The road from Philadelphia to Laodicea in the old Roman province of Asia could have been traversed in a couple of days on foot. Much of the way would have been upriver, but morally, it was all downgrade. That is, if the spiritual state of the assemblies in those cities had been taken into account, late in the first century of the Christian era.
Many Bible teachers understand the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 as not only moral in their bearing, but prophetic as well, and that each assembly sequentially brought into view gives us a perspective on successive periods in the history of the church of God. Among those who hold this view, there is not perfect agreement on the historical periods outlined by these letters from the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks among the candlesticks as Judge, rather than as Savior. All the same, there are a few principles that present themselves when these churches are viewed prophetically, and my comments are really intended for those who are not set against such an interpretation.
In bringing a few observations to the attention of my readers, I wish to avoid the controversy that may be caused by circumscribing these periods too concretely. No doubt most would agree that we do indeed live in the latter days of the church period, and that the moral state of Christendom (the realm of professing Christianity), is at a very low ebb. So-called “evangelical” Christianity has deteriorated over the decades as well, and all of us who seek to honor Christ in this scene must hang our heads in shame at our own failure in that endeavor.
I would encourage a fresh reading of Revelation 3, where we find Sardis as well, which will provide some context. What characterized Philadelphia, in contrast to the deadness found in Sardis? (Sardis is what Protestantism had degenerated into.) Two phrases are key here: ” . . . thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied My name” (v. 8), and ” . . . thou hast kept the word of my patience . . . ” (v.10). There was no boasting of Pentecostal power among that despised company, neither in A.D. 90, nor in their more recent spiritual heirs. However, there was a devoted adherence to the “word of Christ”¹ and a refusal to deny or compromise His name, as many others around them and before them doubtless had. This opened up before them (as a door – v. 8) the opportunity for great blessing, and we see that historically there was much precious truth recovered to the church of God during that brief time period: A fuller understanding of justification by faith, the recovery of the truth of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church (the promise of v. 10), the great principles of dispensational truth, the heavenly character of the church and the purposes of God, a renewed understanding and practicing of the truth of the body of Christ and the house of God, and more. Dr. Paul Wilkinson has spoken of the spiritual activity in this period as a “Bible reading or Bible study movement” in which the church was taken back to the word of God as interpreted literally.
So what has changed in the house of God² on earth that accounts for the stark difference in the Lord’s addresses to the last two churches in this series? The church began to boast in the knowledge and blessing it had received, while losing the sense of dependence upon the Lord that so marked those of Philadelphian character. The Lord’s condemnation is on account of Laodicea’s claim: “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” (v.17). The Lord Jesus is seen on the outside now, for it is evident that the church saw little need for Him, or to be dependent upon Him, any longer. How quickly things changed in the course of decades over the last half of the 19th century! In a recent piece on Fox News’ Opinion page, Jeremiah J. Johnston asks the question: “Why are so many Christians biblically illiterate?” He answers his own question in part by saying: “The Bible is not held in the esteem it once was. Over the last 150 years, America has drifted from its Biblical focus . . . Clearly, the challenge of biblical illiteracy in America is not because of a shortage of Bibles, but rather [because of a lack of] knowledge and appreciation of the Bible’s message.” I was struck that his period of 150 years corroborated what I believe the Laodicean period approximately covers, but the disease of lukewarmness has permeated the entirety of Christendom, not just America.
Because of the spiritual state in modern Christendom, I would add with some trepidation that healthy skepticism would be in order with regard to doctrines and practices that have their origins in the past century-and-a-half, or in the discarding of doctrines and practices that were maintained while the church was in a better spiritual state. In far too many cases, I would suggest that these recent additions or deletions are accommodations to the Laodicean spirit, rather than a further recovery of truth opened up to spiritual men by the Spirit of God.³
We have altogether gone down the moral grade toward Laodicea, and we ought to confess we are there. But in the measure that we desire for ourselves a Philadelphian character, our souls may still find an open door of blessing, and may “rejoice in the Lord always” at His sweet assurance: “I have loved thee.”
¹ Colossians 3:16 ² I Timothy 3:15; I Peter 4:17 ³ I Corinthians 2:12-13; 4:7