It’s a church filled with joyous expectation of Jesus’ soon appearing to take His saints home to glory.
It’s a church that concentrates its efforts upon appealing to the lost and increasing attendance on Sunday mornings.
In short, it’s a tale of two types of churches that one finds in our world today.
Revelation 3:7-22 describes churches in the towns of Philadelphia and Laodicea. In Jesus’ letters to them, we discover aspects of each that help us understand the differences between these assemblies of believers today.
On any given Sunday, a casual observer might not notice any difference between these two types. The worship and preaching will sound identical at first. Over time, however, discrepancies become apparent.
What, then, sets apart churches more closely aligned with the ancient body of believers in Philadelphia from the Laodicea-leaning ones?
The first distinguishing aspect between the two is the differing focus; one is inward while the other is outward.
In Revelation 3:17, we read Jesus’ words regarding the church at Laodicea:
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Among the other things that we notice from this verse, we recognize that the focus of this church is upon itself. Their economic prosperity had blinded the leaders to their spiritual poverty. They were proud of their affluence and assume that numbers imply God’s blessing and approval.
The tone of seeker-friendly churches tends to be self-serving; they frequently emphasize what they are doing. Like the one in ancient Laodicea, they often showcase their achievements. Church membership signifies commitment to its programs and ministries.
Commitment to the local church trumps devotion to Jesus in such churches.
Jesus, when describing the church at Philadelphia, says this in 3:8a:
“I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.”
Notice the telltale difference. Churches that resemble the one in Philadelphia pursue open doors even when those opportunities take the limelight away from themselves. Missions are not just a time to talk about what they are doing in the world but rather how other ministries support the overall cause of Christ.
Churches that resemble the one in ancient Philadelphia pursue “open” doors with the sole purpose of furthering the Gospel and glorifying the name of Jesus. Their focus is upon what benefits the body of Christ as a whole, not just those who walk in the doors of their own building.
The Words of Scripture
While both types of churches typically display a high regard for the integrity and inerrancy of Scripture in their statements of faith that one finds on their websites, there’s a critical difference in how they treat all the words of Scripture.
Notice the emphasis on words in Jesus’ opening comments to the church at Laodicea:
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation’” (Revelation 3:14).
It’s been my experience that many Laodicean-leaning churches cherish the words of the Bible until it comes to the matter of future things. Many of them adhere to replacement theology, which relies on the spiritualization of the words found in biblical prophecies regarding the future of Israel.
Leaders of such churches overlook what the words of Scripture actually reveal; they tell of God’s glorious restoration of a kingdom for the descendants of Jacob during Jesus’ thousand-year reign on the earth, during which time He will sit on the throne of David (Luke 1:30-33).
In other instances, the pastors tragically remain quiet about the blessed hope of the Gospel even though they believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture and God’s future restoration of Israel.
Notice the sharp contrast that we see in Jesus’ commendations of the Philadelphian church:
“I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8b).
“Because you have kept my word about patient endurance…” (Revelation 3:10a).
The word for “kept” in the above verses can carry with it the sense of guarding something so as to keep it in the state that one finds it. Leaders in these churches retain the words of the Bible in the state that they find them, words that signify Jesus’ imminent appearing to catch us up to meet Him in the air and His thousand-year reign during what we refer to as the “millennium.”
It’s to this church that Jesus says, “I am coming soon,” or quickly as the word suggests in the Greek (Revelation 3:11a). This promise of the Rapture brings us much-needed reassurance in these perilous times.
It’s in the words of Scripture that we find hope amid the perils of our day. It’s the glorious hope in Jesus’ appearing (the Rapture) that’s embedded in the Gospel that enables us to stand firm in today’s world.
Jesus stands on the outside of the Laodicean church knocking at its door (3:20). The leaders of these churches occupy themselves with promoting their programs and emphasize attendance numbers as a sure sign of God’s blessing. Perhaps they do not notice that they are serving themselves rather than the Chief Shepherd. Perhaps they do not miss His lack of participation in their many planning sessions for their future, which they assume is theirs for the taking in contrast to what Scripture tells us about presuming on the days ahead of us (James 4:13-17).
Many Laodicean-leaning churches today acknowledge the Lord and worship Him with music and praise, but He remains on the outside in what really matters. Smooth-running programs, ministries, and people filling the chairs at each service are the marks of success, even if the people in those seats do not hear the meat of God’s Word that would enable them to grow spiritually (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Looking at Jesus’ message to the Philadelphian church reveals a far different story. Jesus offers no criticism of the church but instead provides loving encouragement. It’s a message of praise for believers that clearly love Him. He’s the reason for their endurance as they patiently wait for Jesus’ appearing amid scoffing and distressful circumstances.
In such churches, Jesus is on the inside working through them to reach the lost and build up the saints.
Notice again the promises He makes to this ancient body of saints and to us as well:
“Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:10-11).
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ promise in the above verse applies to living saints? There’s no need to assure the “dead in Christ” that they will miss the “hour of trial” that everyone living in the world in the last days will experience. Jesus assumed that His promise to the church in Philadelphia would apply to saints living during the season of His appearing to take us home to glory.
Jesus’ glorious promise applies to all born-again believers. All those in Christ will be caught up in the air to meet the Savior, exactly as Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. After that, the “Day of the Lord” wrath will descend upon the earth-dwellers that Jesus refers to in the above verse (see also 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
Perhaps the greatest need for today’s leaders of Laodicean-leaning churches is “salve to anoint” their “eyes” (Revelation 3:18).
Pastor and Bible commentator John MacArthur wrote this regarding the need for sight on the part of the Laodicean church:
“Though they prided themselves on their allegedly superior spiritual knowledge, the Laodiceans were, in fact, spiritually stone blind. Blindness represents lack of understanding and knowledge of spiritual truth.” [i]
His words not only ring true regarding this late first-century AD church but speak to today’s lack of insight into the prophetic texts of the Bible. So many pastors today fail to recognize the signs of the times, which reveal that we live in the last moments before the Rapture and the start of the seven-year Tribulation.
We live in a world filled with continuing threats of a nuclear World War III, warnings of catastrophic food shortages for 2023, and dire forecasts of continued soaring inflation for the basic necessities of life, which cause many to wonder how they will be able to both heat their homes and put food on the table for their families at the same time this winter.
This is not a time to shy away from proclaiming what the Bible says about our glorious hope that starts with Jesus’ return for us, His beloved bride.
It’s the true state of our world that scares people (or at least it should). Biblical prophecy, on the other hand, both comforts us and prepares us for what lies ahead.
The Bible said that the world would look exactly as it does today in the days leading up to the Tribulation period. By faith, we see His hand at work even during this time of lawlessness. We glorify God as we recognize that He remains sovereignly in control of history and of the nations. And most encouraging, He controls our future as well.
As we witness a multitude of signs telling us that the world is right on the edge of seeing the fulfillment of all that John wrote about in Revelation 6-19, we magnify the greatness of the name of Jesus. The book of Revelation glorifies Christ from beginning to end. (See my post: Don’t Mess With the Book of Revelation.)
My heart breaks for believers who sit in churches never hearing about the glorious news regarding our future.
But They Faithfully Preach the Gospel
Many will protest my criticism of seeker-friendly churches by citing that its leaders often proclaim a pure Gospel in spite of teaching errant views or remaining silent regarding future things.
I agree that it’s wonderful that many seeker-friendly pastors proclaim the true saving message of the cross and people are coming to the Lord through their preaching.
However, as I have written in the past, those who divorce our “blessed hope” from their proclamation of the Gospel err in at least three ways:
- They must ignore or gloss over many biblical texts that speak to our glorious hope in Jesus’ appearing.
- They minimize the future glory that lies ahead for believers by making eternity appear distant and far less wonderful than what the Bible reveals.
- They fail to prepare the saints under their care for what might lie ahead before Jesus comes for us and God’s wrath descends upon the world.
This is the tale of two churches.
Though most do not check all the boxes of the Laodicean church that Jesus describes in Revelation 3, the seeker-friendly churches of our day exhibit many of its characteristics. My primary criticism is that, more often than not, they fail to emphasize the glorious, amazing, and over-the-top joyous message of Jesus’ appearing to take us up to glory. They sacrifice this teaching on the altar of church growth and booming programs.
Those that follow the lead of the Philadelphian church in today’s world hold tightly to Jesus’ words regarding His return for us and persevere in their watchfulness of His soon appearing.
My book, The Triumph of the Redeemed-An eternal Perspective that Calms Our Fears in Perilous Times, is available on Amazon. It’s all about how a strong biblical foundation in our glorious hope equips us to face a world ablaze in wickedness, deception, and lawlessness.
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[i] John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Revelation 1-11, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), p. 139.