The church at Laodicea receives no commendation, only corrections, and ominous warnings – Revelation 3:14-22.
Laodicea was founded in approximately 260 B.C. on the site of an older village named Diospolis, meaning the “city of Zeus.” It was sixty-five kilometers southeast of Philadelphia and one hundred and sixty kilometers east of Ephesus. Because of its location at the confluence of three major trade routes, the city depended heavily on regional trade.
The city had a medical school reputed for an eye-salve called “Phrygian powder.” But it lacked a good freshwater supply. The local sources were brackish and lukewarm. Cool and clean water was brought in by aqueducts. 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, a matter of great civic pride.
The church was formed early and is mentioned by the Apostle Paul, and his co-worker, Epaphras, introduced the gospel to the city – (Colossians 4:16).
- (Revelation 3:14-16) – “And to the angel 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 your works, that neither cold are you, nor hot: I would that you were cold or hot. Thus, because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.”
The “Amen, the faithful and true witness.” “Amen” transliterates a Hebrew word with the root sense of strength and firmness, denoting “faithfulness, firmness, fidelity, truthfulness.” Thus, Jesus as the faithful and true witness whose testimony is utterly reliable, in contrast to the fickleness of the Laodicean church and its ineffectual testimony.
The words echo a passage from Isaiah where “amen” and the “creation of God” occur together; 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.”
Hence, 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.” And elsewhere, the New Testament links his resurrection to the new creation – (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 2 Corinthians 5:15-17).
He is the “firstborn from the dead.” In the New Testament,“ firstborn” refers to the preeminence of the Son of God, his exalted status, and not to chronological sequence – (Colossians 1:18 [“that in all things he might have the preeminence”]).
Jesus found nothing praiseworthy in the actions of the “angel” or of the congregation. The church was prosperous, unlike the impoverished assembly at Smyrna, but it was poor and naked in his eyes.
“Neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm.” The description alludes to the poor water supplies at Laodicea. Located between Hierapolis with its thermal hot springs, and Colossae with its cooler freshwater springs, its water supply was tepid and good for nothing, and so, too, the faith and testimony of its congregation.
“Lukewarm” stresses uselessness. Cool water quenches thirst and water from hot springs has medicinal properties. Tepid water is of no benefit. But the church did not recognize its precarious state (“you know not…”), and it presumed its material prosperity reflected its spiritual strength.
- (Revelation 3:17-18) – “Because you say: Rich am I, and have become enriched, and of nothing have I need, and know not that you are the wretched one, and pitiable and destitute and blind and naked, I counsel you to buy of me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white raiment, that you may array yourself, and the shame of your nakedness may not be made manifest, and eye-salve to anoint your eyes that you may see.”
“I am rich” alludes 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 attributed her material prosperity to her idols, and so, likewise, Laodicea pointed to her prosperity as a testament to her good spiritual health.
The church acquired wealth by compromising with the city’s idolatrous culture. From a pragmatic perspective, accommodation was necessary for full participation in the economic life of the city. Paradoxically, the church’s success in the local market was definitive evidence of her spiritual poverty.
The Laodicean claim to be rich echoes the boast of “Mystery Babylon” – “I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.” But despite her confidence and arrogance, “in one day shall her plagues come, death and mourning and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire.” Their boast demonstrated that Babylon had infiltrated the assembly, and it was at risk of partaking of the same plagues as “Babylon.” Likewise, if the church did not repent, Jesus would “vomit it out of his mouth” – (Revelation 18:7).
The condition of the church was in sharp contrast to that of Smyrna, which was “poor” in men’s eyes, but “rich” according to Jesus. But, in the eyes of Christ, Laodicea was “poor, blind and naked,” and needed to “buy gold refined by fire, white raiment and eye-salve” to correct her deficiencies. “Gold refined by fire” points to refinement in the fires of persecution. That was the only “gold” that would alleviate this church’s poverty. The “white garments” point to purity achieved by perseverance through tribulations – (Revelation 2:9, 3:4-5, 6:11, 7:9-14).
Eye-salve was needed to heal spiritual blindness so the church could recognize its true state, and therefore, make any and all necessary corrections. Undoubtedly, this alludes to the locally produced eye-salve for which Laodicea was famous.
Later, the exhortation here to buy “white raiment” will be echoed in the “sixth bowl of wrath,” where it is heard in the middle of the last three bowl judgments against the “beast” and “Babylon.” That demonstrates just who and what was the source of the idolatrous institutions at Laodicea, and how horrific a fate the congregation faced if it did not repent – (Revelation 16:15).
- (Revelation 3:19-22) – “I, as many as I tenderly love, I convict and put under discipline. Be zealous, therefore, and repent. Behold, I am standing at the door and knocking; if anyone shall hearken to my voice and open the door, I will come in unto him and will sup with him, and he with me. He that overcomes, I will give to 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 has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies.”
His declared “tender love” and “discipline” demonstrate the church was not beyond redemption; there was still time to become “zealous and repent.” By renewing fellowship with Christ, it would become an effective witness, though doing so also meant inevitable hostility from the city’s pagan society.
Overcoming Christians are destined to share in the reign of Jesus. However, like him, that is achieved by enduring tribulation, suffering, and even death. Just as he overcame and attained authority to rule from the “throne” through death, so his followers must do likewise – (“Just as I also overcame to sit with my Father in his throne”).