For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.
The Letter to Laodicea (3:14-22)
Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities of its day. An example of the city’s immense wealth was the city’s refusal, after almost complete destruction by earthquake, of imperial aid to rebuild; they could afford to do it themselves. This city was known for its banks, its wool and textile industry which produced a special black wool, and for its medical school which developed an ear ointment and an eye salve.
Despite all its wealth, Laodicea was not completely self-sufficient. It seems that because of its location, the city was dependent on others for its water. The water was piped in through an aqueduct system that was fairly efficient for its day, but the quality of some of the water was less than desirable. As we study the letter it is important to keep these details in mind.
(14) In the salutation of this letter we have the usual identification of the speaker. The speaker’s description is not as clearly connected to chapter 1, as it is in all the previous letters, but there is an allusion to 1:2 that is not to be missed.
The words here are, “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” The application of the word ‘Amen’ to Christ signifies that he, as God in the Old Testament, is trustworthy and completely reliable. ‘Faithful and true witness’ seems to re-enforce this contrast between Christ and the Laodecian church. The last phrase, “the ruler or beginning of God’s creation” has a close connection with Colossians 1:15-18. We have clear evidence that the Laodicean church, located about ten miles from Colossae, had read the letter addressed to the Colossians (Col. 4:16). The concern in both Paul’s hymn and the phrase here is to emphasize Christ’s lordship over all. Christ is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and Lord over all creation.
(15) As in all the other letters it is made clear that the risen Christ knows the deeds of the church in Laodicea. In this case, there is no particular fault-finding in relationship to pagan activity as in some of the previous letters. Rather, the grievance is that the Laodiceans are neither hot nor cold; the desire is that they be one or the other.
This terminology brings us back to the water supply, or lack thereof, at Laodicea. In the introduction we noted that Laodicea was dependent on others for its water. There were two prominent sources or types of water in close proximity—that of Hierapolis, which was hot and medicinal, and that of Colossae which was cold and pure.
(16) The Laodicean church, because it is lukewarm is about to literally be vomited (a violent metaphor) out of Christ’s mouth. It is important to realize that both hot and cold are a contrast to lukewarm, but not to each other! Hot and cold then are not positive and negative descriptions, but both are positive in regard to what the church’s works should be. It is often thought that hot means ‘going all out for the Lord’ or a full commitment, while cold means, ‘no passion for the Lord’
or no commitment. If this is the case, the question we’re faced with is why Christ would approve of no commitment at all?
The fact of the matter is the church’s works are neither hot in a healing sense, nor cold in a spiritual sense. The church is clearly unproductive, and therefore Christ is about to vomit them out of his mouth. They are being called to accountability for their lack of works and it is in this sense that Christ wishes they were hot or cold, either one will do, but sadly they are lukewarm and therefore distasteful to him.
(17-18) The distinction between hot or cold, and lukewarm shares a contrast with presuming to be rich and truly being rich. Verse 17 shows something of the Laodicean lukewarmness and this may have accounted for their lack of Christian work. They have lost the ability to be self critical and therefore have a distorted view of themselves in relation to Christ.
The solution to this problem is to buy, metaphorically, from Christ true riches: gold that has been refined and made pure, white clothes of righteousness to cover their nakedness, and eye salve so they might see. This solution refers to the local banking center, wool industry, and medical school aiming to touch the Laodiceans where they live and to give them a new view of themselves.
(19) A principle occurring many times in scripture is that rebuking, confrontation, and discipline are expressions of Christ’s love. In light of this, Christians are to repent—a one time act—that turns them back in the right direction, and to continually be passionate in following in the footsteps of the crucified and risen One.
(20) The flip side of the love mentioned in verse 19 is demonstrated by this same Christ who is willing to stand at the gate and knock, awaiting a response from the one who hears his voice. Christ standing at the gate is not a threat, but a promise.
No doubt this imagery would have jolted the church. Its city entrances and exits were sealed by gates denying entrance to potential adversaries. Christ stands at the gate knocking, awaiting a welcome response. If anyone hears his voice and opens the gate he assures them that his or her hospitality will not be abused or taken advantage of, as might be the case with corrupt Roman officials.
The crucified and risen One still passionately cares for the Laodicean church in spite of its lukewarm state. He loves it enough to confront it, call for its repentance, and to promise anyone who invites him in a renewed experience of intimate community.
Perhaps, in the b part of this verse there is an allusion to the future messianic banquet where those from all tribes and nations will sit with the Messiah and share a meal. If so, this is in the present, a foretaste of the future where the future breaks into the present through the intimacy of sharing a meal together with Christ. This reality of active community should grow greater and greater in its intensity as we realize ‘the presence of the future’ in each of our lives and in the world in which we live.
(21-22) The future is promised to anyone who overcomes. As Christ overcame and sat with his Father on his throne, so all who overcome will share in this victory and rule. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”