Summary: We are never farther from Jesus than when we are satisfied with ourselves, and we are never closer to him than when we have nothing and no one else to rely on
All of you are familiar, I’m sure, h the Hans Christian Andersen story about the Emperor’s new clothes. It begins, “Many, many years ago lived an emperor, who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all his money in order to obtain them; his only ambition was to be always well dressed. He did not care for his soldiers, and the theater did not amuse him; the only thing, in fact, he thought anything of was to drive out and show a new suit of clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day.” Well, as I’m sure you remember, one day two swindlers came to this city; who declared they could manufacture the finest cloth to be imagined. Not only were the colors and patterns exceptionally beautiful, but clothes made of their material possessed the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid. Well, of course the emperor had to have such a suit! So when the day came and he put on the non-existent outfit, nobody was willing to admit they saw nothing, until a little child who had neither position nor ego to protect finally told the truth: “he has nothing on at all,” whereupon people were finally free to recognize what they had really known all along, and they joined in the cry.
But what you may not remember - I certainly didn’t remember - was that even when exposed both the emperor and all his officers continued to pretend, for the sake of their dignity.
I wonder how many of the people in Laodicea responded to Jesus’ message the way the emperor did - holding the tattered remnants of their self-image around their exposed inadequacy? Because that is what Jesus says to the church there: you are naked. You have nothing on at all.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Jesus’ self-identification. He is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation” [v. 14] This emphasizes that real truth can be found only in and through Jesus. The “Amen” is simply a Hebrew way of saying “this is really, really true”, what the KJV renders as verily, verily. Truth
can be found in Jesus. Everything else is a fraud and a fake. And how can we know that? Well, Jesus was the one through whom the universe was created in the first place. He knows what’s real and what isn’t. Don’t buy the product if it the manufacturer’s safety seal isn’t intact, it’s been tampered with! This introduction tells us that what the church there in Laodicea is dealing with is some form of deception.
And then Jesus goes on with his indictment. This is the most severe of all seven letters - Even Smyrna and Pergamum didn’t get hit as hard as this, and they were actually condoning idolatry and immorality! What can be worse than that, for goodness sake?
The first thing we have to recognize is that Laodicea was a very, very wealthy city. The Syrian King Antiochus II had founded it and named after his wife Laodice. It was strategically located where three highways converged, and so in addition to being the center of government for the region it was also a major commercial hub. It was best known for its banking industry, its manufacture of black wool, and
a medical school that produced a world-famous eye ointment. They had fabulous shopping centers, theaters, a huge stadium where gladiatorial games were held, lavish public baths, anything that the wealthy traveler or tourist could desire. Sound familiar? Sounds like a typical American city. And what’s more, Laodicea was so rich that when an earthquake almost entirely destroyed it about 30 years before this letter was written, its wealthy citizens refused help from Rome in
rebuilding the city. Can you imagine? It’s like Florida refusing federal disaster assistance after a hurricane! Laodicea was rich - and proud of it. Who wouldn’t feel lucky to live there? The only real negative about the place was the water. Their own water was full of minerals, very unpleasant to the taste, and so most of the water drunk in the city came in through aqueducts - either from the famous hot springs at Hierapolis to the north, or icy cold mountain water from Colossae to
the east. And of course by the time it got to Laodicea, it was lukewarm. Tepid. Insipid. Blah.
And so that is why Jesus withers them with "I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” [v. 15-16] The people there knew that their water was second-rate at best. It was the one thing they couldn’t brag about. How could Jesus be so insensitive!