As the son of an immigrant from Scotland I have biological compulsion to love the movie Braveheart. It’s an easy film to love of course, in spite of the terrible historical inaccuracies. But there’s this one scene I love, in which the English king is conspiring with his advisors on how to subdue the quarrelsome Scots. His conclusion is “The trouble with Scotland, is that it’s full of Scots.” Well duh. But the solution is to get English nobles to get some civilized genetic material into Scotland.
Sometimes, it seems to me that “the trouble with church, is that it’s full of church people.”
Sometimes, the problem is us. Sometimes we can’t succeed because we’re us. Sometimes we’re just so closed off, that we become almost spiritually inbred (pardon the crudeness of that illustration).
It’s no secret that the Church isn’t perfect. It never has been. One look at the New Testament and we see right away that problems popped up almost immediately after its founding. But of course, without that conflict much of our New Testament would not be there. So Church conflict has ultimately produced some benefit for us by the grace of God.
The Book of Revelation (chapters 2 and 3) speaks specifically of seven churches. Jesus appears to John who has been leading churches in the area these seven churches are located in, and he brings messages to these seven. The letter to the church in Laodicea is unique among the seven letters because all the rest begin with praise and pointing out what is going well. You do this, but I have this against you. For instance, Ephesus was enduring steadfastly and doing well at testing their teachers and exposing false teaching, but they had lost their first love- they were all about getting doctrine right, but weren’t applying it and showing the love which God calls us to. Laodicea though gets nothing but scathing criticism. There is no encouragement. There is no praise of anything they are doing.
I know your deeds/works, that you are lukewarm. I am about to spit you out. Literally spew or vomit really. You guys make me sick, Jesus says. Their actions were so out of whack with the mission of God that they had become nauseating to God. We have to make one thing clear at this point- we are saved by grace not works. Their works as deplorable as they may be, are not what determines their status before God, but their deeds revealed a problematic attitude; a spiritual deficiency.
But what does this “lukewarm” mean? So many interpreters suggested that God would prefer you reject him than follow half-hearted. Well that doesn’t sit right. Not because half-hearted commitment is ok, but God would never want spiritual rejection, would he? Doesn’t he desire that none should perish? We’ll get back to this in a second. Before we get to that, let’s cover some other details.
Laodicea was known for four things:
1. Wealth. Laodicea was a trade and banking centre, situated where three key roads converge. The city was incredibly affluent. When an earthquake hit the region in 60 AD, the city leaders turned down financial help from Rome, and rebuilt the city from their own finances. Imagine if a natural disaster hit St. Thomas and the Mayor says to the Prime Minister, “thanks Steve, but we got this.”
2. Fabric. Purple fabric was rare, as was black. Natural dyes for certain colours were hard to come by. Most black wool in the Eastern Mediterranean was produced in Laodicea. Their black wool was actually quite famous.
3. Eye salve and primitive optometry and medicine. A naturallly occuring mineral in the area could be used to produce a solution to be placed on the eyes to ease several eye conditions. The medical academy in Laodicea became infamous, and a hub for physicians who would study there.
They had wealth, fabric and eye salve in abundance. Yet, Christ says you are poor, naked and blind. The three things this city has in abundance don’t really matter because there is something they lack- real riches come from God.
They thought they were successful, but Jesus said, you’re wretched. That’s not a word we use a lot anymore. I have a nerdy fascination with many things, one of which is words which have fallen out of usage. Wretched. Despicable. Pitiful. Miserable. Worthless. You guys think you’ve got it all, but you’ve got nothing that matters. You’re poor, naked and blind.
And there is a fourth thing Laodicea was known for. It was something they didn’t have. Laodicea is a city located between two other key cities in the region, Colossae and Hieropolis. There was one thing these two cities had that Laodicea didn’t. Colossae was known for it’s beautiful cool, natural spring water. It was cold, refreshing and other cities like Laodicea craved this resource. Hieropolis had considerable volcanic activity which produced hot springs. The water in Laodicea was hard, and barely drinkable, and the volcanic activity left sulphuric deposits in the water, so it was not only unpleasant temperature wise, but it was even horrid smelling, and almost toxic. It was barely drinkable. It was nauseating even.
Hot water is useful. It can be medicinal even. It can sooth, relax, and make you feel better. In Hieropolis, the people flocked to soak in the pools where spring water was heated by the volcanic activity below. It was like having naturally occurring hot tubs.
Cold water is useful. It refreshes. It’s needed for life. The people of Colossae had this wonderful necessary resource in plentiful supply, and the Laodiceans had to ship in water from there to drink, because the only water nearby to them was problematic. Aqueducts brought water 5 miles from Colossae to Laodicea. But by the time it got there, it had warmed. It was tepid, and not exactly great for drinking.
Ever poured yourself a nice hot cup of coffee, and then forgot about for a while. When you pick it up later, and it’s no longer hot. Or have you ever left out a nice cold beverage on a hot summer’s day, and tried it when it’s become warm? Pleasant, eh? Hot drinks should be hot, and cold drinks should be cold.
So when God says to the Laodiceans, hey, you guys are lukewarm, he’s saying, hey guys you are useless, offensive even. Your works are not what they were designed to be. You are just sitting, stagnating, providing no value to the people around you or to the Kingdom of God.
This Church had been founded in Laodicea fairly early in the missionary endeavours of the Apostles, and through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we actually know some details about the early days of the church. Epaphras is usually creditted as its founder, and we know that person named Nympha(s) was the one who hosted the church, and we know that a man named Archippus appears to be a key leader or perhaps the key leader in the churches of that region, and Paul, although never visiting there personally that we know of, he knew their leaders, and he wrote to them and told the Colossian church to exchange copies of their respective letters.
But this church had, already at the time of the writing of Revelation (depending on which scholar you ask was anywhere from 5-30 years after Colossians was written) already fallen into complacency. They enjoyed their prosperity, felt blessed, but failed to use that opportunity to produce a flourishing ministry. For all the things they had, they lacked the follow through. Their deeds were either lacking, or actually counter productive in terms of fulfilling the work of the Kingdom. Affluence killed their ministry. In a short time this church had become a stench in the Kingdom. And if we study current trends, this trend is actually continuing. The most dynamic and flourishing ministries often happen on shoe-string budgets, and in impoverished regions. The fastest growing ministries are in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Latin America and China, where affluence and the church are worlds away from each other (See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom).
We should ask ourselves, how can a church flop like the Laodiceans? And the fact of the matter is that far too often a church with incredible resources becomes so self-absorbed, and inward focused and totally miss their calling to be Kingdom focused. We worry about our bottom lines, and our comfort and this or that thing which really doesn’t lead to any actual ministry successes.
How many churches have fallen victim to those awesome conflicts over interior design? Churches have split and blood has litterally been spilled over where to put the communion table. The church has historically not always been an asset to the work of the coming of the Kingdom. And it is worth asking ourselves are we Laodiceans?
Are we people who have become complacent in our priorities? Are we people who say “I have become rich”? Do we take credit and assume the church thrives on the sweat of our brows? Do we assume we are doing well if we’re comfortable?
Jesus says to the Laodiceans all this stuff you’ve built up doesn’t matter. Trade it in. Give it up. Stop hoarding your money and I’ll give you real gold- refined in the fire. Your black wool may look nice, but it means nothing really. I’ll clothe you in white, in purity, to cover the shame of you sinfulness. Salve may help your physical eyes, but you’re spiritually blind. Let me open your eyes for real.
The Church is the outposts of the Kingdom. We belong to the new creation, the new life. Why cling to the riches and standards of the old life? Our lives are meant to bear fruit for the Kingdom- fruit that will last, and bring glory to God. We were delivered from sin and death and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are to be crucified with Christ, and made alive in him and through him and for him first and foremost.
We can avoid so many slip ups if we leave ourselves out of the question. It’s not about us. When we all come to focus on the Father’s business and rid ourselves of any private agenda or personal preferences or biases, and ask “what will the fruit of this be?” suddenly, we view our stuff and our priorities differently. We live for his goals. We desire what he does. We mold our behaviour to fit his will. We pray your will be done. We shut up and listen more. We quit being so greedy and lazy and passive. We roll up our sleeves to accomplish something which reflects what Jesus was all about.
What was Jesus all about? What did he give his time towards? He went to eat with sinners, in their houses. He took care of sick people. He went to weddings. He talked to people he met in public places. He called people to follow him. He used his resources to alleviate suffering.
The Church should be a people who have come from anywhere and everywhere to be God’s people. It’s not a hangout for the “good people”. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s not a place where we “circle the wagons” to keep the bad stuff out and hoard blessings.
The trouble with the church, is that it’s full of church people. It’s far too often a place to hide, retreat, and enjoy “my place”.
The church is not a fortress. The church is not castle. The church is not a clubhouse or a country club. It’s not your place. In fact the church is not a place at all.
But if we had to compare the church to a place, it’s a hospital. Or a mechanic’s shop. Or a refueling station; an oasis perhaps.
If we want to talk about it as a place, it’s a place where God’s people can be hosts to the weary and heavy laden. A place where the lost can find refuge, and the sinner can find grace. A place where the broken can find people to weep with. A place where people learn to see Jesus by hearing the story of Messiah. A place where the ungodly hypocrite can find out he’s not alone. The church is full of ungodly hyprocrites- and there’s always room for one more.
Friends, we are the Church of Jesus Christ. We are the assembly of weary and heavy laden travelers whose stories and journeys got hijacked by a Jewish Rabbi who suffered and died to demonstrate the love of God to humanity, and then he said death doesn’t get the final say. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asked. He is not here. He is risen. We are the signs of the eternal life- lights in the darkness- signposts that point past the old, dying world to the source of everlasting life.
There’s a scene later on in Braveheart, where William Wallace is having a private conversation with Robert the Bruce, and he says “your title gives you a claim to the throne of our country, but people don’t follow titles; they follow courage. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you”. Folks, people don’t follow titles. They don’t follow status, or denominational affiliations or buildings or whatever. They want to see us courageously live out grace. Jesus did that and people flocked to him. People will follow if we do something worth following.
We are not wretched. As the hymn says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”. We have been delivered to be something more; something wonderful. Why settle for complacency and mediocrity and wretchedness? Let your light shine in the darkness. Make Jesus known where he is needed. Be his heralds and his ambassadors. Be bold and stand out, not because of something superficial, but because you are the righteousness of God through Christ (1 Cor. 5:21).
Aune, David E. Revelation 1-5 (WBC Vol. 52a). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.
Ladd, George E. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1972