Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation
Revelation 3:14-22 Laodicea - The church that didn't need Jesus
by I Gordon
We come now to the last of the seven churches in Revelation, Laodicea. Now obviously this will be a great church right? We just had the blessing that is the Philadelphia church... it's all up from here and we're going to end on a high right? Isn't there people on Youtube saying that the last days church is going to be glorious even before the coming of Jesus? Well that will be reflected in this last church then right? Ooooh... I wish I could say yes! But alas... oh Laodicea! It is, as we shall see, the church that didn't need Jesus. It substituted Jesus for wealth thinking it had it all. After the high of the message to Philadelphia this is a sad way to end. But don't throw in the towel just yet for there is still hope. As we shall see, despite their lukewarm apathy and worldliness, Jesus hasn't given up on the individuals within this church and gives one of the greatest promises to those that see their need of Him and overcome this challenging age. So we'll explore the Laodicean church today and I think you'll see that is very relevant for the day in which we live!
Quick Laodicea Overview
The wealthy city of Laodicea was located on the road to Colosse about 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia. About 35 years before this letter was written, Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake, but it had the wealth and ability to rebuild. Its main industry was wool cloth. There is no record that Paul ever visited this city, but he was concerned about it (Col 2:1-2; Col 4:16).
Bible Knowledge Commentary
- Meaning of Laodicea: 'the peoples opinions' or 'rule of the people' - It is a pointer to the fact that it was the people that rule this church, not the Lord. What they wanted is what mattered most.
- The city itself was known for its wealth and trade. It was a prominent banking center.
- Being very pleasure conscious, it was also known for its lavish theaters.
- Another important aspect of this city was its medical school noted for its healing eye ointment. All of these aspects are referenced in the letter for their spiritual application.
- Prophetically it points to the predominant church of the last days, generally understood to be from the early 1900's onward.
As an overview, the letter has the following:
- Commendation - None! As the total opposite of the previous church in Philadelphia, there is not one word in this letter to commend them.
- Complaint - They were lukewarm, self-content in their wealth. Yet completely blind to their own condition of being spiritually naked and poor.
- Counsel - Buy true gold and clothing and eye salve from the Lord
- Warning - Unless they repented, Jesus would have nothing to do with this church, spitting them out of His mouth.
- Challenge - Is aimed at individuals to come and open the door to Jesus, to dine and fellowship with Him.
Over-riding thought: This letter is a sad one, and scary for those blind to their own condition. The Laodiceans thought they had everything they needed yet were totally oblivious to their actual spiritual state. How many are in this state today? This letter, representing the prominent church of our day, is a good wakeup for believers today. It is the hardest hitting of the seven letters.
Jesus' introduction to the Laodiceans
Rev 3:14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation.
So we start with the normal address to the church in Laodicea. But its worth noting that the KJV and NKJV render this introduction slightly differently. They have 'To the angel of the church OF the Laodiceans, write...' This is interesting because all the other six letters start with an address to the angel of the church IN Ephesus/Sardis/Philadelphia etc. But this letter is addressed to the church OF the Laodiceans. In other words it was THEIR church, not Jesus'. They made the rules. They did what they wanted. It was a church swayed and decided by the popular opinion of the time.
Jesus introduces Himself to this church as the Amen, the faithful and true witness. Why would He do this? And remember - every title of Jesus in these letters is specific to the needs of the church addressed. 'Amen'1 means 'steady, trust worthy, truth'. When you hear something you agree with you say 'Amen!' You are confirming the truth. Now Jesus is the Amen. He is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He is the trust worthy One. He is the faithful and true witness.
"The faithful and true witness." This reveals that the Lord Jesus Christ alone is the One who will reveal all and tell all. This is the day when it is very difficult to hear the truth. We certainly don't get it through the news media or from the government. Both our educational institutions and the military are great brain-washing institutions. Whom can you believe? Well, there is One who is the faithful and true witness even in the days of apostasy. You cannot believe the church in many instances today; the liberal church has no message for this hour."
J. Vernon McGee
That is very true and even more so in our day. Jesus, as the faithful and true witness stands in direct opposition to the witness of this church which was neither faithful nor true. As we shall see, they had lost sight of the importance of Jesus and were content with their own wealth and pleasure. The light that they gave the world was not much different to that which the world already enjoyed and trusted in. They were a broken lamp and salt that had lost its flavor. And before you start pointing your finger at them. remember this - this is a pointer to the predominant last days church (especially in the West)! Let me ask you - Are you still a light in this dark world? Do your values and desires stand in contrast to that of the world? Or do you think you will win them by being like them?
The third title of Jesus in this introduction was 'the ruler of God's creation'. This is more commonly translated the 'beginning of God's creation'.
Laodicea Report Card - The Bad
Rev 3:15-16 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! (16) So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Now normally Jesus starts with something to commend the church for but as mentioned earlier, that was absent here. There was no back-slapping or cheerful greeting for this church. They were neither hot nor cold. They were well-off and had a name as a church but were actually apathetic and without zeal for the things of God. And Jesus doesn't want to be part of it. It is said of the last days that many will be "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.' (2Ti 3:4-5). That is Laodicea and it made Jesus nauseous! He hated the taste of it! Now the Laodiceans of the first century would have understood this reference.2
"This rebuke would have been especially meaningful to this church, for water was piped to the city from Hierapolis, a few miles north. By the time the water reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm!"
Bible Knowledge Commentary
And what is the result? Jesus says He will vomit them out of His mouth. Ick! J Vernon McGee is on point again on this stating:
Does that sound to you like the church which He's going to rapture, to whom He says, "I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also" (Joh_14:2-3)? I don't think so. That is the church He draws to Himself, but here is a church He just vomits out because it is lukewarm. Lukewarm water makes you sick at your stomach. I am of the opinion that if He spoke to a lot of churches today, He would say, "You make Me sick at My stomach. You're professed Christians. You say you love Me. You say it, but you don't mean it."
The reality is that Laodicea is a largely unsaved church that, like Thyatira and Sardis, will find itself thrust into the coming tribulation. As we shall see the Laodiceans are blind, poor and naked spiritually... and Jesus is seen outside of this church. But hope still remains for individuals responding to Jesus call, as it does with all of the churches. Let's look at what specifically made Jesus nauseous with this church.
The reason for Jesus' nausea
Rev 3:17 'Because you say, "I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing," and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,
This is the complete opposite of the message given to an earlier church. Can you remember which one? Smyrna. They were materially poor but spiritually rich! That church had nothing bad said about it. Jesus said to Smyrna 'I know your works, tribulation, and poverty - but you are rich! (Rev 2:9) In contrast, Laodicea was a church that thought they were rich but were actually spiritually bankrupt! In fact here is the only church where we are given a description of how they saw themselves... and boy were they impressed, very impressed... with themselves! Here is a modernized description of themselves - 'We've got everything that we need. We've got the flash modern church. We've got the lights and the band. Numbers are up. Tithes are up. The money is flooding in. We're making quite a name for ourselves all around. We've got everything that we need and really in need of nothing.' And yet Jesus' assessment was that they were poor, naked and blind. They had a very positive self image you could say... but it was not the right one! They were judging themselves by what the world saw as important, not as what Jesus saw as important. They equated material prosperity with spiritual blessing and thought that riches were a sign of God's blessing. So obviously Jesus is happy with us because we are experiencing His blessing with al this wealth... right? Sound familiar? How about the whole 'health, wealth, prosperity, your best life now' type of church? Think that type of self focus impresses or nauseates Jesus? The Laodicean church, both then and now, is unfortunately one that simply masquerades as a church, but in reality Jesus is not connected to it.3 To use Jesus parable about the seed, they are choked by the love of wealth and the things of this world (Matt 13:7,22)
This is obviously very relevant today. Someone once said that a lot of modern church services in the West consist of "a light show, following by a rock concert, followed by a TED talk". How sad is that? But being blind to their own condition they carry on... as long as the money keeps rolling in.
And that, sadly, is the state of the Laodicean type church! Due to their wealth they think they are clothed with wonderful attire when in reality, according to the One whose opinion actually matters, they are naked. And sometimes it takes the simplicity and innocence of a little child to call out that the Emperor has no clothes!4
If you hear more about getting material blessings from God than your spiritual blessings in God, welcome to Laodicea.
If you hear more about giving and tithing than you do the cross and resurrection, welcome to Laodicea.
If you hear more about self-esteem and loving yourself than you do Christ-esteem and loving God, welcome to Laodicea.
The need - don't drop the ball... or bone
So what is the solution? Well, Jesus says this:
Rev 3:18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
For the Laodiceans, the Lord actually uses what the city of Laodicea is known for to point out their spiritual need. They were known for their wealth - but spiritually they were poor and they needed true riches. They were known for their healing eye salve, but were spiritually blind and needed sight. They were known for for clothing manufacture, but were spiritually naked and needed to be clothed5. It is the same today. Many churches today focus on entertaining goats instead of feeding the sheep. While there are great Philadelphia type churches still out there, in some areas they are becoming harder to find. Jan Markell has said several times that the question she gets asked the most in her ministry is 'where can I find a good church?' To many churches have dropped the ball, desperately trying to compete with the world's entertainment and desires. It reminds me of an illustration that I read:
The author goes on to write: 'How accurately this pictures the "church in Laodicea"! Not satisfied with the promises of God, the church in this wealthy Roman city sought for and acquired earthly power through wealth. But she had in reality become poor, and in the end her wealth would be denied her.'
Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, Michael Green.
So what is the need of such churches and individuals today? From this letter we see:
- To first and foremost come back to Jesus and see that without Him we can do nothing - either as individuals or as a church (John 15:5)
- To place fellowship with Jesus and the true and faithful witness of His word above lights and entertainment (Rev 3:20)
- To stop equating material wealth with spiritual blessing, but to desire true gold - which is a faith refined by the fire (1Pet 1:7)
- To ask for eye salve so they can actually see their true condition, and have spiritual sight. (Eph 1:18)
- To purchase the garments of salvation - which are bought without price for those that see their need! (Isa 55:1-3)
Rev 3:19 'Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.
We see here the tremendous love that Jesus has. This type of worldly church system nauseates Him. He doesn't want a part of it. But Jesus still loves the individual within it and desires to see them return to Him. So repent is His message. Change your mind leading to a change of direction. Replace your apathy with zeal... for Him. We also see now that the focus from Jesus is on the individual. The Laodicean system and worldliness has too far gone and Jesus does not want to be part of it. But individuals can still come to the Lord and the call to such is now given.
The call to individuals
Rev 3:20-22 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (21) To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. (22) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Revelation 3:20 is often used in evangelism for Jesus standing and knocking on the door of your heart. And there is certainly an application there. But the picture itself, in context, is actually a sadder thought. It is a picture of the Lord OUTSIDE of the church, knocking on the door. If there are certain ones that are inside that hear His voice they can open to Him and fellowship with Him.
"Notice that Jesus gives the call to individuals. He didn't say, "If any church," but if anyone. "We must not talk about setting the church right, we must pray for grace each one for himself, for the text does not say, 'If the church will open the door,' but 'If any man hear my voice and open the door.' It must be done by individuals: the church will only get right by each man getting right."
As an illustration of this, an English artist by the name of William Holman Hunt painted a famous work called 'The Light of the World'. It depicts Jesus holding a lantern in His hand and knocking on a door to a home. When you look closely at the work you see that there is no handle on the door. Thus there is no way for the door to be opened on the outside.
When the artist was questioned about the lack of a door handle he explained that he was representing the imagery of Rev 3:20 “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” If the door was to be opened, someone on the inside needed to open it.
This is the gracious message of Jesus to the Laodicean type church... "I am here knocking - respond, open up, and we will fellowship together." Does He wait for you?
And to those that do open that door, one of the greatest promises to any believer in any church is given: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne."
The throne of the Father is the throne that He rules from in complete power. It is the throne that Jesus is now seated on, at the right hand of the Father. This throne will become very prominent in the proceeding chapters of Revelation. And yet Jesus has His own coming throne as well. It is the throne of David and Jesus shall rule and reign over the whole world in the Davidic Kingdom. And here is a promise to those of the Laodicean church that can overcome... you too will reign with me on this throne! As Adam Clarke's commentary on the Bible states about Laodicea:
"This is the worst of the seven Churches, and yet the most eminent of all the promises are made to it, showing that the worst may repent, finally conquer, and attain even to the highest state of glory."
So as we conclude, this is a difficult message and a sad letter to end on. It would be nice if the church age, the age of grace, would end with a triumphant church. But alas - oh the heart of man! All dispensations in human history have ended with the failure of mankind. God alone will be vindicated as good. The innocence of the garden ended in failure and the judgement of the curse. The age of conscience ended with extreme wickedness and the world wide judgement of the flood. The age of law ended with God's own Son being rejected and killed. Thus too, the Church age, the age of grace, ends with a largely worldly church (as shown in the letter to Laodicea6) and the coming judgement of the whole world. Even the future day in which Jesus reigns on earth in perfect peace ends with a rebellion that sees mankind desiring to overthrow the King of kings! Again - oh the heart of man! Desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. Who can know it?
The challenge of the Laodicean letter is a very real one for all of us. This is the age in which we live. One of the most convicting things I read while studying this comes in the following quote from William MacDonald in the Believers Bible Commentary. He sums up the attitude of the Laodicean age writing:
"Whatever interpretation we take of the book of Revelation, it is undeniable that the church of Laodicea presents a vivid picture of the age in which we live. Luxury-living abounds on every hand while souls are dying for want of the gospel. Christians are wearing crowns instead of bearing a cross. We become more emotionally stirred over sports, politics, or television than we do over Christ. There is little sense of spiritual need, little longing for true revival. We give the best of our lives to the business world, then turn over the remnants of a wasted career to the Savior. We cater to our bodies which in a few short years will return to dust. We accumulate instead of forsake, lay up treasures on earth instead of in heaven. The general attitude is, “Nothing too good for the people of God. If I don't pamper myself, who will? Let's get ahead in the world and give our spare evenings to the Lord.” This is our condition on the eve of Christ's Return."
And what is the answer to this? It is simply to respond again to Jesus' call.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (21) To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Rev 3:20-22)
It is a call back to Jesus. It is not a call to 'do more'. It is a call to respond to Him. It is a call back to fellowship. It is a call back to listen to your Lord and to respond to what He is placing on your heart.
Are you able to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches?
The Complete Word Study Dictionary states: "In the entire NT, only the Lord Jesus uses amḗn at the beginning of a sentence as a word of affirmation. Throughout the Gospel of John, the Lord uses the word amḗn, doubled in Joh 1:51, "Amen, amen, I say unto you," or "Verily, verily, I say unto you," which could be rendered, "I who am the Amen [Truth itself] tell you as a most certain and infallible truth" (a.t.)"
The following online website has some more useful information on this: "Remember, six miles north was the city of Hierapolis, one of the Tri-Cities, was famous for its hot springs that were regularly visited for the sake of seeking healing just as hot springs today are believed to have some therapeutic power and people go where these hot springs. The same thing was true in the ancient world in Hierapolis, a nearby city. Ten miles east of Laodicea was the city of Colossae. Colossae was famous for its cold drinking water - the only source of really cold water in the entire region. But Laodicea, you remember, piped its water in from six miles away and the water arrived not fully cooled from the hot springs in that place but rather lukewarm and filled with those mineral deposits that I showed you a few minutes ago in the slides. The combination of the lukewarm, sort of tepid water, combined with the minerals cause both Herodotus and Xenophon historians to mention the water in Laodicea and call it, basically, undrinkable. "
That's not to say that there wasn't 'activity' in this church. Tim Lahaye writes of Laodicea "Man can organise. Man can build, Man can promote, man can preach. But only the Spirit of God can convict the souls of men. Only the Spirit of God can transform the lives of men... The unique test of the Spirit is: Does it glorify Christ? This church did not!"
I have had people write in before when I have spoken about the wealthy Western churches saying things like 'I go to a large wealthy church but it loves Jesus and the Pastor preaches the word - so please realise that there are wonderful large churches out there.' To which I say great! That is definitely true. It isn't the size of the church which is the issue. Nor is it wealth as such. It is whether that wealth has made the church complacent. It is whether Jesus still takes first place in the life of the church. It is whether programs and entertainment have taken over from the person of Christ and the clear teaching of His word. It is whether the pleasures of this world have overtaken the command to be a light to the world. So if you go to a great Jesus loving, word honoring church, wonderful. Thank God for it, thank your leaders and pray for them.
Nakedness is often used in the Bible to picture the shame of mankind in his sin (Gen 3:6-7). Right back in the garden God provided a clothing to cover that shame (Gen 3:21). So too to this church Christ offers the garments of salvation - if they would see their need, repent and ask for it. I have written more about this in the following study:
H.A ironside wrote a famous commentary on the book of Revelation. This was written 100 years ago, but even then he could see the change and growing influence of the Laodicean type church. This he wrote this 100 years ago, what would he say now? He writes: "We have come down to the closing days of the present dispensation of grace. The Ephesus period passed away long ago, and the same is true of the Smyrna and Pergamos periods. Thyatira, which as we have seen speaks of Romanism, began properly when the pope was recognized as universal bishop, is with us still, and will go on to the end. Sardis, which began centuries later, remains to the present time and will remain until the Lord comes. Philadelphia, thank God, is also here; although it only has a little strength, it will also abide to the end. But Laodicea is more and more in evidence and seems to be almost swamping everything that is of God."