“The Church in the Midst of the World: Called Back to Christ” Revelation 3:14-22
The last of these seven letters, the letter to the church of Laodicea, is the most sobering of them all. In every other letter we read of at least something for which Christ commends the church. Even the church in Ephesus, the first of the seven letters, though in danger of losing its lampstand, is still commended. But there is nothing - absolutely nothing - in the church of the Laodiceans for which Christ commends it. The church in Laodicea, a church in the world, has compromised so thoroughly with the world that she has become no different than the world.
The City of Laodicea
The city of Laodicea, though small, grew rapidly under Roman control, and became exceedingly wealthy. It was the home of the rich and famous. The city had become rich through its export of black wool and also for what was called “Phrygian powder” - a powder that was ground locally in Laodicea, made into a salve, and then used to treat diseases of the eyes. Through such industry, the city had become so wealthy that when it was devastated by an earthquake in the year 60 AD, it refused help from Rome. Laodicea boldly and proudly told Rome, we are rich, we are wealthy, we have need of nothing!
The city did, however, have need of one thing: a source of good water. The neighboring town of Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs, which were medicinal in nature. People would travel from miles around to bathe in the hot springs. Another neighboring city, Colosse, was built at the foot of a great mountain range that was nearly always snow-capped. Colosse was well supplied with cold water from the mountain streams that flowed year round. This cold water was good to drink. Though Hierapolois had its hot springs and Colosse its cold mountain streams, Laodicea had no good source of water. Thus Laodicea had to pipe the water in, resulting in lukewarm, tepid, barely drinkable water.
That background gives you something of the flavor of the city of Laodicea: rich, wealthy, a strong economy built on black wool and eye salve, but a city with very poor water.
The Church in Laodicea
Evidently, the Christian church that arose in Laodicea quickly took on the character of the city; and the church became like the world.
Consider the words of Christ to the church of the Laodiceans: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (3:15-16). Based on the geography of the area, you get the point: the church was not hot, that is, it was of no benefit like the hot springs of Hierapolis; nor was the church cold, that is, it was of no benefit like the cold mountains streams of Colosse. It was lukewarm - that is, it was useful for nothing! Lukewarm, tepid water is not good to the taste, there is nothing refreshing about; nor is it good for the body, there is nothing medicinal about it. It is useless, disgusting, even nauseating.
So had the church of the Laodiceans become. They became lukewarm, tepid, useless. They became an ineffective, stagnant, complacent group of people. With a little compromise here and a little compromise there, they slowly became like the world. They were called to be the church in the world; instead they let the world into the church.
Laodicea’s compromise resulted in Christ’s judgment: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (3:16). William Hendriksen points out that here we find an emotion or feeling in Christ, which we find nowhere else in the Scriptures. “We do not read that He is grieved with them. Neither do we read that He is angry with them. No, He is disgusted … and not just slightly disgusted, but thoroughly nauseated.” Christ was nauseated to the point of wanting to vomit them out of His mouth! Their religion was a sham, a pretense, an hypocrisy - they were about to be vomited out of Christ’s mouth. He would bear with them no more!
The tragedy in all of this is that the church had deceived herself into thinking that she was in a good condition. Note the beginning of verse 17, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing…” Evidently, the members of the church had compromised with the world, thereby becoming rich in the world.
In Colossians, Paul had wrote to warn not only the Colossians, but the Laodiceans as well. He warned them of the dangers of falling back into relying upon their own works for salvation. He warned them about those who were creeping into the church, teaching false doctrines of reliance upon oneself. He warned them of those who were coming into the church trying to make them forget about Jesus Christ. Evidently, the warning went unheeded. The church at Laodicea had wrapped the cloak of good works about themselves, and said, “We have need of nothing! We are self-sufficient, we have everything we need! We don’t really need Christ. Oh, it is nice to drop His name here and there and from time to time to mention His cross, but we really don’t need Him all that much, and we really don’t need His cross all that much.”
This was the church’s assessment of itself. “We are rich, we have become wealthy, we have need of nothing!” Again, we learn that it doesn’t matter so much what the world thinks of the church; it doesn’t matter so much what our neighbors think of the church; it really doesn’t even matter what you or I think of the church; what matters is what Christ thinks of the church. The church of the Laodiceans thought they were healthy - they thought they were rich - they thought they were wealthy - they thought they had need of nothing. But now Christ, “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the Creation of God” speaks and He gives the true assessment of the church of the Laodiceans: “You do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17).
The church became like the world and she knew it not. She was wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, and all the while she thought she was rich, wealthy, and in need of nothing! Does not the church that is falling away always have a high opinion of herself?! Does not the church that is in danger of becoming apostate always have a high view of herself?!
The Church Today
Do not the words that Christ speaks to the church of the Laodiceans ring true today?! Has not the church of our day allowed the world to come into the church? Has not the church of our day by and large become like the world? The modern church is concerned that the gospel might offend, and so we water it down! The modern church says, we are a Christian church, and yet it proclaims messages that could just as easily be heard in a Jewish synagogue! The modern church says, we are a Christian church, but rarely, if ever is the name of Christ even mentioned, let alone His work on the cross!
The modern church is quickly becoming a church that proclaims “a God without wrath, who brings men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through a Christ without a cross.” Look over the Atlantic; the churches are empty! Why?! Because by and large, they have compromised and sold out on the gospel; they have no more message to bring. Even the unbeliever is discerning enough to recognize a church that offers nothing more than what the world has to offer.
By and large, the modern church has fallen in to an “easy-believism,” where everybody is a Christian - an easy-believism that sugarcoats the gospel, allowing its hearers to deceive themselves into thinking they are Christians, when in fact, they are not. This is nothing new! It is one of Satan’s oldest ploys. Get them to believe they are Christians, when in fact they are not, and then cause them to fall asleep in their complacency. Let them live thinking they are fine Christians and thinking they are a good church. Let them deceive themselves and I will devour them! This is what happened at the church of the Laodiceans - they fell prey to one of Satan’s oldest ploys. They deceived themselves.
Evidently, many in the church of Laodicea had so deceived themselves and were in danger of meeting a horrible end. Yet, even in careless Laodicea, Christ had preserved some for Himself. In large measure they had been sucked in by the false Christians. In large measure they had been sucked in to agree with the compromises which the church had made; or at least if they didn’t agree with the compromises, they were willing to tolerate them; they were willing to live with them.
Christ says to them in verse 18, “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed. Anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” With these words Christ wakes His own in the church. He says, “You will find no riches nor wealth in the world! I am all you ever need! I am the gold refined in the fire, find your wealth in Me! Clothe yourself not with black wool of Laodicea, but in the perfect white garments of the Lamb that was slain! Anoint your eyes not with the Phrygian powder of Laodicea, but the Light of the World!”
Jesus gently reminds His own — those that find themselves in the midst of what is quickly becoming an apostate church — that these words of warning come out of love for their souls. Verse 19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He also serves as the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.