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The Pharisees of Revelation 3
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By Danny Bell, July 30, 2013

What if I told you that the Laodicean Christian was not a backslider at all but in fact the very opposite? What if I told you that the Laodicean was a nicely dressed, well spoken, regular church attending, active Christian? What if I said that the common belief of the last day Laodicean as being someone who struggles with sin, sliding in his walk with the Lord was a false application of Revelation 3? What if I told you that we are experiencing the Laodicean spirit now in western Christianity more than ever before?

Most of us have read about the seven churches in Revelation. While visiting John in a vision on the Isle of Patmos, Jesus gave pointed messages to each of the seven churches that were in existence at the time. Starting in chapter two, Jesus delivers some wise counsel to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

Adventists, along with many commentators, teach that the seven churches have a future application to the seven phases of church history right down to the end of time. Each message to the churches becomes strikingly similar to the successive eras of the Christian movement with a descriptive likeness to what happened to the Church after the time of the Apostles. From the first organic roots of Christianity, a pattern emerges with matching counsel for each of the seven churches right down to Laodicea—the last era of Christians at the time of the end.

Out of the seven churches, however, the counsel given to Laodicea is the least flattering. In fact there’s no encouragement about their performance like the other churches, but only a stern rebuke that their condition makes Jesus sick: “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Revelation, 3:16, NKJV).

The condition of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3 is astonishing. They are presented as being in denial about their true condition and say to themselves that they are “rich, have become wealthy and have need of nothing” (v17), but in reality they are the opposite. Jesus calls them “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” (ibid). The last-day Laodicean does not fare well among the seven churches, earning the strongest rebuke from Christ Himself.

From my earliest memories, the Laodicean message has always been presented as being about backsliders. Preachers were not neglectful to point out that those who have continued to sin, leaving their first love, were Laodicean and had backslidden to a point where, if they didn’t change, God would spew them out of his mouth.

Backsliders are said to be those who have not overcome besetting sins, sliding backwards in their relationship with God. The Laodicean backsliders, therefore, were urged to buy ‘gold’ from God, “refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v18).

Under such instruction it seemed to me that I must feel even more ashamed of my sins and have more guilt that I had not overcome. The message was clear—the Laodicean Christian was a sinful backslider and should repent, coming up to a higher standard of behaviour than other church saints had attained, the saints who always seemed to be looking down at me with a kind of smug sympathy. For years I had held this belief, and for years... I was wrong.

While backsliders are in all churches and are in need of Gods ‘gold’, they are not the focus of Jesus’ message to Laodicea. The condition of the Laodicean is one of spiritual blindness, and because they cannot see their poverty of spirit, they feel no need to change. In fact it has nothing to do with backsliders at all, but more to do with a mentality that Jesus often encountered and warned about in his parables. The Laodicean spirit is not about specific sins but an attitude.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray reflects the difference perfectly. The Pharisee, proud of his spiritual attainments and blind to his true condition, prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other menextortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke18:11). The tax collector, representing more the backslider, prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (v13). Jesus concluded by giving credit to the man who was aware of his sins as opposed to him who was blind to his.

My favourite grandmother had this to say:

The people of God are represented in the message to the Laodiceans in a position of carnal security. They are at ease, believing themselves in an exalted condition of spiritual attainments.
(RH, September 16, 1873).

The Laodicean message is not about backsliders but about proud Christians. Self sufficient spiritual superiority versus the humility of common sinners can be seen in other parables such as the Prodigal Son, the Ten Virgins, the Sheep and the Goats, all of which point to the dangers of becoming spiritually proud and self-sufficient. Over and over, Jesus warned his disciples not to think of themselves too highly but rather be aware of their own spiritual poverty and dependence on God. This spiritual blindness was a constant source of discussion with Jesus, and he attributed it mostly to the Pharisees—a group responsible for His death and distorting what God actually requires from believers.

The Pharisees were in denial about many things when Jesus called them blind guides (Matt 23:24). In very descriptive rebukes, these self-sufficient worshippers were said to have: majored in minors, stopped the growth of churches, exalted themselves, made rules for others to follow but didn’t practice themselves, followed the law scrupulously, had an obsession with outward appearances and were full of hypocrisy.

The warnings about becoming spiritually proud were a precursor to the Laodicean condition spoken of in Revelation 3. It’s not about Christians who are aware of their sins and status before God. To the contrary, the Laodicean would likely fly under the radar and be sitting in our pews fully engaged in worship and the internal ministries of the church. The Laodicean holds positions of influence and authority, and their church record, for all appearances, is impeccable.

Unfortunately, the Laodicean is one who is happy in their religious walk and confident in their standing when it comes to being saved at the end (Matt 7:22). They may talk of their salvation as if it were a foregone conclusion and would perhaps deride those who didn’t exhibit such confidence and certainty. Their over-confidence is their downfall because it’s based on their apparent spiritual wealth, biblical knowledge and standing in the church. They are not struggling fringe-dwellers, but are at the core of church life and its functions, often leading out in high praise and sanctimonious acts of worship (Matt 6:2).

My grandmother again said,

I asked the meaning of the shaking I had seen and was shown that it would be caused by the straight testimony called forth by the counsel of the True Witness to the Laodiceans. This will have its effect upon the heart of the receiver, and will lead him to exalt the standard and pour forth the straight truth. Some will not bear this straight testimony. They will rise up against it, and this is what will cause a shaking among God's people (1T, p181).

The Shaking, as is commonly taught, is something that precedes the Latter Raina much coveted event by many Adventists who want to go home. Could this be, however, the reason why the Shaking has not come? Have we been applying the message of the Laodicean wrongly? Could it be in our pride of our high achievements and status within the church that we are unwittingly placing a burden on those who are stragglers in the spiritual department? In our concerns about being good rather than doing good are we not playing into the spirit of Laodicea and setting the bar too high for those who struggle?

Our foremother concludes:

It seems to me that the Lord is giving the erring, the weak and trembling, and even those who have apostatized from the truth, a special call to come fully into the fold. But there are but few in our churches who feel that this is the case. And there are still fewer who stand where they can help such. There are more who stand directly in the way of these poor souls. Very many have an exacting spirit. They require them to come to just such and such terms before they will reach to them the helping hand. Thus they hold them off at arms' length (T2, pg20).

This to me is classic Laodicea and again was encountered in Jesus’ time, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt 23:4-5). This distancing oneself from the rabble, the repulsion of dirty sinners, the selfish focus on our own comfort to the detriment of others is a strong theme that runs right through the New Testament to Revelation 3. There at the end of time, we see a church that is self-absorbed, self-sufficient and proud of her achievements.

All our prayers and wishful thinking for Jesus to come quickly may need to be tempered with this thought. The predicted Shaking will not come, as it depends greatly on our preachers and publications addressing the self-righteous and self-centred religion that infects the last-day western church culture.

We may also have to revise our teaching on the “Unpardonable Sin.” Is it right to attribute it to sinners who continue to fail in their attempts to live right, or could the unpardonable sin instead be about those who cannot see anything wrong? How can a sin be forgiven if it is not confessed? Maybe that’s why it is termed unpardonable?

The Laodicean is in a state of confidence and happiness concerning their stand with God and the church. They cannot see the needs of others beyond their own. They are self-sufficient, and their way of doing religion centers on externals and achievements they have acquired within their community. Jesus loves the Laodicean and pleads, “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (Rev 3:20). It’s not a surprise then that Jesus is found outside of the Laodicean church’s door knocking. Could it be that these are the things they lack—a heart for those who are desperate to come in and the capacity to see who it is who knocks?

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Join in the discussion:

Tapiwa Mushaninga
2013-07-31 3:56 AM

I agree with much of what you said but do not the same rules apply for sadducees as well? Are they not spiritually blind as well and that like?

Stephen Ferguson
2013-08-03 5:37 AM

Tapiwa on that, just spent some time reading up on Bultmann and modern theologians who don't really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as an actual historical-event involving a corporeal body.  Instead, Jesus' Resurrection was just in the disciples minds - a hallucination or trance, which they term 'altered state of consciousness.'  Given such theories are now common in Anglican, Lutheran and UC churches, one asks the obvious question - why bother still being a Christian?

I agree with the tone of your comments.  Being too conservative can lead to becoming like a Pharisee.  But being too liberal can lead to becoming a Sadducee, who denied the resurrection, instead having an empty religion focused on ritual, status and earthly power.

Not saying Danny is saying that either, but I think there is equal danger here for both extermist forms of religion.  

William Noel
2013-07-31 11:16 AM

Danny,

You're onto something very important for the church today to understand.  The concept of a "backslider" and the "unpardonable sin" are very closely related. 

A person does not have to leave the church to be a "backslider."  All they must do is let Jesus become secondary in their life and their faith a convenience or obligation that must be paid to gain salvation instead of the driving and preeminent force in their life.  They can be an elder, deacon, pastor, or whatever.  They can be faithful in returning tithes and giving offerings.  They can do all sorts of things to support the church and still be a confirmed backslider.  They actually are quite easy to identify because they have a form of godliness but none of the power of God. 

The unpardonable sin is a bit harder to understand because preachers have taught for so long that it is rejecting the Holy Spirit for so long that we are no longer responsive to Him.  You don't have to look far to find an awful lot of Adventists already matching the first description.  The evidence is how broadly the Holy Spirit is rejected and resisted.  Scripture promises that believers will be empowered by the Holy Spirit.  They will be performing miracles, signs and wonders.  The church will grow because the power of God is seen changing people through the ministries of the believers.  You don't see that very often today.  Neither do you see people seeking the Holy Spirit to transform and empower them. 

The second thing we've been taught about the unpardonable sin is that God cannot forgive a blasphemer and for proof preachers have been pointing us to the papal claim of divine authority to change the day of worship and being able to decide who will or will not be forgiven of sins.  Blasphemy in scripture is much broader and simpler: a blasphemer is anyone who claims to speak for God in a deceptive manner or exercise the authority of God without being empowered by God to do so.  They become unforgiveable when they refuse to repent.  You don't have to look far in many churches to find blasphemers in danger of eternal condemnation.  They're the people who teach without knowing what the Bible says.  They're the pious ones who impose all sorts of traditions on new believers instead of teaching them to connect with God and discover His will for them directly from Him.  They're the people who only let others serve in specific ways instead of seeking and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

God's terrible promise is that such people are repulsive to Him and will be spewed out of His mouth if they do not repent and let Him change them.  This should give each of us reason to stop and reexamine our relationship with God to be sure we are doing what He wants in His power.

Serge Agafonoff
2013-07-31 11:24 AM

Danny, you make a good case for the dropping of the historicist/futurist school of interpretation of Revelation.  

Just imagine what a difference it would make if we allowed ourselves to be Philadelphians rather than Laodiceans?  How would our self-image be then?  The church of brotherly love vs the church of  self-satisfied tepidity.  Being made a pillar in God's temple (Rev 3.12) vs being spewed out (Rev 3.16).  The church which only had commendation vs the church which only had criticism and a demand for correction.

Its our image of ourselves which often determines how we act, even unknowingly.  I know which one is my role model.

William Noel
2013-07-31 8:30 PM

Become the Philadelphians?  What a revolutionary idea!  But I fear too much so to draw people out of their devotion to arguing theology and warming pews instead of ministering God's love.  It has been absolutely revolutionary for me.  So much so I'm writing a book about it. 

Dingdong
2013-08-02 6:55 AM

My understanding is that the Sadducees while dangerous, were not subltey so like the Pharisee. The Pharisee invented extrabiblical hurdles to the word making it seem impossible for the straggler to gain ground. The Sadducees actually rejected the Oral Tradition of the Pharisees and this is what caused alot of divisions between them. To me the NT theme is clear - a strong thread of self righteousness gained by "being good" (following all the 'extra' rules), while doing good was left by the wayside. This was the specialty of the Pharisee. The Saducees were tied up in politics and concerns over the wealth of the church rather than conformity as many of them were known for their open exesses.

I see the backslider and the self righteous christian travelling very different paths. One assumes that earning the title of "backslider" precipitates that I was once close to God and now I am not - I have slidden back.  A backslider would have slid back from somewhere and that place assumingly was in a meaningful relationship with God. But how can the self righteous christian be deemed a backslider when they never slid back from anywhere? If we are following the self righteous and pride theme throughout the NT then that brand of religion actually never knew God (Matt 7:23) - hence they cant be true backsliders because they were never there in the first place.

Serge, for me to drop the historicist/prophetic view of Revelation, I would need to deny that my spiritual grandmother was not inspired by God when she said the same things. Does that make me a Pharisee?

William Noel
2013-08-04 4:37 AM

Dingdong,
I have seen many become a "backslider" while thinking they were following God.  Their condition becomes obvious when measuring whether they are bringing people into the Kingdom of God.  They claim to be "strengthening" or "building-up" the church when they are bringing no one into the Kingdom of God and perhaps even driving people out.  They become servants of tradition over scripture.  They spend more time reading the writings of your "favorite gradmother" than the Bible.  They get lost in endless debates about 1844, health reform, or some other topic.  They sincerely believe they are doing God's work, but when a crisis comes that tests their faith they find that what they believed was real faith does not survive.

Serge Agafonoff
2013-08-02 10:14 AM

Dingdong (is that the sound of request to open the door?) asks, '.... for me to drop the historicist/prophetic view of Revelation, I would need to deny that my spiritual grandmother was not inspired by God when she said the same things. Does that make me a Pharisee?'

I don't know, Dingdong.  But it will make you sad.  You see, your spiritual grandmother also once said that the door of mercy was now shut.  Now, had she understood what it means to be a Philadelphian, she would know that for them, 'the church in Philadelphia, ....... he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;  I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it:...' Rev 3.7,8

The seven churches motif can be seen to represent the totality of teh experiences of professed believers at any point in time.  As such, it is perfectly acceptable to try to identify with the one which best represents one's own personal experience, or aspiration.

I'm sure grandmother would want you to advance in spiritual understanding, not to remain fixed in nineteenth century ideas.  The bible calls it 'growing in grace, and in the knowledge of teh Lord Jesus Christ.'  2 Peter 3.18
 

Dingdong
2013-08-02 11:03 PM

Ahh, the shut door controversy.

I wont get into a debate here about it about it Serge, but I will say I studied this many years ago when looking into this supposed furphy of my garndmother. My mind was satisfied with what I came up with as I believed the Lord led me as I grew in grace.

My understanding of this event was that she never believed this as a prophet but as an early Millerite. I could be terribly mistaken but that was the gist of my memory of the study. My conclusion was that she was not a prophet at the time. The early Millerites had many beliefs that in hindsight were unsustainable. Forgive me if this is incorrect but its been a long time and may need a refresher on it. 

I accept your Apotelismatic understanding of the seven churches and would concur. Most prophetic stuff has current and future applications. 

Dingdong
2013-08-02 11:27 PM

"For a time after the disappointment in 1844, I did hold, in common with the advent body, that the door of mercy was then forever closed to the world. This position was taken before my first vision was given me. It was the light given me of God that corrected our error, and enabled us to see the true position.

I am still a believer in the shut-door theory, but not in the sense in which we at first employed the term or in which it is employed by my opponents" - EGW

Just found it - thats the grandmother I remember, the one we all know and love.

Unless she is a straight up liar.

 


Frank Allen
2013-08-03 9:08 AM

This is the same message I have heard for years, nothing new here—the church is in spiritual poverty. Why do you need to quote 100 year old EGW to prove this, her century old vision for the church is part of our problem? What solution is there to our self-fixation? Do you know? 

Abishalom Goldberg
2013-08-04 3:12 AM

I think the call is to take up the cross/yoke of Christ and evangelize, take up the Lords burden. The Lord has preplanned works for us to do. He hasn't picked out an easy road for any of us. Of Paul He said I will show you how you must suffer for me. Of us he says that if Christ suffered you will suffer. If our lives are easy and we arn't straining in the yoke and people arn't challanged by our witness and if no one hates us because of our faith and our family members don't disoun us then maybe we arn't doing it right. The Lord said if you fallow me you will face persacution. Laodicea were believers but they were stepping around any kind of trouble or persacution. The Lord set them steaght." You need some gold tried in the fire, you need to get into the game. Lift up Jesus at work or where ever you are and see what kind of trouble you get into. Start wining souls for Christ and just see how the devil attacks us. I say lets go get some of that gold tried in the fire. Whooee the Lord is blessing me right now.

William Noel
2013-08-04 4:45 AM

Abishalom,

I just love the way you keep pointing our attention back to what really matters!  Thank you.

Jesus taught His disciples to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit.  By doing that He prepared them to minister using the greater outpouring of power that came at Pentecost.  God's plan has always been that all believers should minister in that same indwelling power.  My life has not been the same since I discovered and connected with that power.  I am seeing God do amazing things.  Working with Him is the most fun that I've had in my entire life.  So it is frustrating seeing people talking about doing God's work and doing nothing but talking about it. 
 

Vernon P. Wagner
2013-08-04 7:49 PM

Must we continue the use of demeaning terms like: backslider, outsider, unbeliever, etc?  Are we no better than another well known religion that calls such people infidels?

My present wife studied the JW persuasion before we married, but was not a member.  I have, however, attended some meetings with her, and felt an icy chill when I heard them use those same terms against any who failed to follow their dogma.  Religion historically stifles freedom of thought. 

Tom
2013-08-04 8:49 PM

Vernon, as Thomas Jefferson said, loose quotation, 'the priest has always been the enemy of liberty.' and also that religion according to Napoleon is good to keep the people quiet.

Vernon P. Wagner
2013-08-04 11:49 PM

Quite right, Tom, and the Bolshevik: 'Religion is the opiate of the people.'

Tom
2013-08-04 8:47 PM

Love your article Danny, right on. Also love the comments, very enlightening!

One thing, we think that "evangelizing" is the way, but forget that a demonstration of everyday love and personal care for others is what leads people to the light, not a lot of talking about doctrines. I like the Unitarian idea, "deeds, not creeds". Live what you believe, act on the principles of love to others. As EGW said so often what the world needs is is the image of Christ to be seen in His followers, not a lot of talk. She also said that until we fulfill the description of the people found in Isaiah 58, we are nothing. A lot to think about!

Trevor Hammond [22oct1844]
2013-08-09 4:41 PM

I would agree with the author's first paragraph in the blog, however, I'm not sure how it could be that from his early memories he has heard preachers point out that the Laodicean Church condition was about backsliders. I have never come across this. In my experience it has always been the regular church goers whom Christ admonishes.

The message is particularly applicable to us as a Church. It is our true condition - albeit one that exposes a nauseating spiritual pride and a haughty self-centered spirit.  There are many souls within Adventism (and Christianity as a whole for that matter),  who have acknowledged this terrible malady and sought the remedy that Christ offers.   I suppose that's why Christ is so capable a judge. This also makes a reasonable case for the existence of the investigative phase of Judgment; after all, those who claim to be rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing will have to be sifted (by Christ) in order to prove their claims. Those guilty will be spewed out. Those who repent will receive God's blessing. Remember the fig tree.

The First Angels Message warns that the hour of God’s Judgment is come.  A people adjudged seems quite appropriate for Laodicea.
 

Peter Cieslar
2013-08-10 7:24 AM

Good article
Jesus here presents 3 conditions: hot, cold, and lukewarm.
Of these 3 condtions 'hot' is the best and 'lukewarm' is the least liked by Jesus. in fact Jesus would prefer us to be cold rather than lukewarm.  Let me try to define these 3 conditions.  I may be wrong and some of you may have better definitions so here goes:
Hot: this is a christian who has fully surrendered him/herself to Christ, forsaking all his idols seeing them as dung compared to Christ who he loves above anything in this world.  As he comes closer to Christ day by day he reflects Christ's love more fully.  As Chrrist reveals to him his defects of charcter he accepts the reproof and gives up with joy anything that the Lord asks him to give up.
Lukewarm:  This is a christian  who is not fully surrendered to Christ.  He has one foot in the world and one in the church and sees this as compatible with being saved.  He thinks that God will accept him and save him in this condition.  This includes both liberals and conservative pharisees.
Cold:  These are christians who are aware of their lost condition but have given up on God for whatever reason.  This would include the backsliders in this group.

All comments are welcome

JaNe
2013-08-16 9:26 PM

An example of being Laodicea would be the likes of AT, Spectrum, Adventist Wheel, La Sierra, etc.
Those who refuse to allow the temporal in their life bend to the spiritual. Rather, we see them bending the spiritual to the temporal while hiding behind a fuzzy, fake love that seems to be about boosting their spiritual self-esteem.
Truth gets left by the wayside of the gutter of their opinions.

Elaine Nelson
2013-08-16 11:02 PM

It's always "them" who are indicted.

Dingdong
2013-08-28 7:01 PM

Peter, good shot.

I would take it one step further.

Hot = anything hot, full of passion, someone who believes in what they are doing, even if it is having a "zeal without knowlege" - if you like it was Saul before he became Paul. God can work with that, he can change that heat into fuel for his fire.

Cold = from athiests to murderers in jail. Again, anything but lukewarm. Cold is better because we can heat the cold up in people - they know they are cold and the scum of society - there is only one way out for them - up!

Lukewarm = anyone who is comfortable. I talked with a family member the other day and they said they were comfortable with where they are as a christian and that they were in a good place where they have no problems. I said then you have a problem because all who live Godly in Christ will suffer persecution of some kind. To be a true Christian is to be suffering in some way - if your not, then you may be lukewarm - a condition that makes God sick.

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