SYNOPSIS: The church at Laodicea receives no commendation, only correction – Revelation 3:14-22.
The town of Laodicea was built on the site of a village originally named Diospolis, the “city of Zeus.” It was founded around 260 B.C. by the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, who named it after his wife, Laodice. He settled two thousand Jewish families in the town, and, by John’s time, there was a flourishing Jewish community.
The city was sixty-five kilometers southeast of Philadelphia and one hundred and sixty kilometers east of Ephesus. It was relatively close to the towns of Colossae and Hierapolis. Like the rest of the province, Laodicea came under Roman rule in 133 B.C. Because of its location at the confluence of three major trade routes, the city depended on regional trade. It featured baths, a stadium, theaters, pagan temples, and a gymnasium.
The city produced a highly valued black wool from which it manufactured cloth and carpets. Laodicea had a medical school reputed for an eye-salve called “Phrygian powder.” But the city lacked a good freshwater supply; local sources were brackish and lukewarm. Freshwater had to be piped in via an aqueduct.
An earthquake destroyed much of the city in A.D. 60. Laodicea refused Roman financial assistance to rebuild, choosing to rely on its own resources. This was a matter of great civic pride, perhaps a legacy reflected in the attitude of this church.
The church was formed relatively early and is mentioned by the Apostle Paul. His co-worker, Epaphras, introduced the gospel to it (Colossians 1:7, 2:1, 4:13-16).
Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea that was either lost or survives as the epistle to the Ephesians. Possibly, Ephesians was his letter intended for Laodicea. The house churches of Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis likely experienced similar problems and Paul instructed the church at Colossae to share his letter with Laodicea (Colossians 4:16).
(Revelation 3:14-22) – “And unto the messenger of the assembly in Laodicea, write:—These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God: I know thy works;—that neither cold art thou, nor hot: I would that cold thou hadst been or hot. Thus, because lukewarm thou art, and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, Rich, am I, and have become enriched, and of nothing have I need, and knowest not that thou art the wretched one, and pitiable, and destitute, and blind, and naked, I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich,—and white raiment, that thou mayest array thyself, and the shame of thy nakedness may not be made manifest,—and eye-salve to anoint thine eyes that thou mayest see. I, as many as I tenderly love, I convict and put under discipline: be zealous, therefore, and repent. Lo! I am standing at the door and knocking; if anyone shall hearken unto my voice and open the door, I will come in unto him, and will sup with him, and he with me. He that overcometh I will give unto him to take his seat with me in my throne, as I also overcame and took my seat with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what, the Spirit, is saying unto the assemblies.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
This last letter opens with Jesus, the “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” “Amen” transliterates a Hebrew word with a root sense of strength and firmness – It denotes “faithfulness, firmness, fidelity, truthfulness.” “Amen” emphasizes Christ as the faithful and true witness whose testimony is firm and utterly reliable, in contrast to the fickleness of this church and its ineffectual testimony.
The scriptural background of Christ’s claims is from the book of Isaiah where “amen” and the “creation of God” occur together. In Isaiah, Yahweh is the “faithful” God of Israel who announces the new creation:
(Isaiah 65:16-17) – “He who blesses himself in the earth will bless himself in the God of faithfulness (‘amén), and he who swears in the earth will swear by the God of faithfulness (‘amén), because the former troubles have been forgotten, and because they are hidden from my eyes. For, behold me, creating new heavens and a new earth.”
The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the New Creation. He is the faithful witness to this new reality. This understanding is borne out by the earlier declaration that he is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.” Elsewhere, the New Testament links his resurrection to the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 2 Corinthians 5:15-17).
He is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” Firstborn in Revelation and Colossians refers to his preeminence, not to chronological sequence or priority (Colossians 1:18 [“that in all things he might have the preeminence”]).
Jesus finds nothing praiseworthy in this church. It is prosperous, in contrast to the impoverished assembly at Smyrna, or to the church with a little strength in Philadelphia. However, it is poor and naked in his eyes.
“Neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm.” The description is a reference to the poor water conditions of Laodicea. Located between Hierapolis with its thermal hot springs, and Colossae with its cooler freshwater sources, the water supply at Laodicea was tepid and good for nothing; so, likewise, the faith and testimony of its congregation. Lukewarm waters stress uselessness. Cold water quenches thirst and water from hot springs has medicinal properties. Tepid water is of no benefit. This church did not recognize its precarious state (“you know not…”), and it presumed its material prosperity reflected its spiritual strength.
“I am rich.” This is a verbal allusion to Hosea 12:8 – “So Ephraim said, ‘Surely I have gotten me riches, I have found wealth for myself in all my labors they shall find in me no iniquity.” Ancient Israel had attributed her material prosperity to her idols (Hosea 2:5, 2:8).
Likewise, the church of Laodicea acquired wealth by compromising with the city’s idolatrous culture. From a pragmatic perspective, the accommodation became necessary to full participation in the economic life of the city. Paradoxically, the church’s economic success was definitive evidence of her compromise and spiritual poverty.
The claim to be rich and need nothing echoes Babylon’s boast: “I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.” Despite the Great Harlot’s confidence, “in one day shall her plagues come, death and mourning and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire.” The church’s boast demonstrates that Babylon has infiltrated the assembly; it is at risk of partaking of the Harlot’s plagues. Likewise, if the church does not repent, Jesus will vomit it out of his mouth (Revelation 18:7).
The condition of the church in Laodicea is the opposite of the church at Smyrna (“poor” in men’s eyes but “rich” in the eyes of Christ). In contrast, Laodicea is “poor, blind and naked.” She needs to “buy gold refined by fire, white raiment and eye-salve” to correct her deficiencies.
“Gold refined by fire.” This image symbolizes refinement in the fires of persecution. That is the only kind of “gold” that will alleviate this church’s poverty. “White garments” point to purity achieved by faithful perseverance (Revelation 2:9, 3:4-5, 6:11, 7:9-14).
Eye-salve is needed to heal spiritual blindness, to see the church’s true state, and to make the necessary corrections. Undoubtedly, this image alludes to the locally produced eye-salve for which Laodicea was famous.
The exhortation to buy white raiment to cover nakedness is echoed in Revelation 16:15: “I come as a thief! Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments, lest he be walking naked and they see his shame.” Shockingly, this warning is found in the middle of the last three bowl judgments against the Beast and Babylon that consummate in the battle of Armageddon, the destruction of Babylon, and celestial and terrestrial upheaval. This illustrates just who and what is the source of the idolatrous institutions of Laodicea, and how horrific the potential fate is the congregation is facing if it does not repent and reverse course.
Christ’s declaration of “tender love” and “discipline” demonstrates this church is not beyond redemption – There is still time to become “zealous and repent.” By renewing fellowship with Jesus, the church can still become an effective witness for Jesus, though doing so means inevitable resistance from a pagan society.
Overcoming Christians are destined to share in the reign of Jesus. However, like him, this is achieved by enduring tribulation, suffering, and sacrificial death. Just as the Lamb overcame and attained authority to rule from the Divine Throne through death, so his followers must do likewise (“To him who overcomes will I grant to sit in my throne, just as I also overcame to sit with my Father in his throne”).