Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 09 (“The Letters to the Seven Churches – Laodicea”)
In our church we hear the word “reformed,” or “reform,” or “reformation,” quite often and the basic meaning of this word is “to change so as to get back to the original.” Reformation is the basic theme of the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. In all seven letters, Jesus Christ exhorts the seven churches to get back to the original form of the church that He founded. It was essential that they reform in this regard, for God was shortly to destroyed Jerusalem, making Judaism null and void. With the judgement upon Judaism, Christianity would soon be recognised as the missionary agent for the one true God in a very strong way. Before that will happen, however, the Lord must reform the church and prepare her to take the culture by the throat, with the Gospel of Christ.
The churches, then, are confronted by the Lord. Two of the churches receive no criticism whatsoever (those in Smyrna and Philadelphia). The other five, however, receive correction, which is necessary before they will conquer territory for the glory of Christ.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.3:14-22 (ESV) ~ “14 “And to the angel of the church in 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.’”
3. THE CHURCH IN LAODICEA (3:14-22):
In our Scripture reading today, we will consider the seventh church, namely Laodicea. Our goal in studying these churches has been for us to reform according to the Word of God. Of all the churches that needed reformation in Asia Minor, the one in Laodicea was most in need of that. The church in Laodicea was the wealthiest of the seven addressed, in the wealthiest city of the seven. Sadly, however, the church had become self-assured and self-satisfied. So self-assured and self-satisfied that the Lord threatened to vomit it out of His mouth. It is the only church of the seven of whom nothing good is said.
It is also worth mentioning that this city had a famous school of medicine, and a special ointment for the cure of eye defects, known as “Phrygian powder,” was either manufactured or distributed here.
The Receiver of the Letter (vs.14a): “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea…” One may just wonder what the reaction of the pastor of this church was, when he read this letter? But, as receiver of the letter, he also had to read it to the members of this church and in the introduction, they heard that they as a church is making Christ sick – they nauseate Him – what a message to receive from the Lord God Himself!
Christ’s Image (vs14b.): “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” As the Amen, Christ wants this self-righteous and self-deceived church to know Him as the One through whom the purposes of God are established ~ “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor.1:20).
The Lord presented Himself as “the Amen,” which is an Old Testament title for God (Isa. 65:16, where the word truth is the Hebrew word amen). He is the truth and speaks the truth, because He is ~ “the faithful and true Witness” (Rev. 3:14). It also means, “so be it,” referring to the sovereignty of God which is behind human events (2 Cor.1:20; Rev. 1:6).
In speaking of Himself as “the faithful and true Witness,” Christ says that He is the one on whose Word we may eternally depend, for He always keeps his Word. That is both a wonderful blessing and a frightening thought. Sometimes His words are words of comfort and blessing. But sometimes they are words of judgement and retribution (Afrikaans: “oordeel en vergelding”). Either way, He always keeps his Word! And he assures the Laodiceans that He is bearing faithful and true witness of their church.
As “the beginning of God’s creation,” Christ testified about the fact that He existed before God’s Creation and is sovereign over it (Rev.21:6). Paul uses the same word in Col.1:15-18 to describe Christ as the Source or Origin and Ruler of all creation.
This description of Christ Himself, was in preparation for the stern word of rebuke which Christ would give the church in Laodicea and it spoke of Christ’s tremendous authority. In short, Christ is the One through whom everything is established. He is the Truth who keeps His Word. He is also the only sovereign God and has all authority on earth and in heaven.
Christ’s Praise: As already mentioned, there was no word of praise – no commendation, from our Lord Jesus Christ for this church.
Christ’s Rebuke (vss.15-17): “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. 17For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” With absolute and perfect skill, the divine Physician puts His finger right upon the sore spot. The Christians were lukewarm. They were not hot and they were not cold; just lukewarm. They were tepid (Afrikaans: “louwarm”), half-hearted, limp (Afrikaans: “mank”), ready to compromise rather than stand firm. They were listless (Afrikaans: “lusteloos”), having lost all concern to grow and having given up any desire for vigorous spiritual activity, worship or gospel labour. Like a hot meal that cooled down, or a cold meal that has warmed up in the sun and begun to dry out, these Laodicean Christians sickened the Lord Jesus Christ. He was so disgusted with their state, that the said… ~ “I will spit you out of my mouth” (vs.16b).
It is wonderful to see how the Lord uses the geographical setting of each church and the spiritual and financial situation in the city where the church is located in order to commend, rebuke and/or counsel the local church. To understand something of Christ telling the church in Laodicea that they are lukewarm, we must understand something of the geographical situation of the church. The city was located between Heiropolis (to the north) and Colossae (to the east). Heiropolis was renowned for its steaming hot water springs and Colossae for its icy cold mountain streams. Both that hot water springs at Heiropolis and the cold streams of Colossae were beneficial to those living in the region. The hot water was beneficial for its medicinal purposes. Cold water was welcomed by any thirsty throat. Situated between the beneficial hot springs and the useful cold streams was Laodicea. In an attempt to utilize the hot springs, the Laodiceans had constructed a channel from Heiropolis to their own city, along which the water would run. They soon learned that their efforts were futile however, for by the time the water reached their city, it was no longer hot, but warm, and quite literally good for nothing.
When the Lord spoke of being hot, cold or lukewarm, the Laodiceans would immediately have thought of their rather embarrassing attempt to channel the hot water from Heiropolis for their own purposes. What the Lord is simply saying is that His desire was for them to be either useful for spiritual healing (like the hot water) or useful as spiritual thirst quenchers (like the cold water). But they were neither. Instead, just like the lukewarm water that reached their own city from Heiropolis, they were absolutely spiritually useless. Because of this, the Lord threatened to spit them from His mouth (or, “vomit” as in the NKJV).
To make matters worse, however, the Laodicean estimate of themselves was that they were rich, wealthy and not needing anything. Christ’s assessment, though, was a rather different ~ “(but you do) not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (vs.17). Their deeds were… ~ “neither cold nor hot” (vs.15). The expression “cold nor hot” may refer to their lack of zeal (vs.19) or to their uselessness, for Christ says ~ “I wish you were either one or the other” (lit., either cold or hot).
The deeper problem in the Laodicean Church was not simply their indifference. It was their ignorance of their real condition ~ “…you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (vs.17). Notice how this indictment (Afrikaans: “aanklag”) is related to the general condition of the populace at large – rich and self-sufficient. The spirit of the surrounding culture had crept into the congregation and had paralysed their spiritual life.
The Laodiceans were braggarts (vs.17a). Sadly, their bragging leaned on the rotten pillar of assumed, if not imagined, spiritual wealth. An unhealthy sense of self-sufficiency gripped the church. It is possible that the general affluence of the city translated itself in a distinguished prosperity within the church. Exquisite church buildings, elaborately furnished interiors, costly paraphernalia, etc. would all be undisguised symbols of this worldly affluence (Afrikaans: “invloed”). The foolish assumption that such prosperity bespoke divine approval and blessings, is likely the cause of their spiritual indifference and complacency. It is like today’s “health and wealth and prosperity gospel” – people think that wealth is a sign of their spirituality and a close relationship to the Lord. But this sense of security was an illusion (vs17b). The exact opposite is the spiritual state of this church.
How far can a church really fall! How can we read this and not tremble? Yet even in a condition as terrible as this, the Lord Jesus is tender and gracious. Why? Let’s look at Christ’s counsel in order to find an answer on this question.
Christ’s Counsel (vss.18-20): “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.” Christ’s revelation of the Laodiceans’ actual state, shatters their illusions and He calls them to repentance.
Gold, the source of the city’s wealth, was to be bought from Christ and to become the true wealth of the spiritually poverty-stricken Laodiceans. Their shameful nakedness was to be clothed, not by purchasing the sleek, black wool of Laodicea, but by buying from Christ the white clothing that alone can cover shameful nakedness ~ “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” (Rev.16:15). For those who were blind to their true condition, “Phrygian powder” was useless. They needed to buy ointment from Christ so that they could truly see.
The reference to buying would recall the famous market near the temple of “Men Karou,” where the commodities manufactured at Laodicea could be bought, along with imports from other areas. But to what do gold, white clothes and ointment symbolically refer to?
The only cure for spiritual poverty-stricken disciples was to purchase from Christ gold. What then is this gold refined by fire? The apostle Peter answers to this question when comparing faith, which is compared to gold ~ “You, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:5-9 – NASB). Faith then, is the gold that Christians from Laodicea had to buy from Jesus. But why did they have to buy it? God said to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah that through obedience to Him spiritual values had to be bought ~ “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. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Is.55:1-3). In the same way Christians from Laodicea were called to buy faith from Jesus Christ without money and without payment, but with obedience to God and listening to His Word.
Believers wear white and they are white because they were washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb who is Jesus Christ. This is what the Lord Jesus required from the saints in Laodicea – to wash their garments in His blood and whiten them.
Although they were producing the best eye salve in antiquity (Afrikaans: “antieke tyd”), the inhabitants of Laodicea, and especially those who considered themselves Christians, were blind when looking at their spiritual state. Therefore, the Lord Jesus tells them to buy eye salve from Him to see their spiritual state. The Word of God is this eye salve, as David wrote in the book of Psalms “the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps.19:8).
The three figures (i.e. poverty, nakedness and blindness) all point to the Laodiceans’ need of an authentic salvation through Christ.
Even though the state of the church such in Laodicea verges on disaster, all is not lost if there are those in it who will receive Christ’s loving rebuke and come back to Him (vs.19). Christ’s statement… ~ “I reprove and discipline” (vs.19) speaks of His love. Hebr.12:6 teaches us… ~ “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” God disciplines those who hear His voice.
To those who hear the words of rebuke, Christ extends an invitation to dine with Him (vs.20). The reference in vs. 20 to an “open door,” represents Christ standing at the door to the hearts of the members of the congregation at Laodicea. Christ will come and have fellowship with anyone who hears the voice of rebuke and thus proves himself Christ’s friend by confession, repentance and a recommitted life to Christ. “Eating” refers to the main meal of the day, which in the Middle East is an occasion for having intimate fellowship with the closest friends. It is through the Holy Spirit that Christ and the Father come to have fellowship with us ~ “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (Joh.14:23).
Christians from Laodicea came to such a low spiritual state because they disobeyed God’s Word and their escape was only a sincere return to God and His Word.
But what is your spiritual condition, this is the real question? How much are you concerned about your financial condition and how much do you care about your living with God? How much time do you invest for each of them? The very fact that a Christian comes to be satisfied with his spiritual condition is dangerous. The Lord Jesus said ~ “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5:3). A man who is poor in spirit will never be satisfied with his spiritual condition and wants a better state, a closer relationship with God and to serve Him more. And its opposite condition is extremely dangerous, because man then considers himself in a good condition, when thinking that he is righteous and sees no need for a better relationship with God. The question again: What is your state?
Christ’s Promise (vss.21-22): “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.” The promise to the overcomer concerns the sharing in Christ’s future reign in the eschatological kingdom ~ “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne” (vs.21). The overcomers will sit with Christ upon His throne. And since Christ’s throne is the Father’s throne, what royal glory awaits us!
4. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
Having come to the end of the study of the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, a few concluding lessons can be gleaned from the recurring points in these letters – in summary let us look at the points:
• All true churches are under the direct rule of Christ their head.
• Christ is always speaking to his church.
• All churches, ideally, ought to have a resident “star” or “angel,” that is a pastor, through whom messages to the church will regularly be conveyed.
• God knows every detail in His church, both the details of the collective body and the individual members.
• With very few exceptions, no church is without blemishes, worthy of Christ’s condemnation.
• No true church is utterly without virtues. This should be borne in mind when we criticise other churches or even our own.
• Even in churches guilty of shameful sin and falsehood, God always has a remnant of those that remain true.
• The purer members of the church with blemishes have an obligation to continue striving for the ideal along with the others, without resorting to schisms (Afrikaans: “skeuring/verdeeldheid”) and breakaways.
• God always punishes evil and rewards good, however apparently belatedly.
• God warns His people before punishing them and give them opportunity to improve.
• Both punishment and reward are received in both this and the next life.
• Threats of punishment are meant to produce repentance. Promises of reward are designed to produce faithfulness and perseverance in well-doing.
• The eternal rewards to the faithful are diverse; each shall receive a prize or more.
• The church has an obligation to maintain her purity of life, soundness of doctrine and effectiveness of witness.
If we as a church wants to reform, we must have an accurate realisation of where we as a church is. Avoiding the painful truth is no solution at all. We need our works to be infallibly assessed by God’s Word. And there is always hope for an honest church that desire to be a holy church.
We must ask ourselves, what impact is our professed Christianity really having in our society, on our brothers and sisters, on ourselves? If our church were to be taken away by God from this area, would the community notice? God wants us to be able to offer a cup of cold water to the spiritual thirsty community. He wants us to be competent enough to minister spiritual healing to those in need.
We must take these words at heart and be more useful than ever because of what God is doing in our lives. We need to make every effort toward becoming a “hot church.” The church (that includes each individual believer) that is faithful to the Lord Will most certainly experience fiery trials, but the promise of blessing and fellowship is enough to sustain her.