Laodicea, the Lukewarm Church (Rev. 3:14–22)
Jesus is the truth and speaks the truth. He is “the faithful and true Witness.” The Lord was about to tell this church the truth about its spiritual condition; unfortunately, they would not believe His diagnosis.
“Why is it that new Christians create problems in the church?” a member once asked me.
“They don’t create problems,” I replied. “They reveal them. The problems have always been there, but we’ve gotten used to them. New Christians are like children in the home: they tell the truth about things!”
The Laodicean church was blind to its own needs and unwilling to face the truth. Yet honesty is the beginning of true blessing as we admit what we are, confess our sins, and receive from God all we need. If we want God’s best for our lives and churches, we must be honest with God and let God be honest with us.
The church at Laodicea had become lukewarm. The believers did not stand for anything; indifference led to idleness. By neglecting to do anything for Christ the church had become hardened and self-satisfied, and it was destroying itself. Christ would discipline this lukewarm church unless it turned from its indifference toward Him. The Lord demonstrated four areas of need in the church at Laodicea:
1. They had lost their vigor (vv. 16–17)
Some believers falsely assume that numerous material possessions are a sign of God’s spiritual blessing. Laodicea was a wealthy city and the church was also wealthy. But what the Laodiceans could see and buy had become more valuable to them than what is unseen and eternal. Wealth, luxury, and comfort can make people feel confident, satisfied, and complacent. But no matter how much money you and I possess or how much money we make, we have nothing if we do not have a vital relationship with Christ.
In the Christian life, there are three “spiritual temperatures”: a burning heart, on fire for God (Luke 24:32); a cold heart (Matt. 24:12); and a lukewarm heart (Rev. 3:16). The lukewarm Christian is comfortable, complacent, and does not realize his need. The church at Laodicea was lukewarm, like many people today.
We enjoy a beverage that is either hot or cold, but one that is lukewarm is flat and stale. That’s why the waitress keeps adding hot coffee or fresh iced water to our cups and glasses. Unless something is added from the outside the system decays and dies. Without adding fuel the hot water in the boiler becomes cool; without electricity the cold air in the freezer becomes warm. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a “closed system” will moderate itself, so no more energy is being produced.
The church cannot be a “closed system.” Jesus said, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Laodicean church was independent, self-satisfied, and secure. “We have need of nothing!” But all the while, their spiritual power had been decaying; their material wealth and glowing statistics were nothing more than grave-clothes hiding a rotting corpse. Their Lord was outside the church, trying to get in (Rev. 3:20).
2. They had lost their values (vv. 17–18a)
In contrast to the church at Smyrna, who thought itself poor when it was really rich (Rev. 2:9), the Laodiceans boasted they were rich, when in fact they were poor. Perhaps we have here a hint of why this church declined spiritually: they had become proud of their ministry and had begun to measure things by human standards instead of by spiritual values. They were, in the eyes of the Lord, “wretched, miserable, and poor.”
Laodicea was a wealthy city and a banking center. Perhaps some of the spirit of the marketplace crept into the church, so their values became twisted. Why is it that so many church bulletins and letterheads show pictures of buildings? Are these the things that are most important to us? The board at the Laodicean church could proudly show you the latest annual report with its impressive statistics, yet Jesus said He was about to vomit them out of His mouth!
The solution? Pay the price to get true “gold refined in the fire.” This suggests the church needed some persecution; they were too comfortable (1 Peter 1:7). Nothing makes God’s people examine their priorities faster than suffering!
3. They had lost their vision (v. 18b)
The Laodiceans were “blind.” They could not see reality. They were living in a fool’s paradise, proud of a church that was about to be rejected. The Apostle Peter teaches when a believer is not growing in the Lord, his spiritual vision is affected (2 Peter 1:5–9). “Diet” has bearing on the condition of one’s eyes, in a spiritual sense as well as a physical one.
These people could not see themselves as they really were. Nor could they see their Lord as He stood outside the door of the church. Nor could they see the open doors of opportunity. They were so wrapped up in building their own kingdom that they had become lukewarm in their concern for a lost world.
What was the solution? Apply the “heavenly eye salve.” The city of Laodicea was noted for its eye salve, but the kind of medication the saints needed was not available in the pharmacy. The eye is one of the body’s most sensitive areas and only the Great Physician can “operate” on it, making it what it ought to be. As He did with the man whose account is told in John 9, He might even irritate before He illuminates! But we must submit to His treatment and then maintain good spiritual “health habits,” so our vision grows keener.
4. They had lost their garments (vv. 17–22)
These Christians thought they were clothed in splendor when they were really naked! To be naked means to be defeated and humiliated (2 Sam. 10:4; Isa. 20:1–4). The Laodiceans could go to the marketplace and purchase fine woolen garments, but that would not meet their real need. They needed the white garments of God’s righteousness and grace. According to Revelation 19:8, we should be clothed in “fine linen, clean and white,” and this symbolizes “the righteous acts of the saints.” Salvation means Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, put to our account; but sanctification means His righteousness is imparted to us, made a part of our character and conduct.
There is no divine commendation given to this church. Of course, the Laodiceans were busy commending themselves! They thought they were glorifying God, when in reality they were disgracing His name just as though they had been walking around naked. The Lord closed this letter with three special statements:
a) Explanation: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev. 3:19a). He still loved these lukewarm saints, even though their love for Him had grown cold. He planned to chasten them as proof of His love (Prov. 3:11–12; Heb. 12:5–6). God permits churches to go through times of trial so they might become what He wants them to become.
b) Exhortation: “Be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19b). The church at Laodicea had to repent of their pride and humble themselves before the Lord. They had to “stir up that inner fire” (2 Tim. 1:6) and cultivate a burning heart.
c) Invitation: “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” (Rev. 3:20–22). We often use these verses to lead lost people to Christ, but the basic application is to the believer. The Lord was outside the Laodicean church! He spoke to the individual—“if any man”—and not to the whole congregation. He appealed to a small remnant in Sardis (Rev. 3:4–5) and now He appeals to the individual. God can do great things in a church, even through one dedicated individual.
Christ was not impatient. He “knocks” through circumstances and He calls through His Word. What is He appealing? For fellowship and communion. He is appealing for the people’s desire to abide in Him. The Laodiceans were an independent church that had need of nothing, but they were not abiding in Christ and drawing their power from Him. They had a “successful program,” but it was not fruit that comes from abiding in Christ (John 15:1–8). It is only through communion with Christ that we find true victory and become overcomers.
As we have seen in this 5-part message the letters to the seven churches are God’s X rays, given to us so we might examine our own lives and ministries. Judgment is going to come to this world, but it first begins at God’s house (1 Peter 4:17). In these letters, we find encouragement as well as rebuke.
May the Lord help us to hear what the Spirit is saying today to the church and to the individuals in the churches!