Pastor’s Note: Flunking then passing the exam

Reality Check

The last letter on Jesus’ list in Revelation is Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22).  The evaluation is brutal and goes something like this: ‘when I think of your job performance, it makes me want to throw up (the Greek root for emetic).’  But it all goes upward from there, which is always the intent of Jesus: correction with the goal of redemption (“those whom I love I reprove and discipline.”)  If the Laodiceans get their act together (“be zealous and repent”), the reward is nothing short of spectacular: reigning with God the Son and God the Father on a heavenly throne (see the scene of chapter 4 and chapter 5 to get an idea of what that means).

So what’s so wrong with them? They are truly like the worst pupil in the class.  The Laodiceans are indolent in all things spiritual.  The text says three times they are neither cold nor hot.  At first we might read this statement to mean that to be “cold” is bad and to be “hot” is good.  However, both properties relate to the water sources well known in the area.  6 miles north of Laodicea are the hot springs of Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale).  10 miles east is Colossae (the site of Paul’s letter), well known for its good, cold and refreshing waters.  But flowing through Laodicea is the Lycus river, described by a commentator as ‘turbid’* and not very good for consumption (nobody likes “lukewarm” water).  So the irony from Jesus is hard to miss: Laodicean Christians, you are just like your waters: not much use for anything. They have sadly abandoned the fountains of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13; see John 4:14) and now produce the “bitter waters” so well known in biblical history (Exodus 15:23-24).

The situation worsens when Jesus exposes their complete lack of self-awareness. They are convinced of their good standing when they say: “I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.” Jesus brings in the reality check: they are in fact “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  This distorted sense of self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction probably stems from the fact that the city of Laodicea was a wealthy banking and manufacturing hub (textiles). So in a real material sense, it’s true that they weren’t in need (like the church in Smyrna by contrast).  But when it comes to what really matters for a disciple of Jesus, bearing fruit, their investment return was anemic.

Sound investment advice

So Jesus gives a bit of unsolicited financial advising: invest in precious metals, especially refined gold (Revelation 3:18).  Here we can’t help but draw the image from Proverbs and Psalm that speak of wisdom and the Word of God as far more valuable than any possession on earth, including “gold” (Psalm 119:72; Proverbs 3:13-15).  We also remember Jesus’ exhortation to invest in the treasures of heaven.  Note the source of this spiritual wealth: Jesus Himself (“from me” Revelation 3:18; Isaiah 55:1-2).  Also stemming directly from Jesus are “white garments” (symbolic for righteousness, Revelation 6:11; Isaiah 61:10).  Finally, the healing balm of Jesus to open their blind eyes completes the picture of irony: Laodicea was also the site of a medical school.  So Jesus doesn’t leave them in their state of complete destitution, self-deception and shame, but He is inviting them back to Him.  He is the One clothing them with His righteousness to cover the shame of their spiritual nakedness. He is the One who provides for all their spiritual needs.

The image that comes next (Revelation 3:20) speaks so much of God’s heart to reach out to even the worst spiritual under performers: If their works makes Jesus nauseous, like polluted water, He is not deterred from wanting to have a fellowship meal with them. He is waiting outside their house to come in for a good celebration meal.  The key to this return to fellowship with Jesus is their repentance.  If they (and we) do so, we can also look forward to a seat at the table with the King of kings, seated on a throne, no less (Revelation 3:21).

Reflections

First, all of us need to consider our own propensity to create a distorted view of ourselves.  Jesus comes to us here and says, are you as fruitful and effective as you think you are?  Just because we may have all we need in a material sense doesn’t mean we aren’t spiritually exposed and bare before Him. Wealth creation and productivity is not really what Jesus condemns here (see 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and Proverbs 3:9-10), but rather the idea that physical well being inevitably equates spiritual prosperity (Hoseah 12:8 is almost a verbatim quote).  It seems we can easily fall for the same kind of trap.

Second, we might feel like the worst student in the class when it comes to spiritual awareness.  But we take heart, because Jesus loves to fellowship with all kinds of spiritual under achievers and doubters.  All we need to do is ask Him to come in and He will draw near us and restore us.

Third, a text that seems to bring all the themes of the letter to Laodicea is Proverbs 3:7-17.  Perhaps take the time during this week in family devotions to ponder over these truths and how to apply them in your own context.

 

*Colin Hemer