By Annette Griffin, Crosswalk.com
The book of Revelation begins with a letter address to each of seven churches in Asia Minor. These churches were not only a representation of all those that existed in the first century A.D., but they have also proven to be an accurate sampling of the Church throughout history. All the letters contain an instructive glimpse into the trials and challenges early believers faced, but the letter written to the church of Laodicea has particular relevance to today’s westernized church.
What Was the Church of Laodicea?
The Apostle John, under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s revelatory power, wrote detailed and intimate letters from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor. These letters outlined the churches’ failings and strengths and exhorted each body of believers to actively continue in the faith. The church of Laodicea was the last church addressed in the series of John’s letters.
Though the Bible doesn’t tell us who founded the church of Laodicea, biblical scholars presume that one of Paul’s disciples by the name of Epaphras likely planted it. Because the church of Laodicea consisted of mainly Jewish converts, they were initially exempt from the mandatory cult-like worship of the Roman emperor Domitian. But as more Gentiles converted to Christianity, their special exempt status was removed. The Laodicean church’s response to the persecution that followed offers a clue as to why the author of Revelation calls them “lukewarm.”
Located on an important commercial trade route and situated on a plateau, the city of Laodicea was set up for prosperity and security. The inhabitants of the city were wealthy, industrious, and educated. Laodicea’s medical school was thought to have formulated some of the most innovative medicines of the day—including a treatment for eye ailments known as Phrygian powder. Known far and wide for its prosperity, the city was a hub for finance and the only source for the highly sought-after glossy, black wool used to make clothing for the elite.
Laodicea means “rule of the people.” The leadership and townspeople of Laodicea exemplified the kind of self-reliance suggested by the city’s name. When hit by a devastating earthquake in A.D. 61, Laodicea refused Rome’s help to rebuild because they preferred to handle the reconstruction themselves—making them the only city in the province of Asia that did not embrace the Emperor's financial support.
Only out of necessity did Laodicea depend upon the nearby city of Hierapolis for its water source. The hot springs of Hierapolis, located six miles north of Laodicea, were piped through an aqueduct to the city. However, because of the distance and time required to transport the water to their town, the water arrived neither hot nor cold—but tepid.
When Roman emperor Domitian began to persecute the Christian church for their refusal to worship him, the church of Laodicea faced a quandary. They could either forsake Christ and succumb to the imperial cult, or they would lose their ability to buy or sell, due to the tyrannical trade restrictions imposed upon all who did not worship the Emperor.
Because of their great wealth, this dilemma became particularly challenging for the church of Laodicea. This is why “Jesus’ letter to this church wastes no time denouncing the congregation for its lukewarm faith, threatening to “spit” the congregation out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16),” explains Dolores Smyth in What Do the 7 Churches in Revelation Represent? Summaries and Explanations
Why Did This Church Receive Only Rebukes from John?
Jesus offered affirmations to all the churches addressed in John’s letters—except for the church of Laodicea. While the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia suffered the same oppression from Domitian and struggled with their own faith weaknesses, none possessed the affluence of the Laodicean church. The Laodicean’s blessing of wealth quickly became a potential stumbling block when faced with persecution.
It’s shocking and sobering to see that “the scriptures contain a revealing account of a church that made God sick,” says Mel Walker in What is a Lukewarm Christian? Still, Jesus demonstrated his love to the Laodicean church by exposing their weaknesses and encouraging them to repent. Jesus further showed His mercy by exhorting the church with language and examples pertinent to their everyday lives.
“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). This warning would have harkened back to the Laodiceans’ own tepid drinking water, piped in from Hierapolis.
“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). These words would have painted a stark contrast between how the Laodiceans saw themselves and how the Lord saw them. The members of this community prided themselves on appearance and wore that pride as a badge of honor to their self-confidence and self-sufficiency. They didn’t realize that by arraying themselves in their own honor they were forfeiting Christ’s garment of righteousness.
“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 wealth the Laodiceans had accumulated for themselves was worthless to buy eternal things. The lustrous black wool that had brought their city fame did nothing to cover the shame of their sins—nor did their own renowned eye-salve have the power to cure their spiritual blindness.
The Laodicean church only received rebukes in John’s letter because their self-reliance had robbed them of any eternal merit through Christ. Wanting the very best for His beloved church, Jesus exposed the Laodiceans’ sin, called them back to Himself, and reminded them of the eternal reward waiting for those who are victorious over worldly temptations.
“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. 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” (Revelation 19:21).
How Is the Church of Laodicea Creeping into Our Own Churches Today?
Churches today struggle with challenges and temptations just as much as the early church did. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows scripture. Jesus assures us that in this world we will have trouble (John 16:33).
Because the American church today shares many of the same blessings the church of Laodicea possessed, we also face some of the same temptations. Our country is considered by the rest of the world as prosperous, industrious, and educated. Depending on who you ask, we are considered either a representative republic or democracy. Either way, the undisputed fact is that one of the things that sets us apart as a nation is our ability to self-rule, and we take great patriotic pride in that accomplishment.
It’s been said that “As the church goes, so goes the nation,” and so it should be. But more often than not it’s the other way around. Self-reliance may be great governing practice for our nation, but it should not be the Way of the church. When any form of “self” seeps into the fabric of the church, it leaves an opening for the enemy to usher in the temptation of pride. A real danger exists when we don’t diligently defend a complete surrender to and reliance on Christ as Lord and Head of the Church.
Why is self-reliance in the Church so dangerous? In Let the Lukewarm Come to Me, John Piper sums it up this way: “The self-reliant have no idea how much they sacrifice to preserve their pride. As they cling to their false sense of control, they forfeit the sovereign help of heaven. They surrender the merciful and miraculous opportunity to finally and fully see. They lose Jesus because they won’t be served by Jesus.”
3 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Lukewarm Church
Cling to the Vine—"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” John 15:5
The best way to keep our churches from becoming lukewarm is to cling to the Head of the church. Christ is the head of the church. That position is not up for vote or debate. Christ is before all things, and in Him, all things hold together (Colossians 1:18-19). The church is completely and forever His, bought by His very blood. The quickest way to render a church lukewarm is to put a human in charge—any human. Every pastor, preacher, minister, leader, and volunteer is a servant of Christ and under His headship. When that God-ordained role is challenged by a power-hungry minister or over-zealous worshippers who want to please their leader—the Holy Spirit is grieved, and that church slides down the slope of lukewarmness on its way to apostasy.
Cling to the Truth—"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" John 8:31-32.
This world is full of half-truths, fake news, and reidentified realities. Lukewarm churches adapt their teachings and doctrines to accommodate the ever-changing values and ideals of the world. But when a church clings unwaveringly to the truth of Scripture and teaches that truth—in love—to the perishing world, it becomes a church on fire for Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, that church ministers Christ’s love and truth freely and leads the lost and perishing world to a freedom they never knew existed.
Cling to Redemption—“holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith” 1 Timothy 1:19.
Every believer knows that sin separates. Lukewarm churches don’t start out tepid. Little by little they allow sin to creep into the Body—unchecked, excused or overlooked. Whether they’re wanting to avoid confrontation, or just more concerned with building a brand than building the Kingdom, lukewarm churches allow little sprinkles of “yeast” to grow until the whole church becomes infected (Galatians 5:9).
Jesus paid the price so that if we find ourselves estranged from the Father because of sin, we have a way—through Jesus’ shed blood—to return to fellowship. A church that wants to remain active and useful for the Kingdom of God will regularly take stock of sin and commit to holding each other accountable. This can only happen through complete surrender to God and full transparency with each other. Guilt and shame should never be used as a tool or a deterrent for accountability. Christ’s love will guide wayward souls back to Himself as we humbly and meekly hold to the standards He put in place for His church. When we lay down our pride and confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
“We also don't have to fear that we messed up, drifted away from God, or turned our back for a moment. Why? Because God's love is greater than our deep worry we won't be loved again,” says Kelly Balarie in 25 Ways Not to be Lukewarm in Faith
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Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.