Old Testament Church Eras

While many are familiar with the idea of New Testament Church Eras being represented by the Churches of Revelation 2 & 3 (for details, see the article The Churches of Revelation 2 & 3), most have not realized that there, in a sense, may also have been parallel eras in the Old Testament.

I, COGwriter, recall hearing a sermon by the late Carl McNair in which he discussed them (McNair, Carl. Idols of the Heart. Sermon videotape VTE122, 3/24/01).

There was also discussed in an article by the late John Ogwyn that was reprinted in 2010, that I would like to quote here:

Seven is God’s number of completion, and is so used throughout the book of Revelation. Clearly, the seven churches of Revelation must represent the entirety of the Church. We often use the term “Church eras” because the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3, successive stops on a Roman mail route, represent seven stages or eras through which the Church was to pass historically. The seven lamps are used because the Church was always intended as a light to the world (Matthew 5:14). Yet what is often overlooked is that, just as the seven lamp-stands of Revelation 1 picture the New Testament Church, similarly the Temple’s one lampstand with seven branches can picture the Old Testament Church. As there have been seven eras or stages in New Testament Church history, let us explore the indications that there were seven eras of the Old Testament Church. Indeed, we can find some remarkable parallels between the story of God’s Old Testament Church and of His New Testament Church!

Old Testament Church Eras

The New Testament Church began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost upon those who first embraced the New Covenant that Christ had come proclaiming. The Old Testament Church began at Sinai, on the first Pentecost, when Israel received the Ten Commandments and accepted the terms of the Old Covenant. Remember, the difference between the Old and New Covenants was not the law, it was the hearts and minds of the people. Under the Old Covenant, God wrote His law with His own finger in tables of stone. Under the New Covenant, God set out to write His law (the same law) in the tables of our hearts through the power of His Spirit (Hebrews 8:8–10).

We can look at the Old Testament Church through a pattern of eras not unlike those outlined in Revelation 2– 3. The first era of the Old Testament Church was led by Moses, Joshua, and the elders that outlived Joshua. In many ways, this time was comparable to the time of Christ and the Apostles. It was the era of beginnings and of great miracles. It was a time of a clear sense of mission and of the need for God’s power to carry it out. It was also the story of an era that ended because it lost its first love (cf. Revelation 2:4). We are told that Israel served God all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlived Joshua (Joshua 24:31).

A second era of the Old Testament Church can be traced in the period of the Judges. This was a time of persecution and poverty, in many ways comparable to the story of Smyrna, the second era of the New Testament Church. The period of the Judges was a tumultuous time for the Old Testament Church. Throughout this period, God raised up deliverers for His people and the nation survived, despite the incursions and threats of many enemies. This era was a period in which survival was the chief accomplishment. The people of God were faced from the outside with persecutions, and with attraction to the pagan world around them from within.

The third era of the Old Testament Church was the time of the united monarchy. The kingships of Saul, David and Solomon saw Israel being released from the constant enemy incursions which characterized the time of the Judges. Yet, toward the end of this period, King Solomon became involved in idolatry as a result of the enticement of his many wives. His sins in this regard brought about the end of the united monarchy (1 Kings 11:1–11).

When we look at the Church at Pergamos, the third of the New Testament eras, we note some interesting comparisons. Pergamos means “fortified”—and this New Testament era was fortified from much persecution by being located primarily in remote mountainous regions, first in Armenia and later in the Balkans. This era was warned about being enticed by spiritual fornication and idolatry. Similarly, in this “fortified” period of Israel’s history, we find that similar enticements proved its undoing.

The next stage, which we can call the fourth era of the Old Testament Church, was the period of the divided monarchy. This era had its bright times, such as the reigns of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, as well as its dim periods such as the time of Queen Jezebel’s influence. Elijah and Elisha prophesied during the early part of this period, while Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea and others flourished in the latter part of this era.

Interestingly, the fourth stage of New Testament Church history, pictured by the Church at Thyatira, was a time of similar ups and downs. It was a time when spiritual Jezebel—the false church of which ancient Queen Jezebel was a type—sought to allure God’s servants into compromise and idolatry. Though there were dim times, there were also bright spots such as the preaching of Peter Waldo, and the emergence of the so-called Sabbatarian Anabaptists who flourished in the sixteenth century.

The story of God’s Old Testament Church continued after the end of the divided monarchy. In Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, we read of the time of Judah’s restoration. Zerubbabel and Joshua led a contingent of Jews back from Babylon, and God’s people had a fresh start. After the death of Ezra and Nehemiah at the end of the fifth century BC, however, there began a long and steady decline. Particularly after Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian monarchy in the fourth century and paved the way for inroads by Hellenism, the influence of the society around took a terrible toll on the Jews. During much of the third century and the first portion of the second, the Congregation of Israel “had a name that it was alive” but was for all practical purposes, spiritually “dead.”

How similar this story sounds to what is related of the Church at Sardis in Revelation 3, the fifth era of the New Testament Church. There were a few among them who were spiritually pure, but most simply had the name without any sign of spiritual life (vv. 1, 4). That was the state of the Sardis era when Mr. Herbert Armstrong came among them in the 1920s.

The Old Testament Church was at its nadir, in the second century BC, when God stirred up an elderly priest by the name of Matthias, along with his sons, to revive His flagging Work. This is known in history as the Maccabee Revolt. Daniel prophesied of this event in Daniel 11. Describing the Abomination of Desolation in verse 31, Daniel describes the actions of Antiochus Ephiphanes in profaning the temple and stopping the daily sacrifice. In the next verse he speaks of a people who knew their God and were therefore strong and did great exploits. This is a clear historical reference to the Maccabees, and the work that they did that resulted in the cleansing of the Temple in 164BC.

The sixth stage of the Old Testament Church, the Maccabees, clearly did a Work that preserved the knowledge of God’s truth, which was at the point of perishing. In so doing, they played a vital part in the years following, setting the stage for the time when the Messiah would appear. There are many parallels that could be drawn between the time of the Maccabees and the Church at Philadelphia, the sixth stage of the New Testament Church.

The seventh and final era of the Old Testament Church was the time of domination by the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:1, Jesus Christ told the people that the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat. How did they attain that position? Josephus, the first-century Jewish priest and historian, records the answer. “So Alexandria [widow of the Maccabee King Alexander], when she had taken the fortress [in 76BC], acted as her husband had suggested to her, and spoke to the Pharisees, and put all things into their power, both as to the dead body [of her husband] and as to the affairs of the kingdom...” (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, xvi, 1).

Christ rebuked the Pharisees of His day for their spiritual blindness (Matthew 23:16, 19, 24). The Pharisees considered themselves spiritually rich and in need of nothing, yet they were spiritually destitute. Christ told them that the harlots and publicans would enter the Kingdom before them (Matthew 21:31). The Pharisees maintained an outward form of religion, but were inwardly barren. Christ called them hypocrites—a term that referred to the actors who played parts in the Greek dramas of the day. Similarly, the seventh and final stage of the New Testament Church is pictured by the Church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3 as a complacent church that has mistaken form for substance. It is also the most sternly corrected of the seven.

Looking at the Old Testament Church, we are struck by some remarkable parallels with the story of the New Testament Church. The seven lamps of both Testaments point to God’s firstfruits and to their story through the centuries. Pentecost reminds us that God is calling out a firstfruits now, in this age. The great “ingathering” harvest pictured by the fall festivals lies yet ahead. The firstfruits are called out for a purpose, to accomplish a Work. In the course of carrying out God’s commission (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15)—the purpose for our calling now—we are to be a light to the world.

Just as the seven lamps of the Temple could not burn without oil, neither can the Church today shine forth without the illuminating power provided by God’s Holy Spirit. Pentecost certainly points to the Church and its calling into a special covenant relationship with God. It also points to the Holy Spirit, which is what makes it possible for us to fulfill our calling and our destiny. Let us be deeply thankful for God’s offer of His Spirit. If we truly are thankful for that gift, we should be seeking to stir it up and use it daily. (Ogwyn J. Pentecost: Lessons from the Old Testament Church. LCN. May-June 2010, pp. 19-20)

I wrote an article once that also suggested that the Laodiceans were modern versions of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Understanding church eras is probably more important now than ever.

Thiel B, COGwriter editor. Old Testament Church Eras. http://www.cogwriter.com/old-testament-church-eras.htm 2010

Some articles of possibly related interest may include:

Are the Laodiceans the Modern Sadducees and Pharisees? Discusses similarities of the Sadducees and Pharisees to various COGs in this end-time.
The Churches of Revelation 2 & 3 from 31 A.D. to present: information on all of the seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3.
1. The Ephesus Church Era was predominant from 31 A.D. to circa 135 A.D. The Church of James, Peter, Paul, and John, etc.
2. The Smyrna Church Era was predominant circa 135 A.D. to circa 450 A.D. The Church led by Polycarp, Melito, Polycrates, etc.
3. The Pergamos Church Era was predominant circa 450 A.D. to circa 1050 A.D. An especially persecuted Church.
4. The Thyatira Church Era was predominant circa 1050 A.D. to circa 1600 A.D. The Church during the Inquisition.
5. The Sardis Church Era was predominant circa 1600 A.D. to circa 1933 A.D. Discusses early history of the Seventh Day Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and COG-7th Day.
6. The Philadelphia Church Era was predominant circa 1933 A.D. to 1986 A.D. The old Radio Church of God and old Worldwide Church of God, now only a small remnant remains.
7. The Laodicean Church Era has been predominant circa 1986 A.D. to present. These are non-Philadelphians who mainly descended from the old WCG.

Continuing Church of God The group striving to be most faithful amongst all real Christian groups to the word of God. Here is a link to its website in Mandarin Chinese: http://www.ccog.asia (0ther language sites are in progress).

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