Laodicea: The Church Without Humility

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

July 19th, 2009

John’s Revelation takes the reader through 7 cities of Asia Minor. Of all the churches in those places, and all their struggles, from the need to love one another in Ephesus to the call to greater discernment in Thyatira to the need to wake up an impassioned faith in Sardis, the message to the church in Laodicea may the one most fitting for the Western church today and a good caution for every Christian. The surrounding circumstances, the response of the church, and the call of Christ are easily connected to the spiritual environment many of us find ourselves in today. Come with me then, to explore the ancient city of Laodicea. It was a major commercial center, a city of over 200,000 people, described as a knot on the major east/west and north/south routes through the province of Phrygia. 100 miles east of the port city of Ephesus, Laodicea was part of a ‘tri—cities’ area with Colossae to the southeast and Hieropolis to the northeast. Laodicea was also a kind of ‘tri—church’ area. The city is mentioned in chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians: "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis." So this fellow Epaphras was the pastor of churches in all three cities. Colossae we know about from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and also his letter to Philemon. All that remains of that city today is a mound; the site is as yet unexcavated. The third city mentioned, Hieropolis, is another story. Hieropolis was long settled, because of unique hot mineral springs found there. It has always been a landmark city because of the extraordinarily unique natural terraces that have formed out of deposits from the mineral rich waters. Then and now Hieropolis is a medical tourism destination. People bathe in the hot pools to seek healing and alleviate their aches and pains. It is important to note that in stark contrast with both cities, Laodicea had no natural water supply. Hieropolis had its mineral—laden hot springs. Colossae was supplied by fresh, cold mountain springs coming down from nearby Mt. Cadmus. Laodicea’s water was piped in via an aqueduct, from 6 miles away. The water traveled to a 16 foot tall water tower for distribution across the city. But the source for this water was a system of hot springs in the hills above the city. Like the waters of Hieropolis, they were also very heavily loaded with minerals. You can see the evidence of this mineral water in the ruins of the water system. The old clay pipes are still the heavily encrusted and even clogged with deposits of calcium carbonate. By the time it reached people’s homes, the bitter tasting water from the hot springs was lukewarm; not a great feature of the city. Yet despite the poor quality of its municipal water, Laodicea was an extraordinarily wealthy city, for several reasons. Part of this was due to its successful medical school, especially noted as a center for ophthalmology. Those mineral deposits in the area were used in the production of a therapeutic ointment, applied to the eyelid, known as Phrygian powder. A very successful textile or fabric industry was also centered in Laodicea. It developed around a unique black wool that came from a local breed of sheep. It was famous for its softness and raven—black color. A major export of the area was a kind of large overcoat or tunic made from this wool; it was called a ‘laodicea’. In fact, the area around ancient Laodicea is still a major center for textile production today. Due to its excellent location on major traveling and trade routes, and the success of its local industries, Laodicea developed a large banking industry as well. Already in 1st century BC, the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote about cashing his treasury bills in Laodicea. Many of the very wealthy were patrons of public projects, including the stadium. A very unique characteristic of the city was that wealthy private citizens were even depicted on the civic coins! And there was a significant level of pride associated with this practice. One ancient inscription notes that a citizen named Pomponius Flaccus funded the heating of covered walks and provided piped oil for heating the famous Roman baths; in the inscription, the words ‘by himself’ are repeated four times in one sentence! As might be expected, even then, extraordinary wealth didn’t often lend itself to religious piety—Laodicea did not show the same kind of fawning allegiance to Rome and the imperial cult that was seen in other cities. After the earthquake in the year 60 AD that devastated several cities in the area, including Philadelphia, Laodicea refused to accept financial aid for reconstruction. It was widely known that the citizens preferred to rebuild on their own. This became a somewhat notorious distinction; Laodicea was thought of as a community notable for its smug self—sufficiency. The seduction of great wealth is also reputed to have been a corrupting influence in the large Jewish community in Laodicea and the surrounding area. In the Talmud, the ancient Jewish commentary on the OT laws, there is a line that reads, "the wines and the baths of Phrygia have separated the 10 tribes from Israel." This suggests that the descendants of those who had been exiled many years before were now no longer a part of the wider Jewish religious community because of love for the luxuries that came of local wealth and indulgent lifestyles. With our purposes in mind then, we turn our attention to the Christian community living in and around Laodicea. How did they fare in such a wealthy setting? What sort of message did Jesus send appropriate to that church? What are the ways in which this message has a direct impact on our lives today as we seek to live faithfully as disciples living with similar pressures and temptations? In his words to the Christians of Laodicea, Jesus begins with an introduction: He is the Amen, faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. "Amen" is a title taken from Isaiah 65. Some versions of the Bible translate the title ‘God of truth’ but it is literally in the original Hebrew ‘God of Amen’. Christ uses this title of himself to underscore his divinity; he is God. He is also the faithful and true witness; the second title echoes the first. Amen can mean both faithful and true. It also recalls the opening of the book of Revelation, where Christ is described as the faithful witness. He is the One whose word is true. His judgment about the Laodicean church’s spiritual condition is a right judgment. The third title given highlights Christ’s power — he is the ruler of God’s creation. All these attributes of Christ underscore his coming in right judgment. They are the precursor to a severe warning: He who is true, faithful and powerful assesses you, and he has found you to be unfaithful. Typically, at this point in each of the 7 messages, Christ commends the church for its best attributes and practices. Here, in the message to Laodicea, Christ commends them for…nothing! Jesus finds nothing in them worth encouraging. Of the 7 messages, only Sardis and Laodicea have no commendation. But at least in Sardis, Christ concedes that there were yet a few who had not soiled their clothes, that is, those who had not given in to temptations. For this lack of any commendation or partial concession of worthiness, Laodicea can be considered the least healthy, the worst of the seven churches in Revelation. Jesus faults them for the smug self—sufficiency that comes of their extraordinary wealth. Their deeds show them to be useless—just like the city water supply. They are not hot. They are not cold. And in the ancient world, lukewarm water was useless. In his commentary on Revelation, Grant Osbourne states: "The church should not have matched its water supply. The Laodiceans should have been known for their spiritual healing (think of Hieropolis) or their refreshing, life giving ministry (think of Colossae). Instead, as Jesus next statement reads, they were lukewarm. They were devoid of works and useless to the Lord." The water metaphor goes beyond spitting out; the literal translation is to vomit. And, sadly, these disciples are completely unaware of their spiritual wretchedness. Jesus summarizes their self—assessment: "You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ They proudly think that their economic prosperity is a sign of a healthy spiritual condition and they don’t need a thing. But Jesus tells them they are poor, blind, and naked. This is clearly a threefold connection to Laodicean industries that they were so proud of: the wealth of the citizens and the banking industry, the famous eye medicine and the black wool tunics exported around the Roman world. Perhaps you can see why I say the message to the church in Laodicea is the one most easily applied to the Western church today. We are a part of the wealthiest culture that history has ever seen. And the fact is it is tremendously difficult to be a wealthy Christian no matter where you live. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being wealthy. In the Scriptures, Abraham, Job, David, and Lazarus were all wealthy and righteous. But Jesus warned about the temptations that come with being as self—sufficient as we are today. In Matthew’s gospel, he said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." We in the west, and in many westernized communities across the globe, are materially self sufficient. We have money in our wallets, accounts with financial institutions and a jar of coins on our dressers. We know what we will have to eat today, we can pay for our homes with money (as opposed to with our labor) and we are able—for the most part—to decide for ourselves what work we will or will not do. And when we become physically self—sufficient, we are in danger of coming to believe that we are completely self—sufficient. We fail to recognize our spiritual deficiencies. This calls for the kind of warning which Moses gave the Israelites long ago, just before they entered the Promised Land: "…when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…" But Jesus does not give up on pride filled, wealthy Christians. He calls for repentance, and recognition of deep and real spiritual need. Those who come to him can have all those real spiritual needs satisfied. Hear his words of invitation: buy the kind of gold refined by Jesus, and become rich. Those who know they are poor in spirit get riches that cannot be diminished. Jesus offers refined gold, that which has been through the heat of the refinery, and so reminds us of our need to be purified through the removal of our sin. This gold, the righteousness of God, is stored up in heaven where no thief can steal and no moth can devour. There is also the invitation to buy white clothes from Christ to cover their shame. Those who are shamefully naked will be dressed in white — the pure white of righteousness, the new garments of the coming kingdom. So Christ promises to not only take away our shame but to make us holy. Third, the Laodicean Christians are called to buy eye salve from Christ that they may see. Those who are blind get the salve that is the eyesight of Jesus—they will be able discern sin, and see God. They need to be like the blind man of Mark chapter 10 who told Jesus he just wanted to see. Here in the message we also expect a word of warning of the negative consequences to be expected if they continue as is. But there is none! There is no warning connected to the coming of Christ. With all that Jesus has been saying to this particularly prideful and spiritually unhealthy church, we would expect that this congregation in particular would hear a harsh word of judgment. Here, the most negative assessment leads to… a request to dine together. Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He awaits an opening. He waits because Jesus seeks from the church the intimacy of a relationship, as was understood in the ancient near east whenever a meal was shared together between two parties. This meal stands again in contrast to those pagan religious feasts that were such a trap to the Christians of Asia Minor, those who were entwined in the cultural practices and expectations of the day. Though the way this word of invitation comes on the heels of a harsh evaluation is a surprising result, it is of course completely consistent with the Jesus we know from the gospels, he who welcomed sinners and ate with them. So it is that this last letter in particular demonstrates clearly the ultimately gracious character of Christ. And beyond this offer of grace, there is also a positive consequence: if they overcome temptation, if they repent, they are assured they will sit with Christ on his throne. That is a promise to reign with Christ over all creation. It is a promise repeated elsewhere. In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul wrote: "Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him." You may also remember the message to the church in Thyatira. To that community of Christians, Jesus said, "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—‘He will rule them with an iron scepter…" To these rich Christians, deluded and distracted with earthly influence through material wealth, Christ gives the powerful promise to reign over the new creation as co—regents with him. It is so encouraging to hear a message that brings forgiveness and the opportunity to start again. Often our proud exteriors hide a deep sense of shame, for we are the ones who know our sin and sinfulness the best. It is easy to get discouraged, even fearful, about what word of judgment Jesus would have for us if he were to speak to us face to face, he as the judge who knows us and our deeds more intimately that we even know ourselves. But then we look at his word to the Laodiceans. Even a community like that receives the welcome of God’s embrace. Jesus did not reject even this far—gone church. Their sin was bad, but Jesus did not give up on them. You see, while they were yet sinners, Christ offered grace. His words are inviting: ‘Here I am!..’ ‘buy from me…’ You are ‘those I love…’ He does not reject, but provides for, those who are spiritually poor, blind, and naked. Surely his is a throne of grace. That’s good news to us, we who live in a world of ungrace — when we expect payback for our mistakes, when revenge is standard operating procedure, where there are three strikes and then you are out. We can always come to Jesus. Jesus appeals to individuals. It is true that this message, like the others, is addressed to the community. Each time it is about the church’s health. Each time it is a community that is affirmed or rebuked. But Jesus also reminds them, and us, that a church is the people. As a coach might point out, the health of the players is the health of the team. So the spiritual life of the congregation arises from that of individuals; it is a kind of healthy sum total — a ‘critical mass.’ And here in this letter to the church in Laodicea, Jesus promises, "I will seek you out, one by one." It is also important to remember that this is the word of the Lord to a church. Verse 20 is often quoted as a passage for reaching out beyond the church. But it is important to keep in mind that this word goes out to the community of redeemed. It is to the church that Jesus says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." He is calling the church to deeper intimacy with him. This is the desire of God’s heart. He has condescended to meet the sinner; he comes down, to knock, persistently. Believers who are busy or distracted or despairing need just open the door, and he will come in. The result is intimate, one to one, leisurely fellowship. And the meal shared here is not an eat and run, but the leisurely evening meal. Here the focus is not really on the food but the company, the sharing of lives. Here is the key and call to healthy Christian community. Being a part of a congregation is more than just attending church on Sundays together. Here we are reminded, each one of us, of our need to spend quality & quantity time with Jesus. Here we are reminded that the starting point for being a healthy church is spiritually healthy members. So how about you? How has this message reached your heart? Or, if you’ve been listening for the past few weeks, how has this series called to you? Christ calls us to live lives of repentance, to set aside our old lives of sin and self indulgence, to separate ourselves from the hollow promises of the world around us, and to embrace our true identity, we who are in him. Christ calls us to come, to enter his embrace, to find ourselves as his beloved disciples, and to eat with him in intimacy, a meal of grace, an anticipation of the coming banquet in his eternal kingdom. May the lifetimes we’ve been given be our wholehearted preparation for an eternity of banqueting, reigning and abiding with him.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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