Laodicea: Nauseating Self-Sufficiency
Topic: Repentance Passage: Revelation 3:14–3:22
In our study through Revelation, we’ve now reached the final message to the seven churches. Every church needs all seven messages to make it to the New Jerusalem. But if I chose one that speaks to an area the Western church is particularly vulnerable, it would be Jesus’ message to Laodicea.
I say that because the contents of this seventh message deal with an affluent church. It’s not like the church in Smyrna that was economically poor. It’s not like the church in Philadelphia that had little resources. The church in Laodicea is rich with the world’s goods. But that wealth has made them vulnerable to self-sufficiency—this attitude of “I need nothing.” That self-sufficiency has led to complacency, a complacency that makes Jesus sick to his stomach. Being part of a more affluent society in America, we’d do well to pay careful attention. Our Lord says in verse 14,
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. 15 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. 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. 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. 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. 21 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 reminds the church of his glory.
As he does in the other six messages, Jesus begins by reminding the church of his glorious identity. Jesus is the Amen. The word “Amen” usually signals a strong affirmation. We’ve heard it twice already in 1:6 and 1:7. Throughout Revelation, it echoes from God’s creatures as they celebrate God’s worth and God’s works reaching their completion in Jesus.[i] But even more, God identifies himself in Isaiah 65:16 as Elohe Amen, the God of Amen/Truth. In the same passage, God then promises to “create new heavens and a new earth” where God dwells with his people in joy forever. For Jesus to be The Amen means he embodies that God is true to his word. His enthroned presence signals that all God’s purposes will reach their goal in the new creation.
He is also the faithful and true witness. Jesus faithfully and truthfully bore witness to God throughout his earthly ministry, even when that witness required willingly sacrificing his life. Even more, Jesus continues to stand as a faithful witness in his resurrection body. This faithful Witness now assesses this church’s witness.
Jesus is also the beginning of God’s creation. Beginning, not in the sense of first created thing, but beginning in the sense of first cause, originator. Several times in Revelation, God or Jesus has the title “the beginning and the end.” It recalls the way God revealed himself in Isaiah—he set himself apart from the nations and their false gods. The true God creates by his sovereign word; he knows the end from the beginning. Same with Jesus. [Now, “ruler of God’s creation” is also a possible translation; and that would fit how the message to Laodicea ends on the note of Jesus’ throne. At the same time, if Jesus is the originator of God’s creation, necessarily that makes him ruler over it.]
These three titles seem to complement one another: Jesus not only originates God’s creation, but in faithfulness and truth his work ensures that all things will climax in the praise of God’s glory in the new creation. That Jesus walks among the churches and weighs their faithfulness; and he has found the church in Laodicea wanting. Their witness doesn’t align with God’s glory in the new creation.
Jesus rebukes their complacency and self-sufficiency.
Let’s look now at Jesus rebuking their complacency and self-sufficiency. Like the message to Sardis, Jesus has nothing to commend. It’s even worse because there’s not even a few who haven’t soiled their garments (Rev 3:4).
In verse 15 Jesus says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth,” or better: “…I am about to vomit you from my mouth.” Opportunity for repentance remains, but judgment is near. For Jesus to vomit them from his mouth means their eternity is at stake. It’s a severe warning—much like when God warned that the Land would vomit out Israel for unfaithfulness.
But what’s the problem with lukewarmness? Some have taken cold to mean a person with no interest in Jesus, and hot to mean someone who’s zealous for Jesus. But that doesn’t fit what Jesus says in verse 15: “Would that you were either cold or hot!” Jesus wishes for them. Being hot or cold are both good. The context is that of feasting together. Eating together in verse 20. Drinking together in verses 15-16. People like their beverages cold or hot. Nobody likes warm Gatorade at noon. On a cool morning, nobody likes coffee at room temperature. A lukewarm beverage is useless.
By analogy, that’s the way this church has become—useless. Colossians 4:13 tells us that Epaphras planted this church and labored hard for their maturity. Not even two generations pass before Jesus sends this letter. They’ve become lukewarm. Nothing sets them apart anymore. In the same way you can’t tell the difference between the outside climate and a lukewarm drink, you can’t tell the difference between the cultural climate and these lukewarm Christians.[ii] They look like the world. They bring nothing of kingdom value. They’ve grown useless and complacent.
How’d they get here, though? Verse 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.” How’d they grow complacent, useless? They lost all dependence on Christ because they think they have it all—“I need nothing.” Their riches have duped them into thinking that they’re okay without Jesus.
Here’s the scarier part, Jesus describes this church with language that also describes the merchants in Revelation 18 who grow rich on Babylon’s luxurious living. This church has become indistinguishable from the Beastly kingdoms of the earth who find their satisfaction in wealth (Rev 18:3, 15, 19). Worldly comforts have led them to a place where they claim Jesus but no longer depend on him. They claim Jesus but don’t fellowship with him. Why else is he outside the door knocking! Because they say, “I need nothing.” They’ve pushed Jesus out. They’re in danger of judgment.
Jesus returns them to his riches.
In mercy, though, Jesus returns them to his riches. In verse 18, he counsels them to buy from him three unique riches. Before we get to them, though, how are they going to buy anything? Anything that’s truly valuable costs. But he just said they were “pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Spiritually speaking, they are bankrupt. How can you buy anything from God when you’re spiritually bankrupt?
The imagery recalls God’s invitation to Israel in Isaiah 55. Israel bankrupted themselves on chasing the world’s idols. Instead of using their silver for God’s purposes, they spent their silver on idols. God comes to these people and says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money/silver, come, buy and eat!” How do you buy from God when you’re spiritually bankrupt? You’re only able to buy because God paid the price for you to receive his riches. In Isaiah 53, God’s Servant would pay the price for God’s people to inherit God’s riches.
Jesus is that Servant who paid the price for the church to receive his riches. Jesus gave his own life to purchase for us the riches we couldn’t purchase. He who was rich became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9)!* So, Jesus counsels these pitiable and poor Christians, “Buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich.” He doesn’t mean actual gold in this life.
As Revelation continues, there’s a contrast. In 17:4 and 18:16, Babylon is a city adorned with gold. Only, it’s a gold that isn’t truly refined. It’s not pure. It also doesn’t last. When God brings judgment on the rebel kingdoms, all their riches come crashing down. If all your hopes are bound up with the world’s riches, you will encounter an eternity of sorrow. But for those who hope in Jesus, they will inherit another city. God’s New Jerusalem is a city made of “pure gold, like clear glass.” That’s the gold Jesus offers his church. It’s another way of saying, “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Jesus also says to buy from him “white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen.” In Revelation, white garments symbolize purity and righteousness. In 7:14 the faithful in white garments have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. But we also find this in 19:8. For Jesus’ Bride, “it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
To buy white garments from Jesus means not only coming to Jesus for purification but also following Jesus in righteous deeds. When you neglect a relationship with Jesus, your shameful deeds leave you exposed like someone without clothes. Your shameful deeds leave you like Adam and Eve when they disobeyed the Lord. But when you invest in a relationship with Jesus, your works clothe you like a Bride making herself ready to meet her husband. Will your works leave you exposed? Or will they evidence how much you’ve longed to see your Husband?
Jesus also says, “[buy from me] salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” He’s talking about spiritual sight. Without Jesus opening our spiritual eyes, we cannot see ourselves or the world or Jesus rightly. We’ll be like the man in Deuteronomy 16:19 who’s blinded by a bribe such that he subverts justice. We’ll be like Israel in Isaiah 42:18 who could even look at God’s words but lack the ability to perceive the right path. We’ll be like those in 2 Corinthians 4:4 whom Satan blinds from seeing the light of Jesus’ glory. We’ll be like Laodicea who think they see themselves accurately but in truth they are blind to their true need. They are blind to their pitiable state.
To gain true spiritual perception, Jesus counsels us to come to him. He alone can heal the eyes of your heart. He alone has the medicine you need to view the world as he does, to perceive God’s ways rightly and then walk in them. In sum, then, this church thinks they need nothing. In truth, they need Jesus for everything that’s of ultimate importance: lasting riches, righteous works, spiritual insight.
Jesus reassures them of his love, fellowship, and dominion.
If that’s the case, this church needs to repent. They need to zealously pursue Jesus. That’s Jesus’ primary command in verse 19: “be zealous and repent.” Don’t waste any time. Turn from your complacency and self-reliance and start investing deeply in your relationship with Jesus and your obedience to him in the world. Get serious about following through with repentance.[iii] Then we get three reasons why to follow through. Jesus reassures them of his love, fellowship, and dominion.
One reason to follow through with repentance is that Jesus reassures his love. Jesus has said hard things: “I’m about to vomit you from my mouth;” “you are wretched…” But verse 19 adds this: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” Jesus’ discipline is loving. This alludes to Proverbs 3:12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’S discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves…” When someone is blind, it’s not loving to let them fall into a pit. When someone is acting shamefully, it’s not loving to coddle them in their sins. Love will always be a genuine affection for another’s good in God, in what’s holy. That’s how Jesus loves. He has an affection for their good in God, and so he rebukes. Jesus loves not only by redeeming from sin but also by rebuking when we return to sin.
Another reason to follow through with repentance is that Jesus reassures them of his fellowship. Verse 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.” People have used this passage to evangelize the lost: “Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart,” they might say. But notice who it’s written to—to believers, to the church. Also, it’s not talking about Jesus coming “into your heart.” The picture is Jesus entering a house to sit down at a meal. It’s still a call to intimate fellowship, just not in the ways our Christian subcultures have sometimes taught us.
The point is that the church has pushed Jesus out with their attitudes of “I need nothing.” They have traded intimacy with Jesus to make friends with worldly comforts. What a display of great compassion that Jesus comes offering renewed fellowship. It’s also possible that Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels lies in the background. Several places use this image of Jesus “at the door” to compel an urgent response. If Jesus is knocking, then judgment is near.[iv] To open the door means following through with repentance. To open the door is to treat the King as he deserves—hear his voice, serve him. When that takes place, he promises to renew intimate fellowship. Jesus likely means fellowship in the present. But that present fellowship anticipates the day when the church sits with Jesus at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Finally, Jesus gives another reason to follow through with repentance—dominion. Verse 21 says, “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.” How does someone conquer? The same way Jesus did. We become faithful and true witnesses. We submit to our Father’s word in the path of obedience, even when it means death. We go for the crown by first taking up our cross for the sake of others.
When we choose that path, Jesus holds out a glorious reward. We will share in his dominion. Sitting with Jesus on his throne includes authority. Just like he promised in 2:26, we will enjoy authority over the nations. But more than that, sitting with Jesus on his throne includes nearness to God. There are other thrones in heaven that surround the one true throne belonging to God and the Lamb. Jesus seats us with himself, where we will behold him face to face, where the Lord God will be our light, as we reign forever.
It’s no accident that Jesus promises fellowship on his throne, and then opens the heavenly door to that throne in chapters 4-5—a throne wrapped in rainbow-like emerald beauty, with jasper and carnelian decorating the royal Majesty. At least part of Jesus’ goal in chapters 4-5, is to generate repentance in his complacent people through a vision of God’s glory. You set the glories of God’s throne against the riches of the world—who wouldn’t want to share in the throne of God and of the Lamb? The riches of this world are nothing compared to the Lamb’s throne! Jesus finds this church pitiable and poor, but he offers them the highest place and portion if they repent.
Responding to Jesus’ Message Today
Jesus’ love, Jesus’ fellowship, Jesus’ dominion. That’s his reassurance to follow through with repentance—as if the glorious riches of verse 18 weren’t enough! Jesus mounts riches on top of riches to renew this church’s zeal for his kingdom.
He means for these riches to renew our zeal as well. One way Jesus’ words confronted me was in considering whether I have become lukewarm. Have I grown complacent in my witness, in my leadership, in my marriage, in my parenting? How about you? Have you considered whether you are lukewarm? Some of you are zealous for the kingdom. But others need to take an honest assessment. Have you settled into a self-sufficient complacency without realizing your true need?
What does your pursuit of the Lord in prayer look like? Maybe you haven’t uttered the words, “I need nothing.” But if someone looked at your prayer life, would they see a desperate need for Jesus? Or would they see someone who doesn’t seem to need Jesus very much? Prayerlessness is the result of self-sufficiency.
How distinct is your life from the culture around you? Our lives will overlap with the world in basic ways. But are there things you do for Jesus’ sake that set you apart from the world, that compel others to ask about the hope within you?
What excites you? Would fellowship with Jesus top the list? Or has your zeal for lesser things surpassed your zeal for Christ? Many things in this world animate us—sports, politics, high grades, favorite hobbies, an unexpected raise. But would you say God’s kingdom excites you more than these?
Have you grown stagnant in your maturity? Have you grown accustomed to coasting behind the zealous efforts of a few others? Maybe a godly husband, a godly wife, godly church members, godly care group leaders—they make zealous efforts to serve while you just coast along but never really pursue Christ yourself, never actively serve and give at your own initiative.
If you find yourself lukewarm, Jesus wrote this message to wake you up. Jesus wrote this message to alert you to the dangers ahead if you continue in this path. Jesus wrote this message to restore your zeal and passion for him. “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” Respond to his loving correction with repentance.
Second, stay alert to the dangers of wealth. I can’t help but notice that Smyrna and Philadelphia—the two churches that are economically poor and powerless are the two churches that are spiritually rich. Laodicea, however, is economically rich but spiritually poor. Given what the Bible teaches elsewhere, that shouldn’t surprise us.
Wealth on its own isn’t bad. It’s a gift from the Lord. It can be used for good, like supporting a family, meeting needs, building a city, blessing someone. At the same time, Jesus teaches that the deceitfulness of riches can choke out God’s word such that it becomes unfruitful in our lives—Matthew 13:22. Jesus warns that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”—Matthew 19:23. Or consider 1 Timothy 6:9-10, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. Through this craving some have wandered away from the faith.”
The church in Laodicea has not heeded these warnings. They have set their hope in wealth, such that they have no need for Jesus anymore. We’re just as vulnerable. In America, a land that’s not only wealthy but also prone to just doing it ourselves, we’re even more vulnerable. Are you afraid? Buy an alarm system. Sick? Pay the doctor. Broken? Order Now from Amazon. Hardships? We’ve got insurance. Threat? We’ve got our guns. Lost? Google maps. When that’s your culture, it’s so easy to function like “I need nothing,” when in truth you need Jesus for everything.
It’s so easy to push Jesus away while leaning on your wealth to save you, to uphold you, to satisfy you. Stay alert and keep turning to Jesus for true riches. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Work toward a proper vision and use for wealth, so that it serves Jesus’ kingdom. To the rich Paul says, “do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure…for the future” (1 Tim 6:18-19).
Third, ask Jesus for new eyes. The eye salve gets mentioned last in verse 18. But as one of my teachers, Paul Hoskins, liked to point out, logically speaking, it’s really the first one we need. “If they remain blind,” he’d say, “then they cannot hope to see their sin and repent of it.”[v] I think he’s right. Just think of all the ways Scripture highlights this fundamental need. Without God opening our eyes, we can’t behold wondrous things from his Law (Ps 119:18). Without God enlightening our hearts, we cannot know the hope of our calling (Eph 1:18). Without Jesus opening their eyes, the disciples couldn’t perceive who he was after the resurrection (Luke 24:16, 31). Without Jesus granting new eyes, the disciples can’t perceive that the fields are white for harvest (John 4:35).
It’s all over the place. Without spiritual sight, we cannot see the things of God. So, ask Jesus to give you new eyes. Ask him to help you see yourself and the world and him as you need to see it. Then, as you’re asking, read his word. Revelation is part of Jesus’ work by the Spirit to open our eyes. Revelation is giving you the proper way to see yourself and the world. In today’s passage, it’s helping us see our desperate need of him.
Finally, renew your zeal for Jesus. Jesus’ command “be zealous” fits other passages on Christian zeal. I’m not sure we talk about Christian zeal enough, but it was among the chief virtues the church emphasized. Romans 12:11, for example, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Or Titus 2:14—Christ gave himself on the cross “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Also, in 2 Corinthians 9:2, Paul was taking up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem; and he writes the church in Corinth describing how their zeal in generosity stirred up other churches in Macedonia to give.
There is, of course, false zeal as well. The Jews in Romans 10:2 have “a zeal for God but not according to knowledge,” otherwise they’d see Christ as the goal of the Law. But where there is true, godly zeal, there will be a passion to love and serve God with all the Spirit gives us through Jesus. A Puritan named John Reynolds once defined zeal this way: “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men.”[vi] Do you have “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men”? If not, pursue it. If so, keep cultivating it.
Just as he called the church in Laodicea to be zealous, Christ is calling us to be zealous for his kingdom. He’s calling us away from complacency to total allegiance. He’s calling us away from lukewarm, dull, “just coasting along with the world” type of church to being a church that fervently bears witness to Jesus and his kingdom. Would you join each other in praying for zeal? Would you stir one another to zeal? Would you point each other to Jesus who has unwavering zeal for the Father’s glory?
It’s by seeing him and knowing him that our zeal will grow. I was tucking Abbi into bed Sunday night after we discussed her DIG Sunday school lesson. With great excitement she said, “Daddy, I just can’t stop thinking about God never having a birthday, that he was never born. I mean, he just always was there, and it’s so amazing that...that...I just can’t stop the feeling!” It was a sweet reminder to me that zeal comes from meditating on the glories of God in Christ. May the Lord cause holy zeal in us as we continue studying Revelation and keeping the words of this prophecy. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
[i] Rev 1:6, 7; 5:14; 7:12; 19:4; 22:20.
[ii] Koester, Revelation, 344.
[iii] BDAG, zêleuw.
[iv] E.g., Matt 24:33; Luke 12:35-40; Jas 5:9.
[v] Hoskins, Revelation, 115.
[vi] Joel Beeke, “What is zeal?” Reformation 21 (February 19, 2016), accessed at https://www.reformation21.org/blog/what-is-zeal.