In chapter 1 John the Apostle receives a heavenly vision of the resurrected Jesus where He’s not only clothed in glory, but is actively evaluating and critiquing His earthly church. In fact, chapters 2 and 3 proceed to record for us a series of seven letters Jesus dictates to John to be delivered to seven different churches located in the region of Asia Minor.
Aside from the personal applicate we can all draw from Jesus’ words, what makes these letters so interesting is that Jesus is not only writing to a specific church during the first century, but He’s ultimately addressing seven different movements within church history.
Though the first three have largely come and gone (Ephesus represented the Post-Apostolic Church, Smyrna the Persecuted Church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and Pergamos the Byzantine or State Church) the final four movements are still very active today.
You have Thyatira representing Roman Catholicism, the church in Sardis epitomizing the Reformation and Protestantism, Philadelphia embodying the Missional Church of the 19th & 20th centuries, and lastly Laodicea typifying a more recent phenomena. This morning I want to take some time to unpack what Jesus says to this seventh and final church.
Historically, we know the city of Laodicea was located 40 miles south of Philadelphia and some 100 miles east of Ephesus. The city itself was well known throughout the world for two important exports: black wool for clothing and a powder used to treat eye infections.
Because Laodicea was located on an important trade route which minimized overhead, her residents had grown incredibly rich. One example of her wealth occurred in 60AD when Laodicea was destroyed by am earthquake. In response Nero offered financial assistance, but the residence declined choosing instead to rebuild the city using their own resources.
Aside from this, Laodicea was part of a tri-city water arrangement with Colossi (11 miles west) and Hierapolis (6 miles south). Because Laodicea had no natural aquifer, she was completely was dependent on two separate aqueducts bringing water from each city.
As far as the formation of this Church in Laodicea, it would appear she was likely founded by the Apostle Paul and according to Colossians 4:15 originally met in the home of “Nymphas.”
Four times in his letter to the Colossians Paul will mention the brethren in Laodicea as well as the church located in Hierapolis. According to Colossians 4:16 Paul had even written an Epistle to Laodiceans he intended to have circulate throughout these three cities.
While it appears this Laodicean church began strong, by the end of the first-century it’s clear she had fallen far from her origins. In fact, in Jesus’ letter to this church recorded here in Revelation 3 He’ll find nothing at all commendable to say of her. In many ways Jesus’ extensive criticisms would tag Laodicean as an Anti-Philadelphia. This church conversely presented the characteristics of an unfaithful church.
Before we get to the text I want to take a few minutes to establish the historical context for the development of this church in our day. As the Missional Church of the 18th and 19th centuries represented by the Church of Philadelphia continued to preach the Word of God and send missionaries equipped with the Gospel across the globe, the 20th-century not only changed the world, but challenged the church in three dramatic ways.
For starters, the human horrors and atrocities witnessed during two World Wars that yielded approximately 100 million casualties coupled with the brutal and seemingly pointless conflicts in Vietnam and Korea produced several generations of Western men completely disillusioned when it came to matters of God, spirituality, and the church.
Then, in an attempt to deal with the fall-out of this rapidly changing, Post-Christian culture the church ended up convoluting her purpose by becoming politically and socially active. Sadly, over the last 100 plus years the Evangelical Church in the West has become known more for what she’s against than what she’s actually for!
One such example of this is Prohibition. When men came home from WW1 they found a church more interested in telling them what they could or could not drink than seeking to deal with their genuine spiritual needs. Evangelists like Billy Sunday railed against alcohol without ever speaking to the deeper spiritual wounds driving so many men to a destructive lifestyle. The strategy was sincere, but ended up turning off even more people to Christianity.
Aside from these two developments, the other challenge would arise as secular progressives eventually began to use science to attack the reliability of the Bible. In 1925 a court case herd in the little down of Dayton, Tennessee would be thrust into the national spotlight. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial) would pit the Bible and science against one another.
Because the arguments presented by the prosecution and their witnesses seeking to defend a literal understanding of the Bible were so poorly constructed, not only would the Theory of Evolution gain credibility, but the reliability of Scripture would wain in public opinion.
In the end this and other similar developments would create the framework by which the philosophy of relativism would eventually seep into mainstream American society and academia. With no moral truth Giver mankind was left trying to ascertain if anything was true.
The challenge facing the church in the 20th-century was simple… How do you reach a culture of people disillusioned with God, alienated by the churches activism, and were no longer confident in a fundamentalist view of the Bible? Two approaches emerged:
First, the Church of Philadelphia remained faithful to her mission of preaching God’s Word and seeking to reach the lost world through missions and evangelism.
In turn movements like Calvary Chapel in the late 60’s and early 70’s intentionally rejected church traditionalism by modernizing its style to reach this changing culture. Men like Pastor Chuck Smith dropped the uber-pretentiousness of denominationalism by encouraging hippies to simply come to church as they were. Modern music was incorporated into worship.
These church leaders emphasized God’s grace, a dependency on the Holy Spirit, and the expositional teaching of the Bible. Pastor Chuck’s motto was “simply teach God’s Word simply” and this approach resonated with a culture deeply longing for the Truth.
Sadly, another approach would eventually gain steam in the later part of the 20th century. If the Protestant Reformations problem was “theology over reaching people” and the Missional Churches success was the balance of “theology and reaching people” this final Laodicean Church tragically emphasized “reaching people over theology.” In its historical context it’s very easy to see how this would happen all things considered.
Whether you call the approach the Seeker-Friendly Movement or the Attractional Church Model, leaders of this particular strategy sought to intentionally create a church with a culture designed to be inviting, accepting, entertaining, and appealing to the unbeliever. As mega-church pastor Andy Stanley boasts the goal was to be “church for the unchurched.”
While these church models — with there high-tech and slick marketing — have been wildly successful at attracting crowds, in order to create this non-threatening environment the drawback was that they largely abandoned Bible teaching and minimized doctrinal absolutes. The difficult topics of sin, hell, or eternal judgment are largely avoided on purpose.
Though I don’t want to be audacious enough to say Jesus’ letter to the Church of Laodicea is solely pertinent to only the Seeker-Friendly Movement, there is no question the criticism we find in His letter is profoundly applicable. Our purpose this morning is not to call out any specific church, but to remind ourselves what type of church we need to be by examining what characteristics of a church Jesus finds detestable.
Revelation 3:14-22, “And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.
Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The first thing we notice about this Church in Laodicea was that while active she lacked distinction. Notice Jesus begins in verse 15, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot… You are lukewarm!” In this initial criticism Jesus uses an illustration the citizens of Laodicea would have clearly understood.
As I mentioned the city of Laodicea was dependent on two separate aqueducts to pipe in water from Colossi and Hierapolis. Interestingly enough, by the time the cold water that originated in the higher elevations of Colossi and the hot water that began in the hot springs of Hierapolis reached Laodicea the water was characteristically “lukewarm!”
Because of the distance the water had to travel to get to the city from each local, what had initially started as either piping hot or freezing cold had leveled off to the temperature of its surroundings. In a sense the water had become room temperature. The water was neither hot nor was it any longer cold. The water was simply lukewarm.
Tragically, the Church of Laodicea was going through the motions. Spiritually speaking they possessed no zeal for the things of God, no heart for righteous living, and no passion to truly follow Jesus and be His witnesses in the world. While these Laodiceans weren’t full-blown heathens or overtly worldly (“cold”), they also weren’t fully committed to Jesus (“hot”).
You might say this church modeled what many of us refer to as Cultural Christianity — when a person claims to be a Christian simply because they go to church on Sunday. For these people Christianity was a one day activity and not a weekly lifestyle. Spiritual life (worship, Bible study) was compartmentalized only to a Sunday morning church experience.
In a sense these Laodiceans were fence-sitters. Though they had enough “church” to feel morally superior and good about themselves, they had too much of the “world” to really reap the benefits of a genuine relationship with Jesus. Their spiritual lives were tepid. Their spiritual indifference had spawned spiritual compromise.
The brutal reality is there was nothing about this church that differentiated them from the world around them. In their honest attempt to be relevant with the world they had sacrificed the very things that made them distinct. They’d lost their flavor and uniqueness! Before I continue… Does your life look any different than your unbelieving friends?
While the Seeker-Friendly methodology intends to created an environment designed to reach the lost — which is in and of itself noble — the tactic also fosters the perfect conditions whereby a spiritually compromised believer can satisfy the need to feel spiritual without ever being challenged to be spiritual. Lukewarmness thrives in such a circumstance!
It is incredible to consider that Jesus would even go so far as to prefer this church be “cold” than to remain in this “lukewarm” condition… “I could wish you were cold or hot.” And why was this the case? Unlike those hostile to the things of God, spiritual indifference has the tendency to lull someone into a false sense of their own spiritual security.
The second thing we should note about this church was that she was characterize by Self-Deception. Jesus continues in verse 17, “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ — and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” The alarming thing about this church was the real disconnect between what they believed God thought of them and the reality of what God actually thought about them.
In a sense they were delusional. Because they were falsely equating material prosperity as being evidence of spiritual blessing, this church had reached the false conclusion God was pleased with them when in actuality He was deeply sickened!
While the Laodiceans genuinely believed they were spiritual and effective because they were “rich (abounding in resources), wealthy (richly supplied), and in need of nothing (literally no one)” Jesus is clear they were actually “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Sadly, I believe many churches today are equally self-deceived. While they point to large attendance numbers and vast financial resources as the evidence of a successful ministry, they fail to recognize neither are the metrics Jesus uses in His evaluation of a church.
Consider the fact that Jesus found the Church of Smyrna (a church that was extremely poor) and the Church of Philadelphia (a church with a little strength) much more commendable than He did the Church of Laodicea (a church that was actually rich and without need).
Thirdly, the Church of Laodicea was Biblically Ignorant. Please notice one of the core components of Jesus’ criticism that explains why these Laodiceans were so self-deceived and off in their self-assessment… He says, “You say… and do not know!” While it’s true this Church was delusional as to the true nature of their spiritual condition (they were bankrupt), we must consider what had fostered such a false perception of themselves?
I hope you know when it comes to Christianity, Christian beliefs, your spiritual condition, how you live a life of Godliness, how the church should function, and the way in which believers are to reach the lost… What “you say” about these things matters not! When it’s all said and done what matters more than anything else is what “He says” about such things!
This is why it’s so vitally important a church teach the Bible for when she doesn’t the church becomes susceptible to self-deception. The Laodiceans believed their physical riches were to be seen as evidence of spiritual favor when that position had no Scriptural bearing. They “did not know” as a direct result of a lack of Biblical knowledge and understanding.
Here’s a key truth you’d be wise to never forget… Because the Bible is totally honest about your spiritual condition, it is the only place you can get a proper assessment of yourself. In James 1:21-25 we are exhorted, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the word, this one will be blessed in what he does.”
So what does the Bible say about you? It’s clear that apart from Jesus, His work on the cross, and His amazing grace you are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” This fact is one of the main reasons the Bible isn’t taught in many Seeker-Friendly churches.
For the unbeliever the Bible has some really hard and difficult things to say. It’s not friendly to the godless. You see, contrary to what the world has to say about such matters, God does not accept you the way that you are! The status-quo is not ok! In fact, God deliberately sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross in order to transform you into someone completely different. God’s plan is to change you into someone else!
Aside from the fact attending a church that teaches the Word not only protects you from self-deception, but it’s God’s Word that actively protects against this tendency for spiritual indifference. As the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 1:1-3), “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.”
I have found it is virtually impossible to attend a church where you’re taught God’s Word and still live a life of indifference and compromise. You see the Word of God either drives a man in sin to repentance or it drives that man away from the church! Still yet another reason the Bible isn’t taught in many Seeker-Friendly churches.
Finally, we see from the text that Laodicea was a church so self-centered they were no longer Christ-focused. Notice the Laodicean’s self-evaluation and their pride was rooted in verse 17 when they boasted, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” And yet, in verse 20 Jesus said to them, “I stand at the door and knock!”
This church was so self-consumed with what they had they were completely oblivious to the reality Jesus was on the outside wanting in. They were focused more on ministry resources than Jesus. In the end this church was more about “them” than it was about “Him.”
The word “Laodiceans” is interesting because it’s a combined word meaning the rights of the people. In this church the people ruled and Jesus and His Word took a backseat.
It’s a truth that the degree to which a church is “man-centered” is the degree to which the church is no longer “Christ-centered.” I should also add the degree to which you are “me-centered” has a direct correlation to the amount you’re dependent upon Jesus.
Tragically, instead of asking Jesus what He wanted His church to be, how He wanted His church to reach the lost, and what He found pleasing, these Laodiceans devised their own model of church with the intention of reaching men by pleasing man.
Jesus’ warning to this church is severe… In verse 16 Jesus says, “I will vomit you out of My mouth!” The idea of “vomit” is the violent expulsion from the body of that which makes the body sick. This type of ministry approach and the type of spiritual result found in this Laodicean church and that of the Seeker-Friendly model makes Jesus sick!
Let me explain why… Contrary to popular opinion nowhere in Scripture is the church called to be a “hospital for the sick.” Instead, the church is called to be a prepping center whereby believers are equipped to go into the world to care for the sick.
It was the Old Covenant model whereby the world came or were brought to a Temple to encounter God. And yet, in the New Covenant design Jesus established His Temple in the hearts of men and women whom He then sent into the world to encounter the lost!
What makes the Seeker-Friendly model so disgusting to Jesus is that (though it might yield high conversation rates) it’s making the church sick! Because the church is being derelict to fulfill her God-given duties of teaching the Bible to equip saints, she in turn creates a scenario whereby believers no longer need to do theirs — taking the Gospel into a lost world.
You see the church is not only failing to equip believers, but in doing their job for them she’s fostering a lukewarm culture. The simple fact is when a church focuses on reaching the lost instead of equipping saints to reach the lost the body become ill!
For a church to be healthy the emphasis of the church service should be on equipping believers for their ministry by teaching God’s Word with the role of the saints to then go out into their world desiring to reach the lost with the Gospel! Note: The Great Commission was given by Jesus to individual believers, not the institutional church.
It should be noted that following so many difficult criticisms Jesus begins His closing with this line in verse 19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” After all of this Jesus is clear it was His love for this church that motivated Him to speak the truth!
You can hear His passion when He says in verse 20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me!” While these Laodiceans had been doing church without Him this could be easily remedied. All they had to do was “open the door” and let Him in!
In the original language this word “knock” is in the active tense. What this means is that Jesus is “at the door” of your heart gently and continually knocking. But also notice how He knocks… Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice…” Friend, there is no question it is Jesus’ Word — His voice — that does the knocking!
Why was Jesus knocking? He says, “I will come in to him and dine with him.” This phrase “dine with him” spoke of a very intimate, relational exchange. You see eating in Eastern cultures was an act of genuine commonality and oneness — it was personal. Please understand Jesus doesn’t want anything from you. All He wants is a relationship with you!
In closing please don’t forget Who was doing the knocking… Jesus opens this letter writing, “These things says… The Amen!” The word “Amen” literally means “so be it” or “that’s true.” This church needed to get back to treating Jesus’ Word as the truth.
He also calls Himself, “The Faithful and True Witness!” This church needed to remember the only way to reach the lost was not through creative marketing, relevant presentations, or a diluted form of Christianity… The remedy was Jesus! They needed to be Christ-centric!
Finally, Jesus refers to Himself as “the Beginning of the creation of God!” This word “Beginning” doesn’t mean Jesus was the first, but rather He existed before “the creation of God.” The word can be translated as origin. This church needed to keep the main thing the main thing. Pleasing Jesus is infinitely more important than pleasing men!
You can’t help but notice — in spite of the strong words — there was still potential for this church to be used in mighty ways! In addition to responding to His voice and opening the door all they had to do was “be zealous (burn with zeal) and repent (change their mind)!”
While Jesus gave this church the strongest of all criticisms, He also gave her the most glorious promises! In verses 18 and 21 Jesus provided a list of things that would come with their relationship with Him if they responded to His invitation and repented…
“I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich (the pursuit of heavenly treasure in place of temporal riches)… white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed (everlasting righteousness instead of the black garments of self-confidence and foolish pride)… And anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see (Jesus promises to give us spiritual sight in place of blindness).”
He also promises, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” What a radical promise! And yet, how did Jesus overcome and how do we do the same? Through our obedience to the Word of His Father! Jesus closes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
In a famous sermon titled, “An Earnest Warning against Lukewarmness” Charles Spurgeon described the lukewarm church the following way. “They have prayer-meetings, but there are few present, for they like quiet evenings home. When more attend the meetings they are still very dull, for they do their praying very deliberately and are afraid of being too excited.
They are content to have all things done decently and in order, but vigor and zeal are considered to be vulgar. They may have schools, Bible-classes, preaching rooms, and all sorts of agencies; but they might as well be without them, for no energy is displayed and no good comes of them. They have deacons and elders who are excellent pillars of the church, if the chief quality of pillars be to stand still, and exhibit no motion or emotion.
The pastor does not fly very far in preaching the everlasting Gospel, and he certainly has no flame of fire in his preaching. The pastor may be a shining light of eloquence, but he certainly is not a burning light of grace, setting men’s hearts on fire. Everything is done in a half-hearted, listless, dead-and-alive way, as if it did not matter much whether it was done or not.
Things are respectably done, the rich families are not offended, the skeptical party is appeased, and the good people are not quite alienated: things are made pleasant all around. The right things are done, but as to doing them with all your might, and soul, and strength, a Laodicean church has no notion of what that means. They are not so cold as to abandon their work, or to give up their meetings for prayer, or to reject the gospel. They are neither hot for the truth, nor hot for conversions, nor hot for holiness, they are not fiery enough to burn the stubble of sin, nor zealous enough to make Satan angry, nor fervent enough to make a living sacrifice of themselves upon the altar of their God. They are ‘neither cold nor hot.’”
Beyond this passage being a healthy reminder as to what kind of church we want to be by looking at the type of church Jesus found disgusting, the application for each of us is real. A lukewarm church only exists when the people who make up that church are themselves lukewarm Christians!
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