EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
From the beginning of chapter 2 through the end of chapter 3, John writes Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Again, these churches were literal, historical assemblies in John’s day, but the advice Christ gave them through His servant John are given to the whole Church Body today, just like the Epistles. Each of the letters begins with Christ’s words, “To the angel of [church name], write…”
“Angel” here comes from the Greek word angelos, which literally translates “messenger.” Scholars have never agreed about whether the letters are being addressed to human messengers or to heavenly angels, as the word can, and has, appeared in the Bible in reference to either kind of being that’s sent on an assignment. For instance, John the Baptist was referred to as an angelos in Matthew 11:10, and we know he was human. As Beale notes, this designation could refer to any one of four possible meanings: 1) simply angels; 2) angels who are spiritual representatives of the churches (like assigned guardians of the unseen realm); 3) human leaders of the churches, like bishops, pastors, or deacons; or 4) personifications of the churches’ spirit or character.[i] After explaining this and digging into evidence from a great number of sources, Beale believes literal “angels” are in view, while the authors of Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, with an equally convincing argument, believe this refers to “bishops.”
John is here instructed to “write letters,” and we have no indication that they aren’t literal, physical, handwritten letters, so the idea that he would then hand them over to angels is a bit puzzling. It’s hard to imagine it would be standard behavior that one of these churches would hear a knock at the door and open it to see a celestial being in all his glory appearing on its doorstep just to deliver some mail from Patmos. On the other hand, it’s totally believable. Considering the content of this book and the importance it would have to the early Church, having correspondence hand-delivered by an angelic messenger from heaven would certainly invoke more awe than would a human messenger, compelling the churches to take the words from Christ more seriously. This is the same day and age when, as seen in the Epistles, anyone could come with “dreams” or “visions” and teach whatever they wanted, claiming they had a message from God. That’s not to say they would have been disbelieving of the illustrious Apostle John in person, but as he was exiled, at the very least the man who brought the mail would claim to have been sent by John, and there’s no telling if that would have been accepted seven times in a row (at seven different buildings). It’s odd, though, that an event as major as seven angels appearing on or near the same day in seven key churches of Asia Minor would not have been recorded in detail by our trusted historians or Church fathers, which argues for the human-messenger interpretation.
The “fear not” response of angels throughout the Bible also raises initial doubts about the idea that an angel at the door of a church would have looked like a mere mortal, but Hebrews 13:2—acknowledging that we may be “entertaining” heavenly beings “unaware” of what they are—makes that a possibility as well… As much as we wish we could nail this down, for two thousand years, no one has been able to, and far be it for the authors of this book to accomplish what the greatest minds in history could not. We have no choice but to say we are unsure on this issue. That said, though angelos appears throughout the Word to mean either “angel” or “human” messenger, it’s noteworthy that in the book of Revelation, the overwhelming use is of heavenly beings. Therefore, how those deliveries would have gone down and what the reactions of the churches would have been upon receiving them remains a mystery.
What we do know is that, despite the “to the angel…write” opener, scholars unanimously agree that the harsh rebukes of Jesus would not be directed to a heavenly being as recipient. (That would potentially open up an impossible and absurd “fallen angel” theology that is most definitely not intended.) If celestial servants are actually in view here, then it can only mean that they are representatives/guardians of the churches and therefore responsible for overseeing the communication.
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The following is a summary of the seven letters. All words are written from Christ’s perspective, so the pronoun “I” (along with “My,” “Me,” etc.) refers to the first-person sentiments of Jesus. Following each is a moment of reflection on its content:
To Ephesus, from the One who holds seven stars in His right hand and walks among the golden lampstands: I am aware of all you do, and I see your patience, endurance, and your suffering for My Name. You’ve investigated, and exposed, false apostles, refusing to tolerate them. This is very good. But I do have a complaint: The love you had for Me and for each other in the beginning is gone. Look how far you have fallen away from that first love! Turn back to Me. Go back to doing the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will remove your lampstand from its place among the seven churches. You hate the wickedness of the Nicolaitanes, just as I do, and this speaks in favor of you. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to the Spirit’s message to all the churches: To all who are victorious, I will give them fruit from the Tree of Life in God’s Paradise (Revelation 2:1–7).
Reflection: The “Nicolaitanes” are addressed in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. He writes that they “are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate [body of deacons] by the apostles [in Acts 6:3, 5]. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, when they are represented as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery.”[ii] Recall that Ephesus was the prized center of Artemis/Diana worship as well as the Imperial Cult. If Irenaeus is correct, this Nicolas that the apostles first ordained as a deacon of the early Church in Acts was, at some point, given over to the temptations of the flesh and later led fellow Christians into pagan sexual immorality.
Not everyone agrees with this literal interpretation, however. Some, like the authors of Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, compare the meaning of the Greek name, “Nicolaos,” (“conqueror of the people”) to the same name in Hebrew, Belang Am, or “Balaam,” meaning “Destroyer of the People.”[iii] This symbolism of names (and items, colors, etc.) throughout Revelation supports the idea that the Ephesians are here commended for refusing to tolerate a group of people who have adopted the extreme end of antinomianism (the opposite of legalism; such freedom under grace that one is no longer bound to moral absolutes). In short, the spirit of Balaam, as carried by false believers, threatened this church with teachings that a new and progressive Christianity allowed one to hold the title of “Christian,” practice the debauchery of the pagans, and at the end of the day, still be considered holy by grace.
This latter meaning of “Nicolaitanes” is the more likely, and it comes into sharper focus as such in the letter to Pergamum.
To Smyrna, from the One who is the First and Last, who was dead but is now alive: I am aware of your suffering and poverty, but you are actually rich! I am also aware of the blasphemy of those who come against you, who say they are Jews, but they cannot be, because they are of the synagogue of Satan. You are about to suffer further, and the devil will even throw some of you into prison as a test, but don’t be afraid. You will suffer for ten days, but if you remain faithful even when threatened with death, I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to the Spirit’s message to all the churches: To all who are victorious, you will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:8–11).
Reflection: Note that if the “angel” of this church was human, it was probably Polycarp, a well-known, first-century bishop of Smyrna and celebrated Church father of many denominations who was martyred at the stake (then stabbed when the fire failed).
Smyrna was one of the first cities in Asia Minor to worship the Roman emperor in the Imperial Cult. In addition to its temple of Emperor Tiberius, it housed a temple to Roma, the goddess who personified Rome and demanded compliance to the Roman State. Scholars believe the temple of Roma in Smyrna was the very first in the world.[iv] Therefore, the pressure upon the Christians to worship Rome would have been intense enough to lead to imprisonment or worse in this city. As Satan is “the false accuser” (Revelation 12:10), these “false Jews” who opposed these Christians (possibly for not giving in to the demands of the Imperial Cult) made up the “synagogue” of this enemy.
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In the “Common Symbols” section, we noted that “ten” is the number of man’s government. “Ten days” of suffering is believed by most to refer to a short period of suffering under the government of man, while, in close proximity to a “test,” it is also linked to the “ten days” of Daniel’s testing (Daniel 1:12–15). Daniel and his three friends were pressured to eat the king’s meat that was unclean to them, so they refused, eating only vegetables and drinking only water. In the ancient Near East, sitting and eating in the presence of the king was to swear loyalty to him, and Nebuchadnezzar believed himself to be divine.[v] Thus, we find a parallel between a very early, Babylonian “Imperial Cult” idea in the story of Daniel that connects to the “ten days” of “testing” for the Christians of Smyrna. If they, like Daniel, maintained their faithfulness, they would be given “the crown of life” (eternal life) from Jesus. To the victorious, the “second death” cannot touch them. We read of this term again in Revelation 21:8, where we read that the wicked “shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
To Pergamum, from the One with a sharp, two-edged sword: I am aware that you live in the same city where the throne of Satan is stationed, but even then, you have remained loyal to Me, even when Antipas, My witness, was martyred right there in the city of Satan. However, I have a few complaints against you: You tolerate those whose teaching is like Balaam, who caused Israel to stumble by eating meat offered to idols and engaging in sexually immoral acts. Similarly, you have some Nicolaitanes within your assembly who follow the same teaching. Repent of this, or I will appear to you suddenly and fight against these wicked men with the sword of My mouth. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to the Spirit’s message to all the churches: To all who are victorious, I will give manna from heaven, and to each, a white stone with a new name that nobody understands except those who receive it (Revelation 2:12–17).
Reflection: Pergamum, the “city of Satan” where “Satan’s throne” was, housed a vast number of pagan temples behind a cone-shaped hill, and both pantheonic worship and Imperial Cult worship were a major focus. Though it wasn’t known for its commercial success, its great library (featuring more than two hundred thousand scrolls) became somewhat of a pilgrimage for travelers. The word “parchment” is etymologically linked to the name “Pergamum.” Perhaps it was for this reason that it became the capital of the Roman province within the borders of Asia.[vi] More likely, however, this city’s penchant for venerating Asclepius, Zeus, Dionysus, Demeter, and Athene was what angered Jesus to the point of calling it satanic. Scholars acknowledge that although Asclepius was worshipped all over Rome, this particular location elicited pilgrims from all over the world to “get healed” in Pergamum, and the temple of Zeus—complete with a “throne-like alter”[vii]—was the glittering pride of the city. Though scholars are still debating exactly which of these pagan features would have been the “throne” of Satan, as Pergamum was the capital of the province, it was also “the centre of the emperor cult for the whole province.”[viii] Beal acknowledges that residents of Pergamum called their city the “temple warden” over their imperial god, Caesar, and anyone who refused to worship him would be found guilty of treason against Rome.[ix]
Only a single legend of martyrdom told by the Church fathers regarding one named “Antipas” gives us a clue who this “witness” may have been. The commentators of Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown note that this “Antipas, in Domitian’s reign, was shut up in a red-hot brazen bull, and ended his life in thanksgivings and prayers.”[x] Because the other tellings of his end are too graphic to reiterate here, and we aren’t completely sure if he’s the same man to whom Jesus is referring, this is all we will say of him, though we will note that his intense servitude earned him great and worthy mention by Christ, personally.
The Nicolaitanes and their symbolic association to Balaam is explained formerly in our review of the letter to Ephesus. In this case, Christ threatens to fight against them with His “sword,” which is known to be a symbol of truth, judgment, and the Word of God.
John 4:31–34 speaks of a kind of food the disciples didn’t know about, and in John 6:25–59, Jesus is the “Bread of Life.” Whoever comes to Him will never thirst or be hungry (spiritually speaking). This is likely in mind when this same author (John) hears Jesus’ words about a special “manna from heaven.”
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As far as the “white stones,” it may be disappointing to learn that, after centuries of dedicated research, scholars still aren’t sure exactly what this means. Of hundreds of possibilities, seven have garnered the most interest, but we will only cover three of those ideas (as we find them more likely than the others). Remember that the color white, in the book of Revelation, is a symbol for purity or something washed clean. And names were crucial in Israel’s history, so a secret or unknown name inscribed on a stone appeals to scholars as a personal identity of the believer that is between him and Christ. That is far more exciting to the student who has researched names in antiquity, when a “hidden name was precious” because it stood for the idea that God had instilled within that person a “new character,” establishing him as a new person, separated from the old man.[xi] Keep this in mind as you read the following theories of what the white stone may have alluded to:
1) During trials of this day, a jury member appealing for acquittal (the release of a prisoner, for example) turned in a white stone as an official statement of his decision. (A black stone was used to state the charge of guilt.) Thus, the stone could mean the blessing of freedom (a reversal of a “guilty verdict”) from man’s government.
2) Rabbinic traditions from the Midrash state that when manna fell from heaven in the wilderness, it was accompanied by precious stones and pearls. Though Jesus did not endorse or prove this idea in this letter, He may have been trumping a tradition that would have been familiar to His readers by offering His own replacement. Interestingly, He just told the believers of Pergamum that He would give them hidden manna from heaven, so if the wilderness manna was found alongside precious stones (or even if that’s what the early Christians believed), these two “gifts” from Christ here would fit well together.
3) On the breastplate of the Jewish high priest were twelve jewels, and on each was inscribed a name of one of the twelves tribes. Due to translational difficulties, there is much debate regarding which stone represented what tribes. However, most sources tend to believe that the Yahalom stone, considered to be a pearl or diamond (either could be “white” compared to all others) belonged to the tribe of Zebulun. At first, this doesn’t appear to mean much, as Jesus and Zebulun are not necessarily linked in any fantastic way, but it is interesting at the very least that Zebulun’s tribal territory was what became known in New Testament times as Galilee, precisely where Jesus was from. Isaiah 9:1 prophesied that although God had “humbled” Zebulun in the past, He will one day honor them in Galilee. This messianic prophecy points to the fact that Jews of the tribe of Zebulun would be some of the first to hear the Gospel (like these early church members!). Additionally, Moses’ benediction for the tribe of Zebulun was that its dealings with the Gentiles would be blessed (Deuteronomy 33:18–19), and nobody ever “dealt” with the Gentiles in a more blessed way than Christ. Therefore, this “white stone” may be a reference to the breastplate stone of the high priest, but instead of the tribal name “Zebulun,” Jesus promises the name will be a blessed one that only has meaning to its wearer. Regardless of Zebulun, any tribal stone could have been in mind here, and the color is insignificant when “white” in Revelation stands for purity, symbolically replacing the need for any other pigment to be present.
To Thyatira, from the Son of God, whose eyes are like flames, and whose feet are like refined bronze: I know all that you are doing. I’ve witnessed your love, faith, service, patience, and endurance, and I am aware that you are constantly improving in all these areas. But I have a complaint against you: You are allowing that false prophet, that Jezebel, to mislead My people. She teaches them to eat food offered to idols and commit acts of sexual sin. I gave her time to repent, but she will not; she doesn’t want to turn away from her immoral ways. So I will throw her onto a bed—her and those who commit adultery with her—and all of them will suffer immensely unless they repent. Even her children will die, and then all the churches will know that I am the One who has the power to search thoughts and intentions within the heart and minds of people. I will give to each of you believers whatever you deserve. But to those who have not followed these teachings, these depths of Satan, I have a message: I ask nothing more of you than for you to hold onto what you have until I come. To all who are victorious and obey Me to the end: I will give them power over all the nations, and they will rule over them with a rod of iron. I will also gift them with the morning star. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to the Spirit’s message to all the churches (Revelation 2:18–29).
Reflection: Thyatira was a small town with many trades, and participating in these trades required one to belong to a guild. The guilds were wholly pagan, and at each official meeting, guild members were expected to pay homage to pagan gods who “blessed” the trade, as well as to participate in licentious activity as a sexual form of worship.
Because of King Ahab’s wife and her notoriety throughout Israel’s history, no person in his or her right mind in the early Church would have named a daughter “Jezebel,” and no pagan parent was likely to have chosen to give a daughter a Jewish name with such abhorrent ties to someone else’s religious history. From this we know “Jezebel” is a symbol, as are many other names in Revelation. “Jezebel” may or may not have been a female, and in fact, it could have even been a group of people, as feminine references in both Greek and Hebrew can be used to denote a multitude. Again, the false teacher(s) in this letter is guilty of the same grievances as the followers of “Balaam” or the Nicolaitanes in the former letters. Between this, the pagan worship taking place all over this area in relation to trade guilds, and this “Jezebel’s” association with the name of the Old Testament character (who led Ahab and Israel astray toward the demonic worship of Baal), scholars believe the Christians of Thyatira were allowing some degree of idol worship to be a part of their new faith. The picture painted in this letter seems to be that a person or group was running around the church telling Christians that it was still okay to participate in the idolatrous system of guild meetings, possibly in an attempt to convince them that the adultery and sexual immorality were merely means to economic prosperity and were not a matter of the heart, over which Christ was truly Lord. Obviously, on so many accounts, such a “teaching” would associate one to a “Jezebel spirit.”
Not all of the people of Thyatira were guilty in this, and it is to those whom Christ offers the gifts of ruling (literally “shepherding” in the Greek; verse 27) all nations with a rod of iron (protecting their people and defeating their enemies). He also mentions the “morning star,” which indicates Himself in light of the coming triumph in the end of the book (Revelation 22:16). Together, these gifts state that the believer who holds onto the Truth of the Gospel and follows Jesus to the end will participate with Him in His millennial reign.
To Sardis, from the One who has the sevenfold (fullness of) Spirit of God and the seven stars: I know your works, and I know that even though you have a reputation as people who are alive, you are really dead. You better watch out and wake up. Strengthen that which remains, because even what little remains is ready to die. You don’t live up to the requirements of God; you must go back to what you heard and believed in the beginning, and hold to it firmly. Repent and turn back to Me. If you don’t wake up and become watchful, I will come to you, like a thief, suddenly and at an hour you do not expect. There are so few of you in Sardis who haven’t defiled their garments, and it is to them that I say: You will walk with Me in white, because you are worthy. For all who are victorious will be dressed in pure white. Their names will never be blotted out from the Book of Life, and I will tell the Father and the angels that they are Mine. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to, and understand, the Spirit’s message to all the churches (Revelation 3:1–6).
Reflection: Sardis was known for two things: massive wealth and overconfidence. Before New Testament times, Sardis was the capital of Croesus, one of the wealthiest kings in the ancient world, with a nearly impenetrable defense system at the bottom of the steep hill the city sat upon. It was captured by the Persian King Cyrus circa 549 BC, and again by Antiochus circa 218 BC, and each time, it was because the opulent and brash city didn’t feel it needed to set up a guard at night, making it easy for the enemy troops to invade and conquer the sleeping inhabitants.[xii]
Their reputation of the citizens of Sardis was of a people very “alive,” as Christ said, but inside, they were dead and lazy, believing (probably through the power of their money) that they had it all figured out. Christianity is inherently about focusing joyfully on the life after this one while the body is dying (2 Corinthians 6:9). The Sardinians had it in reverse.
In verse 2 of His letter, Jesus says they must be watchful. This appears as “Wake up!” in some translations. It’s no doubt that, between both historic battles that went down like they did, they were used to letting the enemy slip under their noses unaware. Christ is here telling them that this symptom applies to them spiritually as well.
This church was not suffering from persecution like the others; that’s easier to understand if there wasn’t a “Christian problem” in this city: Believers in Sardis were scarce, and the ones who did live there weren’t as passionate about Jesus as they once were.
We are reminded of lyrics from the song “Asleep in the Light” by Keith Green—one of the most anointed Christian songwriters in history:
The world is sleeping in the dark that the Church just can’t fight
’cause it’s asleep in the light.
How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed?
Jesus rose from the grave, and you! You can’t even get out of bed![xiii]
Sardis was spiritually lethargic, immersed in maintaining a low profile while Christians were put to death all around them. Pagans kept bowing to the gods of wood, silver, and gold; they whistled and strolled, going about their daily lives as usual. But those few who were faithful would be draped in robes of purity and cleansed; their names would never be erased from the Book of Life.
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To Philadelphia, from the One who is true, holy, and holds the key of David, who has the power to open what no man can close and close what no man can open: I know all of your works, and I have opened up a doorway for you that nobody can close. Your strength is small, but your faith led you to obey My Word, and you have not denied My Name. Behold! Those who say they are Jews, but who really make up the synagogue of Satan, will be made to acknowledge that I love you. You have been faithful to persevere, and I will protect you from the hour of temptation that is about to come upon the world. I am coming soon, so make sure that you keep holding to what you have so no man can take your crown. To those who are victorious, they will be pillars in the Temple of God, and their rightful place there will never be disturbed. The Name of God—and the name of His Holy City, the New Jerusalem, which will originate from heaven—will be written on them. I will also write upon them My new Name. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to, and understand, the Spirit’s message to all the churches (Revelation 3:7–13).
Reflection: This letter bears striking resemblance to the one addressed to Smyrna. Not only were both without any complaints against the believers, they also mentioned that believers were being persecuted by those who made up the “synagogue of Satan” (which we’ve already addressed). The believers of these two congregations would receive a crown at the end of their earthly faithfulness.
The “keys” in this letter are not the ones to death and the grave like before, but of “David.” This is a reference to Isaiah 22:22: “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; So he shall open, and none shall shut; And he shall shut, and none shall open.” Christ has the ultimate power over all things related to salvation. Once He opens a door for a believer to be saved, no other person on earth has the power to close it. Putting the pieces together, scholars rebuild the picture thus: Christians were probably being excluded from worship by the Jews in Philadelphia, but Christ was allowing them to enter the spiritual and invisible synagogue or “Temple,” of which they will be “pillars” (strong and immovable structures).
In Deuteronomy 4:34, the plagues of Egypt were called the “temptations of Egypt.” The “hour of temptation” the faithful Philadelphians will be protected from is the coming, worldwide season of plagues and affliction for unbelievers known as the seven-year Tribulation.[xiv] (As noted prior, this is a major argument in favor of a pretribulational Rapture.)
Receiving any kind of “new name” was familiar to the Philadelphians, as their city had recently been renamed twice (once as Neocaesarea, and again as Flavia). Here, the “new name” is derived from Isaiah 62:2 and 65:15: “And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, And all kings thy glory: And thou shalt be called by a new name, Which the mouth of the Lord shall name.” “And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: For the Lord God shall slay thee, And call his servants by another name.” Isaiah 56:5 also refers to “an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” These verses, along with the letter’s mention of the “Temple” and the “New Jerusalem,” makes it clear that something major is coming that will completely redefine (rename) the believers in their future roles in the Kingdom of Christ described in Ezekiel 40–48. This will be consummated in the millennial reign.
To Laodicea, from the One who is the Amen, the faithful Witness, the start of God’s new creation: I know everything you do, and I am aware that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you would be one or the other, but since you are lukewarm, I will spit you from My mouth. You think you are rich and don’t need a thing. You think you’ve got everything you want. But you don’t realize you’re truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. So here is My advice: Buy your gold from Me, which is gold that has been purified through the fire. Only then will you truly be rich! By your garments from Me so you are not wandering naked and ashamed. Buy your eye medicine from Me so you will be able to really see. I correct and discipline those whom I love, so be diligent in turning away from your indifference and apathy. Behold! I am standing at the door, and I am knocking. If you hear My voice and open the door to Me, I will come in and we can break bread together as friends. To those who are victorious, they will sit with Me on my throne, just as I was victorious and joined My Father on His throne. Anyone who has ears to hear must use their hearing to listen to, and understand, the Spirit’s message to all the churches (Revelation 3:14–22).
Reflection: The letter to the Laodiceans is, in our humble opinion, one of the most misunderstood passages of this book. It is therefore quite a happy coincidence (or perhaps divinely arranged?) that it is the last of the seven churches we’ll reflect upon before moving into the remainder of Revelation. Discussing how the letter is commonly viewed today versus its real context leads perfectly into the rest of the text. As we discuss the Laodiceans’ financial situation and comforts, consider the comparison of this church’s status to that of the Western world.
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Here’s what a lot of folks don’t know that directly contributes to the meaning of the letter: The city of Laodicea was industrious and successful; its residents were made rich by several trades. One was the textile trade from black sheep (producing jet-black garments). The city also had a medical school noted for its success in ophthalmology (vision). Because of that, people came from all over the region to purchase an “eyesalve” (eye medicine scholars believe was made from powdered Phrygian stone) for countless vision and eye-irritation treatment. Laodicea was located near a spring that produced piping hot water. This water flowed from its origin in Hierapolis, past Laodicea, and farther to the south to Denizli. A little farther out on the map was Colossae, which had a natural cold-water spring, but the Laodiceans received their central water supply from the aqueduct between Hierapolis and Denizli, so it arrived lukewarm.
References in this letter to all three of these things (water temperature, eye medicine, and garments) have been drastically misunderstood. Let’s consider the water first.
Many preachers stand at pulpits today interpreting the “lukewarm” warning to be something akin to: “God either wants you to be on fire for Him, or He wants you to man up and admit that you secretly reject Him. But it’s time to stop riding the fence! Be hot, or be cold, but if you simply go to Church and don’t really love Him, you are ‘lukewarm,’ and He will spew you from His mouth!” Such interpretations are convicting, but they miss the point. The Laodiceans personally had experienced receiving their water lukewarm. Both in antiquity as well as in modernity, beverages have been served hot or cold, but (not intentionally) lukewarm (and if they did—such as making “hot” cocoa cooler for a child, or what have you—it would be an exception, not a rule). Both hot and cold extremes have had many uses: Hot water cleanses, purifies, offers therapeutic elements for the body, etc.; cold water refreshes and revives, stimulates, cools the body, and so on. Lukewarm water has always been, and is today, useless for many reasons that we would seek water to treat. There are many contemporary opinions about what lukewarm water is like, but in the ancient world, it was particularly gross… People of earlier times didn’t have the medicines we have today to combat illness, and lukewarm water has always been a bacterial breeding ground (germs don’t survive as well in either temperature extremes). So, the water the Laodiceans received would have been more than a matter of mere taste; it would have endangered whoever consumed it, if it were not somehow purified. See, to the residents of “Lukewarm Water City,” the letter wasn’t about having an honest zeal for Jesus. If it was, then why would Jesus ever prefer them to be cold, as He said (3:15)?
Really allow yourself to think about that for a moment… Jesus stated—with no liberty in the Greek—that they either be hot or cold, but not somewhere in between. If a believers are still “on the fence” about Jesus, then they are closer to Him than if they reject Him entirely. They would still be closer to the possibility of salvation than if they rejected Christ completely, and if God is “not willing that any might perish” (2 Peter 3:9), then “lukewarm” is better than “cold,” and it’s not rocket science to come to such an obvious conclusion. The Holy Spirit can work with “somewhere in between,” and we know that He would want to, since there is still room to “warm up” to God in regard to one’s salvation. There is no doubt that God is loving and offers forgiveness, so wouldn’t a loving God appreciate that the Laodiceans weren’t completely cold? Wouldn’t He encourage them to continue in their pursuit of spiritual growth, knowing they had the potential to become who He called them to be? One might argue that a syncretistic, idolatrous relationship with Jesus alongside other gods would fit the bill here (and scholars do believe idolatry was a problem for some of these folks), but wishing them to be “cold” in that case would still be like Christ saying, “Hurry up and reject me so you can fully love your gods.” Is that possible? Technically, it could be, as we know God will eventually leave an idolater alone (Hosea 4:17). Some academics conclude this is the spirit behind the statement. But we believe that the stress of Christ’s statement of preference (“I would thou be”) renders this impossible. No matter what the circumstances, why would Jesus prefer someone with a cold spiritual condition over one that is still brewing? For Him to harshly rebuke the Laodiceans for idolatry and demand repentance is one thing; to tell them He would prefer for them to reject Him and damn themselves for all eternity is another thing entirely. It just doesn’t align with what we know of Him to say elsewhere. It simply cannot make sense theologically considering the whole Bible’s message of love and growth of those who are navigating their journey toward the invisible Kingdom amidst a sea of gods.
The answer, once the context of the Laodicean water supply is taken into account, is easy to find. Jesus wanted the Laodicean Gospel to be meaningful to the world around them, but if their Good News message was lukewarm, it was “without use.” Worse, it was “dangerous”: The message of Laodicea to the surrounding world was a nauseating, hazardous “bacterial breeding ground”!
What would bacteria in bad water affect?
The body of a human.
What would a bacterial Gospel affect?
The Body of Christ.
Jesus’ words to the Laodiceans were that their outward witness to the world around them was nauseating, and worse than spiritually worthless, because they were willingly blind and spiritually filled with bacteria. Why? Because of what (rather than who) they placed their faith in—worldly wealth: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (3:17).
Some aspects of humanity never change. Each time serious trouble befalls mankind (as only one example, the September 11, 2001, destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center), people who otherwise would never attend a church flood religious centers and surround spiritual shepherds (church leaders) with the need for “higher” answers. A sudden dependency upon the Lord for answers and provision develops that no money can provide. Prior to that point, though, people are generally “comfortable enough to forget about God” as long as their mouths are fed and their pillow cushions are properly fluffed. The residents of Laodicea had everything they needed, assuming no person or tragedy upset their way of life, because they believed earthly financial status made them “rich” and “in need of nothing” while Jesus knew they were actually “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (3:17). A complacency had replaced their need for a Savior, and the Savior knew their hearts. What they claimed to be was a “hot or cold” use to the world, while their spiritual integrity was “lukewarm.” Christ’s response to this was to offer a list of what they needed on the inside in order to be truly repaired.
It was a short list: gold, garments, and eye medicine.
First, “gold” cannot be “bought,” as it was the means of purchase in the first place (in the standard sense). We are reminded of Isaiah 55:1, which talks of buying “without money and without price.” Therefore, the mention of “gold” here speaks of glory, brilliance, and magnificence as a metaphor (as noted in the “Common Symbols” section). Gold, as well as other precious metals, were not simply mined in perfect condition, but were drawn from the ores of the earth and refined in a fire, removing dross (random junk in the natural metals) and imperfections. The Laodiceans must “buy” their gold from Christ, trading their worldly comforts and riches for a kind of wealth only He can provide from a heavenly origin—that which is “tried in the fire” (Revelation 3:18): Their faith would need to be “tried” if they were ever to appreciate its value. Then, it would be worth far more than what perishes on earth: “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).
Second, the “white” garment of purity in Christ (representing cleanliness and wisdom) removes “shame” and “nakedness” (Revelation 3:18), which the lucrative black-sheep textile trade of Laodicea cannot offer. To Sardis, the “dead” church, Christ said: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment” (3:5a). So, in a similar vein, there is an “overcoming” and a “trying” necessary for the Laodiceans so far.
Third, the eye medicine (or “eyesalve” in the KJV; 3:18), if obtained through Christ, would remove their blindness. As noted, the medical school of Laodicea (specializing in ophthalmology) was where many in the ancient world would travel for help with eye problems. Laodiceans had at least human reason to believe they would be self-sufficient with issues related to vision, which “pops” Christ’s words to them about “blindness” into new focus (no pun intended). But the loss of sight that He was referring to was, of course, spiritual.
With all the comforts they had on a daily basis, their faith was in need of testing to see if it was genuine. God doesn’t just go around taking away the wealth or security of His followers, but when their wealth and security replaces Him—that is, when their blessings are not used in a manner that accomplishes what God stands for—He has been known to allow certain trials. The exiles are, by themselves, an example of this (though they are not by any means the only time of testing of God’s people, as both Testaments show).
Hopefully by now, you have a better understanding of what was going on in Laodicea that could have led Jesus to send (through John) such a letter…but we have said all of this to build to the climax of the whole word-picture Jesus provided: He stands at the door and knocks (3:20).
Once again, we arrive at a heavily misunderstood verse.
In most church services today, this verse (Revelation 3:20) is frequently used as a sort of altar call: “Jesus is standing at the door of your heart, knocking. Won’t you let Him in? Won’t you make the decision that today is the day you will receive Him in so He can fellowship with you and change your life for the better?” It’s an invitation offered by well-meaning Christians to help others make a personal decision about faith in Christ. The invitation is typically followed by offering to lead the responder/respondent through the “sinner’s prayer,” bringing in a harvest of souls.
Please hear us: We are not attempting to say that such a harvest is in any way unbiblical or that it does not fit the collective teaching of the Word, because it does. Thousands of verses in both Old and New Testaments make the united statement that God loves all people and wants to transform sinners into the beautiful creation God intended them to be. We are not offended by such an altar call.
However, that’s not the focus of this particular verse. This modern application doesn’t capture the fullness of the image the Bible presents. Remember, this book is not an Epistle. Revelation is alternatively known as the Apocalypse; its content is eschatological and therefore must be kept in its proper context.
Consider what’s being clearly—and literally—communicated here: A real congregation that existed in Asia Minor is being warned that Christ is knocking on the door of His own house, asking to be let into the church so He can break bread as friends with His followers. In such a scenario, the focus is not upon the heart of an individual believer saying a specific prayer at the time of conversion (though such an act is precious and well supported by Scriptures elsewhere). To the Laodiceans, in particular, as well as to all believers at this point in the book of Revelation that are in the same dismal spiritual state of health, and therefore to us, today, who likewise rely on worldly comforts in the last days when Christ can come “like a thief,” at any moment…the emphasis of this verse becomes this: Jesus is no longer in the building.
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This ancient “church of Jesus” therefore makes a powerful point in the verses following the letters to the seven churches: During the end times, there will be places dedicated to the worship of Jesus that miss the mark entirely; the “believers” within such places will find themselves void of their spiritual inheritance. Antichrist will—as the following pages of study show—inaugurate a one-world religion that looks like Christianity but is, in every way, fraudulent when it comes to what Christ stood for. When that happens, the presence of Jesus will be elsewhere, outside the assembling of those who call themselves believers.
Today, as He was then, Jesus is standing outside many churches, knocking. He wants to enter and “sup” (break bread) with the people who say they are His. But today, as then, there are church bodies just like the one in Laodicea whose members follow wrongful teachings, practice idolatry, pursue money and careers, and participate in social gatherings that pretend to be spiritually “rich” but are truly wretched, poor, blind, and naked. A salvation invitation at altar calls could certainly correct this problem on an individual level, but the call in this letter is to the leaders of the collective Body to restore worship to its proper place while we seek after Him:
If so many Scriptures instruct us that we are to “go to” or “come to” the Lord, then traditionally, we are the knockers asking for God’s grace and intervention. Bible Gateway provides this intel: “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.”[xv]
To those who have an ear to hear: Behold, Laodicea. Behold, today’s Church. Behold, today’s ministers. If you are complacent, if you are apathetic, if you are lukewarm, if you use church grounds as a place of showmanship or social status or dropping verses or casually hobnobbing while you bask in the comforts of this mortal experience, then Christ is no longer in the building. It’s no longer about Him. He’s outside, knocking, asking to be invited back into His own home, and a ministry endeavor devoted to a Man who’s not even present cannot be anointed by the Man who’s standing outside.[xvi]
The real meaning of the verse is even more convicting than the one we’ve assigned to it in contemporary times. The Body of Christ, as a whole, needs to be paying very close attention to these letters. They would be from God even if they weren’t “sent by Christ” because they are canonical. But unique to all other canonical “letters,” these are being written by a Source who trumps even the apostles, whom the early Church found to be the supreme authority. We are in the end times now, and Jesus is coming back. So, as we move closer to the times of apocalyptic trials, these warnings from the Savior should be just as important to us as the rest of this book.
UP NEXT: Elders and the Four Living Creatures (Revelation 4)
[i] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation… 217.
[ii] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenaeus Against Heresies,” as quoted in: A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus: Volume 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company; 1885), page 352 in reference to Heresies passage 1.26.3.
[iii] Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 555.
[iv] Morris, L., Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1987), 67.
[v] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation… 242.
[vi] Morris, L., Revelation… 69.
[vii] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation… 246.
[viii] Morris, L., Revelation… 70.
[ix] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation… 246.
[x] Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 556.
[xi] Morris, L., Revelation… 73.
[xii] Ibid., 78.
[xiii] Keith Green, “Asleep in the Light,” The Ministry Years: Volume 1 (Sparrow Records: 1987), track 18.
[xiv] Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation… 289–290.
[xvi] Howell, Donna, Radicals: Why Tomorrow Belongs to Post-Denominational Christians Infused with Supernatural Power (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing; 2017), 153.
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