To the church at Laodicea

Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3

This is the seventh in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Philadelphia.

The wealthy city of Laodicea lies 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia on the road to Colossae. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D. and rebuilt by its wealthy citizens without the help of the state. Laodicea is a banking center and a producer of glossy black wool from which clothes and carpets are fashioned. The city also is host to a famous medical school that produces a salve for treating ailments of the eye. A massive wall rings the city. Three marble theaters are located here and, like Rome, Laodicea is built on seven hills. There is no evidence that Paul ever visited the city, but he expresses great interest in it (Col. 2:1-2; 4:16). The city’s water supply originates in hot springs six miles away at Denizli. In its travels through the aqueduct to Laodicea, the water becomes tepid, providing a fitting backdrop for Christ’s letter to the church here, which lays claim to being the most notorious of the seven churches in Asia Minor.

Christ’s self-description

Jesus calls Himself “The Amen” (v. 14). This word appears nine times in Revelation and numerous times in other Scriptures, but this is the only time it is used as a title or name. It is a Hebrew expression of strong affirmation meaning “so be it.” More than 20 times in John’s Gospel Jesus prefaces His remarks with the words, “Amen, amen.” Paul writes of Jesus, “For every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in Him. Therefore the ‘Amen’ is also through Him for God’s glory through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). As the Amen, Jesus speaks and His words are as true as His divine nature; what He speaks always comes to pass.

He also identifies Himself as “the faithful and true witness” and “the Originator of God’s creation” (v. 14). Drawing from John’s description of Him as “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5), Jesus emphasizes not only that He speaks the truth but that He is the truth (John 14:6). The name “the Originator of God’s creation” in no way implies that Jesus is a created being or came into existence at any time. The Greek word translated “Originator” or “Beginning” is arche, which carries the idea of “active cause.” Paul instructed the Colossian church to share his letter with the church at Laodicea. If his instructions were obeyed, then believers in Laodicea would have been familiar with Paul’s description of Christ as Creator: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [Greek prototokos, pre-eminent; not protoktisis, first-created] over all creation; because by Him everything was created … all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16).

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition

As with Sardis, Jesus has no words of commendation for the church at Laodicea. “I know your works,” He says, “that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot” (v. 15). Just as water from the hot springs in Hierapolis turns lukewarm by the time it reaches Laodicea, the church has lost its zeal for God and is simply going through the motions, like water running through an aqueduct. Jesus’ wish that the Laodicean believers be either hot (literally “boiling”) or icy cold is intriguing. Why would our Savior actually find coldness less offensive than lukewarmness? Steve Gregg writes, “Perhaps we should not find this too surprising. Those who zealously oppose Christ (cold), and those who zealously serve Him (hot), have one thing in common: they both take Him seriously. The one who neither opposes nor serves offers Christ the ultimate insult – affirming His existence, but not taking Him seriously” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 79).

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown offer further insight: “[T]here is more hope of the ‘cold,’ that is, those who are of the world, and not yet warmed by the Gospel call; for, when called, they may become hot and fervent Christians: such did the once-cold publicans, Zaccheus and Matthew, become. But the lukewarm has been brought within reach of the holy fire, without being heated by it into fervor: having religion enough to lull the conscience in false security, but not religion enough to save the soul” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 3:15).

“So,” Jesus says, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth” (v. 16). The word “vomit” also may be translated “spew” or “spit.” Just as lukewarm water turns the stomach – physicians have been known to use it to induce vomiting – a church that’s indifferent to Christ is nauseating to the One who gave Himself for it. There seems little hope that the church at Laodicea will change. While Jesus has not yet brought judgment against those who profess His name, He assures them He is “going to” do so. The Lord knows the beginning from the end, and He knows what decisions we will make, whether to serve Him as Lord or grow cozy in self-satisfaction. Yet the decision and its consequences lie with us.

Next, Jesus contrasts Laodicea’s self-image with reality. The church says, “I’m rich; I have become wealthy, and need nothing” (v. 17a). Since the city itself is financially secure, the church no doubt has significant resources at its disposal. We can suppose that it meets in a comfortable and modern facility, pays its staff well, supports a wide array of programs, contributes to many civic and charitable organizations, and carries no debt. It is conceivable that other churches are coming to Laodicea for financial assistance. The church – it needs nothing. Or so it claims. But Jesus has a far different, and far more accurate, appraisal. He tells them, “you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17b).

It is revealing that Jesus tells His people they “don’t know” their true condition. Like the pale and gaunt woman with an eating disorder who looks in the mirror and sees only an overweight body, the church at Laodicea sees itself as robust when in fact it is spiritually on its last legs.

The words “wretched, pitiful, poor” describe a church in the throes of spiritual bankruptcy, without the strength or the good sense to extend a hand and ask God for help. The church also is “blind,” Jesus says, a term often used in scripture to depict spiritual darkness. The apostle Peter teaches that when Christians are not growing spiritually, it affects their vision. He calls such Christians “blind and shortsighted” (see 2 Peter 1:5-9). If they have any advantage at all, it is over unbelievers, whom Paul describes as “blinded” by the “god of this age,” so that the light of the gospel is hidden from them (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Finally, the Laodiceans are “naked,” a reality quite difficult to grasp in a city known for its fine linen. Like the emperor who has no clothes, the Christians in this city are aloof to their spiritual shame, preferring to believe the flattery of their countrymen rather than the facts from their Savior. “Let us daily beg of God that we may not be left to flatter and deceive ourselves in the concerns of our souls,” writes Matthew Henry (Re 3:14-22).

Christ’s comfort and/or commands

Jesus has the antidotes for all of Laodicea’s ills. “I advise you to buy of Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich,” He says (v. 18a). The refined gold implies character that has been refined through affliction. Job tells his friends, “He [God] knows the way I have taken; when He has tested me, I will emerge as pure gold” (Job 23:10). And Peter comforts persecuted Christians with these words, “You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to be distressed by various trials so that the genuineness of your faith – more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Next, Jesus tells them to buy “white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed” (v. 18b). Although they could go to the market and buy fine black woolen linens, Jesus urges them to prefer white garments, which in Rev. 19:8 represent “the righteous acts of the saints.”

Finally, Jesus exhorts them to buy “ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see” (v. 18c). The city’s famous eye salve would not remedy the church’s spiritual blindness. But Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind on many occasions, would gladly restore the church’s spiritual eyesight.

Note that in each case, Jesus instructs the church to “buy” these antidotes. How can a spiritually impoverished church do this? In the same way God’s spiritually thirsty people in Isaiah’s day are instructed to receive divine help: “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost!” (Isa. 55:1). Believers are sometimes deceived into thinking they can work their way out of a spiritual drought. If they would just keep going, keep working, keep doing the things they’ve always done, then the Lord will take notice and restore the joy of their salvation. King David knew it could never be this way. Broken beneath the weight of his sins with Bathsheba (with whom he committed adultery) and Uriah (whom he had ordered killed), the king simply acknowledge that if there is any remedy for his sin, it must come from God: “Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:12). Jesus has already bought our spiritual health through His finished work on the cross. We trample His blood beneath our feet when we think our good works are of any value to cancel sin in God’s economy.

While there is not a word of commendation in this letter, Jesus reminds us of His abiding love of the church. “As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline,” He says. “So be committed and repent” (v. 19). The word “committed” is translated “zealous” in some translations. The church at Laodicea has not been “hot” (Gr. zestos), so she is urged to be “zealous” (Gr. zeleue). Both words are derived from the same Greek verb zeo, which means “to boil.” Like a loving father, Jesus lifts His voice in chastisement before He raises His arm in judgment. Proverbs 3:11-12 reads: “Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe His discipline. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, just as a father, the son he delights in.” Those who heed Christ’s call and repent will again enjoy intimate fellowship with their Savior. Those who stand in self-sufficiency, stiff-necked and aloof, will find they stand alone.

Christ’s urge to listen

Jesus ends this letter with the same words He has offered to the previous six churches: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 22). But He prefaces these remarks with an invitation found only in the letter to the Laodiceans.  “Listen!” He says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me” (v. 20). We often use these words to urge unbelievers toward faith in Christ. But Jesus is speaking to Christians here – not the entire church at Laodicea, for no doubt many professing Christians are not the Lord’s at all, but to any individual Christian who desires fellowship with Him. The ESV Study Bible puts it this way: “I stand at the door and knock, not as a homeless transient seeking shelter but as the master of the house, expecting alert servants to respond immediately to his signal and welcome his entrance (Luke 12:35-36; James 5:9). To the one who opens the door, Christ will come in and will eat with him, a picture of close personal fellowship.”

Christ’s promises to the victor

Jesus says, “The victor: I will give him the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I also won the victory and sat down with My Father on His throne” (v. 21). The same Christ who threatens to vomit the unfaithful out of His mouth now offers them a seat on His throne. The highest place is within reach of the lowliest sinner by the grace of God. Take note that Jesus has met the same temptations facing the Laodiceans, and many more, yet emerges victoriously and in so doing becomes our great high priest (Heb. 4:15-16).

Matthew Henry writes: “[T]hose who are conformed to Christ in his trials and victories shall be conformed to him in his glory; they shall sit down with him on his throne, on his throne of judgment at the end of the world, on his throne of glory to all eternity, shining in his beams by virtue of their union with him and relation to him, as the mystical body of which he is the head” (Re 3:14-22).

Lastly, Jesus’ promise to give the victor the right to sit with Him on His throne implies a delegation of His ruling authority, which is taught elsewhere in scripture:

  • In the parable of the 10 minas, Jesus says, “Well done, good slave … Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, have authority over 10 towns” (Luke 19:17)
  • Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels – not to speak of things pertaining to this life” (1 Cor. 6:3)?
  • And in Rev. 20:4, John writes, “Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge …”

Premillennialists also see this as a promise that believers will reign with Christ in the millennium. In any case, the believer’s victory is Christ’s victory; without His finished work on the cross there would be one common eternal destiny for all people – hell – and the only victory would be the vindication of God’s holiness in judgment. Believers do well to echo the words of Paul, quoting the prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54b-57).