The letter to the church at Laodicea is both the easiest and the hardest of the seven letters to the seven churches in revelations to preach on.
The easiest because it’s the “ most concrete in local colour” we have such a great depth of information about the city that opens up and brings alive what Christ has to say to the church… right down to knowing about Laodicea’s plumbing problems…
But it is also the hardest because it really packs a punch… it hits home… Not only does it speak specifically to a church in a city in Asia Minor at the end of the first century … it sadly resonates with the Christian church in the west at the beginning of the twenty first century… Have we like them become complacent and think we are self-sufficient in our affluent society? Have we like them, then and there, become Luke warm and half-hearted in our faith? We seem to have everything we need and just maybe we’ve left Christ on the outer!!!What is the spirit saying to the churches? What is the spirit saying to us?
Laodicea is the last stop on our journey through the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. A Journey that has not only followed the mailman along the main road through the province but has weaved it way through Jesus speaking to a whole kaleidoscope of churches wrestling with different issues… As John Stott summaries it...The Ephesians were urged to return to their first fresh love for Christ. The Christians at Smyrna are encouraged to remain true even in the face of suffering. Pergamum is told to champion truth in the face of error. Thyatira is to follow righteousness in the face of evil. In Sardis there is a call for inward reality behind an outward show. The church without much strength at Philadelphia is offered open doors for evangelism and service and called to boldly step through. In the letter to Laodicea complacency is challenged with a powerful appeal for wholeheartedness. A call I need to hear, a call we all need to hear…
Laodicea was the chief of three cities in the Lycos river valley. The other two cites were Hierapolis and Colossae. It was famous for three things. Firstly it was famous for its wealth: it was the Switzerland of the ancient near east, it was the banking capital. It was also the centre of a very lucrative garment trade; famous for cloth made from the very soft black wool. It was a centre for healing, known for a very effective eye ointment made from minerals found in the area. It was so wealthy that several members of a prominent family were considered royalty in roman society, they earned the title king. It was so wealthy that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD they turned down Imperial aid to rebuild the city, they could do it themselves. It would be like Christchurch turning down government aid to rebuild. The city and the church took pride in the resources they had at their disposal.
The other thing the city was famous for was it water. Rather its water problem. Eleven Km’s in one direction were hot springs at Hierapolis, a tall water fall of boiling water, very much like the lost pink and white terraces in Rotorua is there, Water that was known for its healing and recuperative properties. Seven km in the other direction was Colossae known for its cold mountain spring water, beautiful clear and refreshing. But Laodicea had no natural water source so it bought water in by an elaborate aqueduct and pipe system. By the time water got to the city it had either become too cool to provide good bathing or had heated up too much to be good drinking water.
We know from archaeological evidence as well that the pipes often solidified because of the amount of lime and other minerals in the water. The people in Laodicea were always complaining about their water. It was like a public drinking fountain on a hot summer day you take one sip and you want to spit it out as it was tepid and undrinkable. Jesus uses this image to tell the church how he felt about the condition they had allowed themselves to get into. Like the drinking water they were neither hot nor cold and because they were tepid, lukewarm, Christ would spit them out, they were vomit inducing.
Now people have often seen neither hot nor cold to mean that Christ would prefer they were either whole hearted or passionate or totally against him. But the people at Laodicea would have known that if the water was cold it would be refreshing and wonderful to drink, there is nothing like an ice cold drink after you have been toiling in the sun for a period of time. Or hot and full of healing properties. Like a soak in a hot bath at the end of an arduous day. But the church was neither of these.
Jesus introduces himself to this church as the Amen, the true and faithful witness, because he sees thing as they really are and speaks the truth about them. In the gospels Jesus would start many of his saying with the phrase truly, truly signifying that what he is about to say is both important and true. He is speaking to a church that is deluded about their true condition. Very much like the “you’ve heard it said”… “but I say”… formula in the ‘sermon on the mount’ Jesus contrasts the Churches understanding of their condition with his own… They say they are rich and wealthy and do not need anything, just like their city had said to the emperor, but Jesus sees their true condition they are wretched, pitiful and poor , blind and naked. They may think they are wealthy, there is money in the bank, but when it came to storing up treasures in heaven the vault was empty. All the women might look good in their fashionable little black dresses and the men all take pride in the black jersey, but in spiritual terms they don’t have a stitch to wear, nakedness speaks of shame; their true condition is plain for Christ to see. They may be able to heal certain eye problems with ointment, but just as in John’s gospel where Jesus compares the Pharisees to the man born blind, they need their spiritual eyes open.
I wonder in the west if it is not the same, we have such a high standard of living, and we can easily think we are OK. We have a comfortable life… Even in this country when we talk of child poverty it is not something we need Christ’s help with we think it can be solved by political will or economic policy. We have the resources within ourselves. One of the ways people talk about God is that God is there for the cracks, the gaps and with science and understanding and human knowledge the gaps seem to be getting smaller, we’ve covered over the cracks perhaps and so well we don’t actually need God in our intellectual framework. We feel we can heal the human condition both physically and on a deep psychological level through our medicine and understanding, even there we seem to have stepped aside from needing the great physician… we have great traditions and rituals and artefacts that help keep us sustained and maybe we can forget the spiritual reality behind those things. Our zeal and our passion can fall away, we can become lukewarm.
In response to that Christ’s call is for the church to come to him… to remind them that in their world of choice and plenty that only Christ is the source of eternal life. That only Christ is the source of things that satisfy spiritually and last eternally. He calls them to come to him and buy gold refined in the fire, white clothes that will cover their shame, and salve for their eyes that will make them able to see properly.
It is a bit hard to think of us buying Gold from Christ, what do we have that we can give him, but Jesus tells the parable that the kingdom of God is like the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price that the person was willing to give up all they had to possess it. All they had… to be all in not half hearted. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount the way to receive the kingdom of God the first step to being all in was to know that you were spiritual poor. But the cost is to be all in for Christ.
Christ offers us white garments, that we can be clothed in his righteousness, that he is faithful and just and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Likewise our eyes can be closed to the spiritual reality around us and we need to turn to Christ again to open our eyes and allow us to see. It is only in knowing and following and fixing our eyes on Christ that we can run the race, that we will find fullness of life, not a comfortable life but a full eternal life.
We often think of such hard words as the ones that are said to the church at Laodicea as being about an angry wrathful God, but Jesus continues his invitation to the church at Laodicea by letting them know that those whom he loves he rebukes and disciples. The writer of Hebrews quotes proverbs to encourage us in times of difficulty by affirming that God as a father disciplines his children because he loves us. Christ’s invitation to come to him comes out of his great love for the church his great love for us, his great sacrificial love for you. The hand that disciplines is a nail pieced hand…
The way to change their heart condition was to turn and to earnestly seek Christ again, to know their spiritual condition and acknowledge their need for him. Cities in the ancient near east were seen as being places of safety. They were walled with large gates and at sunset the gates to the city would be closed. The Ephesus gate at Laodicea is only just visible above ground(see image to left). But If you were still on the road, running late, and you arrived late you would have to bang on the city gate hoping that someone would hear you and come and open the gate and let you in. This is the picture that Jesus uses to couch his invitation to the church at Laodicea. Behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them and they with me.
We are used to seeing this passage through the art work of Holman Hunts painting ‘the light of the world’ and equating it with people coming to salvation, but the offer here is made to people in the church, yes to individuals, but within the church to again be open to Christ. The picture of sitting down to a meal is one of sharing table fellowship with a person, the most intimate of ways of sharing life together. Repentance and the way to wholeheartedness is again to hear Jesus voice to focus on him, to know the reality that we celebrate in communion, that he is with us and feeds us and sustains us. To know how much he loves us. To be people who don’t simply have Jesus as an add on to an already busy life but the one who at its centre and source.
Jesus promise to those who are victorious who come back to him and follow wholeheartedly is that they will reign with him, they will share his throne. In Laodicea the height of their wealth was that some important people in the community were considered to be kings they had earned the title in the roman society. But Jesus is offering so much more to his people, why settle for what this world has to offer when Christ offers so much more when he comes fully into his kingdom. We are used to the beatitudes in Matthews Gospel, and we forget that they also appear in Luke’s Gospel in what is called the sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6. I think we prefer Matthew because Luke is a little more blunt than Matthew and also because he includes a list of woes as well. He says blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God, and we need to be aware that we are impoverished and we need Christ, but Luke adds a corresponding woe, woe to those who are rich, for they have had their fill in this world. Wealth in its self is not wrong but… If we fill our lives with and trust and rely on the things of this world we’ve had our fill, and is there room for Christ.
, “The restoration of the church” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer “ will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ(will be full hearted for Christ). I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”
The letter to the church at Laodicea says that starts with Individuals coming alive again and wholehearted for Christ… the ‘anyone’ who hears my voice… Do you hear Jesus knocking and calling this morning?