14 ‘To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Key OT/NT passages on how this passage fits within the Bible story as a whole
In this letter, Jesus brings together a cluster of Bible motifs which ‘fill out’ our understanding of the relationship between God and those he saves:
- dependence on God’s saving resources
- the importance of a persevering faith
- the removal of spiritual blindness
- his discipline of those he loves
- intimate fellowship with those who obey him.
- the sharing of his future rule
Jesus’ call for the Laodicean church to dependently buy gold from him fits with the LORD’s call in Isaiah 55:1 to dependently receive satisfaction from the love and splendour he sells without price. The faith that perseveres is like gold refined in the fire (see 1 Peter 1:7’s description of a faith worth more than gold). He removes spiritual blindness so that people can see who he is (John 9:39-41). Jesus’ assertion that he rebukes and disciplines those he loves so that they keep growing and going is exactly what the LORD has always told his people (Proverbs 3:11-12, see Hebrews 12:10-11). Those who love him in response will repentantly obey his teachings and have God living with them (John 14:23). They will rule with him forever (compare with Jesus’ promise to his disciples in Matthew 19:28).
Brief note on key themes of book
The book of Revelation is written by John to the suffering church (Revelation 1:9) under the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96AD). It is an epistle (Revelation 1:4), about the gospel of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:6), founded on the sovereignty of God (Revelation 1:7-8). Having presented us with a picture of Jesus in all his glory (Revelation chapters 1-3), it shows us a glimpse of heaven (Revelation chapters 4-5) and the way in which the lamb deals with God’s wrath. What follows is a series of overlapping picture that take us through from the present age to the return of Christ (chapters 6-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16, 17-18, 19 and 20). The final vision shows the New Jerusalem – Eden exceeded, and the temple fulfilled (chapters 21-22). This glimpse of heaven (‘Revelation’ literally means ‘an unveiling’) has a pastoral purpose. It is to show the suffering church that whatever is going on, God is on the throne, and is bringing everything to an end – his people, cared for by the risen Lord Jesus, will be safe.
Brief notes on the immediate context of the passage, and how we should apply it
This is the 7th of seven letters to seven Turkish churches that Jesus is ‘sending’ through John’s prophecy. Along with the 1st, it is the most critical. (The 2nd and 6th letters are encouraging while the 3rd, 4th and 5th include both rebukes and encouragements.) However, while these letters are addressed to individual churches, they are meant to be overheard by all the churches (3:22). As a result, these letters aren’t just giving each church individualised instructions on what they need to do to last. Jesus is giving all 7 churches a composite picture of what is important to Jesus and what should matter to them. We should read them in the same way. Jesus shows us what all churches -including Trinity- need to keep caring about so that they will stay healthy and last until his return.
Structure of the passage
The letter to Sardis in Revelation 3:14-22, like each of the letters to the seven churches, contains seven main elements
a command to write to the church’s angel (v14)
Christ’s self-description (v14 – faithful ruler.)
Christ’s knowledge of the church (v15 – I know your deeds)
A commendation and/or rebuke (v15-16)
A command/warning to repent or persevere (v17-20)
A promise for those who are victorious (v21)
A call to hear the Spirit’s message (v22 – whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches).
Jesus introduces himself as the faithful and true witness and the ruler of God’s creation (v14). He knows the Lord’s plans and can speak with authority about them. He rules because he has already been victorious (v21) in his death and resurrection and has sat down on the throne of his Father. From this position of rule and authority, he is interested in the deeds of his people in Laodicea (v15). Unfortunately, he finds that they are lukewarm (v16) – useless at doing the deeds of love, faith, service and perseverance he wants a church to be doing. He would rather they were like cold or hot water, which refresh or sooth and are useful to those who drink them. Because Jesus wants a useful church that does the job he’s given it to do, he warns the Laodiceans that he is about to judge them (spit them out of his mouth). But there is an alternative. A church that responds to Jesus’ instructions in this letter will remain useful. Its members will one day be victorious and enjoy the honour of joining Jesus on his throne (v21).
So, how can a church be useful? It needs to:
1) Keep returning to Jesus’ resources (17-18)
The church in Laodicea was useless because it was self-reliant (v17a). The church thought it had everything it needed to do the work Jesus asked it to do so it didn’t demonstrate faith and reliance on Jesus. Jesus shatters such a church’s delusions by showing that whatever material resources they have, they are spiritually pitiable and poor (v17b). They need to return to him for resources, ‘buying’ from him the persevering faith (gold), righteousness (white clothes), and spiritual sight (salve) they need to be a useful church (v18). We are not as self-reliant as Laodicea and are not judged as useless. However, we should avoid the subtle temptation to look to our own resources to complete the work Jesus has given us to do. Instead, we should keep acknowledging our spiritual neediness. We should go to Jesus for the faith we need to last, the righteousness we need to cover our daily sins and the sight we need to see ourselves rightly.
2) Keep responding to Jesus’ rebuke (v19-20)
As well as returning to Jesus’ resources, the church in Laodicea also needed to respond to Jesus’ rebuke and discipline. Contrary to our instincts, Jesus doesn’t rebuke and discipline because he wants to judge us. He rebukes and disciplines a church because he loves it (v19). He has a plan for its present (to be useful) and a plan for its future (to rule in victory). Jesus speaks through the scriptures so we should expect to find the Bible challenging us and making us uncomfortable. Jesus called the Laodiceans to be earnest (e.g. committed) and repent in response to his rebuke (v19). This would mean turning back to God’s way. Jesus turns to the individuals in the Laodicean church and makes it clear that he is already present, knocking at the door of their hearts with his words. Will they accept the hard truths he’s telling them and make their lives hospitable to him? Will they welcome him in as their master by obeying his call to change? If they do, they will know a deeper intimacy with him as a result (v20). We can blunt the challenge of Jesus’ word. Yet when we keep responding with repentance instead, we will experience greater intimacy with him. We will keep becoming a more useful church.
Suggestions for any tricky bits?
What does it mean for a church to be lukewarm in v15-16?
In English, the term ‘lukewarm’ means half-hearted and uncommitted. But that is not the meaning here. If that were the case, then Jesus would be saying that he would prefer a church was wholeheartedly against him (cold). This is clearly not his attitude, as the other six letters demonstrate! The point is that cold and hot water are both useful. The cold water of nearby Colossae was refreshing. The hot springs of nearby Hierapolis soothed the sick. But the Laodicean church was like Laodicea’s own water supply, lukewarm and so no good for anything. Useless. Jesus knew the deeds of Laodicea (v15) and could tell that they were not useful at doing the deeds he wanted them to be doing: living lives of love, faith, service and perseverance (see 2:2, 19, 3:8).
What does it mean for Jesus to spit a church out of his mouth? (v16)
Jesus is using metaphorical language to describe how he will judge a church which is useless at the deeds he has given it to do. Just as we might spit out water we find offensively lukewarm, he would reject the useless Laodicean church and have nothing to do with it. This is a promise of immediate judgement in the present age, before his return (he says he is ‘about’ to spit them out). A church Jesus rejects as useless will fade and die out.
Jesus says ‘buy’ from him (v18)– does this mean that we must earn our spiritual wealth from Jesus?
No. Jesus has just said the church is ‘wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Despite their material wealth they are in spiritual poverty, so they have nothing to give him in payment! This is all about his freely offered grace! Jesus is using the language of a marketplace because when you have nothing you go to the shops to get what you need. Jesus wants them to be aware of their poverty and know they can only get the spiritual resources they need to be a useful church from him. His words pick up on those of the LORD in Isaiah 55:1-2, who calls a rebellious and self-reliant people to ‘come buy…without money and without cost’ so that he can show them his faithful love and endow them with splendour.
Seriously, what is it with the gold, clothes and salve?
Again, Jesus is using the image of goods available in a Laodicean marketplace. The ‘gold refined in the fire’ is reminiscent of the persevering faith in 1 Peter 1:7. Given the message of each previous letter encouraging perseverance, persevering faith is likely to be the gold Jesus is offering to supply the church with here. The other two images are more straightforward. ‘White clothes’ are the robes made ‘white in the blood of the lamb’ (Revelation 7:14). They are Jesus’ righteousness, which is given to sinners who trust his saving death on the cross. At the cross, Jesus died to take their shame and sin and give them his good status with the Father. The ‘salve’ refers to spiritual sight, which enables believers to see themselves as they really are, and Jesus as he really is.
V19 says Jesus disciplines those he loves? What does that discipline look like?
This letter does not tell us what the discipline would be, but we know it is something he does in love. Throughout scripture God says that his discipline may be painful for those who receive it, but it will lead them into the way of holiness and peace (Proverbs 3:11-12, Hebrews 12:10-11). This discipline is something that will be painful or apparently undesirable for the church but will draw its members to respond to Jesus with repentance and become the useful church he desires. This way they church’s members will rule with him for eternity (v21). His discipline now is meant to keep them from judgement.
Isn’t v20 about non-believers responding to the gospel message?
This verse is often quoted as an example of Jesus calling non-believers to repent and believe in him. However, that is not what the verse is about when read (as it should be) in its context. Jesus is speaking to professing Christians – members of the Laodicean church. He is saying that if they are responsive to his voice and repent of their sin and self-reliance, they will enjoy intimacy with him.
Summary of author’s main point
The Laodicean church was useless and needed to return to Jesus for grace and repent. Only then would it be useful and victorious.
Purpose for original audience
Humbly return to Jesus and repent of proud self-reliance.
Purpose for us today
Know the victorious Jesus wants a church that stays useful and so keeps returning to his resources and responding to his rebuke.
Key areas of application
To the whole church:
Keep returning to Jesus’ resources so you remain useful and don’t become self-reliant.
1) Recall your spiritual neediness (v17)
2) Go buy from Jesus (v18)
3) Ask for faith, righteousness and sight (v18)
To individual Christians:
Keep responding to Jesus’ rebuke. Expect the Bible to make you uncomfortable and open it with others so that your own biases don’t blunt Jesus’ words. When you repent, your intimacy with Jesus will grow.
To sceptics & explorers:
- How do you know you’ve got what Christianity is about? When you can honestly say v17 applies to you but can also say Jesus’ righteousness is available to you.
- What does being a Christian look like from the inside? Living an authentic life that’s responsive to Jesus and enjoys intimacy with him.