IT IS EASY for Christian churches today to tweak their ministry in ways that make church “more attractive” or “fun.” Mark Hall, lead singer of the contemporary Christian band Casting Crowns, has been speaking out on this issue. Pastors are making the gospel message “less harsh.” This is almost unavoidable in a post-Christian culture. However, any “watered-down” gospel is actually a false gospel. God’s plan for redemption is the impetus for a powerful transformation that only Christ can perform in our lives. Believers today have become discouraged and maybe even timid about sharing Christ throughout their daily lives. It is easier to just steer away from “uncomfortable” conversation than represent the gospel.
As we will see below, this is what was happening in the church at Laodicea. But first, Jesus praises the church at Philadelphia for its endurance in the midst of constant persecution.
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth'” (Rev. 3:8, 10).
The ancient city of Philadelphia was an important banking and trade center located in a region known to us today as Turkey. In recognition for remarkable reconstruction work done after Philadelphia was hit by a massive earthquake in 17 AD, the city was briefly renamed Neocaesarea (“Caesar’s New City”), which caused a proliferation of worship for Zeus and the emperor. The believers there were loyal to Christ and they were doing a lot of things right in the face of constant persecution. Jesus told the church, “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough” (Rev. 3:8).(1)
Along with Smyrna, the church at Philadelphia was one of only two of the seven that escaped scathing condemnation from the Lord. Pleased with their dedication to the gospel regardless of circumstances, Jesus promised to come against the “synagogue of Satan” at Philadelphia. Dennis Johnson writes in his footnote in the ESV Study Bible, “Members of the synagogue of Satan say that they are Jews but instead are serving God’s enemy as they persecute Christians. Christ will compel these persecutors to bow down at the feet of his followers and acknowledge that He has loved them just as Isaiah foresaw Gentiles bowing before the Israelites.”(2)
Faithfulness leads to obedience, and God loves obedience more than sacrifice. “You have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8). Jesus encouraged the believers at Philadelphia, saying, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Rev. 3:10-11). The church’s faithful endurance would serve as a blessing. These words continue to serve as an encouragement to believers today who remain steadfast in their walk with Christ regardless of difficult times.
Laodicea was a beautiful Mediterranean city on the coast of Roman-controlled Syria. Being the largest church in that region, it took up an entire city block. The Christian church at Laodicea was likely founded circa 363 AD. The Ephesus river ran straight through the middle of the town, making it an important center for trade, famous for fine quality glossy black wool. The city had a formidable banking reputation—evidenced by the fact that Cicero was known for cashing in large bank drafts there. Laodicea also had a famous medical school.
“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. 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. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near'” (Rev. 3:14-17).
Culture and money had begun to distract the church. Christ expressed that the wealth and treasure they possessed was of no use because the time was near for His return. He tells them, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich” Ah, the fire and gold of God. Hallelujah! It does not get any better than that. Christ promised the Laodiceans, “…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” (Rev. 3:18). He condemned them for their delusion of self-sufficiency. Further, He was angry because their “smug self-deception blinds them to its miserable spiritual state” (v. 15-16). Jesus sought to shame their sinful self-reliance and mercifully invited them to turn to His limitless resources.”
The message to Laodicea is one of judgment and a call to repentance. Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). Remember Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). The Laodiceans had to decide where they would place their loyalty. Jesus warned them that because of their lukewarm commitment He would spit them out of His mouth. David Garland makes an interesting remark in the footnote to this passage in the ESV Study Bible. There was a serious problem with the potable water at Laodicea. There were a number of cold mountain springs to the north of the city, but instead its water came from hot springs in the south via a six-mile-long aqueduct. Typically, the water remained lukewarm at best. It was said to be so bad you’d rather spit it out than swallow it. Jesus literally used words the Laodiceans would understand.(3)
However, it is not likely Jesus meant what many people have determined. Scott Swain writes, “The expression ‘cold nor hot’ may refer to their lack of zeal (v. 19) or their uselessness… there is good reason why we should not try to take both of these words as though Christ meant, ‘I wish you were either spiritually cold [i.e., unsaved or hostile] or spiritually hot [i.e., alive and fervent].” He adds, “The two adjectives in ‘neither hot nor cold’ should be understood together as equivalent to ‘lukewarmness’ (v.16)—i.e., they were useless to Christ because they were complacent, self satisfied, and indifferent to the real issues of faith in him and of discipleship.”(4) We would do well to recognize such “useless” lukewarm service today and resolve to step fully into what Christ requires of us.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theo.
(1) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 1818.
(2) Dennis E. Johnson, fn, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, Inc., 2008), 2468.
(3) David E. Garland, fn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. ed., Hebrews-Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 636.
(4) Scott R. Swain, fn, Systematic Theology Study Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, Inc., 2017), 1596.
Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).