Church in Laodicea
Father, what may be the biggest lie you want to crush in our hearts this morning is the lie that you are against us. Because you reprove us or because you discipline us, we can begin to think that you’re against us. When in actuality, you do those things because you love us. You’re calling us out of our comfort zones, out of the safe place, which is really not a safe place, into what appears to us an unsafe place that is actually a place of salvation and fruitfulness. So let us hear your word for us this morning, in Jesus name, amen.
So good to see you all. Revelation 3. We’re at the end of a series on the seven churches. We’re in the beginning of a series on the whole book of Revelation. But if you go to the end of the Bible, last book in the Bible, and go to chapter 3, we’re going to be there in a few minutes. If you didn’t get an outline I’d encourage you to. Well they may have already passed, but you may want to hold your hand up and get one because we’re going to move around in this passage, we’re going to unpack this passage in a way that might be helpful to have an outline.
Years ago one of the greatest privileges for me in attending Westminster was sitting under the teaching of a David Powlison. He often began his class dissecting a hymn, and before we knew it we were all singing at the top of our lungs. This is a doctoral program, and we’re all just crying out to God.
His classes often were more like worship services and prayer meetings at times. This past week he sent out an email letter updating us on his health. Some of you saw that last fall he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had surgery, recently he’s been feeling better, he’s off meds. He’s working, he’s taking evening walks with his wife, feeling good, eating well. Things looked really positive. And then he just recently got a C.T. scan back which showed lesions metastasizing into his liver, increasing in number and size. So he asked the doctor what the prognosis was and the doctor just answered, “a few months.” A few months.
This was his response:
“How are we doing in light of such hard news? Grief and tears are close to the surface. But Scripture has been living and active, and full of love. The dots are connecting.”
Now what he’s referring to there is earlier, he had mentioned that the primary purpose of CCEF, the ministry he is the director of, is connecting the dots between our trouble and our Savior. So when he says “the dots are connecting,” he’s experiencing connection with Jesus.
“And the intimate voice and presence of God in Psalm 121 has been a particularly significant companion. Our Shepherd watches over us, protects us, cares for us, and never dozes off. It’s so. And friends and family have been so tender toward us.”
The letter goes on to express tons of gratefulness. Gratefulness for the faculty, gratefulness for the opportunity to finish up work on a book project he’s writing, praying about and planning for a successor.
Then he asked prayer for his wife Nan and his family. As I’m reading this I’m just thinking where does that come from? Where does, yes through the tears, but a response of gratefulness and hopefulness come from when you’ve been told, humanly speaking, that you have a few months to live? Maybe it would be helpful if we rewound 43 years, and I told you a little bit of what God did in Dr. Powlison’s heart 43 years ago. He didn’t grow up around Christianity at all. Didn’t believe he needed a Savior.
Didn’t believe the Bible or the gospel. Would have defined himself as an existentialist. He believed that despair has the final word. He did not think he needed a Savior. Went to Harvard and began working at a psychiatric hospital. A Christian friend whom he had been discussing/arguing with for five years, one night helped him see for the first time that he was actually a sinner in need of a Savior, and that joy, rather than despair, has the final word.
He wrote this years after that experience 43 years ago:
“I was convicted by the Holy Spirit, and it was like my life was passing before my eyes–all my sins, selfishness, pride, and wanting to run my own life. It was an armor-piercing shell of conviction by the Spirit. And of all the marquee sins to which one could point, two were the deepest.”
So he’s talking about of all the marquee sins, obvious sins that you would say you got to stop doing that garbage, and that garbage and that garbage. He said deep beneath that, there were two major sins the Spirit put his finger on. One was, “I had believed that despair got the last say in life, and I was convicted that I had believed a lie.” Stop there for a second. That is a parting of the sea miracle for a human being, a Harvard grad, but any human being, to say I have based my life on a lie. For any of us to come to that place is a miracle.
“I had been an existentialist — death wins. But very much like C.S. Lewis in ‘Surprised by Joy,’ I finally understood the fact that joy — not despair — would have the last word.”[Now think of the implications of that 43 years later. Second conviction of the Spirit 43 years ago], “I was also convicted that I had not wanted to need someone to save me.” [Notice he’s not just saying I didn’t think I needed someone but, I didn’t want to need someone to save me.] It was that fundamental unbelief: I want to make my own life work. I don’t want a savior, I don’t want to have a lord. Realizing that Jesus was Savior and Lord, I was profoundly laid low as I came face to face with my unbelief and the greatest gift that had ever been given.”
Every true believer has moments like that. Moments where those two core beliefs become reality. Moments, if you grew up in a Christian home, you may feel like you evolved into those moments. I know I had, not growing up in a Christian home like Powlison, you have that moment of eye-opening, Saul on the road to Damascus experience where those two dominant things become real. Number 1, I am more messed up than I ever realized. I am so messed up and my “messed-upness” is far deeper than just the outer sins that are the manifestation of the “messed-upness.” There is a core deception and brokenness within me that I haven’t even begun to understand.
The second thing that every believer begins to realize is that, I am more loved than I ever imagined. I am worse off than I thought. I am more loved than I ever imagined.
That’s what he was referring to when he talked about the greatest gift and the joy that is ahead of us. And we are in the greatest danger when we can’t or won’t see those two realities. More danger than pancreatic cancer, when we can’t see it or won’t see it. We are self-deceived. And this is the focus, I believe, of what Jesus is saying to the church at Laodicea.
He is addressing a people who are deceiving themselves. This is, “When you’re deceiving yourself.”
This is the seventh of seven letters. There’s so much in this letter today, I’m not going to take time to review. We’re going to actually take a whole Sunday, next Sunday, to kind of step back and see, what have we been hearing the last seven weeks?
But for today we’re going to focus in on, what is it like when Jesus begins to expose in our hearts self-deception, and to do his work?
Look at verse 14, Revelation 3:14,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”
These are the words of the Amen. What is Amen? When somebody says amen, they’re doing what? They’re confirming/verifying. And Jesus is saying, “I’m not just saying, amen, I am being Amen.” He is the “amen” to all of God’s promises. His very being is the confirmation that God’s promises are true.
Notice he goes on to define that when he says next “the faithful and true witness.” Jesus is dependable, true, authentic, in contrast to our deception. And he is the beginning of God’s creation. This doesn’t mean he’s the first person created. It means John 1:1-3, describing him as the word,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
So creation, all things, find their beginning in him.
He is the Alpha and the Omega. Why would we not listen to him? Why would we put more credibility in our own ability to perceive reality or someone else around us and reject the one voice that is faithful and true, the beginning of all things?
Let’s listen to him for a few minutes right now as he speaks to us, and this passage unfolds in three ways as it tells us what Jesus knows, and what Jesus does, and what Jesus wants. So let’s start one at a time. What Jesus knows. Verse 15,
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold…”
Let’s stop there for a second. That tells us what he knows.
He knows, speaking to the church at Laodicea, “you are lukewarm. You’re neither cold nor hot.” Now lukewarm could mean they’ve experienced a loss of conviction, a cooling of conviction. A spiritual lethargy, which we’ll see as we go along through the passage, clearly there. You’ll see it down below when he says “be zealous and repent!” So that idea I believe is present, but I believe that is a fruit of something deeper, and that is a loss of awareness that feeds the loss of conviction.
What do I mean by awareness? I’ll answer that in a second. Let me give you a little background. The city of Laodicea was built above the fertile Lycus valley in Asia Minor (which is today Turkey). The city was near two rivers which were not big, so at times they did dry up. So they piped in water from two other cities. Six miles to the north was Hieropolis, which was known for its hot springs. Still to this day you can go to that area and soak in the hot springs. Ten miles southeast was Colosse, which was known for its cool mountain water that flowed off Mount Cadmus. Engineers built aqueducts to transport the water, but often the hot, healing spring water was no longer hot by the time it got to Laodicea, and the cold, refreshing mountain water would no longer be cold or refreshing by the time it arrived. So there’s clearly some kind of cooling of conviction, but there’s more because Jesus, as we’ll see later, wants them to be cold or hot.
So what exactly is he getting at? A loss of awareness. What do I mean by that? Look at verse 17, “for you say,” If you circle in your Bible, I would circle “you say” and then skip halfway down to “you are.” “For you say,” meaning there’s a deception going on. You are self-deceived. You have a loss of awareness, a loss of recognition or identification to who you really are. You say, “I’m rich, I’ve prospered, I need nothing. This is who I am!” This is what you say. It’s interesting that Laodicea was the banking capital of the region. It was at a crossroads of major trade routes, so it was a very wealthy, commercial city.
They were so wealthy that in A.D. 61, which is about 30-40 years before this, a series of earthquakes occurred that devastated the cities in the region. Laodicea was wiped out. All the other cities received help from Rome to rebuild. When Rome offered Laodicea money to help rebuild, they said, “No thanks, we don’t need your money.” And they built their city back themselves — the gymnasium, a stadium, gates, towers, buildings — all with their own money. They were loaded. Jesus is saying, perhaps, that your physical, financial prosperity is blinding you to your spiritual poverty.
“You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” but you are, second part of verse 17, “wretched, pitiable.” Those two words go together because they mean the same thing, two different forms of miserable. You’re like a stunning model that dazzles everyone and heads turn, but deep down inside you’re miserable. If you strip away the facade, your life is pitiable. He goes on to say your actual condition is “poor, blind, and naked.” Not a Facebook image, but who you really are.
This is the ultimate wardrobe malfunction. You say you’re this, you are actually not elegantly clothed. You are seriously exposed. This is what Jesus knows.
Secondly, what Jesus does. What does he do to those whom he loves? Verse 16 describes what he should do, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
A holy, holy, holy God cannot have a relationship with that type of duplicity.
So his response there, that word “spit” is the word “emeo” in Greek, where we get our word emetic. That’s a substance that’s used to cause vomiting. So it’s a very graphic description. You guys make me feel sick, like I am going to toss my cookies when I think about the kind of willful, self-deception you are living. But notice he doesn’t do that. The passage should end there, right?
You’re a bunch of fake frauds full of duplicity. I am the faithful true One. I’m going to upchuck you and get rid of you, and that’s the end. But it doesn’t end. Look what he actually does. And I want to work through this very quickly because I want us to feel the weight of what is Jesus, what is your Savior like? What does he do?
First of all, verse 18, he counsels. “I counsel you to buy from me.” He offers them a cure for their self-deception.
He counsels them to buy pure gold. Gold refined by fire, not fake, not another outfit, but pure gold, white garments. Pure gold so you won’t be poor. White garments so you won’t be naked. There was a huge textile business in Laodicea.
They had these sheep that produced this fine, black wool. And Jesus is promising you, I will clothe you with my righteousness.
Eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. There was a medical school in Laodicea and other cities, along with Laodicea, they had developed this eye salve — a mixture of minerals and herbs that supposedly helped eyesight.
And Jesus is saying, like he said in John 9:39, “I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who may see may become blind.”
He counsels them, “buy from me.”
Then secondly, he reproves and disciplines. Verse 19, “those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” Reprove is, I confront and I correct. So if you’re feeling squeamish right now, like the Spirit is putting his finger on your heart, just utter right now, “Thank you. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you that you don’t just set me aside. Thank you that you don’t just hurl me away. Thank you that you do correct, confront.” It’s a sign that you are loved.
Third, he stands and knocks. Verse 20, “Behold, I stand at the door,” [the door of your self-deceived heart, the door of your self-deceived church] “and I knock.”
Number 4, he comes in and eats. Verse 20, “I will come in to him and eat with him.”
Number 5, he invites us to reign with him. Verse 21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne.” So what does Jesus know? He knows we are lukewarm and self-deceived. But to the very people, what does he do? He counsels, he reproves, he knocks, he is ready to come in, and he reigns with us. So what do we do with that? I think it’s helpful to step back and ask, finally, are there any clues in this passage? What does Jesus really want? What is he up to, even right now? What does he want? What is he after? And I want to shift this to the first person because I want us to hear the words of Christ. Jesus standing in our midst saying, first of all, I want you to be who you were made to be. I want you to be who you were made to be.
Where do you see that? Verse 15, if you go back up there.
After describing us as neither cold nor hot, he says, “would that you were either cold or hot.” That “would” word is a word of want. If you were like cold, mountain water, you would be refreshing. If you were like warm spring water, you would be healing. But instead you are neither. You have lost an awareness of who you are.
And when you try to fabricate your own identity by piecing together money, and accomplishments, and image, and looks, and all that, you create an identity that isn’t who you were made to be.
This is the fruit of self-deception; you think you’re someone you’re not. A.W. Tozer published a little book the year I was born. [So surprising they had books that far back.] In 1964 he wrote this,
“Hardly anything else reveals so well the fear and uncertainty among men as the length to which they will go to hide their true selves from each other and even from their own eyes. Almost all men” [this is tragic if this is true] “almost all men [men and women] live from childhood to death behind a semiopaque curtain, coming out briefly, only when forced by some emotional shock and then retreating as quickly as possible into hiding again. The result of this lifelong dissimulation [that is make believe, pretending, wearing a mask] is that people rarely know their neighbors for what they really are, and worse than that, the camouflage is so successful that mostly they do not quite know themselves either. Self-knowledge is so critically important to us in our pursuit of God and His righteousness, that we lie under heavy obligations to do immediately whatever is necessary to remove the disguise and permit our real selves to be known. It is one of the supreme tragedies in religion that so many of us think so highly of ourselves when the evidence lies all on the other side; and our self-admiration effectively blocks out any possible effort to discover a remedy for our condition. Only the man who knows he is sick will go to a physician.”
Now today we tweak this. Today “being true to yourself” means to reject any system of morality that feels repressive and to replace that system of morality with a system of morality that you imagine from the basest of your own desires. Then I’m being true. What Jesus would say is, all you’ve done is switch jail cells. You moved out of the jail cell other people created, and you’ve moved into the jail cell you created. It’s still a jail cell. I want you to be who I made you to be. I want you to be who I made you to be, not who you say. See the contrast in this passage is massive between what they imagined and what is so.
Secondly, I want you to have what I provide. I want you to have what I provide.
Verse 18, “I counsel you to buy from me.” Buy from me. That commercial language, he’s using language that they would use because they’re a commercial hub. They’re all about, “Hey we’re business people, we’re successful. You people don’t get it. We got it, we don’t need anything.” And so he says, “Hey, if you want to do the commercial thing, come buy from me.” And if you think that’s trying to earn your salvation, he just said they were naked and poor. They can’t even carry a wallet. He’s saying, “Come to me.” You’re shopping at all these vendors that are selling things that are going to just keep perpetuating the lie. “Come. Buy from me.” Verse 18, “so that you may be rich … so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen.”
“So that you may see,” rather than stumble along in your self-deceived blindness. You notice, Jesus is the ultimate prosperity preacher.
He is big time on health, wealth, and prosperity. The difference between Jesus and the charlatans on TV is that Jesus is honest about the pathway to that prosperity — the when and how — and not the lies and the immediate.
We’ll explain that in a minute.
He is saying here, “What I sell, cancer can’t steal.” I’m providing something that is way more valuable than the fake riches, health, wealth of this world.
So, I want you to be who I made you to be, I want you to have what I provide — and this is the culmination of everything he’s saying in this — I want you to live in relationship with me.
The evening that David Powlison prayed for mercy 43 years ago, after that, he wrote of that evening.
“I remember driving home that night. It was late by then, and I didn’t immediately understand, ‘I’ve now become a Christian.’ I remember thinking in the car, ‘Huh, that’s interesting. I never thought of myself as a sinner before.’ I’d just been blasted with this new reality … and then I went to sleep. I woke up the next morning, and I was absolutely flooded with joy. It was as if I was awakened out of my spiritual sleep, and the thoughts that ran through my mind on awakening were, ‘I’m home. I’m a Christian.’ It was as though my entire life had been a quest through hot, dusty roads, searching for something which wasn’t God, but He was looking for me. And I found myself at home — I had been found and loved. I am a Christian.”
This language of home is all over verse 20. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” It’s just mind-blowing.
He made the door.
He made the tree that made the door. And he’s saying open the door, I’ll come in and “eat with him and he with me.” Now in our day that’s not very scandalous, but in Jesus’ day, everything about meals was a hierarchy. Listen to what Grant Osborne writes about this: “When people were estranged, a meal invitation opened the way to reconciliation. Even everyday mealtimes were highly complex events in which social values, boundaries, statuses and hierarchies were reinforced.” So, you didn’t just invite anybody over to your home for dinner. You invited people that were of your own status or above, and you wanted everybody to know where they fit in, and the seating arrangements were according to status. And Jesus, the beginning of all creation, is saying “I want to come in and I want to eat with you.”
He’s blowing away the hierarchy, the status, and he’s saying, I want to share everything with you. Verse 20, I want to share a meal. Verse 21, I don’t just want to eat with you, I want to reign with you. He shares everything, and I suppose that’s the best and worst part. The best part is, he shares everything. The worst part is, he shares everything, including his suffering. Some of us, many of us, may be like, I want Jesus, just don’t… I know, Jesus, you had to go through a lot for me, but let’s not talk about that. I want a different kind of life. I want Jesus without the difficult, without the suffering. And you can’t find that here.
Verse 21, that conquer language implies that there will be opposition, attack, hindrance, deception. But he is offering us a kind of gold that is refined by fire. Supposedly Saint Theresa of Avila once complained to the Lord when she was suffering, and Jesus supposedly responded.
“This is how I treat my friends.” And she responded, “Then you shouldn’t be surprised that you have so few of them.” Do you ever feel like saying that to him? Is this the way you treat your friends? I can’t imagine what you do to your enemies!
The tragedy is that it is easier to believe a convenient lie than an inconvenient truth. It is easier to believe a convenient lie than an inconvenient truth.
So how do we respond? What do we do? Verse 19 tells us, “so be zealous and repent.” So be zealous and repent.
You notice the passage has moved us from, “I need nothing, I’m good,” to “I want what you want.”
I want to be who you made me to be. I want to have what you provide. I want to be in relationship with you. And if you read a commentary on this passage or listen to many sermons, a big part of it is debating whether this is written to a Christian and or a non-Christian. And frankly, that debate drives me crazy. If you reach out for a bottle of some drink that looks like a beverage and you notice on the label it says “Toxic! Do not ingest,” your first question is not, “I wonder who this is for? I wonder who this warning was written for?” That’s stupid! And that’s what we often do to the scripture! I wonder who this warning is for? And what we can do then, if we don’t fit the category, we can slide it down to someone else we know, that we pray will hear this. No, Jesus just lays it out there and he knows, by definition, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they will follow me.” So sheep hear warnings. Fake sheep think the warning is for someone else. And so we go on in our delusion.
Part of the warning is the way God preserves us to the end, is to give moments like this where we say, “thank you, Jesus.” Thank you that you love me enough to confront me and correct me. You do it all out of love and then you just reveal more extravagant promises as you confront and discipline me. It’s not because you hate me. You actually love me.
I think the main problem Jesus is addressing is a loss of awareness, the self-deception. But the self-deception feeds a cooling of conviction, a loss of conviction. You notice at the end when our eyes begin to open to what’s really going on in our hearts, then the zeal flows.
It’s not something we have to generate. If you’re aware of a problem — we’ve had a problem in our building. The maintenance guys told me of snakes living under this stage and then coming out. Wouldn’t that be cool? I’m lying. I saw some of your faces! You woke up for the first time in the sermon! So if that was true, and we really did have a snake problem, you wouldn’t have to drum up zeal.
You would be zealous and repent of even coming to this church, exiting quickly.
And that’s what Jesus is saying. It’s not an emotional thing. Yeah I know we’re all wired differently. Emotionally we respond differently. But when our eyes are opened, “God, this is who you are, this is what I am, I need you.” The zeal flows from that. So let me let me give you three suggestions, real practical, of what we can do in response as we are zealous and repent.
The first is to cry out to him during our time of response in a few minutes. As we pray and sing, respond to what the Spirit says to you. Don’t blow him off. You have nothing more important to do today.
Secondly, this week when you are tempted to envy, I want to challenge you this week. Because all of us have those moments where you can be watching the news or reading an article or watching a TV program or walking down the street, and you all of a sudden see someone who maybe they’re really successful, and they’ve taken a business from nothing to everything. Or maybe they’re strikingly good looking or have these wonderful happy laughing relationships or whatever you think is really valuable, and you see that, and just for a moment a spark of envy is in your heart. When that happens, realize that the Spirit is saying to us, in that moment where envy sticks its head up, that’s revealing what we really value. If we were good enough, smart enough, strong enough, whatever enough, that’s success. And to be able to see that and rather than envy to be able to say (whether God gives us that or not, because obviously God blesses people, and people are beautiful and successful and all that) that’s not the point. The point is to be able to say, “God, thank you for opening my eyes. That is not the end of all things. That is not where success ultimately is.” Because everything I can see will fade away one day and the root, the core — if you want to bless me like that, great — but the core of who I am is something far more secure and stable than those outward things that I am tempted to long for, envy, desire. So a moment that could lead into a discouragement or envy, could be a moment of “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for killing the self-deception in my heart.”
One other possible response this week that I want to challenge you with is, I believe the Lord calling some of us to fast this week. And I’m talking about a specific kind of fast. If deception, especially in a church context, Laodicea seems to be very much like Greenville. We’re super blessed financially, amazing place to live, so much that we can enjoy as gifts from God. But those gifts can become gods, and so what fasting can be — there are many different kinds — but one of the ways is just a reminder, God you’re better. You’re more important. My life is focused on you. And so this week, if the Spirit has put his finger on a specific pattern of life that might be lulling you to spiritual sleep, to say, “Okay Lord, this week I’m going to fast from that TV show. I’m going to fast from that kind of food or whatever. I’m going to fast from… (you fill in the blank).
And wouldn’t that be incredible for hundreds and hundreds of us just to say that to Jesus. There may be nothing wrong with that thing, but just making sure our hearts are in the right place, not deceived, because we want, Jesus, we want to be who you made us to be. We want to have everything you have for us. We want to live in relationship with you.
Jesus, thank you for speaking to us through a really straightforward, hard letter. We’re feeling your love, Lord. In the midst of the hard words you could just spew us out, you could just cast us aside, you could just blow us off as useless, but you don’t.
You counsel, and you seek us out, and you knock, and you come in, and you want to eat and reign with us, Lord. You’re bringing us into your whole being. Lord, we want to abide with you, dwell with you, live with you. We want to use all the gifts you’ve given us, all the resources and opportunities, for your glory.
That your name would be hallowed, your kingdom would come, your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Spirit of God, expose any lies we’re believing. Continue to make yourself at home in our hearts, lives, businesses, priorities. Thank you, that you’ve done everything necessary to bring this about. You’re not calling us to try to drum up something that we can’t do. You’re showing yourself as such a faithful and true witness. We praise you, in Jesus name, amen.