Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 26, 1978
We have seen some wealthy cities in our study of these seven letters of the book of Revelation, and the last is far from the least. This city of Laodicea was built on the borders of Phrygia, just at the point where a narrow glen begins to open into the broad valley of the Maeander River, which flows westward to the Aegean Sea. It was built to command that glen militarily, but it also served to control all the trade which flowed down the river valley to the seacoast, making it a commercially prosperous city.
To add to its advantage, three major trade roads centered there, making it one of the richest commercial cities in the ancient world. This city was wealthy beyond description. Now, wealth often brings an attitude of arrogant self-sufficiency and that is what began to happen to the people of Laodicea. They were so well situated that they considered themselves to have need of no one. When a severe earthquake destroyed a number of cities in this area in 60 A. D., and others were seeking help from the Roman Senate to rebuild their cities, the city of Laodicea proudly refused to accept the help which was offered. Their city arose from its ruins more beautiful than ever, with not one trace of outside assistance. They were proud of their riches and strength, their independence and self-sufficiency. "We are rich; our money can buy anything we want; we need no help from gods nor men." This was the egotistical attitude that seemed to emanate from Laodicea.
Now as we have seen before, the attitudes of a city often affected the attitudes of the church of Jesus Christ within that city. Nowhere was this more true than in the metropolis of Laodicea. This church had a rich spiritual heritage. The Apostle John visited on many occasions and preached there. The Apostle Paul, in all probability, had been there. He knew these people. In fact, he wrote them a letter. Turn back to the book of Colossians for a moment. Colossians 4:16 says, "Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea." Now we don't have that epistle in our Bibles--at least some scholars think we don't. Other scholars think we do. You say, "We do? Where is it?" Many people feel that the book of Ephesians was what we call a cyclical letter: a letter that was intended for a number of churches that was intended to be passed from one to the other. The earliest copy we have happened to have the name of the Ephesians on it but it, too, was intended for the Laodiceans. That well may be.
But the church at Laodicea had become so identified with the city it almost lost its distinguishing features. It had become lukewarm. Look at the condition Christ finds as He investigates and evaluates the church at Laodicea.
1. The Condition Christ Finds
Note first of all verse 17, and listen to what this church was saying. "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing." We're all right; there's nothing wrong with us; there's nothing lacking here. We have all the money we need; we have gotten it by our own hard work and capable management; and we are fully able to take care of ourselves, and work out our own problems. We don't need anything from anybody. They considered themselves to be totally self-sufficient, competent in their own strength to handle any circumstance. "We can do it ourselves" was their theme song.
You can mark down a principle which seldom fails: Affluence and self-sufficiency leads to self-satisfaction. When we begin to boast that we don't need anything from anybody else, that we are able to take care of all our own needs in and by ourselves, we soon begin to think that we really don't have any needs. We become smug and complacent, indifferent to any honest evaluation of ourselves, insensitive to any shortcoming in ourselves. We become satisfied with ourselves the way we are. We can easily convince ourselves, and boldly state without pangs of conscience, "There's nothing wrong with me." We don't need any growth; we don't need any improvement; we don't need any pastor telling us where we fall short. We're all right just the way we are. We tell ourselves we are as good or better than so-and-so and we're not going to change. Even our mediocrity becomes a source of pride to us.
This is what happened to the church at Laodicea. Their self-sufficiency produced an attitude of smug self-satisfaction and stagnation. Listen to the scathing denunciation of our Lord in this letter that has no praise. "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 spue you out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16).
It's interesting that most of the things that the Lord says to the church at Laodicea, as in the other letters, come directly out of the situation, and culture, and background of the day. The city of Laodicea was bordered on the north about six miles by the city of Hierapolis, a city that was famous for its hot springs. The springs had a high mineral content and great medicinal value, and people flocked to them for healing. A little to the east of Laodicea was the city of Colossae, known for its cold, clear, refreshing waters. Hot springs to the north. Cold waters to the east.
You know what happened to those waters from Hierapolis? They flowed across a plateau, and right across the ridge from the city of Laodicea, they fell off of a cliff of about 300 feet. Some people--particularly visitors to the city--would go over and look at these cliffs that were all stained from the minerals in the water and they would think, "This would be great water for a hot bath." But they'd get in it and it would be lukewarm. Or sometimes visitors would see the water and think, "Ah, what cool refreshing water!" And they'd take a drink of it; with the high mineral content and the lukewarmness, they would spue it out of their mouths. That water flowing over that falls was neither hot to heal, nor cold to refresh.
I think lukewarm liquid is rather nauseating. I can drink extremely hot water, and it tastes all right. I can drink ice cold water, and it is fine. But lukewarm water can make me want to regurgitate. Now you may not think this is the most pleasant subject to talk about in a morning worship hour, but I am merely telling you what the Lord Jesus Christ is talking about. He pulls no punches. The words "spue out" in verse 16 literally means "vomit." Jesus said, "I'm going to vomit you out of My mouth." The lukewarmness of the Laodicea church had thoroughly nauseated Him. He was absolutely disgusted and distressed with their spiritual condition. They were as distasteful as lukewarm liquid. Their mediocrity, their stagnation, their complacency, their superficiality, their forms and ritual without warmth and power were loathsome to Him. He was fed up with it. He could not stand their Sunday-only Christianity that did not affect their lives every day of the week. They were indifferent and lifeless; they lacked enthusiasm. To Jesus Christ, the lukewarm church at Laodicea was a sickening assembly.
I'm afraid that there are Christians today who are very much like the lukewarm Christians at Laodicea. Oh, that the multitudes of lukewarm Christians the world over might wake up and see what Christ thinks of them! Even in doctrinally-sound churches like our own there are professing believers who could be classified as nothing more than lukewarm. They have some religion. They come periodically on Sunday mornings. But they are far from on-fire for God. They find it too inconvenient to support every service. They find little time to study God's Word during the week, little time to spend on their knees in His presence. Those with whom they come in contact never hear from their lips the tremendous thing Christ accomplished for them when He saved them--they have no effective witness whatsoever. Sin finds little resistance in getting a hold on them, for they know nothing of the power available to them through complete yieldedness to the Holy Spirit of God. They are lukewarm and they sicken the Savior, by His own confession. He says He would prefer them to be ice-cold rather than lukewarm.
Did you hear that? "I could wish you were cold or hot." The words mean "ice cold" or "boiling hot." Christ would rather have us be ice cold than lukewarm. Do you know why? Because lukewarm Christians can't see their problem. They don't understand their need. They're blinded to their own spiritual condition. They do enough to feel satisfied that they've paid their dues to God. They're blinded to the fact that God has something far more exciting for them; they just can't see it.
That is what happened to the Laodiceans, and that is what is happening to many professing Christians today. They say boldly that there is nothing wrong with them, just as the Laodiceans were saying. But look at what Christ says, "You do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17b). Their half-hearted Christianity has blinded them to their real condition. To be half-hearted in our relationship with God may be more dangerous than to turn our backs completely on Him, because it blinds us to our condition. Folks who most need to respond to an invitation or to apply a message to themselves don't do it.
You know, that's one of the things that really grieves me. I don't have particular people in mind when I prepare a sermon; I really don't. I know some of you think so and you've told me, "Boy, you must have been looking in our window this week!" I just know my needs and my shortcomings, and those of my wife and my children, so I preach to them and you get in on it, you see?! But the one thing I think grieves me more than any other thing about a Bible-teaching ministry is the people who need it least are usually the ones who take it to themselves and say, "Boy, that one's for me." And the ones who need it most go out and never even begin to think that God may be trying to say something to them. They don't even begin to think that maybe God intended that message for them and their spiritual need.
That's lukewarmness. If you come to church week after week and you say, "Boy, you really gave it to them today! I wonder when he's going to say something I need," I mean if that is your reaction, you probably have to admit that you're in this lukewarm category. You don't know your needs. You don't know that Jesus says that you're "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and you're naked."
But you may be asking, "Pastor, were these folks at Laodicea really saved?" Well, I really don't know. I can't answer that question. Some of them may have been so self-sufficient they had not even been willing to receive God's free gift of salvation. If they were trying to work for their own salvation, then they were lost. If they thought they were saved because of the $5 or $50 they put in the offering plate every morning, they were wrong. God says His salvation is a gift of grace exclusively, given freely to those who do not deserve it, and it must be received by faith. To try to work for it is to eliminate the possibility of receiving it freely by God's grace. Their lukewarmness was indicative of their lost condition.
But I do think there were others who had received God's grace and His gift of salvation. The only problem was they didn't grow. They didn't allow Him to be part of their everyday experience. Their hearts that were once aflame with the love of Jesus Christ had cooled. They were backslidden believers--carnal, fleshly Christians. They were living for the things of this world.
Of course from our vantage point, unsaved people, and carnal Christians look exactly alike. Only God knew their individual hearts. But in either case the consequences were the same. "I will spue you out of My mouth."
Whether religious unsaved people, or backslidden Christians, Christ is going to destroy the effectiveness of their church. Keep in mind that this is not a threat to take away the salvation of any individual in the church. To say this means they could lose their salvation would be to contradict an overwhelming amount of Scripture that says otherwise. Rather, it is a warning to the whole church, a church where the majority was lukewarm. Christ says He is going to repudiate that church, remove it from its place of prominence, take away its position as a witness-bearer, a lampstand in the world. It is the same warning given to the Ephesian church which lost its first love to whom Christ said, "I will remove your candlestick out of his place" (Revelation 2:5). Let us beware lest Christ find the same condition in our church.
2. The Counsel Christ Gives
Having discovered a detestable condition of lukewarmness in verses 15-17, Christ proceeds to give some counsel to the church in verses 18 and 19. They had better heed His counsel too, for He is the One of all authority as He makes plain in the introduction of Himself to the church in verse 15. He is the Amen. The word "amen" means essentially "truth." In the New Testament it is often translated "verily" or "truly." Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all truth, and He speaks only the truth. He is the faithful and true witness according to this verse. And He is the beginning of the creation of God.
Now watch out for that because there are some people who knock at your door from certain heretical cults and religious organizations will point to that verse and tell you that Jesus is a created being. No, this verse does not mean Christ is the first of all God's created beings. Christ was not created. He is eternal. The word "beginning" here means "source of origin" or "first cause." Jesus Christ is the source of all God's creative work. John said, "All things were made by Him (Christ)" (John 1:3). Paul said, "For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth" (Colossians 1:16). Jesus Christ was the first cause of everything. He is the source of origin for everything that God made. He Himself was not created; He is the eternal Son of God. He is one with the Creator. Such an one as this commands our attention. When he gives us advice, we had better heed it. What then is His counsel?
"I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich" (Revelation 3:18a). Buy gold? I guess that's what some economists are telling us to do today. Why should the people of Laodicea buy gold? They were the richest people in the ancient world. Banking was a major industry in Laodicea. Gold flowed freely in their city. They were rich--or were they? Jesus said in verse 17 that they were poor. Isn't that something? The church in Smyrna was poor, absolutely poverty stricken, yet Jesus Christ said they were rich in spiritual things (Revelation 2:9). That was the rich poor church. But the church of Laodicea has all the wealth they need, yet Jesus Christ says they're poor. They are the poor rich church.
To this poor rich church Christ advises that they buy gold. The right kind of gold. What gold is this? It is difficult to determine, since this is figurative language. But we may make some intelligent guesses according to other passages of Scripture. In Psalm 19:7-11, the Word of God is likened to fine gold. In Corinthians 3:12, the holy life of the yielded believer is likened to gold. In 1 Peter 1:7, a faith that is approved through suffering is likened to gold. Could it not be that Christ is exhorting these Laodiceans to give the word of God proper place in their church and in their lives, proclaiming it from their pulpits and obeying it in their lives? Their gold will be worthless in eternity. This kind of gold will bring eternal blessings. Buy gold.
They were to also buy something else: "white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed" (Revelation 3:18b). Well, of all things. If there was one thing the Laodiceans did not need, it was clothing. They were the best dressed believers in Asia Minor. Laodicea was famous for a very exclusive breed of sheep that produced a wool remarkable for its softness and unsurpassed in its dark and glossy color. Tunics made of this beautiful black wool were exported all over the world. What did they need with new clothes?
But Jesus said they were naked in verse 17. Extravagantly robed on the outside, but their souls were miserably naked. Those who had never received Christ needed to be robed in His righteousness--they needed to have their garments washed white in the blood of the Lamb as we read in Revelation 7:14. Their own robes of self-righteousness were insufficient to enter God's presence. And then those who had received Christ needed to begin to live for Him. They needed daily power to overcome their lukewarmness and please Him. They needed the God-given white robes of daily holy living (Revelation 19:8).
Third, Christ counsels them to anoint their eyes with eyesalve, that they may see. Eyesalve? Why, Laodicea had the best in the world. A great medical school in Laodicea produced a powder that was sent throughout the world in tablet form, to be ground down and out into the eyes as a remedy for failing eyesight. They were famous for eye-powder, but they were blind to their spiritual condition according to the Lord (verse 17). They needed the eyesalve of God's Word to penetrate their blinded hearts and lay bare their cool indifference.
How can these things be bought? I thought we have established the fact that all spiritual blessing from salvation on are the gift of God's grace. Yes, they certainly are. But God was using the terms of reference most clearly understood by these commercially-minded Laodiceans. They knew the Scriptures; their minds would immediately reflect back to Isaiah 55:1: "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk, Without money and without price."
The only price they had to pay was the acknowledgment of their own unworthiness, and the willingness to receive freely from Christ's hand, all that their souls so desperately needed. Unless they repented of their lukewarmness and got right with God, Jesus warns them that severe chastisement will be forthcoming. "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent" (Revelation 3:19). His love demands that He do everything in His power to bring them to the place of submission and usefulness--because He knows that's the only place we can be happy.
3. The Choice Christ Offers
The chastisement in verse 19 would be primarily for those who were genuinely born again, but whose love for the Lord had grown cold. But for that nucleus of pretenders in the church, those religious people who were still trying to work their way to heaven, Christ has a personal choice to offer in verse 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 dine with him, and he with Me."
The church cannot guarantee their salvation, as some would have us believe. That is an individual matter. Christ turns from His exhortation to the whole church to an offer to individuals. To each individual He says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." This is the door of the human heart, not the church. "For if any man" (singular) "hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him" (not the church, but to him). If we will open the door of our hearts, Christ will come in and make Himself a vital part of our lives. He will sup with us, and we with Him.
Eating together to the mind of the first readers of this letter would have been the picture of perfect fellowship. Christ longs to have constant communion and soul satisfying fellowship with you, dear friend. Have you acknowledged your sin? Have you recognized your inability to earn your own salvation? Do you understand that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for your sin? Then receive Him into your life today. Don't delay another hour. Life isn't worth living without Him. You will feast on Him and He will satisfy every longing of your heart.
4. The Certainty Christ Provides
For those who have opened the door of their hearts to the Savior, there is a blessed promise--probably the most thrilling of any promise to believers made in these seven letters. It is the promise to share the Savior's throne. "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" (Revelation 3:21).
What a thrilling promise to the true believer. We shall reign with Christ, on His throne. The importance of these proud Laodiceans looked so insignificant next to this supreme position. And what a blessed certainty to look forward to for those whose position in this world is so lowly. There is nothing that excites the imagination more than the thought of reigning with Christ from His throne on high.
But you know this story is unfinished. Whether or not the lukewarm church at Laodicea ever repented of its lukewarmness and was restored to a place of power and blessing is completely unknown. We do know one thing: The site on which the city once stood is nothing but waste and ruins today. Could it be that they failed to heed the counsel of the Christ?
Oh, don't you ignore it. If there is in your life a trace of this same lukewarmness, a half-heartedness, disinterest, and self-satisfaction that so grieves the heart of the Lord, will you face it today? Open your eyes and evaluate your life---see it as God sees it. Confess to Him your lethargy, then ask Him for the fire of life and compassion to ignite your heart and soul and send you out to do His will in a world that desperately needs the message you have to offer.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:22). Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we ask You to use Your Word to encourage us. Thank You for those whose lives are filled with the Spirit, who are yielded to You and are living for You, whose testimony is radiant and clear. God, we pray for those for whom that is not true. How I pray that this very day they may be willing to yield themselves to You, acknowledge what they are before You and let the Spirit take control of their lives, and begin to use them with great power and effectiveness. Oh, God, we pray that our church may never become a church like that of the Laodiceans. We ask You that together we may grow in Your grace and knowledge, and become more like You day by day, and that our testimony to a lost world may become more powerful with every passing day, for Jesus' sake. Amen.
Continue to RV-05B: The Throne of God