Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Laodicea was part of a tri-city area in Lycus Valley of the Roman province of Asia that included Hierapolis (six miles south) and Colossae (ten miles west). Through the influence of Paul’s co-workers, Christian communities were established in all three cities (Colossians 4:13-15). However, only Laodicea is addressed in Revelation 1-3.
Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs while Colossae was watered by cold springs. Laodicea received much of its water via aqueduct from the surrounding hills. Some think this factors into how Laodicea is addressed by Jesus. Whatever the case, Laodicea was located on the crossroads of the north-south and east-west trade routes as well as situated in a fertile valley. This enabled its wealth which is indicated by two large amphitheaters and a hippodrome. The city even boasted a medical school. As a large comerical, agricultural and manufacturing center, the city appeared practically self-sufficient.
Addressor: “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”
This threefold identification–none of which appears in the Christophany of Revelation 1–is an astounding claim. The only parallel in the biblical canon to the first (“Amen”) is Isaiah 65:16 where, literally, “one will bless by the God of Amen.” This is the one by whom the people of God swear and take loyalty oaths. This leads to the identification “faithful and true witness” as the “Amen” (so it is!) is the one who has borne a faithful and authentic witness in the world as God’s loyal one. This is the one who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. At the same time, this faithful martyr (witness) was also present at the origins of creation as the very agent of creation itself. The risen, enthroned Messiah is also the very beginning (arche) of creation, or–as Colossians 1:15 states it–the “firstborn of creation.” Like God himself (Revelation 21:6), the Messiah is the “beginning and end” of all things (Revelation 22:13). Consequently, this self-identification gives the Messiah divine status, power, and authority. Once again, it is a counter-claim to those made by the Caesars.
Warning: “I know your works…”
For Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-12) this statement was an encouragement. For Laodicea it is an indictment. Their works are neither hot nor cold. Hot and cold drinks are pleasant and useful at the right time. But lukewarm water is unsuitable for drinking; it is useless and unpleasant. The metaphor Jesus employs is not about hot=good or cold=bad, but rather that hot and cold drinks have a usefuleness while lukewarm drinks are spit out of the mouth.
Laodicea’s works are like a lukewarm drink when a hot or cold one is expected. We reject lukewarm coffee when we expect it to be hot and we wince at lukewarm coke when we expect it to be cold. Like a lukewarm drink, Jesus will spit Laodicea’s works (thus the body itself) out of his mouth.
What is the problem? They boast wealth, prosperity and self-sufficieny. Their problem is their pride. “I” heads the self-descriptions…I…I…I. They abhor dependance on another and see themselves as fully equipped with what they need. But in reality they are very broken people. “Wretched” evokes images of one who has hit rock bottom. Rather than self-sufficient, they are “poor, blind, and naked.” They are destitute and powerless.
The resolution is to turn toward Jesus and “buy” from him gold, garments and salve for the eyes. The metaphor of “buy” is probably drawn from Isaiah 55 where the people of God are invited to “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). In other words, though commerical language is used, people may obtain this for the asking. It is an invitation to renew relationship with Jesus. They can become rich, clothed, and seeing, but only if they seek this from Jesus rather than from the commercial culture in which they live.
Jesus’ acknowledgement of their works is a warning about self-deception. They think they are healthy but they are not. So, Jesus confronts (rebukes, reproves) them. This form of discipline arises out of love. Proverbs reminds us that God disciplines those whom he loves (Proverbs 3:12; also quoted in Hebrews 12:6). Discipline intends to disciple or train. It has the potential of bearing fruit that we might share in God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10). But how we respond to discipline is a choice. One must open the door when God is knocking.
Invitation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
“Behold” calls attention to the announcement to follow. This is something to which the Laodiceans should pay particular attention. Jesus offers an invitation. Jesus wants to enter the lives of the Laodiceans so that he might eat with them.
The goal is fellowship which is symbolized by eating a meal together. The table has always been a place of fellowship in the history of God’s people. Israel ate their sacrificial meals in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 27:6-7), the church eats the Lord’s Supper in the presence of the living Christ, even eating “with” Jesus (Matthew 26:29), and we anticipate the eschatological Messianic banquet when the Messiah will serve us at the banquet table (Luke 12:35-37). Jesus wants relationship with the Laodiceans and he knocks at the door waiting for them to enter.
We must remember, however, that the one who is knocking here is not the sweet, mild, perhaps even timid Jesus who carries a lamb on his shoulder, but the Christ who appears as the imperial Lord (the Christophany of Revelation 1). The one knocking at the door is the Amen, the faithful witness and the “beginning and end” of creation itself. Be careful when you open the door to this Lord as he will make demands on your life even as he sits down at the table with you.
Promise: “”The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne.”
Jesus is the faithful witness; he is the model of the one who overcomes or conquers. He bore witness to the truth even to the point of death. He is the faithful martyr. His death, however, was not a defeat. Rather, through his witness, he was enthroned with the Father. In the same way, we are promised that if we overcome through faithful witness, we, too, will be enthroned and reign with Christ. Just as the Son sits with the Father on his throne, so we will sit with the Son on his.
Admonition: “Whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Are we listening?