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Friday, September 5, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Laodicea

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 3: 14 – 22 Laodicea

Forty-three miles south-east of Philadelphia on the banks of the Lycus river was the city Laodicea – named after the founder’s wife, Laodice (whom he later divorced...). It was a wealthy city. When it was destroyed in the same earthquake that leveled Sardis and Philadelphia in A.D. 17, Laodicea refused all the money offered by the Emperor for rebuilding, preferring instead to rebuild using only local money.

Laodicea was an important city in many respects: it was a judicial center for the region, a thriving agricultural market on the meeting point of three major roadways, and a commercial center with banking, manufacturing of woolen garments and rugs. Laodicea was famous for its black wool. There was also a medical school in Laodicea, specializing in a “Phrygian powder,” (made of a powdered stone) which was a popular remedy for weak eyes. The Christian community is mentioned several times in Paul’s letter to the nearby church at Colossae (Colossians 2:1; 4:13, 15, 16).

A six mile long aqueduct brought the city’s water supply from the south. The city had no natural water supply and was completely dependent on the water piped in from the hot springs of Hierapolis. No other city in the area was as dependent on external water sources as Laodicea.

The community in Laodicea is addressed by “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” Amen, meaning “so be it,” is the answer given to the pronouncement of a blessing or a curse as in Deuteronomy 27 when the Levites proclaimed the curses, “Accursed be anyone who makes a craved or cast idol, a thing detestable to Yahweh, a workman’s artifact, and sets it up in secret,” and all the people answered, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27: 11 – 26; Numbers 21-22; Nehemiah 5: 12 - 13).

In addition, the prophet Isaiah declares that “whoever blesses himself on earth will bless himself by the God of truth and whoever swears an oath will swear by the God of truth. (Isaiah 65:16).” In the LXX version of Isaiah, this is rendered as blessing and swearing by the “Amen of God.” Jesus is the “Amen of God,” the “faithful and true witness” to an oath.

He is also the “principle of creation,” or the “beginning of creation.” This isn’t to indicate as some churches teach that Jesus was the first thing created by God. Consider also the passage in Colossians 1:15-18:

He is the image of the unseen God,
The firstborn of all creation,
For in him were created all things
In heaven and on earth:
Everything visible and everything invisible
Thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers –
All things were created through him and for him.
He exists before all things
And in him all things hold together

Jesus has no words of praise for the community at Laodicea, only condemnation but this isn’t because he despises them or is eager to strike them down with anger and wrath. He warns them of their position because he loves them and expects better from them.

They are described as “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.” This may be an allusion to the water brought in to Laodicea through the aqueduct system from the nearby hot springs. Because of its dependence on external water sources, Laodicea piped in water from the famous hot mineral springs of Hieropolis. By the time the water reached Laodicea it was lukewarm and nauseating. At another nearby town (Colossae) one could drink from the icy steams that flowed down from the mountains. But in Laodica the water was neither hot - good for health and bathing - nor cold - good for refreshing drinking water. It was lukewarm and good for nothing.

The charge against them has often been interpreted as if “hot” indicated zeal and vitality and “cold” indicated a spiritual lifelessness.” But that doesn’t make any sense: would Christ wish that they were “cold, and spiritually lifeless”? The community at Laodicea was good for nothing. And were about to be spit out of Jesus’ mouth.

The word is actually a bit more forceful. They were about to be vomited out of his mouth. This draws us back to the covenant made between God and the children of Israel. They were warned that if they failed to keep the laws given by God they would be “vomited” out of the Promised Land (Leviticus 18:24 – 28). What is good for nothing is thrown out and trampled upon (Matthew 5: 13)

But the community at Laodicea didn’t see it this way. They thought of themselves as rich and prosperous and needing nothing. The Amen of God tells them that that they are not. They are ”wretched and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too.”

They needed to buy pure refined gold from him - but they could buy it without cost (Isaiah 55:1), as it was a symbol of faith (1 Peter 1:7). They needed white garments of salvation (Isaiah 61:10) to hide their shameful nakedness (Genesis 3:7). They needed eye salve to anoint their eyes so that they could see – for they were spiritually blind (Isaiah 6:10). The community at Laodicea thought that they needed nothing, but really they needed everything.

Despite all this, Christ loved them and his words of condemnation were not words of rejection. He was calling them to a better life, to a deeper commitment, to true worship. “Those whom I love I reprove and chasten.” They are encouraged to repent, because they are loved.

My child, do not scorn correction from Yahweh,
Do not resent his reproof;
For Yahweh reproves those he loves,
As a father the child whom he loves.
Proverbs 3: 11 – 12

He stands at the door knocking, waiting for one of them to hear him calling and to open the door. Jesus pledges to share a meal with that one. To share a meal with someone in the ancient world was not a casual affair; it indicated a shared love and intimacy. This meal shared with Jesus also carries in it the idea of the Messianic banquet:

On this mountain, for all peoples,
Yahweh Sabaoth is preparing
A banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines,
Of succulent food, of well-strained wines
Isaiah 25:6

The victorious Christians of Laodicea are promised that they will be granted the privilege of sharing Christ’s throne. As in the reward promised to the Christians at Thyatira, they are promised a share in the rule and authority of Jesus who has already been made king over everything. All authority in heaven and on earth belong to him (Matt. 28:18-20), he has already transferred us into his kingdom (Colossians 1:13), we are a kingdom of priests to serve him (Revelation 1:6) as his Kingdom becomes a great mountain filling the whole earth (Daniel 2:35, 45).

In every one of the letters to the seven Churches we have seen Christ’s call for his followers to be overcomers. The revelation given to John was not about the rise of evil in the world. It is about the victory of Christians as they abide in Jesus who has overcome the world. It is not a message of despair and gloom. It is not a forecast of chaos. It is instead a message from the Victorious Lamb of God to his chosen people encouraging them to be victorious.

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