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The Church at Laodicea

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The city known in the New Testament as Laodicea was founded by Antiochus II, a Seleucid king who reigned in the middle of the third century before Christ (261–246 BC). He named the city after his wife, Laodice.

In the first century, Laodicea was known for its abundant wealth. It had a theater, a stadium, a gymnasium, a public bath house and a medical college connected with the worship of Mên Carou (a pagan god of healing who was later assimilated with Asklepios). In fact, this medical school produced a highly valued ointment for weak eyes (cf. v. 18). But most of the city’s wealth came from its banking. In fact, Laodicea was so rich that it did not need any government assistance to rebuild after a devastating earthquake destroyed it in AD 60.

Perhaps Laodicea’s most prized product, though, was its beautiful black wool, which was unusual because of its brilliant glossy luster. Nearby Colosse produced a glossy dark violet wool that was equally as stunning. These were both, no doubt, the result of careful breeding. Although these species of dark sheep thrived as late as the eighteenth century, they seem to be extinct now.

With its enormous wealth, Laodicea stood in sharp contrast with Philadel­phia. Philadel­phia was small and weak, but had plenty of zeal. Laodicea, on the other hand, was wealthy and powerful, but its abundance produced a spirit of indifference and apathy, which was especially evident in the church. This was its major flaws.

The church at Laodicea was most likely established sometime during Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 19:10). Colossians 4:12–13 seems to indi­cate that Epaphras had taken the gospel to Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis after his conversion. Paul also wrote an epistle to this congregation during his first Roman imprisonment (Col. 4:16), although that letter no longer exists.[1]

In Revelation, Christ offered no commendation to this congregation. The reason for this is clear: the church’s love for worldly riches had choked its love for him. It had become indifferent to the things of God. Christ message to this church is like no other. He said that he was disgusted with it: he was about to spew it out of his mouth (v. 16).

A Lukewarm Church

By contrast, Christ identified himself to the church at Laodicea in verse 14 as the Amen. The Hebrew word amen means “so shall it surely be.” It expresses a person’s hearty agreement with what has been said or done. Here Christ himself is the Amen. That is, he not only speaks the truth of the Father, but he is himself that truth. The use of the word amen as a name or title comes from Isaiah 65:16 — the only other passage in the entire Bible that uses the word amen like this. In Isaiah God calls himself “the God of amen” (אלֹהֵי אָמֵן).

To impress the meaning of this even more clearly upon an audience that would not have been familiar with the Hebrew text of Isaiah, the Lord added that he is also the faithful and true witness. Interestingly, the word translated true here is the same word that the translators of the Septuagint used to render the word amen in Isaiah, and both true and faithful are equivalents of amen, which means that the second phrase is a literary expansion of the first. The point is that Christ is true to his Word, true to himself, and true to his people. There is no apathy or indifference in him. Unlike the brethren in Laodicea, he is genuine. He gave himself wholly, body and soul, to bear the wrath of God so that those who believe in him might have everlasting life.

Christ also gives hope. In spite of the church’s artificiality, he assured it that it was not beyond repair. This is what he meant when he designated himself further as the beginning of the creation of God.

Early Arians and modern Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret this self-designation of Christ to mean nothing more than that Christ was the first thing that God created. God made Christ, and then through Christ he made everything else. But this makes no sense here. How would the notion that Christ is the first creature have given the Laodiceans hope or encouraged them to improve in their faithfulness?

It’s more likely that this title means the same thing here the firstborn means in Colossians 1. Remember that these two churches — Colosse and Laodicea — passed Paul’s epistles back and forth (cf. Col. 4:16).  And what did Paul write to the church at Colosse?  He wrote that Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist (Col. 1:15–17). In these few words, we find an extremely rich Christology. Paul asserted that Christ’s dignity, power, authority, glory and prerogative are equal with the Father’s. In particular, he is the sovereign creator of all things, who created the vast universe for his own pleasure. Since these attributes are true only of God, Christ himself must be God.

Further, if we connect the beginning of the creation of God in our text with the first begotten of the dead in Revelation 1:5, then the meaning is even more specific. It’s not so much that Christ is the author of the all creation, which is certainly true, but rather that he is distinctively the author of the new creation. This is further supported by the fact that Isaiah, after mentioning the blessing of “the God of amen,” immediately quotes God as saying, For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind (Isa. 65:17). The new creation, according to Revelation 21:5, is the result of Christ’s work. Because Christ himself is faithful and true, the promise of the new creation is also faithful and true (οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι ἀληθινοὶ καὶ πιστοί εἰσιν; cf. Rev. 22:6).

In the context, these self-descriptions of Christ were meant as an encouragement for the church at Laodicea. As the creator of new life, the Lord Jesus Christ has both the power and authority, if he chooses to exercise it, to give healing and life to a church that was teetering on the edge of destruction. This church needed his renewing power.

Although its condition was miserable, the Lord had not yet given up on the church at Laodicea. The Greek text of verse 16 literally says, “I am at the point of spewing you out of my mouth” (μέλλω σε ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός μου). He had not already done so, nor had he decided irreversibly to do so, but he was about to. If the church did not repent, the Lord would spew it out of his mouth.

The problem with the church at Laodicea that made Christ want to spew it out of his mouth is that it was lukewarm. Everyone who lived in Laodicea in the first century would have known immediately what this meant.

Laodicea was situated at the intersection of four major trade routes. This site was obviously chosen for its strategic importance for commerce. Unfortunately, there were no natural sources of water in the immediate vicinity. Water had to be piped in from the hot springs of Hierapolis, i.e., a distance of about six miles. The water leaving Hieropolis was hot, but by the time it reached Laodicea it was only lukewarm. It was barely drinkable. Some have even described it as nauseating.

This raises an interesting question. The hot water from the springs at Hieropolis was obviously good. It was saturated with numerous minerals, which, although making the water very hard, were believed to have healing power. So, a bath in the hot water was considered medicinal. But Jesus also approved of the cold water. He said that he wished the church were either hot or cold. The cold waters probably refer to the pure, sparkling waters of Colosse. The coolness of these waters could refresh and revive the weariest soul.

So, the point is not that hot is good and cold is bad. Both hot and cold are good and useful. It’s the lukewarm water that has no use. A person could bathe in it if he wanted to, but who would? And the high mineral content made it almost undrinkable. Sadly, Laodicea had no choice. It was the only water available.

The church of Laodicea was as pathetic as its water supply. Its ministry could neither heal the faint nor refresh the weary. Why? Because its lust for worldly things and indifference to the blessings of God (which probably included a degree of compromise as well) rendered its witness to Christ completely ineffectual. When the Lord said, I know thy works, in verse 15, he meant that the church had nothing to offer (v. 15).

Having an attitude of indifference is destructive enough, but the Laodiceans were even worse than this. According to verse 17, they had deceived themselves into thinking that they were accomplishing great and wonderful things for the kingdom of God. They said among themselves, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing (cf. the boasting of Ephraim in Hos. 12:8).

One commentator notes that it is almost impossible to do anything with people who are satisfied with their own accomplish­ments. Remember how the Pharisee thanked God because he wasn’t a sinner like the tax collector. In his own mind, he didn’t need anything. The tax collector, on the other hand, beat his breasts and prayed, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. This man knew that his only hope was to be given something he could never receive except as a gift. He needed the holy God of Scripture to show mercy to a condemned and ruined sinner.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that the church of Laodicea was neither healthy nor rich. It was so blind that it couldn’t even realize see how bad off it really was. But the Lord didn’t allow its presumption to last long. He corrected the church in verse 17: although it claimed to be rich and happy, he informed it that it was really wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked (v. 17). In other words, it was exactly the opposite of the very things that the city of Laodicea was known for. The city had a thriving banking industry and plenty of commerce. It boasted the highest standard of living in its day. But in spite of these outward blessings, the church was pathetic, miserable and broke. Laodicea had a medical school that treated both ear and eye diseases, but the church was blind. And the glossy black wool of the local sheep provided warm clothing. The church, however, was naked.

It is truly a great shame when the church believes it has everything that world offers, but in reality has nothing at all. This was the condition in which Christ found the last of the seven churches of Asia Minor.

Restoration?

Twice in this letter, the Lord Jesus Christ gave the church at Laodicea opportunity to repent.

The first of these opportunities is in verse 18. The Lord counseled this complacent church to buy refined gold, white raiment and eye salve. Refined gold is commonly used in Scripture to denote a life that has been purified by the removal of sin, often by the fire of trial (cf. Job 23:10; Prov. 27:21; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2–3; I Pet. 1:6–9). The white robes had the same significance in the letter to Sardis (cf. vv. 4–5), and later in Revelation the saints appear in pure white linen at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:8). Eye salve reminded the Laodiceans of their need for spiritual discernment. If the church was to survive, it would have to purchase these things, i.e., it needed to turn to Christ and not trust in its own resources. The exhortation here is similar to Isaiah’s, where he wrote, Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isa. 55:1). Apart from doing this, the church would remain poor, naked and blind.

The second opportunity to repent is found in verse 20. Jesus said, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

C.I. Scofield has a rather unusual title for this section. He calls it “The Place and Attitude of Christ at the End of the Church Age.” The problem with this is that the attitude that Christ displays here is not limited to the end of the “church age” at all. It’s the attitude that he has always had toward his church. Wasn’t that the point of the Lord’s summons to buy wine and milk without money in Isaiah 55?

Nor is verse 20 an invitation for the unconverted to believe. Rather, it is the sovereign command of Christ to those who had already professed faith to renew their commitment to him. The church had forsaken him by embracing a lukewarm complacency to the gospel. But in amazing condescension, the Lord approached the church, looking for renewed fellowship. If anyone opens, he said, fellowship will resume.

Warner Sallman, who was probably the most well known painter of pictures of Christ in the twentieth century, produced a well-known work titled Christ at Heart’s Door. It shows Christ knocking on the door of a quaint little cottage, with his radiance casting a heart-shaped glow around the doorframe. Actually, knocking was all that he could do because there wasn’t a doorknob with which he could open the door. He was completely dependent on the person inside to let him. But it didn’t look very promising, though, for a small grill on the door shows only an intense darkness within.

Although Sallman’s painting was supposedly based on Revelation 3:20, even apart from impropriety of having pictures of Christ, it really distorts the meaning of this verse. Nowhere does our text say that Jesus knocked on the door of an individual’s heart. This letter was written to a church. And just as importantly, note that it’s the sound of Christ’s voice that the church was to respond to. Jesus said, If any man hear my voice, and open the door I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. But what did the voice of Christ say to this church that had shut him out of fellowship? The most likely possibility is that he said what he wrote to the church, viz., that it had become lukewarm, unproductive and ignorant of its real condition, and that it needed to repent. Verse 19 summarizes the Lord’s message to church at Laodicea: As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

Sallman could have improved his painting by putting the doorknob on the outside of the door, but not on the inside. Even in the matter of errant believers resuming fellowship, no one can answer the door unless Christ gives him the ability to do so. The first choice is always his. In John 6:44, Jesus told his disciples, No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him. It isn’t an individual’s choice that brings him to Christ, although the individual must choose to come. Nor is it the individual’s unaided decision that renews fellowship with Christ, although the individual must decide to walk in covenant communion with his Savior. Rather, it is God who works in the hearts of men both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).

Note that it was Christ who took the initiative to renew fellowship with the church at Laodicea, not the church itself. In fact, the church was only too content with what it had. But Christ was not satisfied with it. He called the church to repentance. He stood at the door and knocked. As the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God, he commanded the church to turn from its indifference and delight itself once again in his supreme goodness.

Between the two calls to repentance, verse 19 teaches the Laodiceans that Christ’s stern rebuke is not yet an indication of his judicial wrath, but rather a mark of his love (cf. Heb. 12:7–8). They should not overlook the seriousness of it, though. If they do not repent, they will suffer his rejection and ultimately the outpouring of his wrath. But if they zealously engage the Lord in their own sanctification and the evangelism of their community, Christ will embrace them once again in the sweetest fellowship.

The fellowship that begins with repentance yields an everlasting fruit. Verse 21 says that those who overcome will sit on the Father’s throne, which symbolizes both service and victory in the kingdom of Christ.

In chapter 1, Christ used lampstands to represent the churches of Asia Minor. The light of some of these lampstands shined brightly, while others had almost burned out. The church at Ephesus maintained its doctrinal integrity, but its light was growing dim because it had lost its evangelistic zeal. In Smyrna, the light of the church was threat­ened by persecution, probably because of its brilliance. The church of Pergamos, on the other hand, almost extinguished its own light by failing to exercise church discipline. Thyatira’s flame, likewise, was threatened, but this time by the pastor’s wife who was advising church members to participate in pagan rituals in order to safeguard their crafts. Sardis’ light had all but disap­peared: the church was literally living on a reputation that it had earned in the past. The lampstand of Philadel­phia’s church was apparently shining brightly, though it had recently been under fire. And Laodicea thought its light was bright, but its indifference nearly smothered the light.

The point is that each of these churches was evaluated on the basis of its testimony in the world. Was it exemplifying the grace of God to a fallen world? Was its preaching faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The troubles that these churches faced came from within the church and from outside of it. One is just as dangerous as the other. But the most dangerous thing of all is when a church gives in to the will of the flesh and bases its practices upon its own desires for peace with the world.

O, let the church be troubled! For then God separates his true churches from all the rest, and those who hold to the testimony of Jesus Christ are made manifest.


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[1] Some commentators believe that the epistle mentioned in Col. 4:16 is the one we now call Ephesians. This supposition is based on the fact that the words at Ephesus (ἐν Ἐφέσῳ) are missing in some manuscript copies of Ephesians. However, the evidence for their inclusion is quite strong.

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