Laodicea, Part 3: Who’s Wretched and Poor? (Rev 3:17)

UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.

The Laodicean church was one of the most messed up churches in the Bible. So I guess it should be no surprise that today it remains one of the most preached about churches. We can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes.

In Revelations 3:14-21, Jesus gives the Laodicean church a stern warning. It was a warning that was intended to save them. In other words, Jesus was showing them the way to freedom, redemption and life. (That sounds good right?) Yet for 2,000 years preachers have used Jesus’ words as a religious rod for beating Christians.

And when Christians allow themselves to be condemned by this sort of thing, it’s like taking someone else’s medicine.

In Part 1 of this series I asked, what made the Laodiceans lukewarm? (Hint: it wasn’t apathy.) In Part 2, I asked, why did the Laodiceans make Jesus nauseous? (Hint: perhaps they reminded him of the people who nailed him to the cross.)

In today’s post I want to look more closely at Jesus’ assessment of the Laodiceans:

“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.” (Rev 3:17)

Self-righteousness says, “I have made it on my own. I don’t need a thing.” This is exactly what the Laodiceans were saying to themselves. But Jesus said the truth was very different. He said they were lost and in danger of rejection.

Jesus never wastes words. He never says anything he doesn’t mean. So when he says the Laodiceans are “wretched and pitiful,” he is saying they are in a bad state. Just so they don’t have any uncertainty about this, he adds that they’re also “poor, blind and naked.”

Who is Jesus talking to?

Now here’s the $64,000 question. Is Jesus talking to sinners or saints? Were the Laodiceans saved or lost when Jesus gave them this message?

I can think of three reasons why we might think the Laodiceans were Christians:

(1)    They’re collectively referred to as a “church.”
(2)    The idea of Jesus vomiting them out of his body makes us think they were at least once part of his body.
(3)    Jesus says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Discipline is usually reserved for sons while love suggests the body of Christ.

(Have I missed other reasons?)

But here are ten reasons why many of the Laodiceans were probably not saved:

(1)  Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. There are many people in church who don’t know Jesus, who have neither repented nor put their trust in him. The Laodiceans may have called themselves a church, but they were a church in name only. They may have acted godly, but theirs’ was a counterfeit, useless form of godliness.

(2)  We vomit up things that are foreign and do not belong to us. We don’t vomit up body parts. To use the vomit argument as evidence of the Laodicean’s membership in the body of Christ is like saying we can vomit up an arm or a foot.

(3)  The love of God is not limited to the church. “For God so loved the world that gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Jesus said “love your enemies” and while we were his enemies he reconciled us to God (Rms 5:10). We might say a sinner is not loved by God. But God is in the business of calling the unlovely and unloved “my loved one” (Rms 9:25), and thank God he did or you wouldn’t be reading this! And while it’s true sons get special attention from their fathers (Heb 12:8), the whole world needs a life-saving rebuke from a loving Savior. Part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world (not Christians) of sin (Jn 16:9). It is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ character and mission to say he loves sinners enough to rebuke them.

(4)  Of all the seven churches Jesus addresses in Revelations 1-3, the Laodicean church is the only one where Jesus has nothing positive to say. There is no affirmation, nothing to commend. Even in the churches where there was rampant sin (e.g., Sardis) Jesus could identify a “few who had not soiled their clothes.” But no group of believers is singled out in Laodicea.

(5)  Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus refer to Christians as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Yet these terms are used in many places to describe sinners in general and religious sinners in particular. In Matthew 23 Jesus describes the Pharisees as “blind” five times. It is the lost who are wretched and pitiful, not those who’ve been redeemed and are now kept by Jesus.

(6)  The Laodiceans were mixing law and grace just like the Galatians, but unlike the Galatians there is no hint that they ever “began with the Spirit” (Gal 3:3). The Galatians had witnessed a move of God, but by the time Paul wrote to them they were “deserting the one who called you” (Gal 1:6). There is no indication that the Laodiceans are walking away from God. There is no evidence to suggest they had ever received the grace of God.

(7)  Even though he had not met them personally, Paul wanted the Laodiceans to read the letter he wrote to the Colossians (Col 2:1, 4:16). For some reason Paul saw a need to warn the Laodiceans against being taken captive through “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human traditions and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col 2:8). This hints at Pharisaical tendencies that promote works and independence from God. Paul wanted them to reject this teaching and become wholly dependent on Christ. Evidently they didn’t listen because by the time of John’s vision they were saying “we don’t need a thing.”

(8)  Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Those who believe in the Son are not judged” (Jn 3:18, GNB). Other translations use the word “condemned.” In Revelations 3 Jesus is judging the Laodiceans. He is hinting that they are at risk of being condemned and utterly rejected. Condemnation and rejection is what happens to unrepentant sinners. There is “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rm 8:1), not now, not ever.

(9)  Five of the Revelations churches are accused by Jesus of various misdeeds. Four of those churches (Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis) are rebuked for bad doctrine which has led to bad deeds. But with the Laodiceans the fault is themselves. Their deeds reveal that they are lukewarm. The other churches are told to “remember,” “repent” and “hold fast” to what they already have. But the Laodiceans have nothing to remember, nothing to hold onto. There is nothing they have that might save them from being rejected by Jesus.

(10)  Jesus said he was on the outside knocking and wondering whether anyone would hear his voice and open the door for him to come in (Rev 3:20). Jesus has no fellowship with sinners, just as light doesn’t keep company with darkness. Although some have used this text in reference to Christians, it’s hard to reconcile with Colossians 1:27 where Paul writes that “Christ is in you.” To say Jesus was speaking to Christians is like saying Christ can be inside you and outside you at the same time. No, Jesus is addressing those who have not yet invited him in (i.e., sinners).

A church full of sinners?!

Is it possible that an entire church can be so caught up with their own religious performance that they don’t realize that they have left Jesus standing outside?

“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 him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)

A church is supposed to be an embassy for the kingdom of heaven. It’s supposed to be a place where people come to have an encounter with the living God. The sick get healed, the oppressed get delivered, the blind see, and the prisoners are freed. But in a church that is full of self-righteous religion none of these things can happen because Jesus isn’t there.

Why did Jesus say the Laodiceans were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked? For the same reason he said the Pharisees were woeful and blind.

“You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Mt 23:13)

Who’s wretched and pitiful? It’s the one outside the kingdom. Who’s poor? It is the one who has not received the riches of God’s grace. Who’s blind? It is the one who does not see what Jesus has already done for him. Who’s naked? It is the one who clothes himself with filthy acts of self-righteousness in a doomed attempt to make himself acceptable to a holy and perfection-demanding God.

Religion is bad for you

Nothing will keep you out of the kingdom of heaven like man-made religion. Nothing will keep you from the grace of God like self-righteousness. Sin will kill you but religion will inoculate you against the only cure. It will give you a false sense that all is well, that you are rich and do not need a thing. And that’s why Jesus hates it.

In Part 4, I will look at the only remedy that Jesus offers for the curse of religion.

17 Comments on Laodicea, Part 3: Who’s Wretched and Poor? (Rev 3:17)

  1. ‘Not everyone that goes to this church is saved.’ That is something that should be engraved on the doors when you enter a church building! It will remind the preacher to preach the Kingdom and not psychological humanism.

  2. I think we’ll be surprised one day who actually was part of the Body of Christ and who was not. The Day will reveal it! Good list of reasons why the L. church was “not saved”

  3. I’m going to apply Occam’s razor here and say I think most assuredly Jesus is speaking to believers, not the unsaved at Laodicea. In 1:1 it says this Revelation is for ‘bond-servants’ NASB. I find Peter in 2 Peter 1:9 calling true believers “blind” also. The evidence that the Laodiceans knew Jesus is also established in the fact that he calls them a church. The word church is synonymous with the body of Christ. The word ‘church’ in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which comes from two words ‘ek’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘kaleo’ meaning to ‘call.’ An ekklesia was an assembly of citizens. Trench gives the meaning as “the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs” [R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, 7th ed., pp. 1-2]. So Jesus is speaking to those who are: (1) called out and (2) possessing citizenship in a kingdom.

  4. Hi Cornel, Steve and Ty, thanks for the feedback. Cornel, I love the idea of that sign. Ty, I certainly agree with Peter’s notion that Christians can forget who they are in Christ thus acting nearsighted and blind. But there’s a huge difference between someone who merely forgets they have been “cleansed from his old sins” and someone who hasn’t been cleansed at all. If someone walks like a sinner, talks like a sinner, and gets warned like a sinner, then just maybe they are a sinner, even if they happen to go to church and do churchy things. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian and there were certainly sinners within the churches of the New Testament. (See also my post on the Zombie Church of Sardis.) There is no concrete evidence that the Laodiceans knew Jesus but plenty of hints that they were trying to be righteous without him. Jesus’ condemnation and threat of rejection is the significant thing. For us to call the Laodiceans “Christian” is tantamount to saying that God is lying elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Rms 8:1, Jn 3:18). I have more confidence in the goodness of God than I do the goodness of the Laodiceans.

    • Also, Jesus never said, “I have vomited you out” but “I will vomit you out” (meaning that, He is giving them a window to repent)(v. 19; Hebrews 12:5.6).

      They are not submitting to Jesus’ righteousness which is why they are naked (v. 17) and why they do not have garments of white raiment (washed white in the Blood of the Lamb)(v. 18). They do not even have saving-faith since they have to buy gold (v. 18; 1 Peter 1:6.7).

      At some point they started off on the right track but wen’t wayward and God is givign them a window of time in which to accept His grace (just as Paul did (Gal 5:1-4))(v. 19; Heb 12:5.6).

  5. So if the Laodicians were never saved, what about those Christians who are saved, who know Jesus as their Savior, and know that they need Him to get to Heaven; however, they also say you need to do a bunch of other things like pray, crucify the flesh, fast, etc. I know a ton of these people. They love God with all their hearts but they obviously misinterpret the whole lukewarm reference. They don’t puff up their own works but they definitely ‘up’ the requirements of entering the kingdom. Is this considered mixing law and grace? In other words, are they at risk of being rejected by Jesus?

    • that would be considered a mixture of law and grace… paul puts it quite clearly in romans 4:13-14, that trying to keep the law (i.e. any kind of regulation or requirement) voids faith… you don’t need faith to follow a bunch of rules and ‘how-tos.”
      if they are believers in Christ, they aren’t at risk for being rejected by Him (john 6:37), but I would say that they are at risk of rejecting what Jesus has made available to them in this world- through the finished and complete work that He has already given them. by believing that they have to adhere to strict “spiritual disciplines” to please God, they are basically saying that what Jesus did wasn’t enough to please Him (gal 2:21)… and they are trying to earn grace through their good works – but then it can no longer be called grace- because grace means unmerited/unearned favor.
      faith is what pleases God… under the new covenant we are called to the “obedience of faith” (rom 16:26)… which simply means believing and trusting that we have been forgiven and made righteous through the perfect and finished work of the One He sent (rom 4:6-8, john 6:29)

    • Not at all, but they have fallen from grace, lost their freedom, and Christ is of no value to them – see Galatians.

  6. “Sin will kill you but religion will inoculate you against the only cure” – instant classic!

  7. Wow! Thank you for explaining this! I am blown away by the things I am learning on this website. So glad you are doing this and making it available to people. I haven’t learned these things in church. My church does believe in grace for salvation and to a certain point after salvation, but not like its taught here. I am trying to unlearn some of the things I’ve been taught. I’m looking for a church now I can raise my 3 small kids in, so one day when they are grown, they don’t have to unlearn religion too! I’m not sure where to start looking for a grace church though. Praying for God to point me in the right direction. 🙂

  8. Paul, when I sat down to dinner with my leaders in my previous church, something was missing. lukewarmness had pushed out the cross and the complete work Jesus did. Jesus was still preached, but not the finished work. There was a subtle demand to perform for the kingdom. Very subtle. It was like Jesus was not present at the table. I wonder if Jesus had come out of one of us and sat with us, visibly to all of us, what would he say. Would he continue to dine with us with us, with that type of belief and talk. I am sure he would feel nauseous. I believe now, he was not dining with us. But, was outside the church, knocking on the door with gold and a white garment. If only we would accept his purity and righteousness. While we were his, in a righteousness and salvation sense, Christ was of no value to us, with our self-righteousness. His chastening, is a long suffering knock. A long suffering offer. To the little children not committing the sin that leads to death, his offer is the same. It is an offer to the church, saved, and to those coming to him, unsaved.

  9. Why did Jesus say the Laodiceans were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked? For the same reason he said the Pharisees were woeful and blind (Mt 23:13). But unlike the Pharisees, these saints at this church seemed to have once been truly saints of God, and started out ok, but somehow got lost in the quagmire of false works-based teachings (1 Timothy 4:16; Galatians 5:1-4 “…fallen from grace…”).

  10. They must be saints of God. For Jesus never said, to them “I have vomited you out” but “I will vomit you out” (meaning that, He is giving them a window to repent)(v. 19; Hebrews 12:5.6).

    They are not submitting to Jesus’ righteousness which is why they are naked (v. 17) and why they do not have garments of white raiment (washed white in the Blood of the Lamb)(v. 18; Rev 7:14; 12:11). They do not even have saving-faith since they have to buy gold (v. 18; 1 Peter 1:6.7).

    At some point they started off on the right track but wen’t wayward and God is giving them a window of time in which to accept His grace (just as Paul did (Gal 5:1-4))(v. 19; Heb 12:5.6).

  11. Paul, I loved part 2, but part 3 could use some clarification. It has been my experience that many, like the Galatians, begin in the spirit but strive toward godliness in the flesh. Perhaps that is the simplest answer. And… Did you really mean to add repentance and faith as the prescription to Salvation? Again, your understanding on their mixture of law and grace was fresh and enlightening. Thanks.

  12. Thank you for speaking grace.

  13. Wow!! This was exactly my question. Thank you for the article. Very insightful and factual. I was beginning to do the research into this exact subject. You have answered so many question.

  14. Jared Westendorp // July 23, 2019 at 8:54 pm // Reply

    Man I am loving this series! What about getting this type of series into a devotional on YouVersion? It is a different format than a blog but I think a lot of people read this blog in that way. You know, like a morning jump start. I’m sorry I don’t know how to make that happen. It’s like when I read this I wish so many others with misconceptions could as well. So that’s just an idea. Take care, many blessings in Jesus, yes.

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