THE COMPLACENT CHURCHES
Revelation 3:1-6; 14-22
Sardis: The city of Sardis had once been the capital of Croesus, king of Lydia, fabled for his wealth. At the time John wrote, its fortunes were in decline. Its mighty fortress was thought impregnable, now deserted, had fallen twice to enemies who had crept up on it secretly. The city featured exceptionally large (160 by 300 feet) temple dedicated to the Greek Artemis who was believed to possess the special power of restoring the dead to life. There is not the slightest hint of persecution or opposition in this fifth message.
Laodicea: The city of Laodicea was as fabled for its wealth as Sardis once had been. In Roman times Laodicea became the wealthiest city in Phrygia. The most striking indication of the city’s wealth is that following the devastating earthquake of A.D. 60 the city was rebuilt without financial aid from Rome. It was a banking center specializing in currency exchange, it had a thriving clothing industry fed by the glossy black wool of the local sheep, and it housed a hospital and medical school well known for its eye treatments. At nearby Hierapolis were hot springs with reputed medicinal properties.
Sardis: The exhortations in vv. 2 and 3 to “be watchful” carried special weight in Sardis because twice in its history the city fort had fallen to the enemy due to a lack of vigilance on the part of the defenders. Twice a small band of invaders climbed up a crevice on one of the nearly perpendicular walls of the mountain fortress, opened the gates from within, and allowed invading armies to overpower the defenders. Paul told the Corinthians, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor 10:12).
Apparently untroubled by heresy and free from outside opposition, they had so completely come to terms with their pagan environment that although the church retained the outward appearance of life, it was spiritually dead. They had established a name for themselves in the eyes of the community, but in God’s sight their works had not measured up. If the church does not wake up to its perilous position, Christ will “come unexpectedly, like a thief” and visit them in judgment.
Laodicea: The adjectives “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm” are not to be taken as describing the spiritual fervor (or lack of it) of people. The contrast is between the hot medicinal waters of Hierapolis and the cold, pure waters of Colossae. Thus the church in Laodicea was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick. Secure in their affluence, they were unaware that in reality they were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. The inevitable result of spiritual complacency is the loss of all true self-knowledge.
Because the city was so prosperous, the believers in Laodicea weren’t aware of their desperate need for grace. Their pretentious claim was not only that they were rich but that they had achieved it on their own. And beyond that, they had need of nothing. Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable who counseled his soul to eat, drink, and be merry for he had laid up many good things for many years to come (Luke 12:19), the Laodiceans felt they were secure in their spiritual attainment. But the truth was that they were the ones who were poor, blind, and naked. And saddest of all, they did not realize their wretched condition.
DESCRIPTION OF CHRIST:
Sardis: This letter describes Christ as the one having the seven spirits and the seven stars. John’s readers would have associated the seven spirits with the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1-2, which speaks about the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. All these aspects of the Christ-life point to the indispensability of being aware of our weakness. We cannot be filled with God’s wisdom or understanding when we rely on our own (insufficient) intellect and insights. We don’t remain in God’s counsel when we employ the world’s strategies for doing things. We consistently grasp for power if we deny our utter dependency upon God.
Laodicea: The One who addresses the church in Laodicea identifies himself as “the Amen.” In the OT and Judaism “Amen” is primarily the acknowledgment of that which is valid and binding. The title is further expressed by the phrase, “the faithful and true witness.” It presents the trustworthiness of Christ in sharp contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Laodicean church. And Christ is identified as the origin of creation, the one from and through whom all things come to be. He is reminding them that the things they are so proud of and express ownership of are actually his, created by him. When we hear the 24 elders sing in chapter 4 they will say, “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.”
PROMISE TO OVERCOMERS:
Sardis: Although the majority of the church had become thoroughly secularized, there were a few people who had “not soiled their clothes.” Pagans in Asia Minor believed that soiled clothes disqualified the worshiper and dishonored the god. The promise to the undefiled minority is that they will walk with Christ, “dressed in white for they are worthy.” This does not mean that they are without sin. Rather, their lives are already constantly being renewed. Since only Christ’s grace makes us worthy to walk with him, they are undoubtedly folk who are constantly aware of their need for his forgiveness and guidance and, therefore, are people who have not soiled their clothes by wandering away from him or by becoming proud of their own purity.
The second promise is that the overcomer’s name will not be blotted out of the book of life. The idea of a divine ledger is first mentioned in the OT in Exod 32:32-33, where Moses prays that if God will not forgive the sin of his people, he himself wants to be blotted out “of the book you have written” (cf. Ps 69:28; Dan 12:1).
Finally, to the overcomer Christ promises that he will acknowledge his name before his Father and the angels. This is a clear reflection of Matt 10:32 – “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” Faithfulness in trial now is to be rewarded beyond measure in the life to come.
For the people of Sardis the situation was critical – the things that remained were about to die. Our spiritual lives, too, shrink and get flabby without training.
Laodicea: Jesus tells the church in Laodicea, “Now my practice is that all those I love, I also correct and discipline.” God’s stern hatred of evil is a necessary part of his love for people. Jesus’ statement is the kind of rebuke which compels a person to see the error of his or her ways. The rebuke of God is not so much punishment as illumination.
The thoroughgoing condemnation of this church is delivered not in vindictiveness, but in love. There is still time to repent, and to become what they are called to be. If there were no hope, there would be no message. The message of condemnation is itself a sign of God’s love, and of the distress they are causing to their Lord. Indeed, it is to this, the least worthy of the seven churches, that one of the most famous statements of God’s love is delivered. Jesus stands at their door and knocks, waiting for them to hear and admit him. The one who has opened the door to heaven for the church of Sardis now finds the door to the church of Laodicea shut in his face.
Jesus is not knocking at the door as an evangelist to the unchurched. In the context of the Laodicean letter, it is self-deluded members of the church who are being addressed. To the church Christ says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.” In their blind self-sufficiency they had, as it were, excommunicated the risen Lord from their congregation. In an act of unbelievable condescension he requests permission to enter and reestablish fellowship.
We shut Jesus out when we succumb to the temptation to trust other sources for life – money, possessions, and human remedies for our happiness. In our failure to repent we miss his grace in our lives. The promise of eating with Him implies the deepest fellowship that Christians can enjoy in God’s company.
Laodicea had enough wealth or “gold” to refuse Roman offers of help for the rebuilding of the city after an earthquake in A.D. 60. Yet when Christ challenges them to “buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich” (3:18), he alludes to the heat of social opposition to Christianity, promising that those who persevere can hope for a heavenly crown of gold.
Christ will give us gold refined in the fire, garments that are white and pure, eye salve that will enable us to see spiritually, and his very own presence to sustain us. Then we can live out the commitment to which the first part of this passage calls us: to be not like the lukewarm water that has traveled a great distance over plateaus or through aqueducts, but like the healing hot springs or the invigorating cold springs themselves – comforting or stimulating one another as we seek to serve the Lord with full commitment.