Laodicea, the Lukewarm Church Revelation 3:14–22
Christ addressed His final letter to the church of Laodicea, which was located in the Lycus Valley of southern Phrygia, midway between Philadelphia and Colosse. It was a significant commercial and banking center and was noted for its great wealth, the manufacture of wool carpets and clothing of rich black color and fine texture, and the production of medicines for eye ailments at its famous school of medicine attached to the temple of Aesculapius.1
The city was devastated by an extensive earthquake in 60–61 A.D. Its citizens demonstrated their great wealth and self-sufficiency by refusing help from the Roman government and rebuilding the city with their own resources.2 It is interesting to note that the name Laodicea comes from two Greek words meaning people and to judge, decide, or determine, indicating self-rule.3
Hot mineral springs were located at Hierapolis, six miles from Laodicea. By the time water from those springs flowed to Laodicea, it was lukewarm and nauseating to drink.4 In this lukewarm state it would cause vomiting.5
The church in Laodicea may have been founded through the ministry of Epaphras of Colosse (Col. 1:7; 4:12–13).6 Paul had great concern for that church (Col. 2:1; 4:15–16). Over the years the church grew large enough for its bishop to be elevated to the rank of metropolitan bishop. However, it eventually perished, and no remnant of it exists today.7
The Description of Christ in Relationship to This Church (v. 14b)
Christ described Himself to this church as “the Amen,” the one who is the truth and therefore the standard of truth (in. 14:6); “the faithful and true witness,” the one who can be trusted to give an accurate evaluation that genuinely corresponds with reality; and “the beginning of the creation of God,” the one who is the eternal cause of the universe (1 Jn. 1:1–3; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:2) and therefore is sovereign over all of it. These descriptions were designed to communicate that Christ, the standard of truth, would give an evaluation of the church of Laodicea that would correspond accurately with reality, and, because He is sovereign over all the universe, His evaluation would have awesome implications for that church.
The Rebuke of This Church (vv. 15–17)
Christ offered no praise for the church of Laodicea. His evaluation resulted in total rebuke. He did not rebuke it for immoral practices or doctrinal error, as He did some of the other churches. Apparently this church was not plagued by those two problems. Instead, He rebuked it for being lukewarm, rather than cold or hot, toward Him.
Christ’s language indicates that being lukewarm is worse than being totally cold. On the surface, this contrast seems strange. Certainly being lukewarm in relationship to Christ is worse than being totally hot, but wouldn’t a mixture of at least some hot and cold be better than being totally cold? An examination of what Christ meant by hot, cold, and lukewarm indicates that this is not the case.
It appears that Christ used the term hot to refer to true believers, those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and therefore possess genuine spiritual life that gives them a zeal for Christ.8 Paul and Stephen were examples of those who were hot.
The word cold refers to unbelievers who have not been exposed to the saving grace of God in Christ. In their spiritual deadness, they do not have even a pretense or outward form of zeal for Him. However, such unbelievers, when confronted with the saving grace of God, often respond with genuine faith, are saved, and become hot with zeal for Christ.9 The Thessalonians who became saved were examples of those who were cold but became hot (1 Th. 1).
The expression lukewarm refers to unbelievers who, when exposed to the saving grace of God in Christ, make a profession of faith in Him but do not genuinely trust Him for salvation. They have an outward form of zeal for Christ but do not possess genuine spiritual life; thus, they are lukewarm (a mixture of hot and cold).10 Those who John said were “with” believers in churches but were not “of” believers are examples of lukewarm individuals (1 Jn. 2:19). Matthew 7:21–23 and John 6:60–66 provide other examples of such people.
The people of the church in Laodicea were lukewarm because they had allowed the wealth and self-sufficient attitude of their city to affect their spiritual outlook. They equated their religiosity, which they had acquired for themselves, with spiritual wealth. They felt spiritually self-sufficient and satisfied and were convinced that they needed nothing else in the spiritual realm, not even true spiritual life in Christ.
Christ’s evaluation of their spiritual state differed radically from their own. He declared that they were ignorant of their true spiritual condition. In reality, they were in a wretched, miserable state. Their city was wealthy, but they were in poverty spiritually. Their city produced medicines for eye ailments, but they were spiritually blind. Their city manufactured fine wool clothing, but they were spiritually naked, not being clothed with the righteousness of God that makes a person acceptable to Him. Just as the lukewarm waters at Laodicea could cause vomiting, so the lukewarm condition of the church in that city was so nauseating to Christ that He threatened to vomit it out.
The Exhortation to This Church (vv. 18–20)
Because the Laodiceans lived in a banking-commercial center, they were accustomed to having financial advisors counsel them about investing their wealth wisely. In like manner, Christ counseled them concerning wise spiritual investments. He advised them to “buy” three things from Him: refined gold (true, unadulterated spiritual riches) in order to be spiritually wealthy; white clothing (the absolute righteousness of God) in order to cover their spiritual nakedness and thereby make themselves acceptable to God; and eye salve (the work of the Holy Spirit, which would remove their spiritual blindness) in order to see spiritual reality.
Even though Christ found this church nauseating, He still had a friendship love (phile) for people within it. It was because of this love that He rebuked and chastened them. Christ chastened this church when Sagaris, one of its bishops, was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (121–180).11 These actions by Christ indicated that change was still possible for the church. He therefore commanded the church to be zealous (eager to change) and to repent in order to buy the three spiritual commodities He had advised.
Through its lukewarm condition, the church in Laodicea had shut Christ out. In spite of this abuse, Christ did not force His way in. Instead, He graciously took the initiative and sought entrance by knocking at the church’s door. Since the church as a whole might not open the door to Him, He also appealed to individuals within the church to respond individually to Him Christ would enter into a personal relationship with anyone who would open the door of his heart to Him. Christ would eat with that person (take the faith that person would offer Him), and that person would eat with Christ (take all the riches that He offers, cp. Eph. 3:8).12
The Reward to the Overcomer (v. 21)
Christ promised a reward to the person who would overcome. In this context, it appears that the overcomer was the individual in the Laodicean church who overcame the pressures of that church to remain in its condition of lukewarm unbelief and reject Christ’s appeal. He was the person who opened the door to Christ. In other words, he was the true believer (cp. 1 Jn. 2:13–14; 4:4; 5:4–5).
The reward that Christ promised was the future (the verb “will grant” is future tense) privilege of sitting with Him in His throne, just as the Father granted Christ the privilege of sitting with Him in His throne because Christ overcame the world (Jn. 16:33; Phil. 2:89; Heb. 1:3). Thus, Christ promised that He will reward church saints with the privilege of reigning together with Him in the Millennial Kingdom (2 Tim. 2:12).
The Command to Readers (v. 22)
Christ commanded readers to heed the convicting voice of the Spirit through these letters to the churches. In light of this letter to Laodicea, churches and readers today should heed the warning about shutting Christ out through a self-sufficient attitude that amounts to lukewarm belief.
- Richard C. Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (New York, NY: Charles Scribner, 1861), 251-52, and Henry B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), 62.
- Trench, 252, and Swete, 59.
- Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1900), 465, 202.
- Swete, 60.
- “Laodicea,” Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), 1012.
- Swete, 59.
- Trench, 253.
- Trench, 259-60.
- Swete, 63.
- Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1968), 31.