1. The History of Laodicea
2. The Letter to Laodicea
i. The Amen
ii. The Faithful and True Witness
iii. The Beginning of God’s Creation
b. The Problem and the Solution
ii. In Need of Nothing
iii. On the Outside
c. The Promise
1. The History of Laodicea
In Philadelphia, we saw how little of what we knew from both ancient writings and archaeology tied in with the words of Jesus to His Church in the city, but, here, there is a wealth that provides us with a very rich backdrop.
Laodicea lay on the south bank of the River Lycus about two miles from its flow, approximately one hundred feet above the valley floor on a flat plateau at the junction of both the Lycus and the Maender valleys, and was situated in a ‘triangle’ of cities along with Colossae (to the south-east) and Hierapolis (to the north-east) - each some 10 miles, approximately, from one another.
The city stood at the head of the valley where a road division directly reached five of the other six churches mentioned in Revelation - to the west, Ephesus lay at the end of the most used route while, to the north-west, the road rose to traverse Philadelphia, Sardis, Thyatira and, the capital, Pergamum.
It is impossible to speak of Laodicea without speaking of the other two cities sited as near neighbours, seeing as they were tied up together in the area and that even Paul lists the three together in his letter to the Colossians (4:13).
Very little archaeological work has been performed on the city and most of the remains lie in ruins, the dressed stones of the city having been used for rebuilding throughout the centuries since its demise. The aqueduct which brought water in to the city has, at least, been traced and detailed but nothing much else has been mapped out for further investigation.
There are archaeological points of interest in the ruins today, such as inscriptions, theatres, a stadium, a gate and a large visible building thought to be a bathhouse, but detailed excavations are yet to be performed, in contrast to Philadelphia which remains hidden below the modern city on its ancient site.
Pliny relates that Laodicea was formerly known as both Diosopolis and Rhoas (it lay on the main route from Ephesus eastwards up the valley through Colossae to the east and was probably an important place for travellers and tradesmen at which to stop over for rest and food from ancient times) before being renamed and rebuilt by Antiochus II after his wife, Laodike, whom he divorced eight years after ascending the throne in 261BC. It would seem logical, therefore, that the city referred to in Revelation was founded and built between these two inclusive dates of ascendency and divorce.
Colossae was originally the more important of the two towns and is mentioned by Herodotus (7:30) with reference to Xerxes who, marching against Greece to the west, arrived at Colossae c.480BC. He records that
‘When Xerxes had so spoken and had made good his promises to Pythius, he pressed forward upon his march; and passing Anaua, a Phrygian city, and a lake from which salt is gathered, he came to Colossae, a Phrygian city of great size, situated at a spot where the river Lycus plunges into a chasm and disappears. This river, after running under ground a distance of about five furlongs, reappears once more, and empties itself, like the stream above mentioned, into the Maeander. Leaving Colossae, the army approached the borders of Phrygia where it abuts on Lydia...’
That Colossae is noted as being a ‘city of great size’ is significant and also that this period of Colossae’s history is over two centuries before Antiochus II founded or refounded Laodicea around ten miles away.
Around eighty years later c.400BC, Cyrus marched east from Sardis to attempt to capture the Persian throne and remained in Colossae for around seven days before departing. That the city was able to support the size of the army is significant and worthy of note, more especially as Xenophon (1.2.6) says that Colossae at this time was
‘...an inhabited city, prosperous and large...’
Laodicea, however, once established, grew rapidly and soon became of equal or of even more importance than her rival Colossae, though it is difficult to be accurate as to which city was regarded as being wealthier at the time of the writing of Jesus’ letter to the fellowship.
Certainly, Colossae’s importance waned during Rome’s possession of the area when the Empire used the city as a way station for the large volume of shipments that were brought to Rome from Syria and Israel. It was also developed as a military outpost after 133 BC when its trade seems to have expanded rapidly.
Hierapolis, the other of the three cities located in this area, was probably founded during the reign of Antiochus I (281-261BC) though some date it much later to Eumenes II of Pergamum (197-160BC ) when it seems to have first received the status of ‘city’. It lay on the route out from Laodicea which separated from the main Ephesus road and traversed the high land to pass through Philadelphia and Sardis.
This was the road which Xerxes took after leaving Colossae c.480BC and Herodotus notes (7.31) that
‘Where [the river Lycus?] quits Phrygia and enters Lydia the road separates; the way on the left leads into Caria, while that on the right conducts to Sardis. If you follow this route, you must cross the Maeander, and then pass by the city Callatebus, where the men live who make honey out of wheat and the fruit of the tamarisk. Xerxes, who chose this way, found here a plane-tree so beautiful, that he presented it with golden ornaments, and put it under the care of one of his Immortals. The day after, he entered the Lydian capital’
This is significant because there is no mention of any major city being on this route. This would indicate, as other historical records show, that Hierapolis had not yet been founded or, at the very least, it was no more than a small village or town.
Hierapolis stood three hundred feet high above the valley of the Lycus on its north bank, overlooking the junction of the rivers Maender and Lycus in the plain below.
Bruce notes that
‘Behind the site a hot mineral spring wells up, covering the rocks beneath with white deposits of lime, producing stalactite formations which have given the place its Turkish name Pamukkale (“Cotton Castle”)...visitors came to bathe in the hot water and their presence added to the prosperity of the city’
Having seen a modern picture of these white deposits, I can say assuredly that they must have been quite a sight!
The major industry of the entire Maender and Hermus valleys was the manufacture and preparation of woollen fabrics. Even though the three cities began their production of such textiles later than the older cities of Lydia and Ionia, their products soon came to be regarded as of the finest quality.
Of specific note is Laodicea’s black wool which earned a reputation for itself for numerous centuries, Hierapolis which was famed for its superior dyeing processes and Colossae whose unique colour known as colossinus was mentioned by Pliny.
Laodicea suffered repeated earthquakes and more than one ancient writer notes specific occurrences. Suetonius (Tiberius 5) notes a petition which was brought before the emperor Augustus (who began ruling as first Emperor from c.30BC) by his stepson Tiberius for the relief of the inhabitants not only of this city but also of Thyatira and Chios.
A later earthquake destroyed the city c.60AD but it was rebuilt with finance from the wealth of the Laodicean inhabitants during the reign of Emperor Nero. Tacitus (14:27) simply notes that
‘One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources’
This indicates the wealth of the city and ties in with the date of Paul’s letter to the fellowship that he noted as being sent when he wrote at the same time to the Colossians (4:16). If an early date is proposed for John’s writing, there is more in Jesus’ words that the fellowship regards itself as self-sufficient than just it’s financial prosperity but would be rooted in it’s recent success at rebuilding its city with its own resources - most cities needed to appeal to Caesar for financial aid in such a crisis.
The city appears to have been a centre of banking and financial institutions, being a place where money-changing was common practice. It minted its own coins a number of centuries before the first century AD due to its wealth. This seems to have been a result, however, of the city’s success in agricultural products such as the black wool for which it was renowned.
It is probable that Antiochus (the founder of Laodicea) settled a number of Jewish families in this region after his conquest of Israel. The Jews had already been forbidden to send monetary aid by the Emperor to the Jewish nation around 62BC and estimates (Barclay according to Mounce) put the number of Jewish citizens at around 7,000. This event of itself indicates that they had become fairly wealthy. There is, however, no real indication in the text of the letter of Revelation that a strong and powerful Jewish community existed and neither is there any apparent reference to the Caesar-cult which had its centre in the city - the church’s problems do not appear to be outside its boundaries but solely within in the attitudes and lifestyle of its members.
Laodicea has also often been labelled as the chief medical centre of Phrygia and Zondervan notes that
‘...its production of a poultice...[was] widely sought for treatment of eye ailments’
along with many other commentators, though no source is quoted to justify the statement.
Mounce comments of the medical school that it was
‘...established in connection with the temple of Men Carou thirteen miles to the north and west. It boasted such famous teachers as Zeuxis and Alexander Philalethes (who appear on coinage). Ramsay notes that the Laodicean physicians followed the teaching of Herophilos (330-250BC) who, on the principle that compound diseases require compound medicines, began a strange system of heterogeneous mixtures...Two of the most famous were an ointment from spice nard for the ears, and an eye-salve made from “Phrygian powder” mixed with oil (Galen vi.439)’
The main strategic problem for Laodicea was that it did not have an adequate water supply with which to support a long and arduous siege from an oppressing army, having been founded primarily because of its strategic importance overlooking the road system. Instead of having a local spring that could be tapped and used, the city relied on water being transported to it from a spring many miles away through three foot wide stone sections that were hollowed out. An invading army, if they could find the aqueduct, would have been able to cut off the city’s supply of water and this would have been disastrous in the dry season when the local river, the Lycus (around two miles distant), is known to dry up.
As Bruce (page 15) notes
‘In contrast to Hierapolis with its medicinal hot springs or Colossae with its refreshing supply of cold water, Laodicea had to fetch its water through high-pressure stone pipes from hot springs at Denizli, some five miles away, and by the time it reached Laodicea the water was lukewarm’
This will be of significance when we deal with Rev 3:15-16 but, for now, we can simply note Mounce’s words that, concerning this verse
‘The contrast is between the hot medicinal waters of Hierapolis and the cold, pure waters of Colossae’
It is not known when all three of the churches in the cities of Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis were founded and there is no established record that the apostle Paul was responsible for their inception.
In his letter to Colossae, Paul seems to treat the first two churches mentioned as closely connected (Col 2:1) going on even to command the fellowships that they swap the letters that he had written individually to them when they had completed reading them before the church (4:16 - this letter ‘to the Laodiceans’ is generally believed to have been lost even though some commentators see Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as being one and the same. There was also a letter circulated much later entitled the ‘letter to the Laodiceans’ but it is generally believed not to be Pauline in origin).
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul commends to his listeners and readers Epaphras who had been courageously working in all three cities (4:12-13) thus connecting them together. What the role or function of this believer was is uncertain but Paul’s statement is indicative of the fact that the three cities of the Lycus valley seem to have been closely associated together and would have overflowed in experience and prosperity, even though Laodicea seems to have been the most prosperous.
2. The Letter to Laodicea
Morris begins his exposition of the passage by stating that
‘This is the one letter in which the titles of Christ are not drawn from the description in chapter 1’
but, as we saw with Philadelphia, the introduction there has no similarities with Rev 1:12-20 except that a key is mentioned which is not the same in both places. However, Jesus does use a description of Himself drawn from 1:5 (the faithful witness) with which to speak to the Laodiceans.
i. The Amen
‘Amen’ occurs numerous times in both Old and New Testaments so that, initially, it appears as if the interpretation is straight-forward and deserving little comment. However, this is the only place where a person is referred to as ‘the Amen’ and there are no directly parallel passages with which we can make a comparison to determine the meaning here (even though II Cor 1:20 could be referred to - this verse is only using the word as an application of what concludes a prayer rather than applying it as a title to Christ).
There may be an allusion here to Is 65:16 (the only place where the Hebrew equivalent is not translated by the word ‘amen’) where God twice refers to Himself as ‘the God of Amen’ (where the RSV chooses to translate the phrase rather as ‘the God of truth’). If this is the case, then, at the very least, the title used in Rev 3:14 is stating Jesus’ deity but, if we look at the actual meaning of the word, we will be able to gain some understanding of what the actual use implies rather than take it simply as a title which is difficult to comprehend.
Writing concerning the entire OT word group from which Amen comes, TWOTOT notes that
‘The various derivatives reflect the same concept of certainty and dependability. The derivative amen “verily” is carried over into the New Testament in the word amen...Jesus used the word frequently (Mtw 5:18, 26, etc.) to stress the certainty of a matter. The Hebrew and Greek forms come at the end of prayers and hymns of praise...This indicates that the term so used in our prayers ought to express certainty and assurance in the Lord to whom we pray’
When Jesus says to the disciples ‘truly’ (or ‘truly, truly’ as in John’s Gospel - the AV uses the old English word ‘verily’), He is drawing the disciples’ attention to a statement about to be made which is certain and reliable, which can be depended upon and fully trusted. And, as TWOTOT also points out, our ‘affirmation’ which occurs at the end of most prayers like a magic chant (okay, I’m being cynical but it seems today to be very much like the use of the formula ‘in Jesus’ name’ which we string into most prayers thinking that, by asking with this phrase, Jesus must answer us and give us what we desire - even though we have not understood what that phrase actually means) is simply an affirmation of what has gone before as being a reliable and accurate request in or account of the matter - it doesn’t simply mean ‘so it is’ as often explained within fellowships.
So, if you disagree with a person’s prayer and feel that it misrepresents matters or is a wrong request for God to act then don’t say the ‘amen’!!
When we come to the description of Jesus as ‘the Amen’, though, the truth of the meaning previously seen carries over and the Laodiceans are being told that Jesus is the personification of our amen - He is the One who is absolutely dependable, able to be fully trusted, reliable (as in Is 65:16) and, perhaps the reason for the use of the term, that His words can be relied upon (as in the Gospel of John where the translation ‘Truly’ is used preceding Jesus’ words). Even though Jesus’ words can be considered reliable and dependable, passed from God through Him as intermediary and mouthpiece, here the dependability of Jesus Himself is affirmed.
It is necessary that Jesus points this out before He begins His discourse as what He is about to say may seem to some as being false and untrustworthy.
Concluding, Jesus not only speaks ‘amen’ (that is, true and dependable words) but He is the Amen.
ii. The Faithful and True Witness
The phrase is an expansion of a title that is used of Jesus in Rev 1:5 (’the faithful witness’) and both ‘faithful’ and ‘true’ are used later in Rev 19:11 as a title of Jesus who comes in judgment against the people of earth.
Mounce notes that
‘Ford suggests that [the phrase] was added to clarify for the non-Hebrew-speaking audience the meaning of “amen”’
even though the word ‘amen’ occurs frequently throughout the New Testament giving us the indication that no fellowship was unwise as to its exact meaning. Even more so that John, who is traditionally attributed with overseeing the churches of Asia Minor, is the One committing these words to writing and would likely have already sent at least pieces of His Gospel round the churches which included the Greek word abundantly in his text (or, at the very least, recounted Jesus’ words to the fellowships as he visited and preached amongst them).
It seems best to say that the phrase should be taken as teaching almost the same concept as the title of Jesus which precedes it (see above) - that Jesus is the One whose words can be relied upon to be truthful and accurate. But whether Jesus is adding a second phrase to explain His title to the Gentiles unfamiliar with the first title is implausible.
Rather, it is important that the Laodiceans are reminded that His words are dependable (therefore the double declaration) as what will follow is both difficult to accept and hard to respond positively to. As commentators are at pains to point out, the letter to the Laodiceans is probably the most cutting of all seven (especially as Jesus speaks of Himself as being on the outside of His Church seeking to gain entrance into their midst - Rev 3:20!!), so the dependability of the witness is of vital importance to convey.
iii. The Beginning of God’s Creation
This is the only place in the NT where Jesus is proclaimed as ‘the beginning of God’s Creation’ even though there is mention of Him being ‘the beginning’ (for instance, Rev 21:6 - see my notes on Rev 2:8 for a brief explanation of the term). More importantly, however, are two verses of Scripture in Col 1:15 and 1:18 where Paul talks of Jesus as being ‘the first-born of all creation’ and ‘the beginning’, phrases that are similar if not identical to the verse here under consideration.
It is tempting to follow the commentators who see John as using known words of Paul to bring home to the Laodicean fellowship truths that they are needing to consider (more so when it is realised that the letter to the Colossians would have been read out in the Laodicean fellowship after it had been read out to the people it was originally addressed to - Col 4:16) but, as I noted in the Introduction to all seven letters, we must accept Revelation’s testimony that John is only the channel through whom Jesus is speaking to His Church.
While John may have been familiar with Paul’s letter, it is Jesus who speaks to His Church and it is, no doubt, knowing Paul’s words that has caused Him to use a phrase which is similar in meaning and which has similarly been taken wrongly to imply that Jesus is a created being down through the history of the Church!!
Certainly, ‘the beginning of God’s creation’ sounds as if Jesus is proclaiming Himself to be the first created being but, if John, one of the original twelve, is the author of this book, then he is recording for us words from the mouth of Christ which clearly contradict what he has previously written (or which he is yet to write!) in the Gospel attributed to him where Jesus is recorded as saying ‘...before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58), a declaration of His divinity and deity.
As both phrases (specifically Col 1:15 and Rev 3:14) have been taken to contradict other Scriptures such as John 8:58, I want to deal with their correct interpretation here and not dwell solely on the phrase as it occurs in the passage under consideration.
Paul, then, writes (Col 1:15-16) that
‘[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; [because] in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him’
The concept of the ‘first-born’ runs through Scripture from the first book, Genesis, where we read Esau saying of Jacob (27:35-37)
‘He took away my birthright; and behold, now he has taken away my blessing’
Esau was the first-born son of Isaac and Rebekah (25:25) and to him belonged the birthright and the blessing even though it was usurped from him by his cunning brother Jacob (see also 43:33). Ephraim, also, although second-born, received the blessing of the first-born much to his father Joseph’s displeasure when Jacob passed it on to him shortly before his death (Gen 48:17-19). Even when the Mosaic Law was given, it made special provision to protect the right of the first-born should he be despised by his parents - the double portion belonged to him by right (Deut 21:15-17).
Additionally, God told Moses that, when he spoke with Pharaoh, he was to tell him that God had declared (Ex 4:22) that
‘Israel is My first-born son’
saying that the nation of Israel is firstborn with regard to both rank and privilege before God - they are the ones specially chosen by God to represent Him throughout the earth (see also Jer 31:9).
When Ethan wrote Psalm 89, he referred to David’s offspring with words of God Himself, proclaiming Him to be (verse 27)
‘...the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth’
This ‘seed’ of David, who would reign forever and have sovereignty over all who rule on earth could be none other, prophetically, than Jesus Christ who can reign forever because He lives forever, having been raised from the dead.
‘First-born’ in the OT, then, is used to denote a position of privilege and, although it is used literally of the first son born within a family, it was not unusual for it to be used of an individual not first-born and of a nation, to denote the special position in which they stood.
The totality of creation could not have been created in Him if He was a created being: only God who pre-exists all things can truthfully be said to have the totality of creation in Him.
Hence, far from suggesting Christ being created (as a quick reading would suggest) the verse actually proclaims Christ’s divinity, pre-existence and sovereignty. Zondervan notes here that Col 1:15 is
‘...a statement misunderstood by Arians of the fourth century and modern day Jehovah Witnesses who make [Jesus] a created being and not God. The proper meaning is that Christ, truly God, stands in a relationship of priority and sovereignty over all creation’
Christ has priority in both rank and time before the initial creation and Paul goes on, a few verses later, to speak of Christ as ‘the beginning, the first-born from the dead’, using His declaration of Christ being pre-eminent in all things to apply even to the new creation through the cross and resurrection - that Christ, having brought into existence the possibility of the new birth for every individual, would be the first to taste of the final outworking of it through the resurrection of the dead (Rom 6:4-11, Acts 26:23). The triumph over death has made Christ become the Originator of Life in individuals, the re-creation of all things.
Christ, then, is the originator of our salvation, the One who has brought it into existence by His work on the cross and His resurrection from the grave, the Source from which we receive, the Creator who has instituted the new creation that did not exist before He came.
These concepts need, then, to be transferred into the NT passage which begins with Col 1:15.
‘The first-born of all creation’ must be understood in the light of verse 16 which continues Paul’s thought with the word ‘because’. Christ, the first-born, is explained in that everything (‘all things’ in the Greek is literally ‘the totality’ here) came in to existence in Him - not merely through Him or for Him (v.16c) but in Him. That is, the concept is that nothing was created outside Christ’s supremacy - all things, the totality of creation (and hence Christ’s pre-existence is assumed) were created in subjection to Him.
When we come to Rev 3:14, the meaning is almost identical where we can follow Hughes when he writes that
‘The term “beginning” in this expression must not, then, be treated as a passive noun, meaning the first being created by God, but as an active noun, meaning the dynamic agent of God’s creation, the One through whom the created order was brought into existence’
but it appears to have specific relevance to Paul’s second line of reasoning that appears in Col 1:18 - that is, that Christ is the beginning of God’s new creation, the restoration of the old that was initiated through His work on the cross, His resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.
I don’t insist on this exclusive interpretation because Jesus being pre-eminent over the original creation cannot be far from His hearers’ minds, but the only parallel and relevance for Christ’s words later in the letter appear to be in 3:21 where Jesus promises the overcomer the right to sit enthroned in Heaven alongside Himself, a consequence of the beginning of the new creation - and there is abundant relevance in His words later in the Book of Revelation to the new heaven and new earth of 21:1ff.
b. The Problem and the Solution
There are a few problems mentioned here - and no commendations.
That being the case, Laodicea is normally taken to be the church that receives the greatest rebuke from Jesus. But not even Laodicea, with all its problems, are told along with Ephesus that Jesus would remove their church if they did not repent (Rev 2:5) or told along with Pergamum that Jesus would soon come against them and be their adversary (Rev 2:16).
Therefore we need to be careful when we make such a statement. Certainly, the Laodicean’s spiritual health appears to be the worst of all seven (Jesus is even pictured as being on the outside of His own church trying to get access into their midst! - Rev 3:20) but nothing is mentioned as a consequence of failing to repent - only the promise of what will happen when they do!
The imminence of Jesus’ action of spewing them out of His mouth is certainly mentioned early on in the letter (Rev 3:16) but there’s no consideration made by Jesus in case the fellowship might decide not to heed the warning and to turn from its wrong way of living. Repentance is almost expected for they receive only the promise of what will be when they turn their lives around.
I have divided this section into three headers but it should be noted that these are not three unrelated problems but different characteristics of the one problem that the fellowship was experiencing. The second ‘problem’ - especially - is actually a continuation of the first point but, so it could be found easier, I gave it a separate heading!
We have virtually interpreted these words in the section on ‘History’ which began these series of notes and the reader is directed there for a fuller discussion of the matter.
When I first became a christian, the interpretation of these verses circulating was that ‘hot’ referred to being ‘on fire’ for God and that ‘cold’ referred to being not a christian at all, meaning that Jesus was more happy with men and women who had not yet accepted the Gospel than with people who, having accepted the word of the Gospel were not fully committed to the message of the Gospel and to following Christ.
That’s what I originally went with and what I believed for quite some time until I started to read through some commentaries and considered the geographical setting of the letter (prompted by a friend in Australia who sent me some quotes from Chilton’s book on Revelation).
The problem with this initial interpretation is, firstly, that God seems to be quite happy to have individuals not converted to the Gospel! That may be a minor point and it is quite possible that I am reading too much into Jesus’ words here but, more importantly, the interpretation left no room for the context of the words and the location of the city to illuminate the passage.
I have noted that the three cities of this area - Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis - were so linked that Paul commanded the letter to the Colossians to be read out in the Laodicean fellowship (Col 4:16) and that Epaphras, who ministered in the area, is associated with all three churches (Col 4:13).
Though they appear to have had different sources of water, they do parallel the three types of water spoken of here. Colossae was sited near or on a spring from which cold water gushed out and which watered the city, while Hierapolis was noted for its thermal spring which was always at a high temperature and to which many ancients came to seek healing for their various ailments. Laodicea, however, had to bring water in to the city by means of an aqueduct that stretched some five miles to Denizli, by which distance the water had become lukewarm as it was drawn by the city’s inhabitants.
As the context of the Lord’s words here are to the believers’ works (notice that the verse begins ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot...’), the interpretation must surely be applied to their works as well. As Mounce writes
‘The contrast is between the hot medicinal waters of Hierapolis and the cold, pure waters of Colossae. Thus the church in Laodicea “was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick. It was totally ineffective, and thus distasteful to its Lord”...On this interpretation the church is not being called to task for its spiritual temperature but for the barrenness of its works’
The Laodiceans’ deeds were not useful to the Lord because the church was neither reinvigorating the believer nor healing (from sin) the masses that they were coming into contact with. Instead, they had a manner of doing things that was ineffectual within their society.
Therefore, God will vomit out the believers from His mouth (the actual words imply that this is an event which is about to happen but that it is not an absolutely final decision that cannot be revoked) - not the works but the believers themselves. As their works are of no use to Him, neither are the believers who are performing them. The implication of these words is incredibly strong and, as far as I can make out, this is the only place in the entire Bible where God is spoken of as vomiting, even though I have dealt with a similar phrase here where I commented on the Levitical passage that spoke of the land of Canaan ‘vomiting out’ its inhabitants because of the sexual misconduct that was being practised.
That needn’t be the implication here, though, as there is no indication that, morally, this was the problem (besides, Jesus’ open declaration in Rev 2:14 would lead us against that interpretation) but that, in some way, the Laodiceans’ works and deeds were not useful to the Lord who had died to pay the price to own them.
Though this interpretation of the lukewarm water is the one I feel is most likely to be correct, I must point out its flaws! If lukewarm water was useless, why would the Laodicean city ever spend such time and effort to have the water transported via the aqueduct into their city?!!
That the water served the city as an adequate supply cannot be doubted or else the aqueduct would never have been laid in the first place, so it is possible that the water had to be cooled first before it became useful to the inhabitants of the city.
No ancient writer mentions this fact, even though it would be a point of significance for the ancient historians of their time.
And, additionally, the word later translated by the RSV’s ‘zealous’ comes from the same root as the ‘hot’ in these verses and means, literally, ‘fiery’ - an indication that, maybe, the original interpretation I mentioned at the beginning is the correct one.
It remains a possibility, therefore, that the interpretation I have proposed may not be the absolute end of the matter and it is possibly correct to say that there are elements of Truth in both interpretations as there are in numerous other NT passages...
ii. In Need of Nothing
The Laodiceans’ works were useless to the Lord and therefore He has rejected them (the works, that is, not the people - even though it is they who He spews out from His mouth - Rev 3:15-16). The reason for this is outlined here, Jesus beginning these sentences ‘For you say...’ which points to an explanation of what precedes it.
The church saw themselves as being so blessed by natural resources that they failed to comprehend their need for Christ’s provision and supply - they needed absolutely nothing (Rev 3:17). It may be that the fellowship here was a materially wealthy church that lacked no good thing that was required to undertake any work they set their hands to. That, almost certainly, was part of it, but the real problem here is not that they are rich but that they consider their own natural provision to be sufficient for any work that they are setting about doing.
This undermines the work of Christ on the cross for, if natural provision (material wealth or natural talents) gains centre stage, the necessity of Jesus’ provision becomes meaningless. If acceptance before God depends upon natural status then it will only be the rich and famous that can possibly gain access to the presence of God, thereby rendering impotent the cross, resurrection and ascension (I Cor 1:26-31).
Hughes notes that
‘The church at Corinth, puffed up with self-esteem because of the wealth of their charismatic and philosophical competence, had lapsed into a position comparable to that of the Laodicean church’
a position that does not need to imply vast riches but a reliance and adequacy in our own selves.
Mounce insists that
‘The “wealth” claimed by the Laodicean church...was not material but spiritual. Their pretentious claim was not only that they were rich but that they had achieved it on their own...the Laodiceans felt they were secure in their spiritual attainment’
He goes a little too far by putting flesh on the bare bones of Jesus’ words we have, but he is probably not too far wrong!
Natural wealth (that is, self-reliance and dependency) is of no use in the christian walk if faith is put in it.
My wife and I have been frequent visitors to the Scottish island of Iona and, while visiting the old restored abbey a few years back, I met up with a guy who was there for some sort of week’s ‘course’ amongst the Iona Community members.
I was sat quietly on a bench while Kath was in the bookshop looking round and, though it would be nice to say that I was contemplating great things in the solitude of the cloisters, I was actually so tired that I was trying to catch a little rest before we went on to walk back to the ferry that would take us to the main island of Mull!
The man in question came up to me and began talking about how he was getting on and all the visualisation techniques that they were using to analyse their problems and to get release (which immediately got my back up as Jesus was rarely mentioned through it all!) and said something that caused me to respond quickly before he could proceed any further.
He said something like ‘Food, clothing and a roof over our heads - we can be content with these things’
It hit me in that instant that he wouldn’t be too devoted to following Jesus (if he was at all) if he didn’t have these three items and I asked him words to the effect of ‘But what if these were taken away from you - would you still want to follow Christ?’ to which he didn’t have too much to say that answered my query.
(I don’t want you to think that I get these sorts of opportunities on a daily basis and neither that I’m always trying to contradict what people say to me - it was just that I was struck by his contentment with what he had materially - rather than with Jesus - that woke me up to respond the way I did)
I have no idea what the heart of the man was, but if I perceived correctly, the attitude of heart was the same as that of the Laodicean church. What more did they need that they didn’t already have? They were materially well-off (probably ‘wealthy’ is better) in many different ways, so what good could Christ possibly do them? This was certainly a christianity without the need for Christ!!
Even though they almost certainly wouldn’t have said as much, they were working within their own resources (‘I am rich’), relying upon their own material wealth (though they were ‘poor’), on their own spiritual insight (though they were ‘blind’) even, perhaps, on their own righteousness for salvation (though they were ‘naked’ - there is a better interpretation of that last point discussed below and it is to be preferred to that suggested here).
Therefore Jesus must wake them up to the reality of their situation - if believers do not rely upon Christ for their provision then they make little of the cross. As Hughes notes
‘The attitude of self-sufficiency severs the relationship with God as the source of all our sufficiency and induces spiritual atrophy’
so Jesus will shortly go on to implore them to once again let Him in among them so that He might fellowship with them (3:20).
It is only when a person realises his own inadequacy before God (and the Laodiceans were blissfully unaware that their condition was so dire - hence Jesus says ‘not knowing that you are...’ 3:17) that he can become adequate for the tasks at hand because he has learnt not to rely upon himself but upon the One who will be all things to all men.
He counsels the Laodiceans (3:18) to buy from Him ‘gold refined by fire’ for their prosperity (fire perhaps being an allusion to suffering for the name of Christ - see I Peter 1:7), ‘white garments to clothe you’ for their standing before Christ that they may not be shamed by their lack of adequate works (see my previous comments under ‘Sardis’ on 3:4 which shows that the white garment there and in another places in Revelation is indicative of works not salvation) and ‘salve to anoint your eyes’ for spiritual discernment and illumination (they have been unaware that they are in such a state and have need of their eyes being opened not only for this moment but for future days when they need to walk correctly in harmony with their Lord - 3:17).
Incredibly, these three specific areas can be directly related back into the known situation within the city of its day. Laodicea was a centre of banking and commerce which, although it had sought relief from the Emperor when it was struck by the earthquake of 17AD, had financed its own rebuilding of the city when it was devastated by the one which occurred c.60AD. Jesus’ words here are even more significant to the church if an early date is assigned to the writing of Revelation as the memory would be fresh in the memory and hit home with increased force.
It was a city which produced a renowned black wool from its sheep that was exported far and wide (though the passage here speaks of white, not black, garments - perhaps the contrast is intended between the pride in their black product with the need for what is white?) and a city which was closely associated with medicine (though, to be fair, the ‘eye-salve’ was more closely centred in the spring which flowed near Hierapolis).
Jesus’ words so contradict what the Laodiceans have been saying about themselves that it is no wonder that Jesus has begun His letter by reminding His hearers that His testimony is reliable and can be fully trusted (3:14).
iii. On the Outside
The solution, as in 3 other letters (Ephesus - 2:5, Pergamum 2:16 and Sardis 3:3), is repentance even though the command stands at the conclusion to some words that are offered by Jesus by way of explanation.
Jesus has been proclaimed by John to all seven churches as ‘Him who loves us’ (1:5) but it may not be very clear in the Laodiceans’ remembrance having now heard the catalogue of problems that Jesus holds against them. So Jesus declares His love toward this church which, in our eyes, is the one that is least deserving of His love! It is only Philadelphia who are also told directly of Jesus’ love for them and we have in these two fellowships the most bizarre demonstration (according to earthly standards) of God’s love towards men and women.
While we may naturally think of God directing His love towards the Philadelphians who have nothing wrong singled out for mention, we would tend to gasp at His straightforward declaration of love towards those who are so far removed from Him that He cannot bring Himself to find anything worthy of praise.
But, that’s just the point - the fellowship thought they were spiritually ‘rich’ and, therefore, deserving of God’s love. Jesus has shattered their illusion and shown their spirituality up for what it is and yet, as undeserving as that position makes them, they are still the objects of Divine love! A fitting example to the Laodiceans that their own self-effort has not won them favour but the character of God Himself - they were probably more than a little confused!
The parallel passage with ‘love’ and ‘discipline’ is recorded back in the OT where God says (Prov 3:12)
‘...the Lord reproves him whom He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights’
quoted in Hebrews 12:3-11 but with a slightly different application. There, the church is suffering in accordance with the will of God and are struggling to realise that such experiences can help them to become more like Christ. Here, in Rev 3:19, the discipline is shown to be verbal (the message that Christ is speaking to them through John) which will require them to turn their ways round and be zealous (literally ‘fiery’ as opposed to the lukewarmness that they are considered to be by Jesus).
In the previous two verses we saw how the ‘gold refined by fire’ may be implying suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Alternatively, the fire there mentioned may be alluding to the ‘fire’ of the zeal that Jesus now urges them to capture and which will, no doubt, set them in opposition to a lot of what is taking place both within their fellowship and their city. Fire reaps fire in this instance and it is not unreasonable to presume that, if they turn from their lukewarmness to become fiery (the tense indicates a continuing experience rather than a one time action as in the case of ‘repent’), their heat will inflame those around them. But there is no other option presented to the Laodiceans if they intend to be restored into relationship with Christ (3:20).
Verse 20, then, speaks of promise not judgment - nowhere does God tell the church that He will remove them if they do not repent (as He does, for instance, in His letter to Ephesus - 2:5) - and Jesus’ words are loving while at the same time being tragic.
This verse has often been used in evangelistic outreaches to tell the lost that (paraphrased!)
‘if you open up the heart of your lives to Jesus, He will come in to you and enter in to a relationship with you’
Well, how gracious God has been to countless generations of christians who have failed to understand the Scripture in its context! And, it should serve as a lesson to all of us, that God can so empower a verse of Scripture that it loses its original meaning and serves for something totally different! Exposition such as these pages are all very well and a necessary part of the Church’s founding in the Truth of Scripture, but the Spirit who authored the words may very well take them and interpret them differently for His own purpose to someone else for a specific time when He chooses it necessary and expedient to do so.
This verse, then, does not speak of the unsaved believer having locked the door to His life to the movings of God - neither does it speak of Christ knocking to gain access into an unbeliever’s life so that He might commune with him and ‘save’ him (as in Holman Hunt’s marvellous painting [the version hanging in St Paul’s cathedral and not the one in Keble College Oxford or the sketch that hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery] which, I note, was used by Jesus to spread revival in various areas and different nations when it went on its world tour during the early part of the twentieth century - see ‘Holman Hunt and The Light of the World’ by Jeremy Maas published by Wildwood House) - but it informs the Laodicean believers that Jesus is on the outside of their fellowship attempting to gain admittance to their cosy little group that thinks He’s at their centre!
Morris notes that
‘...the tense signifies not a perfunctory rap, but a knocking continued in the hope of a response’
It all must’ve come as a bit of a shock!
Instead of being in close communion with Him, they’ve excluded Him from their lives - not just their meetings, as the phrase ‘if anyone hears my voice’ refers to individuals, not to the corporate body - and He must now seek to gain entrance into their experiences and way of living which only they can assent to as He will not force entry (one of the accurate observations of Holman Hunt’s painting is that the door handle at which Jesus knocks is on the inside, not without where Christ stands).
As Hughes writes
‘It is an exhortation to the [church members] to rouse themselves from apathy and lukewarmness and to open their lives unreservedly to Christ so that the pre-eminence may be His alone’
c. The Promise
Verse 20 is already a promise but this verse is prefixed by the common phrase ‘To him who overcomes...’ and, as in the letters to the other fellowships, the following promise is eschatological (that is, for a time which is still future and to be fulfilled upon the Lord’s return).
In a present sense, though, believers are already seated with Christ in heaven. Therefore Paul tells the Colossians (3:1 - and again we need to remind ourselves that this letter was commanded to be sent to be read out also to the Laodiceans once it had been finished with)
‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’
and the Ephesians (2:6 - again, some hold that the ‘letter to the Laodiceans’ mentioned in Colossae is none other than this letter)
‘[He] raised us up with Him, and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’
But, sitting with Christ now is a foretaste of what is to come in the future Kingdom when believers will reign with Christ if we endure in our walk with Christ throughout this life (II Tim 2:12). By faith now, we are united with Christ not only in His death and resurrection but in His ascension also (see my notes on the Ascension here), in reality then, in the coming Kingdom upon His return.
But Jesus does not promise the Laodiceans simply that they shall reign with Him if they overcome their problems but that they will reign ‘...as I myself conquered and sat down...’ - that is, the Laodiceans can only realise the promise if they overcome in a similar manner to the way in which Christ overcame. This does not call for some mediocre response to the call of God upon their lives, but an unswerving commitment to wholeheartedly respond to the words of Christ no matter what the consequences.
As Morris perceptively points out, the full weight of the words should have hit home with the intended meaning something like
‘They face grim days. But let them never forget that what seemed Christ’s defeat was in fact His victory over the world. They need not fear if they are called upon to suffer, for in that way they too will conquer’
For the self-sufficient church, the way of loss is the way that it will effectively gain everything.