In the context in vvhich tihese words were spoken, surely there can be no sadder comment! As the risen Lord drew attention to the spiritual poverty of the church at Laodicea and pointed out how deplorable their condition was, the words ‘thou sayest, I am rich’ plainly indicated how little they were in touch with reality. How different their view of themselves compared with His view of them! Their boasting in their riches and their self-sufficiency was a sad evidence of their blindness to the depths to which they had sunk, and their real poverty.
The Lord’s description of them as ‘lukewarm’, v. 16, and as such nauseating, emphasises divine disgust with their state. Had they been cold there would have been some hope of revival. Had they been hot, even though the warmth might have been attended at times by an excess of zeal, this would have been something the Lord could have used and trained. But a lukewarm condition seemed to be almost hopeless.
Laodicea was a prosperous city. It was a banking centre and a centre of industry. It has been described as ‘the Manchester’ of a large area, where merchant princes were many and where great fortunes were made. It is said that there was also in the city a large medical school which was noted for a special ointment, or eyesalve. There is no indication that Christians living there were persecuted because of their faith-perhaps their faith was not of the kind which attracted the attention of others to them. The Lord’s charge of lukewarmness may indicate that they were adopting a neutral position, not over much concerned about principles to be termed ‘old-fashioned’, or in such a way as to interfere with the current views around them. Perhaps they reasoned that they should be ‘all things to all men’. They were certainly not acting as ‘salt’, Matt. 5. 13, or as ‘light’, Matt. 5. 14-neither of which is compatible with lukewarmness.
Perhaps a closer examination of their claims, and what is involved in them in relation to their position as a local church may be helpful, bearing in mind that the divine description of this church is also a prophetic description of the church immediately prior to the return of the Lord.
The Christians at Laodicea boasted in the fact that they were rich and had need of nothing. With our present day to guide us it is suggested that this claim may be viewed in three ways, financially, intellectually, socially.
In a prosperous city the spirit of materialism had crept into their souls. Their homes were comfortable, even luxurious, and there was no longer any real need to ‘walk by faith’. All the current amenities were there to be enjoyed, and enjoy them they did, and as they enjoyed them they lost sight of the fact that their true citizenship was in heaven, Phil. 3. 20 – that in relation to this world they were ‘strangers and pilgrims’, 1 Pet. 2. 11, They had also lost the joy of sacrificial service: they could well pay for all they needed and personal service one to another was not called for as once it was. It was no hardship to give and this was better than doing menial tasks themselves. With them it was not a matter of being ‘poor, yet making many rich,’ they were rich but others were not spiritually profited in consequence.
They had advanced with the times and no one could charge them with being old-fashioned in their views. Of course they still believed all the old fundamental truths but with their increase in knowledge and in view of modern teaching they interpreted them in the light of the present. They could not live in the past, they had to live in the ‘today’ and naturally they saw things a little differently from those believers of the first days of the church. They did not fall out with modern teaching but adapted it to their own purposes. This enabled them to have fellowship with those whose views were very different from their own, and indeed, as some old-fashioned people among them thought, were not even in accordance with the scriptures. Tolerance in relation to other people’s views was something to be commended! The ministry meeting became the opportunity of displaying one’s knowledge and showing how they were abreast with current views, although it must be confessed that there were a few, a minority of course, who felt they were not getting any spiritual food and grieved in consequence. They, however, were among the old-fashioned ones. The proof that they were
behind the times was seen in the fact they that, even though a minority, still thought a regular church prayer-meeting was vital to the spiritual life of the church and they continued to attend. The church as a whole, however, had little sympathy with this.
Because of their advance financially and intellectually they were no longer social outcasts, but accepted by the world of their day. It is true that in a letter Paul had written to the Corinthian Christians some years before he had spoken somewhat forcibly of ‘separation’ but of course one should not be too extreme in these things. They could not expect men to be influenced for good if they did not mix with them and share their affairs. Paul could write of being regarded as the ‘filth of the world, the off-scouring of all things’, I Cor. 4. 13, but things were changed with the passing of the years and the church in Laodicea had to take its place in and make its contribution to the social life of the district. True, it became more difficult to tell men they were sinners and needed a Saviour when they met with them on their own level, but they were sure that somehow the contact must be for good.
As we consider Laodicea in this way it is not difficult to see a very close likeness to our own day in our own land. As the Lord’s people have become increased in goods their spiritual strength has waned, and as they have become more involved in the affairs of the world their effectiveness for Him has been seriously reduced. There is a lukewarmness, a position of neutrality, which must be grieving to the One who says, ‘I would thou wart cold or hot’.
The Lord of glory calls upon the lukewarm church to face up to her real condition-‘Thou sayest, I am rich … but art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked’. Self-examination in the presence of the Lord will show what the true position is, and it is likely that a sense of shock will be produced by what is seen. Laodicea had money, plenty of it, but spiritually she was poverty-stricken. The city had a large industry for the manufacture of clothing, violet and black glossy fabrics which won high prices and world-wide markets, and in this doubtless the Christians shared, but in the eyes of the One who searcheth all things and saw things as they really were, they were naked. There were many physicians at their medical school and their eye salve was famous, but the believers at Laodicea were blind, they could not see themselves as they were, their vision of Christ was dimmed, and they could not see the need of the world around them. How sad the comment, Thou knowest not’. There was an insensibility to it all which made the prospect of change most unlikely. These words of the Lord bring to mind the words written concerning Samson ‘He wist not that the Lord was departed from him’, Judg. 16. 20. Tragic ignorance!
It is said that on one occasion a dignitary of a fashionable church was showing a visitor round the building, which was lavishly decorated with valuable ornaments and fittings. The dignitary commented with satisfaction on the growing wealth of the church and said, ‘We cannot now say as Peter did “Silver and gold have I none"’. ‘No/ responded the visitor, ‘Neither can we say to the helpless, “rise up and walk"’. This is true today of more than one company of God’s people, who were once ‘rich toward God’. ‘I am rich’, they say, but the One who knows all things says, ‘Thou art poor’.
The word of exhortation which follows the Lord’s description of the church directs them to Christ I himself, ‘Buy of Me’. He presents Himself to them in the place of Laodicea’s bankers and money-changers. True riches are found only in Him. He offers them a suitable clothing for their time of witness, ‘white raiment’, speaking of a righteousness which could be seen and which reflected Christ, ‘the righteous acts of saints’, Rev. 19. 8. He urges a spiritual vision, which of necessity involves the removal by the Holy Spirit of that which is causing the blindness. These things, true riches, suitable clothing, spiritual sight, are dependent upon a growing desire for, and deepening knowledge of, the Lord Himself-‘Buy of Me’.
It may be that the closing vision of the Lord outside the door of the church, knocking and seeking entrance; and His words ‘if any man hear My voice and open the door I will come in to him’, imply that very largely the response is going to be from individuals rather than from the congregation, and that the Lord does not expect to see a complete return of His people to Himself in whole-hearted love and service, although, one once said, ‘No individual church is beyond the magnificent resuscitation of the Son of Cod’. But opportunity is offered for any one who hears His voice to respond.
The words of another in this connection are helpful, ‘Where there is spiritual vitality it will respond. His rebuke and discipline will be recognized, His voice heard. The work of God in souls comes to light in that way. If any one desires to have His company and opens the door, He says T will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me’. The Lord would thus separate, morally, each responsive heart from an assembly that is rich without Him and that does not want Him. The Lord sups with such an one; He enters sympathetically into all his exercises and makes him conscious that he is thoroughly known, and that every spiritual desire in his heart that has Christ as its object, or that has found satisfaction in Christ, is fully and deeply appreciated by an Eternal Lover.
‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’. Rev. 3. 22.
Editors Note: In the section ‘2. Intellectually’, the author is not expounding Revelation 3, but lamenting the probability that what he feels is prevalent today was also existing when the apostle wrote.