Laodicea: Rich but Poor

Laodicea: Rich but Poor

Laodicea: Rich but Poor.

Please read Revelation 3:14-22.

Lots of spending money. Plenty of possessions. Comfort, luxury. A lifestyle in the pursuit of entertainment and material things… The latest fashions, the best investments, the most up-do-date medical care. An interesting mix of ethnic groups. Convenient transportation and ease of travel. Believers that have grown accustomed to a high standard of living. A church that reflects the values of all this prosperity. A nonprofit church that reflects for-profit culture. We’re talking about America in the 21st century, right? No, this is western Asia, the city of Laodicea, in 95 a.d. And St. John’s words to this ancient prosperous church have a lot to say to us, 1,925 years later.

John’s prophetic word to the Laodicean church is in his book that closes the New Testament, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, in chapter 3, verses 14-22. Using John as His mouthpiece, the revealed Jesus wants to have a word with this particular church. This is Laodicea’s come-to-Jesus moment. He will not mince words, He will not hold back because of shyness about being offensive. Jesus is saying, “Listen up! Here comes the truth!: The threat of judgment hangs over the¬† believers here. Why is that?

Laodicea was a bustling urban center in western Turkey, on the well-traveled trade and travel route from Ephesus to Syria. It was a city well known for its amusements, since excavations have recently uncovered two theaters and a 1,000-foot-long stadium. It was a wealthy city widely known for its banking and financial operations, its garment and carpet industry, and its medical school which produced famous eye ointment. Laodicea was a prosperous mix of Syrians, Jews, Romans and Greeks, and their wealth seemed to make room for everyone to live peaceably. There were plentiful amounts of goods and materials… gold and coinage, wool from world famous sheep grazing in their land, and a local stone that, when crushed and compounded, healed all sorts of eye ailments. Laodicea was the secular capital of western Asia and renowned for its prosperity. It was by far the wealthiest of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, and is in complete ruins today.

In terms of natural resources, Laodicea had one major problem… water supply. They had to build a six-mile long aqueduct from a hot springs a few miles away, and then have that water flow from there to the city. The water from the aqueduct proved to be barely drinkable. The hot water at one end of the aqueduct didn’t travel far enough to the other end to sufficiently cool down the water. Cold drinking water was not going to happen. It was tepid, lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. Most people found it nauseating, and would spit it out of their mouths when attempting to drink it. The city residents must have found acceptable drinking water through wells and transported water, but they certainly wouldn’t have tried drinking the aqueduct water.

It is to this unique city in ancient Asia that John directed his corrective prophecy, straight from the word of the Lord. Jesus starts by giving Himself a Hebrew name from the book of Isaiah (65:16) … “the God of Amen,” or often translated as “God of Truth.” Jesus simply calls Himself, Amen. That name is meant to confirm that He is truth incarnate, that there is nothing as sure as God’s steadfast certainty, that He personifies eternal assurance. Amen is saying essentially True That! ¬†Jesus also calls Himself the faithful witness and the source of creation. No one was as faithful to the Father’s direction as Jesus, no one stayed as true to the Father’s will as Him. And He Himself is declaring that He is a co-creator, right there at the beginning of all things.

So what does Jesus have to say in particular to the believers in Laodicea? Jesus has lot to say. He says they are rich, and they are poor. They are rich in what the world has to offer, but poor in what the Kingdom has to offer. They are wealthy in terms of earthly matters, but poverty-stricken when it comes to spiritual realities. Their bank accounts are full, but they are spiritually bankrupt. They may have a lot of gold in town, but they don’t possess the pure gold of God’s treasures. They may wear the finest garments, but they don’t wear God’s robe of righteousness. They may be able to heal all kinds of eye ailments, but they still can’t see the things of the Spirit.

Jesus decided to allude to the very sources of their wealth, the three industries they were famous for, in describing their wretched state. Until their gold is refined by God’s fire, they will remain in spiritual poverty. Until they clothe themselves with Christ, they will continue to live in shameful spiritual nakedness. And until they ask for God to heal their eyes, they will remain spiritually blind. Their sources of wealth are their very sources of poverty. Until they buy these spiritual realities from God, they will be pitiful, they will continue to live under the delusion of self-sufficiency.

Not only that, but Jesus stated that the believers were just like the water being delivered by their famous aqueduct… lukewarm, undrinkable by God. They are just like that distasteful water, unacceptable to God, unsatisfying, worthy to be spit out. The believers are tepid, they have no passion for God, they have no fervor to live the Way of Christ. They are satisfied with a lukewarm faith. They meet no resistance from their highly secular neighbors because they don’t stand for anything spiritual in value, they offer no alternative lifestyles or world view. They would never have to pick up their cross and suffer indignities and be thus refined in God’s fire of suffering. They were content with how their comfortable life unfolded.

Jesus wanted to re-ignite their indifferent faith. He wanted to spark their spiritual dormancy. Their material life was so loudly calling to them, that they didn’t hear the Lord patiently knocking on the doors of their hearts. This door has no outside doorknob. The only means of opening the door is on the inside. And Jesus patiently stands there knocking to be welcomed in, but He won’t just barge in, He won’t break the door down, He won’t bang on it like a rude salesman. He is ever the gentleman, giving the choice to the one on the inside to let Him in to an intimate meal and fellowship. This table fellowship inside the heart no doubt refers to the messianic banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Rev. 19, and it points to the intimacy of the Eucharistic table.

The Lord’s knocking on the door hearkens back to the lover of Song of Songs 5:2, and Jesus is the lover of our souls wanting to enjoy sweet communion: “O Listen! It’s the sound of my lover knocking, calling! ‘Let me in, dear companion, dearest friend, my dove, consummate lover.” (Message).

Bible translator Dr. Brian Simmons offers a fascinating glimpse of this door-knocking scene: “Jesus knocking on the door points us to the process of an ancient Jewish wedding invitation. In the days of Jesus, a bridegroom and his father would come to the door of the bride-to-be carrying the betrothal cup of wine and the bride-price. Standing outside, they would knock. If she fully opened the door, she was saying, ‘Yes, I will be your bride.’ Jesus and the Father, in the same way, are knocking on the doors of our hearts, inviting us to be the bride of Christ.” (The Passion Translation, notes).

Jesus’ words of correction and discipline to the Laodiceans were not a final judgment. He continues to love them, and He is warning them about the inadequacy of their spiritual relationship with God. He wasn’t giving up on them. He wasn’t yet spitting them out of his mouth. He is calling them to repent, to change their minds and their faith. Jesus offers mind-boggling promises to all those who endure, who overcome these temptations, who conquer them and continue to live victoriously. He promises that they will have the privilege of sitting with Jesus on His throne. That’s a glorious promise, but a bit mysterious as well. Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “Conquerors will sit alongside me at the head table, just as I, having conquered, took the place of honor at the side of my Father.” (3:22, Message). Somehow, as it states in 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.”

Jesus has the final word in His prophecy, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Are we listening? Jesus used common aspects of their daily life to address their spiritual weaknesses. What would Jesus use to address us now?