Imagine for a moment the sweltering heat of a summer day. You try to find chilled refreshing water to quench your thirst, but all that’s available is stale lukewarm water. Despite your best attempts to stomach the unsavoury liquid, you end up spitting it back out. This is exactly what Jesus promises to the lukewarm Christians at Laodicea.
As we arrive at our last stop in our series through the churches of Revelation, we’ll see that Jesus’ final warning is by no means his least. He calls out their pitiful spiritual condition, calls them to repent from their wealth but also comforts them with his love. The spiritual complacency of the Laodiceans is a real danger to us today, who live in the prosperity of modern society. We’ll discover that repentance is rooted in God’s character, recognising our poverty and resisting worldly temptations.
Revelation 3:14-22 starts by identifying the church’s lukewarm state and the reasons behind this, and ends by stressing just how much they stand to gain by turning from their ways. The message to Laodicea begins with “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” (Revelation 3:14). We’re once again reminded that these are not merely human commands, but the very words of God. This is emphasised with Jesus’ trustworthy identity as witness to God and sovereign ruler over all creation.
The Psalmist found peace in being known by the God of the universe; though for this church, it meant fearful expectation of judgement. Jesus warns the Laodiceans, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16). Unlike the other churches featured in Revelation, Laodicea receives no words of commendation from Christ. He wastes no time before condemning their half-heartedness and lack of zeal. This church was neither apathetic to the gospel nor did they heartily embrace it. They were happy to call themselves Christians but were unwilling to deny themselves, carry their cross and follow Jesus. They were supposedly different from the culture around them, yet not enough to stand out. And for this, the Lord promises to spit (or more emphatically, vomit) them from his mouth! These chilling words should shake any believer to their core.
There was no mystery as to why the Laodiceans had dwindled in their faith. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that their wealth had seduced them, declaring “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17). The historical context informs us that Laodicea was a renowned commercial centre and prided itself on its financial success. So it comes as no surprise that this culture of affluence had influenced the church and had caused them to be blinded to their sinfulness. Instead of turning to Christ for their security & comfort in life, they started to rely on their material possessions. In reaction to their self-sufficiency, Jesus urges them “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (Revelation 3:18). The right response to their blindness is to abandon their worthless treasure and seek true riches, that is, godliness and righteousness found in Christ alone.
The letter ends with a promise, designed to provide comfort for the repentant. Jesus assures that “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:19-20). We need to remember that the Lord takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but desires that they turn from their ways and live. Though they call themselves a church, Jesus isn’t actually present among them. Yet he promises to graciously extend fellowship to those who would earnestly repent. He follows by adding “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:21-22). The beauty of the gospel is that undeserving sinners are not only forgiven but also raised up to be called children of God.
It might be easy for us to assume that we’re immune to the pitfall of spiritual complacency. Similarly to the Laodiceans, we live in a culture that values material wealth and celebrates self-made prosperity. Both of which have grave potential to suffocate our spiritual life. Now more than ever, there are lukewarm Christians who profess that Jesus is Lord and still live no differently to the lost souls around them. John Piper comments “Why don’t people ask us about our hope? The answer is probably that we look as if we hope in the same things they do”. Our churches have been filled with a nominal Christianity that leaves no room for the radical obedience and counter-cultural faith of the Bible. Our ears hear an empty gospel that doesn’t lead to a transformed life in Jesus and is ultimately an impotent witness to the world. Some Christians try to avoid lukewarmness by continually being ‘on-fire’ for God, only to find themselves feeling ‘spiritually dry’ when they can’t keep it up. The good news is that Christ frees us from the self-reliance of spiritual complacency and sustains us by his grace.
Having understood the great danger posed to us by spiritual complacency, how can we guard ourselves from it? What does it look like to repent biblically? We must take Jesus’ words to heart and remember God’s faithfulness, recognise our sinfulness and resist the cultural pressures to live according to the world.
Repentance is rooted in God’s character
Before we approach repentance, we firstly need to comprehend who God really is. We may have developed the impression that the God of the Bible is vindictive and prone to wrath. But a brief analysis of Scripture would disagree. Exodus 34:6 describes God as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”. While he does not leave the guilty unpunished, he welcomes the penitent with mercy and forgiveness. Nowhere is this clearer than the cross of Christ. The same Jesus, who set down his life for his church, called the church of Laodicea to repent. And this same Jesus calls us to find new life in him. Do you trust God’s offer of forgiveness to those genuinely repentant?
Repentance means recognising our poverty
A key fault of the church of Laodicea was their failure to realise just how destitute they really were. Their spiritual blindness led them to foolishly believe they were secure in their possessions. It allowed their sinful desires to lead them into spiritual complacency. Perhaps some of us may find ourselves in a similar position. We can think back to a time when we were passionate and devoted to God. Sadly, we have cooled down into a lukewarm lifestyle, driven by ritual, fear and guilt. If this is you, hear Jesus’ words in Revelation that still ring true, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in”. Before we can be saved, we need to recognise what we are lost. So, repent and live! Do you trust that Jesus came into the world to save sinners?
Repentance involves resisting worldly temptations
It is with good reason that Jesus talks more about money than anything else, except for the Kingdom of God. In fact, 11 out of 39 parables talk about money. As we consider how to wisely steward the money God has given to us, we must acknowledge the capacity that wealth has to distract us from our true treasure in Christ. Like the rich fool, we need to be constantly reminded that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Otherwise, we may lose sight of God’s plan of salvation and live according to the ways of this present world. If we aren’t careful, we run the risk of letting the “worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” choke out our faith, making it unfruitful (Mark 10:19). It might be worth seriously assessing where you spend the most of your time, energy and money in order to identify where your treasures truly lie. Do you trust that treasures in heaven are more valuable than earthly prosperity?
Paul himself contended for the church at Laodicea, praying that they might have “the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2). Our last passage in Revelation shows us that Jesus knows their spiritual poverty and offers them true riches through the gospel. Jesus’ indictment to the church of Laodicea demonstrates that repentance is possible for lukewarm Christians. This happens by the grace of God to convict us of our sin and live counter-culturally. Though our hearts may drift towards the fleeting pleasures of this world, they will never drift beyond the measures of God’s grace.
- Piper, J (2003) Don’t Waste Your Life.