The church of Christ in Laodicea*

*2019 Pre-synodical sermon, June 10, 2019.
“And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot…. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Revelation 3:14-22

There are two reasons for the selection of this passage for our pre-synodical prayer service. The first is that it is my custom when preaching other than in my home church to use a recent sermon or Bible study passage, instead of assuming that I know what passage would be best. The second reason is that 47 years ago a senior seminarian seeking synodical approval to be declared a candidate for the ministry preached a sermon before the synod based on this passage.

Our text is a part of Jesus’ word to the seven church­es. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying, I am Apha and Omega, the first and the last; and What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia” (Rev. 1:10, 11). John then sees Jesus “in the midst of the seven candlesticks” (Rev. 1:13) and the seven candlesticks are the seven churches (1:20). Jesus is described as the glorified Christ who was dead but now lives and has the keys of hell and death. He commands John to write the things that He saw and the things that are, and the things that shall be hereafter (1:19). The letters to the seven churches detail the things that are. While each letter detailed the spiritual condition of each local congregation, all of the letters were to be read in all seven congregations.

While there were many other true churches located elsewhere in the world at that time, God providentially ordered all things so that these seven churches portray the true church of Jesus Christ in the world at any given time in the new dispensation. This implies that all of the characteristics of these seven churches are found in varying degrees in every true church.

We pray that the Spirit of Jesus Christ will enable us to understand what the faithful and true Witness said to the local congregation in the city of Laodicea and may He enable us to apply His Word to ourselves.

To whom is this letter addressed?

We deny the Arminian interpretation that this passage, and especially verse 20, is addressed to the unregenerated sinner. That view presents a begging Jesus, who is calling and knocking on the door of the sinner’s heart, but is helpless to enter it. He is begging the sinner to open his heart so that Jesus might enter and save him. This interpretation is wrong for three reasons.

First, this description of Jesus is contrary to that giv­en of Him in the first chapter. There we learn that His eyes are as a flame of fire (1:14), His voice is “as the sound of many waters” (1:15), out of His mouth comes “a sharp two-edged sword” (1:16), and His appearance is as the sun shining in its strength (1:16). Before such a glorious Christ, John falls as dead (1:17). Jesus is not helpless when confronting a sinner, for He has the keys of the grave and of death (1:18). He has the keys and when He opens no man can shut, and when He shuts no man can open (3:7). He is not helpless and begging—He is the sovereign Lord and King.

Second, natural man is so depraved that he is accu­rately described as spiritually dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). He is unable to choose for Christ, and he is incapable of understanding the spiritual things of God (I Cor. 2:14). He cannot open to let Jesus enter.

Third, this letter is written to a local, instituted church, which is a true church of Jesus Christ. The congregation at Laodicea, with the other six addressed in chapters two and three, was a type of the true church of Jesus Christ at any time in the history of the world. To this church Jesus expresses His love (19), which love elected and always saves.

At this time in history the city of Laodicea was gen­erally quite wealthy due to being on a major trade route. It is likely that the Christian church in the city of Laodicea and its members participated in this wealth, as seen in their self-judgment: they saw themselves as “rich, and increased with goods,” and having need of nothing (17). The city was located near Hierapolis, which was known for its hot, medicinal springs. Also nearby was the city of Colosse (cf. Col. 2:1), in which were found refreshing, cold springs.

It is believed that this congregation, with the other six, were established through the work of the apostle Paul while he was in Ephesus during his second missionary journey. So this Christian church is approximately forty years old when Jesus says these words to this con­gregation. It is a true church, but its spiritual condition is described by the faithful and true Witness (14) as be­ing “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (17b). The spiritual condition of the congrega­tion as a whole was spiritually impoverished and with­out a true righteous walk. Jesus said it was “lukewarm.” He wanted it to be either cold or hot but, because it is lukewarm, He is ready to spew it out of His mouth (16). As lukewarm, they were spiritually lethargic, without zeal and enthusiasm, lacking their first love. When the members arrogantly boasted of themselves that they were rich and increased with goods and needed noth­ing, they obviously judged their religious activity as just fine. They were doing what they were supposed to do: attending Sunday services and giving generously. They were so satisfied with themselves that they were blind to the reality of their real need. They had the truth of God’s Word objectively, but without a responsive ardent love for God and for Jesus, and without broken hearts and contrite spirits, namely, meekness and humbleness of mind. They were not hot against error and sin—in others probably, but not in themselves. They were not fervent to obey the word of their King.

The church and the Christian who sees himself as rich have no need for the Savior. Jesus saves from sin, but they were rich and did not need Him. Jesus was, for all intents and purposes, outside!

The King’s powerful, effective call

King Jesus stands before this Christian church at Laodicea and He calls. He is the One whose “voice is as the sound of many waters” (1:15). He is the One who taught unlike anyone else. He is the One who spoke and it was done (John 1:3). He is the One who healed many sick just by speaking.

Before this church He stands as the “Amen, the faithful and true witness” (14). He delivers a powerful word of rebuke. He undresses this lukewarm congre­gation. With His voice He knocks, rebuking and chas­tening (19) in order to jar them out of their spiritual slumber. He is showing them that their physical health and material wealth really amounted to nothing. It was only an empty show. So were their sacrifices and burnt offerings (cf. Hosea 6:6), their Sunday attendance and Sunday clothes. The Lord is not begging, but with flam­ing eyes He is admonishing them to wake up from their spiritual lethargy and to repent. He is chastening His church (19).

The angel of this congregation is to read this specific letter to them, but also the letters to the other six congregations that make up the true church. And the angel is to read the whole of this book of the revelation of Je­sus Christ. The remainder of this book details the con­trol that the Lord Jesus has of all the new dispensational history, so that all things lead up to His return to judge.

The call of King Jesus to this church is irresistible, ef­ficient, and effective. His voice and knocking bring the regenerated and converted to renewed repentance and conversion, that is, to change their minds (thinking that they were rich) and activity (thinking that they needed nothing). He works in them repentance of their proud self-satisfaction. They are to have a deep and constant consciousness of how much they need the Savior every moment of every day. To know how much we need Je­sus we must know our constant sinfulness, that vicious nature against which we have to struggle all our life­long. The constant presence of our depraved old man is what identifies us as poor, blind, and naked.

Jesus calls them to return to the Rock from which they have been hewn. They are to go back to Him who is the “beginning” or essence of God’s creation (14). He is what this world and our lives are all about. He is to be known and sought as the Fountain of all good—not once, but al­ways! Of Him we are to buy gold—the true and glorious riches that endure forever. From Him we are to receive “white raiment”—the true righteousness that alone cov­ers our spiritual nakedness. And He alone is the Source of the eye-salve that takes away the scales that blind us to ourselves and to Jesus, so we can accurately see God, the truth, and thus gain an accurate understanding of ourselves and our sinfulness. Then we can see the truth and what is of real and lasting importance.

Jesus’ call includes a warning: if there is no repen­tance, then He will spew thee out of His mouth. This is divine rejection.

And this call implies divine love. He rebukes and chastens because He loves (cf. Prov. 3:11, 12; Deut. 8:5; John 15:2; and Heb. 12:5).

The wonderful promises

The first promise is to those who are moved by Jesus’ voice to open unto Him. To hear His voice is to be enabled to hear the Shepherd’s efficient call that works genuine repentance. His sheep hear His voice and they follow Him!

To them He gives promise of sweet fellowship. Jesus is speaking of communion, not union. He will come in, that is, He will no longer be as outside. He assures all those who express godly sorrow that He will not leave them nor forsake them. He will not spew them out of His mouth, but the exact opposite. They will know sweet communion with the King: He will sup with them and they with Him. This figure of home life portrays the communion of salvation in Jesus Christ. This describes the experience of God dwelling with us, making His home with us and drawing us into His own divine family life. This describes our knowing that His goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life and assures that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:6). When the Savior King comes in, then He abides and lives with us in the intimate relationship of love and peace. This describes what the condition of the church (and believer) ought always to be—conscious that God is our God.

The second promise is that He will give us the privi­lege of sitting with Him in His throne, even as He was honored to sit down with His Father in His throne (21). When Jesus ascended, He went into heaven and sat on the right hand of God (I Pet. 3:22). Jesus promises the privilege of our ruling with Him in eternity, sharing His dominion in the new heavens and earth.

“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” We may believe that the local Christian church at Laodicea was moved to heed the Lord Jesus, because in A.D. 363 there was an important church council that was held in Laodicea. May we hear. May I hear.