This 9th post in our journey through Revelation brings us to the last of the seven letters to the recipients of Revelation, the message to Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.
John’s Revelation aims to comfort and challenge the church in its uncertain times. This book reveals three significant threats against the churches during the last decade of the first century: the intimidation by Rome (“the Beast”), the seduction of luxurious living (“Babylon the harlot”), and the deception of false religions (“the False Prophet”) – all agents of Satan (“that Great Dragon”) attempting to snuff out the faith of the church. In Christ’s letter to Laodicea, the lure of carnal living was the most significant threat to the church’s devotion to Christ and their witness of his Kingdom.
Laodicea was situated southeast of Philadelphia, close to major trade routes that connected it to Ephesus, Smyrna and Sardis. It was a wealthy city, renowned for its banking industry, wool industry, medical school, and boasting an elaborate aqueduct system bringing water four miles from the springs at Denizli.
The church in Laodicea was probably founded by Epaphras (Colossians 4:13; 1:7). It was prominent and privileged to receive correspondence from both the Apostles John and Paul (Revelation 1:11; Colossians 4:16). This church, unlike the other churches in its time, was wealthy and self-sufficient (Revelation 3:17), a fact which forms the focal point of Christ’s message to the Laodicean believers.
The Revelation of Christ (3:14). Christ reveals himself as “The Amen”, the one who can bring to fulfilment the purposes of God. He is “the Faithful and True Witness” – the martyr who witnessed the Kingdom of God with authenticity, to the end, paying the highest price. He is also “the Beginning of God’s new creation” – the initiator and proof of God’s renewed creation. Combined, Christ calls the Laodicean church to look at his example in witness and His ability to rightfully usher in the new Reign of God; it comforts them that he will complete what he started and calls for their allegiance to him.
Condemnation (3:15-18). Christ offers no commendation for this congregation. His knowledge of their works reveals that, like the water from their elaborate aqueduct system, their witness is good for nothing – “neither cold (like the springs in Colossi) nor hot (like the springs at Hierapolis)“, inducing vomit. This is often interpreted as a lack of zeal in the church, but the reference here implies that either hot or cold water is consumable, useful; lukewarm water is undrinkable, useless. Christ’s condemnation is that the Laodicean church’s witness was compromised like their water supply – it was neither distinctly Christian nor worldly. Somehow these believers found a loophole to remain in this market economy, avoiding direct Imperial cult worship and appeasing the trade guilds while soothing their conscience (more on this in a previous post). This left the “streams of water gushing” from them lukewarm, unpalatable and therefore unable to satisfy the thirst of its community (refer to John 4:14). Christ also found it to be disgusting.
Christ justifies his accusation: the Laodicean church boasted in their riches, prosperity and self-sufficiency (3:17) – just like Babylon the great harlot (18:7). In contrast to the church in Smyrna who were materially poor but rich in God’s sight (2:9), Christ reveals the Laodicean church as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (3:17). Note the irony: this charge is made to a wealthy church in a city known for banking, eye medicine, and wool industry. Yet this group of believers were blinded by pride; their focus on material prosperity made them blind to their state of spiritual deprivation.
Exhortation and warning (3:18-20). Christ urges this church – who is “wretchedly poor” to buy from him “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” (3:18). This invitation to satisfy one’s needs “without costs” alludes to Isaiah 51:1, a familiar phrase, and Revelation (21:6, 22:17). Both “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” invite the comfortable Laodicean believers to embrace persecution which refines faith like fire does gold (1 Peter 1:7) and purifies the believers, leaving their characters spotless (compare 3:4-5; also 7:9, 13-14). Eye salve was something the Laodiceans were famous for, but Christ says “I want to heal your sight, to correct your perspective!”
The exhortation is to “be earnest and repent” (3:19) from their self-sufficiency and in humility turn to Christ as their source. This “rebuke” of Christ is wrapped in the loving concern of a father who sees his child growing complacent to imminent danger (3:19; compare Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6).
As a final appeal, Christ urges the church to realize that their gatherings exclude him – he is standing outside the door of their feast. Note that Christ has not abandoned them; he is patiently knocking and calling to be welcomed back into their fellowship. His invitation is gracious. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (3:20)
Promise (3:21-22). To the one who overcomes the lure of self-sufficiency in riches, Christ offers to share in his eternal reign. “Just as I overcame” is a reference to Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), in particular, the attraction of materialism (v9-10).
Bringing it home
The big warning in this text is that material self-sufficiency often leads to spiritual self-reliance and ultimately self-serving. Comfort breeds complacency, bringing compromise. The Old Testament affirms this: prosperous Israel grew perverse. And our own lives often reveal how abundance makes the heart grow colder.
It is easy for many of us in our self-indulging, materialistic culture, to sympathize with the Laodicean believers who were tempted to compromise their witness to maintain their socio-economic status, high living standards and financial security. It alerts one to the reality of Jesus’ warning “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)
This letter to Laodicea leads us to examine our hearts and habits regarding our material world. Likewise, we are called to forgo our compromise and embrace the testing of our faith and cultivating of our character. This cleansing often comes through hardship and persecution.
In a broader context, it begs us to answer the question: are we merely maintaining fellowship with the church, or feasting with Christ? Answer the call, invite him in, and join in his feast. The cost might be high, but the suffering brief, yet the rewards will be eternally glorious.
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