The Message to Laodicea (3:14-22)

In Amos Niven Wilder's haunting poem, "Alien: A Period Piece" (Wilder 1972:28), a wounded stranger wanders outside a beautiful place of joy and celebration. A gentle, homeless pilgrim, he hears the music within and knows he cannot enter, but he holds no bitterness toward those who are gathered there. Wilder leaves it to us to identify the stranger, but there is no denying that the poem's imagery evokes the message of Christ to Laodicea. If the angel at Philadelphia was given an "open door" (3:8), individuals at Laodicea are told of another door, one that they must open: 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 (v. 20). These words have often been romanticized in popular religious art, in pictures of Jesus "knocking at the heart's door." What is wrong is that Jesus is standing outside the door, excluded from the banquet like the homeless stranger in Amos Wilder's poem. The poignant plea, though directed first to the church at Laodicea, is strategically placed near the end of the series of messages as Christ's last appeal to any congregation that has shut him out. The beautiful "invitation" is at the same time a severe indictment of a church that is self-sufficient, complacent and only marginally Christian.

Laodicea was situated southeast of Philadelphia in the Lycus River valley. Its congregation was the only one of the seven, with the possible exception of Ephesus, to receive communications both from the apostle Paul and from John of Patmos. This congregation formed a cluster with two others (mentioned by Paul, but not by the book of Revelation) at Colossae and Hierapolis, and possibly with certain other house churches in the same general area. Paul in Colossians speaks of his strenuous efforts "for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally" (Col 2:1). He mentions his coworker Epaphras, who had brought the Christian message to the region (1:7) and was still "working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis" (4:13). He sends greetings "to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house" (4:15), requesting that "after this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea" (4:16).

From this we learn that the letter to the Colossians was intended for Laodicea as well (including a house church there in the home of a woman called Nympha) and that Paul sent yet another letter to Laodicea, possibly a letter now lost, possibly the one known as "Ephesians" or possibly "Philemon," which was addressed to a house church in the same general area in the home of a certain Philemon, Apphia and Archippus (Philem 1-2). If Revelation, like Paul's letters, was meant to be shared with other congregations beyond the seven named, the message to Laodicea may have included congregations at Colossae and Hierapolis as well (Papias, for example, bishop of Hierapolis in the second century, was apparently quite familiar with the book of Revelation; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.12).

By the time Revelation was written, the Christian community in Laodicea and vicinity seems to have prospered. The angel at Laodicea is described as boasting, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing (v. 17; compare "Babylon the Great" according to 18:7). But in contrast to the angel at Smyrna, who was materially poor but rich in God's sight (2:9), this angel is wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (v. 17; compare 18:8). His works are compared to tepid water, neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth (vv. 15-16).

The site where Laodicea once stood includes an elaborate fountain and a water tower supplied by an aqueduct from hot springs at the site of modern Denizli, four miles south. Not surprisingly, many have suggested a possible local reference here, "a play on words, contrasting what may have been the tepid water of the aqueduct at Laodicea with the possibly fresher and colder water at Colossae and with the very hot water of the cascades at Hierapolis" (Finegan 1981:182). Yet readers in any of the Asian cities, no matter how close or how far away their water supply, would have understood the metaphor. Either cold or hot water is good for something, but lukewarm water is not. The point of the rebuke is not lack of zeal or enthusiasm. If it were, "lukewarm" would at least have been better than "cold"! The point is rather the utter worthlessness of what the congregation has done and is doing. The metaphor is a more blunt and colorful way of saying what was said to the angel at Sardis: "I have not found your deeds complete [that is, acceptable] in the sight of my God" (3:2).

What must the angel do? The answer (v. 18) echoes the last three characteristics mentioned in verse 17—poor, blind and naked. The angel must buy three things. Because he is poor, gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; because he is naked, white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; because he is blind, salve to put on your eyes, so you can see (v. 18). The imagery of "buying" (strange to those who are poor!) recalls the great invitation in Isaiah 55:1, "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost"—an invitation with which John seems thoroughly familiar (see 21:6; 22:17).

Those at Laodicea, however, are not "thirsty," but are themselves like useless water that quenches no one's thirst! They must "buy" from Jesus other things—pure gold, white clothing and eye salve. Probably gold refined in the fire had already come to suggest to the early Christians faith tested by persecution (compare 1 Pet 1:7), while white clothing calls to mind here, as at Sardis, the purity of those who pass the test and "overcome" (compare 3:4-5; also 6:11; 7:9, 13-14). The message to Laodicea is that the congregation needs, for its own sake, to face persecution so as to shatter its complacency and test and shape its faith. Behind this need is the principle, rooted in the experience of Jew and Christian alike, that "those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" (v. 19; compare Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6).

Before this can happen, the angel at Laodicea, like those at Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis, must be earnest, and repent (v. 19). To do this, he must change his perception of what is real, and above all his perception of himself—hence the salve to put on your eyes, so you can see (v. 18). If he sees himself as rich and in need of nothing when in fact he is desperately poor and miserable, there is indeed something terribly wrong with his eyes! The image of eye salve is unusual, and here again many have suggested a local reference. Because Strabo (Geography 12.20) mentions a school of medicine near Laodicea in the first century, some have tried to link the production of a famous eye medicine known as "Phrygian powder" to Laodicea in particular (Ramsay 1904:419), but there is no conclusive evidence of this. It is doubtful that the reference is more meaningful here than it would have been in any of the seven messages.

The promise to the "overcomer" at Laodicea reveals the hidden presupposition of all the similar promises in every one of the seven messages, that is, that Jesus is himself the model for what it means to "overcome," or "conquer." The promise is, "To him [that is, to anyone] who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne" (v. 21). Those who "overcome" (or "conquer" or "triumph") in every congregation will do so in the same way Jesus did. Thus the conclusion to the seven messages sets the stage for John's subsequent visions of the triumph of Jesus and his people over the powers of evil (compare 5:5-6).