In the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, John received a message for the “angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). As we have pointed out before [compare the Q&A in Update 157], these messages were to be meant for seven existing local Church congregations in seven distinct cities at John’s time, but they were also directed to all Christians at all times (compare Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, and 22), and they included messages for seven consecutive Church eras, beginning at the time of John, and ending at the time of Christ’s Second Coming (compare Revelation 1:19-20).
The seven Church eras can be briefly described as the eras of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7); Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11); Pergamos (Revelation 2:12-17); Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29); Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6); Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13); and Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22).
The following sets forth our understanding of the identities of the seven Church eras, as taught by the Church of God for over the past 50 years:
The first era of Ephesus describes the Nazarenes. The Bible itself identifies the early Christians as the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Worldly records tell us that the Nazarenes kept the Sabbath and the annual Holy Days, abstained from eating unclean meats, and practiced the “ceremonies of Moses” — in other words, they adhered to both the Old and the New Testaments. Historians tell us that the Nazarenes and the Ebonites escaped the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by fleeing to the city of Pella in 69 A.D. The Ebonites were not part of the Church of God, however, but they clung to converted brethren. The Nazarenes are still mentioned in records of the 5th century. They preserved the book of Matthew. Paul spent much time in the city of Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8). According to tradition, John and Philip died in Ephesus. According to Revelation 2:2, the Church of that era was originally zealous, but by the time of the second or third generation, it began to lose “its first love” (verse 4). [This might perhaps constitute a parallel of God’s Church in this day and age.]
The second era of Smyrna began with Polycarp, a minister in Smyrna. After his release from the island of Patmos, John trained Polycarp to become his successor. Polycarp was killed by a mob for his belief in the Sabbath, Passover, and other laws of God. The Smyrna era was to be persecuted for 10 days (Revelation 2:10). A day in prophecy represents a year (compare Ezekiel 4:4-6; Numbers 14:34). This ten-year persecution occurred under Diocletian and Galerius, from 303 until 313 A.D. After that persecution, Constantine, in 325 A.D., expelled all “non-Christian churches,” that is, non-Catholic churches (including the true worshippers in the Church of God) from the Roman Empire. In 365 A.D. he prohibited the keeping of the Sabbath.
The third era of Pergamos began about 650 A.D. True Christians became known at that time as “Paulicians.” One important leader was Constantine of Mananali. Originally, the Paulicians believed what the Nazarenes and Polycarp had believed. Worldly records tell us that they kept the Sabbath, the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread; that they preached the Kingdom of God; and that they baptized by immersion. Apparently, more than 100,000 Paulicians died as martyrs. Later, and perhaps because of persecution, many turned away from the true faith and resorted to violence. They became known as a warrior sect; their ministers were also generals.
The fourth era of Thyatira began at the time of the Reformation. The most important leader of the Church at that time was Peter Waldo, and the Church became known as Waldenses. They were active in the 12th century in the German and Swiss regions of Europe. In 1309, they preached the gospel in The Netherlands, and in 1315, in England. They kept the Sabbath and the annual Holy Days, and they rejected pagan customs which had been embraced by orthodox Christianity, such as Easter. Remnants will still exist when Christ returns (Revelation 2:25). However, when persecution began, many resorted to violence, as the Paulicians had done, and they began to forsake the truth and adopted wrong teachings to save their lives (Revelation 2:20-23).
The fifth era of Sardis began about 1585 in England. The practice of Sabbath-keeping became known again during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). One important leader was Stephen Mumford who founded the Church of God in the United States in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1664. In the middle of the 19th century, true Christians became part of an Adventist movement, but separated in 1860 and began to publish numerous magazines and pamphlets, including, “The Remnant of Israel,” “The Sabbath Advocate,” and the “Bible Advocate.” Ministers were sent from Missouri, Oklahoma and Oregon to Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines, and congregations in those countries began to keep the Sabbath and the Holy Days. Remnants of the Sardis era will exist when Christ returns (Revelation 3:3).
The sixth era of Philadelphia began under Herbert W. Armstrong, who had come into contact with the Sardis era in 1927, and was ordained as a minister in 1931. The Philadelphia era began in 1933. In 1934, the truth was preached from a radio station in Oregon, and in 1953, radio programs began to be broadcast in Europe. The Church of God became known as the Radio Church of God and later as the Worldwide Church of God, with its educational institutions of Ambassador College and Ambassador Foundation, headquartered in Pasadena, California. It is our understanding that the Laodicea era began, when Mr. Armstrong died in 1986. (Mr. Armstrong wondered in his prayer, when appointing Mr. Tkach as his successor just before his death, whether the Laodicea era was about to begin. We believe that subsequent events have shown that this was in fact the case.) Since Christ promises the Philadelphians protection from the Great Tribulation (Revelation 3:10), remnants of the Philadelphia era must still exist and be active (compare Revelation 3:8; Matthew 24:45-47) at the time of Christ’s return.
The last era, that of the Laodiceans (compare Revelation 3:14), will be predominantly in existence at the time of Christ’s return. But this does not mean that those who are called today could not become a part of the remnant of the Philadelphia era. Laodiceans are not limited to any one particular Church organization, but they can be found in every organization. Regardless of our “corporate” affiliation, and regardless of what Church era we actually belong to individually, all of us in God’s Church must remain to be or become zealous and repent (compare Revelation 3:19), and all of us must maintain or acquire the Philadelphia spirit (compare Revelation 3:11) to be accounted worthy to escape the terrible times ahead, and to stand before the Son of God, when He returns (Luke 21:36).