Unpacking the Message to Laodicea

Reserved for the church in Laodicea were some strong rebukes. The Head of the Church, the Bridegroom, identifies Himself in no uncertain terms. He is the “Amen,” the “Faithful and True Witness,” as well as the “Beginning of the Creation of God.” What significance is embedded in this introduction?

The Amen

Nowhere else in Scripture does this function as a name or title. The way John uses this title here is a way to represent a quality par excellence. This loan word from Hebrew carries the idea of truth, verity, credibility, certainty – great descriptions for the One who said, “I am the truth…” (John 14.6). As the Lord deals with the lukewarmness in this church – perhaps a sin of insincerity – He drives home the truth of His own sincerity and truthfulness.

Faithful and True Witness

As Jesus continues to describe Himself, He identifies as the witness, the faithful and true (this is the emphatic word order of John’s record). Embedded in the idea of “witness” is the confirmation that Jesus is a reliable witness to every divine revelation God has provided. As a witness, He can be trusted with no fear of exaggeration, false narratives, biased and selective testimonies – He can only speak truth!

The quality of trustworthiness is comprehended by the word faithful. This particular church could not be commended for its work or witness – it was not a faithful and true one. In stark contrast to the church who needed to repent stands the unique and matchless Son of God. His testimony, His character is both impeccable and impeachable. Whatever He is about to say to this church can be trusted (as well as what He continues to say today).

The Beginning of the Creation of God

This title is at danger of being misunderstood by those who hold Christological errors. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the full deity of Christ, point to this verse as showing Jesus had “a beginning.” In the neighboring city of Colossae, Paul had dealt with such a Christological heresy, and intentionally (by inspiration) referred to Christ as the Firstborn and Preeminent One (Colossians 1.15-20).

Regardless of how people may misinterpret or misunderstand the text today, there is a more important principle to uncover. Specifically, we should ask, “How would the church at Laodicea have understood this title?”

The hermeneutical debate comes down to how we should understand the usage of the word arche (αρχη). The Arians (those who followed Arius at the Council of Nicaea) argued for the term to be understood as passive: “the one begun.” This would place Christ as a creature rather than the Creator. He would have had a beginning rather than be understood as eternal.

Throughout church history, most believers have taken this word in its active sense, thus meaning “beginner, originator, initiator” of the Creation of God. A quick perusal of John’s Christology (as well as all New Testament writers) would confirm this is the correct interpretation. The emphasis here is not on the beginning of Christ; it’s on the beginning of creation.

He knows them

In verse fifteen, the Lord states unequivocally, “I know thy works.” When a church is being evaluated by the Head, there is no escaping the omniscient, omnipresent eye of Christ. He knows! The word Christ uses (oida, οιδα) is not a knowledge about trivial facts; rather, this knowledge is intimate, complete, and infallible. There is no argument that the Laodiceans can offer as an excuse or alternative viewpoint. He knows!

What does this knowledge reveal about the church at Laodicea? The knowledge possessed by the Lord is more than, “Hey, I saw what you did…” As Thomas explains,

“They are a reflection of life and conduct in general, including outward and inward spiritual activities (Alford). They are evidence of the inward spiritual condition the Lord alone sees and knows directly (Beckwith; Lenski). It is by means of these that men prove what they actually are.”

Robert Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary, 304.

The evaluation by Jesus of this church is that they possess a spirit of mediocrity – they’re lukewarm. Bible commentaries have debated the meaning of “cold” and “hot” ad nauseum. It’s a difficult “truth” to say that God would rather have a “cold” church over a lukewarm one…so what is the intent? Earlier, we mentioned that this city did not have its own water supply. Its water was brought in from Colossae and Hierapolis, each with differing purposes.

In Colossae, the water came from the mountains and into the springs. It was, by all accounts, “cold” water – but with an excellent taste. Since most of the springs in the area were hot or warm springs, this was indeed a most fortunate occurrence. Fifteen miles in the opposite direction were the hot springs of Hierapolis. These waters were similar to Warm Springs (the waters that provided therapeutic relief to President Roosevelt) in that they helped bring relief to a great number of people.

The cold water was refreshing; the hot water was therapeutic and restorative. The lukewarm water had no function and served no purpose. It was too warm to drink and too cool to be of any medicinal value. Lukewarm water will not make a difference in anyone’s life. Think about that in light of Christ’s rebuke. Here is Patterson’s paraphrase:

I wish that you were either a fresh, life-giving drink of cold water or else a healing, hot mineral bath. But, because you are neither refreshing and life giving nor healing, you are simply disgusting; and I will spew you out of my mouth.

Paige Patterson, Revelation, 139.

Whereas Laodicea may have thought they were doing well and were self-sufficient (verse 17), they were actually in dire straits. The Lord of all ages was preparing to vomit them, to spew them, out of His mouth.  The word picture that is crafted here needs no explanation – it’s a vivid description of what awaits the lukewarm church.

To these who thought that their lives weren’t that bad – those who believed they had need of nothing, Jesus offers them strong counsel. In Revelation 3.18, this group is counseled to obtain three items from Jesus. He is emphatically telling them: “You buy from Me…” These who would be self-sufficient would learn that they were utterly dependent upon Christ.

First, He advises them to buy pure gold so that they could be rich. Secondly, He advises them to buy clothing so that they will not be naked. Thirdly, He counsels them to buy eye salve so that they could see.

This city was known for its economic wealth, yet Christ counsels them to get pure gold from Him. This city was famous for its textile manufacturing, and yet this church was instructed to get their clothing from Him. Laodicea was respected for its medical solutions, and yet again, the solution for this church was rooted in an anointing from Christ Himself.  This world, with its materialism, manufacturing, and medical advances cannot bring about spiritual health.

In case the instruction from Christ seems hard and uncaring, He states in verse 19: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten…” They are to heed the instructions, be zealous, and repent. The condition of this church isn’t permanent – it can still experience revival. That this is Christ’s intent is demonstrated by the invitation of verse 20. He is knocking at the door – waiting to enjoy fellowship with these believers. While this verse at times is misused as a salvation invitation verse, the context shows that Jesus is outside His own church, wanting to come inside. May this picture not be true of our churches today!

The next post will remind us of the promise that God made to the overcomers here.

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