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.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 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. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 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. 21 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. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” [i]
You don’t have to imagine what the church of Laodicea was like. You could visit thousands of churches just like it in almost any city in modern Western culture. In today’s politically correct terms we can call the Laodicea church a trigger-free safe space. There was nothing offensive about it. If Jesus was mentioned much in the sermons, he was the loving, self-affirming, non-judgmental life coach who exists to help us achieve our full self-actualized potential for personal happiness. This Jesus wore rainbow robes celebrating love. He readily admitted he was only one pathway to personal happiness. He was all about co-existence. He never mentioned unsafe topics, created strife, or communicated micro-aggressions on any level. As one option among many gods, the Laodicean Jesus was both your personal cheerleader and the mascot for your choices and desires.
IN THE CITY
Laodicea, like most the cities mentioned in Jesus’ seven prophecies, sat at the juncture of several major trade routes, one of which led 99 miles east to Ephesus and the Aegean coast. It was 11 miles west of Colossae and 6 miles south of Hierapolis – both of which had churches also founded 40 years earlier at the time Paul was ministering in Ephesus.[ii] The city sat on an almost-square plateau several hundred feet high, about two miles south of the Lycus river.[iii]
In Roman times Laodicea became the wealthiest city in Phrygia. The fertile ground of the Lycus valley provided good grazing for sheep bred to produce a soft, glossy black wool that brought wealth and fame to the region. Among the various garments woven in Laodicea was a black wool tunic called the trimita.[iv] The city was a regional banking center and a free city of Rome permitted to create its own coinage, make its own laws, and elect its own leaders. When a devastating earthquake struck in A.D. 61 the city leaders proudly turned down the emperor’s disaster relief offer and rebuilt with their own wealth.
Laodicea was famous its medical school. Several of its renowned physicians appeared on the city’s coins. The school specialized in diseases of the ear and eye and had developed compound ointments to treat ear and eye diseases. If Laodicea had any drawback it was its distance from a reliable water source. Hierapolis had a medicinal hot spring. Colossae sat on the banks of the clear, cold Lycus river. But in Laodicea, water had to be pumped uphill (an impressive engineering feat in 1st-century Rome) from the Baspinar springs six miles to the south through a system of stone pipes.[v] The water was heavily calcified and lime-encrusted pipes can still be seen in the extensive present-day ruins.
The city had temples to Roman emperors as well as temples to various Roman Gods, with Asclepios (the god of healing) being the most prominent. Laodicea also had a very large and influential Jewish population in the city and surrounding region.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
The church of Laodicea was not facing persecution. It did not have a group of trouble-makers like the Nicolaitans. It was not plagued by a false prophetess. It was likely a relatively large congregation in which everybody got along quite well. People showed up happy on Sundays and left happy. It did not struggle for money. It was a church that seemed to be highly blessed if one is counting nickels and noses.
But Jesus doesn’t count nickels and noses. He doesn’t review the congregation’s approval ratings or positive reviews on their Facebook page. Jesus says, 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.’”[vi] Preceded by the definite article, the Amen in the OT Hebrew text is translated as “the God of Amen,” or “the God of truth” (Isa. 65:16; compare 2 Cor. 1:20)[vii] The Lord measures a congregation’s health and wealth by one thing only: himself. He IS truth (the Amen). His testimony is all that matters because he created absolutely everything. Why does Messiah describe himself as truth itself as if he is swearing an oath before testifying in a courtroom?
Jesus declares himself to be truth itself and to be the faithful and true witness because what he is about to declare to the Laodicean church is COMPLETELY UPSIDE DOWN from how the congregation views itself. Jesus says, in effect, “I AM the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” because he can swear by no one greater than himself (Heb. 6:13). And the whole truth is that this peaceful, happy, healthy, wealthy, vibrant, growing church is utterly blind to their deadly condition.
Jesus knows all about them. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’”[viii] Jesus knows their works, but he doesn’t bother to mention any because none are worth commending. That doesn’t mean the church didn’t do charitable things like helping the poor, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, or visiting the hospital. If that were the case, Jesus would have said they have no works rather than he knew their works. It means whatever works they did were useless because they performed works to feel good about themselves rather than as a witness to the exclusive truth claims of Messiah.
There is no refreshing gospel message in their congregation. Instead of receiving the warmth of a hot drink on a winter’s day or a cold drink on a scorching summer day, Jesus finds them unrefreshing and unpalatable. The works they did were in the name of the co-existing, self-affirming life coach Jesus – not the exclusively saving Messiah Jesus. They were in grave danger of winding up like those Jesus describes in Matthew 7:21-23,
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ [ix]
When the teachers of Israel asked Jesus what kind of works they should be doing to earn God’s approval (Jn. 6:25-29):
29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”[x]
I’m certain that many commentators who claim Jesus is judging this church for not trying harder and doing better have missed the context of these seven letters. Like most of the other six churches, Laodicea is trying to enjoy the benefits of Christ without union with Christ. This city is like all the other large, wealthy pagan cities of Roman Asia with temples to demons and emperors. It has a very large and influential population of ethnic Jews. But the church of Laodicea is perfectly comfortable, wealthy, and growing because life-coach, cheerleader, mascot Jesus offends no one. His message is as tepid as calcified dead water.
The first generation of the Laodicean believers received the refreshment of the gospel eagerly. But that had been 40 years before this letter arrived. As the church grew in wealth and numbers, the descendants of the first believers were tepid toward the exclusive truth claims of Messiah. So, Jesus says, “I will spit you out of my mouth.”[xi] This is no different a threat than removing a church’s lampstand. It means they may continue to call themselves a church; they may keep meeting together. But where the light of the gospel has gone out, Jesus has left the building. Where Christ is not preached as the savior of sinners, Christ is not present in his Word and Spirit.
THREE LIES, FIVE TRUTHS
The Laodicean church people tell themselves three lies: “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing….”[xii] They are exactly like the rest of the city who made the same reply to Caesar following the A.D. 61 earthquake. This church lived out of their own resources: their own money, their own charitable works, their own sense of peace and well-being, their own reputation in the city. They had no need of some depressing message about sin, and death, and judgment, and hell. Just look at where that kind of message had gotten the tiny, unsuccessful, poor, and persecuted Philadelphian church! Ain’t nobody got time for that!
But in Messiah Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom, this congregation is NOT “all that and a bag of chips.” They are exactly opposite of their self-image. Jesus gives them five truths against their three lies: “you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”[xiii] The Ephesus church had great doctrine but did little with it; the Laodicean church had terrible doctrine so their works were meaningless. The city of Laodicea dictated the church’s doctrine, not scripture. Jesus was the congregation’s good example to follow but he was not their savior because they really didn’t “need” saving (I need nothing). They let the world squeeze them into its mold (Rom. 12:1-2).
Because Jesus loves them, he is telling them the truth. Because he loves them, he is giving them an opportunity to repent. Up to this moment, the Laodiceans have been indifferent to the love of Christ because they see themselves a pretty good people. Of course, Jesus should love them because they’re following his example of being nice people. They’re no different than most of us most of the time. Our condition of sin makes us completely overestimate ourselves. “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that sinner standing over there.” We measure ourselves by the yardstick of relative morality.
God’s law demands that they be perfect as he is perfect (Matt. 5:48). But the Laodiceans see God’s law as a set of keep-able rules, and Jesus as their life-affirming mascot. In a sophisticated culture, Christians adopt feelings of superiority. In a patriotic culture, Christians become preoccupied with earthly kingdoms. In a consumer culture, Christians find their joy in stuff.[xiv] If their lives feel good, then God must be smiling upon them. That’s totally upside down from Jesus’ truth: “19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”[xv]
Those upon whom Jesus sets his sovereign love hear the law and see they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. They know they need a savior, not a life coach. Have you ever heard the Lord Jesus reprove you and responded, “Lord Jesus have mercy upon me”? If you haven’t heard his reproof, you don’t know ANYTHING about his love. And if you don’t know anything about his love and your unworthiness, then you leave a taste of sickening indifference in Messiah’ mouth.[xvi] Yet, even in your indifference, if you hear Jesus’ counsel this morning you will be an overcomer.
THE GREAT PHYSICIAN’S ADVICE
Notice the remedy the Great Physician prescribes for this congregation: “18 I counsel you to buy from me….”[xvii] Jesus doesn’t send them down to the Agora (marketplace) of the city to buy more stuff. He tells them he is the true marketplace. “Jesus runs a completely different economy from the world.”[xviii] Revelation is full of references from Isaiah. These words from Jesus are from Isa. 55:1-2,
Come, everyone who thirsts, /come to the waters; /and he who has no money, /come, buy and eat! /Come, buy wine and milk /without money and without price. /2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, /and your labor for that which does not satisfy? /Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, /and delight yourselves in rich food. [xix]
In Christ’s upside-down economy, we “buy” from him only because Jesus paid it all. The only things I can sell to Jesus are my self-sufficiency, my pride, my guilt and shame as the chief of sinners. It cost Jesus EVERYTHING to pay for my sins of thought, word, and deed. Only Christ offers the GREAT EXCHANGE: our sin for his righteousness, our shame and guilt for his triumph and innocence, our poverty for his eternal wealth, his Spirit’s true sight for our blindness, and his white robe of justification (rightness with God) for our ragged and filthy garments (Zech. 3:3-4; Isa. 64:6).
Nothing in my hands I bring simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Savior, or I die.[xx]
To be rich in Christ is to be united into him by trusting into his perfect life and sacrificial death so that you possess his justification and take on more of his nature through tribulation and suffering. That is the gold refined by fire Christ offers. If they want the real Jesus, then they must be willing to endure painful training in his spiritual fitness center (Heb. 12:11). To be rich in Christ is to wear the white garments of his imputed righteousness alone (3:4; 4:4; 7:9; 22:14) rather than taking pride in an expensive black wool trimita from the city marketplace. To be rich in Christ is to see ourselves as the Law of God says we by nature are. As the Psalmist sang, “Open my eyes, that I may behold /wondrous things out of your law.” [xxi] The eye ointment of the Laodicea School of Medicine could not cure the spiritual blindness of those who measured themselves by the relative morality of the sinful world. Only the perfect Law of God applied by the Spirit of Christ can grant the sight Jesus counsels time to receive. One of the benefits of union with Christ is that God’s law heals rather than curses his saved ones.
The poverty of this congregation is found in the absence of the real Christ. Messiah Jesus is outside this fellowship knocking on the door. “20 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.” [xxii] This is not so much a personal evangelistic text where Jesus is asking to be received into the hearts of unbelievers. The context is directed at a nominally Christian congregation who has pushed the true Jesus – the one who offends sinners – out the door. It is certain that a great number of people in this congregation really DO need Jesus in their hearts because law and gospel have not been preached in Laodicea in quite some time. But the ordinary way Christ enters into individual dead hearts is through the collective work of Word and sacrament in corporate worship.
This congregation has no impact on their community because Christ has had no impact on them. But if they will let the true Christ back into their trigger-free safe space – if they will give an ear to the offensive news they are sinners in need of a savior and not good people in need of self-improvement – then Christ will feed them the hidden manna, the bread of life. Christ will come with all his benefits: true wealth of peace with God; true contentment found in a sovereign God that writes all the details of our stories with the deepest of love for us; open eyes that see our need, his provision, a temporary land we are only passing through; and, true eternal security in a new, eternal garden-temple where God dwells face-to-face with his people.
The bad news was that the congregation of Laodicea is FAR worse off than they could begin to imagine. The good news was that Messiah Jesus is FAR more patient and loving than they could ever know fully in this pilgrim life. Those who have ears, hear what the Spirit says and come to the true Messiah.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [xxiii]
[iii] Mounce, 106.
[iv] Id., 107.
[vii]Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 168.
[xiv] Phillips, 156.
[xvi] Sinclair Ferguson, Laodicea: The Church That Was Lukewarm (Rev. 3:7-13). https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-072207am
[xviii] Phillips, 156.
[xx] Augustus M. Toplady, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me (1776).