We learn much about seven churches’ problems in Revelation 2-3. Five of the seven addresses include the command to repent, by the way: Ephesus for lost love, Pergamum for failing to confront false teachers, Thyratira for allowing sin in the church, and Sardis for sleeping. But the last church addressed, the lukewarm Laodiceans, may be the closest parallel to us. Their presumed spiritual prosperity was really poverty, and Jesus implored them to be zealous and repent.
How can we fix our broken hearts, our broken churches, and our broken culture? Is it possible for our souls to be spiritually rich and righteous? Is it possible for our churches to be spiritually hot and bright lights in our culture? The answer is a resounding Yes! And what we need is repentance.
Things are not good, yet we are indifferent, and worse, ignorant of our indifference. We often fail to see sin for what it really is. Sin deceives us, offering us substitute, short-term joy of second-rate quality. Our churches suffer as a result. As our personal interests are worldly, so are our corporate programs. As our souls are apathetic, our local bodies grow perilously anemic.
We need a change. We need repentance. We need Augustine. Similar to today, “The congregations who heard Augustine preach were not exceptionally sinful. Rather, they were firmly rooted in long-established attitudes, in ways of life and ideas, to which Christianity was peripheral” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 247). He “preached to men who thought they knew what the Christian life consisted of” (ibid., 244).
Maybe more than anyone else in church history, Augustine of Hippo wrestled with blinding, joy-stealing sin. He was afraid to let loose of his lusts for fear that he would lose joy.
But in his Confessions, Augustine described God’s sovereign reproof and loving discipline that lead him to repentance. We will consider his life and his teaching, throughout this continuing series, as someone outside our century, who may give us perspective and remedy for the problems in our own day. By God’s grace, we may have our eyes opened. Or, as John wrote in Revelation 3:22,
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The richest, most cherished fellowship awaits the repentant.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Jesus is close. He says, I stand at the door and knock. Differing arguments are made as to whether Jesus stands at the door of unbelievers’ hearts, or at the door of sinful, lukewarm believers’ hearts, or if He was standing at the actual door of the Laodicean church.
The singular pronouns indicate a personal rather than corporate knocking: “if anyone,” “come to him,” “eat with him,” “he with Me,” “the one who conquers.” At the same time, the passage is addressed to the church. Therefore, I think the invitation is to those who were in the church, who may have been indifferent to, and ignorant of, their spiritual condition. The ones who didn’t even realize what they were missing are now graciously summoned to intimacy with their Master.
Jesus is pictured as the master returning to his house (cf. Luke 12:35-36), whose servants should be alert, attentive, and eagerly awaiting their master’s arrival. They know that the master is their good, not the things that he left behind in his house. Jesus offers Himself to the repentant, to those who give up their ignorant claims to prosperity, who want Him more than anything else. Of course, only those He loves will actually get up and open the door.
Jesus emphasizes sweet communion, eating face to face with His servant over dinner. No other relationship in the universe provides such soul fulfillment. For that matter, no other religion in the world offers a man such personal intimacy with His Lord.
Even more, as He did with the previous churches, those who conquer or overcome will reign with Jesus on His throne. This promise anticipates the rest of the book of Revelation, the King’s second coming, and the final destiny of the world. The invitation is to fellowship that begins now and that we will enjoy forever. But, as the entire paragraph makes clear, that intimacy is a result of repentance.
There is only one approach to receive His generous gifts offered in verse 18. There is only one path to escape spiritual poverty, shame, and blindness. There is only one source of fulfillment, honor, and sight. There is only one program to exchange indifference and ignorance for intensity, only one way to avoid being spit out of Christ’s mouth: repentance.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
According to verse 19, Jesus doesn’t leave the ones He loves in a lukewarm condition, at least not for long. He will reprove and discipline; He will correct and train. In this context of spiritual lukewarmness, the design of Jesus’ discipline is to fire up His beloved.
At least two implications stand out about Christ’s loving correction. First, do we realize that conviction is a blessing? If we don’t know something is wrong we’re unlikely to seek a remedy. Perhaps our current misery is a training grace to turn our attention to the One who makes rich.
Second, do we realize that indifference is a judgment? Apathy is bad. Ignorant apathy is worse. Being left in ignorant apathy is the worst! God curses us when He affords us with what we think we want. Unchecked unconcern not only leaves us in the ditch, it also demonstrates we are not loved by Jesus.
I’m afraid this is where many in our churches are today. Things aren’t good, around us or in us, and we don’t care. We go on, desperately trying to act like things are okay. Our affections are lukewarm. But if our love is regularly running low, we may be experiencing God’s judgment, not His blessing.
He doesn’t allow His own to go on unaware forever. His tender, loving discipline brings those He loves to repentance.
So be zealous and repent. These are the two imperatives. The indictment is not final or irreversible, if we will repent. “Lukewarmness is not necessarily terminal” (Thomas 318), and that is good news.
The first command is Be zealous. It confronted the predominant Laodicean problem. Jesus required His followers to be hot, on fire, boiling over with zeal. The command to be zealous comes first for emphasis, but second in sequence.
That’s because the spiritual heart-fires spark when we repent. Proper passion is the result of repentance, otherwise we could be (presumably, and incongruously) excited about being cold.
Repent fundamentally means “change one’s mind.” Repentance includes ownership of our wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked state. Repentance makes no claims of possessing what we need. Repentance turns from self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and self-justification. It comes with empty hands to the only One who can fill them.
We wrongly think about repentance as giving up what we really love for what someone told us we should like better. With reluctance we turn away from what was sure to please us in the past, even though the pleasure was temporary. But we miss that repentance is not a turning from pleasure to empty handedness. Repentance is a turning from a mirage of pleasures to the real, highest, and substantial pleasures. He makes rich! He covers our nakedness! He opens our eyes to finally see what is truly glorious! And the doorway into spiritual fullness is repentance.
Sin not only offends God, it ruins us. It not only robs God of His glory, it also steals our joy. Sin makes us soul-poor. Sin exposes our shame. Sin blinds us. Therefore, the restoration of spiritual prosperity begins as we abandon sin, renounce self-sufficiency, and seek all our good in Christ.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
Herein is the Lord’s gracious instruction. He counsels the Laodiceans to buy what is priceless, to purchase great spiritual benefits though they were bereft of any personal resources. Christ pressed the Laodiceans to do business with Him; He was (and is) the sole-supplier of these goods.
He listed three objects for them to buy: gold, white garments, and eye-salve. Each of the three objects struck close to home for the Laodiceans, known for their wealth, their wool, and their medicine. But Jesus wasn’t opening a competing marketplace on an adjacent corner, He was offering spiritual commodities with transcendent worth.
There is little doubt that Jesus’ advice deliberately echoes the call of the LORD in Isaiah 55:1-2.
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
God will make us spiritually rich if we come as beggars. The bank account of our hearts will be full if we admit emptiness. God will clothe us in purity and righteousness, if we strip off our own. And He will open our blind eyes, correcting our vision of our condition and into His truth, if we confess our inability to see. In a word, His spiritual gifts are granted to those who repent.
As He did with each of the previous six churches, Jesus asserted His knowledge of the congregation’s condition, then leveled the following formal charge against the Laodiceans.
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:15-17)
Jesus knew their works, but this was not simply a reference to their external, public behavior. The entire paragraph (vv. 14-22) reveals that His indictment included a thorough familiarity with their internal, personal attitude as well. Works merely displayed the posture of their hearts.
The works of the Laodiceans revealed at least two problems.
1. Indifference (vv. 15-16)
Jesus confronted the Laodicean apathy with one of the most memorable word pictures in all the Bible.
You are neither cold nor hot. Hot and cold are temperature extremes, and the illustration would have connected immediately with the Laodicean consciousness. Water was a daily issue for them. Though they tried to fix their problem with external sources, the solution ended up creating it’s own problem. By the time the cold water crossed from Colosse to Laodicea, it was no longer cool and refreshing, nor was it hot like the hot spring water in Heiropolis. Cold was warm, hot was tepid, both were useless. More than that, Jesus declared that sort of water was disgusting.
Interpretation questions surface regarding whether hot and cold are simply illustrations, or if both represented profitable uses, or if one was good (hot) and the other bad (cold). I’ve gone round and round over the intended meaning since I was in college. Obviously Jesus is confronting indifference and apathy, but is He saying Christians should be either refreshingly cold or therapeutically hot, not in between? Or is He saying it is better to be spiritually on fire or spiritually antagonistic rather than on the fence?
In the context, hot clearly represents spiritual fervency. It is commanded by Jesus in verse 19, “Be zealous,” and both the imperative (ζήλευε) and the adjective (ζεστὸς) here in verse 16 come from the same root (ζέω) meaning “to boil.” Figuratively the word meant to be stirred up emotionally, to be enthusiastic, or to be on fire.
I have also come to believe that cold represents open, outright obstinacy to Jesus. It isn’t that the cold don’t know. They do know, and they’re honest enough and take it serious enough to reject the truth. The cold have no interest in Christ whatsoever.
But could Jesus really mean this? Why would Jesus wish anyone to be cold, that is, in open rejection of Him? Even if our experience tells us that straightforward rejection is, at least in some respect, easier or better to deal with, does this passage actually teach it? I now think yes, based on the second part of the indictment seen below.
No matter what, being lukewarm is intolerable. Revelation 3:16 is the only occurrence of the word lukewarm (χλιαρὸς) in the Bible. These were the in-betweeners. The congregation in Laodicea was diluted, if in fact, there were any true believers at all. The church was worldly and their Christianity was nominal. It was not good.
The tepid spiritual temperature sickened Jesus. It disgusted Him like nothing else: I will spit you out of My mouth. Other translations say, “spue” (KJV) or even “vomit” (YNG). The point is, indifference is repulsive. Apathy is nauseating. Jesus is saddened by the lost, angered by the self-righteous, but He was and is sickened by the lukewarm, and wants nothing to do with them.
2. Ignorance (v. 17)
Verse 17 elaborates on lukewarmness by revealing the root of indifference. The Laodiceans were lukewarm because they failed to see their true condition.
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
What a dreadful branding they received at the end of verse 17: wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Each adjective depicted their spiritual state. The darkest affliction, however, was that they didn’t even know it. They saw themselves as just the opposite. They claimed I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. They thought they were really cooking. They thought they had arrived.
At best their perspective was naive, more likely they were arrogant, but worst of all they were deceived, not realizing that [they were actually] wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. They were ignorant of their true condition. Wretched refers to those in emergency requiring urgent help. The pitiable were those whose hopes had been smashed. The poor were penniless. The blind were visually impaired and naked were physically exposed. The Laodicean church was living in a spiritual fiction. Their presumed prosperity was actually poverty. Their souls were bankrupt. They supposed they had no need, failing to recognize that all they had was need.
The lukewarm, then, are the pretenders, the hypocrites, those in the “church” whose profession is unaware of, or unattached to reality. They presume that they are hot but in reality are not.
Jesus is not leveling a charge against baby Christians who understandably encounter growing pains. Instead, His holy impatience and disgust is with those in the church who are indifferent to Him and ignorant of their real spiritual condition. This might be an unbeliever who thinks he’s a believer, or perhaps a willfully immature believer who refuses, at least for a time, to acknowledge his need.
At least the cold know that they’re cold. At least their rejection cards are on the table to be dealt with. That kind of person we can talk to; that kind of person Jesus understands. But the lukewarm is vomited out. The Laodicean church was characterized by spiritual lukewarmness. Sadly, so are many of our churches.
Exiled on Patmos island for preaching the gospel, the apostle John wrote the book of The Revelation of Jesus Christ from a vision he received from the Lord around AD 90 (a little less than 60 years after Christ’s ascension). Chapters two and three of Revelation contain Christ’s letters to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyratira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Only two of the seven are commended without any correction; only one of the seven receives no commendation whatsoever: the church in Laodicea.
Laodicea was located in the Lycus Valley, one of the tri-cities along with Colosse (10 miles east) and Heiropolis (six miles north). Laodicea was a large, often visited city, and well-known for at least three things. First, it was a wealthy city. In AD 60, a large earthquake destroyed the city along with a few neighboring cities. The Laodiceans refused financial aid from the Roman, Imperial government, rebuilding from their own resources. At least some of the city’s wealth was due to the second well-known product of Laodicea: soft, glossy black wool. The third well-known feature of the city was a pagan school of medicine famous for various healing compounds, in particular the production of salve for eye-diseases.
The city of Laodicea could have been extremely powerful, but their greatest weakness was a deficient water supply. As the city grew, the small Lycus River could not provide adequately for the needs of the population. Engineers built a channel from springs in Colosse, a combination above ground aqueduct and underground conduit, the remains of which are still visible today. In solving the issue of water quantity, however, the Laodiceans encountered another problem with the water quality, a fact Jesus used to illustrate the problem in the church.
The church in Laodicea was likely started by Epaphras, the same person responsible for the church in nearby Colosse. The apostle Paul connected the two churches in his letter to the Colossians (2:1) written in AD 62. By the time John addressed the Laodicean church in AD 90, things were not good.
And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
John wrote, but he wrote on behalf of Jesus Christ (the resurrected Lord described in Revelation 1:4-6, 12-16). To the Laodicean church, Jesus identified Himself as the Amen, that is, the one who is sure and certain. In Jesus, all of God’s promises are guaranteed. He is the faithful and true witness; He will not exaggerate or misrepresent. He can be believed. And He is the beginning of God’s creation, in other words, He is the preeminent one (cf. Colossians 1:15-20), and He was not pleased with what He saw.
Jesus offered no commendation to the Laodiceans whatsoever, and immediately launched into His indictment.
Things are not good. Nations are at war, babies are being aborted, businesses are collapsing, and people are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet it would be difficult to prove those realities based on how we’re acting. We’re still making jokes, buying lattes and Big Macs, renting movies and downloading music, and otherwise acting like everything is fine. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.
Things are not good in the church either. Christians and denominations bicker back and forth, influence on the culture seems nonexistent, truth is sparse, and people are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet it would be difficult to prove these realities based on how we’re acting. We still show up on Sunday with smiles and handshakes, perform silly skits and sing superficial songs, desperately trying to prove to our unchurched friends that we can do all the same fun things they can, with Jesus along for the ride. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.
Things are not good in our souls either. Our doubts and fears war within us, our faith and our morality are crumbling, we feel distant from God and from one another, so we are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet, other than an impulsive, unguarded status update on Facebook, it would be difficult to prove those realities based on how we’re acting. We keep consuming the latest entertainment offerings from the world. We adopt the world’s priorities and values at home, at school, and at work. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.
What’s wrong with us? Perhaps the problem is that, in general, we are spiritually dumb, sinfully fat, and superficially happy.
If Jesus visited us today, what would He say about our condition? I have a guess. I think He might confront us much like He confronted the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:14-22.
All six sessions from the 09SR are now online. Each link includes a downloadable mp3 and the very rough draft version of my notes, especially for those interested in the quotes by Augustine. My plan is to start blogging through the series soon.
As men and women made in the image of God, we’ve been tasked to take dominion on the earth. As Christian men and women, being formed into the image of Christ, we’ve been tasked to make disciples of all nations. These are no small opportunities or responsibilities; both dominion-taking and disciple-making involve changing the world.
Rightly so, Christians are often on the front lines of these cultural and spiritual campaigns, making plans and throwing resources like time and energy and money to reach their communities as well as foreign countries. No effort is held back, no expense spared to reach people for Christ and change the world.
But for all the attention and energy we give, for all the flash web sites we’ve made and contextualized clothing we wear and language we’ve embraced, for all the slick marketing brochures we pass out and “Christian” rock music we produce and play, for all the “relevant” and timely sermon series and Christian celebrity appearances, for all the cool Christian t-shirts, for all the gentle conversations we engage in, for all the evangelism programs and English translations and focused study Bibles/Biblezines, for all the WWJD and Livestrong bracelets, for all the Christian Facebook groups, it really doesn’t seem like we are changing the world at all. In fact, if anything, it seems like the world is changing us, conforming us into its image. We are far from being accused of “turning the world upside down” like the early church (cf. Acts 17:1-9, especially verse 6).
That’s what I want. I want to be a part of making disciples of all nations, starting right here, and turning the whole world upside down. So how do we do that?
The answer is simpler than we might think. It doesn’t require any money. It has nothing to do with web sites or worship styles. It doesn’t depend on knowing the culture, or being culturally relevant.
Becoming and being a disciple, as well as working to make disciples, starts with one thing. If we want to change the world, to turn it upside down, we’ve got to start at the beginning, with REPENTANCE.
Repentance is a change of mind, a turning about and away from sin. It is a recognition and lamentation and confession of unrighteousness, that results in new affection for, and a new direction toward, righteousness. Repentance is where new life starts. Repentance is where disciple-making begins.
Remember, Christ didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-32)
Religious people are often some of the most arrogant people. They have an inflated view of themselves and they look down on others. Religious people sometimes give the impression that God should be happy to have them on His team, like He needs their innovations and influence. Instead, what He needs first is their repentance.
Today’s feel-good-about-yourself philosophy keeps us from Christ and salvation and spiritual health. We need to see how sick in sin we are, not how super we are.
I believe one of the primary reasons we as Christians are so worldly in our living and so ineffective in our mission is because we have forgotten about personal repentance and about proclaiming repentance.
When was the last time you gave lip to your mom, or lied to a friend, or lusted in your heart, or wasted your time, and then confessed your sin, asked forgiveness for your sin, and turned away in repentance from your sin? When was the last time you told a friend that the reason for their joylessness, may be because of their failure to repent?
In order to start at the beginning, this year’s Snow Retreat will focus on REPENTANCE: Seeing Sin for What It Is.
And to help us do that, we’re going to also consider one of the oldest and most influential figures in church history since the New Testament, a man on whose shoulders Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon all stood: St. Augustine.
Through Augustine’s pastoral work of preaching and writing and defending the faith and caring for his sheep, he changed not only his community and his era, in many ways he changed Western Civilization. He is a man through whom God was pleased to change the world. And I intend to make the case at the 09SR, that it was Augustine’s confessions, his seeing sin for what it is and repenting, that was the beginning of both his personal affections for God and his usefulness on God’s behalf.
Augustine turned the world upside down by turning away from sin. So can we.