UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.
Mention the Letter to the Laodiceans to a random Christian and they may respond with, “isn’t that the one where Jesus says we have to be on fire for God or he will vomit us out?”
If you have been following this series, you will know that I have a few problems with this performance-based interpretation. But then I have problems anytime people think we have to things we must do to earn God’s acceptance and favor!
Let me suggest a completely different interpretation of Revelations 3:14-22: The Letter to the Laodiceans is the gospel of grace. It is the same gospel that Paul, Peter, James, John and all the other New Testament greats preached.
This letter is not bad news for Christians but good news for sinners. Drop me in an unreached people group and using only the nine verses of this letter and I will have enough of the Bible to reveal a Savior who loves wretched sinners so much that he left the comforts of heaven to win us back to himself.
Good news for Laodiceans
To prove this, allow me to distil the essence of the gospel message in 7 statements. This is the economy version of the gospel, the one you preach in elevators:
(i) you are a born sinner by nature
(ii) nothing you can do will make you acceptable to God
(iii) because of this you face rejection and eternal separation from God
(iv) but Jesus has come and offers you his righteousness
(v) so repent, turn to God and put your trust in him
(vi) his desire is to see you reign in life by the power of his Spirit
(vii) because of what he has done you can look forward to eternity with him
Yes, it’s short, but it covers all the bases. It addresses our natural state apart from God, our inability to save ourselves (our helplessness), and the consequences of a future apart from God. It presents Jesus’ offer of salvation, his challenge to repent and believe, his desire to live his life through us, and his promise of eternal life.
Notice how Jesus hits each of these points when speaking to the Laodiceans. He speaks to:
(i) their state: you are blind and naked (v.17)
(ii) their helplessness: you are wretched and poor (v.17)
(iii) their future: I will vomit you out, I will reject you (v.16)
(iv) his offer: I counsel you to come to me for white clothes (v.18)
(v) his challenge: so be earnest and repent (v.19)
(vi) his desire: I want to come in and be with you (v.20)
(vii) his promise: do this I will give you the right to sit with me on my throne (v.21)
Did you see that? In 200 words Jesus addresses the Laodicean’s sorry state, their helplessness, and their doomed future before challenging them to repent and accept the gift of his righteousness, along with his offer of a life lived with him both now and forever more.
That’s good preaching!
Bear fruit that lasts
Please put your hand up if you’ve ever heard anyone preach the gospel from the letter to the Laodiceans. No one? Perhaps Jesus was the only one who ever did.
Now put your hand if you’ve ever heard anyone preach the letter to Laodiceans in such a way that it left you feeling inadequate or insecure, a lazy fraud in the kingdom of God.
This illustrates a fundamental problem with the way some people approach the word of God. Take any scripture in the Bible and you can do one of two things with it. You can either;
(1) preach a man-centered message
(2) preach a Christ-centered message
If you take the first approach you will emphasize the unfinished works of people. You will never run out of things to say because there will be no end to the list of things we must do to either make ourselves righteous or holy or acceptable to God. The tragedy is that even if you preach forever you will be no closer to attaining your goal. No one will have been made righteous, holy or acceptable.
If you take the second approach you will emphasize the finished work of the cross. You will never run out of things to say because there will be no end to the list of reasons for thanking Jesus. Just when you’re done praising him for one thing, he will reveal his grace in another undeserving area of your life, and you won’t be able to help but rejoice and praise him for that too.
Do you understand the difference? Do you know how to read your Bible without getting confused?
The same text can be used to condemn or liberate depending on whether your aim is to preach hollow human philosophy or Christ crucified. It’s your works or his blood. One preacher can take the letter to the Laodiceans and use it to frighten Christians, while another uses it to preach the good news to sinners. Although the motives of both preachers may be pure, only one of them is likely to bear fruit that lasts.
“He raised us up together with Him… that He might clearly demonstrate through the ages to come the immeasurable (limitless, surpassing) riches of His free grace (His unmerited favor) in His kindness and goodness of heart toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:6-7, AMP)
His grace or your works
The grace of God will not share the stage with human performance or even man’s desires. God’s purposes and gifts only ever depend on his mercy (Rms 9:16). It doesn’t matter how hard you strive – it only matters that God is merciful. And he is!
Now before anyone writes to me calling for “balance,” let me remind you that the moment you balance grace with human works or human responsibility, it stops being grace. You cannot balance unmerited favor with merited favor. How do you receive the grace of God in vain? By trying to merit it, by trying to earn what was freely given.
The Laodiceans were unacceptable and in danger of rejection. They could turn up the tempo, sing a little louder, hand out more tracts, and they would be just as unacceptable as before. We are not acceptable by nature. Neither are we made acceptable by our performance. We are only “made acceptable” in the Beloved:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … He chose us … predestined us … according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.” (Eph 1:3-6 NKJV)
Jesus did not come to Laodicea or your house with a list of things we can do that will impress him. He came to reveal the favor of God. The words the angel spoke to Mary apply equally to you: “You are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28).
The only proper response is to say “thank you Jesus!”