Clinton Wahlen, PhD, is an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 have traditionally been understood by Seventh-day Adventists as prophetic of seven periods of church history.1 Recent Adventist commentators, though 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.2 This new approach has been critiqued by comparing the genre, structure, and content of these letters to the overall structure of the book of Revelation, and the prophetic application of these letters to church history received only brief discussion in previous studies.3 The present study, by examining the letter to Laodicea as a test case, is an attempt to establish whether an exegetical approach will further support a prophetic interpretation for these seven letters.

Following a brief summary of the most salient points from that article, it will be argued that literary, historical, and archaeological information combined may be useful for understanding the prophetic application of a given letter.

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 that which follows Revelation 4:1 primarily concerns the future.4 Furthermore, the fact that these letters are from Jesus Himself; that they use apocalyptic imagery from the vision of Revelation 1:9–20 and exhibit a fixed structure, symmetry, and chiastic arrangement; that they address universal concerns, not just matters of local interest; and that they represent the first of the four septets of the book—suggest that, like the rest of Revelation, they were meant primarily to be understood prophetically.

Comparing the seven letters with Christian history, we find that they seem to fit the condition of the church in successive periods well, 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 that fits the modern-day church. The progressive depiction of church history in these letters from the second century onward was outlined previously 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.”5

This last sentence, especially in reference to the letter to Laodicea, will be elaborated upon in this study. As will become evident, it is not just the initial appellations of Jesus but also several 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 placement of the letter to Laodicea as the seventh of the sequence mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 suggests completeness.6 Being the last church of the seven, like the seventh item of the other septets, also suggests finality. This thought is further underscored by the appellation of Jesus as “the Amen” (Rev. 3:14), a word used in four of the remaining seven occurrences in Revelation, as in the New Testament more generally,7 to conclude a statement as its last word.8 In the three remaining instances, it affirms the truthfulness of what has just been said.9 This is also how Jesus uses the word in the Gospels, except that there it refers to what He is about to say.10 The word is also associated with oaths in legal contexts11 and probably alludes to the “God of truth [אָמֵן],” who creates new heavens and a new earth in Isaiah 65:16, 17,12 a passage that connects the appellation with the eschaton as it is presented in Revelation 21 and 22.

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.

The reference to Jesus as “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14) appears in an almost identical form as a title of Jesus in Revelation 19:11, where it depicts His second advent and coming to execute judgment.13 By contrast, the last appellation in Revelation 3:14, “the beginning [or origin, ἀρχή] of God’s creation,” 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,” “the First and the Last,” “the Beginning [ἀρχή] and the End”),14 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 Origin15 of God’s creation (κτίσις, used only here in Revelation), 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 κτίζω is in Revelation 10:6, which emphasizes the nearness of the end.16 Creation is also referred to in the final proclamation before the coming of Jesus (Rev. 14:7; cf. vv. 14–16). Seemingly, Creation becomes an issue at the end, an idea also suggested 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” (πνεῦμα) to the image of the beast so that it appears to be alive (Rev. 13:15; cf. Gen 2:7). It is this issue surrounding true worship of the Creator with which the messages of all three angels in Revelation 14:6–12 are ultimately concerned and which is already hinted at as an issue at the end by referring to Jesus as the ἀρχή of creation.

With its mention of the commandments, and the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20:11 in particular, this latter passage suggests that connected with this call to worship the Creator, there 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,17 symbolized with eschatological overtones18 by eating together (3:20),19 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 to the Genesis Creation account, which began about the same time.

Another important emphasis of both the letter to Laodicea and Revelation 14 is the gospel message (Rev. 3:17–19; 14:6, 7). While the call to repentance is present in many of the letters to the churches (but not all),20 references to works, whether explicitly or implicitly, are in all of them.21 However, the need for forgiveness or cleansing is rarely even implied, although the introduction to the book and scattered references elsewhere clearly refer to the sacrifice of Christ (Rev. 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 14:3, 4; 19:8; 22:14). The only explicit reference to the gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) or the preaching of it (εὐαγγελίζω), other than Revelation 14:6 (in which both the noun and the verb occur), is in Revelation 10:7, which is also an end-time context.

The ancient city

Assuming these seven churches have symbolic significance,22 a comparison of this letter with the ancient city of Laodicea reveals some striking contrasts. While the city was famous for its black woolen garments,23 the church needs white raiment, which, based on usage of the word ἱμάτιον earlier in this chapter, refers to the development of Christian character (Rev. 3:4, 5; cf. 19:8).24 At the same time, those who are ultimately victorious have made their garments white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14; cf. 22:14), 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 (Rev. 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 new normal in AD 6025 and the church itself boasts of its wealth, Jesus says it is poor26 and in need of “gold tried by fire,” which represents a faith proven through trial (1 Pet. 1:7; cf. Luke 18:8)27 and alludes to the testing that will occur in connection with the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:10; cf. Dan. 3:17, 18, 25).

The anointing (ἐνχρίω) with eye salve symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20, 27; cf. Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38),28 which “destroys self-deception and restores spiritual vision.”29 In an end-time context, it may refer to a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. With this in mind, the fact that the word translated “eyesalve” (κολλ[ο]ύριον) 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”30 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.31

Christ’s soon coming

There appears to be an intensification of the warnings of Christ’s soon coming in the letters to the seven churches.32 The first clear references are general ones to “hold fast” given to Thyatira (Rev. 2:25) and the warning of Jesus’ coming “like a thief” given to Sardis (Rev. 3:3). But, in the larger context of these letters, the time of His coming remains indefinite and still seems to be clearly future. Sardis is also admonished to wake up because although there are “a few” whose garments are pure,33 the church as a whole is dying. To the church at Philadelphia, Jesus promises that His coming is “soon” (ταχύ, v. 11).34 And to the Laodiceans, Jesus is already standing at the door (v. 20), emphasizing that His return is now soon indeed (cf. James 5:9) and that the heavenly banquet is just about ready to begin (Rev. 3:20).35

This invitation to sup (δειπνέω) with Christ in verse 20 points “to eschatological union with the Friend who is welcomed in, the Lord of the parousia.”36 It also clarifies who is waiting for whom—that Jesus is waiting for each individual (shown by the use of the singular) to open the “door” to a more intimate fellowship with Him.37 The cognate noun δεῖπνον 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” (Rev. 19:17). The other instance describes “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (vv. 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.38

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 17–26. 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 (Lev. 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 (Rev. 21:8, 27) but also from sorrow, pain, and death (v. 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 at His coming (Rev. 22:11, 12).

Even the final promise that those who are victorious in Laodicea will sit with Jesus on His throne points 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 20.39 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 (Rev. 20:4).40

Eschatological imagery

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. The present study has identified numerous terminological and literary connections in the letter to Laodicea to the book’s eschatological portions.

The appellations of Christ in Revelation 3:14 point to issues connected with the reception of the seal of God for worshiping God as the Creator in contrast with 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 only 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 12–14 and the climactic suppers of Revelation 19. These are also the primary contexts of the book that describe the Second Advent in detail. Judging from this test case, at least, the prior study, which suggested a prophetic interpretation for these seven letters (applying to successive periods in the history of the Christian church), appears to be confirmed.

  1. Cf. Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 of the Commentary Reference Series (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957), 737 and elsewhere; Uriah Smith, Thoughts on Daniel and Revelation (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1972), 329; Roy Allan Anderson, Unfolding the Revelation: Evangelistic Studies for Public Presentation (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1961), 7, 8.
  2. Jon Paulien, “The End of Historicism? Reflections on the Adventist Approach to Biblical Apocalyptic—Part One,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14 (2003): 15–43, esp. 39n123; Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), also generally uses noncommittal language in discussing the application of Revelation 2, 3 to church history (e.g., “One may observe” or “might also aptly apply,” 121, 142; cf. 88), a view he essentially argues against on exegetical grounds, saying that “the context does not indicate that the seven messages were intended to be the prophetic outline of the history of the Christian church” (87). Taking an eclectic approach, interpreting the letters as prophetic, as well as historical and symbolic, is Jacques B. Doukhan, Secrets of Revelation: The Apocalypse Through Hebrew Eyes (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002), 28, 29, and elsewhere.
  3. Clinton Wahlen, “Heaven’s View of the Church in Revelation 2–3,” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 9, no. 2 (2006): 145–156; cf. Clinton Wahlen, “Letters to the Seven Churches: Historical or Prophetic?” Ministry, November 2007, 12–15. On the broader question of using a historicist approach to the book as a whole, see Richard A. Sabuin, “Historicism: The Adventist Approach? A Response to the Challenges to Historicism,” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 11, no. 2 (2008): 159–174.
  4. Cf. Sabuin, 170. Whether or not the first καί in 1:19 should be read epexegetically (Sabuin, 170n60) does not affect the larger conclusion that the letters also have a prophetic application. Cf. Wahlen, “Heaven’s View,” 147–149.
  5. Wahlen, 155; Cf. Edwin Reynolds, “Now Is the Time! The Eschatology of the New Testament,” Asia Adventist Seminary Studies 2 (1999): 85–93, esp. 91.
  6. Use of the number seven to signify completeness, found also in Babylonian, Assyrian, and Ugaritic traditions, conforms to the number’s significance in the Old Testament (E. Otto, “שֶׁבַע šeḇa‘ ; “שָׁבוּעוֹת šāḇû‘ôṯ,” in G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, trans. Douglas W. Stott [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 14:351). The use of seven not only in connection with divinity (Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) but also in connection with anti-God imagery (Rev. 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 9, 11) seems to suggest the completeness of divine perfection on the one hand and of evil and imitation of the divine on the other (Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “ἑπτά κτλ,” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964], 2:632).
  7. Rom. 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 15:33; 16:27; Gal. 1:5; 6:18; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; 5:11; Jude 25.
  8. These include a doxology (Rev. 1:6), a solemn affirmation (v. 7), and a prayer (Rev. 7:12); also Rev. 5:14, concluding the doxology in the preceding verse. Cf. R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John With Introduction, Notes, and Indices also the Greek Text and English Translation, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, [1920]), 1:19.
  9. Rev. 7:12; 19:4; 22:20 (also perhaps 5:14); cf. use of אָמֵן in Jer. 11:5; 28:6; Ps. 106:48; Neh. 8:6.
  10. It occurs a total of 25 times in John, where it is always doubled: “Amen, Amen” (e.g., John 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25); a single “Amen” is used by Jesus similarly in Matthew (31 times), Mark (13 times), and Luke (6 times).
  11. Num. 5:22; Deut. 27:15–26; 1 Kings 1:36; Neh. 5:13; Jer. 11:5; cf. 1QS I, 20; 2:10, 18, etc.
  12. E.g., G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 298–300; Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 203.
  13. The word witness, which appears in Revelation in connection with the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 1:5; cf. vv. 2, 9), is absent but unnecessary here as the additional title “The Word of God” appears at the end of the description (Rev. 19:13).
  14. Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13.
  15. So the NRSV translates it; cf. Charles, Revelation, 1:94 (“origin” or “primary source”); similarly, Osborne, Revelation, 205. Intertextual connections with ἀρχή include John 1:1–3; Col. 1:15–18; Heb. 1:10.
  16. The eschaton is in view regardless of whether the pronouncement is translated “There should be time no longer” (KJV and KJ21) or “There will be no more delay” (NRSV).
  17. See Wahlen, “Heaven’s View,” 151.
  18. Frequently observed include allusions to the “door” in connection with judgment (Matt. 24:33; James 5:9) and the Messianic banquet (e.g., Matt. 8:11; Luke 12:35–38; Rev. 19:9).
  19. Shared meals feature prominently in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 2:15–17; 6:41–42; 14:22–25; Acts 1:4) and worship in the early Christian church (Acts 2:42, 46; Jude 12). See James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 600–601; Tim Wiarda, “Revelation 3:20: Imagery and Literary Context,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38 (1995): 203–212.
  20. The letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia are glowingly positive with no mention of repentance.
  21. Most occurrences of ἔργον in Revelation (12 of 20) are found in these letters. Even “love, faith, service, and patient endurance” are classed as “works” (Rev. 2:19).
  22. See Wahlen, “Heaven’s View,” 154 and 154n34; Wahlen, “Seven Churches,” 13.
  23. W. M. Ramsey, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia and Their Place in the Plan of the Apocalypse (London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906), 429. See Strabo, Geography, 12.8.16; Vitruvius, On Architecture, 8.3.14.
  24. Various words are used for clothing in Revelation. In John’s initial vision, Jesus is clothed in the priestly ποδήρης (Rev. 1:13). Those who are vindicated in the judgment and victorious are clothed in long white robes (στολαί, Rev. 6:11; 7:9, 13–14; 22:14). Fine linen clothing (βύσσινος) is associated with both Babylon (Rev. 18:12, 16) and the New Jerusalem (Rev. 19:8), as well as the heavenly armies (v. 14), but only in the latter two instances is this clothing called “pure” (καθαρός). Similarly, the angels who pour out the seven last plagues are clothed in pure linen (λίνον καθαρόν, Rev. 15:6).
  25. See Tacitus, The Histories and The Annals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937), 14.27; Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 160.
  26. For David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52A (Dallas: Word, 1997), 1:259, this tension suggests the need for a figurative interpretation.
  27. So also Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John: The Greek Text With Introduction Notes and Indices, 2nd ed. (London, UK: Macmillan, 1907), 74; Wilfred J. Harrington, Revelation, Sacra Pagina, vol. 16 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 75.
  28. So Ekkehardt Müller, Der Erste und der Letzte: Studien zum Buch der Offenbarung, Adventistica 11 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011), 136; Oral Edmond Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 97 (pointing to 2 Cor 2:6–16; 4:4).
  29. Swete, Apocalypse, 63, referring to the ἐλεγμός of the Holy Spirit in John 16:8–11.
  30. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 972.
  31. The 144,000 are the only ones who receive this end-time seal (Rev. 7:4; 14:1, 3). Those Laodiceans who “buy” these gifts; that is, they accept Jesus’ counsel, are “bought,” or redeemed, from the earth at last (Rev. 14:3, 4).
  32. Apart from the book’s introductory reference to the Second Coming (Rev. 1:7), two early references to Jesus’ “coming” are figurative references to Christ’s judgment of His people (Rev. 2:5, 16). Like the promises to the overcomers, it is assumed that the outcomes of the judgment will be dispensed at the Parousia (Rev. 22:12).
  33. The term few (ὀλίγος) is sometimes used in the Gospels in the sense of a remnant (Clinton Wahlen, “Remnant in the Gospels,” in Toward a Theology of the Remnant: An Adventist Ecclesiological Perspective, ed. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez [Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2009]), which, together with the use of λοιπός in Rev. 2:24; 3:2, may suggest that a remnant is beginning to form, becoming more fully manifest in the churches of Philadelphia and Laodicea (cf. Rev. 12:17).
  34. At the same time, the letters give no more specific time indication as to how soon that “soon” might be (Rev. 2:5, 16, 22–23; 3:3, 11).
  35. So also Swete, Apocalypse, 63–64, referring to Luke 12:36 and (by way of contrast) 13:25.
  36. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:34.
  37. That the timing of the Second Advent is to some extent contingent on the activity and/or readiness of the church is also suggested elsewhere in the New Testament (Matt. 24:14; 2 Pet. 3:9, 12).
  38. While the New Jerusalem is called the “bride” (Rev. 21:2, 9, 10), it is only thus when populated with the redeemed. City and people are an inseparable image in the Old Testament antecedent prophecies alluded to here (Isaiah 54; 62:1–4). This observation helps to explain why God’s people are only “guests” to the wedding in Matt. 22:10, 11.
  39. Those “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” (Rev. 20:4, ESV) may allude specifically to those slain by Babylon in the end time (Rev. 17:6; cf. 13:15). In a broader sense, those who are raised in the first resurrection are also said to reign with Christ in the sense that, like Him, they have been victorious over the grave and the second death has no power over them (Rev. 20:6).
  40. Cf. Wahlen, “Heaven’s View,” 153.

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Clinton Wahlen, PhD, is an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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