John Bradshaw - Laodicea
This is "It Is Written". I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. In the well-known children's story, too hot is too hot, too cool is not warm enough, but somewhere in the middle things were just right. So why is it that in the Bible lukewarm is a bad thing? To answer this, we're visiting a place famous for its apathy, a place that's become synonymous with the word lukewarm. A place called Laodicea. Laodicea was an ancient city. It was located on a plateau in the Lycus Valley. This was a fertile area surrounded by creeks and rivers. This wealthy city was laid out in a grid system and stretched out over five square kilometers. And it's in this city that we find the last of the seven churches of Revelation. Laodicea was home to several incredible buildings. There were giant porticoes, agoras, and theaters.
There were public baths, a gymnasium, a stadium. There were also temples. After all, the city used to be called Diospolis, which means the city of Zeus. There was a temple dedicated to Artemis and Apollo. Another was dedicated to Zeus and Athena. The whole gods thing was important here. And, keep in mind, Rome didn't care if you cared about their gods. You didn't have to believe in them, you just had to go through the motions. You had to recognize them. It wasn't a question of loving the gods, it was a question of loyalty to them. And this loyalty united society. In fact, Laodicea applied to be granted the privilege of establishing an imperial cult temple here. These were temples built in honor of the emperors who were now considered, if not actual gods, that they had joined the gods. God enough. Christians who believed in a Creator God, in one True God, were enemies of the state. Christians were the unbelievers in the eyes of the Romans.
In fact, when trials were conducted of Christians who refused to worship the Roman gods, a statue of the emperor would be present so that the accused could offer the appropriate sacrifices then and there and therefore avoid punishment. Laodicea wasn't the only place with a Christian community. There were other believers just a few miles away from here. To the north of Laodicea was the city of Hierapolis and to the southeast was Colossae. In the book Paul wrote to the believers in Colossae, he greets those in Laodicea and Hierapolis. "For I bear him witness that he, Epaphras, has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis".
So, there's a cluster of places here that show up in the Bible. This area is surrounded by mountains, some reaching up to around eight thousand feet or close to two thousand five hundred meters. And Turkey is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. A devastating earthquake affected the east of Turkey in 2023. But as far back as the year A.D. 60, an earthquake destroyed Laodicea, Philadelphia, and other towns. But unlike other cities devastated by the earthquake, Laodicea made a surprising choice. After that earthquake, Laodicea turned down financial aid from the Roman Empire, choosing to rebuild itself using its own resources. The city's commercial and political prominence had a lot to do with its advantageous position on the local trade routes. The city minted its own coins. They had inscriptions on them to such pagan gods as Apollo and Zeus and any number of Roman emperors. It was a well-to-do place. And while there's nothing wrong at all with wealth, there's a real danger that prosperity can distract a person from faith in God, and that's what happened here. Laodicea became comfortable and that comfort became spiritually deadly. I'll tell you more in just a moment.
We're exploring the ancient city of Laodicea, about an hour's drive southeast of Philadelphia in the valley of the Lycus River. This was home to the last of the seven churches of Revelation. It was named for Laodice, the wife of the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus II, in around 260 B.C. And that name is important in the context of Jesus' remarks to this church. Laodicea means "a people judged". This whole region is filled with centuries of incredible history and natural wonder. Just a few miles north of Laodicea is the ancient city of Hierapolis. Hierapolis is a fascinating place. The first thing you notice are the brilliant white terraces. They are mineral deposits formed by the hot springs that flow from here. Back then, people believed that these hot springs had healing properties.
Today, they attract tourists from all over the world. Just past the thermal pools is another incredible structure. This theater was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D. and could accommodate 15,000 people. The theater is mostly made of marble, and even today you can see the elaborate decorative features. Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea and says: "These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God". This isn't to say that Jesus was a created being. He was not. John is writing that Jesus is the Originator of creation, the Creator Himself. Where Paul writes to the Colossians that Jesus is the Firstborn of every creature, he's writing of Jesus' preeminence, not that He was less than divine or more human than he actually was. Now Jesus wastes no time getting to the point here. He says to the Laodiceans, "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish that you were cold or hot".
He's contrasting the Laodiceans with the hot water that came from Hierapolis over there and the cold water that come from Colossae over there Hot water good, cold water good, but you Laodiceans, you're neither one thing nor the other. You're lukewarm. He's speaking about their spiritual condition. The problem the Laodiceans had is they were indifferent. They were spiritually neutral. Professing the name of Jesus, but not committed in any real way to actual Christianity. Not an all-out rebellion, but they were not all in. Not committed. And Jesus shows us just how serious that is when He says: "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth". Lukewarm water can have a certain emetic quality about it. Hot water, as long as it's not too hot, goes down easily. Cold water, the same. But lukewarm water can be a little sickly. Can leave you feeling a bit unsettled.
Now, we don't often talk together about vomiting, but why don't we do that for just a moment. The act of throwing up isn't a voluntary act. It's not something you can typically do without, without some kind of intervention, some kind of help, if, if, it that's the right word. The throwing up is involuntary. You've experienced that. You don't want to, you don't want to, you don't want to and then, it happens. You don't plan it, you don't work it up. Jesus isn't saying here, "I want to eject you". He's not saying, "I want to spew you out". He's simply not able to accept these people in their lukewarm state. So, to these people just going through the motions of their faith, which isn't really genuine faith, Jesus says, "I just can't keep this down".
Now, is that God being less than gracious? Well, no, it's God being honest, endeavoring to wake up the world. It's why in the book of Revelation there are three angels with important messages for the world, pictured as flying in the midst of heaven and calling to the world with a loud voice. It's important. Time is running out for planet earth. The movements we're seeing in the world today, the signs of the times being fulfilled, it's like God has pressed His foot down on the accelerator of time. And so here, Jesus is just being honest. He's saying, so much of what's going on in the world today, even in the church today, is nauseating to Him. This thing being presented as faith in Jesus, but it isn't. He doesn't want people thinking they're saved, when they're lost. Thinking they're having a genuine Christian experience, and they're actually not having that at all.
One of the greatest problems facing the world has to be that people are self-deceived, thinking they're okay with God when they're not. And that was true of the church of Laodicea. Listen to this. "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.'" They were in a perilous situation. The Laodiceans were actually rich. Again, nothing wrong with wealth, but it brings with it certain temptations. These people became comfortable in their comfort and they lost sight of what it meant to have a vital Christian experience. They said in their hearts, "We have need of nothing". They were satisfied. And this isn't just speaking about material things. Jesus is speaking to the church about its spiritual condition. They were just fine. Or, so they thought. In actuality, they were wretched. The only other time that word is used in the New Testament, it's when Paul speaks to the Romans and says, "Oh wretched man that I am".
The difference is with Paul, he was aware of his wretchedness, which is why he was able to cry out to God in desperation. But this group of people, unaware of their true spiritual condition, they cannot cry out to God for a remedy. Jesus said they were miserable. Now, this is another word that only appears twice in the New Testament. And again, the only other time it is used it's used by the apostle Paul. He wrote to the church in Corinth and he said, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable". The condition of people who only had hope in this world and had no hope in the world to come is described as miserable. The Laodiceans, although they didn't know it, were miserable. These well-off people were described as poor, as well as blind and naked. But true to the rest of the letters to the seven churched, there was hope even for the Laodiceans, which is phenomenal, isn't it?
Wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, but they could have hope, and that's Jesus' way. It's often been said that the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life". But the very next verse is another you don't want to miss. John 3:17. "For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved". Even three centuries after John's letter the Laodiceans continued to deceive themselves. The town of Laodicea hosted an important event known as the Council of Laodicea, between 363 and 364 A.D. It took place during the reign of Emperor Julian. He was called the apostate due to his attempts to revive paganism and diminish the influence of Christianity.
The Council of Laodicea is significant because it outlawed the keeping of the original seventh-day Sabbath and encouraged rest on Sunday. It also attempted to establish a biblical canon which included apocryphal books such as First Esdras, Baruch, and the epistles of Jeremiah. Although the Council of Laodicea wasn't specifically from the Laodicean church, it represented the overall attitude of the church at that time. The council highlighted the Laodiceans' failure to prioritize the Word of God as supreme. So, where was the hope for a people described by Jesus as wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked? Well, there was a lot of hope. I'll share that with you in just a moment.
The ruins of this Christian church in Laodicea dates to the fourth century A.D. The church wasn't standing when the early Christians were here and that's because those early Christians typically faced a lot of persecution and didn't worship in church buildings in those days. The first reference we have to a Christian community in Laodicea can be found in the Apostle Paul's epistle to the neighboring Colossians. He says in Colossians 4:16: "Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea". Either the Laodiceans had written to Colossae or to Paul and the apostle wanted the Colossians to be aware of that. The epistle to the Colossians may, in fact, have been a circular letter, to be sent to each of the various congregations in the territory. Some of the Greek manuscripts of Paul's first epistle to Timothy read, "written at Laodicea".
Paul may have been visiting Laodicea when he wrote his first letter to his protégé Timothy. Jesus' message to the church that was here was as straight as can be. "You say that you're rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing, but you are unaware that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked". But Jesus was quick to share hope with the Laodiceans and He does that with all of the seven churches.
"Ephesus, you have left your first love, but if you repent, you'll be okay".
"Smyrna, you're facing terrible persecution, but you don't have to fear, I'll give you a crown of life".
"Pergamos, I have a few things against you with your false teachings and your immorality and more, but if you repent, I'll give you a white stone and a new name".
"Thyatira, you put up with Jezebel and all that false teaching, but I'll give you power over nations and I'll give you the morning star". That's Jesus. "Sardis, you have a name that you're alive, but you're actually dead. But in spite of that, you may be clothed in white clothing and your name will stay in the Book of Life".
"Philadelphia, I'll make you a pillar in the temple of My God".
"And Laodicea, the church that makes me sick to my stomach, there is hope for you".
And here's what Dr. Jesus prescribed for these self-deceived Laodiceans, He said, "I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you might be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see". Gold tried in the fire that you may be rich. They thought they were rich, many of them in this banking center, but Jesus is talking about true riches. He doesn't mind if you have earthly riches, too, as long as that's dedicated to Him, and isn't acting as a millstone around your neck. I've heard gold tried in a fire being described as faith that works by love. Gold tried in the fire. Jesus said, "You need that, and then you'll be really rich. You'll have something of real value". And then Jesus says, "You need white garments that you might be clothed".
Now, this is interesting. Historians say that back in those times Laodicea produced soft, black wool, which was used to manufacture clothing. Jesus says to a people in a place known for its black wool, "What you need is white clothing". And, of course, that white clothing is the righteousness of Christ. What we all need to know is that our own righteousness is of no value. Isaiah described it as, "Filthy rags". But we can freely receive the perfect righteousness of Jesus. God offers that to you right now. Jesus went on to say that the Laodiceans needed to anoint their eyes with eye salve so they could see. Laodicea was home to a medical school in the first century. One of its first graduates was an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor, who wrote an influential textbook on the subject of the eye. And a popular eye salve was produced here. It was sold by the merchants of the city. And Jesus says, "I can offer you the eye salve that really works, and that works for you spiritually".
He wanted to open the eyes of the Laodiceans to the beauty of the Gospel, which, of course, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, "I'll give you My Holy Spirit, who will transform you, who will remake you". Jesus tells us why He is so direct with the Laodiceans when He says, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent". And then He says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him, and he with Me". This is Jesus knocking on the door of the heart. Notice, he doesn't force His way in. He knocks and allows you to open, or not. He says if you'll open the door, He'll come in. And notice it says, "We'll dine together". That's real hospitality. "We'll be friends," Jesus says. "We'll eat together. We'll have fellowship". What an invitation from the Divine Son of God.
Patmos was a lonely island when John was here two thousand years ago. Which is interesting because the letters to the seven churches reached their crescendo with an invitation to anything but loneliness. Jesus said that He knocks on the door of your heart. Doesn't force His way in. He says if you will open the door then He will come in and dine with you and you with Him. That's Jesus saying friendship, fellowship, unity for you and Him throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. No loneliness. No solitude. Very much unlike what John experienced right here on Patmos two millennia ago. Do you want that friendship? That's where the letters to the seven churches lead, to you and Jesus being one forever. If you'll say yes, you have eternity to look forward to, with the one the Book of Revelation calls the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Let me pray with you now:
Our Father in heaven, we thank You that above all things You wish that we, that's You and us, be connected, be one forever and ever. Let that be, dear Lord. In spite of our weakness, in spite of our sin, in spite of our faults, join us to Yourself through faith in the Christ of the Revelation, the Christ of the Bible. We thank You for what You have prepared for us in the letters to the seven churches. As we live by that instruction, as we live by that guidance, prepare us more and yet more for eternity when Jesus comes back to take us home. Let that day come soon, we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.