On Friday it was said of the England football team’s training session that it showed how committed they are to bringing the World Cup home. Even a simple game of one touch possession work was apparently contested with gladiatorial zeal. Well this afternoon against Ecuador that commitment and zeal had gone in the first half and they were lukewarm with nearly disastrous results. And tonight we’re looking at commitment and zeal, or rather the lack of it, in relation to the church at Laodicea and how what Jesus has to say about it speaks to us today. So do turn to Revelation 3:14-22, on p1236 of the church Bibles. There you’ll find Jesus’ letter to the church at Laodicea, the last of his seven letters to the seven churches. But note that this letter, along with the other six, is also for us. V22:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So let’s listen up to what the Lord Jesus, the ruler of God’s creation, is saying to us.
So far in each letter we’ve heard Jesus lay emphasis on a different mark which should characterize a true and living church. The Ephesian Christians are urged to return to their first love for Christ. We are urged to do the same in amongst all the busyness of ministry. The Christians of Smyrna and so we at JPC are urged not to compromise even if that means suffering for Christ but instead are to be faithful even to the point of death. The church in Pergamum and so we today are to uphold truth, rebuke and correct in love and drive away error. The church in Thyatira and the church in Jesmond are to champion righteousness and not tolerate those who teach immorality. In Sardis and in JPC the need is for inward reality behind the church’s outward show. Before the Philadelphian church the risen Lord has set an open door of opportunity for the spread of the gospel and he bids them to step boldly through it in spite of persecution. Before JPC he has set an open door for the spread of the gospel in Gateshead, and he bids us to step boldly through it whatever the cost.
But Jesus saves his most severe letter till last. His letter to the church at Laodicea contains much censure and no praise. Indeed lukewarm Laodicea, where they are neither hot nor cold, makes him sick. In v16 the word for spit is literally vomit. And he warns them that he’s about to vomit them out of his mouth. Jesus fiercely denounces their complacency and he appeals for wholeheartedness or true commitment. That’s the seventh mark that should characterize the body of Christ.
Yet in the western world today nominal, middle of the road churches are common. Christianity in this part of the world is often flabby and anemic or radically liberal as we’ve seen in ECUSA this past week. But what about we here at JPC if this letter is for us to hear as well? Some in this diocese might say we’re too hot to handle or that we’re too cold towards them. Well let’s pray that we’re never accused of being lukewarm! In the past JPC was lukewarm for at least 40 years of the twentieth century. JPC started hot in 1861 and was brought to the boil again from 1960 but in between it was distinctly tepid. So what about you and me today? Praise God for the commitment of so many here to the work. But we should not be complacent. It was Martin Luther who said that the gospel often only lasts 30 or 40 years in a church at any one time. As we examine ourselves tonight as we prepare to receive communion, let’s ask: are we half hearted or wholehearted in our commitment to Christ? Are we on fire for Christ or are we tepid? Whether you’ve been coming for years or weeks: are you just going through the motions or is Christ living in you?
As I’m sure you’ve discovered tepid water is no use for washing or drinking. It has to be hot or cold. And a tepid commitment is no commitment at all. Are we in danger of becoming lukewarm thereby making Christ sick? Or is our commitment to Christ real and shown to be genuine by our deeds? Do we think we’ve arrived and have everything we need and now sit back relying on ourselves rather than on Christ himself? As a church our corporate prayer life is still very poor. The last day of prayer was the worst attended in memory. I know we’re all busy but if we’re too busy to pray then we’re too busy! Aspects of our commitment to Christ and to one another appear to be lukewarm. Look again at what Jesus says by his Spirit. V14:
“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are 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.”
This is stern and serious stuff. And it’s from Jesus Christ himself. And it’s him we must first consider as many of the problems at Laodicea stem from a wrong view of Christ, just as they do today. So
First, CHRIST THE RULER OF CREATION v.14
"These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation".
It’s interesting that this is the one letter in Revelation where the titles of Christ are not taken from the description of Jesus in Revelation 1. Why is that? Well it’s because the church at Laodicea needed to hear other important facts about Christ from Christ. And so does the church today. These titles stress Christ's faithfulness and authority. The ‘Amen’ is a name of God himself in Isaiah 65, meaning the God of truth, and is reinforced here with the faithful and true witness title. Christ is God, he is the truth and he is utterly reliable and faithful in what he says and does. And this reliability stands in sharp contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Christians in Laodicea. He has all the firmness and faithfulness and truth which this church lacked.
Christ is also the ruler of God's creation. Jesus Christ is Lord over all that he has made, and is infinitely superior to all other spiritual forces in the universe. The Laodiceans needed to hear this truth. This truth about Christ's Lordship and rule over creation and his uniqueness stands at the head of this letter because it was the local tendency in Laodicea to soft pedal Christ's uniqueness and that had sapped the church's sense of its calling. And we see the same today don't we? When churches don't hold to the uniqueness of Christ, that he is the only way to God the Father and heaven, they lose their missionary purpose and their worship becomes nominal or even a multi-faith mish mash. Are we tempted to soft pedal the uniqueness of Christ in our politically correct and supposedly pluralistic society? If so, that will sap our enthusiasm to follow Christ and to spread the gospel. Let's not be ashamed of the gospel and of the uniqueness of Christ. Let's not be half hearted and unfaithful. Rather let’s remain faithful and true to Christ, who is the truth, to his gospel, to his commands and to his commission to go and make disciples of all nations.
Secondly, CHRIST'S DENUNCIATION AND DIAGNOSIS OF LUKEWARM LAODICEA v 15-17
Why does Christ denounce Laodicea so severely? Look at v15-16:
"I know your deeds, that you are 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".
Jesus says that the church is behaving in a way which serves no useful purpose and he uses a well known feature of Laodicea to make his point. The city had an inadequate water supply. It had to rely on water from some hot springs 5 miles away brought by an aqueduct. Because of the nature of the aqueduct the water would have remained warm, lukewarm and unpleasant to drink. In the ancient world hot water was used for washing and for medicinal purposes and cold water for drinking. Lukewarm water was no good for either and with the added deposits found in it the Laodicean water, though safe to drink, might have produced more vomiting than pleasure. So just as the city has no water which can supply life and health, so the church is behaving in a way which supplies neither hot nor cold water: neither healing for the spiritually sick nor refreshment for the spiritually weary. The effect of their conduct on Christ is like the effect of the city's lukewarm water supply: it makes him sick.
The Laodiceans were too self satisfied and did not look beyond themselves. They had no gospel message or purpose. But Jesus Christ who died for us, who rose from the dead and now reigns as Lord of all deserves better. He calls us to follow him, to take up our cross daily and to deny ourselves and put him first. In fact Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34) Christ wants his followers to be on fire and on mission for him and not to simmer down into a tasteless tepidity. Paul told his readers to be fervent in spirit, to maintain the spiritual glow and to fan into flame the gift of God that is in us. We need to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. If Christ is true then he deserves our wholehearted commitment. Nothing less. Not unbiblical fanaticism. Not dangerous emotionalism. But wholeheartedness. Phoney piety and compromise nauseate him. To profess Christianity while remaining untouched by its fire is a disaster. No-one is farther from the truth in Christ than the one who makes an idle profession without real faith. People come to me and say I’m a Christian. But they’re living with their boyfriend and will only come to church when it suits them. They’re lukewarm. The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans was a denial of all that Christ stands for. Jesus Christ asks for wholehearted commitment, for us to have heat, fire and passion for the Lord and his will. Those who remain purely nominal he will spit out. You have been warned!
What is Christ's diagnosis of the Laodiceans' lukewarmness? V17:
"You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked".
In other words the lukewarm person or church is one in whom there is a glaring contrast between what they say and think they are on the one hand and what they really are on the other. The root cause of half heartedness is complacency. To be lukewarm is to be blind to one's true condition. Certainly in Laodicea the church was full of self-satisfied churchgoers. They said, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing". And in material terms they were right. The people of Laodicea were prosperous and were proud of their banks, medical school and expensive black cloth. As a city they were self-sufficient. When in AD 60 they suffered an earthquake they promptly rebuilt the city without any help from Rome. But this pride and self sufficiency crept into the church. The congregation became smug, self satisfied and complacent. They thought that their religious life was fine. Yet Christ knew otherwise. He knew that in reality they were blind and naked beggars, wretched and pitiful. They were spiritually poor despite their banks, spiritually blind despite their eye salve and spiritually naked despite their clothing factories. They said they needed nothing. But although they managed without Roman money, they could not manage without the grace of Christ. Neither can we.
You see the nominal Christian or church is spiritually and morally a naked, blind beggar even if they are materially rich and outwardly moral and spiritual. The nominal Christian is a beggar because he has nothing with which to 'purchase' his forgiveness or an entry into the kingdom of God. He is naked because he has no clothes to fit him to stand before God. He is blind because he has no idea either of his spiritual poverty or of his spiritual danger. In other words he is without Christ. And that was the chief problem at Laodicea. Just as the city was without a water supply, so the church was without the living water of Christ. We must not disregard the diagnosis of the skilled physician. We too can flatter and deceive ourselves, but he sees and knows us as we really are as individuals and as a church. How we can be numbed by increasing prosperity. How we can fail to wear the character of Christ and be concerned with maintenance rather than mission, with ourselves rather than the lost, with the easy way rather than with the way of Christ. How we can be blind to our own real needs and those of others. How we need Christ. How we need him to open our eyes. How we need to be wholeheartedly committed to him. For apart from him we can do nothing.
Thirdly, CHRIST'S COUNSEL v18-20
How was Laodicea to overcome its lukewarmness, its blindness, it nakedness, its poverty, its lack of purpose and its inability to supply healing for the spiritually sick or refreshment for the spiritually weary? How are we to overcome half-heartedness? How are we to avoid Jesus' utter repudiation and being spewed out of his mouth if we are purely nominal, superficial or lukewarm? Answer: we are to heed Christ's counsel. V18:
"I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see".
The Laodiceans thought they were self sufficient but they must instead find their sufficiency in Christ. So Christ counsels them to buy from him. Of course he's not saying that salvation can be bought. No, he’s using the language of the commercial city to make his point. He's saying, "Forsake your former suppliers and come trade with me instead. I have what you need. You are poor but I have gold. You are naked but I have clothes. You are blind but I have eye salve. Don't trust in your banks or in your medicines or in your clothing factories anymore. Come to me and be enriched, clothed, healed, forgiven and receive true sight and life." Through his death they and we can be cleansed and through his living presence with them they and we can be changed. When a church is spiritually poor only Christ can make it truly rich with the kind of gold he offers. Gold refined in the fire. It cannot expect to find true riches without suffering. When a church is blind only Christ can apply the ointment which enables it to see its own need and to renew its vision of purpose. When a church is naked only Christ can clothe it with his righteousness and character. How could this come about for the Laodiceans and how can it happen today? They and we must take two steps. The first is given in v19. Jesus says:
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”
Christ loves the Laodiceans. He doesn’t want to spit them out. So he rebukes and disciplines them and calls them to repent and be earnest. He loves us too and wants any of us who are lukewarm to repent and be fired with zeal. So the first step is repentance. The second step is faith. Look at v.20. Jesus says:
“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.”
This is a personal appeal to the individual. If anyone, he says. Who tonight needs to open the door to Jesus Christ? You’ve heard his voice. You know you need him. He stands at the door and knocks. He won’t force his way in. But if you open the door he will come in and ‘eat’ with you. But he also comes in to take control and we must submit. He is the ruler of creation. Have we let him in as Lord?
Fourthly, CHRIST'S PROMISE v.21
Christ has already made one promise to those who open the door of their hearts to him and let him in and now he makes another. V21:
“To him 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.”
To those who hear, heed and obey Christ's message Christ promises them a seat on his throne. As Christ shares the Father's throne, so the Christian will share Christ's. What a prospect and honour! Christ's words, “Just as I overcame” are important. Christ overcame by the way of the cross and this set the pattern for his followers. But what seemed like defeat for Christ was actually his victory over the world. We need not fear if we are called upon to suffer, for in that way we too will conquer.