Today, we are completing our study of the seven churches of Revelation. We will examine what Jesus has to say to the seventh church, the Church at Laodicea. Listen for God’s word to you from Revelation 3:14-22…
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Laodicea was founded in 250 BC by Antiochus of Syria and named after his wife, Laodice. The city was important because of its location, on the main road from Ephesus to Syria. It was a great banking and financial center, making it one of the wealthiest cities of the world. The Roman statesman, Cicero, recorded the holding of assizes there in 50 BC.
In AD 61 Laodicea was devastated by an earthquake. However, the city was so wealthy that they refused help from Rome and the citizens rebuilt their own city with their own funds.
Laodicea was also a center for the manufacture of clothing. The sheep that grazed around the city were famous for their soft, black, glossy wool.
The city was also an important center for medicine. Laodicea had its own medical school famous for two things: ointment for the ears and the eyes. The city exported its own eye salve all over the world. This salve was made from Phrygian powder and sold in solidified tablet form in the shape of little rolls.
Laodicea also had a Jewish population numbering in the thousands. There were few areas, if any, in Asia Minor where the Jews were wealthier and more influential.
Unfortunately, Laodicea did not have a good water supply. All of their water came to the city by two aqueducts, one from the north and the other from the south. The water from the north came from the hot springs of Hierapolis, but by the time it reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm, and the concentrated chemicals made it unsuitable for drinking. The aqueduct from the south brought water from Colossae and a fast-flowing, chilly stream descending from snow-capped Mount Cadmus. But by the time that the Colossian water reached Laodicea, it too was lukewarm due to the hot Turkish sun.
We do not know for certain how the Church in Laodicea began, but the city is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae. Paul had a connection to the Church at Laodicea, but he was not the founder of the congregation there because he says that he never saw them face-to-face. It may be that Paul wrote a letter to Laodicea that has not survived. It may also be that Paul’s fellow worker, Epaphras, founded the Church in Laodicea during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus from AD 53 to 56.
Chief Characteristic of Christ Applied
Like all the other letters to the churches in Revelation, the one to Laodicea begins with a series of great titles of Jesus Christ. First, we read that Christ is the “Amen”. In Isaiah 65:16, God is called the God of Amen. The word means “so be it”. God’s word has utter reliability, and so does the word of God’s Son Jesus.
In John’s Gospel Jesus often says, “Truly, truly, I say to you…” (John 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11) The Greek for truly is “Amen”. His promises can be relied upon.
And Paul says, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so, through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Secondly, Jesus is the faithful and true witness. He speaks of what he knows. He speaks honestly. And Jesus communicates in a way that makes an impression on all who hear him.
Thirdly, Jesus is the ruler of God’s creation. The word for ruler is “arche”. This means that all things take their origin from Christ. Revelation is echoing the words of John’s Gospel, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3) Paul says the same thing, “In him … all things were created.” (Colossians 1:15, 18)
This is the only one of the seven churches about which Jesus has nothing good to say.
Jesus’ critique of the Church at Laodicea is vivid. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
These words build on the fact that Laodicea had a lukewarm water supply. In their spirituality, the Laodiceans are neither hot to the boiling point, nor cold to the point of freezing. Things that are lukewarm are often nauseating. Jesus finds this church nauseating, and that is why he is about to spit them out of his mouth. Tepid religion makes the Lord of the Church sick to his stomach.
William James once said, “Faith is either a dull habit or an acute fever.” Which is it for you?
Many years ago, my friend and fellow author, Tim Hansel, was teaching in a public high school in California. One day, he was so frustrated with his students that he wrote in big block letters on the blackboard: “A—P—A—T—H—Y”. One lazy student tried to sound out the word and said, “Apaaaathy, what does that mean?” The student next to him retorted, “Who cares?”
The one attitude that Jesus unsparingly condemns is indifference. The problem we face as a church is not so much hostility on the part of people outside the church. The problem is that many in our community have experienced church and found it irrelevant. That indifference can only be broken down by demonstrating that Jesus indeed has power to strengthen us in our weakness and a love and grace to make life beautiful.
A preacher of old once recommended to other preachers, “Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”
Paul says, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11)
How do we keep from losing our spiritual passion? The Gospel of Thomas has a saying attributed to Jesus, “He who is near me is near the fire.” (82) We keep our spiritual passion by staying close to the fire which is found in the Son of God.
Jesus also says to the Laodiceans…
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
This part of Jesus’ critique also alludes to the circumstances of the Church and the city in which these Christians lived. They were wealthy and thought they didn’t need anything. But their wealth blinded them to the fact that they were, according to Jesus, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Jesus has the real wealth. He counsels the Laodiceans to buy from him “gold refined in the fire”. Jesus’ gold, spiritual wealth, is gained through suffering, not through surfeit.
Jesus urges the Laodiceans to get from him white clothes to wear instead of the black clothing their city was famous for producing. It is important to note that Christians in the early church were baptized naked and then clothed in white after their baptism. White was a symbol of purity and dedication to Christ.
Finally, Jesus counsels the Laodiceans to obtain from him salve to put on their eyes. Laodicea produced an eye salve famous the world over. But Jesus offers a better one, spiritual eye salve that can enable them to see clearly in the spiritual realm.
Jesus urges the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.”
Saint Teresa of Avila once complained to the Lord about what she was suffering. She said the Lord replied, “This is how I treat my friends.” To this, Teresa retorted, “Then you shouldn’t be surprised that you have so few of them.”
The Laodiceans might have been tempted to respond to the Lord in the same way. But perhaps Jesus’ next words elicited a better response. Jesus said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Here we see the only cure for lukewarmness in the church and in the individual Christian. That cure is the re-admission of the excluded Christ. Jesus says, “If anyone hears my voice…” Even if the church as a whole refuses Christ admission, the individual can let him in, and that will make all the difference in that one solitary life.
Jesus promises that if we let him into our church and our individual lives then he will eat with us and we with him. In the Near East, the sharing of a common meal indicated the formation of a strong bond of affection and companionship. To eat a feast with a king was an ancient symbol of bliss.
The Greeks had three meals a day like we do. Their breakfast might be only a crust of bread dipped in wine. Lunch would be what we call “a brown bag lunch” eaten by the side of the road. But then the evening meal was more sumptuous and leisurely. The word for “eat” in this verse refers to the evening meal. If we open the door of our church and our individual lives to Jesus, then he promises to come in and have extended fellowship with us.
This promise is reminiscent of the risen Jesus sharing the evening meal with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples did not recognize who Jesus was on the road, but they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. I think at least one thing this teaches us is that Jesus comes to us in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we partake of the Sacrament in faith, it is an advance coming of the one who will one day come finally and forever.
“The Light of the World” (1851–1853) is an allegorical painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20. Hunt began work on the painting when he was just 21 years old and continued working on it until he was 29. It was only during Hunt’s travels to the Middle East, and in particular, to Bethlehem, that he was able to create the lighting effect he wanted in the painting.
Hunt later said, “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be divine command, and not simply a good subject.”
The door in the painting has no handle and can therefore be opened only from the inside. This illustrates the fact that we must open the door of our lives and our church to Christ. No one else can do it for us. Even God cannot open the door of our lives to him.
Confirming Word to Conquerors
Jesus’ final confirming word to conquerors alludes to his ascension. When Jesus ascended into heaven, forty days after his resurrection, he ascended to his throne, where he now reigns at the right hand of God the Father. This was the basic belief of the Early Church. Amazing as the teaching of the Ascension might be, there was an equally amazing teaching that went along with it, namely that believers in Jesus would reign with him in the heavenly realms.
Paul talks about this in Ephesians 2:7-8, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
This letter to the Church at Laodicea closes with the same exhortation as in the other six letters, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
It seems to me now, looking back on all my readings of the book of Revelation, beginning in my teenage years, that up until this study of the book I have been misreading the whole thing. For almost forty years, I failed to see one very important thing about this book. Revelation, as a whole, not just in chapters 2 and 3, is a message, a witness, a testimony to the churches, or one might say, to the Church.
Revelation contains a message not just for the seven churches of Asia Minor in the first century, but a message for the whole Church of Jesus Christ in all times and all places. These letters show what can go wrong, and what can go right in any church, any congregation. We need to listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to our church at this time and in this place…