Dear Lukewarm Church (Rev. 3:14-22)
We have arrived at the final letter to the seven first-century churches located in Asia Minor. Although the situations in each of these churches was in many ways unique to their time and location, the contents of each letter have proved to be relevant to every church in every age. Last week we considered a church that received no condemnation from Christ. This week we consider a church that received no commendation from him. Jesus says nothing good about them. There is only warning, rebuke, and exhortation here.
In his book, God Is the Gospel, John Piper opens with this challenge:
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?
It is understandable that our affections can wax hot and wane cold. We are fickle human beings. But a sustained indifference to Jesus Christ points to a much deeper problem than our fluctuating emotions. It must mean that we are looking to something other than him for our satisfaction.
Lukewarm believers are content with external success and a Christless existence.
Read Rev. 3:14-22
Laodicean was located along the main highway that all of these churches were located along. But, in addition there was another important road that ended there. It was strategically located for trade and the archeological evidence reveals a very wealthy city.
Like Philadelphia, they also experienced earthquakes. When Philadelphia was devastated by an earthquake in AD 17, they received aid from the Romans in order to rebuild. However, when an equally devastating earthquake struck Laodicea, they were in a position to turn down Rome’s offer to help. They had no trouble at all rebuilding their city structures which included banks, commercial buildings, and medical facilities. They were wealthy, well educated, and proud of all they had accomplished.
As we have found to be the case with the other letters, the opening verse is a description about the son of man which is relevant to the church in Laodicean. And, if we were in the church as this letter was being read for the first time, we might be puffed up even further with confidence about the encouraging words we were about to hear.
However, the description of Jesus as “the faithful and true witness” (v.14) is given to contrast with the false witness of believers in Laodicea (v.17). Their testimony about themselves is wholly inaccurate. They were entirely unprepared for Christ’s assessment of them.
But Jesus is “the Amen” which links him to “the God of Truth/Amen” mentioned in Isa. 65:16. Jesus is “the beginning of God’s creation” which is a reference to Christ as the firstborn from the dead (1:5) who has ushered us into the new creation by his resurrection (2 Cor. 5:15, 17).
Jesus’ evaluation of believers in Laodicea is that, despite what they think about themselves, they have yet to overcome their most fundamental problem, which is…
I. The Human Condition (15-17)
Something of a blight upon the Laodicean reputation was their inadequate water supply. They had no cool stream nearby. Instead they depended upon water from distant hot springs, which meant that it arrived lukewarm and would have been difficult to drink.
Poythress By contrast, the neighboring town of Hierapolis had medicinal hot springs, and neighboring Colossae was supplied by a cold mountain stream. Christ urges the church to be refreshing (cold) or medicinally healing (hot), rather than like the Laodicean water supply.
15-16 What are lukewarm works? Actually, it’s not the works, but the people who are lukewarm. Jesus says nothing about the works themselves, other than the fact that he knew them. He doesn’t respond to them regarding their works, but the manner in which they performed them. For all we know, they might have been tremendous deeds which were having a deep impact upon the culture. Christ’s rebuke wasn’t for their works, or their lack of works, but the indifference with which they were done. The congregation was not cold and callous. Neither were they feverishly engaged. They were simply going through the motions with an eye toward the visible results. How do I know?
17 I know they were focused upon outward deeds and not inward transformation because they said they were rich and prosperous and without need. Just as they denied aid from Rome to rebuild their city after the earthquake, their attitude denied that they were in any need of help from the Holy Spirit. They looked down upon others with pride in their physical and spiritual prosperity. Ephraim was guilty of the same presumptuous attitude (Hosea 12:8).
Like many in the church today, they assumed their physical affluence was the direct result of their spiritual influence. They thought the Lord was blessing them for all the good that they were doing. But far from being filled with satisfying joy in their work, Laodicea’s narcissistic arrogance filled Jesus with disgust.
Rather than rewarding them for their exemplary lives, he was ready to literally vomit them out of his mouth. Their lukewarm demeanor didn’t simply stir up the anger of the Lord, but they were thoroughly nauseating to him. In reality, the Laodicean church was the very opposite of what they assumed. Rather than being rich and prosperous and without need, they were in fact “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
As we’ve gone out to talk with college students about Christianity, the first challenge is usually to convince them that they are not okay. There is a religious indifference that has become the norm in our culture. Everyone is encouraged to believe whatever they want to believe as long as it remains personal. It is offensive to argue with someone about their religious convictions (if we could even call them convictions…maybe idle speculations is more accurate).
When that level of spiritual apathy begins to infect the attitude of the church, we can be certain that Christ’s assessment of us is not glowing. What would that kind of apathy look like today? It would look like Bibles that collect dust Monday through Saturday. It would look like empty prayer meetings. It would look like infrequently attended worship services filled with lukewarm believers singing half-hearted praise to a God they assume they know.
At the root of so much indifference for the things of God, is a satisfaction with a shallow faith. If we are content to be naïve in our knowledge and immature in our practice, in all likelihood we have become a disgrace to our Lord. Instead of being eager to rejoice over us, he may be on the brink of spewing us out of his mouth. Let us not too quickly to relieve ourselves of this assessment.
And yet, Jesus does hold out grace with…
II. The Divine Remedy (18-21)
The Lord is not slow, but is patient for you to reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
18 Jesus offers to sell them the remedy.
- Although they had wealth, they would not truly become rich until they found in Christ the gold that is refined by fire.
- Although the city was skilled in the production of garments made of glossy black wool, they would never be capable of covering the shame of their nakedness until they received white garments from Christ (Rev. 16:15). It is only the imputed righteousness of Christ that can remove our shame and make us acceptable before a righteous and holy God.
- Although one of the more prominent facilities in the city was devoted to the production of eye salve, no one would be able to see their desperate need for a Savior unless Christ healed their blinded eyes.
The wealth of these professing believers is tied to the commerce of the city, which would have been wrapped up with the idolatrous trade guilds. In effect, Jesus is here reminding them who supplies their deepest needs. Instead of going to the marketplace, they should be going to Jesus.
But in their impoverished condition, they were in no position to purchase anything! How could Jesus tell them to do something they were incapable of doing? They didn’t need money to purchase what they truly needed (Isa. 55:1). Augustus Toplady got it right:
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
19 Jesus reproves and disciplines those he loves. He is just like a father who wants wants the best for his children (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). In response to the grace they had received from Christ, his saints were to respond with zeal and repentance. Apparently they were struggling to do either.
Rather than maintaining a zeal for the kingdom, these disciples had grown weary and lackluster. Rather than being eager to repent, they were filled with pride and self-sufficiency. As they focused upon their own agenda, their zeal for Christ began to fade away. Content with their level of maturity, they no longer felt the need to repent.
It seems this had gone on for so long that they didn’t even notice Jesus was missing. The faint knocking they heard had become another one of the annoying distractions in the background of a self-centered life.
20 First, this verse is not meant as an evangelistic text to be read before an invitation to receive Jesus into your heart. The context eliminates that interpretation. Jesus isn’t knocking at the door of every heart asking them to let him come in. He is writing to his church. More specifically, he is writing to professing believers who have shut Jesus out of their lives. Their indifference and worldliness have crowded him out.
So Jesus keeps knocking on the door over and over again. He is calling too. Those who “hear his voice” will open the door. The language may be an allusion to Solomon calling his hesitant bride to open the door (Song 5:2). Intimacy and genuine fellowship is held out to those whose zeal is restored.
Jesus’ knocking is a call to repentance and renewal which would result in restored communion with him. This is why I sometimes refer to the Lord’s Supper as a covenant renewal ceremony that we enjoy every week. Rather than periodically responding to an altar call, you are given the weekly privilege of restoring and renewing your covenant relationship with Jesus.
Not only that, Jesus promised his followers that they would sit on thrones judging with him (Mt 19:28).
21 The conquerers will sit on Christ’s throne with him in the same way that he conquered and sat with his Father on his throne. This cannot be the final conquering in reference to a millennial reign that follows Christ’s return, because Christ has not enjoyed that eschatological victory yet. The language of his conquering is not future, but past (aorist) tense.
This is the victory that he achieved in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s throne in heaven. It is a reference to the millennial reign of Christ, but that reign is taking place right now and will be concluded upon his return. Thus, all who persevere throughout this gospel age will enjoy that heavenly reign with him (Rev. 20:4)! In fact, “they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).
Zealous believers seek to receive from Christ, commune with Christ, and reign with Christ.
22 Those with ears must listen!
Come ye needy come and welcome, God’s free bounty glorify; True belief and true repentance; Every grace that brings us nigh; Without money without money; Come to Jesus Christ and buy.