To the Church in Laodicea
To the Church in Laodicea
by William Klock
The last church to receive John’s courier was Laodicea, about as the same distance to the south of Philadelphia as from Courtenay to Qualicum Beach. The Laodicean church might be the most memorable of these seven churches. It’s the one Jesus, with utter disgust, condemns for being lukewarm.
Laodicea may have been the wealthiest of these seven Asian cities. It sat at a major crossroads. It was the banking centre of the region. It was an assize town, where the Roman officials would hold court and administer the province. The Laodiceans had bred a unique variety of sheep with high quality black wool that was greatly prized and the clothes and carpets made from it were famous across the world. And the city was also famous for its school of ophthalmology. People would travel from far and wide for the services of the doctors there, who also produced and sold a popular medicine, Phrygian powder, used for healing ailments of the eyes. The Laodiceans had everything.
Well, almost everything. One thing the Laodiceans did not have was good water—at least not in great supply. The city was situated on the Lycus river at a point where the flow was minimal. In the dry season the water often stopped completely. But about ten kilometres away, at the top of a dramatic cliff, was the city of Hierapolis. Hierapolis boasted some famous hot springs. Even today those hot springs are a popular destination for travellers. But as is often case with water from hot springs, the water of Hierapolis was loaded with minerals. It was wonderful to soak in, but totally unfit for drinking. All that hot water eventually poured over the cliff on which Hierapolis was built, leaving white deposits you can still see from miles away. At the source, that water was good for what ails you. In the First Century, to solve Laodicea’s water problem an aqueduct was built to carry that hot water to Laodicea. The city is gone, but the aqueduct is still there and you can visit it and see the duct, thick with mineral deposits. By the time the water from the hot springs reached Laodicea it was lukewarm. It may have filled a need for washing and agriculture, but between the lukewarm temperature and the heavy mineral content, it wasn’t fit for human consumption—unless you wanted to be sick.
Keep this in mind as we read Jesus’ words to the Christians in Laodicea. They begin at 3:14.
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
Jesus is the “Amen”. Amen was a Hebrew word you said in response to something true—basically “let it be so”. When Jesus says it, it has the sense of a guarantee and a promise. And he can say “Amen” because he’s the “true witness”—the one on whom we can depend. Why? Because he is “the beginning of God’s creation”. As the word of God, he was there in the beginning, the agent of God’s creative work to bring all things into being, to order them for human life, to make them good. And it is through his incarnation, through his death, and ultimately through his resurrection that he has become God’s agent of re-creation, taking what our sin has corrupted and put wrong and making it all new, setting his creation to rights.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has presented himself to the Laodiceans this way. Paul, in his Spirit-inspired words in his letter to the nearby church in Colossae, a letter he says is to be shared with the Laodiceans—Paul writes:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20
If anyone knows goodness and truth, Jesus does, so when he speaks the church had better listen. And not merely listen, but the church had better take his words to heart.
And here’s what he says to the church in Laodicea:
“ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:15-17)
Again those words, “I know your works”. And Jesus doesn’t just see the works, he knows the heart and the motivations behind them. He knew that the Philadelphian Christians had done much with very little and he had brought fruit from those works. He could see the works of the Ephesian church, their tight hold on the truth of the gospel and the good things they were doing, but he could also see that love—agape—was no longer their motivation. He could see the great works of the church in Sardis, works that suggested to everyone that this was a live and happening church, but Jesus could see through to the heart and knew that he was no longer at the centre of that church. They had the appearance of life, but the church was, in fact, dead. And here at Laodicea he sees their works and those works are the evidence of a church that has become blasé about the gospel, blasé about Jesus, and blasé about his new creation. “Your works are neither hot nor cold,” warns Jesus.
Think of that aqueduct bringing hot water from Hierapolis down to Laodicea. People would travel great distances to soak in the pools and to enjoy its healing and recuperative powers—at Hierapolis. It wasn’t good for drinking, but boy was it good for a soak. But by the time the water made its way down to Laodicea it was lukewarm. It didn’t feel good to sit in and it was just as unsuitable for drinking. The mineral concentration increased by travel through aqueduct made it taste even worse and being lukewarm made it utterly vile.
The life of the Laodicean Christians had gone similarly lukewarm. Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for any great sin or any great heresy. There are no Nicolaitans or Jezebels here encouraging the people into idolatry and sexual immorality. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for a lack of love or for works that are dead. This is a church that still believes and affirms all the right things. They loved each other. If you asked them if they loved Jesus, they would have adamantly said “Yes”. And there wasn’t a complete absence of good works and the fruit of the Spirit in this church. But it had nevertheless lost its passion for Jesus and the gospel.
“Would that you were either hot or cold,” says Jesus. Hot is good. The Greek word is zestos. It’s used in one other place in the New Testament, by Paul in Romans 12:11, where he writes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” Today we would say, “be on fire” for the sake of Jesus. When you consider who Jesus is and what he’s done you’d think this would be easy. As he said, he’s the beginning of creation, the one who made it all and the one who is making it all new again. He’s God and yet he humbled himself and became one of us for our sake. He gave his life for our sake. He rose from death for our sake. And he’s setting to rights everything we’ve made a mess of by our rebellion against him. Not only that, but in him we see the love and faithfulness of God revealed—a love we can’t fully fathom in a lifetime. He’s even given us God’s own Spirit to indwell us and to make us his temple. If that doesn’t set our hearts and minds on fire nothing will—or nothing should.
And yet somehow Christians become perennially blasé about all of this. The gospel, the life of Jesus and the Spirit, the new creation is never something we should get comfortable with, but we do. Like salt that loses its saltiness, as Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount. I think there’s something to the fact that it’s impossible for salt to stop being salty, but God’s people, whether Israel in the Old Testament and even more startling the new Israel filled with God’s Spirit, all too often lose our gospel saltiness. It should be impossible, but we manage it anyway. And when we do, it’s oh so hard to get it back.
There’s a reason why Jesus says that the Laodiceans would even be better off cold than lukewarm. At least if they were cold, at least if they were unconverted, at least if they’d never heard the gospel and received the Spirit, they could be reached with the good news and have that new fire kindled in them. At least if they were unconverted, they might hear the gospel and be set afire by the Spirit and made fervent in their works. In contrast, it’s hard to rekindle the fire in a church that’s gone lukewarm—in a church that is no longer fervent about works and about Jesus. In a church no longer standing guard, awaiting the return of her Lord.
Jesus gives us this dramatic image to stress just how disgusted he is by a lukewarm people. “I will spit you out of my mouth.” The Greek word is emeo, from which we get our word “emetic”. The ESV softens the blow with “spit out”. It would be more accurate to say, “I will spew or vomit you out of my mouth.” Spew or vomit carries the real sense of intolerability and disgust. A lukewarm church is utterly intolerable to Jesus. Jesus deliberately echoes Leviticus and the covenant with Israel here:
“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28)
Israel was to be the Lord’s witness amongst the nations and, like Jesus who is the true witness, as his people we, the new Israel, are to be his witnesses to the nations. Our lives ought to make us unmistakably different. But lukewarm Christians just blend in. And when we blend in, we fail to be the witnesses we’re called to be. But how do we end up this way? How do we lose our zeal for Jesus? Well, Jesus goes on in verses 17-18:
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
If there were ever a word for the Western church today, this may be it. Laodicea prided itself on its wealth. Again, it was a banking centre, it was the centre of a lucrative wool trade, and it was known for its ophthalmologists. It was a city that needed nothing. In fact, just a few years before John wrote to them, the city was destroyed by an earthquake. The Emperor offered funds to help rebuild and all the other cities of the region gladly took that money. But not Laodicea. They were rich and beholden to no one. They rebuilt their city themselves and they were proud of having done so. And all this local colour, all this self-sufficiency had rubbed off on the Christians of the city. The other churches of the region faced persecution, either from the Jews or the Romans or both. Not the Laodiceans. In a city that put all its focus and energy into commerce and medicine and wealth, these Christians did too and they blended right in. The Jews—and there was a very substantial Jewish community in Laodicea—the Jews were focused on wealth and seem to have taken little interest in the Christians there. The Greeks and Romans were consumed with the pursuit of wealth and took little interest in the Christians. Everyone probably thought they were a little weird for professing faith in a crucified Jew, but whatever. They were all united in their pursuit of commerce and trade. The church in Laodicea, in its lukewarmness, had lost its prophetic voice that should have been calling out the false gods and the transience of wealth, but instead the Christians there just blended in. From the perspective of the gospel, they were less than good for nothing, because they negatively represented the gospel and the Lord Jesus. Their witness communicated to the people around them that Jesus makes no difference, when the witness the church is supposed to have is that Jesus changes everything.
They thought they were rich, but they were, in fact, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Sitting on piles of money, they were poor in everything that mattered. Having world-famous doctors and medicine to heal ailing eyes, they were, from a gospel perspective, blind. Dressed in the world’s finest wool, they were spiritually naked. They should be ashamed. And yet there’s hope.
Jesus calls them back to himself. He calls them to repentance—to let go of these worldly riches that have distracted them. “Buy from me gold refined by fire” and you will be truly rich. Return to me and I will clothe you in white, I will cover your nakedness with holiness and righteousness. Come to me and I will anoint your eyes and open them again to gospel truth. Come to me and I will restore your zeal.
Brothers and Sisters, for all their failings, Jesus still loves these people. They are his. They are his bride. This is why he’s so angry with them, but it’s also why he will not abandon them. This is the good news here. He says:
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
The Lord disciplines his people because he loves us. He doesn’t give up on us. His discipline is the evidence of his love. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” he says. This isn’t a passage about evangelism as it’s often been made out to be in recent years, an impotent Jesus knocking at a door without a handle, waiting to be let in by the unconverted person on the inside. No, Jesus is speaking not to individuals, but to a church that already professes him. He is the bridegroom of the Song of Solomon, knocking at the door, his bride unaware as she sleeps inside. It’s an echo of Jesus’ warnings to Israel in the Gospels. In the Gospels it’s the master of the house who returns at an unexpected hour and knocks at the door. The one on the inside is the servant—who has hopefully stayed awake, waiting for his master, but all too often falls asleep and leaves the master waiting on the doorstep. Brothers and Sisters, the Church is Jesus’ house. The question is whether we’ve been faithful stewards, whether we’ve stayed awake, whether we’ve prepared for his coming and are ready to welcome him. And whether, while he’s been away, we’ve been faithful stewards of the gospel and the gifts of grace he’s left with us.
There’s an element of judgement here. When Jesus used this image with the Jews it was a warning. The master of the house is coming in one way or another, welcomed by his people or in judgement upon them for their unfaithfulness. He will remove the lampstand if necessary, but here he also promises: Open the door and I will come in and eat with you and you with me. He urges this unfaithful church to take the first step in repentance, this first step in taking up their stewardship of the gospel. Open the door and welcome me home. You’ve been unfaithful stewards of the house, but welcome me home and once again we will eat together, once again we will share fellowship. The banquet was always an image of the Lord’s final restoration of his people. Fellowship with Jesus will restore the lost perspective. As we sit with Jesus at his Table we’re reminded of the love poured out for us at the cross. As we sit at the Table with Jesus, God’s future in which all things are made new is pulled into the present and our hope is restored. As we sit at the Table with Jesus we participate once again in those events of the new exodus, in those events by which Jesus led us out of the bondage of sin and death, and are reminded that he has made us his own, his people, his family, his brothers and sisters and children of the Father.
The irony was that the Laodiceans surely had not forgotten the Lord’s Table. They gathered each Sunday and very likely more often than that, they recalled the death and resurrection of Jesus and they ate the bread and drank the wine. But it made no difference, because Jesus had ceased to be their passion. Other things were more important. And so they came to the Table and they left unchanged—they went back into the world and remained indistinguishable from it. Their wealth and prosperity had blinded them to the riches of the Lord’s Table and fellowship with him. There’s a reason why Jesus warned that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can enter the kingdom.
But Jesus promises:
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Again, Jesus reminds his people of his dominion and of their share in it. He is Lord. He rose from the grave and has ascended to be seated at the right hand of the Father. He has established his church, this new Israel, to be his witness amongst the nations. To proclaim his lordship to the earth and grow his kingdom. Adam’s vocation was to act as the Lord’s steward and to have an ever-expanding dominion, not just living in the presence of the Lord in the garden, but expanding that garden temple until it filled the earth. And in Jesus that vocation has been restored to us. But Brothers and Sisters, we will never be faithful stewards if we have no zeal for our Lord or the task he’s given us. We cannot be faithful stewards if we are indistinguishable from the world—if our focus in life is on building earthly treasures instead of heavenly ones, if our passion lies in the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit.
Come to the Table this morning and remember that you come not of your own accord, but invited by Jesus. We were his enemies— wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked—but he has sought us out and summoned us to his banquet. He has opened our eyes, clothed us in righteousness, and given us riches beyond comprehension. Know again the great love he has for us. Know afresh his work of new creation. And go forth into the world with your passion for Jesus and the good news of his death and resurrection renewed. Be transformed by that good news and be now longer conformed to the world, for Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: O Lord, hear with favour the prayers of your people; that we who deserve to be punished for our offences, may mercifully be delivered by your goodness, for the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.