Sunday, August 8, 2021

22. The Revelation: Laodicea - The Lukewarm Church (Revelation 3: 14-22)


The church at Laodicea was the last—and worst—of the seven churches written to by Christ. This church was a totally unchanged, deceitful assembly. It has the grim distinction of being the only church of the seven for which Christ offers nothing positive. Due to the drastic nature of the situation at Laodicea, this is also the most threatening of the seven letters.

The Correspondent

"The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this..." (Rev. 3:14b)

As in the letter to the church at Philadelphia, Christ did not identify Himself using any of the phrases from the vision recorded in Rev. 1:12–17. Instead, He identified Himself using three divine titles.

First, the Lord Jesus Christ described Himself as “The Amen.” That unique title, used only here in Scripture to describe Christ, is similar to Isaiah 65:16, where God is twice called the “God of truth.” Amen is from the Hebrew word meaning “truth,” “affirmation,” or “certainty.” It refers to something firm, fixed, and unchangeable. Amen is often used in Scripture to affirm the truthfulness of a statement. Christ is certainly the Amen in the sense that He is the God of truth incarnate. He is the Amen because He is the One who confirmed all of God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). Christ also identified Himself as “the faithful and true Witness.” That title further expresses the thought communicated in the first title. Not only is Jesus the Amen because of His work, but also because everything He speaks is the truth. He is completely trustworthy and reliable. Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). This was an appropriate way to begin the letter to the Laodiceans because it affirmed to them that Christ had accurately assessed their spiritual condition. It also affirmed that His offer of fellowship and salvation in verse 20 was true, because God’s promises were confirmed through His work.

Finally, Christ referred to Himself as “the Beginning of the creation of God.” The English translation is somewhat ambiguous and misleading. As a result, some have attempted to use this verse to prove that Jesus is a created being. There is no ambiguity in the Greek text, however. It does not mean that Christ was the first person God created, but rather that Christ Himself is the source of creation (Revelation 22:13). Through His power everything was created (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2). Yet the same heresy plaguing the Colossians likely had made its way to Laodicea (cf. Colossians 4:16). A form of incipient gnosticism taught that Christ was a created being, one of a series of emanations from God. Its proponents also claimed that they possessed a secret, higher spiritual knowledge above and beyond the simple words of Scripture.

The Church

"...the church in Laodicea..." (Rev. 3:14a)

The New Testament does not record anything about the founding of the church at Laodicea. Like most of the other six churches, it was likely established during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Paul did not found it, since when he wrote Colossians some years later he still had not visited Laodicea (Colossians 2:1). Since Paul’s coworker Epaphras founded the church in nearby Colossae (Colossians 1:6–7), he may well have founded the Laodicean church as well. Some have suggested that Archippus, Philemon’s son (Philemon 2), was its pastor (Colossians 4:17), since the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions names Archippus as the bishop of Laodicea.

The City

"...Laodicea..." (Rev. 3:14a)

One of a triad of cities in the Lycus valley, about one hundred miles east of Ephesus, Laodicea was the southeasternmost of the seven cities, about forty miles from Philadelphia. Its sister cities were Colossae, about ten miles to the east, and Hierapolis, about six miles to the north. Located on a plateau several hundred feet high, Laodicea was geographically nearly impenetrable. Its only vulnerability to attack was due to the fact that it had to pipe in its water from several miles away through aqueducts that could easily be blocked or diverted by besieging forces.

Laodicea was founded by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus II and named after his first wife. Since he divorced her in 253 B.C., the city was most likely founded before that date. Though its original settlers were largely from Syria, a significant number of Jews also settled there. A local governor once prohibited the Jews from sending the temple tax to Jerusalem. When they attempted to do so in spite of the prohibition, he confiscated the gold they intended for that tax. From the amount of the seized shipment, it has been calculated that 7,500 Jewish men lived in Laodicea. There would have been several thousand more women and children.

Under the Roman Empire’s leadership, Laodicea prospered. It was strategically located at the junction of two important roads: the east-west road leading from Ephesus into the interior, and the north-south road from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. That location made it an important commercial city. That the first-century B.C. Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero cashed his letters of credit there reveals Laodicea to have been a strategic banking center. The city was so wealthy that it paid for its own reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in A.D. 60, rejecting offers of financial aid from Rome.

The city was also famous for the soft, black wool it produced. The wool was made into clothes and woven into carpets, both highly valued. Laodicea was also an important center of ancient medicine. The nearby temple of the Phrygian god Men Karou had an important medical school associated with it. That school was most famous for an eye salve that it had developed, which was exported all over the Greco-Roman world. All three industries, finance, wool, and the production of eye salve, come into play in this letter to the Laodicean church.

The Concern

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked..." (Rev. 3:15–17)

Since there was nothing positive to mention for the church at Laodicea, Christ launched directly into His concerns. “Deeds” always reveal a person’s true spiritual state, as indicated by the Lord’s words “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16; Romans 2:6–8). Though salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone, deeds confirm or deny the presence of genuine salvation (James 2:14ff). Christ knew that the Laodiceans’ deeds indicated an unbelieving church.

Christ rebuked them for being “neither cold nor hot” but “lukewarm.” His language is drawn from Laodicea’s water supply. Because it traveled several miles through an underground aqueduct before reaching the city, the water arrived dirty and warm. It was not hot enough to relax and restore, like the hot springs at Hierapolis. Nor was it cold and refreshing, like the stream water at Colossae. Laodicea’s lukewarm water was repulsive to its people.

Comparing its spiritual state to the city’s water, Christ gave the Laodicean church a powerful, shocking rebuke: “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” Some churches make the Lord weep. Others make Him angry. The Laodicean church made Him sick.

Hot people are those who are spiritually alive and possess the fervency of a transformed life. The spiritually cold are those who reject Jesus Christ. They have no interest in Christ, His Word, or His church. And they make no pretense about it; they are not hypocrites.

The lukewarm do not fit into either category. They are not genuinely saved, yet they do not openly reject Christ. They attend church and claim to know the Lord. Like the Pharisees, they are content to practice a self-righteous religion. They are hypocrites playing games (cf. Matthew 7:22–23).

The Laodiceans’ lukewarmness was compounded by their self-deception. Christ rebuked them for their disastrously inaccurate self-assessment: “You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”

Laodicea was a very wealthy city. That wealth gave the members of its church a false sense of security as they imagined that their spiritual wealth mirrored their city’s material wealth. They were rich in spiritual pride but bankrupt in saving grace. Believing they were to be envied, they were in fact to be pitied. Their inaccurate beliefs (taking the form of incipient gnosticism) led them to think they had attained a higher level of knowledge. They no doubt looked down on the unsophisticated people who fully accepted and were satisfied with the biblical teaching of Jesus Christ. However, the reality was that they were spiritually “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”

The Command

"I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore 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 will dine with him, and he with Me." (Rev. 3:18–20)

Christ could have instantly judged and destroyed this church filled with unbelieving hypocrites. Instead, He graciously offered them genuine salvation. Christ’s three-part appeal played on the three features the city of Laodicea was most noted for: its wealth, wool industry, and production of eye salve. Christ offered them spiritual gold, spiritual clothes, and spiritual sight.

The Lord, of course, did not teach that salvation could be earned by good works. Lost people have no way to buy salvation (Isaiah 64:5–6). The buying here is the same as the invitation in Isaiah 55:1: “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” All sinners have to offer is their hopelessly lost condition. In exchange, Christ offers His righteousness to those who truly repent.

Christ advised the Laodiceans to buy from Him three things, all of which symbolize true redemption. First, they needed to purchase “gold refined by fire” so they could become rich. They needed gold that was free of impurities, representing the priceless riches of true salvation. Christ offered the Laodiceans a pure, true salvation that would bring them into a real relationship with Him.

Second, Christ advised them to “buy white garments” so they could clothe themselves. This would cover the shame of their nakedness. Laodicea’s famed black wool symbolized the dirty, sinful garments that cover the unsaved (see Isaiah 64:6; Zechariah 3:3–4). In contrast, God clothes the redeemed with white garments, symbolizing the righteous deeds that always accompany genuine saving faith (19:8).

Finally, Christ offered them eye salve to anoint their eyes so they could see. Though they prided themselves about their supposed higher spiritual knowledge, the Laodiceans were in fact spiritually blind. Blindness represents a lack of understanding and knowledge of spiritual truth (Matthew 15:14; 23:16–17). Like all unregenerate people, the Laodiceans desperately needed Christ to “open their eyes so that they [might] turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they [might] receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in [Him]” (Acts 26:18).

Some argue that the language of Christ’s direct appeal to the Laodiceans in verse 19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline,” indicates that they were believers. Verses 18 and 20, however, seem better suited to indicate that they were unbelievers desperately in need of the gold of true spiritual riches, the garments of true righteousness, and the eye salve that brings true spiritual understanding (verse 18).

“To reprove” means to expose and convict. It is a general term for God’s dealings with sinners (John 3:18–20; 16:8; 1 Corinthians 14:24). “Discipline” refers to punishment and is used of God’s convicting of unbelievers (see 2 Timothy 2:25). The wording of verse 19 does not mean that Christ is speaking to believers. The Lord compassionately, tenderly called those in this church to come to saving faith. Otherwise, He would convict and judge them (see Ezekiel 18:30–32; 33:11).

In order for the Laodiceans to be saved, they would have to “be zealous and repent.” This would include an attitude of mourning over sin and hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of which Jesus spoke (Matthew 5:4, 6). The New Testament call to salvation always includes a call to repentance (e.g., Matthew 3:2, 8; 4:17; Mark 6:12). In repentance, the sinner turns from his sin to serve God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The Lord Jesus Christ followed the call to repentance in verse 19 with a tender, gracious invitation in verse 20. The Laodicean church could only have expected Christ to come in judgment. But the startling reality, introduced by the arresting word “behold,” was that Christ stood at the door of the Laodicean church and knocked. If anyone in the church would hear His “voice and open the door, [He would] come in to him and dine with him, and he with [Christ].”

Though this verse has been used in many evangelistic booklets and messages to depict Christ’s knocking on the door of the sinner’s heart, the meaning is much broader. The door on which Christ is knocking is not the door to a single human heart, but to the Laodicean church. Christ was outside this apostate church and wanted to come in—something that could happen only if the people repented.

The invitation is a personal one, since salvation is individual. But He is knocking on the door of the church, calling many to saving faith, so that He can enter the church. If one person—“anyone”—opened the door by repentance and faith, Christ would enter that church through that individual. The picture of Christ outside the Laodicean church seeking entrance strongly implies that there were few believers there or no believers at all.

Christ’s offer to dine with the repentant church speaks of fellowship, communion, and intimacy. Sharing a meal in ancient times symbolized the union of people in loving fellowship. Believers will dine with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:9), and in the millennial kingdom (Luke 22:16, 29–30). “Dine” is from the Greek word indicating the evening meal, the last meal of the day (Luke 17:8; 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Christ urged them to repent and have fellowship with Him before the night of judgment fell and it was too late forever.

The Counsel

"He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Rev. 3:21–22)

“He who overcomes” (all believers) receives a wonderful promise: Christ will grant to that person to sit down with Him on His throne, as He “also overcame and sat down with the Father on His throne.” To enjoy fellowship with Christ in the kingdom and throughout eternity is sufficient blessing beyond all comprehension. But Christ offers more, promising to seat believers on the throne He shares with the Father (see Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:29–30). That symbolizes the truth that we will reign with Him (1 Corinthians 6:3; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10; 20:6).

As did the other six letters, the letter to the Laodiceans closed with Christ’s exhortation, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The message to this hypocritical church is obvious: Repent, and open up to Christ before the night of judgment falls. The implication for true believers is that, like Christ, we must compassionately call those in the unbelieving church to repent and receive salvation in Jesus Christ.