The Letter to Laodicea and the Eschatology of Revelation

 

 

 

The message to Laodicea is unique in terms of its sustained and consistent clustering of eschatological images.

Clinton Wahlen

The letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3, while clearly applicable to the local situations of each church, have traditionally been understood by Adventists as apocalyptic in nature and prophetic of seven periods of church history. However, more recent Adventist commentators, while not totally excluding the possibility of a secondary prophetic application, have tended to interpret them like other New Testament letters, focusing on the local, first‑century context of these seven cities as primarily in view. This new approach has been critiqued in an article examining the genre, structure, and content of these letters in light of the overall structure of the Book of Revelation, but only briefly discussing the prophetic application of these letters to church history.1

 

Overview of the Seven Letters

The letters to the seven churches should be seen within the larger structure of the book and, more particularly, in connection with the specific time references in Revelation 1:19 and 4:1, which indicate that these letters concern (from a first‑century viewpoint) both present circumstances and the future, while what follows from 4:1 onward primarily concerns the future. These letters are from Jesus Himself. They use apocalyptic imagery from the vision of Revelation 1:9 to 20 and exhibit a fixed structure, symmetry, and chiastic arrangement. They address universal concerns, not just matters of local interest, and they represent the first of the four septets of the book. These facts, suggest that, like the rest of Revelation, the letters were meant to be understood prophetically.

Comparing the seven letters with Christian history, they seem to fit well the condition of the church in successive periods, beginning as they do with a “first love” experience, reminiscent of the apostolic era but waning in John’s time, and concluding with a description of materialistic abundance fitting the modern‑day church.

The progressive depiction of church history in these letters from the second century onward has been outlined as follows: “The persecution described in connection with Smyrna fits well Rome’s persecution of Christians in the early centuries which was followed by the assimilation of the pagan Roman culture into Christianity evidently reflected in the syncretistic tendencies plaguing Pergamum and Thyatira . . . . The letter to Thyatira is notable for its length, which fits well the long period of church dominance during the Middle Ages. . . . [It is also where] we first hear of ‘faith’ and ‘love’ and that Thyatira’s last works are said to exceed the first ones—a description that fits well the onset of the Reformation (2:19). . . . By the time of Sardis, reforms have stalled and appear near death. Finally, the appellations with which Jesus describes himself to the Philadelphian and Laodicean churches, rather than pointing backward to chapter one, point forward to judgment and the second advent.”2 It is not just the initial appellations of Jesus, but also a number of other indicators in the letter that suggest an application to the time of the judgment and the Second Advent.

 

A Closer Look at Laodicea

The letter to Laodicea as the seventh of the sequence mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 suggests completeness. Being the last church of the seven, like the seventh item of the other septets, it also suggests finality. This thought is further underscored by the appellation of Jesus as “‘the Amen’” (3:14),3 a word used in four of the remaining seven times in Revelation, as in the New Testament more generally, to conclude a statement as its last word. In the three remaining instances, it affirms the truthfulness of what has just been said. This is also the way Jesus uses the word in the Gospels, except that there it is in reference to what He is about to say. The word is also associated with oaths in legal contexts and probably alludes to the “God of truth,” who creates new heavens and a new earth in Isaiah 65:16, a passage that connects the appellation with the eschaton as it is presented in Revelation 21 and 22.

The reference to Jesus as “the faithful and true witness,” appears in an almost identical form as a title of Jesus in Revelation 19:11, in which it depicts His second advent and His coming to execute judgment. By contrast, the last appellation in Revelation 3:14, “the beginning of God’s creation” (ESV, italics supplied), seems to have no connection whatsoever with the end. One might see this appellation in light of similar divine titles in Revelation: “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8), “the First and the Last” and “the Beginning and the End” (22:13), except that then we might expect this title to be listed first and “‘the Amen’” last.

As it is, the opposite order is striking: The title that refers to the beginning is at the end, and the title that refers to the end is at the beginning. Another possibility is that this third title, despite the explicit reference to Jesus as the “Origin” (NRSV) of God’s creation, may in fact also be connected with the eschaton. Apart from the song of the elders in Revelation 4:11, the only other use of the word translated as “origin” is in 10:6, which emphasizes the nearness of the end. The creation is also referred to in the final proclamation before the coming of Jesus (Rev. 14:7). Seemingly, creation becomes an issue at the end, an idea suggested also in 2 Peter 3:5. In Revelation 13 and 14, the final test connected with the mark of the beast hinges on true versus false worship. There even seems to be an attempt by the second beast to imitate creative power by giving “breath” to the image of the beast so that it appears to be alive (13:15). It is this issue surrounding true worship of the Creator with which the message of all three angels in Revelation 14:6–12 is ultimately concerned and which is already hinted at as an issue at the end by referring to Jesus as the origin of creation.

This latter passage, with its mention of the commandments (and the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20:11 in particular), suggests that connected with this call to worship the Creator is a renewed emphasis on the Sabbath as the outward sign of loyalty to Him. The importance of obedience is especially stressed in this section of the book (Rev. 12:17; 14:12). Therefore, it is probably no accident that the seventh church is called by the Creator to enjoy a closer relationship with Him, symbolized with eschatological overtones by eating together (3:20), at the time when a general call to worship on the seventh day is to be given to the world. The timing of this call, which began in the mid‑1800s, is remarkable in light of modern challenges, beginning at about the same time, to the Genesis creation account.

Another important emphasis of both the letter to Laodicea and Revelation 14 is the gospel message (3:17–19; 14:6, 7). While the call to repentance is present in many of the letters to the churches, references to works whether explicitly or implicitly are in all of them. However, the need of forgiveness or cleansing is rarely even implied, though the introduction to the book and scattered references elsewhere clearly refer to the sacrifice of Christ (1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 14:3, 4; 19:8; 22:14). The only explicit reference to the gospel or the preaching of it, other than Revelation 14:6 (in which both the noun and the verb occur), is in Revelation 10:7, which, as noted, is also an end-time context.

Assuming these seven churches have symbolic significance, a comparison of this letter with the ancient city of Laodicea presents striking contrasts. While the city was famous for its black woolen garments, the church needs white raiment, which, refers to the development of Christian character (Rev. 3:4, 5). At the same time, those who are ultimately victorious have made their garments white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb (7:14), suggesting the necessity of both justification and sanctification. Without these white garments, Laodicea’s current condition of nakedness will leave her unready for the return of Christ, who will come like a thief (16:15).

The other two needs of Laodicea likewise stress the nearness of the end. Although the ancient city was so prosperous that it needed no assistance from Rome to rebuild following a devastating earthquake in A.D. 60; and the church itself boasts of its wealth, Jesus says it is poor and in need of “gold tried in the fire” (3:18, KJV), which represents a faith proven through trial (1 Peter 1:7) and purified. This alludes to the testing that will occur in connection with the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:17), resulting in a people who have “the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12). The anointing with eye salve symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20, 27), which “destroys self‑deception and restores spiritual vision.”4 In an end‑time context, it may refer to a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17). With this in mind, the fact that the word used for the eyesalve also refers to that which could be “stamped with the physician’s seal” as well as to the “fine clay on which a seal can be impressed”5 may be significant. The seal of God, given to God’s faithful, end‑time remnant of “Israel” (Rev. 7:2–8) stands as the positive counterpart to the mark of the beast given to those who participate in false worship. The faithful ones are later shown singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, a song of their exodus‑like experience of deliverance.

There appears to be an intensification of the warnings of Christ’s soon coming in the letters to the seven churches. The same warning of Jesus coming like a thief is given to Sardis (Rev. 3:3) but in the larger context of the letter His coming is still clearly future. Sardis is also admonished to wake up, because although there are “a few” whose garments are pure, the church as a whole is dying. To the church at Philadelphia, Jesus promises that His coming is “soon” (vs. 11). And to the Laodiceans, Jesus is already standing at the door (vs. 20), emphasizing that His return is now very close indeed and that the heavenly banquet is just about ready to begin (vs. 20). The grammatical form of the word suggests that Jesus has been standing at the door for some time, waiting for the door to be opened.

This invitation to sup with Christ in 3:20 points “to eschatological union with the Friend who is welcomed in, the Lord of the parousia.”6 It also makes clear who is waiting for whom—that Jesus is waiting for each individual (shown by use of the singular) to open the “door” to more intimate fellowship with Him. The “supper” appears only twice, and both of these occurrences are in Revelation 19 which describes the Second Advent. One refers to the judgment of the wicked where the birds feed on their corpses at “the supper of the great God” (vs. 17). The other instance describes “‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’” (vss. 7–9). Here, as in Jesus’ parable of the marriage supper (Matt. 22:11, 12), the requirement of wearing the wedding garment is emphasized, pointing to an end‑time judgment that assesses the readiness of God’s people who have been invited to partake of the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Another image connected with eating that links holiness and judgment is Jesus’ threat to vomit out Laodicea because of its lukewarm, noncommittal attitude (Rev. 3:16). A significant intertext for this passage is found in the so‑called “holiness code” of Leviticus 17 to 26. Israel is called to holiness so that the land to which they are journeying will not vomit them out as it did the Canaanites who were before them (18:28; 20:22). Obviously, in the case of Laodicea, any such negative judgment must occur before entering the heavenly Canaan, since Revelation pictures paradise as being free not only from sin and sinners (21:8, 27) but also from sorrow, pain, and death (vs. 4). The pre‑advent timing of this judgment is confirmed in the book’s final chapter when, following the ominous pronouncement that those who are evil and those who are righteous should remain thus, Jesus promises to recompense all for what they have done (22:11, 12).

Even the final promise, that those who are victorious in Laodicea will sit with Jesus on His throne, points unequivocally to the end times. The only other place in Revelation where redeemed individuals are described as sitting on thrones with Christ is in the millennial judgment scene of Revelation 20. This special privilege is theirs apparently because, in the final test, they refused the mark of the beast and thus received the seal of God (20:4).

 

Conclusion

The letters to the seven churches prepare readers for understanding the later chapters of the Book of Revelation so that when read together they are mutually interpretative. There are numerous terminological and literary connections in the letter to Laodicea to the eschatological portions of the book.

The appellations of Christ in verse 14 point to issues connected with the reception of the seal of God for worshiping God as the Creator in contrast to those who receive the mark of the beast. In this end‑time context, the references to those who keep God’s commandments are especially pertinent. The prerequisite for this obedience is the proclamation of the gospel, which is implicit in the symbols employed in the counsel to Laodicea but explicitly announced by the angels in Revelation 10 and 14. While some of the other letters contain references to the Second Advent, the letter to Laodicea has the most urgent reference, with Jesus Himself standing at the door, knocking and waiting. In a single brilliant stroke, the invitation to sup anticipates the two alternative destinies, represented by the two suppers of Revelation 19, based on each individual’s response to Jesus. The threatened judgment recalls the warning given to Israel as they prepared to enter Canaan, while the promised reward refers directly to the unique privilege of sharing in Christ’s work of judgment granted to those who are victorious in the last great contest over the beast and his image.

While occasional glimpses of the end time can be seen in some of the other letters, the message to Laodicea is unique in terms of its sustained and consistent clustering of eschatological images. In particular, no other letter is so closely tied to the crucial central chapters of Revelation 12 to 14 and the climactic suppers of Revelation 19. These are also the primary contexts of the book that describe the Second Advent in detail.

It would appear that the letters’ applicability to the seven churches to which they are addressed, far from undermining the prophetic interpretation suggested here actually supports it. The prior study upon which this investigation builds suggested that these seven letters are to be understood principally as prophetic oracles applying to successive periods in the history of the Christian Church.7 Our close examination of the letter to Laodicea confirms that proposal, showing that the imagery by which Jesus is described in the seventh letter, as well as that which is used of the seventh church, has its correlates in the portions of the book that deal with events surrounding the Second Advent and the final rewards given at that time. In short, these letters seem to employ physical and spiritual characteristics of the seven cities/churches themselves parabolically of the future experience of the church, the recognition of which can assist the interpretation of apocalyptic symbolism in later chapters.

 

Clinton Wahlen, PhD, is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Clinton Wahlen, “Heaven’s View of the Church in Revelation 2 and 3,” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 9:2 (2006): 145–156.

2. Ibid., 155.

3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

4. Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St John: The Greek Text With Introduction Notes and Indices (London: Macmillan, 1907), 63.

5. LSJ, 972.

6. Johannes Behm, “δε_πvov, δειπvέω,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:34.

7. Wahlen, “Heaven’s View of the Church in Revelation 2 and 3,” 154, 155.