The city of martyrs

“Write to the angel of the church in Philadelphia: Thus says the Holy One, the true one, the one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and who closes and no one opens: ‘I know your works. Look, I have placed before you an open door that no one can close because you have but little power; yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Note this: I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. Because you have kept my command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown. The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never go out again. 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 out of heaven from my God—and my new name. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches."
Revelation 3:7-13

Historical Spotlights

Though a Phrygian settlement was founded hundreds of years prior, not much is known about the city of Philadelphia until the second century B.C.E. when it was founded as a Pergamene settlement. This means that Philadelphia is the newest of all the seven churches mentioned in Revelation. Now known as the modern city of Alaşehir, Philadelphia was founded either by Attalus II or by his brother Eumenes II (in honor of Attalus II, hence the name “brotherly love”). Since he had no heir, Attalus III bequeathed the city to his Roman allies when he died in 133 B.C.E, thus ending the Attalid dynasty. A few years later, Rome established its Asia outpost by combining the former Ionian and Pergamene kingdoms.

In antiquity two things made Philadelphia famous: earthquakes and fertile soil that produced good wine. The rich plain yielded delightful grapes and, in turn, quality wine. So not surprisingly, the people of Philadelphia revered Dionysus—god of the grape harvest, winemaking, madness, and fertility—as their patron god. Traces of Dionysian cult worship date back to the Mycenean Greeks, sometime between 1500-1100 B.C.E.  

Frequent and devastating earthquakes made Philadelphia infamous the world over, and its citizens lived outside the city center, always on alert for the cataclysmic quakes. Major earthquakes in 17 and 23 A.D. destroyed the city, and when Emperor Tiberius rebuilt it, Philadelphia became indebted to Rome as her patron savior. This led to the city building a temple in honor of Tiberius.

The modern city of Alaşehir has now overbuilt Philadelphia, and the most obvious remains are that of a sixth-century Byzantine church. Local tradition erroneously considers this to be one of Revelation’s seven churches.

So it befell the blessed Polycarp, who having with those from Philadelphia suffered martyrdom in Smyrna—twelve in all—is especially remembered more than the others by all men, so that he is talked of even by the heathen in every place: for he showed himself not only a notable teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.

Polycarp, The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Philadelphia in Christian History

Since the Apostle Paul does not mention the church at Philadelphia in any of his letters, we can assume the Christian community was established there later than the cluster of churches in Hieropolis, Colossae, and Laodicea. However, the Philadelphia church probably grew quickly in prominence since the Apostle John makes reference to it in Revelation as does Ignatius, bishop of Syrian Antioch, in his letters written right before he was martyred. This church is one of three addressed by both ancient leaders.

Smyrna and Philadelphia are similar in that they both receive only positive feedback and instruction from John. He commends both churches for persevering in the face of persecution. As in Smyrna, “the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not” seems to have been harassing Christians in Philadelphia. John insists these adversaries will be reprimanded and forced to “come and bow down” at the Philadelphians’ feet. John also tells these believers that they have “the key of David,” and an “open door” has been placed before them that cannot be closed. These encouragements surely helped them press on in persecution and hardship.

Ignatius visited the church en route to his martyrdom in Rome (107 A.D.), and he followed up with a letter as his journey continued. In his letter he encourages them to remain unified, to avoid Jewish false teachings, to respect their bishop, and to praise brothers and sisters who have experienced persecution, namely, the church at Antioch. The Philadelphian church must have heeded the encouragement of both John and Ignatius to remain steadfast since 11 believers from the city were martyred with Polycarp in 155 A.D. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19:1 mentions their suffering. But we can be confident that the church continued in Philadelphia, since the largest remaining structure of the ancient city is a sixth-century Christian basilica. As seen in the book of Acts, chapter 8, persecution only fueled the spread of the Christian faith.

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church of God the Father, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is at Philadelphia, which has obtained mercy through love, and is established in the harmony of God, and rejoiceth unceasingly, in the passion of our Lord Jesus, and is filled with all mercy through His resurrection; which I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy ... If any one preaches the one God of the law and the prophets, but denies Christ to be the Son of God, he is a liar, even as also is his father the devil, and is a Jew falsely so called, being possessed of mere carnal circumcision. If any one confesses Christ Jesus the Lord, but denies the God of the law and of the prophets, saying that the Father of Christ is not the Maker of heaven and earth, he has not continued in the truth any more than his father the devil, and is a disciple of Simon Magus, not of the Holy Spirit. If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such a one is a serpent that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men.

Letter of Ignatius to the Philadelphians

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