Letters to Churches
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Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you love the church, you have a plan for the church, and through this love and because of this plan you correct the church and ask for the church to repent. May we in this church have ears to hear what you are saying. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Last Sunday as we began this study of Revelation you may recall in our text from chapter one that John heard a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea (1:10, 11). The portion we are studying this week is made up of the messages that are to be circulated among these seven churches.
Here we have what I think is a relatively easy example for us to understand of the symbolism and imagery that we find in just about every sentence of this book. We might wonder if there is a message for any other church in what is said to these seven. There were certainly other churches in the same area. For example the city of Colossae is about 16 kilometres from Laodicea. One possibility is that these seven churches were the ones for which John had pastoral responsibility.
But there is another idea to consider. How many days in a week? That’s right, seven. And from where do we get the idea of seven days in a week? Right again, the seven days are part of God’s creation. Seven then is a symbol, an image of completeness. In other words the messages to the churches of Revelation chapters two and three are messages to every church in every age.
For today’s sermon I chose to look at the church at Laodicea because it is my experience that Christians today are most familiar with what is said to this church and it has been used in such a way as to make us resistant to God’s Word. I recall, for instance, years ago hearing a preacher using the image of being lukewarm. The message was not even thinly veiled—if we would all be more like him all would be well in the church. He, of course, was the way God wanted him to be, hot! We, of course, were not.
Let’s look closely then at how the lukewarmness of these Christians is defined. Revelation 3:17—For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing.”
Laodicea is a city known for its wealth and prestige. There were three things that brought it fame. It had banks that were known throughout the Roman world. Some of the sheep reared in the area produced a glossy black wool used in the production of cloth and carpets. It had a medical school which was most famous for the eye ointment made from a powder produced in the area.
Three imperial trade roads intersected at Laodicea. Its wealth was such that when it suffered all but total destruction from an earthquake c. 60–61 A. D., it refused aid from the emperor, preferring and able to rebuild on its own.
It is then, I am convinced, the self-satisfaction of these Christians that is the foundation of being lukewarm. Something about the gospel, at one time, pulled them toward the Saviour. However, their wealth, their prestige, their influence have led them to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward their faith. It’s something they have, and in a way they likely could not define, they value their faith, but there is no overwhelming sense of needed faith to enrich and complete their lives.
God asks these Christians to change direction. In another image that would be clear to the Laodiceans, the Lord explains why something must be done. As if he has just tasted something harmful or vile, the Lord says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The Laodiceans knew all about lukewarm water. Ten kilometres away in Hieropolis there were springs of hot water. As the water made its way over the plateau it lost its heat and poured over a cliff close to the city. The water had limestone in it and the cliff had a permanent white encrustation. This water was valued for its medicinal benefits but one could not drink it. It had to be spit out; for the person who drank it would almost certainly become very sick.
In the other direction, at Colossae, there was a stream that provided the city with clear, cold water that was perfect for human consumption. Can you get the picture in your mind? Laodicea is situated between Hieropolis and Colossae. In the one place there is hot water that was sought for its rejuvenating properties. In the other place is a source of clear, cool, drinking water. In between is the lukewarm water of Laodicea, good for nothing.
What are we being told here? There is nothing more distasteful, even poisonous to the Lord, than those who know the gospel but become indifferent to its life-changing significance. British New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray says this: “To have enough religion to disguise one’s need of a living faith is to be in a worse condition than having no faith at all” (Revelation, 105, emphasis added). If our affluence, our status, our influence, our sophistication, our misplaced hunger for independence have made us indifferent to our need for God and his love, we need to find our way back to this God in whom we do live and move and have our very being.
In the devotional book, Reversed Thunder, that I know some of you are reading as an accompaniment to this sermon and study series, Eugene Peterson quotes Charles Williams. “There is not another institution which suffers from time to time so much as religion. At the moment when it is remotely possible that a whole generation might have learned something both of theory and practice, the learners and their learning are removed by death, and the church is confronted with the necessity of beginning all over again. The whole labour of regenerating mankind has to begin again every thirty years or so. None of these churches had been in existence for more than half a century and yet already degeneration was in process. They were going through religious motions after Spirit-motives were gone. Their sluggish lives were propped up by termite-riddled timbers of a once vigorous religion” (p. 52).
Where, then, do we go from here? If you have your Bible open, flip back to Revelation 1:20. In that verse one of the images is explained. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Then look at the next verse that begins the message to the church at Ephesus. These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
Go back almost to the end of today’s text, chapter three verse twenty. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Jesus, the Lord of the church, is not some sort of absentee landlord. Jesus walks among the churches. Jesus holds out not to this one church or seven churches, but rather Jesus holds out to every church in every place the opportunity to listen to what he is saying and to repent of those attitudes and actions that grieve his heart and to then once again take the offer of fellowship that is like the intimate sharing of a meal at the family table.
Friends, what is the word of Jesus to us today? Let’s look at verse 18 of our text. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. This is a fascinating message from the risen Lord, because it responds to the very reasons why the Laodiceans have become lukewarm in the faith.
They were wealthy—Jesus says they need to buy gold refined in the fire. They had the beautiful black fabric made from the wool of their famous sheep—Jesus says they need white robes to cover their nakedness. Their city was the source of the ointment that brought patients from all over the Roman world—Jesus says they need to get from him that which will allow them to see.
For all of my years as a pastor I have steered away from pronouncements that sound as if I think I am one of God’s prophets. “Thus saith the Lord,” is not often on my lips, but it is today. Here is where I will take my stand.
At the beginning of this message to Laodicea, John is told to write that these are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness. In the opening chapter of Paul’s second letter to Corinth, the apostle says this: For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. “In both Judaism and the early church, ‘amen’ was used as a way of signifying what was true and valid. Individuals and communities in worship uttered the ‘amen’ after prayers, doxologies, and blessings as a way of confirming and joining themselves to what had been said. Jesus is the ultimate ‘Amen,’ the epitome of truth and faithfulness” (Reddish, Revelation, p. 80). But remember the way of Jesus is the way that is refined in the fires of suffering for the cause of God. That is what the church in North America, in Canada, in North Toronto needs to buy into, that the way of service, the way of compassion, the way of serving God’s will no matter the cost is the way of lasting, spiritual richness.
We too need the white robes of salvation. Some of you will remember that when someone is baptized here at Blythwood we present them with a stole symbolic of the white robe presented to those who were baptized in the early centuries of the church. Salvation is not something we do on our own; it is God who covers us with the garments of love and grace.
We need also the spiritual sight that I think more than anything gives us the ability to see that the Lord waits for us to open the door to the fellowship of his eternal kingdom.
One of the most famous paintings of the 19th century was by William Holman Hunt. The painting is entitled, The Light of the World, but it depicts Revelation 3:20, the risen Lord standing at the door knocking. I believe the artist brilliantly interpreted the scripture when he painted the door without a handle on the outside. That door can only be opened from within. Although often understood as an appeal to the individual believer, remember that this was a message to a community of faith. “A church that—through its complacency, accommodation with society, false practices, or lack of love—shuts Christ out of its presence has ceased to be a church” (Reddish, Revelation, p. 83).
Do we believe that the Lord of the church still walks among the churches? If we do then no matter what we think we have and who we think we are, let us invite the Lord to be part of us. He will only come in and eat with us if we open the door. All Jesus can do is knock.