In theological circles, there is much discussion about the inspiration of the text of the Bible. One area of the Bible that undeniably claims to be inspired texts are the seven letters that were delivered verbally to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Jesus personally dictated these letters to the apostle John. Although each of these letters have an application to every church, some would (correctly) argue that they lay a prophetic picture of church history from the period of the birth of the church until the Lord’s return. On this basis and with all the signs of Jesus’ second coming continuing to escalate in the world around us, the letter to Laodicea is particularly relevant. Therefore, we need to explore this letter and ask how it applies to the church today. When was the last time you heard a sermon on this letter in your church? This is the only place in the Bible where Jesus personally addresses the church and yet these letters are rarely explored because of the hard message – it is vital we hear what it has to say to us today.
The name of each of the seven churches reveals something of the nature and character of the church concerned. The word Laodicea literally mean ‘opinions of the people’, ‘the people decide’ or ‘judgments of the people’. This is very relevant to us living in the democratic western world and particularly in the current social climate where, in many ways, we really can decide to do whatever we like with our time and resources. We live at a time where political correctness and tolerance often curtail the need to respectfully disagree or point out an error. We really do live at a time when society is Laodicean and there is no question that these attitudes have infiltrated the church:
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:14-22 NIV)
We will break this letter down into sections and see how it applies to us today:
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. (Revelation 3:14 NIV)
As mentioned above, the term ‘Laodicea’ very accurately describes the society in the UK and the West generally. The church landscape is very fragmented because churches or denominations have broken off in one direction or another which is perfectly indicative of a Laodicean nature where the ‘people decide’ for themselves what church should be.
We are reminded that when God speaks, His words are ‘faithful’ and ‘true’. In our post-modern society, it is unfashionable to claim anything is an objective or universal truth. Jesus claims His words are faithful and true and this is the case whether we believe it or not – we should, therefore, take His words at face value. What follows within the body of the letter is critical reading for the today:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16 NIV)
It is often the case that when the original Greek/Hebrew is translated to English in our modern translations, the language used slightly softens the original meaning of the text. Some modern translations use the word ‘spit’ instead of ‘spue’. In the Greek, the word simply means to ‘vomit’ – in other words, from Jesus’ perspective, this church is so unpalatable or unfit for consumption that it makes Jesus sick – this is very strong language indeed.
Also note the certainty in this sentence. Jesus will, not may, vomit this church – this is a very stern warning and one that every church should take seriously. Jesus implies that He cannot abide believers who are ‘lukewarm’. We suggest that mainstream Christianity in the western world perfectly fits this description in many ways. Are we at churches that are lukewarm in their faith or service for God? Is your church comfortable, content and simply going through the motions? Are we at churches that are more concerned with internal issues and politics that distract or prevent them from being a light to the nations?
It is often said that there is some good in every church or that the church leader is right on some areas of doctrine so we should simply focus on the good and ignore the bad. This does not appear to be how God sees it – good and bad are not homogeneous. If you put some milk in a cup of tea it becomes impossible to separate. This same is true with the gospel message – it is either true or false…all forms of mixture make it false and worse still, the ‘good’ bits often deceive people into believing the whole message is OK and this makes it more harmful and dangerous. God does not appear to like a mixture:
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:6-7 NIV)
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” (Galatians 5:7-9 NIV)
Any redefined gospel is a false gospel and cannot save – if a church is promoting a message of salvation through ‘good works’, ‘experience’, ‘signs and wonders’, ‘legalism’ or ‘rituals and traditions’ it has almost certainly strayed from Jesus’ gospel of repentance and grace.
We have heard it said that in almost every church the vast majority of work is done by a very small amount of people. If financial payment is received by a professional member of staff at a church, the reward is also already received by that person who is paid to perform a particular role. It is the servant heart of believers within the church who will each be accountable for their service of being either cold, hot or lukewarm in their faith. We are to be led by the Spirit to sacrificially invest time, energy and resources to further the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples of new believers.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17 NIV)
The biggest shock with these seven letters and particularly with this part is that it is easy to forget this is actually written to the church – it doesn’t sound like Jesus is speaking to the church! This phrase does not sound as though it is directed to a group of people who are saved? We should come to Jesus on our knees with repentant and thankful hearts, in humble reverence of Him. We can be confident in our salvation if we are saved, however, we are still reminded many times in New Testament that our we are to live with an attitude of submission to God by surrendering our lives as we walk with Christ.
We question whether this attitude is evident in many contemporary churches. We are often bewildered at the over-emphasis on OUR needs and wants – it seems as though many flock church to ‘experience’ God and be entertained by the music and the preacher. Oftentimes, our prayers are really a wish-list that is usually geared towards protecting our own comfortable western lifestyles. It goes without saying that any form of prosperity teaching goes against the teachings of Jesus and should be completely absent from the pulpits of our churches – life for the true Christian will be hard and challenging, with the amazing prospect of being richly rewarded in heaven.
Many churches in the UK use secular marketing tools and business models to structure their interaction with their communities – at times, this results in a over-reliance, dependence or debt to worldly financial or political institutions. Consequently these churches feel they are secure, wise and prudent when in reality they are at the mercy of the ever-changing policy of the secular environment they are located in. No wonder there is such compromise on display within the church with the society around us as increasing pressure will be put onto churches to abandon the unattractive and counter-cultural parts of the Bible.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Revelation 3:18 NIV)
The gold mentioned here is likely to be a link to the following passage in Corinthians:
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 NIV)
This passage has nothing to do with salvation but instead demonstrates that those who are saved will be apportioned rewards depending on their work for the kingdom during their lifetimes. We stress that this work is a result of our salvation and not a means to salvation. This should be a great motivation to relentlessly serve the Lord with the gifts he has given us! Going back to the reference above to “buy gold tried in the fire”, we have to ask ourselves whether we use our time, energy and resources on earth for works that will have eternal value. Everything else is “wood, hay and stubble” and will therefore not stand the test of God’s judgment and be rendered useless.
Another notable feature of the Laodicean church is that they cannot see their own condition – this church believes it is healthy! They are figuratively instructed to anoint their eyes so that they can see their condition from God’s perspective. In this climate of tolerance and political correctness, it is strongly discouraged to point out the doctrinal errors of churches – in fact, it is actually unloving not to point out error as long as this is done in a humble and loving way. How else can people see error unless someone else uses Scripture to help point it out? There are many examples in the New Testament where those in error are clearly named with a view to correcting them and warning others.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. (Revelation 3:19 NIV)
What is the reason that Jesus uses such graphic language to rebuke this church in Laodicea? It’s because He loves them and He also loves us – sometimes the Lord will rebuke and although it may be painful, it demonstrates we have not been abandoned. The motivation for the discipline is to set us straight and have us turn to Him – it is for our own good.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3:20 NIV)
This verse is very important. Jesus is OUTSIDE the church and He is knocking on the door waiting to be invited inside! There must be numerous churches who do not benefit from the presence of the Lord and instead persist in doing things their own way? This should cause every church to seriously assess how it measures up to the test of Scripture – our Lord is fair, unimposing and loving – He will ONLY come in if He is invited!
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:21-22 NIV)
This promise is staggering – you imagine sitting WITH Christ on his throne! What a fantastic motivation for the church to get its house in order and refuse compromise.
The western church needs to hear the messages in all of the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 and take these words seriously – there are very few passages that are specifically directed at the church with such rich promises for faithfulness but also dire warnings for apostasy and lethargy.
Although there is obviously overlap in these letters and we must apply parts of all the teachings to our own churches, scholars suggest the letters could be broadly applied to Christendom in the following way:
- Church of Thyatira (Revelation 2:24-29) – descriptive of the Roman Catholic church
- Church of Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) – descriptive of the Protestant church
- Church of Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13)- descriptive of the faithful missionary church
- Church of Laodicea – descriptive of the end-time apostate church
Have a read of these letters for yourself and see if you agree? Churches that exhibit many elements of Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea could learn a lot from the persecuted Philadelphian churches that are so visibly and aggressively under attack in many places across the world. These letters should cause us all to measure our churches against what is outlined and be encouraged and stirred by the blessings and warnings that accompany faithfulness or apostasy.
These letters to the churches are very uncomfortable reading and they act as an urgent call for action against complacency. Are there elements of Laodicea in your church? If so, it may be time to either do something about it or find a Philadelphian church to attend instead!