The letter to Laodicea

Revelation 3:14-22

17 September 2006

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


John arrived just as the meeting was starting. It had been a hectic day of wheeling and dealing at work, but he put all that behind him as he slipped into one of the few remaining seats at the back. The church was always busy, but tonight it was packed. Nobody wanted to miss this evening; they'd been looking forward to it for weeks. At last it was their turn for the Reading of the Letter.

As the choir was singing John reflected on what might be in store for them. Some of the other churches had been on the receiving end of a right royal roasting. But as he looked around, he thought that they'd probably be OK. He wasn't aware of any sexual immorality, well, not like those guys in Pergamum and Thyatira anyway. They'd really had a telling off; but John was sure that his church would be spared that.

And there wasn't much danger of false teaching with his lot! They weren't really the types to get all excited about these new fads and movements. No, John was pretty sure the sermons at his church were harmless. Definitely not exciting enough to lead anyone astray.

Of course, there was a touch of anxiety about the prospect of the church facing suffering. The Smyrnans had received a stern warning that they would be persecuted, and even sent to prison! John was ready to resign his church membership if it came to that; no sense in jeopardising his career, after all. But it didn't seem very likely, to be honest. Laodicea really wasn't the sort of place where they got fanatical about persecuting and imprisoning people.

No, on the whole John was looking forward to hearing the letter. After all, look at what they had: the biggest and most beautiful church in the area; the best dressed choir; and all the right sort of people in the congregation. How could the Lord not be pleased with them? They'd achieved so much!

"I expect we'll get much the same as the Philadelphians got last week," he thought to himself, "that was pretty encouraging stuff" .

With a start, John realised that the vicar had begun to read the Letter. "The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation" "hey, not a bad opening," John thought.

The vicar continued. "To the church at Laodicea: I know all about you! I know exactly what you are like. And frankly, you make me sick. You think you are so great, but you are useless. Your self-satisfied attitude just makes me want to throw up."

The stunned silence held for a moment, and then people started glaring at one another, and indignation began to rise — "How dare he!" , they whispered ferociously to one-another, "After all we've done! What does he know anyway!"

John just sat still and silent, reeling from the blow. He was one of the few still listening as the clearly shaken vicar went on.

A Lukewarm Church

Well, we'll come back a bit later to John and see how things work out for him. But I hope that his story helps to set the scene for this letter, and captures something of its impact.

Of the seven letters to the churches, this is the only one with nothing good to say about the church. Even Sardis has a few faithful people in it. But of Laodicea, the Lord can find nothing good to say at all.

Their problem is not immorality, or false-teaching, or idolatry or anything obvious like that. Their sin is more subtle. Their sin is lukewarmness. By this, Jesus doesn't mean they are half-hearted, which is what we probably think of first in terms of lukewarmness. What Jesus means is that they are indistinguishable from the world around them. They have become useless, even offensive to him.

Jesus starts by saying that they are neither hot nor cold, but we should understand that he is not saying he would rather they were on fire for God, or completely cold as Christians. That would be to misunderstand the context. You see, in the first century world both hot and cold water were precious commodities.

Actually the same is true today. I don't know about you, but I have hot water and cold water taps in my house, and they are both pretty useful. I like hot baths and cold drinks. But I don't have a lukewarm tap: what use would that be?

But all the taps in Laodicea ran lukewarm. The water started out hot as it emerged from the distant springs, but by the time it reached the city it had cooled to the ambient temperature: lukewarm. Too cool to bathe in; vomit-inducing to drink.

And that's how Jesus described the church there: lukewarm; useless.

The problem was that, like the spring-water, the church had taken on the ambient temperature of the world. It had completely lost its Christian distinctiveness and had adsorbed the character of Laodicean life around it. And in doing so had become sickening to Christ.

We know that the city of Laodicea was very prosperous indeed. This was due to its position at the cross-roads of some major trading routes. The people of the city prided themselves on their self-sufficiency. We know that when the city was destroyed by a massive earthquake in AD60 the people refused help from the emperor Nero to rebuild it. Unlike all the other towns and cities, they insisted on paying for all the work themselves. They were self-made people; they were self-reliant people and they were proud.

And, sadly, the church had become exactly the same, as we see from verse 17. You say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing."ref

This is quite simply pride, isn't it? This is the root of all mankind's problems: the belief that we can live our lives without God. We expect it in the world, but this pride had infected the church. And that is what made Jesus sick.

We see from the next bit of verse 17 that the church had become so worldly in its thinking, that it actually had no clue at all about the spiritual reality of its position: you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.ref

In this verse and the next Jesus picks out three distinctives of Laodicean life to make his point.

First they thought they were rich because they had lots of money and comfortable lives. But spiritually they were poor: they had stored up no treasure in heaven. None of their wealth would survive their deaths.

Second they thought they could see. Laodicea was famous for its medical facilities, and particularly its expertise with eyes. One of its famous exports was an ointment for eye problems. But spiritually they were blind. Their eyes remained closed to Jesus; they had never seen the light; they had never seen the truth.

Third they thought they were well clothed. Another of Laodicea's distinctive products was garments of glossy black wool. Outwardly, they were pretty well dressed, but spiritually they were naked. They had never clothed themselves with Christ.

Superficially then, the church was prosperous, but the spiritual reality of it all was that they were wretched, pitiful, poor blind and naked.

The problem was that they relied on themselves rather than on Christ. So in verse 18 Jesus says to them, you should have come to me. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.ref

Christ could offer them everything they needed, but they preferred to go to the world to get it rather than go to Jesus.

Jesus told a couple of short parables that would have baffled the Laodiceans:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.ref

It's fair to say that these parables would have been very mysterious to the Laodiceans. They thought they had the lot; what other treasure could they possibly want? They had no idea of the value of what they were missing. They were blind to the fact they were missing anything at all.

But the truth is that they were missing something absolutely crucial. The sad reality is that this was effectively a church of unbelievers. They were practical atheists who took the name of Christ, but had no room for Christ in their hearts or in the church. And we see that most clearly in verse 20: I stand at the door and knockref, says Jesus. Where was Jesus in this church? He was outside the door. A church with no room for Jesus! No wonder they made him sick.

So Jesus says he will spit them out. His judgement is that this church is so useless and ineffective, so indistinct from the world around it, that it might as well not exist at all.

This is not an empty threat, is it? How many vacant church buildings are there in this country that were once filled with people? But, of course, so many of the people who filled them had a purely formal religion. They came to church Sunday by Sunday, but they never came to Jesus. Churches like this one in Laodicea were probably more common than not a century ago.

Thankfully, formal religion is dying out in this country. These days you have to be pretty keen to go to church, and church-goers are regarded as something of an oddity. Well, we are a bit odd, aren't we?

But even if purely formal religion is dying out, we still must all take care that our churches remain distinct from the world. That we are hot or cold, and not lukewarm: that we are distinctive for Jesus. Presumably the church in Laodicea had been on fire for God when it was founded. It started out distinctive, but slowly it became just like the world around it and pushed Jesus out of the door.

It's so easy, isn't it, to begin to push Jesus out of our lives. In this culture, we are so used to coping for ourselves that we rarely remember to come to Jesus for what we need. I find it when I prepare sermons, even this one. It's just so easy to research and prepare the thing without a word of prayer, without relying on God in any way, just like I might prepare a presentation at work. Thankfully, I am still open to the Spirit's prompting and I do remember to pray in the end. But I am terribly aware of how easy it would be for the whole exercise to become formal and empty and Christ-less.

Actually, what I really ought to do, if I am really committed to being a distinctive Christian, is to pray about the presentations I make at work as well! Coming to Jesus ought to be second nature, whether in the world or in the church. That is the real antidote to lukewarmness. Rather than letting the world infect our faith, we should have faith that infects the world.

So, the lesson from Laodicea is that we must keep coming to Jesus to meet our needs. When our faith becomes religion; when it becomes all about just being a good person; when we think we're doing God a favour by turning up on Sundays; when we aren't excited by the sermons; when we lose any urge to tell people about Jesus; when we only pray in church — well, then it's getting a bit late. This is Christianity without Christ.

How different things are when Christ is at the centre: I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.ref

You can be rich! You can be beautifully dressed! You can see the truth! But how many of us are trying to gain these things without ever coming to Jesus, the one who is the source of them all?

A Loving Christ

So, in this letter we find a lukewarm church, but, thankfully, we also find a loving Christ.

The only redeeming note in this letter to the church in Laodicea is that it is not yet too late. Jesus has not yet written them off completely. This church, for all its faults, is still for the moment among the seven golden lamp stands belonging to Christ.

Although they've shut him out, Jesus still loves this church. He wouldn't have written this letter to them if that were not the case. We see it in verse 19, Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.ref He has come with harsh words, but his purpose is not yet to condemn, his purpose is to call them to come back to him.

Rather than lukewarmness he is asking them to be in earnest, or literally, to be zealous. They've got to forget about what the world is like, and make themselves distinctive again.

Zealousness is alien to formal religion, isn't it? Anything that affects our lives outside church is regarded with suspicion by the formalists. It's a bit fanatical to be too committed; not quite British, really.

But zealousness is what we are called to. Zealousness is faith that affects our lives: it affects where we live; it affects where we work; it affects whom we marry; it affects how we bring up our children; it affects what we watch on television; it affects how we spend our money; it affects how we spend our time; it affects whom we vote for. This is the difference between being hot or lukewarm; this is the difference between being useful to Christ and being useless to him. A zealous Christian is a Christian who stands out from the world.

And, Jesus says, the way for them to regain Christian distinctiveness is for them to repent. Repentance is the one thing the world does not do; repentance is the antidote to pride, and the antidote to self-sufficiency. Repentance is coming to God and saying to him: "I am wrong and you are right," and then living our lives in the light of that fact. No longer relying on ourselves, but coming to Jesus for everything we need.

So in verse 19 Jesus addresses the whole church with the need to repent, but in verse 20 he speaks to its members in turn.

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.ref

Famously, Holman Hunt has painted a picture of this verse. You can see it in Keble College, Oxford, or, slightly bizarrely I discovered, in stained glass in Waterstones bookshop in Reading. The picture shows Jesus with a lamp knocking at a door which clearly hasn't been opened in a very long time. Holman Hunt's genius was to paint the door without a door handle — it can only be opened from the inside.

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.ref

This beautiful invitation is probably the best known verse in Revelation. Jesus is saying to the members of the church of Laodicea: I want to come back in. It's not my style to force my way, but any one of you can let me in. It's not up to the vicar; it's not up to someone else; it's up to you. It doesn't matter how lowly or humble you are — in fact the more lowly and humble the better — but if any one of you will hear and repent that will open the door, and I will come and have fellowship with you again. Far from spewing you up, I will come in and eat with you.

If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. That's an extraordinary promise, isn't it? It doesn't matter who I am in the church, I can let Christ come in. If one day you find yourself in a Christ-less church, don't wait for someone else to do something about it. If you can hear Jesus knocking, then it's you who has to open the door.

It is quite possible that, as we've looked at the characteristics of a formal Christianity this morning, there are one or two here who have realised that this lukewarm church is mirrored in their own lives. Perhaps you are comfortable to be called a Christian, but like the church we've been looking at, you've realised that there is no room for Christ in your life. That he is outside the door. It may be that you have been going to shurch for years, but you've never actually met this Jesus that everyon else seems to know.

Well, we have a loving Christ. It is not yet too late, and perhaps you can hear him as he stands at the door and knocks. All you need to do is open the door; to be earnest and repent, then you will find out what a wonderful difference it makes when Jesus moves in with you.


There was practically a riot when the vicar had finished reading the letter; people were storming out left, right and centre. But John didn't move. He and a handful of others scattered across the church just sat silently with their heads bowed.

"Lord, I'm so, so sorry." John prayed quietly. And for the first time in his life he really was praying. "Lord, I had no idea. Please forgive me. Please come into my life and make it your own. I want to learn to do things your way, not mine, but I need your help. Oh, how I need your help. Thank you for not giving up on us."

That night the church was reborn.