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.