17 For you say, “I am rich and I have prospered, and I have need of nothing,” but you don’t know that you yourself are the wretched and pitiable and poor and blind and naked one. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold purified from fire so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may be clothed and the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed, and to rub eye salve on your eyes so that you may see. 19 As many as ever I myself love I rebuke and I discipline. Be zealous, therefore, and repent. 20 Behold I stand at the door and I knock. If anyone should hear my voice and should open the door, I will enter in to him and I will dine with him and he with me. 21 The one who overcomes I will give him to sit with me on my throne, as I also have overcome and I have sat down with my Father on His throne. 22 The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
This week we finished up Jesus’ letter to the church in Laodicea, the last of the letters to the seven churches. Before I summarize what we discussed, let me just remind you that my translation (above) is deliberately wooden and not the best English. This is because I’m trying to make some of the emphases and sentence constructions of the Greek clearer than they would be had I rendered the passage into “good” English. Hopefully you get the idea of what’s being said. Feel free to follow with your preferred translation.
We already noted that the Laodicean church was in a bad way. Unlike the other six churches, there was nothing for which Jesus could commend the church, whether their love for one another, or their firm opposition to false teaching. It seems the church wasn’t getting anything right. The heart of the issue seems to be cultural compromise and an unwillingness to make a clear stand for Christ and for the gospel. This is why Jesus presents himself at the beginning of the letter as the “Faithful and True Witness”–his willingness to sacrifice even his life to bear testimony to the grace of the Father in the salvation of His people gives us the ultimate exemplar of the Christian life. When the Laodiceans compare their lives to the witness and love for the lost Christ displayed, they fall far, far short. Why do the Laodiceans appear to be so unconcerned with sharing the gospel and proclaiming the lordship of Christ? I think Jesus addresses some of this in verse 17.
The church says, “I am rich and have become prosperous and I need nothing!” Recall from last time the fact that Laodicea was a prosperous city, so much so that when leveled by an earthquake it could refuse Roman assistance and fund its own rebuilding. This attitude of self-reliance based upon financial prosperity is something we can relate to here in the West. And unfortunately, the Laodiceans are not alone in allowing this kind of thinking to permeate the church. It’s also possible that the Laodiceans thought their wealth was a sign of God’s blessing upon them. In other words, God clearly didn’t have a problem with them because He granted them riches. This equating of worldly gain with the blessing of God is not without Scriptural foundation, but it is often abused. God showed his favor to Solomon by making him wealthy (1 Kings 3:10-14), and He blessed Joseph with earthly riches. However, God doesn’t always bless in this way. And why would God bless disobedience? If, as we’ll see in a few verses, He chastens those whom He loves, why would he allow them to sin and not bring discipline upon them? Maybe the wealth of the Laodiceans was given by God not to bless, but to expose their dependence on material possessions and the shallowness of their faith. Again, this speaks volumes to us in the twenty-first century church.
Christ tells them that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”–quite a slap in the face! But the depth of their fall is underscored by the fact Jesus says “You don’t know…” This is perhaps the biggest indictment of the Laodiceans: yes, they are deeply in sin, but what’s worse is that they don’t seem to realize they’re deeply in sin! They have become so immersed in the thinking and attitude of the culture around them, they don’t see how far they have fallen from gospel truth. They can’t see how spiritually poor they are for gazing at their material wealth. By calling them “wretched and pitiable” Jesus strikes a blow to their pride. He then hits them by calling them “poor” despite their full bank accounts (in contrast to the Smyrnans who Jesus described as spiritually rich, although physically poor). They are “blind” for not seeing the foolishness of trading the gospel for the temporal security of wealth. And they are naked, spiritually laid bare before Christ who truly knows their works. (The references to blindness and nakedness would have been particularly meaningful to the Laodiceans. The city was known as a bit of a medical center, famous for an eye salve that was supposed to be quite effective. It also had a thriving garment trade, particularly noted for black woolen garments.)
Despite these harsh words, Christ doesn’t consider the church in Laodicea a lost cause. This should give us comfort. We are quick to judge the pride and hypocrisy of the Laodicean Christians, but we are guilty of as much in our own hearts. We are quick to become prideful and self-reliant. We seek our own solutions before we turn to prayer. And we too often shy away from public proclamations of Christ for fear of offending others. The Lord doesn’t give up on us, either.
In verse 18 we see Christ’s life-line for the Laodiceans: he counsels them to purchase what they need from him. We noted the fact that Christ councels or advises the church–he doesn’t command (though he could). Perhaps the intention here is the same as Paul’s when he urged Philemon to receive Onesimus, the runaway slave, as a brother, not a criminal. He appealed to him based on the fact that, as a Christian, he should know what to do. Here, Christ counsels the Laodiceans because while they have backslidden, they are not lost. The Spirit could still stir their hearts to obedience, and Jesus would sooner let the church (through the Spirit) recognize their sin and turn to him.
Jesus offers to “sell” the Laodiceans purified gold, white garments, and eye salve. The purified, or burnished gold is symbolic of spiritual purity (like Jesus’ “burnished bronze” feet in 1:15). Unlike the worldly gold of which the Laodiceans were so enamored, Jesus’ gold is untainted with sin. By “purchasing” this gold, the Laodiceans would prefer Christ-centeredness over worldliness; true spiritual riches over material prosperity. Like the Smyrnans, they would no longer place their trust in material wealth, but recognize their need for Christ and all that he offers. White garments are a common symbol of righteousness (see The Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19, for example). When addressing the church in Sardis, Jesus noted there were a few there who had “unsullied” garments–they had not become polluted by the world, unlike the rest of that church. The Laodiceans need to rid themselves of worldly pollution, and they can do this only by getting their righteousness from Christ. The “shame” of the Laodiceans’ nakedness is a reference to their very obvious sin (even if they don’t see it). There is similar terminology in Ezekiel 16:35-37 with reference to the way the Lord was going to judge Israel’s idolatry. Finally, the “eye salve” from Christ clearly contrasts the eye salve for which Laodicea was famous. The physical salve may bring relief from eye problems, but it does nothing for their spiritual blindness. They need Christ’s “salve” to be able to see their sin, repent, and turn back to him.
No doubt the church would be feeling pretty beaten up by now, so Christ reminds them why he has been so harsh: he chastens and disciplines those he loves. It is his deep, passionate love and concern for his people that drives him to be so blunt. Despite being on the brink of apostasy, the Laodicean church is still his, and Christ is warning them of their situation in order to drive them back to himself. If the opposite of love is apathy rather than hate, Jesus’ emotional words in the previous verses should indicate how much he loves these people, otherwise he wouldn’t say anything and leave them in their sin. And as Christ has shown zeal for his people, so they need to be zealous in their love for the Lord and his gospel. As with the Ephesians, there needs to be a rekindling of that first love, leading to a passion for the Lord that overcomes fear of worldly opinion and the cultural consequences of proclaiming Christ. There also needs to be repentance. The church needs to recognize their sin and turn away from it. Simply being on fire for the Lord isn’t enough; they have to acknowledge they were wrong, and abandon their old compromising ways.
In verse 20 Jesus makes a final appeal to the church to restore that close, intimate fellowship with him. This verse has often been used in evangelistic encounters, but I think the context demonstrates this is not an appropriate use of Revelation 3:20. Jesus is addressing a church, not unbelievers, albeit a church that has been ignoring him, thinking they can go it alone. The Lord wants them to hear him and invite him to the supper table (like the beloved knocking on the bride’s bedroom door in Song of Songs 5:2), possibly a reference to the Lord’s Supper, symbolizing that restoration of the church to close fellowship with her Lord.
As with the other letters, Jesus closes with a promise to the “overcomer”: to share Christ’s throne. Verses 20 and 21 seem to echo Jesus’ teaching in Luke 22:28-30 where he promises those who stay with him a place in his kingdom, a place at the table in his kingdom, and a place on his throne, sitting in judgment. Is this promise something fulfilled at physical death or at the Second Coming? Arguments might be made for both, but that’s not really the point. The promise is more important than the timing as far as the Laodicean church is concerned. Following Christ’s counsel might well be socially ruinous for them. By rejecting the world’s prosperity in favor of honoring Christ, they could lose not only financial support, but also their standing in the community, and all the other benefits they had gained through compromise. This promise reminds them, however, that for all they might lose, what they will gain is far more than they could ever imagine.
Next time, we’ll review the seven letters and perhaps start chapter 4!