sixth of the seven letters are also depicted in the opening of the sixth seal as described in Revelation 6:12, 13. The scriptures describe a great earthquake, a mysterious dark day, and a phenomenon of falling stars, events that would add confirmation to the great truth that the second coming of Christ was drawing ever nearer.
The first part of Revelation 6:12 reads, "And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake." The great Lisbon earth quake of November 1, 1755, one of the most extensive and severe such disturbances ever experienced, took place during this time.
The verse continues, "And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair. ..." In 1880 a monumental 720-page volume was published entitled, The Great Events of Our Past Century. It describes the most important events to occur in America during each of the first one hundred years of her history. The event reported for the year 1780 was the mysterious Dark Day. The account begins, "Almost, if not altogether alone, as the most mysterious and as yet unexplained phenomenon of its kind, in nature's diversified range of events, during the last century, stands the Dark Day of May nineteenth, 1780." Altogether, nine pages are devoted to a description of this strange occurrence. The darkness began between- ten and eleven o'clock in the morning and continued through the day. Chickens went to roost and candles were lighted. Was it an eclipse? The report reads, "That this darkness was not caused by an eclipse is manifest by the various positions of the planetary bodies at that time, for the moon was more than one hundred and fifty degrees from the sun all that day."
Revelation 6:12 continues, . . . "and the moon became as blood." That night, following the Dark Day, the darkness was impenetrable, like the plague of darkness that befell the ancient Egyptians. And when the moon appeared, it was as red as blood.
But that was not all. We read, "And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind" (verse 13). The same volume, Our Past Century, devotes eight pages to this event. Chapter 28 is entitled "Sublime Meteoric Shower All Over the United States 1833." The shower is referred to as "The Most Grand and Brilliant Phenomenon Ever Beheld and Recorded by Man." The description begins, "Extensive and magnificent showers of shooting stars have been known to occur at various places in modern times; but the most universal and wonderful which has been recorded is that of the thirteenth of November, 1833, the whole firmament, over all the United States, being then for hours, in fiery commotion." The writers report, "To form some idea of such a spectacle, one must imagine a constant succession of fireballs, resembling sky rockets radiating in all directions, from a point in the heavens near the zenith and following the arch of the sky toward the horizon."
It is significant that the prophet Joel, as well as Jesus, foretold these same celestial phenomena as signs of His soon return (see Joel 2:30, 31; Matt. 24:29). Jesus added, "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven" (Matt. 24:30). The celestial signs have occurred in the precise order of the prophecies. Here is clear evidence that we are living in the time of the end. Describing what follows, John declares, "And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond man, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" (Rev. 6:14-17).
We are living today in the period of delay, waiting for our Lord's return. This last period is represented by the letter to the church of Laodicea. Its message will help us to understand the delay and answer the question "Who shall be able to stand?