The Church at Laodicea

Below are my notes from yesterday morning’s teaching on Revelation. I hope you enjoy!

To the Church in Laodicea

Laodicea is an ancient city in present-day western Turkey, founded by Seleucid King Antiochus II in honor of his wife, Laodice.[i] The city was originally called Diospolis, which is “the city of Zeus.” The city of Laodicea was in the Lychus valley, and it was near two other cities – Colossae and Hierapolis. Like the other cities, it was in the general area of the SW corner of modern day Turkey, but it was actually one of the furthest to the East of the others – about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was located on a very tall plateau and had a prominent position along several trade routes, making it an ideal city economically.

John MacArthur notes on its economic situation:

It was strategically located at the junction of two important roads: the east-west road leading from Ephesus into the interior, and the north-south road from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. That location made it an important commercial city. That the first century BC Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero cashed his letters of credit there reveals Laodicea to have been a strategic banking center. So wealthy did Laodicea become that it paid for its own reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in AD 60, rejecting offers of financial aid from Rome.[ii]

The city’s only weakness was that it didn’t have its own source of water. It had a culvert that ran into the city and provided it with water from several miles away. This would have been a problem if the city was ever under attack, but I didn’t read a lot about attacks on the city.

So this city was basically economically and socially stable, non-controversial, and boring.

In fact, one of the things I found most interesting in my study about the city of Laodicea was that the city itself was not very remarkable. In fact, Ramsay says, “There is no city whose spirit and nature are more difficult to describe than Laodicea. There are no extremes, and hardly any very strongly marked features.”[iii]

Life was pretty easy in Laodicea, and “even the Talmud spoke scornfully of the life of ease and laxity lived by the Laodicean Jews.”[iv]

All of that seems an appropriate segue to what Jesus has to say about the Christians living in this part of Asia…

3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

Let’s just take a moment to notice Jesus’ words about Himself and what they mean. Jesus calls himself the “Amen” because He is the truth. The only other place in Scripture where “Amen” is used as a name is Isaiah 65:16 where God uses it to describe Himself, and the word used is also translated “truth” (that is how the NASB, ESV and NIV translate it). The context of the passage is worth bearing in mind, because the next verse in Isaiah also provides help:

So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes. [17] “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:16-17)

When commenting on this passage in Isaiah, Peter Gentry says this:

God’s plan of restoration brings us back to the pristine state of Eden – in a world now much better and greater. Augustine once said that he feared to entrust his soul to the great Physician lest he be more thoroughly cured than he cared to be. God’s plan of salvation is absolutely thorough, and He is not going to be satisfied with some half job of reformation and renewal.[v]

We’ll return to verse 17 momentarily…

Next He says that He is the “faithful and true witness” which has to do with the work that God has been doing in and through redemptive history from Adam up until His own life, death and resurrection. Jesus has been a faithful witness to this work, and His word can be trusted because He is “true.”

As Christians we want to be “true” witnesses of the work God has done not only in our lives, but most especially of the work done by God in Christ.

Lastly, He says that He is “the beginning of God’s creation.” Just as mentioned in the context of Isaiah 65:17, which deals with the new creation, Jesus is calling Himself the first creation – not in the sense that He was first made at the beginning of the world, but in the sense of how Paul mentions this in his letter to the church at Colossae “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

When Jesus tells this church that He is the “first born”, the faithful “witness” and the “Amen”, He is quite simply stating that God has been working in and through redemptive history to bring it to a teleos, a specific goal. And that goal was Jesus Christ. That is Why Paul can say, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

He is the beginning of God’s work of renewing the entirety of creation. What He inaugurated in Christ, He continues with us, for as Paul says to the Corinthians:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV)

And what does it mean to be a minister of reconciliation but that we are fellow witnesses to the work of God, and His great purposes in this world. What began as a promise in Genesis 3:15 has come to fruition in Christ, and now includes us, His new creations!

3:15-16 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! [16] So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Once again Jesus begins his exhortation with the words “I know.” Therefore let us pause and once again remember that while Jesus was indeed man, and is indeed ever making intercession on behalf before the Father, yet He is God and He shares in the power and wisdom and knowledge of the eternal Godhead. All things are known to Him. He has eyes like a “flame of fire” (1:14) “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Now, a lot has been made of the chastisement here to this church in past sermons and teachings on this passage. The charge is that they are “lukewarm” – they are basically going through the motions. They hold to the faith – for He is writing to believers, to the church – yet they are lukewarm in their heart attitude about Jesus.

G.K. Beale provides some helpful background:

Laodicea had two neighbors, Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis had hot waters which possessed medicinal effects, while Colossae had cold water, which was also though to be healthy. Laodicea had no good water source, however, and it had to pipe it in. By the time it arrived, it was lukewarm and dirty – only fit for spitting out. In fact, it was generally held to be true in the ancient world that cold and hot water or wine were beneficial for one’s health, but not water which was lukewarm.[vi]

Of course Jesus’ reaction is brutal. He says He’d like to spit them out of His mouth!

It got me thinking – what is it that causes Christians to become lukewarm?

I think that constant trials, discouragement, lack of time in the Word of God, lack of prayer, and especially a forgetfulness of the privileges we have in the Gospel. Perhaps all of these things contribute to this state.

John Owen put it well, “Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.”[vii]

Christians become lukewarm when we forget the length to which Christ has gone to bring us life and joy. Contemplation on the Gospel of Christ so crucial for helping remind us all that we have in Christ. This is why I love the passage my discipleship group is working to memorize right now from the book of Titus:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

This is one of the reasons why Paul resolved to preach nothing but Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1) – because if our foundation in life comes from ourselves, it’s easy to fall away. It’s easy enough to fall away when we believe all the right things! We need help – and we need to remember the Gospel.

Now, one other thing also pushes us away from God, and that is idolatry. That is more specifically what was going on with this particular group of people…

3:17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

They were in this prosperous city, on two major trade routes, and they had everything they needed.

When we are weak, when we are sick, when we are desperately looking for a job – that’s when we turn to Jesus. That’s when we “get religion” isn’t it!

But how quickly we fall away under the weight and distraction of our comfortable lives.

The same thing happened to Israel, which is what Hosea was saying in his prophecy to them. Samuel Rutherford explains:

…that was in Hosea’s days (Hosea 2:14). “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her to the wilderness and speak to her heart.” There was no talking to her heart while He and she were in the fair and flourishing city and at ease; but out in the cold, hungry, waste wilderness, He allureth her, He whispered in news into her ear there, and said, “Thou art mine.”

What was the solution?

3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

Jesus urges them to purchase refined gold, white garments, and salve for their eyes. To purchase the truth of His word, the purity of the work of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel opening power of the Spirit so that they could see.

He describes His gospel as gold – and in many ways He is the true treasure, the true inheritance. He is the great prize, Amen? When we have Him we are rich beyond the measure of this world, we have consciences cleansed from all iniquity and we wear the righteousness of Jesus before the throne of God.

And as I mentioned before, it is only through the supernatural power of the Spirit of God that we are able to see the truth of these things.

I am reminded of the story of the blind man in who Jesus healed in John 9. After washing in the pool of Siloam he was not only able to see, but his whole life changed. His heart changed. It was evident that God was working within him.

That’s what we need; we need to see and to savor the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to see reality – and reality is that He is a great treasure.

3:19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. [20] Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat in sermon after sermon and heard this verse used as a plea to the unbeliever. That would be using this out of context. Jesus here is clearly speaking to believers. He begins by saying that “those whom I love” I will “reprove and discipline.”

God doesn’t reprove and discipline unbelievers – He lets them go their own way and in the final day will judge them by their deeds.

Later on here he closes the letter as He does all the other letters, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Unbelievers don’t have ears to hear. Unbelievers don’t have eyes to see. Those things come from God the Holy Spirit.

Therefore He is speaking to believers here, and knowing this, what He says is all that much more precious. He reminds them that He loves them!

This is very much like what the author of Hebrews says in chapter twelve:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. [6] For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” [7] It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)

And He is calling on them to “repent” – specifically to be zealous and repent. The idea here in being zealous is to snap out of the lukewarm condition He has found them in and act as a Christian ought to act – zealously! And in their zeal they are to humble themselves before the Lord and repent, with the promise that all who do will be once again restored to communion with our Lord. He will “eat with him.”

Eating with someone is an intimate form of communion. You’re guard is down. You’re relaxed. You’re enjoying food – and food is an emotional thing. People are connected to what they eat – they care about it, they spend tons of time preparing it, searching for the best restaurants, learning how to make good food, learning what they like to eat and so on. If you eat a bad meal it sort of angers you. When you eat with someone that is another level of fellowship with them.

And this is the aim of what Jesus is doing here. He is working to restore fellowship with mankind. He is reconciling them to Himself. He is bringing us into a loving relationship with God. All of this is part of His grand program of redemption, and recreation. Once we walked in the Garden with God, now He wants to walk with us through this life and forevermore after this. But fellowship with God requires holiness – it requires repentance. That is what God is calling on them, and on us, His children to do day by day.

3:21-22 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. [22] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Jesus finishes the letter with another wonderful promise that is also grounded in the covenant of creation. Mankind was made to rule the earth, to represent God as His image bearers here on earth. He is now promises that we will reign with Him. This is a HUGE deal. And note what its all hinged upon – the fact that He has already conquered (the resurrection) and that He is already reigning even now.

You see, Revelation helps us understand that Jesus has indeed come into His kingdom, He is reigning now – not simply spiritually in the hearts and minds of believers, but over all the created order. His kingdom is not an ethereal idea that simply illumines our hearts and minds, it is a reality.

We are called to be faithful witnesses as He is faithful. Witnesses of an invisible kingdom, declaring that which is invisible to those who are blinded by their sin and desperately need to be reconciled to their Creator.

This requires faith that isn’t lukewarm. You see the incongruity here. Those who are concerned primarily with the treasure of this earth will never make a difference for the kingdom of God. And there is the challenge: let us rise out of our slothfulness, let us shed our old man with his desires for worldly possessions and gain. Let us repent, and put on the new man. Jesus is calling you Christian to repent for the express purpose of restoring you to Himself, both for your joy and His glory!

 

Footnotes

[i] According to manifold commentaries, but also summarized here: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/laodicea

[ii] John MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation Volume I, Pg. 135.

[iii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 422-423.

[iv] MacArthur, Pg. 135.

[v] Peter Gentry – this came from notes in my Bible’s margin, and I believe he said this at a Bunyan Conference in 2014.

[vi] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 91.

[vii] As quoted by Rev. Ian Hamilton: http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/articles/cross-of-christ.php

 

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