June 4, 2008

Revelation 3:14-22: The Letter to Laodicea


“And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The city of Laodicea was founded in 3rd century B.C. by Syrian ruler Antiochus II. He named the city after his wife, Laodice. Laodicea has been called the ancient “Wall Street” of Asia Minor. It was the leading commercial city of Asia Minor, with large money transactions, a banking system, and textiles. It was also known as a health resort because of the nearby hot springs. Located in the city was a medical school and known for salve for ears and eyes. It was famous for its black cloth manufactured from the glossy-black wool produced in the valley, said to be of a soft texture, almost like silk. The Laodiceans wore black garments with pride.

Laodicea was in the Lycus River Valley, through which busy east-west and north-south travel routes ran. The Laodiceans minted their own money, used as a medium of exchange throughout the region, which is today southwestern Turkey. A five-mile aqueduct ran from the hot springs into the city, and by the time the water reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm, a characteristic that the Lord used in His letter describing the spiritual state of the church there.

Like Sardis and Philadelphia, Laodicea was damaged by earthquake in 17 A.D., and another stronger earthquake nearly destroyed it in 43 years later. The Roman government offered to pay for rebuilding, but the Laodiceans refused and paid for the restoration of the city themselves. This self-sufficiency made the city famous and admired throughout the Roman empire.

The wealthy Laodiceans decorated the city with large temples and monuments, two large amphitheatres, and huge 900-foot-long stadium, with a sports field 600 feet long. Inscriptions on Laodicean coins indicate that the people worshiped Zeus, Æsculapius, Apollo, and the Roman emperors.

Paul mentions the church in the letter to the Colossians. In Colossians 2:1, he indicates his desire to visit, and in 4:13-16, he sends greetings to the church there, mentioning one individual in whose house the church met, and asks the Colossians to make sure his letter is read to the Laodicean church also. Colossians 4:16 also mentions a letter to the Laodicean church from Paul, which has been lost to history.

In reading the history of Laodicea and Jesus’ letter to the church there, I am reminded of the truth of 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

Jesus’ letter to the church at Laodicea

In this letter, Jesus refers to Himself as “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.”

“Amen” is a Hebrew word. When spoken by God or about God, it meant “it is and shall be so,” and is translated “true”, “sure,” or “faithful.” Examples of its use include Deuteronomy 7:9 (“Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.”); Psalm 19:7 (“The testimony of the Lord is sure.”); and, among others, Hosea 5:9 (“Among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure.”). From this we learn that when God says something He means business; He is the Amen.

“The Faithful and True Witness”: This is the Greek word “martus,” from which we get “martyr,” one who bears witness by his death. It refers to one who has experienced something, who has seen and heard and knows. Jesus is asserting that what He says is absolutely true.

“The Beginning of the creation of God”: This particular word (“arche,” translated “beginning”) did not mean the first of a series, but rather the cause of something (“that by which anything begins to be, the origin, the active cause”-Strong). Referring to Jesus, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:16: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible” and in verse 17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (consist: united, whole). So in Jesus’ introduction to His letter to the Laodicean church, we see Him as Creator, the True Witness, and the One Who Is and Shall Be.

The message to the Laodiceans

The Lord gives the Laodicean church a sorrowful, even depressing, message, with no commendations and only stern rebuke. He observes that the Christians there are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm (verses 15-16). He is rebuking their view of the faith, a kind of so-so attitude. We can see perhaps a frustration with this attitude on Jesus’ part.

A lukewarm faith atmosphere in the church damages its witness and reputation more than Christians just turning away from the faith. A person who professes to be Christian yet fails to demonstrate it to others brings judgment and reproach not primarily on himself or herself, but also on the church. It is better that he or she renounce his or her faith than to demonstrate to the world what might be called lip service—proclaiming one spiritual commitment while living another.

Lukewarm faith is something Jesus especially hates. Jesus expresses this thought when he tells them, “I could wish you were cold or hot” (rather than lukewarm in their faith).

The letter to Laodicea is the only instance in Scripture in which He indicates He is nauseated or sickened by a sin. As with other examples in the letters to the churches, Jesus alludes in this letter to a familiar characteristic of that particular city. The water flowing in the aqueduct from the hot springs was lukewarm and therefore pretty useless—too warm for drinking and too cool for bathing. In addition, the hot springs at its source contained calcium, sulfur, and other minerals. The minerals leached out in the aqueduct, and it required periodic scraping. When the mineral deposits built up in the aqueduct, the water in Laodicea was smelly and nauseating.

In verse 17, Jesus explains their problem: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.’” The problem was, they lived like everyone else in the culture, seeking self sufficiency, not God sufficiency, self reliance, focused on wealth, the true source (in their minds) of comfort, peace, and happiness.

If one had asked anyone in Laodicea what was different about the Christians, he probably would have gotten the response “not much, except they worship a different God” or something like that. Like the pagan culture, they were proud of their personal wealth and the prosperity of their city, their reputation for medical treatment, fine black wool textiles, and their hot springs; so proud of who they were and what they were known for that they saw Jesus as a kind of social or religious affiliation perhaps, and not the One who died for their sins.

That seems familiar to us, doesn’t it? How do we see this attitude in the western church now? We see it in a western culture that claims its Christian roots, but disregards the Christian faith, a culture that, like the Laodiceans, often proclaims spiritual hyperbole while worshiping its wealth and its self-sufficiency, where by and large many Christians may be known for their testimony of faith but lives of selfish indulgence not unlike their unsaved neighbors.

Jesus—the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the One who created all—tells the Laodiceans their real spiritual condition in verse 17: wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Then, in verses 18 and 19, He gives them the solution: faithfulness can come only through acquiring true wealth—spiritual wealth. “Buy from Me gold refined in the fire”; that is, choose to be 100 percent committed; conform to the truth and righteousness from Him. Pursue holiness, rightness, truth, Christlikeness, rather than bending biblical principles to conform to the lifestyle we prefer. In other words, be like Him.

Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17 that we would be sanctified, a process of growing and maturing in the faith and becoming further and further separated from the evil one and the values and attitudes of the world. That is the gold refined in fire He refers to in the letter to Laodicea. It is that process of refinement as we mature in Christ and put more and more distance between the world’s values and our values. Refining separates the impure from the pure.

He tells them, “Buy from Me . . . white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” White garments in the Bible signify purity, holiness, separation from sin. “And anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” Clearly, this is a reference not only to recognizing the truth of their faith, but also to realizing how it must change their lives if it is real. Notice Jesus’ allusions in verse 18. He shows them the spiritual wealth as counterparts to the city’s three major industries that had brought them so much worldly wealth: gold refined in the fire (banking), white garments of purity (the fine black wool textiles they were so proud of), and eye salve so they can see the truth (the medical industry in Laodicea, well known for its eye salve).

Notice also that God still loved these wayward people: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” Like any good parent, he rebukes and corrects His children. That comes from His love, His wanting what is best for us, His standards for us. A severe rebuke, whether from the pages of Scripture or something we experience, is a sign of His continuing love.

Finally, notice that He not only wants us to repent when we stray, but He wants us to be zealous in our faith; our faith should permeate our entire being.

Verse 20, often quoted as an evangelistic invitation, is instead an invitation to Christians on their journey of faith: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” No matter how much we struggle with the pressure to conform to our culture, the temptation of personal sin, wrong attitudes, anger, vengeful thoughts, etc., He is always standing at the door and inviting us to be restored to Him.

Conclusion

Once more, I want to review what we have learned about the Lord and His will so far in these letters to the churches.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.

In His letter to the church at Philadelphia, we once more learn the great importance our Lord places on works of faith, keeping His word in all we do, persevering and overcoming persecution and sacrifices the faithful Christian may endure while holding fast to the faith he or she knows to be true, faith in “He who is holy, He who is true.”

And today, we find once more the Lord praising the works of the church. He counsels the Christians at Laodicea, whose doctrines and practice of their faith were decidedly influenced too much by the culture around them, to have zeal for the faith, to have faith in Him and not in themselves, and to take their eyes off their culture’s polluting values of wealth and self-reliance and focus on the only values that are true, the values of their eternal hope.

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