A Study in Revelation 3.14-22. (Part 1)
K. W. H. Howard
In a certain sense, Laodicea was the Clapham Junction of Asia Minor. The highways from North, South, East and West all met and crossed at Laodicea. Its position made it a naturally prosperous commercial centre. It had wealth so much that it hardly knew what to do with it. When the city was destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60, the city fathers were so self-sufficient and so independent that they actually refused aid from Nero and the government for the rebuilding of the city. Its leading local trade was in black wool; not only that, it was a place that had a medical centre, or a medical school of its time, and it specialised in eye diseases.
Also, because of its position, it was the natural centre of banking and general exchange for the whole province even though it was not the capital city of the province. It was rich, but it had a problem. Its problem was over its water supply. You must look, at your leisure, at the map which shows these Churches in Asia Minor, and see the proximity of one to another in order to appreciate these facts. Laodicea had two neighbouring cities twenty miles or so away. In one direction there was the city of Hierapolis which boasted a supply of natural hot water which came from thermal springs; not unexpected in a volcanic region. Twenty miles in another direction vas Colosse which boasted a refreshing supply of cold water drawn from mountain streams. Laodicea had a mediocre water supply, but being a wealthy city they said, “We are going to do something about it.” They built an aqueduct from Hierapolis to Laodicea, some remains of which are still to be seen, and they actually piped a supply of hot water to their city. The trouble was that what was hot water when it went in at Hierapolis, was lukewarm twenty miles or so later when it reached Laodicea. It was neither hot, nor cold; it vas tepid, lukewarm. All this is of interest in relation to the background of this church, this Christian church in Laodicea. At the time it received this letter from the Lord Jesus, the church at Laodicea was heavily influenced both by the riches of the city, and in a certain sense by the lukewarmness of its water.
The Gospel must have reached Laodicea at a fairly early stage,
probably while Paul was living at Ephesus (Acts 19), and possibly through Epaphras who was in charge of the neighbouring Church at Colosse. Paul mentions the Church at Laodicea in the passage we read in Colossians chapter 4. He mentions certain correspondence that was entered into with regard to the Church at Laodicea, so this Church at Laodicea was not new when this letter was received; it was at least thirty years established, and thirty years is long enough for zeal to wane: and wane it had done at Laodicea!
The first thing we cannot but help notice in this letter is that there is no commendation of any kind to the Church at Laodicea. This church had something in common with the Church at Sardis, which is no complimentary comparison, but a reproof. The Lord looked for something in this church of which He could approve, something that pleased Him, and there was nothing, nothing at all. That fact may well have determined His own self-designation in verse 14, when He says, ‘These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.’ He describes Himself as the Amen, that is the perfectly true One. He describes Himself as the faithful and true witness. A witness is one who testifies what he knows, what he has seen. He is going to testify what He has seen in the Church at Laodicea. Then He describes Himself as the beginning of the creation of God, in other words, the Creator, so that He is reminding them He was the source of creation; He was the source therefore of whatever natural wealth or health or prosperity they had. They owed it all to Him.
Well then, the letter begins without commendation, but with a rather sobering reminder of the identity of the writer. That brings us immediately to the complaint that the Lord Jesus registered against the Church at Laodicea. What is it? It is dominated of course, by verse 15, ‘I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.’ The complaint centres in the first place in what they are. ‘Thou art’. In regard to thy works, in regard to thy life, in regard to thy profession, in regard to thy religion, the faithful witness does not mince words. He tells them they are lukewarm in their religion, and lukewarmness in religion is something He does not appreciate. They are rather like the water in their vaunted hot water system, neither hot nor cold. They were neither enthusiastic for Christ and the gospel, nor were they antagonistic against Christ and the Gospel. They were just tepid, flabby, halfhearted, limp,
always ready to compromise, indifferent, listless. Their philosophy was very largely something like this; “Well, you know, we are all very good people here in Laodicea.” And if you ask why they were all very good people, the answer was; “well, it is because we belong to Laodicea. We are all very good people. Do not dare to criticise us, and do not dare find fault with us. We belong to Laodicea.” There was a smugness; there was self-contentedness about them. That was the mentality, and that mentality did not die with the first-century Laodiceans. The problem is that in Christian work you can do nothing with people like that. With unconverted people who are stone cold in relation to Christ, you can do something, because for one thing you know where they stand. You know what they think. With such people, you can let your light shine, you can tell them what they do not know. With sincere, warm-hearted Christian believers, you can work with joy; but with these tepid, dull, lukewarm people who keep saying, ‘We are really very good people’, you can do nothing in terms of Christian work and service. They are neither all for Christ, nor are they all against Christ. They are neither lively in the things of God nor are they absolutely and altogether dead. That is Christ’s complaint, then and now; of Laodicean churches He says, ‘”I would that thou wert cold or hot,’ For Me or against me, one thing or the other, not sitting on the fence, uncommitted, not identifiable as My people and not identifiable as My enemies. ‘I would thou wert cold or hot.'” That is what they are, lukewarm in religion, and that is one aspect of the complaint.
Another aspect of the complaint is this, they are deprived. There is this appalling statement in verse 17, ‘Thou art wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’ Here is the faithful and true witness at work, saying what He actually sees in the members of the Church of Laodicea. What are they? They are wretched, they are miserable, they are poor, they are blind, they are naked. He is speaking about their spiritual character. He is speaking about the members of the Church, and he indicates to what a low state they have fallen, and to what a low state Christian people can fall. He says, “You are pitiable, you are in a beggarly condition; you are blind and you are naked.” In fact, the only thing He does not say of them in this sense is what He said of Sardis, “You are dead.” What is the point? Well, the point is surely, that these are professing Christians, these are people who belong to a Christian Church;
these are people who sit under a Gospel ministry, these are people who should have the joy of the Lord, these are people who should be basking in the sunshine of His love. These are the people who
should have the benefit and the joy, and should be uplifted by the lower of the grace of Christ, and the wonder of His promises. In act, they are deprived of everything. It is always so: lukewarmness in religion always deprives those who are lukewarm in their religion of the lively benefits and joys of the Gospel. It is always the same. There is no joy unspeakable and full of glory in the ‘could-not-care-less’ spirit of the lukewarm, the tepid. The complaint therefore is registered against them, and it registers, first, that they are lukewarm, and it registers, secondly, that they are deprived of what they ought to have and be.
In the third place, the complaint is that they are ignorant. There it is in verse 17, plain and clear, ‘Thou knowest not.’ Now, their self-assessment was, in fact, the opposite of the truth, as it always is in Laodicean-type churches. Due to this condition of lukewarmness, spiritual tepidity produces a kind of stupor in which a man believes what he wants to believe about himself rather than what is true and irrefutable. They wanted to believe that they were all such good people; the fact is that they were deprived of every Christian good. The fact is that they were ignorant of their position; they wanted to believe that their spiritual riches were on the same level as their natural riches. That is what they believed, but they were wrong. Their belief did not give them the riches. The faithful witness said of them, ‘Thou knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked’. The Lord’s complaint is that this ignorance is wilful, culpable, and self-deceiving. They are actually the opposite of what they have made themselves believe they are. They are actually deprived of authentic Christian blessedness because they are neither cold nor hot. Then, as now, such church members are lukewarm, deprived, ignorant, and Christ censures them.
4. Sinfully rich
The complaint concerns not only what they are, it concerns what they say. Again, you have got it in the beginning of verse 17, ‘Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and need nothing.’ That is what they say about themselves. That is their self- assessment. The question is as to whether this refers to spiritual wealth, or material possession, and you will find that the expositors are divided on this point. Either seems possible. The fact is that in a general sense, the Laodiceans, all of them, were unbearably rich in a material sense, stinkingly rich, in modern colloquial terms! It was something that had become almost revolting; the spirit of it had got carried into the Church and it produced a proud, defiant, self-
sufficient, conceited attitude. It may be, that they imagined that their material wealth was proof of God’s favour because that is always a possibility, and it is always a great danger that Christian people have to guard against. I am prospering in material things, therefore, the Lord accepts me. I know I am a Christian because I have got a good bank balance. Oh, I hope you can see through that, my friends. It may be that some may actually have thought that because they were rich, they were proven to be the Lord’s people. At any rate, the Laodicean Church had imbibed this spirit, that characterised the city as a whole. They boasted of their riches; they boasted that their riches increased. They boasted that there was nothing that they could not have or get if they wanted it. ‘Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.’
If that refers to material riches, it amounts almost to a denial of Christianity on their part. If it refers to spiritual riches, then it amounts to an insufferable and utterly sinful spiritual pride. The reason why I incline to the view that their sin was the pride of material wealth, and not spiritual wealth is this. If it were spiritual wealth, and if they were so well supplied in the things of God, the things of Christ, how is it they were so lukewarm towards Christ? How is it they were not rejoicing in Christ? If this pride in wealth referred to spiritual riches, how is it that Christ complains of ignorance on their part, pitiable ignorance, beggarly ignorance? He says that in soul condition they are poor, and blind, and naked. You see, whatever they thought about their spiritual condition Christ thought the opposite. They thought they were all right; there is nothing wrong with us, we belong to Laodicea. Christ thought they were poor, and pitiable, and miserable, and blind, and ignorant. Thou sayest, I am rich.’ They were carried away with this. It dominated their thinking, their life. Because it was no more than material wealth, it deadened their spiritual life, and made them indifferent and lukewarm to God and to grace, and to Christ and the Gospel. It is perfectly easy to see that these people are not people who were troubled with any consciousness of sin. There is no need to worry about that when you are absolutely affluent. The snare of riches held them in its vice; they would never think of standing afar off with downcast eyes, beating their breasts and crying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ They had arrived; they were the people and truth would die with them. They could afford to be lukewarm towards Gospel calls, and commands, and challenges, and exhortations, as to behaviour and to conduct. They had lost, not only all sense of Christian joy, they were indifferent to the authority of Scripture and the teaching of Scripture. They were indifferent to the warnings of their pastor. They were indifferent to the
threatenings of the law. They were indifferent to the wooings of the Gospel. Indifferent. Independent.
Hence this complaint from the faithful and true Witness. The question we ask of course is, What is His disposition towards members of a Christian church that is lukewarm, neither cold nor hot? They neither enthuse over the Gospel nor do they deny it. Well, you have got it in verse 16, ‘Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ You can do nothing with such people, and with people in that condition; Christ says here that there is nothing that He can do with them, ‘I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ Here is an emotion, a feeling attributed to Christ, never otherwise attributed to Him in Scripture at all. We do not read that He is grieved with these people. We do not read that He is angry with these people. The only thing that we read is that He is disgusted. He is not just slightly disgusted, but thoroughly nauseated by them. “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ I could stand you if you were cold; I could stand you if you were hot, but because you are ‘nothingarians’, I cannot stand you. That is what He is saying.
It is a very interesting thing that the only useful purpose, really useful purpose, for Laodicea’s unsatisfactory water supply was as an emetic. If you really had to make somebody sick to vomit in order to clear the stomach, all you had to do was to give them this water with nothing in it, and it would immediately produce that result. It was an emetic. Of course, our Lord knew this and He chose His metaphor. What He said in effect to these ‘nothingarians’, these very self-satisfied Christians was, ‘I have tasted your religion, and it makes Me sick. It makes Me sick because it is neither stimulatingly hot nor is it refreshingly cold.’ The One with the eyes of fire saw through it all, and He was disgusted; He was revolted. He was nauseated by a Christian profession whose predominant characteristic was its ‘could-not-care-less’ attitude about the vital things of God. Well, how many professing Christians today must be guilty of nauseating the Head of the Church; neither hot nor cold?
This is the amazing thing, (I have had occasion to call attention to it before in this series, but here it is in this amazing context) even in complaint, Christ is gracious; even in censure, Christ is patient. This statement, ‘I will spue thee out of my mouth’ needs a little explanation. It is not to be read as meaning, ‘I have done it, I have made up my mind, that it is past it.’ He does not say that. The tense is the simple future which does not speak either of an imminent action: “This is what I am going to do today or tomorrow.” It is a simple future which is indefinite in terms of its application, which
means it is correct to translate it and to render it something like this, ‘I am about to spue thee out of my mouth.’ This is not a statement of imminent action or of accomplished fact. What is it then? It is a warning. It is a warning to those who are complacent and at ease in Zion. They need a jolt, and they get it in this letter. This threat is a warning; it is like the warning passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Why are those warning passages there? Because some Christians need them. Christ is severe in His complaint because He is very tender, very kind, and very gracious. They are neither hot nor cold, but He is what He always is, and He will be honest with the non-Christians, the empty professors, but He is determined also to discipline the sleepy, indifferent Christians at Laodicea. In verse 16, what I read in this statement is this, and oh, what grace, ‘The emetic that could make Christ disgorge and disown those that the Father has given Him, does not exist.’ You see, He is writing to a church;
He is writing to believers, believers in a deplorable condition, believers that metaphorically speaking, make Him sick. In the midst of His censure, He does not spue them. He says, ‘I am ready, I am ready.’ What is He doing? He is giving them a warning and what mercy there is in that. This is a warning to believers, a warning to call them back from a supine and tepid Christianity. That is the complaint, and the faithful and the true witness accompanies it with a warning shock, and there is a threat in it. He comes as near as He ever actually comes to disowning, or rejecting His blood-bought children. I repeat my metaphor. The emetic that causes our blessed Lord to be sad, and downcast, and depressed concerning His people exists, but the emetic that will cause Him to disgorge those whom the Father has given, and whom He has bought with His blood does not exist. ‘I am ready, I am ready to spue thee out of my mouth.’ Even in that amazing and that wholly unpleasant metaphor, (but His chosen metaphor), there is mercy, and there is grace. So much for the complaint.
1. Come and buy
Let me come on for a moment to the counsel Christ offers. This is what He says, verse 18, “I counsel, I advise,” not, “I command.” You see how tender He is. Do you not here sense the tone of the letter changing somewhat? ‘I counsel thee to buy of Me.’ Well, the Laodiceans bought of men, everything they ever bought; all the things that made them wealthy and rich. They were great materialists. Laodicea inevitably was a great market city, but here Christ is telling them of another market, the market of Isaiah 55 yerse 1, ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine
and milk without money and without price.’ The Laodiceans said. We have need of nothing; Christ said, “You do have need of .something. There are things that money cannot buy. ‘I counsel thee to buy of me.'” My friends, you cannot trade with Jesus Christ in any earthly currency. The only valid currency in the Gospel market is the grace of faith, and in verse 18, the Lord displays His Gospel wares. ‘I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that you mayest see.’
Just look at the things that He commends and recommends in the Gospel market. What are they? First, there is gold tried in the fire. The gold of worldly wealth is tarnished at its source; it is tarnished in its use, and it is tarnished in what it purchases. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is pure gold, and it is refined to the point at which all human effort is strained off, and the priceless wealth of the finished work of Jesus Christ remains a full, a complete, and everlasting salvation. ‘Buy of Me, gold, the gold of justifying righteousness.’
What else is there in the Gospel market? Oh, there is white
raiment. ‘I counsel thee to buy of me white raiment.’ White
raiment? The contrast is deliberate, and the contrast would make its mark in Laodicea for this reason, that the large part of the immediate natural wealth of Laodicea was derived from the sale of woollen goods made from the wool of black sheep. That was the common breed, black sheep, and the trade in black wool was very profitable. Now, our Lord again picks up the relevant metaphor. He says in effect, the colour of your wealth is the colour of your hearts, but I will give you white raiment, the clothing of sanctifying righteousness to cover all your sins. Here is the grace of sanctification. Buy of Me. What? White raiment, the white raiment of Christ, our sanctification.
Here is yet another item in the Gospel market. Not only gold, not only white raiment, but eyesalve. I said that Laodicea had a medical school, and a medical centre, specialising in the treatment of eye diseases, and it produced a powder that was reputedly good for eye ailments, for the treatment of eye diseases. It was well known in Laodicea. The one thing that the Laodicean eyesalve never did was to open the blind eyes of members of this church to the fact that they were spiritually miserable, and wretched, and poor, and blind, and naked. Our Lord says, I can do better than your medical school for all its repute, for all its cleverness. I can cure spiritual blindness. I can tell you the truth about yourself. Buy of Me eyesalve that is relevant to your condition. Come, buy without money, without price. Buy with faith. But a man may say, ‘I do not know whether I
have faith.’ Christ then goes further, and He says, “Well, I will give
you faith, the eyesalve of faith.” Faith, so far as you and I are concerned, is the cure, the instrumental means; it is not the efficient sure, it is the instrumental cure. “I will give you the gold of justification. I will give you the white raiment of sanctification. I will give you sight to see the truth about yourself, about grace and salvation, and then over and above that I will give you faith as the instrumental means of receiving them all.” It is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. It is not of works, it is all of grace. It is in Christ Jesus.
Laodicean Christians then and now were not living in a daily awareness that salvation is by grace alone. A great many Christians have got grace alone in their creed, but not in their conduct. That is the problem; they believe it, they have been taught it, they put it into their creed, they sign their creed, they protest their orthodoxy, and then their minds and their lives are filled with worldly gold and lack raiment, and human remedies, and so they get into this stupor about the real ground of their salvation. They become indifferent to the Gospel, they are lukewarm, neither against it nor for it. Here is the scene presented to us in this letter; in mercy, Christ comes again and again to His people and He says, ‘I counsel thee to buy of Me.’
He not only registers His complaint, but He tells these tepid nauseous sickly, backslidden, indifferent, but highly orthodox and
respectable members of Christian churches, “I am ready to spue you out of my mouth, but I warn you, I advise you, I counsel you, trade in another market. Come back to the Gospel market, and I will supply you with pure gold, and white raiment, and eyesalve that works wonders in the views it gives of Me and the preciousness of salvation, and a joy unspeakable and full of glory, and of daily fellowship with Me.” Laodicean Christians and churches then and now are those who think they have everything, when in fact, they lave next to nothing. For that, Christ censures them, and yet in the middle of the censure, in the middle of the complaint, there is counsel. “I am ready to spue you out but I counsel you, buy of Me, I will give you all, and I will give you the wherewithal to reach out and take it, the hand of faith.” Oh, the blessedness of a gracious God and Saviour. “I am ready to spue you out but I advise you, I warn you, I counsel you, buy from Me.” The Lord help us to heed the warning, and follow the advice. Amen.