Laodicea was an important commercial center, famous for its banking and commercial enterprises. The city was so prosperous that when it was destroyed by the earthquake of A.D. 17, it rebuilt itself without imperial money. Due to its location, water had to be piped into the city from six miles away through a system of underground aqueducts. This made Laodicea vulnerable, for an invading army only need cut the aqueduct to reduce the city to submission. A famous school of medicine was established in Laodicea, and it produced powders for the healing of ears and eyes. Trade guilds and imperial worship were a central part of commercial and social life in Laodicea.
The church in Laodicea is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (2:1), and it was likely established by Epaphras on Paul’s third missionary journey (Col. 1:7; 4:12,13). Colossae was located 10 miles from Laodicea, and Paul directed that his letter to the Colossians be read in Laodicea. Some of the terminology in Paul’s Colossian letter finds striking parallel in Jesus’ letter to the church in Laodicea, and it is highly probably that the congregation was familiar with the content of Paul’s earlier letter.
You Give No Healing or Refreshment (vv. 14-16)
Take the Word of Jesus Seriously: Amen, Witness, Head
When we are sick, we need strong medicine, and healing balm is found in Jesus Christ alone. He is the “A-men,” in that he is true; his word settles everything, even when he steps upon our toes and warns us so strongly that the hair on our neck stands on end. Christ is also the “A-men” in that whatever he says will come to pass; his words cannot fail (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31). “Faithful and true witness” explains and applies “A-men.” He came down from heaven to reveal the Father (John 1:18; 15:15) and to bear witness to the truth (John 18:27). He gave a faithful witness before Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13). He likely chose this particular greeting for Laodicea because its fundamental sin was a compromising materialism that muted its witness to God’s truth. The Lord Jesus will now give a witness against them.
And the Laodiceans must listen, for the Lord Jesus is the head of all creation, the beginning of God’s creation. “For through him were all things created” (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Heb. 1:2). The Lord Jesus is the true God and source of all life, natural and spiritual. One reason it should matter to us that our compromise with the world nauseates Jesus Christ is that he is the head of creation. He gave us life and defines our life. The Laodicean Christians must take his warnings seriously. He rules over heaven and earth as Creator, triumphed on earth as the Faithful Witness, and now calls his church to give a faithful witness to his truth against idolatry and emperor worship.
The Church That Makes Him Sick: Beware Tepid Religion
The usual conclusion drawn from our Lord’s hot-cold metaphors is that the sin of Laodicea was spiritual apathy. The Lord certainly condemns them for being lukewarm, but the latter half of verse 15 weakens the apathy interpretation: “I could wish that you were either hot or cold.” If being lukewarm is equivalent to apathy, then “hot” must be spiritual zeal, while “cold” is spiritual deadness. How could Christ wish that the congregation were cold? He would prefer it to be dead rather than lukewarm?
Laodicea was dependent upon its water supply from aqueducts. Once the water arrived in the city, it was lukewarm and unpleasant to drink. The neighboring city Colossae, on the other hand, being much closer to its water source, enjoyed cold and refreshing water. Another nearby city, Hierapolis, possessed medicinal hot springs. The Laodicean congregation was much like the Laodicean water supply. Their witness to the world was ineffectual, almost worthless. It was bland and tasteless. Their witness did not give spiritual healing like the warm, medicinal waters near Hierapolis. It was not life-giving and invigorating, like the cold water near Colossae.
That these metaphors refer to the church’s witness in the world is evident from two things within the letter. First, Christ identifies himself as the faithful witness, and his titles are relevant to the needs of the congregation. Our Lord is calling them to be a faithful witness to his gospel in the world. Second, the congregation was heavily infected by a materialistic spirit (v. 17) that kept it from seeing its true need. Economic prosperity in the first century required participation to some degree in the local trade guilds. Success, humanly speaking, depended upon the ability to compromise in social, economic, and religious relationships. By describing them as lukewarm, Christ condemns their lethargic witness to the truth of the gospel, compromise with their city ethos, and focus upon earthly riches rather than God’s kingdom. A church that gives a lukewarm witness to the world is unworthy of him (Eph. 4:1).
Verse 16 is startling, especially when we consider that our Lord addresses a congregation of professing believers. Just like lukewarm water is good for nothing but to be spit out upon the ground, Christ warns the Laodicean congregation that he is about to vomit them out. If we do not give a faithful witness for Christ, we sicken him. If to get along in the world we make our peace with the world at the expense of his Lordship, we sicken him. To seek a faith that feels at home in the world is deadly. It is like the nauseating water in Laodicea. To hear our Lord say these things should alarm us. He will vomit out the faithless. This is not the nausea of impotence but the nausea of severe displeasure with his unfaithful wife. He is jealous over us. He calls us into his light, and we are to walk in his light, not hide it under the basket of concern or our bank accounts and social media approval rankings.
The Way We Become Worthless and the Cure (vv. 17-18)
Ignorant and Indifferent to What Christ Thinks of Us
To compound the sin of the congregation, they apparently did not see their sins. “Because you say” indicates that the congregation was satisfied with its present condition and saw no reason to make any drastic changes in their spiritual condition or witness. Their self-satisfaction seems particularly related to the materialism of the surrounding culture, an attitude that crept into the congregation. “Rich, wealthy, and need of nothing” indicates that this was a wealthy congregation. Yet, prosperity bore fruit in spiritual malaise and blindness. One evil of the “love of money” is the spiritual indifference and self-ignorance it often produces. It is a great temptation to the rich to equate this world’s wealth with heaven’s favor. Christ reveals their true condition: wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Never did a congregation give such a different assessment of its own condition in comparison to the Lord’s judgment. They measured themselves by their secure finances in a wealthy city and the acceptance they had in the city. They forgot that the Lord looks on the heart. He see our true condition and tears off the false fronts we put up to deceive ourselves and hide our true condition.
Self-Satisfied, Worldly Contented, Mute
How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of heaven; how hard it is for wealthy congregations to suffer for righteousness’ sake, identify with the humble witness of the Master, and be willing to stand for Christ without compromise. Our comfortable lives have made us effeminate and unwilling to stand humbly and courageously for the Lord in our own land. Regardless of how prosperous we may be economically, we are unable to stand for Christ in our own strength. We are totally dependent upon his grace to stand fast in the faith, and we must continue looking to him every day for the grace to witness faithfully to his truth in our own culture. Riches are not antithetical to the kingdom of God. That is not the Lord’s message to the Laodiceans. The love of money, however, will make us lifeless, unwilling to compromise our ease, security, and respectability for the cause of Christ (Deut. 6:10-12; 8:10-19; 1 Cor. 7:31; Col. 3:1; 1 Tim. 6:9-10,17-18).
Come to Him and Buy: Gold, Righteousness, Sight
Our Lord loves his bride! He urges her to come back to him and buy from him what she lacks. Her unfaithfulness does not quench his love! He possesses the true wealth. Without faith and communion with him, they are empty, poor, wretched, blind, and naked. Being a Christian is a constant drawing from Christ. We lack everything, but he possesses all and will share with us his abundance. We must live by the faith of him (Gal. 2:20), or poverty and darkness will descend upon our souls again. Our Lord commands them to “buy” not because his life cost money; his riches are free (Isa. 55:1). The store of his grace is always open; faith is the only currency accepted. Three things he commands them to purchase: refined gold, white garments, and eye salve. These are the remedies for the congregation’s poverty, compromise, and spiritual apathy. “Refined gold” speaks of the congregation’s need to be purified from its compromise with the world and to seek the true wealth of faith, hope, and love. “White garments” is Revelation’s usual metaphor for a life of holiness and good works. The Laodiceans must live in consecrated obedience to God. The counsel to anoint their eyes with salve is interesting because of the “Phrygian powder” produced in Laodicea to cure certain eye ailments. Drawing upon this local color, Christ counsels them to seek restoration of their spiritual vision from him. Even Christians can lose some or most of their spiritual sight. The bright lights of the world can blind us to Jesus Christ the only light.
Jesus Invites His Church to Repentance (vv. 19-21)
He Rebukes and Chastens Those He Loves
Our Lord’s love is very different from worldly counterfeits! His love led him to the cross; his love leads him to fight for us so that none of his true sheep will be lost. Because he speaks and fights so strongly, here and throughout his word, and so that we will not be overwhelmed, he reminds us that “whom I love, I chasten.” They need discipline, chastisement for their sins. When the Lord speaks strongly to us, it is because we are dull and sluggish. We do not take him seriously unless he reminds us of the life and death nature of faith and obedience. It is because he loves us that he rebukes our sins and chastens us (Heb. 12:5-11). His chastening takes many forms – personal pain and suffering, family tragedy, judicial hardening so that he chastens our sins with more sins, and even persecution. He tells us the right way to respond: Repent! Take Christ’s words seriously, repent of a muted witness, and seek to be the light that Christ saved us to be. Christ chastens us severely because he loves us strongly.
He Stands at the Door and Knocks: OPEN TO HIM
Verse 20 is our Lord’s proclamation of an open door of repentance to the believers in Laodicea. It is not too late for them to turn back to him, repent of their tepid witness, and draw strength for faithfulness from him. The metaphor of “knocking” is joined to “calling out.” If anyone in the congregation hears his voice, and by implication, obeys it, Christ will restore communion with that individual. Eating is a frequent symbol of fellowship in Scripture (Ex. 24:9-11; Rev. 19:9), and here it means fellowship with Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus offers himself to this sinning congregation; his heart overflows with compassion for them and desire to enjoy restored fellowship. He freely offers us grace and mercy; to receive them, we must come to him in faith. We must open the door to him, take his warnings seriously, examine our lives, and take appropriate action. If we remembered our theology better, we would not turn v. 20 into a general or universal call, for dead men do not open doors or hear Jesus’ voice. Our Lord knocks and calls to his church, through the preaching of his gospel.
He Encourages Faithfulness: Overcome and Share My Throne
It is hard to forsake the world. Our Lord is honest that we cannot be God’s friends and the world’s (1 John 2:15). We must take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). Knowing our need, our fears, and our weakness, he gives us strong encouragements and motivations to hear his voice and open the door. He makes promises to those who overcome. Overcoming in this context does not appear to apply primarily to overcoming the world. The Laodicean believers must overcome themselves, their sins of materialism and self-satisfaction. Only then will they return to giving a faithful witness to the truths of the gospel – when they feel their own need of them and return to Jesus. The greatest battle we fight is with ourselves. The war for our own hearts and minds must be fought constantly, or we will not be able to persevere in faith and overcome the world’s allurements and threats.
The specific promise is fitting to conclude this series of seven letters. Just like Christ overcame sin, Satan, and death, and has now entered his glory at the right hand of the Father, those who overcome will share in his glorious reign. They will “sit with him on his throne,” language reminiscent of Ephesians 2:6: “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus...” Our Lord does not reign as mediatorial King for himself alone but to raise us up and share his glory and reign with us. It is a wondrous promise to this particular congregation. His love should deeply humble us, inspire us to hold fast to our Lord, and turn from our spiritual lethargy and worldly compromise.
This co-reign with Christ is begun now by faith, as we submit to his reign and live in terms of it. We are then blessed to reign with him over the earth. This we do by giving a faithful witness to the truth as he did and offering up prayers to God as a kingdom of priests for the deliverance of the godly and the defeat of the wicked. It is a reign whose glory and enjoyment will be consummated in the new heavens and new earth, when Christ presents his church to himself without spot, wrinkle, or blemish, and with him she reigns forever as his perfected bride and kingdom. It is a reign he shares with those who overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. Like Christ, we inherit the crown after we endure the cross.
He Solemnly Warns: Hear the Spirit’s Words (John 6:65)
So, let us hear our Savior’s voice. When he speaks in his word, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us. Our Savior’s words are “spirit and life” (John 6:65). His word quickens; his word gives what he promises. The parallels between Laodicea and our churches are too many and obvious for long commentary. Like them, we often make our peace with the world and no longer confront the world with our Savior’s light. We do not want to lose what we have. But he may want his blessings back. We must consider that whatever we have in this life is on loan from him. We are custodians of his blessings, and he wants us to be willing to forsake even his gifts in order to be the light of the world. If to keep his blessings we lose our soul, then we loved the blessings more than Christ. If to keep our respectability or to avoid trouble we do not press the claims of the gospel upon men, we love our lives in this world too much. The Lord therefore is laying the cross upon us again so that we feel its weight and come to see its glory again. We cannot boast in the cross unless it is our highest treasure. Nothing, absolutely nothing should be worth more to us than to live and reign with our Savior.
He has come to our land again to judge his enemies and to sift his people. Is he finding faith (Luke 18:8)? Is he finding believers who love him more than the blessings of prosperity and liberty that he has given to us? Have we loved earth more than heaven? Our lives more than his glory? Our convenience more than his word? I pray he finds us faithful, but we must draw from him the gold, the white clothes, and the eyesight that will enable us to endure his visit with patience and hope and joy. It will be a painful one for his enemies, and he will chasten his worldly disciples. Let us hear his voice and repent. Let us open the door to him now, fall down before him, confess our many sins and worldliness, and ask him to heal us.