Laodicea, Part 5: Be Earnest and Repent (Rev 3:19)
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 Laodiceans were warned by Jesus that they were on the verge of being rejected. Why? Because they were neither hot nor cold. But as we have seen, this is not about being apathetic (see Part 1 of this series). In fact, the Laodiceans were probably as zealous as Pharisees (see Part 2). They were so caught up in their religious performance that they hadn’t noticed that Jesus was not with them. The astonishing thing is that most of the church was probably unsaved (see Part 3). They may have been a church in name but their deeds said otherwise.
The Laodiceans thought they were hot stuff. They thought they lacked nothing. But Jesus said they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” He counseled them to buy refined gold so they could “become rich” (see Part 4).
Are you on fire for God? Why?
The tone of my series may have been somewhat negative, but I am heading to some very positive conclusions. I didn’t write this to make the Laodiceans look bad, but to make Jesus look good!
First of all, the good news for Christians is that we are not in a Mr or Miss Enthusiasm contest. God is not watching you on Sunday morning to see if you’re singing or clapping louder than the person next to you. Jesus is not going to vomit you out if you don’t get up and dance. Carnal zeal gets you nowhere with God.
Genuine enthusiasm comes not from what you have done for God, but from appreciating what God has done on your behalf. And what has he done? He has made you, a born sinner, righteous and acceptable through the blood of Jesus.
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet 2:10)
Contrary to what some have preached, there is no middle, lukewarm ground. You are either “the people” of God or you’re not. You have either “received mercy” or you haven’t.
And if you are a chosen priesthood, and if you have been called out of darkness into his wonderful light, then you won’t help but sing his praises! You’ve been set free! You’ve been brought near! You were blind but now, thanks to God’s amazing grace, you see!
Now that’s good news. That is something to get excited about! When you think about what Jesus has already done, you will want to shout and leap and say “thank you Lord!” Just like Bob Dylan.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet 2:9)
So just in case you missed it, we sing his praises because we are a people belonging to God. We don’t sing his praises to become a people belonging to God.
Back to Laodicea…
I said in an earlier post that nothing will keep a sinner out of the kingdom of God like religion. If the law is good in revealing our need for a Savior, then religion is bad because it gives us a false sense of assurance. (By religion I mean all the good things people do to try and justify themselves before God and men.)
The Laodiceans were very religious. If you took your unsaved friends to their church they’d probably end up worse than when they went in. They’d get busy doing stuff for God thinking that somehow they were making themselves righteous when in fact they were becoming lukewarm and vomitous.
Now it’s very easy for us to dislike religious people. Afterall, they’re fault finders and grace-killers. And don’t forget that it was religious people who put Jesus on the cross!
But what blows me away is that Jesus loves the religious Laodiceans. How do we know? Because he has come looking for them. He has come to warn them and set them free from religion’s heavy yoke.
Jesus Loves the Laodiceans, All the Laodiceans of the World…
I have literally got up and walked out of religious churches, yet here’s Jesus trying to get into one. He’s outside knocking on the door.
Have you ever known anyone who was so smug, so arrogant that they made you sick? Did you feel like spending time with them? Probably not. Yet here’s Jesus, nauseous from the Laodicean’s religiosity, asking if he can come in for dinner. How’s that for an apostolic heart!
These guys no doubt reminded him of the Pharisees. Yet Jesus went to the cross even for Pharisees. I guess that means if we have Jesus’ heart for the lost, we’ll want to reach out even to stuck-up religious types. (If that’s you, hey welcome! Jesus loves you. Hope you like the blog.)
Jesus Speaks our Language
Of the seven churches mentioned in Revelations 1-3, people in five of them were told to repent. But the Laodiceans got the repentance message slightly different from the rest. See if you can spot the difference:
Ephesus: “Repent and do the things you did at first” (Rev 2:5)
Pergamum: “Repent therefore!” (Rev 2:16)
Thyatira: “…unless they repent” (Rev 2:22)
Sardis: “Remember what you have received and heard; obey it and repent” (Rev 3:3)
Laodicea: “Be earnest and repent” (Rev 3:19)
Repentance should always be earnest and sincere, so why would Jesus specifically mention the word “earnest” in connection with the Laodiceans. (Remember, Jesus never wastes words.) In case you haven’t yet seen the irony, let me give it to you in other translations:
“…be zealous therefore, and repent.” (ASV)
“…be zealous therefore, and repent.” (Darby)
“…be zealous therefore, and repent.” (KJV)
“So be enthusiastic and in earnest and burning with zeal and repent” (AMP)
Do you get it? The Laodiceans were zealous with a carnal zeal. Their religious zeal had got them thinking they were rich and in need of nothing. Then Jesus shows up and says “You want to be zealous? How about zealously repenting!”
Jesus always meets us where we are at. The Ephesians needed to remember what they had done before and do it again. The Sardisians needed to remember what they had heard and hold onto it. The Laodiceans needed to redirect their natural enthusiasm towards the Lord and his righteousness.
If you have been zealous for the Lord with prideful religious zeal, then hear what Jesus says to the Laodiceans: “Be zealous and repent.” Change your mind about religion. Repent from your dead works. Stop trusting in your unfinished performance and start trusting in his finished work. You want to be enthusiastic for God? Great! Be enthusiastic because of who he is and what he is done.
There is nothing a religious person can do that will commend himself to God. But Jesus offers us a divine exchange, his life for ours, his perfect righteousness for our stinking self righteousness. Now that is something to get excited about.
Oh, also, I really love the way you describe what religion is. Often, I hear people say, ‘they’re religious’ or ‘I hate religion’ but what do they mean. We need to be very clear about what religion is because, for the most part, what I can see is that the world thinks of religion as either Christian, Buddhist, Hindu etc. Thanks for being CLEAR about what religion is: “all the good things people do to try and justify themselves before God and men”.
Bless you, Paul 🙂
Thanks AJ. You make an excellent point. “Religion” is loaded with ambiguous meanings and we can get into real difficulty if we don’t allow for this. Neither does it help that “anti-religious” types are generally opposed to God and Christianity. So sometimes it sounds as if we have a common enemy when, in fact, we have very little in common. “Religion” is such an emotive word for me that I’m liable to rant and rave against it without clarifying what I mean. If you see me do that, please let me know.
I am blessed by your observations and applications of “be zealous (earnest) and repent.” Your work has the unique combination of simplicity and profundity. I will now go and read the remainder of your posts re: Laodicea.
Paul: I apologize, but this seems to contradict your previous post in which you clearly state: “Lukewarmness is not about human zeal.” Of course I agree that no one can drum up zeal for God from their own flesh, but Jesus answers their lukewarmness with “be zealous and repent.” In other words, “you are neither hot nor cold…therefore be zealous and repent.” The zeal and repentance is the solution for the lukewarmness. Zeal is a result of grace, grace is not a result of zeal (I’m sure you’d agree) But in all reality the Grace of God does not move us around like robots. It “teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” (Titus 2:12) What I get from many in this particular grace camp (I’m sorry, I did read your “grace camp” post but I still am sticking to that phrase) is that grace is God working instead of you and not God working through you. Thoughts? Thanks for your responses.
I agree – God is so good and his love is so deep, that we should dive in head first and wholeheartedly.
As I explain in Part 2, I have reasons for suspecting the Laodiceans were zealous, contrary to the traditional image of them as complacent and lackadaisical. But it’s not a make-or-break thing for me. What you come out of doesn’t matter as much as what you come into and they need to come into a place of grace.
Hey, Paul, brother, what “non-believer” do you know who is “…ZEALOUS FOR THE LORD …” even if it is “…with prideful religious zeal,…”?
They were nit-picky on following every single law to the point that they throw down Jesus for “breaking the Sabbath” [John 5, John 9]. The Pharisees see themselves as zealous, but in reality, they are pretty messed up.
This made me think of the Apostle James. How he loved on those religious Jews. Seriously, this is wonderful news for recovering from religious mindsets! Thanks again.