Summary: What was said to the Church in Laodicea - the seventh of the seven churches - and what it might mean for us today.
Laodicea was a very, very wealthy city, founded by Antiochus II and named after his wife Laodice. The city was strategically located, where three major roads converged, so it was highly commercial. It was well known for its banking industry, its manufacture of black wool, and a medical school that produced eye ointment. The wealth in the city had been used to build theatres, a huge stadium, lavish public baths and fabulous shopping centres. It sounds like many of our cities. So wealthy was this city that when an earthquake almost entirely destroyed it in 60 AD, its wealthy citizens refused help from Rome in rebuilding the city. If you were an estate agent at the time it wouldn’t be hard to sell Laodicea. It was a great place to live: the land of opportunity. The only real negative thing about this city was its lack of an adequate water supply. The church in Laodicea had become victims of their environment, as we’ll find out.
So, what does John, the author, have to say to this church? We all know that you’re supposed to offer lots of praise before you criticise something. However, John doesn’t do that with the church in Laodicea. He simply launches in with his criticism. He tells them that they are neither hot nor cold, so because they are lukewarm he will spit them out of his mouth.
What he’s getting at is that they are not very interested, and not very motivated. Of course they are Christians, but they aren’t very keen. I don’t mean that they’re being criticised for being reticent about their faith or for being of a private disposition, but rather for simply not being very bothered.
The heart of the problem at Laodicea was that they just didn’t care. Jesus just wasn’t that important to them, there were too many other things that they had to think about. They had lost their zeal and their drive they were going through the motions but without feelings.
How zealous are we? This should be the question that this causes us to ask ourselves. How do we measure up? Do we fall into this category of lukewarmness? Especially today, with so many other things that take up our time. How do we respond to the many other things that are calls upon our time? Many of them, like being involved in church, are valuable things to do and are part of our service to God, but not everything is, like football, for instance. Of course, if church is only on Sundays, then we’re asking people to make hard choices. Perhaps if church were at other times, there would be more opportunities for people to come?
The Christians in Laodicea were full of themselves. They had all the money and material possessions that they needed. They said they were rich, and needed nothing. Are we a church that feels we’ve reached that plateau? Are church members that feel like we’ve arrived?
The Pharisees of Jesus day thought that their righteousness was sufficient to please God. They boasted about their faith and their acts. However, Jesus assessment of them was quite different: he told them they were wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.
“I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, to make you truly rich; and white clothes to hide the shame of your nakedness; and ointment for your eyes, that you may see.”
What on earth is that all about? I think it may have been John’s way of saying you need to be prepared to change, or to be changed, even if it costs you. Are we prepared to do something if it means that we loose face? I think he’s suggesting that we need white robes to cover our nakedness, because we are aware of our own sin, but we need the grace of God to help us live with that. John says we need ointment for our eyes because we need to make sure that we look to God, rather than to another direction.
And we have that well known verse, “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.” This verse is used by many Christians to refer to the invitation that God offers people to follow him. As such, the verse is often used in the context of suggesting to non-believers that they should follow Christ.
However, we would do well to remember that this verse was written as part of a letter to a church, and so it was addressed to people who were already Christians. What the author was saying was that being in the church is not like joining a club or a society, it’s about a change of heart, about living a life that stems from having Christ in your heart, a life of love.