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.  

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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).

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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.