Message to ancient church sounds as if it could be modern
Selection from Revelation offers graphic scolding
Late in the first century CE, the people of Laodicea in what is now Türkiye had it made. The city was along popular trading routes and was a center for banking and the production of expensive items such as fine wool and ointments, making it one of the wealthier cities in its region of the Roman Empire.
But its Christian community, possibly founded by St. Paul or one of his associates a few decades earlier, wasn’t doing so well, at least not spiritually. When John, the author of Revelation1, conveyed messages from the risen Christ whom he had experienced in a vision wrote to seven churches in the region, the church at Laodicea was the only one that didn’t receive any compliments. Churches at Smyrna and Pergamum, among others, were praised for the way they were dealing with the challenges facing them and also received counsel for dealing with the areas in which they fell short, but the words of advice to Laodicea weren’t tempered with observations of what it was doing right. And Jesus’ words as reported were shockingly strong: “I will vomit you out of my mouth.”
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Although the words to Laodicea were written 1,900 years ago, they don’t sound that much different from what some churches today might need to hear. Here is one way we might interpret Revelation 3:15-22, the message to be given to the angel of the church in Laodicea:
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.
This verse is sometimes interpreted to suggest that God doesn’t want lukewarm believers, that God would rather people be spiritually “cold” than only somewhat devoted. But a quick geography lesson provides a way of looking at the metaphor that makes more sense: Laodicea received some of its water from an aqueduct with the result that once-hot water, useful for medicinal purposes, would arrive lukewarm. Another town nearby, Colossae, was known for its cold, refreshing water. So both cold and hot water were desirable, but for different reasons. The metaphor here suggests that that the church at Laodicea was offering neither spiritual healing nor spiritual refreshment, only something not particularly meaningful.
Because you say, “I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing,” and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked; I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich; and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
These words echo the teachings of Jesus that found little true value in monetary wealth, and that true wealth comes from God. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the crowd: “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth ... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ... for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
That the words to the Laodiceans mention eye salve is noteworthy, for an eye salve was one of the exports of Laodicea, which hosted a well-known medical school. In a modern cliché, we might say that the Laodiceans were missing the forest for the trees; they couldn’t see (pun intended) the value of what had been taught to them.
As many as I love, I reprove and chasten. Be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me. He who overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.
It sounds like these churches, despite the reason they were formed, weren’t experiencing Christ. When I read or listen to the stories of “deconstructors” or those leaving churches, I can’t but wonder how common the same thing is today. Churches can put emphasis on all sorts of things that put Christ to the side — things such as politics, programs, fundraising, boundary-setting, church growth, things that may not be bad in themselves but may keep people from experiencing the Christ who is supposedly at the center of the faith. And, of course, the negative traits found in many churches, such as judgmentalism and shaming, can keep people from experiencing Christ as well.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This commentary on Revelation 3:15ff is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
The author of Revelation identifies himself only as John, and, according to Christian tradition dating to at least the second century, he was John the Apostle and author of the Gospel of John. The writing style of Revelation differs substantially from that of the Gospel of John, however, and may have been written by an associate of John the Apostle or someone else entirely. The book was probably written around 90 CE, making it one of the last books of the New Testament. (Books in the New Testament are not arranged chronologically but by genre, author and length, and Revelation is the New Testament’s only apocalyptic book, in the same genre as parts of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament.) The name of the book comes from the first clause of the book, translated as “the revelation of Jesus Christ.”