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Studies in the book of Revelation: When success isn’t enough

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 3:14-22

Laodicea stood 43 miles southeast of Philadelphia, on the Lycus River at the border of Phrygia, six miles south of Hierapolis and ten miles from Colossae. The city occupied an almost square plateau several hundred feet high with mountains to the south rising to more than 8,000 feet. The city was founded in the mid-third century BC by Antiochus II, who named it after his wife Laodice (meaning “justice of the people”).

The Laodicean Christians received two letters from Paul: one letter sent first to Colossae and a second (now lost) sent directly to Laodicea (see Colossians 4.16). The church at Laodicea was probably founded by Epaphras (Colossians 4.12-13) during Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 19.10). There is no evidence that Paul ever visited Laodicea, although his letter to Colossae reflects his concern for the church.

The enormous wealth of Laodicea was derived in large measure from her location. She stood at the intersection of two great trade routes: one going from Ephesus to the east and the other heading south from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. Five of the seven cities in Revelation lay on the latter route: Laodicea, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia.

Laodicea was also the site of large manufacturing and banking operations and was known for fine woolen carpets and clothing. The city served as the center for the worship of Asklepios and the seat of a medical school. Cicero lived there and wrote many of his letters at the provincial court located in the city.

How we get to Laodicea

The city’s great material success did not translate into spiritual significance. In fact, Laodicea is the only church in Revelation to receive no praise whatsoever from Jesus. Let’s see why, and how the same problem can exist in our spiritual lives. Ask yourself three questions.

First, is my faith routine? Jesus says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (v. 15). Why does he use this metaphor for their souls?

Laodicea had every natural resource except one–water. The city’s location had been determined by the road system, not by water sources. Water had to be transported through stone pipes which were three feet in diameter. This aqueduct was an engineering marvel (many parts still exist), but the water it supplied was adequate at best.

Pipes were laid to two sources, each six miles from Laodicea. One was located to the south at Denizli. This water source was fed by snows from the mountains and started the journey to Laodicea at near freezing temperature. By the time it had traveled six miles through sun-warmed stone pipes the water temperature became lukewarm.

The other source was the hot springs at Hierapolis to the north. These are still stunningly beautiful and are a major tourist attraction. The ruins show how wealthy and prosperous the city once was. The springs arise from within the city, flow across a wide plateau, and then spill over a broad cliff 300 feet high and a mile wide. At its source, this spring is near boiling temperature with steam rising from its surface. It felt like a sauna to my touch when I visited it. However, by the time the water was piped six miles to Laodicea, it, too, became lukewarm.

The people of Laodicea knew all about lukewarm water. Unfortunately, their souls had come to the same state. Their worship had become boring, routine, comfortable. The newness of their faith had worn off in the 40 years since their church had been founded, and their relationship with Jesus had become a religion about him. Faith was just one part of their lives. They had lost their joy, zeal, and passion. Their hearts were as lukewarm as the water they drank.

How long has it been since you were excited about coming to church to worship Jesus Christ? When was the last time you were overjoyed to read God’s word, or thrilled to be with him in prayer? Do you share your faith with zeal? Do you give your money to God gratefully? If your faith is lukewarm, it’s certain that Jesus is standing outside your life today. He continues knocking to get your attention.

Second, am I self-sufficient? Prime land contributed to Laodicea’s wealth. The fertile ground of the Lycus Valley provided great agricultural prosperity. The sheep bred in this area provided a soft, glossy black wool that was in demand across the Empire. Clothing from Laodicea was even mentioned in an edict by Emperor Diocletian.

The city’s location brought trade from across the world to her merchants. Her bank was famous across Asia; in fact, Cicero wrote of cashing his treasury bills of exchange there. Although most cities had only one theater, Laodicea possessed two.

The most striking proof of Laodicea’s wealth occurred in AD 60, when an earthquake devastated the region. Without financial aid from Rome, the people rebuilt their opulent city. Tacitus, the most famous of all ancient historians, paid tribute to their wealth: “Laodice arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us” (Annals 14.27).

Against the backdrop of such affluence, Jesus quotes his church: “You say, I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (v. 17a). They thought their future was secure and their resources sufficient for any crisis. But self-reliant people are always wrong. Circumstances eventually will force us to recognize that we each need the protection and power only Jesus can give.

Today the formerly beautiful Laodicea lies in ruins, mostly unexcavated. A large mound of dirt covers the place where this proud city once stood. These Christians and their city were self-sufficient, until they were gone.

In the same way, it is easy for prosperous Christians to become self-sufficient, blind to our need for Jesus Christ. And so we become lukewarm in our faith, and lose all passion for our Lord.

Third, am I spiritually satisfied? The Laodicean Christians were satisfied with their material wealth and lifestyles. Jesus had to shout to them from behind their locked hearts: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (v 17b).

This spiritual condition was truly ironic. The Laodiceans possessed the greatest bank in their region, yet they were “poor,” the Greek word for someone as destitute as a beggar. Their city was famous for an eye salve known as kollyrion, yet the people are “blind.” They were known for a wool they manufactured, but their souls were “naked.” They were satisfied with their spiritual lives, and didn’t realize how “wretched” and “pitiful” they were.

Whenever we are comfortable with our spiritual lives and progress, we’re in Laodicea.

How to leave Laodicea

And so Jesus must knock persistently on the locked door of their hearts and souls. Here is his answer to their spiritual malaise: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (v. 19). They are still loved by their Lord. How can they return to him? How do we?

First, seek God with passion. Jesus says to lukewarm Laodiceans, “Be earnest” (v. 19). The words in the Greek mean “be zealous, excited, passionate.” This is a command, not an option; it is in the present tense, and should be translated, “Be continuously passionate.”

Passion is the cure for a lukewarm spirit. Drive, energy, and devotion should characterize our quest to know God. Note that passion is a decision before it is an emotion. Feeling follows action. We must choose to seek God earnestly, to read Scripture avidly, to pray without ceasing, to worship God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. We can choose to replace our staid religion with a living relationship. In doing so, we will open the door to the very One we seek.

Second, pay the spiritual price. Jesus continues: “Be earnest, and repent” (v. 19). He calls Laodicean Christians to admit our sins and failures, and to reject them. Turn from them, once and for all. He knows that the more our passion for him grows, the more we will reject sin and temptation. A spiritual inventory is never more essential than when we are in Laodicea.

Third, welcome the Savior. When we return to our passion for Jesus and repent of our lukewarm hearts, Jesus will come through the door we open to him. He guarantees it: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (v. 20).

In Jesus’ day, dinner was a long meal and time for fellowship. Here Jesus promises a time of personal fellowship and relationship to anyone who truly wants it.

And we will be in this relationship forever: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (v. 21). We will share in the feast of the Messiah for all eternity, as we rule with him (cf. Mt 19.28; Lk 22.29-30; 1 Cor 6.2-3; Rev 22.1-5; 2 Tim 2.11-12; Mk 10.40).

Any Christian can be in Laodicea, but prosperity makes this condition even more likely. The first step to leaving spiritual Laodicea is to admit the problem. Next, we spend intentional time alone with our Father. And we choose daily to walk with our Savior.

Jesus is still knocking at the door of our hearts. What is your answer today?