Today we read the last of the seven letters from Jesus to a church in what’s now modern-day Turkey, namely the one in Laodicea. Once again, here’s some background from MacArthur: “Located in the Lycus River Valley, the SW area of Phrygia, Laodicea became the wealthiest, most important commercial center in the region. It was primarily known for 3 industries: banking, wool, and medicine (notably its eye salve). An inadequate local water supply forced the city to build an underground aqueduct. All 3 industries, as well as the inadequate water supply, played a major part in this letter. The church began through the ministry of Epaphras, while Paul was ministering in Ephesus (cf. Col 1:7; Paul never personally visited Laodicea).” Let’s see what we can learn here, shall we?
Remember what I said about there being a broad-range of quality in the churches here? The one in Philadelphia, while not perfect, apparently didn’t merit any specific criticism in this venue, while the one in Sardis was almost a worst-case scenario, rating a “almost as bad as it can be” on the scale. Well, today’s the worst-case scenario. All of the others had something good that Christ could say about them. Not here.
This is coming from “the Amen.” In case you didn’t know, the word “Amen” is Hebrew meaning “let it be so” or affirming the truth of the statement attached to it. Jesus is the One through whom all the Lord’s promises have been or will be fulfilled. When God promises 1) grace towards the repentant and 2) judgment on the unrepentant, both are fulfilled through Christ. This is echoed in the fact that one of his titles is “the faithful and true witness.” This title appears again near the end of the book when he returns in power and glory to officially claim his Kingdom. Even right now, still waiting the consummation of all things, he’s already “the ruler of God’s creation.” All this is to emphasize that when the Lord Jesus says something, he’s perfectly willing and able to back it up.
His actual message to them begins with a phrase that he’s said before in each of his other six letters: “I know. . .” He knows. He knows their deeds. He knows what they’ve been doing. He knows their hearts inside-out and backwards and forwards: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” And what was his response to what he saw going on at this church?
He was disgusted. They made him sick to his stomach. He was ready to spit or vomit them out.
Once again some background would be useful. I remember the inimitable Dr. Potts at East Texas Baptist University, who talked about this subject while we were all on an educational trip to Turkey, where we visited the sites of most of the churches listed in Revelation 2-3. Nearby Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs, which supposedly worked wonders for things like arthritis and similar ailments. At the very least, their hot springs were incredibly relaxing, but you couldn’t drink the water there because it was foul-tasting or even poisonous. On the other side of Laodicea was the city of Colossae, which of course was the place to which Paul wrote the epistle to the Colossians. Colossae was famous for its refreshing cold water from mountain streams. But as mentioned before, Laodicea didn’t have any good local water sources, so they tried to build aqueducts from Colossae and Hierapolis to provide water. But the waters from the two sources mixed, and by the time it reached Laodicea it was—you might have guessed by now—just tepid, nasty-tasting water that no one could drink or bathe in. If you tried to drink it, you. . .well, you tended to spit or vomit it out. If swallowed, it could easily make you sick to your stomach.
We need to delve a little deeper into his phrase:I wish you were either [hot] or [cold]!" The interpretation that I’ve always heard, which seems to be the majority conclusion, is that “hot” and “cold” refer to spiritual fervor or lack thereof. In this paradigm, the ideal is to be “hot” for Christ, serving him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. “Cold”--referring to openly rejecting him--is certainly not commendable, but it’s something that Jesus can work with. You could accuse pre-conversion Saul of a lot of things, but lukewarmness wasn’t one of them. No one could mistake him for being a fence-sitter as he traveled town to town to round up more Christians to arrest. The explanation is that Christ would rather us be openly rejecting him or even opposing him over the tepidity of the Laodicean church.
That’s certainly not a bad explanation. Christ doesn’t exactly explain what he means by the imagery. However. . . I did just come across another interpretation. It’s a new one to me, which ipso facto raises caution. But I’ll let the study notes on the NET Bible present it and make its case: “The metaphor in the text is not meant to relate spiritual fervor to temperature. This would mean that Laodicea would be commended for being spiritually cold, but it is unlikely that Jesus would commend this. Instead, the metaphor condemns Laodicea for not providing spiritual healing (being hot) or spiritual refreshment (being cold) to those around them. It is a condemnation of their lack of works and lack of witness.” To be perfectly frank, I lean slightly closer to this one, while of course allowing that one’s particular interpretation of this is certainly not essential.
The amazing thing that sticks out to me is the pathetic self-delusion here. They thought they were rich and healthy, but the Lord Jesus, with his all-piercing fiery gaze, saw the truth. They were as pitiable as possible: They were spiritually impoverished, naked, and blind. They thought they had everything they needed, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
What to do? Go to Christ.
On true wealth, health, and enlightenment, he has a full monopoly: He’s the only game in town. You might think you’re wonderfully enlightened, but without the Light of the world, you’re stumbling around in the dark, heading for unseen disaster. You might be so healthy that doctors use you as the standard to go by, but if you’re not on the right side of Christ, you’re worthy of pity. You could be rich enough to buy and sell Bill Gates on a whim, but if you’re not in a right relationship with Christ, you’re playing a fool’s game. I mean that quite literally: God calls you a fool.
Now we come to one of the cringe-inducing verses in all of Scripture. I know I know I know. Verse 20 is one which countless evangelists have used to bring countless souls to saving faith in Christ. Hey, if you’re using Scripture and God is blessing your efforts, who am I to question that? Unless you’re doing something blatantly unscriptural, the last thing I want to do is pour any cold water on it (pun not intended). As our Savior put it, “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
However, the context for vs. 20 is not mainly meant as an invitation to a lost individual to receive Christ as Savior into his individual heart. In this context, Jesus is standing at the door of a church and asking to be let in. By their lukewarmness, by their deluding themselves into thinking they were fine, they had shut Jesus out of his own church. Yikes!
He was asking for someone on the inside of this church to invite him back in. If they did, he’d walk back in and have a meal with them. From the look of things, apparently this church didn’t have one sincere believer. But he loved them, each and every one, and through this letter he’s pleading with them to listen to his voice before it’s too late. If they do, if they open the door, he has some wonderful promises for them. Yes, he’ll come in and have fellowship with them, but more than that he’ll “give the right to sit with [him] on [his] throne, just as [he] was victorious and sat down with [his] Father on his throne.” In a couple of days we celebrate our Savior coming down into utter humiliation for us. The next time he comes, however, there won't be any cute manger scenes. There will be angels, but this time they won't be telling anyone "Don't be afraid, I've got great news for you!" No, these will be angels with swords, and it'll finish with not-so-pretty endings for everyone who’s opposed him. This time he’s coming in power and glory to officially claim his Kingdom. And if you belong to him, you’ll share in all that. He won’t be ashamed to call you brother or sister, and what he owns, you’ll have a piece of.
I apologize for going on a bit long today, but this seemed to too important to take a chance on giving this passage short-shrift. If you don’t belong to Christ or if you’re not sure, please read this. If you do belong to Christ but you still hear his warning that some of this might apply to you, then rest assured that his voice to you right now is proof that he loves you. Please read his promises here, and claim them as your own.
Lord Jesus, it’s a fact of life with no exceptions: When I let myself slide away from you, nothing but bad comes of it. You’re my life, my hope, and my song. Make me be both refreshing and healing to those around me. Please.