Here's why eras based
on Revelation 2-3 are not a myth
The author and his wife, Joyce, serve as hosts of the Arroyo Grande Living Church of God video group.
By Robert Thiel
ARROYO GRANDE, Calif.--In an article titled "What's With This Irrational Fear of Becoming 'Laodicean'?" in The Journal's Dec. 31, 2004, issue, Brian Knowles wrote that the teaching that the churches of Revelation 2-3 somehow represent "church eras" is a "myth."
Citing the late Garner Ted Armstrong's position, Mr. Knowles also wrote:
"There are no eras in Revelation 2-3. Rather, there are seven contemporaneous congregations along a mail route in the Roman province of Asia Minor."
He also raised objections to the view that a continuation of the Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7) portion of the Church of God (Church of God ) will receive divine protection from the prophesied tribulation.
Is the teaching that Jesus prophesied that there would be predominant churches with identifiable characteristics throughout the history of the New Testament Church a myth? Is the thought of becoming a Laodicean an irrational fear, or might Christ's warnings be important for potential Philadelphians?
The Bible teaches "the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants--things which must shortly take place."
It also states that "blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near" (Revelation 1:1, 3).
Thus the book of Revelation, including the letters to the churches of chapters 2-3, needs to be read and understood in a prophetic context.
Seven times related to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 Jesus proclaims: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
Those seven admonitions, tied with the way Christ is pictured as dwelling among the seven churches and seven angels in Revelation 1:12-20 and 2:1, support the position that they are a type of the entire New Testament church.
Since this vision pictures Him dwelling only in seven churches, it would seem that those churches represent the entire church. Since God completed His week of creation on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11), scriptural support exists for the conclusion that the number 7 represents completion.
Jesus seems to verify this when He states, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," and, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea" (1:11).
Jesus is announcing that He is the beginning and the end. At the same time, He lists the seven churches in the order they appear in Revelation 2-3. This suggests a beginning and an ending connection with those churches.
He also states that the message of Revelation is for those seven churches. Yet Revelation 22:18-19 makes it clear that the message is not only for those who happen to have been alive in those seven physical churches when John was alive:
"For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."
Seven churches and history
Further, note verses 10 and 19: "And he said to me, 'Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand ... Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.'"
These verses clearly show that some prophecies of Revelation were to happen soon, yet other parts of the book were intended for a later time.
Does secular history provide any possible verification of the concept that a certain Church of God was to be predominant at a given time? Does the Bible support the idea that history confirms prophecy? Yes.
Peter writes, "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but were eyewitnesses of His majesty ... And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed . . ." (2 Peter 1:16, 19).
Thus it is good to see history-confirming prophecy. Also, since some of the comments and warnings to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are not logically contemporaneous, the historical record bears this out.
Do the first works
"Ephesus was the most important city in Asia minor when Revelation was written" (Nelson Study Bible, 1997). But it did not stay that way. Nor did the Ephesus church remain predominant.
The city of Ephesus was the first stop on a mail route that ran through Laodicea (with the consecutive stops in the order that Jesus listed the churches). It is logical that the first, predominant and apostolic church would be listed first and would also be told, "You have left your first love" (Revelation 2:4).
Ephesus was warned: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place--unless you repent."
Ephesus did have its physical "lampstand" removed. It had been a port city, but a local river poured so much silt into the sea that at Ephesus so much land formed that it is no longer on the coast but is inland. That silt stopped it from being an important city (2:5).
Be faithful till death
The Smyrna church came next. Polycarp, who history indicates was a physical head of the post-apostolic church, was known as the bishop of Smyrna. The Smyrna church was told that it would "have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death" (2:10).
Towards the end of Smyrna's predominance, a deadly 10-year persecution (A.D. 303-313), unleashed by Roman emperor Diocletian, occurred.
At Satan's throne
Jesus told Pergamos that it dwelled "where Satan's throne is" (2:13).
It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia in Asia Minor. Just as the initial local church at Pergamos lay in a city where Satan swayed human politics, this work of God's church occurred within the bounds of the government of Satan's eastern Roman Empire.
History shows that God had people there, such as many referred to as Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars, Patarenes and Albigensians (although not all referred to by those names were in the true church, as was prophesied; 2:14-15).
Nationmaster Encyclopedia says the Albigensians and other Bogomils were apparently binitarian (believers in two beings in a God family) and denied the third person of the Trinity.
Lighting the darkness
Thyatira was the fourth of the seven churches. It has been reported that one possibly Thyatira-related congregation had a coat of arms containing seven candles with seven stars, with the fourth (reportedly to represent itself) as the largest. The coat of arms stated, "Lux Lucet in Tenebris," meaning "A Light Shines in the Darkness."
This legend also appears on the old Waldensian church in Rome along with the image of a single lampstand (1:20).
Thus the Thyatirans may have known that they had affiliation with the fourth lampstand-church of Revelation 2:18.
The Lutheran historian Johan Lorenz Mosheim noted that congregations of the church in the 12th century held "a notion that the observance of the law of Moses, in everything except the offerings of sacrifices, was obligatory upon Christians ... They abstained from those meats the use of which was prohibited under the Mosaic economy, and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath" and opposed the Trinity.
History, sadly, also shows that, as prophesied (2:20), descendants of Thyatira compromised with an idol-related church.
Hold fast and repent
Jesus told the Sardis church:
"You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.
"Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.
"Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.
"You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy" (Revelation 3:1-4).
Herbert Armstrong said this described the Church of God Seventh Day (CG7) because he felt its gospel-preaching efforts were essentially dead.
Since Mr. Armstrong's death, the CG7 has more and more failed to "hold fast" (as Alan Knight's article in the Dec. 31, 2004, issue of The Journal also points out).
Although all the messages to the seven churches state, "I know your works," it is only to Philadelphia that Jesus says, "See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it" (3:8).
It was not until the 20th century that the technology of automated transportation and electronic media (such as radio and television) came forth to allow the Church of God to have much international impact.
Mr. Armstrong's was the most effective Church of God ministry in postapostolic history when it came to numbers reached with Christ's gospel of the Kingdom.
This makes the work of the Philadelphia church highly significant.
For a short time The World Tomorrow was the No. 1Ðrated religious television program in the United States, a major accomplishment for such a "little flock." For years its radio broadcast was also one of the most listened to.
Millions also received The Plain Truth magazine. And the "gospel of the kingdom" was "preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations" (Matthew 24:14) through various media as well as through Mr. Armstrong's personal visits.
However, since the remainder of the verse is "and then the end will come," this makes it clear that this preaching of the gospel is to occur until the end.
The people decide
Laodicea is last and represents the predominant church at the time of the end. "Laodicea" is made of Greek words that basically mean "the people decide." Jesus told the Laodicea church:
"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot.
"So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16).
Decades ago Mr. Armstrong's Church of God taught: "Just as the remnants of the Sardis era of the Church exist side by side with the Philadelphia era, so we will continue our work to the very 'end time' when another group will appear--a group not accounted worthy to escape the coming tribulation. Another separate work is yet to arise--made up of begotten individuals who are spiritually lukewarm!
"Woe be to any of us if we take part in such a work! Here is a work, yet to arise because of our preaching."
The Laodiceans did arise because of the preaching of Philadelphia. They are its "offspring," and, even though they are among those "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ," they are not protected from tribulation in a place in the wilderness (Revelation 12:14-17).
Why protect Philadelphians?
Prophecy gives insight as to why the Philadelphians may be protected: "I will set a sign among them; and those among them who escape I will send to the nations: to Tarshish and Pul and Lud, who draw the bow, and Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off who have not heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the Gentiles" (Isaiah 66:19).
Isaiah seems to indicate that those who escape to this place will preach the gospel once they leave it.
Is it not logical that those who were allowed to escape and go to this place were those who placed their top emphasis on getting the gospel out prior to escaping? Wouldn't that be the group that continued to go through the door that Jesus opened? Yes.
Proclaiming until the end
The Bible is quite clear that the open door is the door to proclaim the gospel (2 Corinthians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 16:9; Colossians 4:3; Acts 14:27). It should be obvious that the dead church (Sardis) and the one whose works Jesus vomits out of His mouth (Laodicea) will not be the faction that is fulfilling Matthew 24:14.
Philadelphians believe that "God will set before us an open door and no man can shut it. God can shut it, and He will when the work is finished and the Philadelphia Church has gone to the place of safety ... Philadelphia has little strength to do this great work which God has given it to do ... It is the Church of Laodicea who had no vital part in the work of God today even though they live today and are part of the generation which will see Christ return" ("What Is the Laodicean Church?," The Good News, August 1959).
Since Laodicea means "the people decide," it is logical that it is split into many groups (which all together, including independents, would constitute Laodicea).
But this may not be so with Philadelphia. "God does not have two organizations carrying out His work of preaching the gospel to the world at one time. The [Philadelphia] Church is not a divided work competing with itself" (ibid.).
Jesus warns the churches
Jesus says to those in Philadelphia, "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (Revelation 3:10-11).
Apparently there would be many who would not "hold fast" or Jesus would not have needed to make that warning. People who are not Philadelphians, or who were but did not keep Jesus' command to persevere, will not be protected from the hour of trial.
Jesus also provides warnings to those in Sardis and Laodicea to repent or face the consequences (3:3, 19).
As Revelation 3:10 and 12:17 make clear, to receive this divine protection one must hold fast to more than keeping the commandments of God and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Not a myth
The concept of church eras is not a myth. The specific messages to each church all have had specific chronological historical fulfillments (see lengthy individual articles on the identities of the Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea churches at www.cogwriter.com).
The latter messages to the churches (from Pergamos on) show that the non-Philadelphians will do works for which they are chastised.
Only the Philadelphians are specifically promised protection "from the hour of trial which shall come on the whole earth" (3:10).
Jesus warns those who were once part of the Philadelphia church to "hold fast" to the Philadelphia work--apparently to keep them from scattering and being part of Laodicea.
The messages to the Philadelphia church appear designed to motivate it to continue its efforts to go through the open door to proclaim the gospel, an effort that must be totally complete before the end can come (Matthew 24:14).
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