Philadelphia was a city built at the juncture of three ancient nations: Phrygia, Lydia and Greece. Built as a showplace for Greek culture, it was one of the richest and most powerful cities in the entire ancient world. But in the year AD 17 an earthquake hit the city. All that incredibly elaborate, powerful and wonderful masonry tumbled down around their heads. It was unsafe to go inside any structure. An additional problem was that the aftershocks of the earthquake continued for months. So these people had to live in tents outside the city walls.
That would be bad enough, but remember that this was the ancient world. When you were outside the city walls you were subject to marauders, invaders, and wandering bandits. It was not like going camping out at the lake. Thousands died in those months, killed by the invading bands to which they were now vulnerable.
Saint John was writing this letter to a small church in that traumatized city. By the time they received this letter, the city had been rebuilt, but the citizens were still traumatized because of everything that had happened to them. As the Christians received this letter, John said to them in effect, "You are doing well, but I have one word for you: don't be so afraid."
Let me suggest to you that their situation was extraordinarily modern, and John's word extremely relevant. What were they afraid of? Their's was a small church trying to live out Christian values in a non-Christian culture. It was a Greek culture. Everybody here who thinks our culture is consistently Christian raise your hand! It's tough living out Christian values in our culture.
In addition, they were a small group of Christians trying to live out their faith against the power of Rome. That Greek culture was now within the Roman Empire, and Rome was very anti-Christian. Everybody here who thinks the political policies of our nation are always Christian raise your hand! I don't mean we have a bad nation. I love our nation, but you know as well as I do that, although it was founded on Godly principles, so often God's principles are not the rule of the land. So, the church had to live out the Christian faith in an alien culture with an often non-Christian power structure.
Plus, they were living on land that often seemed at war with them. They could be struck down at a moment's notice from an earthquake. Everybody here who has never seen the world do terrible things raise your hand! The Philadelphia situation was as current as today's headlines. Every one of us knows what it means to tremble in fear at all that is before us.
So, listen to what John said to that church. He said, in effect, "You are doing wonderfully! You are keeping your integrity. You are sharing your faith with others. You are standing strong for your Lord. You are teaching sound doctrine. Just be aware of one thing: you are so focused on what is against you, you have forgotten the One who is with you. By forgetting Him you are letting yourselves be paralyzed by fear. God has set before you an open door in the midst of all your tough times. As you are willing simply to walk through that door with God as your ally, no one on earth can shut the door God has opened."