We continue this week in our series of messages from two chapters in the book of the Revelation. We’ve been looking at the letters Jesus wrote to seven churches that were the original recipients of the book of Revelation. All these churches were in what is now western Turkey and what in the first century was called “Asia Minor.” As we have seen, of the seven churches, only two were spiritually healthy, Smyrna and Philadelphia. Two of the seven churches had some signs of health but also some significant weaknesses, Pergamum, and Thyatira. And three of the churches are near death if they do not soon repent of their very serious sins. These are the churches in Ephesus, Sardis, and the church we’ll be looking at today as the last of the seven churches, the church in Laodicea.
Laodicea was a wealthy city. The fertile ground around the city was very good for raising sheep. There were also many prosperous businesses in Laodicea along with a lucrative banking industry. The city was so wealthy that when an earthquake destroyed it in AD 60, the city was rebuilt without any outside help from Rome. That would be like a city on the East Coast being wiped out by a hurricane and rebuilding itself without any federal aid or relief.
This city was also famous for its medical school. The Laodicean physicians were skilled at compounding medicines and ointments for sick people. One of the more famous was an eye-salve made from local compounds. Laodicea, like the other six cities, was a center for the worship of the Roman Emperors. They had a well-established cult of emperor worshippers with all the trades necessary to support that religion.
About six miles from Laodicea were a grouping of hot springs that flowed toward Laodicea. Back then, hot water was hard to come by without boiling it and the hot springs attracted people who wanted to find healing in the water. However, as the water traveled toward Laodicea, it cooled off and became lukewarm. The only people who drank it were visitors who didn’t know it was lukewarm and they only drank it once. Also, flowing into Laodicea from the nearby city of Colossae were cold springs. That meant that this church knew from experience the important differences between hot, cold, and lukewarm water.
John introduces Jesus to the church in verse 14 as “…the Amen, faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” Because the church is a body and Jesus is the Great Physician, it seems fitting to approach this church as we have others; seeking to discover the spiritual disease that threatened its survival. First, we will see the diagnosis Jesus gives to this sick church, then, the cause of the disease, and the symptoms of the disease. Finally, we want to look at Jesus’ prescribed treatment for the disease and the blessing this church would enjoy if they returned to health and remained healthy.
Jesus’ diagnosis of what was wrong with this church is in verse 15 and, that is–this church was spiritually lukewarm. Jesus says to this church, “5 I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!” The bible at times speaks of spiritual health through the metaphor of temperature. Paul says to the Roman believers in 12: 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” That word “fervent” literally means HOT. If a liquid is “fervent,” it boils. If a solid is “fervent,” it glows with radiant heat. God commands individual believers and local churches to be hot in our fervency. This temperature metaphor is still heard in the church when someone says, “She is on fire for God.” Or, “He burns with passion for Jesus.”
Paul commands ALL believers to be on fire, boiling, glowing in intense heat, burning with passion for Jesus Christ. A believer who is burning with zeal for Christ is a normal Christian in the sense that this is the biblical norm for Christian living—to be on fire, glowing, ablaze for God That will look different in different believers and churches, but the standard is to be burning with zeal for God. To the degree that you as an individual believer or we as a church are NOT burning in our intense love for God, we are being disobedient. Something is seriously wrong with us.
Another, very similar way to express this kind of spiritual intensity is through the metaphors of appetite and thirst. We hear this in statements like, “He is really hungry (or thirsty) for God.” The Psalmist models this for us in Psalm 42. He says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” That is the default response of a healthy believer or a healthy church. This letter to the church at Laodicea reminds us that this kind of spiritual fervor is not reserved for only a few, select saints of God. This is for ALL of us.
This is only consistent with the Great Commandment of Jesus, This kind of intensity would surely be expected of people who are called to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.” To love God like that, you must burn with passion for him. It’s important that we get this—if we as individuals and as a church are not flammable or incendiary for God, there is something seriously wrong. At the other extreme, in Matthew 10:42, Jesus associates cold temperatures with refreshment when he says, “42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” God calls us to refresh this world with his love.
In verse 16, Jesus says, “I will spit you out of my mouth.” The believers in Laodicea were familiar with the impulse to spit out something lukewarm. The diagnosis of this church is lukewarm and Jesus spitting them out of his mouth is his prognosis for this church if they don’t change their ways. Jesus promises to spit them out of his mouth in disgust, in revulsion. This warning is more personal in nature and perhaps more shocking than any statement Jesus makes to any of the churches. He’s not simply going to remove their lampstand as a church. This is a far more personal kind of rejection. He will spew them out of his mouth in disgust. This is NOT a good place to be and this body in Laodicea, though they didn’t know it, was filled with deadly disease.
But the Great Physician doesn’t just give this church a diagnosis and prognosis. He also reveals to them the cause of their lukewarmness in verse 17. We know that this is the cause because the first word he speaks immediately after giving his diagnosis is, “For.” He is saying the reason why you are spiritually lukewarm is, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The CAUSE of the spiritual lukewarmness of these Laodicean believers is material wealth and prosperity that produced self-satisfaction. As we said, Laodicea was a wealthy community and here they confirm that, in addition to being an unhealthy church, they were a wealthy church. The relationship between their abundance of wealth and their lack of health is not a coincidence. The New Testament regularly connects spiritual disease in believers to material wealth.
One of the more famous examples of this relationship is in the story of the rich, young ruler. Jesus offers him the chance to follow him, be part of his company, and come to know him with great intimacy. But it would cost him his material wealth and, unbeknownst to him, that is more important to him than Jesus. The rich, young ruler put his wealth ahead of God and it cost him everything. And this is why wealth (and we are ALL wealthy so this applies to ALL of us) can be such a spiritually destructive thing in our lives.
Jesus calls it “unrighteous mammon” because it is of this world. It is fallen and it can corrupt our hearts if we let it. Our wealth can cool down our passion for Jesus because it can fill our hearts with many other things and interests and distractions. These things tend to crowd out a close walk with Jesus. The irony we must all live with in our wealthy culture is that material wealth can be a great usurper of spiritual riches in Christ. If we are not very careful, wealth and what it can give us, quickly quenches our fire for Jesus. It did for the Laodicean believers.
We see HOW wealth can douse our spiritual fire in verse 17. The believers in Laodicea had allowed their wealth to make them self-satisfied. We see this when Jesus quotes them as saying, “I need nothing…” Material wealth is like spiritual junk food. People eat junk food when they’re hungry because it tastes good and because it fills them up. They satisfy their appetite, but they’re not getting any nutrition—no bodily health is being built when you eat a big bag of potato chips or drink a 32-ounce soda. It fills our stomachs, but it doesn’t satisfy our bodies’ need for nutrients. And if we feed too much of that to these bodies, it will slowly kill us. That’s what material wealth can do to our souls.
All people in and out of church have a built-in spiritual hunger. Many people in the west seek to satisfy that hunger by going shopping or buying expensive toys or stuff for their homes. The danger of this is that the accumulation of material stuff easily dulls the sense of our great need for daily intimacy with Christ because it so easily makes itself a substitute for Jesus and a close walk with him. Wealth can easily anesthetize us to our deep need of intimacy with Jesus.
To put it another way, money and what it can buy easily become idols in our hearts and idols of any kind kill spiritual hunger. We aren’t as hungry for Jesus because we’ve satisfied our spiritual appetites with the idols of this world. Paul tells Timothy in First Timothy chapter six that it is through a craving for material things “that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
We must regularly ask ourselves, “Do I burn with passion for Jesus?” Or, have we allowed the flame retardant of material wealth to cool us off? Another way to ask it is: “Am I daily amazed by both the shocking depth of my sin AND the amazing sin-cleansing, sin-defeating grace of God?”
These wealthy Laodiceans had grown self-satisfied because they had filled their spiritual stomachs with the treasures of this world. They had allowed the spiritually anesthetizing power of money to lull them into spiritual lukewarmness. For many believers in the west whose spiritual passion has gone, whose fire has cooled, THIS is the reason, or at least is a big part of the reason. This is why most students of Scripture tell us that, of the seven churches, this one in Laodicea most resembles the prosperous and often lukewarm church in the west.
Now, that we’ve looked at the CAUSE of their lukewarmness, let’s look at three SYMPTOMS of spiritual lukewarmness. We see this first in the great gulf that existed for these believers between their assessment of their spiritual health and the real health of the church. Jesus tells us in verse one that they thought they were rich, prosperous, needing nothing, “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” The first symptom of lukewarmness is spiritual blindness and self-deception.
Jesus calls these spiritually lukewarm believers in Laodicea, “blind.” As we have mentioned, one way you can know a believer is lukewarm is this gulf between where they think they are with God and where they really are. The Laodiceans could hardly have been more clueless about their spiritual health. They thought were rich, brimming with health—it overflowed in its richness to others. In truth, Jesus reveals that they were poor, spiritually destitute, barely maintaining a spiritual pulse. This must have been an absolutely shocking revelation to this lukewarm church.
The dangerous thing about this symptom of lukewarmness is—it’s impossible accurately to diagnose your own spiritual blindness. A person or a church in this condition is self-deceived and how do you know if you are being deceived? You don’t…because YOU ARE DECEIVED. If you KNEW you were being deceived, you would not be deceived! This is one reason why this is so toxic AND this is one reason we need healthy discipleship relationships in the body of Christ because we need others around us who know us well and who will level with us about where we are with the Lord. The problem is—if the church is filled with self-deceived people, NO ONE will be able to see it.
A healthy church or believer is painfully aware of their tendency to idolatry, hates it, is fighting against it, and part of that fight is intentionally forming the kind of relationships where fellow believers feel freedom to help us see where we are self-deceived about our spiritual health. As we’ve quoted Tim Keller, having a good understanding of the gospel means “you are more wicked than you could know and more loved than you could ever dare imagine.” You can’t experience the fire and hunger and passion that comes from knowing you are more loved than you could ever dare imagine, if you don’t first sincerely own the truth that you are more wicked than you could ever know. A lukewarm person doesn’t experience either half of that model for gospel health.
A second symptom of spiritual lukewarmness is in verse 17 when Jesus calls this church “poor.” This symptom of spiritual lukewarmness is spiritual poverty. A lukewarm believer can have all sorts of spiritual/religious activities in his/her life. As we’ve seen in the church at Ephesus, that does not necessarily make you spiritually healthy or prosperous. Spiritual wealth is found when you are rich in “the mother lodes” of spiritual wealth. There are many ways to quantify that, but let’s just use the three mother lodes of spiritual wealth Paul cites in First Corinthian chapter 13: faith, hope, and love.
A self-satisfied, lukewarm believer will not be strong in any one of these. For instance, faith is trusting God for your daily needs, but a person who feels they have everything they need, has no need for strong faith. Hope is a longing and expectation of heaven and the great joy and treasure we will find there in Jesus. But a for a self-satisfied person, they live and act as if this world is heaven. Their treasure is here. Heaven is not something that much enters their mind because, though they are blind to it, they are trying to find heaven on earth.
Finally, love always implies sacrifice, giving of yourself to someone else in some way. Self-satisfied, lukewarm believers are desensitized to the needs of others and spend most of their time and energy using the things of this world to stoke the furnace of their own frigid hearts. They have very little real love or devotion for God because Jesus tells us that “you cannot serve both God and mammon.” [Matt. 6:24]
A third symptom of spiritual lukewarmness is also in verse 17. In addition to being poor, blind or self-deceived, lukewarm believers are also spiritually naked. The word “naked” in the bible often doesn’t just mean to be without clothes. Nakedness is a metaphor in the bible for idolatry. To be naked spiritually is to be in a spiritually adulterous relationship that betrays your spiritual husband, God. We see this in places like Ezekiel 16:36. “36 Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your [spiritual] lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them,”
To be spiritually naked is to commit spiritual adultery against God by giving yourself to idols. If you put more time and energy into entertainment or sports or your house than God, you are spiritually in bed with those things and God, as your spiritual husband, burns with jealousy toward them. In the sight of God, the Laodiceans were naked and in bed with the material things of this world. They were looking to the material things of this world to do for them what only God could do—to bring them spiritual satisfaction. And because they were blind or self-deceived, instead of feeling shame over their spiritual nakedness, which is the appropriate response for an adulterer, they felt nothing. They were just fine.
After the symptoms of lukewarmness, Jesus lays out the treatment for spiritual lukewarmness. There are three parts of this treatment and they are found in verses 18-20. The first part of this treatment Jesus prescribes in verse 18, “18 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.” One important grammatical component that is easily seen in the Greek language but not as easily seen in the English is when a particular word or phrase is given special emphasis. In English, we underline or italicize or embolden a word or phrase, but in Greek, its reflected in the language itself.
The reason that’s important is because–when Jesus counsels these believers to buy things from him, two words are emphatic. Those two words are “from me.” The gold, and the white garments and the salve for their eyes are not as nearly important as the fact that they need to stop looking to the world but instead come to Jesus to meet these needs. The first treatment regimen for lukewarmness is to come to Christ to satisfy your deepest needs. This verse is very similar to a verse in Isaiah 55. Isaiah says in verse one, 1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
When Jesus commands these believers to buy from him, he’s using a metaphor consistent with their materialism. They had bought so many things in this world trying to find satisfaction in them. But Jesus is implying that they haven’t purchased what will really satisfy them because only HE sells these things. The point is not that they need to BUY things from Jesus, but rather that they need to look to him for these rather than the world.
First, they need to “buy” “…gold refined by fire…” This is spiritual gold which means they need to begin acquiring that which has real value in heaven. It’s been refined and has been found to be totally trustworthy. They get this gold only by relating intimately to HIM and getting to know the Treasure of all treasures. The implication for these Laodiceans and us is to exchange whatever material riches we are looking to for fulfillment for the true spiritual gold found only in Christ.
Second, he tells them they need to buy “…white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen…” The reference to nakedness must relate this to their idolatry. We must remember that these believers were wealthy in a culture that financially oppressed sincere believers. There were no wealthy sincere, healthy believers! So, their wealth implies that they were willing to compromise their faith for the sake of their idol, material wealth. Their spiritual garments were filthy from their idolatry and they needed to exchange their filthy garments for clean, white ones found only on people who were willing to lose everything for their faith.
Finally, they must buy from Jesus, “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” Because Laodicea was famous for its eye salve, this would have hit home with these people. Jesus is calling them to look to HIM to give them the spiritual eyesight or discernment to clearly see how far they were from him and to see how lethal their condition was. Only Jesus can, by his grace, cause a believer to clearly see the reality of their idolatry and he often uses other believers to do this. The main point in verse 18 is that, by the grace of God, we must stop looking to the things of this world for our satisfaction that are false and inadequate. We must come to Jesus to satisfy our deepest needs.
The second regimen of treatment for spiritual lukewarmness is in response to Christ’s love, be zealous and repent. We see this in verse 19. Jesus says, “19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” We should not miss that the call to zeal and repentance is preceded by an assurance of his love for these Laodicean believers. That’s not an accident! After this stern rebuke and the threat to vomit them out of his mouth, it would be easy to feel condemnation from Jesus and he wants to prevent that misunderstanding. He assures them he does not love them in spite of these hard words. He loves them because of these hard words of rebuke. These harsh words come from his love for these believers. The second treatment for lukewarmness is –in response to Christ’s love, be zealous and repent.
The Scriptures have many references that speak of God’s discipline as an expression of his love for his people. The most famous New Testament example of this is in Hebrews chapter 12. The author says, “7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” Repentance or, changing our attitudes about an area of sin in our lives is never done by sheer willpower. Paul says in Romans 2:4 says to believers, “4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
You repent of sin when you experience God’s kindness to you found (for instance) in the love embedded in his rebukes and warnings. It’s his love and kindness that melts a frigid heart as the Holy Spirit reveals that to you and makes it real to you. Repentance is never produced by beating yourself up in self-hatred and disgust. Repentance comes when you know that Christ’s expression of his disgust is, in fact, a powerful dose of his love for you. As we get that into our hearts, God can bring us to repentance.
A final treatment for spiritual lukewarmness is in verse 20 as Jesus tells these believers in Laodicea, “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.” This verse is often used as an invitation for sinners to invite Jesus into their lives. It can be used that way, but it is intended for believers. In order to deal with our lukewarmness, we must first reject the things of this world that cause us to be self-satisfied and instead turn to Christ. Then, as we see Christ, we experience the love of his correction and discipline and repent. Finally, we must renew intimate fellowship with Christ.
This verse is an invitation to return to intimacy with Jesus. This verse is rooted in the Song of Solomon where one lover is speaking to another. He says, “2 I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” 3 [and then SHE says,] I had put off my garment; how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? 4 My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. 5 I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.”
Do hear that intense intimacy between husband and wife? Jesus borrows this metaphor of him standing at the door waiting, NOT to communicate that he is in some way held hostage by the closed door of our hearts. No, the point of the metaphor is to communicate how deeply Jesus desires us to know him, and in the most intimate way.
This is the opposite of lukewarmness. This is– being on fire for Jesus as our divine Lover. If you do not relate to Jesus as your eternal Lover, sharing your most intimate joys and secrets with him, you are either spiritually lukewarm or close to it. But we cannot simply will ourselves to this new place with God.
We must first, by God’s grace see how spiritual poor our love of material wealth has left us and grieve over it. By God’s grace, we must allow God to reveal how blind we have been to our condition. We must by God’s grace feel the God-honoring shame of giving our hearts to the idols of this world and in so doing, cheating on our divine husband God. Then, we must, by his grace turn from the things of this world and begin to look to Jesus to meet our need for treasure. In response to his love, we must be zealous and repent and finally, we must live in intimacy with Jesus as our divine lover.
The promised blessing for all this is in verse 21. “21 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.” As we’ve seen before, the promise is that those who relate to Jesus with this level of fervent love will rule with the Father and the Son on his eternal throne and that is so wonderful as to be beyond our comprehension. May God give us as individuals and a church the grace to see who our lukewarmness and repent of it for his glory and our eternal joy.