Because the Church of God understands prophecy, end-time events, and the book of Revelation, we often speak or hear of Laodicea and Philadelphia. We know that Philadelphia is promised protection from the great tribulation and that Laodicea is not. We know that Christ rebukes Laodicea but praises Philadelphia.
Christ said, "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36). It is Philadelphia that is given the promise of escape. "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10).
Being a Philadelphian Christian, having the character attributes Christ praises in His message to Philadelphia, is a worthy goal. Likewise, we should seek to overcome any wrong character traits and sins Christ describes Laodicea as having. God gave us these messages for our learning.
Bob Thiel used to teach that Living Church of God is Philadelphia, but he no longer teaches that. In one of my previous posts about Bob Thiel, I challenged him to list his criteria for evaluating if a Church of God fellowship is Philadelphian, and then state if his criteria has changed or if LCG has changed and no longer has the qualifications for Philadelphia according to Dr. Thiel's own criteria.
Here is a link to my post in which I challenged Bob Thiel about the criteria for Philadelphia:
For example, one criteria I think Dr. Thiel used is holding fast to the "eighteen truths" God restored to the Church through Mr. Armstrong. Another may be giving priority to preaching the gospel. Another may be top-down governance. I don't want to go too far in trying to list his criteria for him because if I continue I am bound to make some mistakes in the way I represent his criteria - he needs to speak for himself and explain it in his own words. But from my perspective, LCG seems to still have the characteristics that once led Bob Thiel to conclude they are Philadelphia, or at least most of them.
In this post, I want to explain what I think are the characteristics of a Philadelphian Christian. I am discussing the subject of Philadelphia from a little different angle. I am not trying to just list the criteria for a Church of God fellowship that is Philadelphian, though the characteristics can apply to an organization. But I am also discussing what makes an individual member in any fellowship a Philadelphian Christian.
Christ commends Philadelphia in the message to the churches in Revelation, and Philadelphia can thus serve as a positive example in the Bible for us to learn from. We should strive to have the characteristics of Philadelphia, to please God, and also in hope that God will empower us to finish the work and count us worthy to be protected from the tribulation.
What are those characteristics?
"I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (Revelation 3:8-11).
Notice that Philadelphia is to "hold fast". What is Philadelphia to hold fast to?
Some say Philadelphia is to hold fast to doctrine, a set of doctrinal beliefs, such as the eighteen truths that God restored to the Church of God through Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong.
But Mr. Armstrong himself was Philadelphian before he restored the 18 truths. He had the zeal, the open door, and God blessed him. So this message said to Mr. Armstrong in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, "I have set before you an open door" and "hold fast to what you have". Yet he was in the process of discovering and restoring the 18 truths. That could not be what Christ said to hold fast to.
What did Mr. Armstrong have that he and other members of the Church were to hold fast to? They had the willingness to change their doctrinal beliefs to follow the Bible. Mr. Armstrong believed the Bible more than his traditions, the traditions he grew up with. He was willing to learn new knowledge from the Bible and to let the Bible correct his doctrines. He believed God. That is HOW he learned the 18 truths. If he were not willing to let the Bible teach him new knowledge and change his doctrines to follow the Bible, God could not have used him to restore the 18 truths. Nor could God have given him an open door. And we would not have those truths today, or at least not through him. God would have had to use somebody else.
Not only was Mr. Armstrong willing to change his beliefs, to admit error and be corrected by the Bible, but those who supported him in those years had to do the same. Thousands of people raised in mainstream religious traditions, and some who had no religion at all, had to admit they were wrong, let the Bible correct them, and believe the Bible. They had to be willing to learn knew knowledge from the Bible just like Mr. Armstrong.
It was only because Mr. Armstrong believed the Bible and was willing to change his doctrines that God could use him to build the Philadelphia era of the Church of God.
He who had the open door had to go to the public and teach them, in effect: "Don't believe me, don't believe any man, don't believe your traditions, but believe God - believe the Bible." But the man God chose to do this could not be a hypocrite. He had to practice what he preached. That is God's way.
God gave Mr. Armstrong an open door to preach a message to the public telling them that their traditions are wrong and they need to give up their traditions and follow what the Bible actually says. But before Mr. Armstrong could teach that he had to be tested to see if he was willing to do that himself. The story is in his autobiography.
I talk about this in my book, Preaching the Gospel. Basically, God tested Loma Armstrong when a Church of God member taught her about the Sabbath from the Bible. Mrs. Armstrong passed the test and gave up her Sunday tradition to follow the Bible. Then, God was able to use Mrs. Armstrong to test Mr. Armstrong. It was harder for him, but he also passed the test and believed the Bible more than the traditions he was raised in.
Then God used Mr. Armstrong to test the leadership of the Church of God (Seventh Day) to see if they would accept new truth. They did not. So God could not use that group to preach that message to the public. They never had the open door.
So God used Mr. Armstrong and gave him the open door, and that was the start of the Philadelphia era.
Willingness to learn new knowledge from the Bible and to let the Bible correct us in doctrine, giving up our traditions when necessary to follow the Bible, is a characteristic of Philadelphians. That is one of the things Philadelphia is to hold fast to.
Those groups and leaders who teach that Mr. Armstrong's doctrines should never be changed are only proving that they have given up that which Christ tells Philadelphians to hold fast to - willingness to learn new knowledge from the Bible.
A true Philadelphian Christian will believe the Bible more than his traditions, more than his opinions, and more than the leadership and the ministry of the organization he attends. He will respect the ministry and not cause division, but if he sees something in the Bible that is different from what the Church he attends teaches, he will believe the Bible more than the Church he attends. If it is not something major and foundational, he can quietly wait for Christ to make the correction. He will not take it upon himself to promote his opinions about scripture among the brethren or to contradict the ministry.
Basing our beliefs on the Bible is part of holding fast to what made Mr. Armstrong a Philadelphian. Christ also said, "you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name". Basing our beliefs on the Bible is also part of keeping Christ's word, for the Bible is the Word of God. Mr. Armstrong taught that the Bible is the word of God in print and Jesus Christ is the Word of God in person. Christ is called "the Word of God" in Revelation 19:13. Christ said, man should live by EVERY word of God (Matthew 4:4).
Another characteristic of Philadelphia is zeal for preaching the gospel to the world.
Christ promises Philadelphia an open door to preaching the gospel to the world (Revelation 3:8, Colossians 4:2-4, 2 Corinthians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 16:8-9). But that requires zeal to go through that open door.
What is the difference between a Church of God fellowship that has an active, effective work of preaching the gospel to the world and one that does not? It is not physical opportunity. All Churches of God have pretty much the same opportunity. We still have the freedom to go on TV and radio, to publish books and magazines, to set up websites and advertise them, and to hold public Bible lectures. It is not money. Generally, all Churches of God have a similar mixture of middle class, working class, and a few poor members. The average per-person income in each fellowship probably does not differ greatly.
What makes the difference is ZEAL. Those with zeal make the sacrifices to go through an open door, those without zeal do not. In fact, it is inspired zeal that really opens the door.
That zeal can be motivated by love for our countrymen who need a warning. They need to be told their sins (Isaiah 58:1). Many do not know what they are. They do not know they need to keep the weekly and annual sabbaths. They do not know that religious pictures and statues should not be used as an "aid" to worship. They do not know that Christmas and Easter are wrong.
They need to be told by the Church (not the two witnesses) what they are doing wrong and that they need to repent, BEFORE the tribulation begins, while there is still time to repent and escape. What good does it do to warn them while they are IN the tribulation? It is too late then. The two witnesses are given special power at the start of the tribulation. The people need a warning before then.
Even though most will not repent before the tribulation, they need to hear the warning now so they know that God was fair to warn them before it was too late, so they can accept responsibility for ignoring the warning instead of blaming God for not warning them. If they hear the warning now, it will be easier for them to repent in the tribulation. Why? They will say, "I remember the warning, but I ignored it - this is my fault, I should have listened."
But if we don't get the warning out now, what will they say during the tribulation? "I didn't know it was wrong to use holy pictures, to work on Saturday, or to keep Christmas and Easter. No one warned me. How was I supposed to know? God isn't fair to punish me for something that's not my fault."
Which is better? Which will make it easier for the people to repent? It is better that they know they were warned, so they can accept responsibility for ignoring the warning, which will make their repentance easier.
Accepting responsibility for our mistakes is a first step towards repentance.
Do we love our neighbors enough to be zealous to get the message of God's truth, the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning, out to them now? Do we have the zeal to make the sacrifices? Or do we say, "let the two witnesses do it" (when it is too late).
Giving Israel a warning now helps demonstrate God's fairness and glorifies His name.
Zeal for preaching the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning to the world and to Israel is a characteristic of Philadelphia Christians. Otherwise, the "open door" would not really be an open door. It is zeal that opens the door at a time when all groups have the money and freedom to publish the message, but some are not willing to sacrifice. That is one of the things Mr. Armstrong had from the beginning that Philadelphians are to hold fast to.
I also think Philadelphians are to hold fast to the understanding that we are not just to do what we are explicitly commanded to do, but we are to seek and do God's WILL in everything. We should want to please Him in all our decisions, to do what Christ would want us to do. That was Christ's FOOD, to do the Father's will and to finish His work (John 4:34).
A key test is our attitude towards Church governance. Some COG fellowships have top-down governance and some have voting. What does the Bible say?
If you are only looking for a specific command, there is none. You will not find, "Thou shalt not vote", in the Bible.
But if you are looking for God's will, God's desire, not just what He specifically commands, you will find a pattern in the Bible of how God selects leaders, and it is never by voting. If we are seeking to do God's will, we will learn from and follow that pattern as best we can. That pattern is governance from the top down. Following the pattern God shows us in the Bible is part of living by every word of God (Matthew 4:4).
Allowing Christ to select leaders in the Church of God, not the ministers selecting the leaders by voting, is part of keeping Christ's word and not denying His name (Revelation 3:8). Christ's name can refer to His authority, as when we pray to the Father in Christ's name - we are doing it by Christ's authority. We should accept Christ's authority to choose leaders in the Church of God and not try to choose those leaders ourselves by voting.
Mr. Armstrong understood that God's government is from the top down, and I think that is one of the characteristics of Philadelphia we are to hold fast to.
I think these are some of the characteristics of being a Philadelphian Christian.
But there may be an irony in that Philadelphian Christians may not be sure they are Philadelphian.
Christ praises and does not rebuke Philadelphia. That seems to indicate that Philadelphians have the true spiritual riches. Yet, thinking we are rich and increased in goods (spiritually) may be more an attribute of Laodicea, not Philadelphia. "Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'-and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17).
"Philadelphia" refers to brotherly love. But I have been told that "Laodicea" can mean "the people judge".
What is it that Laodiceans judge that they should not?
"The people judge" may refer to voting in the sense that the people who vote decide who will rule over them rather than submit to Christ's choice about who will rule over them.
But also, it can refer to an attitude of judging others and comparing ourselves with others.
Christ said, "judge not" (Matthew 7:1) and Paul warned against comparing ourselves with each other (2 Corinthians 10:12). We should compare ourselves with Christ, not other Church members. This is especially important prior to Passover when we examine ourselves. We should measure ourselves and compare ourselves with Christ.
Laodiceans may tend to compare themselves with other Church members, and because we all have faults, they can see the faults in others and thus justify themselves, thinking, "I am not as bad as that person". Looking at the faults of others in comparison to ourselves is a pretty good recipe for self-satisfaction, the feeling that we are ok as we are, spiritually "rich and increased in goods", and not know that we are spiritually blind.
But a Philadelphian should compare himself or herself with Christ. That is the antidote to self-satisfaction. None of us measure up to Christ's perfect example.
A Philadelphian therefore is likely to be more aware of his or her own shortcomings and faults, which is why a Philadelphian may not feel worthy of being counted as a Philadelphian.
I think that rather than considering ourselves to be Philadelphian, we should think of it as a goal to strive for but not yet achieved. We should look to Christ to see where we fall short, and focus on that so that we repent and overcome.
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
CHAPTER 4 - WHY PREACH THE GOSPEL?
When and How to Judge, Chapter 5
CHAPTER 6 - OBTAINING GOD'S HELP -- PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH
CHAPTER 8 - GOVERNMENT IN THE CHURCH OF GOD