Laodicea—the self-satisfied church

Visiting the churches of Revelation——7

Orley Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.

 

About forty miles southeast of Philadelphia is the site of Laodicea, last of the seven churches to which the letters of Revelation were ad dressed. The road today passes through valleys and undulating hills that must have looked much the same in John's day as they do in ours. It is not difficult to envision oneself back in the early centuries, for customs, too, have changed very little. Herds of goats frequently block the road or scamper to roadside knolls. Farmers with their don keys move leisurely beside carts carrying farm crops to the village market. In Roman times this rich farming country contributed to Laodicea's wealth.

Passing through the little village of Denizli, the present-day traveler approaches the mound on which ancient Laodicea stood. The city was one of sixteen founded by Seleucus I Nicator, a general of Alexander the Great, and formed an important part of the Seleucid Empire. Like Thyatira, it served as a guardian of the ancient trade routes, and as such was a city of considerable commercial importance.

Although the area has not been extensively excavated, gaping ruins on the site date to Roman times. In its heyday Laodicea boasted two theaters and a stadium, usually thronged with pleasure seekers, for the city was noted for its wealth and luxury. The old Roman theater lies in the hollow of the city mound, its rows of stone benches grown over with grass and weeds.

The Saviour's accusations against the Laodicean church are based on prominent characteristics of the city and its people. He declares, "Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing" (Rev. 3:17). Laodicea was a tremendously wealthy city, and as such developed a remarkable self-sufficiency. In A.D. 60 the city was hit by a devastating earthquake, but in her fierce independence she refused the financial aid voted her by the Roman senate, preferring instead to rebuild with her own resources. This self-sufficient attitude obviously pervaded the church as well, for the Saviour urges the members there to recognize their spiritual poverty and buy of Him the true gold.

An important factor in Laodicea's monetary success was her manufacturing industry, a chief product of which was garments made of an unusual black wool for which the city became famous. These garments were exported to all parts of the Mediterranean world. Romans normally wore the white toga, symbol of victory and high honor, but in Laodicea the local black garments were universally worn. Thus the Saviour counsels the church there to obtain from Him "white raiment" to cover their unperceived nakedness. The perfect character of Jesus, symbolized in Scripture by a spotless robe, is no doubt here intended.

Among the scattered remains still visible at the site of Laodicea are those of the luxurious Roman baths in which the affluent lounged at their ease in the lukewarm water. Laodicea's water supply came by aqueduct from springs six miles away at the neighboring city of Hierapolis. Remnants of the ancient aqueduct, including the pipes that carried the warm water, still stand.

The message to the church of Laodicea is most critical of her lukewarm condition. These words become even more significant as we turn to Laodicea's sister city, Hierapolis. Here the waters of the Lycus River tributaries still leave limestone deposits that have the appear ance of a frozen cascade in which the foaming waters have been suddenly petrified. In ancient times these warm mineral springs gave rise to a world-famous medical school at Laodicea. Associated with the school was a temple dedicated to a Greek god of medicine called the "Great Physician." It was this school that developed the famous Phrygian eyepowder, known throughout the ancient world. Made of dried mud from the thermal springs, and then emulsified with mineral oils and chemicals, the concoction dried into a fine powder. A healing poultice for the eyes was made of this powder mixed with water. Thousands in ancient times journeyed to this resort to be benefited by the eye-salve, the mineral waters, and the hot and lukewarm baths.

When we consider Laodicea's wealth, the black-garment industry, and the famous ointment for the eyes, we cannot fail to see the significance of Jesus' letter to the church members in that city. "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see" (verses 15-18).

Laodicea's sister city, Hierapolis, is today, as anciently, a pleasure resort where modern hotels cater to tourists from distant lands. They come to relax in swimming pools of the famous lukewarm mineral water. The water is also used for drinking, although the first impulse is to spew it out because of its nauseating taste and temperature, reminding the visitor of the Saviour's words "Because thou art lukewarm ... I will spue thee out of my mouth" (verse 16).

The traveler to Hierapolis today finds a number of ruins from Roman times. Fronting the old Roman road is the massive arch of Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81 to 96. It was this emperor who banished the beloved John to Patmos. John was released only after Domitian's death.

On a hill above the town are excavated remnants of an old church that was constructed over the traditional site of the tomb of Philip, one of the original twelve apostles of the New Testament church. According to generally accepted tradition, Philip labored in upper Asia and in A.D. 54 was scourged, thrown into prison, and afterwards crucified at Hierapolis.

In its prophetic sense, the letter to the Laodiceans takes us into the final period of the church, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or the period following the great awakening. It is God's last love letter to the church—His final appeal. Therefore it should be a message of special interest and concern to the church today, particularly to those who serve as its spiritual leaders.

The description given of Laodicea by the Master is that of a church that has lost its spirit and passion. Prosperity and materialism have robbed it of its fervor. It can boast of organization; it has all the machinery of religion and goes through the exercises of worship, but it has lost its vital connection with the Source of all power. And saddest of all is the fact that the church is unaware of her loss. She complacently considers herself rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing. Yet in reality she is wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Like Samson, who after being shorn of his hair "wist not that the Lord was departed from him" (Judges 16:20), so the Laodicean church does not recognize the absence of God.

The Great Physician, who has diagnosed Laodicea's condition, prescribes the cure. Her perishable, paltry wealth must be exchanged for the gold of faith and love. Her self-righteous rags must give way to the garment of Christ's righteousness woven in the loom of heaven without one thread of human devising. Her vaunted eyesalve must be given up for the ointment of the Spirit's clear spiritual perception so that she may see herself as she really is.

Many commentators have pointed out that although the Saviour's sternest rebukes and condemnation are directed to Laodicea, so also does He reserve for her the most glorious and precious promises given to any of the seven churches. God's last message to the church is not primarily one of condemnation, but of love. He wounds that He might heal. He rebukes and chastens in order to bring His people to repentance.

The Saviour closes: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). The gracious invitation is perhaps best illustrated in Hoiman Hunt's immortal painting, "The Light of the World." The original, dating back to 1853, can be seen today in Keble College, Oxford, while a considerably larger copy completed by Hunt in 1893 stands today in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Hunt graphically pictures Jesus in a night scene with a lighted lantern in His left hand, knocking with His right hand on a door representing the human heart. Jesus does not force an entrance; He simply stands and knocks and pleads. He will enter only if the door is opened, and this the occupant must do. Each must make a definite, conscious decision to act, for the door will not open of itself. To open the door means to welcome Jesus in as Saviour and Lord of the life. This is what Jesus invites each Laodicean to do.

To those who respond by letting Him in, the promise is, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (verse 21). Thus will God have a people upon earth prepared to enter His glorious kingdom at His coming.

Note:

For information on an audio-visual set of 2x2 slides dealing with the seven churches of Revelation and other sets
that will enhance your ministry, write MINISTRY, 6840 Eastern Ave., NW., Washington, D.C. 20012.


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Orley Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.

March 1979

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