Christ's seventh letter to the seventh church (Laodicea) is the best known and yet the most shocking (Revelation 3:14-22). The imagery is stunning. Holman Hunt's famous picture 'The Light of the World' is based upon verse 20, which in turn has been used millions of times by evangelists inviting people to 'let Jesus come into their hearts'. But the letter has much much more to teach the church today.
Laodicea was situated on the river Lycus near the modern Turkish city of Denizli. It was the crossroads for three imperial roads and as such became a wealthy commercial and administrative centre. It was famous for three things; banks (even Cicero recommended them for exchanging money), clothing (especially carpets made from the glossy black wool of the local sheep) and a medical school that specialised in an eye ointment made from pulverised rock in the area.
All that is tied in with what Jesus says – notice again how he earths and connects his message with things people know and that are part of their daily experience (preachers take note!). And it is tied in with who he is. He is the Amen – God's final word. He is the faithful and true witness and the ruler of God's creation. He is the prime source. The light. The life. Far too often the church gives the impression we are worshipping a dead and distant Jesus, who needs us to speak for him, rather than us listening to him. We act as though we are the live ones, keeping his memory and principles alive, not realising that he is the life, keeping us from death. And that was the trouble with the Laodicean church. It was just not listening and so was unable to see its own spiritual condition.
When Jesus speaks about the church being cold, hot or lukewarm he is using imagery that the people would clearly understand. In nearby Hierapolis there were hot springs. Colossae just down the road had a cool, clear stream. But the river Lycus that ran through Laodicea often dried up in the summer and so the water for the city came via a viaduct. It became tepid, impure and lukewarm and as a result often made people sick.
It is an incredible picture; one that challenges the church today.
Are we cold as Christ predicted would happen? "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold," (Matthew 24:12, NIV)
Are we hot? Is there still real spiritual warmth and fire? Like the two on the road to Emmaus. "They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"" (Luke 24:32, NIV)
Or worst of all, from the perspective of Christ, are we lukewarm? What does that mean? It's when we have lost all concern to grow and to develop; when we have become listless, compromisers, not willing to stand, and have lost all desire for Gospel labour and witness. They had been hot but they had lost it. And Christ warns them that he is going to spit them out of his mouth. The old translation was 'spew'. In my city of Dundee we have a Scots phrase which means the same thing - 'gives me the boke'. To say that someone makes you feel ill is astonishing – almost beyond the Internet invective that causes us to despair. That it is the meek and loving Christ who says this of his own church is beyond astonishing. "I will sing of your love forever, but I make you sick" does not have the makings of top ten praise song! Pope Francis reflected this teaching of Christ when he was speaking to a Lutheran gathering and asked about which ones he liked! "I like all the good Lutherans, eh?" he said. "There are many good ones, the Lutherans who really follow Jesus Christ. On the other hand, I don't like lukewarm Catholics or lukewarm Lutherans."
I wonder if our churches are far too often like the Laodicean churches. We just don't see where we really are at. The Laodiceans had a completely different view of themselves than Christ's view. They thought they were rich. I am rich, I have need of nothing. But Christ says you are 'wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked'. It hardly fits with the modern Western obsession with self worth and self-congratulation! Many of our middle class gathered evangelical churches in the West are rich and have need of nothing. We have staff, programmes, money, structures, buildings, training, techniques, publications, resources and networks. Oh, we acknowledge our needs – but that itself almost becomes just a form and a technique. Why is it that churches can so quickly fossilise – retaining the outward structures but lacking the heart and spirit?
The Second Law of Thermodynamics may help us understand. It states that a closed system eventually moderates so that no more energy is produced. Unless something is added from outside the system decays and cools. Without added fuel the water in the boiler becomes cool. The Lord did not design the church to be a closed system where we have need of nothing. We are in constant need of his life giving Spirit.
Jesus prescribes the solution:
We need to buy pure gold from Christ. He reminds them of Isaiah 55. Some of us today are more concerned about discrimination and coming persecution than we are about our own spiritual poverty. Maybe persecution would cause us to wake up to our poverty - "These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:7, NIV)
We need white clothes to wear. We are spiritually naked. "Fine linen, bright and clean,was given her to wear."(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)" (Revelation 19:8, NIV) . Toplady grasped this when he wrote his famous hymn, Rock of Ages and put in the line "Naked come to thee for dress"
And finally we need the famous Laodicean eye salve. The blind need to be able to see. Paul tells the Corinthians the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). We need to be able to see the Lord and to see ourselves. Like the Psalmist we cry "O Lord send forth your light and your truth" (Psalm 43:3).
And only then do we come to the inspiration for Holman Hunt's picture. And here is the amazing fact. Christ standing and knocking at the door is not an evangelist text for the world; it is a heartfelt cry from the Lord to his church for repentance. Christ loves his people and he wants us to be spiritually rich, clean and to be able to see. He urges us to be earnest and repent and to let him in. Hunt's picture portrays the door as overgrown with the handle on the inside, not on the outside.
As well as us inviting people in (something which we surely are to do as 'fishers of men'), perhaps the greatest need of the church in the West today is for us to let Christ in. We should not treat him like the salesman at the door, wanting to buy what he wants but keeping him out. He wants to come in and eat with us – and that is the greatest honour.
I have some Muslim friends from an Asian country who were delighted when I went to eat with them. In their culture it was a great honour to have the guest come in. Likewise with Christ. We treat Christ with great honour and dignity when we accept his gracious invitation. And he is bringing the meal! This coming in and eating is not just a snack. It's a Middle Eastern supper – rich, communal and full.
And then it gets even better. Leonard Cohen in his latest album 'You Want it Darker' has a song about death called 'Leaving the Table'. For the Christian, death is not leaving the table; it's moving from the hors d'oeuvres into the eternal feast, from the door to the throne!
When we accept Christ's invitation and let him in (but Church beware - that will really change our churches – we cannot manage Him, or fit him into our programmes, he does not fit with our agendas and can't just be recruited as our pet celebrity), he gives us the right to sit with him on his throne. This is a simple and profound truth from the faithful and true witness - as we let Christ make his home in our hearts – in our lives – so he will let us make our home with him forever. Are we hearing what the Spirit says to the churches?
David Robertson is minister of St Peter's Free Church, Dundee and associate director of Solas CPC. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.