During the heyday of the Worldwide Church of God, that denomination was classified by its leader as “the Philadelphian era of the Church.” Herbert W. Armstrong viewed the seven churches of Asia Minor described in Revelation 2 & 3 as successive church “eras” unfolding throughout ecclesiastical history from the first century to the present. The Church of God, Seventh Day, was then characterized as the “Sardis” era, and those who followed the Philadelphian era as “Laodicean.”
Following the breakup of the original WCG, several hundred smaller denominations have been spun off the parent organization. A number of these characterize themselves as the continuation of the “Philadelphian” era. At the same time, some who believe themselves to be “Philadelphian” have labeled some of the rest of us of being “Laodicean.” The “Philadelphians” believe that they alone will be protected from the coming “Great Tribulation” and that the rest of us “lukewarm Laodiceans” will have to suffer through it.
All of this is predicated upon several assumptions, all of which turn out to be false. First, there is the myth of “church eras.” Some years ago, Garner Ted Armstrong, who was then being characterized by some as “Laodicean,” wrote an article debunking the whole idea of church eras. He showed that there are no eras in Revelation 2 & 3, but rather seven contemporaneous congregations along a mail route in the Roman province of Asia Minor. Each of these congregations had specific characteristics, some good, and some worthy of correction. Jesus himself both praises and corrects these congregations in the messages contained in these chapters (Revelation 1:1; 2:1). [Ted’s article was once offered through The International Church of God. I’m not sure whether or not it still is, but it’s worth reading if you can get your hands on a copy.]
Another assumption of those who follow the “era” scenario is that Matthew 24:20-21 is talking about a seven-year, end time “tribulation period.” It is not. In context, that prophecy is for 70 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem. At that time, the Jewish Church fled to Pella, north of Jerusalem, and escaped the destructive Roman invasion of the holy city.
Thirdly, it is assumed by the “Philadelphians” that the proof that they are “God’s true Church” is in their observance of the seventh day Sabbath and the annual holy days of Leviticus 23 (among other things). Yet nowhere in the Bible are these things offered as “proofs” of the true Church.
Admonishing the Laodiceans
For those who find all of the above confusing, here’s a simple solution to the whole problem. The way to eliminate the fear of being “Laodicean” is to heed the warning of Jesus given in the verses addressed to that congregation. Here is the admonition given the Laodiceans:
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold not hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
“Because, thou sayest, ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
“I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:15-18).
Jesus then counsels the Laodicean congregants to “repent” and “be zealous.”
If we, as individual Christians, will take Jesus’ correction to the Laodiceans to heart, we will not be “Laodicean” in terms of our spiritual condition. So let’s study more closely just what it was that Jesus required of this congregation. His first admonition was that they were “neither cold not hot.” Clearly, Jesus does not want lukewarm, lackadaisical, half-hearted followers. He is not interested, as Joy Dawson often says, in casual inquirers, but in zealous seekers. Jesus wants us to be passionate about our faith. During his ministry, he taught that we should “…love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37). There’s nothing half-hearted about that kind of devotion.
Jesus is clearly not interested in religious hobbyists, but in people who take their relationship with God seriously. Some people are merely religious, but not spiritual. They have adopted a particular denominational template which they lay over all issues. They seldom study the Bible, and almost never pray; but they love to talk religion. They make little or no effort to perform good works, or to give legs to their professed love for the brethren.
Jesus characterized “Laodiceans” as self-satisfied. They think they “have need of nothing” (Revelation 3:17). They cannot see their spiritual condition for what it is because they are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” This description often seems to me to fit well some who view themselves as “Philadelphian” who feel securely ensconced in The Truth, and who condemn all others as “Laodicean” or “Sardis.” They sound like the Pharisee who said, “I thank thee that I am not as other men…”
We all fall short
Let’s face it: we are all lacking in some way. None of us measures up to the standard of Christ. We are all “damaged goods.” We have all sinned, and we all continue to sin in one way or another. We desperately need the mercy and grace of God. We are embarrassingly ignorant and lacking in understanding of God, God’s ways, and the meaning of Scripture. We are nowhere near as knowledgeable as we think we are.
When we truly understand what the Lord requires of us, and when we understand Jesus’ commandment, “Become ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 6:33), we should realize that we all have a long way to go. All of us live in varying degrees of spirituality, obedience, humility, understanding, love, and zeal. None of us truly has any basis for being self-satisfied. Each of us should daily repent of our failures to measure up to the standards of Christ. Jesus commanded the Laodicean congregation to “repent and be zealous.”
The downside of zealotry
There is zeal, and there is zeal. Zeal has a downside and upside. There is nothing more dangerous than a religious fanatic who seeks to impose by force his or her viewpoint on others. We are living with that painful reality today. Previous generations have had to live with Jewish zealotry and Christian zealotry. All such zealotry is dangerous.
Yet there is a positive zeal which Jesus himself modeled. Jesus was intolerant of the abusive use of his Father’s house – the Temple. When he drove out the moneychangers and other lowlifes, his disciples remembered a passage in Psalms that said, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Psalm 69:9). In other words, Jesus was consumed by zeal to see the Temple cleansed of those unspiritual types who made into a market place rather than a house of worship. You can read the account in John 2.
Jesus was not lukewarm about anything. He was a passionate, zealous man who took his commission seriously – even to the point of laying down his life for it. With Jesus, there were no halfway measures. He personified the passage in Ecclesiastes that reads, “Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” Jesus went all the way to the wall for his disciples and for mankind in general. How many of us would do the same?
Compared to Christ, even the most ardent self-labeled “Philadelphian” seems spiritually wimpy. In fact, we all come up way short. How passionately do we love the brethren? How willing are we to lay our selves on the line for the Gospel? How God-conscious are we? How often, how long, and how ardently, do we pray? How much time do we devote to serious, critical, excavating Bible study? What is our track record when it comes to good works? Do we give sacrificially to those who need it? Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are incarcerated? Do we really care about the broken, disenfranchised, suffering people of planet earth? If we care, what do we do about it? Where is our passionate, whole-hearted, worship of God?
If those who claim to be “Philadelphian” are merely self-serving, self-congratulatory, self-satisfied, self-righteous, exclusivist Christians, then perhaps they need to heed the warning given to the Laodiceans?
If they truly loved their “Laodicean” and “Sardis” brethren, why wouldn’t they reach out to them the right hand of fellowship and try to save them? Of course I think the whole idea of eras is a crock. If each of us would simply read, and heed, all of the warnings and admonitions given to the seven congregations in Asia Minor, we wouldn’t have to worry about which “era” we’re in would we?