(This is an adapted transcript from a sermon I preached at my church back in August. You can listen to the real thing here.)
“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.
“‘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. 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. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV)
In the letters from Jesus to seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, we can see that these churches faced a spectrum of challenges that every church faces today, whether it’s having to endure persecution from people outside the church, resisting false teaching from within, or dealing with problems in our own hearts.
If you aren’t a Christian, you might well be wondering how looking at the Bible could ever apply to you and what the point of even reading this is in the first place. But keep reading – see how God talks to His people, but also keep an eye out for how this might be relevant for you.
Let’s turn to this final letter that Jesus sends, addressed to the church in Laodicea.
In Romans 11:22 we’re called to “consider the kindness and the severity of God” and we’ll see that here. We’ll see the severity of Jesus towards a church that’s indifferent towards Him, and His immense kindness and generosity to that same church if she would turn to Him again.
The Severity Of Jesus
In the other letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus had something to commend them for. To Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Philadelphia He said, “You are enduring persecution and clinging to Me.” He commended Thyatira’s servant-heartedness and faithfulness. He even had something good to say to Sardis, who were spiritually dying but still had sparks of life and goodness to encourage.
But unlike His other letters, Jesus has nothing good to say about Laodicea. To them He says “I will spit you out of My mouth!” [v16].
A quick skim of the letter shows this is because Jesus sees them as lukewarm wretches; poor, blind and naked. To fully understand what He means, we need to understand the Laodicean church’s situation.
Laodicea was a wealthy city in the south east of modern-day Turkey. It was a big commercial and banking centre, with a large textiles industry famous for its wool and tunics. Its wealth made it a city of arts, science and literature. It was a leading centre of medicine, and was renowned for its healing eye ointment. Think about somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge today – beautiful, prosperous, and famous for its academia.
The city of Laodicea wasn’t just rich, it was absolutely loaded. In fact, the people of Laodicea were so well off that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake and the Emperor offered to help them rebuild, they said, “No thanks, we’ve got this”!
And it looks like the church in Laodicea had a similar attitude. In v17 Jesus tells them “… you say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing…” and why wouldn’t they? They lived in a wealthy and prosperous city. And do you notice – this letter doesn’t talk about persecution? On the surface, they were doing well.
But Jesus had a bombshell to drop on them: “You, are poor, blind and naked. You think you have everything, but you have nothing.”
The great irony of Laodicea’s situation is that they are the exact opposite of what they think they are. And they can’t see it! It’s their blindness to their spiritual situation that makes them think they don’t need anything.
And this complacency disgusts Jesus.
He says, “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.”
Hot and cold water are good in different ways, and the Laodicean church would have known this well. Hot water from the springs in Hierapolis a few kilometres to the north would have been good for bathing in. Cold water from the springs at Colossae just down the road would have been beautifully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
But Laodicea didn’t have its own water supply, so it had to be piped in by aqueduct. And by the time that the water got to the city, it was lukewarm. It wasn’t refreshing like the cool water at Colossae or useful like the hot springs at Hierapolis. And it was full of stuff that made it taste absolutely gross. So gross that the Romans said it was only fit for slaves!
That’s why Jesus says, “I will spit you out of My mouth!” He’s saying that they were as foul and unusable to Him as their tepid water was to them. Their smugness and self-satisfaction made them indifferent to Him, and it makes Him sick.
It sickens Jesus that the church He has died and risen for has a relationship towards Him that could be described as: Meh.
Jesus isn’t being needy and whiney. He starts the letter by describing Himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” [v14b]. He is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness and truthfulness. He sees things as they really are, and He doesn’t lie about it.
And Jesus will not pull His punches when it comes to challenging this complacent church. If they stay like this, He will reject them.
Because what can He do with a church that doesn’t love Him? That doesn’t listen to Him?
He is being so severe because this is so important. Jesus wants a Church that loves Him with all her heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), because true worship and obedience to Him only comes from loving Him above all else.
If we find ourselves in a similar situation to the church in Laodicea – if we have plenty, if we are in a comfortable place and are enjoying life going well – we need to ask: are we as healthy on the inside as we look on the outside?
I’m not saying that good things like health and wealth are bad in themselves – after all, God provides good things for us to enjoy. But we can’t assume that doing well for ourselves on the surface means that our hearts are in the right place.
In fact, it can blind us to how we really are spiritually.
Think about it: when do we pray the most? It’s when we need something, isn’t it?
If I think I really need something, like a good night’s sleep after a week of insomnia, or a holiday I’ve been desperately looking forward to, or for the bus to really not be late today, God hears about it from me a lot.
But He rarely hears anything from me about the roof over my head, the wages I’m paid, or anything else I take for granted. But nothing has changed – I still need Him to provide those things, even though I’ve forgotten that.
You see, if we don’t feel how much we need God, we can forget that we need Him.
We can forget that He provides everything for us.
We can forget that in and of ourselves we are wretches with hearts prone to wander into sin.
We can forget that it’s by God’s grace and Jesus’ blood alone that we are saved from hell.
So, like the church in Laodicea, we’ll think “I don’t need anything” and our hearts will cool towards Him.
Our attitude towards the Saviour who provides for us, cares for us, who died to save us, will go from passionate worship to: Meh.
How do we stop that?
Jesus tells Laodicea, and us, the answer.
The Kindness Of Jesus
We’ve seen that Jesus has warned the church in Laodicea that if they don’t change He will reject them. But Jesus hasn’t given up on this tepid church. We’ve seen His severity. And now we’ll see His kindness.
You see, the Laodicean church’s indifference to Jesus may have made Him want to throw up, but He hasn’t abandoned them yet.
If you look at the beginning of Revelation 2, you’ll see a picture of Himself that Jesus gives in His letter to the church in Ephesus. He held the stars and walked among the lampstands that represent the churches He is writing to. Jesus still holds the church in Laodicea in His hand, and He is still with her.
He says in verse 19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” He is brutally honest in telling the church in Laodicea how it is because He loves them. Because He wants them to turn away from their complacency and love Him again.
And He gives this blind, naked church the remedy to her disease and poverty: “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.” (v18)
But how can a spiritually poor, blind and naked church do this?
The answer comes in verse 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.”
They need to stop shutting Jesus out and invite Him in.
And when Jesus is invited in, He will eat with them. When the Bible was written, sharing a meal was all about intimacy. You wouldn’t invite just anyone round for dinner; eating together was about close friendship.
Jesus is using this as a picture of what knowing Him should be like. It’s not having Him safely on the outside and only talking to Him when we need something, and even then only through the letterbox of the closed door of our hearts. No, it’s welcoming Him in to the very core of our being and inviting Him to stay there, to live in the closest relationship that it is possible to have.
And Jesus doesn’t only offer close relationship with Himself. Each of the letters to the churches in Revelation finishes with a promise to “the one who conquers”, to those who endure in faith to the end. The promise He gives in this letter is this: “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (v21)
This is huge! If we persevere in faith, we will sit on the throne of Jesus, who sits on the throne of the God the Father. We will one day share in Jesus’ rule over the whole universe!
This is God’s incredible grace, that the Lord Jesus would see a wretched people and call them to come to Him for riches. Riches that they can’t afford, but that He has already bought for them on the cross. Not the ‘health, wealth and happiness’ of the prosperity gospel, but the faith, purity and clarity of sight that Jesus has bought for us through His blood.
On the cross He paid the price to give us His righteousness to cover our shameful sin.
And faith in His sacrifice for us is worth far more than gold, because it is by faith alone that we have a right relationship with God.
And as part of having a living relationship with God, He sends His Spirit to live within us to help us see clearly.
So how do we buy this from Jesus? By being zealous and repenting like He told the church in Laodicea to do. By deliberately turning away from thinking we’re fine, and throwing ourselves on Him for everything.
If you’re a Christian here today, can you see what’s at stake?
Listen to the warning Jesus gives! Ask Him to show you the real state of your heart, not just where you think you’re at. And if you find you’re cold towards Him and you’ve shut Him out, then pray and ask Jesus to come in to your heart again – not just the threshold, but the kitchen and bedroom and even the downstairs toilet!
Because He wants your heart. He wants you to be spiritually rich and clothed and able to see through your faith and relationship with Him.
And when we turn away from being complacent, when we realise our blindness and self-satisfaction and ask Jesus to make us burn with passion for Him again, He promises to do just that!
So pray, ask to know Him more, to love Him more. And as He shows you how things really are, don’t stop talking to Him about how you need Him to change you.
Ask God to give you a greater yearning to know Him better. That you’ll look forward to hearing Him speak to you every day as you read your Bible.
That you will read your Bible!
This is the most precious book on earth! It is a record of God’s dealings with His people and what He has spoken to us. He has ensured that it would be written down for us to read. And thousands of others throughout history. God has given us the Bible so that we will know Him, and so we will know how to live in the best way possible.
So read it, every day, and ask that through reading it God will give you a greater desire for, delight in, and dependence on Him above anything else.
Ask God to give you a greater passion for Him that spills out into obedience to His command to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and to love those who without hearing the Gospel will suffer God’s righteous judgment when they die.
If you’re reading this and don’t believe in Jesus, then can you see what’s at stake for you? Our God is not an idea. He’s a person. He cares about the way Christians live – not just the things you see them do, but in how they think and feel about Him. He cares about the way you live, too.
Jesus isn’t blind to our imperfections, although we might be. He knows what we’re really like, everything we regret and everything we hide. But time and time again He gives us the chance to choose what is right. That’s what repentance is – turning from doing what is wrong and going in the opposite direction.
This might sound terrifying. But God isn’t waiting for you to give Him the opportunity to attack you. He’s waiting for you to ask Him to forgive you so He can give you treasure beyond anything in this life, and heal your brokenness, and cover your shame.
The Laodicean church’s indifference towards Jesus disgusted Him, and we need to realise that if we’re lukewarm towards Him, or even don’t care about Him, the danger of rejection is real for us, too.
But Jesus gives us time to change, and if we repent, there is so much that He offers us.
Forgiveness for sin, every wrong that we’ve done.
Being accepted by God.
The right to become a child of God. To be loved by Him. To be protected by Him. To never be separated from Him.
Transformation from broken sinfulness to beautiful holiness.
An heir of God’s perfect kingdom.
That He will make everything work together for your benefit.
That when you die you will leave behind all pain and tears and live with God forever in a perfect world, and He will be more real to you than anything else you’ve known on earth.
Wouldn’t you want to be loved by God like that? You can! Jesus says that if anyone hears His call to repent of a lukewarm heart towards Him and lets Him in, He will.
So let’s remember the kindness and severity of God. How seriously He takes our relationship with Him – so seriously that He will reject us if we don’t truly love Him. But oh, how kind He is to us, that He promises so much to those who will let Him in.