Evening = Revelation 3:14-22, The Lukewarm Church

I invite you to open your Bibles to Revelation 3:14-22, where tonight we’ll end our time on the seven churches by walking through the letter to the church in Laodicea.

Located in the famous Lycus River Valley Laodicea was a prominent city that sat in the intersection of the three most-traveled trade routes in Asia Minor. The three cities of Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae formed a tri-city area in this region that was once booming with industry. But by the time John wrote Revelation, Hierapolis and Colossae had become old news while Laodicea surged forward with it’s own commercial industries in black wool, medicinal eye salve, and banking.[1]This made Laodicea one of the new trendy urban centers of Asia Minor. Because of these things they were a very wealthy city. So wealthy in fact, that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD they were able to rebuild their entire city without the help or financial aid of the Emperor.[2]The city of Laodicea and its surrounding hill region was famous for its hot springs, and if you go this location today, which is modern day Denizli, Turkey, you can still see these hot springs. One major drawback in Laodicea was its water. They sought to bring water to the city from the hot springs some 5 miles away by aqueduct or pipe but by the time the water reached the city it wasn’t hot or cold, it was tepid, bland, and lukewarm. This lukewarm water was fowl, as soon as you tasted it you would want to spit it out.

The majority of Jesus’ letter to Laodicea is a firm and forceful rebuke. Every other church is commended for something, even the nearly dead church in Sardis had a few names of faithful men and women in it. Not Laodicea. Somewhat sadly, there is no commendation like that which occurs in the other letters from Jesus. But unlike most of the other churches in Revelation 2-3 we hear about Laodicea elsewhere in the New Testament. We learn the Colossians and the Laodiceans were close because in Paul’s final words in his letter to the Colossians he instructs the Colossians to not only read the letter he wrote to Laodicea but to have the letter of Colossians read in the church in Laodicea (Col 4:16) also. So the Colossians and the Laodiceans were close in relationship, probably friends, and probably struggled with similar things.

In 3:14 Jesus begins this letter by saying, “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of God’s creation.’”  Jesus refers to Himself here firstas ‘the Amen.’ The only other time in Scripture when the word ‘Amen’ is used as a name is in Isaiah 65:16 which says , “He who is blessed in the earth shall be blessed by the God of Amen.” Jesus says His name is ‘Amen’ here to indicate that He is the true, faithful, stable, the unchanging One, the true One, God’s ‘Yes’ to all the promises He made (2 Cor. 1:20). When the eternal Son of God condescended and came onto the stage of history, God the Father was saying ‘Amen’ to all of history, to mean that in Jesus all His promises are fulfilled and at hand. This leads to the second term Jesususes to introduce Himself to this lukewarm church, ‘the Faithful and True Witness.’ To see the meaning here we go back to Isaiah once again. In Isaiah 43:10-12 God calls Israel His witnesses that He has chosen to make known His name in all the world. Taking these first two names together in v14, “The words of the Amen” and “…the Faithful and True Witness…” shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment not only of all God’s promises made to Israel, He’s the fulfillment of Israel Himself.[3]Or to say it another way, Jesus is the witness previewed and foreshadowed by Israel that God has chosen to send into the world.

Introducing Himself to this lukewarm church Jesus stands forth as One who is now a contrasting figure to who this church has become. They are lukewarm, He is the unchanging One, they are faithfulness, He is the faithful One, the true One. What He is, they must be.[4]That they’re not what He is (faithful and true) means they’ve moved away from what they ought to be. Something has taken their eyes off of Christ…we’ll find out what in just a moment. Lastly Jesus refers to Himself as the ‘beginning of God’s creation’ not to teach that He is Himself God’s first creation, no the eternal Son of God has always been. This phrase is to teach that Jesus is the One who through whom God created everything, He is the inaugurator of God’s new creation through His resurrection from the dead.[5]He is the alpha, and if this church is to come back to health they must come back to the beginning, they must come back to Him.

As we enter the main bulk of the letter to Laodicea, v15-22, we find two rebukes and three promises.  We’ll begin where v15-16 begins, the first rebuke.

Rebuke 1: Lukewarm Living (3:15-16)

v15-16, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Jesus states the problem in Laodicea is that they are neither cold nor hot, they are lukewarm, and because they’re lukewarm He will spit (literally ‘vomit’) them out of His mouth. Clearly He desires them to be either cold or hot, the last thing He wants them to be is lukewarm.

Some understand this passage to be an explanation of Jesus’ desire for the Laodiceans to be either powerfully and spiritually zealous or completely lost.[6]Being hot or having deep affection for Christ is in this view seen to be a good thing, while being cold or completely anti-Christ in this view is seen to be a bad thing. Is Jesus therefore commending this church to get off the fence of neutrality and choose a side, even if it’s complete rejection? No, He’s not. Jesus wouldn’t commend anyone to be completely uncommitted to Him. A problem with this modern explanation is that Jesus’s desire (in v15b) that they either be hot or cold implies that being hot or being cold are both positive things. So we reject the view that teaches being ‘hot’ is positive and being ‘cold’ is negative.

What then does this mean? The picture being given to us in v15-16 is one of two positive positions in relation to Jesus. Like the hot waters of the neighboring city Hierapolis were warm, healthy, and had a medicinal/healing effect on the body ‘hot’ in this verse refers to hot water that warms/heals the body. And like the cold waters of the other neighboring city Colossae were pure, drinkable, and had a life-giving effect on the body ‘cold’ in this verse refers to crisp cool water that refreshes the body. The Lycus River dried up every summer and, as I’ve mentioned, the Laodiceans had to pipe in water from the surrounding springs but after the water traveled in those pipes for 5-6 miles it arrived into the city lukewarm and dirty. It wasn’t drinkable, and it caused nausea and sickness. This was a huge problem for them. Well, Jesus has a point in all this – their current Christian living was like the effect their own water had on the human body. As the water caused the body to spew it back out, so too their lukewarm relationship with Jesus caused Jesus to want to ‘spew’ them out of His mouth. He wanted them to be hot or cold, but they were lukewarm, ‘useless’ for anything.

What’s the lesson for us here? There’s a kind of Christian living that is disgusting to Jesus. There’s a kind of Christian living that literally makes Him sick. What is this kind of Christian living? It’s given to us in v17-18 where Jesus hand them His second rebuke.

Rebuke 2: Indifference by Abundance (3:17-18)

v17-18 say, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

In this rebuke Jesus reveals the Laodicean lukewarm sin the kind of Christian living that disgusts Him is Christian living that’s blinded into indifference by abundance.

There is a contrast held in the rebuke in v17. What the Laodiceans thought they were, they weren’t. Their opinion of themselves is not Jesus’ opinion of them. They thought they were rich, they thought they were prosperous, needing nothing, assuming their wealth and abundance was a sign or barometer of their own faithfulness to God. Yet Jesus piles up words saying they’re wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.[7]If you’ve been tracking with this series on the seven churches something should stand out here when you see the wealth of the Laodiceans. Remember a previous church that suffered immensely for being faithful to Christ and not joining in with the local expressions of emperor and pagan worship? Remember a church that suffered financially for being faithful to Christ? Remember, the church in Smyrna.[8]They were poor because they didn’t join in with the local religion, and Jesus’ encouragement to them in 2:9 is that though they were financially poor He said they were spiritually wealthy in Him. Here in Laodicea we have the exact opposite. While Smyrna was financially bankrupt and spiritually rich, Laodicea was financially rich and spiritually bankrupt. At this point we should ask: why? Why was Laodicea so rich? Well if the reason the congregation in Smyrna was poor came from their rejection of the local cult, we can easily infer that the reason the congregation in Laodicea was rich came from their embrace of the local cult. Smyrna had rejected the local religion because it was anti-gospel, because of such things they rejected from local commerce and trade. Laodicea knew it needed to reject the local religion because it was anti-gospel, but they weren’t willing to cut off their financial stability.

We know this temptation too right? Being that committed to Jesus, or following Jesus in that way will cost me too much. You can almost hear the Laodiceans talking to one another after receiving this letter saying, ‘But we’re rich, we’ve prospered, we don’t need anything…is God really telling us to give that up and trust that He is going to provide for us? Is He really telling us that being faithful to Him is more important than having a full bank account?’ Yes, God is telling them that. You know who else God is telling this too? The church in the West. He’s talking to you and to me. He’s reminding us that our security isn’t found a full bank account or in an empty bank account (as if salvation came by poverty). He’s reminding us our security is found in the work of Christ alone. One commentator says Jesus rebukes this Church because they’ve succumbed to the sickness of affluenza, a sickness brought on by not only from having great wealth but always seeking to pursue more.[9]He’s reminding us that it’s the narrow road that leads to life, not the broad road. The narrow road of following Christ isn’t for people who want to take all their luggage with them. Whoever we are, however much we have, when we reach the narrow gate we must drop everything. John MacArthur says, “For those who insist on taking luggage, the broad gate may be more appealing. It is marked “Heaven” – it may even be marked “Jesus” – but it is not going to heaven, and it has nothing to do with Jesus. It is the gate for the religion of the masses, a wide-open gate through which anyone can pass without jettisoning self-righteousness, pride, material possessions, or even sin. But there is no salvation for those who choose this gate.”[10]

Laodicea wasn’t willing to be faithful to Christ because it would’ve cost them much of their financial security. They weren’t willing to let that go, and because of their own wealth and abundance they became indifferent, or lukewarm towards following Christ. In v18 we see Jesus paradoxically instructing them about what to do in light of this, “Buy fire refined gold from Me that you may be rich, white garments from Me that you may not be naked, and salve from Me that you may not be blind.” It’s as if He’s saying, ‘You think you’re rich, but you’re not…true riches come from Me.’[11]Gold refined by fire is gold free from impurity; the Laodiceans must be free from the impurities of the culture, only then will they inherit true wealth in Christ. White garments are pure, holy, and righteous which contrasts the black garments the city was famous for making; the Laodiceans must do what the Church in Sardis was already doing (Rev. 3:4-5). Walking holy so as not to soil their garments. When they turn away from the dark and come back to the light, only then will their shame/nakedness be covered. Salve from Jesus contrast the famous salve made by the medical students in the city; the Laodiceans must look to Jesus and cease looking to the world, only then can they see the Kingdom of God. Wealth, covering, and sight are all things they sought and ironically these are things that can only be found in Christ. The evil of the Laodicean church is the evil of the Western Church: seeking, in worldly places, those things which only Jesus can give us! May we repent and return.

Promise 1: Loving Reproof (3:19)

After rebuking them these two times Jesus now promises them three things. First in v19 Jesus promises loving reproof saying, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” The Laodiceans, as I’m sure you are, felt the weight of these rebukes, and knew that obedience to Christ would bring persecution and a decrease in their material possessions. Jesus knows this, understands their struggle and reminds them that He only rebukes and disciplines those whom He loves. This means Jesus loves this church, and wants them to zealously repent. In a hard letter this mention of love is quite encouraging.[12]He wants them to remember that even if all their money is taken away, they will still have a sure inheritance in Christ, where moth and rust cannot destroy. We must remember this too. That being faithful to Christ in a fallen world will cost us much – but by being faithful to Christ we gain more of Christ, He is our treasure, He is our spiritual wealth that no one can take from us.

Promise 2: Intimate Fellowship (3:20)

Second, in v20 Jesus promises intimate fellowship saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me.” This verse is probably one of the most famous and most misunderstood verses in the whole of Scripture. It has been commonly stated that here Jesus is knocking on the door of a human heart, calling sinners to salvation. That is not what’s happening here. When Jesus saves a sinner He doesn’t knock, He doesn’t ask for their approval, opinion, or permission to save them. To use this verse to teach such rubbish is not only unbiblical, it’s foreign to the context of this passage were walking through tonight. Rather, Jesus is knocking on the door of the Laodicean church, an already saved though spiritually bankrupt group of people. The Laodiceans conducted much of their Christian lives without reference to God at all. It’s as if they’ve left Him outside and now must turn back by repentance, which looks like turning back to Christ and opening the door to Him [13] (more proof fo this is that this verse is a quote from Song of Songs 5:2, where the lover knocks on the door of his beloved, calling her to a deeper intimacy in their already established relationship). After all, Jesus is the Master of this house and Laodicea cannot ignore Him knocking on the door. If they don’t open the door to Him now He will burst through at the end with judgment.[14]But He’s extending the warm invitation to a sweet, most-agreeable, fellowship with Him. Sure it may have benefitted the Laodiceans much by remaining tied to and in fellowship with the local pagan temples. But see here the promise of a better, a truer, and a more lasting fellowship in and with Christ. What will come of repentance for them? A feast with Christ![15]

Promise 3: Seated Authority (3:21)

Third, in v21 Jesus promises seated authority saying, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne.” The meaning is this: if the Laodiceans turn away from their lukewarm sinfulness and become faithful witnesses to Christ, resembling Christ Himself who is the Faithful and True Witness (3:14), they will be granted a ruling position in the Kingdom of God…just as Christ was faithful in life and death and given the highest ruling position by His Father. Anyone remember Matthew 5:5? “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Laodiceans must humble themselves by fearing God more than man to inherit the blessings of salvation. So must we.

Conclusion:

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

No Church in this fallen world falls outside the temptations and sins of the Laodicean Church. We all could be so easily deceived, confusing economic riches with spiritual riches. Or, once a congregation does grow in a healthy and biblical direction and increases in its depth and breadth it is far too easy for that church to begin thinking it is better or more successful than the other churches around them. God knows this, and in His love He calls us out and back to Him, so that we’d rely on Him, look more like Him.[16]


[1]Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, First Edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2001), 90.

[2]Dennis E. Johnson and Robert L. Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, ed. Iain M. Duguid, Hamilton Jr James M., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2018), 595.

[3]G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation(Eerdmans, 2013), 297.

[4]Beale, 302.

[5]Johnson and Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, 595.

[6]Beale, The Book of Revelation, 303.

[7]Johnson and Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, 596.

[8]Beale, The Book of Revelation, 305.

[9]Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 91.

[10]John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith?, Anniversary Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008), 206.

[11]Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 92.

[12]Paul Gardner, Revelation: The Compassion and Protection of Christ, Reprint edition (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2008), 64.

[13]Johnson and Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, 596.

[14]Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 93.

[15]Some see this as an invitation to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper alone. While this might certainly be in view, I don’t believe we should limit the interpretation to just this. Feasting, fellowship, and communing with God in all of life is in view.

[16]Johnson and Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, 597.

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