The End? Lukewarm waters

This ninth post in our journey through Revelation brings us to the last of the seven letters to the recipients of Revelation, the letter 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 great threats against the churches during the last decade of the first century: the intimidation by Rome (“the Beast”), the seduction of sensual 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 sensual living was the greatest threat against 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, renown for its banking industry, wool industry, medical school, boasting an elaborate aqueduct system bringing water four miles from the springs at Denizli.  

collage_Laodicea
The ancient city of Laodicea was a wealthy city renown for its banking, wool and medicine as well as its impressive aqueduct systems.

The church in Laodicea was probably founded by Ephafras (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), and is the focal point of Christ’s message to the Laodicean believers. 

Revelation of Christ (3:14).  Christ reveals himself as “The Amen”, the one who is able to bring to fulfillment 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.  Seen together, Christ’s revelation to Laodicean church calls them to look to him as example in witness and proof of 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 reveal that, like the water from their elaborate aqueduct system, their witness is good for nothing – “neither cold (like the springs in Collosi) nor hot (like the springs at Hierapolis)“, inducing vomit.  This is often intepreted 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 conscious (more on this in a previous post).  This left the “streams of water gushing” from them luke-warm, 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 church in Laodicean 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 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 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 in Revelation (21:6, 22:17).  Both “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” invite the comfortable Ladicean 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 – a sober assessment to their pitiful state and honest decision to change their ways.  This “rebuke” of Christ is wrapped in the loving concern of a father who sees his child growing complacent to immanent danger (3:19; compare Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6).

As a final appeal Christ urges the church that note that they are gathering without 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 to their fellowship.  His invitation is gracious. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in 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 temptation of materialism (v9-10).

hospitality_feast_5

Bringing it home

The big warning in this text is that material self-sufficiency often lead to spiritual self-sufficiency 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 us in our self-indulging, materialistic age, to sympathize with the Laodicean believers who were tempted to compromise their witness in order 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 out hearts and habits regarding our material world.  To us as to them Christ calls the church to repent – to forgo our compromise and embrace the testing of our faith and purifying of our character which comes through hardship and persecution.

In a wider 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 great but brief, yet the rewards glorious in eternity.

The End? No more Compromise.

This post is the fifth post in a series through the book of Revelation.  Follow this link to a video recording of this post.

 

The Revelation John received was sent as a circular letter along a logical postal route through Asia Minor which started at the bustling city of Ephesus, moving north to ancient Pergamum, inland through Thyatira, and southeast to the wealthy city of Laodicea.  This letter contained a prophesy from Christ to these seven churches to comfort them during the tyrannical reign of emperor Domitian (AD 90-92), to correct  heir perspective in their their fight against evil, and to charge them to remain faithful to Christ – there is a reward for those who remain faithful to the end!

Seven_Churches
The Seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (Asia Minor, present day Turkey)

 

Pergamum was a magnificent ancient city which exited from the springs of civilization in Asia (around 500 BC).  This city set on a hilltop overlooking the Caicus plain below.  Pergamum (modern day Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna, inland from the Aegean coast.  The archaeological findings in this great city are rich in religious artifacts, including statutes and temples of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos (Baccus in Roman mythology), and especially Askelepios, the god of medicine, whose cult was strong and accounted for the famous school of medicine in Pergamum.  Askelepios’ serpent was a prominent brand in the city, displayed on many of the coins pressed there.

Apart from the medical school, the city was famous for its great library, university, big parchment industry and the large amphitheater overlooking the valley.  It was also a strategic Roman stronghold and inland regional administration, boasting the first Asian temple of the Imperial Cult in honor of Augustus (AD 29).  

collage_Pergamum

In this ancient citadel which worshiped Domitian as king and lord, valued entertainment, education and science, was a vulnerable church who received this letter of comfort and correction, a charge to not compromise of their devotion to Christ in word or in deed (Revelation 2:12-18).

Revelation of Jesus Christ (2:12).  Christ is revealed as the one among them with the sword – sharp and double-edged.  This description of Christ’s double character in judgment of the world, and in particular the church, occurs seven times in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16, 35; 6:8; 19:15, 21).  Roman officials had the right to carry this sword – and with it the right to life and death.  Christ here implies that his judgment can lead either to life (salvation through repentance) or death (judgment if the accused does not repent) – the reader or hearer must choose.  This brief revelation of Christ among them sets the stern tone of the rest of this short letter.

Commendation (2:13).  Again as in the previous two letters, the church is comforted that Christ is aware of all that takes place in the city and their works.  “I know your works, and where you dwell – where Satan’s throne is.  Yet you hold fast to my name…”  Christ honors their “works” of witness, their allegiance to him (“my name”), as well as holding on to “my faith” – true Christian faith undefiled by other religions – in this city dedicated to the worship of Domitian who claims to be sovereign king and lord of all (“where Satan’s throne is”), along with all the other gods.  Their confession and faith is pure in an defiled city.

Jesus mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Being the regional seat for Roman administration, Pergamum held the court which tried rebellion against Rome.  Where the accused was found guilty, an opportunity was given the to repent, or face immediate execution by the Roman procounsel.  Antipas refused to worship Nero during his reign (AD 54-68) and was tried before the procounsel at Pergamum.  He refused to recant his oath that “Jesus is Lord” and was executed in the cruel and unusual way of being burned to death in a brazen bull-shaped altar designed to cast out demons.  The goal was to intimidate the church, but Christ commends the Pergamum believers for remaining faithful to him in spite of these horrific trials.

Collage_Pergamum Antipas Martyr 92AD
Antipas was martyred in Pergamum during emperor Nero’s reign (AD 54-68).

Condemnation (2:14-15). Yet the the believers in Pergamamum started to compromise. “Some (held) to the teachings of the Balaam”, a non-Jewish prophet who had a tremendous impact on Israel during their Exodus (Numbers 22-25; 38:8,16), and his influence remained a snare even to the New Testament church (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:1, 11; Revelations 2:14).  I’ve written on “The Error of Balaam” before, but will summarise here: Balaam was an extremely gifted man of God who could hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, but he himself lead an independent, sensual lifestyle.  With his mouth Balaam worshiped the God of Israel, but he lived his life like the immoral Canaanites “who ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (2:14).  The “teachings of Balaam” was that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their sensual lifestyle.

Christ implies there were groups within the Pergamum church who worshipped and associated with the church, but chose to blend with the rest of the population by participating in their pagan, secular feasts to avoid social and economic isolation, and persecution.

Secondly, Christ condemns “those who hold the teachings of the Nicolatians” which the Ephesian church hated (2:6).  Not much is known about this sect, apart from what we can derive from the name: “Nico” means conqueror, “laity” refers to the common people.  It seems that in the Pergamum church there were some who asserted power in the world’s way, who claimed rights and privileges with power over others in an undue way.  As in the gospels, Christ condemns this style of leadership – “the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-28).

Warning (2:16).  Christ charges the church to “Repent”, or else he himself will “soon make war against (them) with the sword of his mouth”.  This is strong language, a stern warning hinting to the judgment against the 24’000 “men who were joined with Balaam” (Numbers 25:5).  The reason is that the church is Christ’s witness of his kingdom – a living community that displays what he and his coming Kingdom is like.  Therefore the compromise of Balaam (right professing but immoral living) and the compromise of the Nicolatians (abusive leadership misrepresenting Christ’s character of loving, servant leadership) is a wrong witness of who Christ is and what his kingdom is like.  This congregation, although professing right, have some who lived like the world they are in. Their witness is compromised, and Christ calls them to repent or be removed.

Promise (2:17).  To the one who conquers Christ will give of his “hidden manna” (refering to the manna preserved in the ark of the covenant Exodus 16:33-34) – a sign of God’s providential grace.  Also the promise of “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  This white stone, tesseron, was customary given to special guests invited to partake of feasts in the pagan temple at Pergamum – consisting of the meats offered to the idols.  This tesseron would bear the secret name of the deity represented by the idol, revealed only to the recipient.  Christ’s promise of the “white stone”  implied an invitation of intimate communion with him – even now.  And this invitation is “to all who has a ear to hear.”

But what should this church overcome?  The spirit of compromise – the seduction to worldly sensuality (of Balaam) and worldly power (of the Nicolatians).  The tendency to think that mere cognitive faith (agreement to Biblical truths) results in right-standing with God.   Christ desires a renewed heart resulting in holy living as witness to his kingdom.  

Bringing it home.

Pergamum the sacred tunnel
A secret tunnel for worshipers to a temple in Pergamum.
Many writers have noted that “Pergamum” comes from the Greek word “gamos”, meaning marriage.  This church professed to faithful to Christ, but was married to the world in regard to power and pleasure, according to the culture in which they lived. 
Like the ancient Greeks in Pergamum, we too live in a world which values pleasure, power, scientific progress and independence.  The invitation to us today is clear: to recognize where we, the church, are “married to the world” in this regard, and repent.
Turn your heart, that you too may share in the intimate pleasures of Christ reserved for those who live devoted to him.