Summary: we need to resist the pressures of our culture to conform unthinkingly to the status quo and to compromise on the major principles of our faith. We need to recover the radical edge of Jesus’ teaching, that turns the values of the world upside down.
It’s interesting how we can go from the two letters we saw last week where one church thought they were alive and were actually dead and another thought they were as good as dead but actually had plenty of life in them, to the final letter of the seven where the church is neither one thing nor the other. And if you thought Sardis had problems, Laodicea takes the cake.
Just to fill you in on their context, Laodicea was 15km west of Colossae and 10km south of Hierapolis. It was situated in a fertile valley. It was just as pagan a city as any of the others. In fact it was the centre of Emperor worship for the region. It had a strong Jewish community that may well have integrated into the Greek culture to a large extent. For example, there are examples of coins made here in the 3rd century that show illustrations that mix together the Jewish and pagan versions of the flood story.
It was a wealthy city, hence the quote in v17: ’I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ But its one limitation was its water supply. The water was high in salts and full of lime sediment. In fact it had no local water supply so they had to pipe in water from the mountains in the south. The water came via a stone pipeline which made the city vulnerable to attack. So the suggestion is that this meant they were very good negotiators: very good at appeasement and compromise. But we’ll come back to the water issue in a moment.
Jesus presents himself as the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation. The Amen implies he is the one in whom all is complete and assured. As the faithful and true witness he’s the one who in every way reflects the truth of God’s character to the world. What he says and does reflects the reality of God entering into human affairs.
He’s the origin or ruler, or firstborn of God’s creation. Remember I said that Laodicea was just near Colossae. Well you may remember that the letter to the Colossians ends with an instruction to make sure the letter was read in Laodicea as well. So they would have remembered Paul’s great hymn to Christ from Col 1:15-18: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything."
So that title, the firstborn of God’s creation may be meant to remind them of Jesus’ glory and the need to give him the first place in everything.
But let’s think about the content of the message. Notice that here there’s no commendation. In the last letter there was no rebuke, but here it’s the other way around. He knows their works and there’s nothing to recommend them.
As I said before the water supply in Laodicea had to be piped in. If you’d gone a little way north toward Hierapolis you could have bathed in the hot springs as people still do today. In fact those white cliffs would have been visible from Laodicea. If you’d gone south you’d have come to the mountain springs with their cool refreshing water. If you’d gone east to Colossae you would have found cold pure water to refresh you. But in Laodicea they were dependent on a pipeline that ran above ground for several kms by which time it had warmed up to an unsatisfying, lukewarm state.
So what Jesus is saying to the church is something like this. ’I want to be refreshed and revitalised when I drink but you’re like the water you’re always complaining about. When I drink that sort of water I feel like chucking.’
So what was the problem? Look at v17: "17For you say, ’I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’" In other cities we saw how the Church was in danger of absorbing the culture of their city by compromise over the issue of idol worship. Here they’ve done the same thing but the issue is more to do with their self-sufficiency. Laodicea was the sort of city that was archly independent. It was a wealthy banking centre as well as being a centre for fine wool production. They grew a fine glossy black wool that was woven into fine wool tunics known throughout the empire.