On a recent trip to Turkey to tour the Seven Churches of Revelation, my understanding of the meaning of the letters to all of the churches was greatly expanded, but the letter to the church in Laodicea struck me the most.
14 “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.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 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. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 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. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” Revelation 3:14-22
I always thought the verse about being neither hot nor cold was a little odd. Was God saying that he wanted people to be either on-fire Christians or indifferent? Wasn’t lukewarm better than indifferent? If so, why such negative emphasis on lukewarm?
The first century church of Laodicea was situated in the Lycus valley between Hierapolis (Pamukkale), where hot mineral springs are located, and the Babadagh mountains with snow-capped peaks. Right between hot and cold, and those first believers of Jesus Christ are chastised for being lukewarm! The other location reality is that Laodicea was not near a water source. Cold water was piped in from Colossae, about ten miles away. Hot water came from Hierapolis, about six miles away. In both cases, by the time the water reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm. Interesting. I love how God uses natural resources to enhance the understanding of His people!
Hot water is useful for many things – cleaning, healthy teas, and warm baths. Cold water is refreshing and invigorating. But what happens with lukewarm water? It was sometimes used to cause one to vomit! Jesus is chastising the church for being lax, not on fire for Him, not useful to Him – He wants to vomit them out of His mouth. Their wealth and status had made them lazy.
Laodicea was located on the famed Roman Road and had become a prosperous trade center. Laodiceans were famous for their glossy black wool and textile industry, as well as a renowned school of medicine and a special eye ointment known as “Phrygian Powder.” Additionally, Laodicea became a wealthy financial center with large banking assets. Jesus calls them out on their self-reliance based on their wealth and perceived need of nothing in verse 17: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” In verse 18, He encourages them to buy His gold, refined by fire (more valuable than their financial assets), and says He will give them a pure white garment (best of textiles, permanently removing their shame) and His eye salve so they may truly see (spiritual eyes rather than their medical treatments): “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.”
Jesus continues by telling the Laodiceans that He reproves and disciplines those He loves and encourages them to be zealous and repent. We are all familiar with verse 20 of this passage: “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.” I had always associated this verse with people coming to Christ, evangelism, and new believers. However, in this context, He is letting the Laodiceans know that He is actively seeking their repentance, so that they can again be right in their relationship with Him, to restore the intimacy they once had. And Jesus ends his reprimand with a great promise in verse 21: “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 worldly culture of the city of Laodicea had infiltrated the church. Christ followers had become comfortable in their wealth and allowed their relationship with Jesus to take a back seat in their daily lives, causing Him to chastise them for being useless. It’s an easy thing for us to do in our culture today. How are we stepping out of our “lukewarm-ness” and becoming either hot or cold for Jesus today?