You’ve probably been told that the problem with the Laodiceans is that they were spiritually lukewarm, when God wants us to be on fire for Jesus. Better even to be cold than to be lukewarm, because then at least you know you have a problem. This interpretation is so common, even Christian pop music has made use of it—you may remember Steve Camp’s song “Living in Laodicea.” The thing is, though, however important it may be to warn people of the dangers of spiritual lukewarmness, it’s not what this letter is about.
Most of all the letters, to understand what’s going on here, we need to understand the city. We noted several weeks ago that Ephesus was the hub where three of the most important trade routes in the Roman Empire came together, and that one of them was the route from Rome east to Baghdad. That route didn’t go up the Cayster River, on which Ephesus sat, but up the valley of the Maeander to its tributary the Lycus, and then up the Lycus valley. The three main cities of the Lycus valley were Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, with Laodicea the most important. The route from Ephesus ran right through the city, crossing with a major north-south route between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; this made it significant both for trade and, as it happened, for banking.
That’s not the only reason the city was rich and important, though. It was a major center in the ancient world for the treatment of eye and ear problems. It was known both for its doctors, as it was the site of a famous school of ophthalmology, and also for its medicines; the city produced ointments that were applied to the eyes and ears to treat poor eyesight and hearing, which were sold all over the Greco-Roman world. As well, the city was a major producer of wool. Hierapolis and Colossae were as well, but Laodicea surpassed them both, because the sheep of Laodicea were highly prized for their exceptionally soft, glossy black wool.
This was a wealthy city; it was also a city which was notorious for the arrogance of its people and their sense of self-sufficiency. For instance, we’ve talked about the earthquakes that devastated some of these cities, and their dependence on Roman aid in rebuilding; when a major one struck Laodicea in 60 AD, they defiantly refused any aid, and proudly rebuilt their city out of their own resources. They were rich enough to do it; they were also arrogant enough, because they saw themselves as a city of kings.
The story there goes back to 40 BC, when the Parthians invaded the Anatolian peninsula; they met with complete success until they hit Laodicea, where Zeno and his son Polemo resolutely shut the doors of the city and held it against them until the Roman army arrived to drive the Parthians back. The Romans rewarded their family for their loyal and successful defense of the city by making Polemo king of Pontus and allowing him to marry into the imperial family. It was the beginning of a dynasty; his son Zeno became king of Armenia, and his daughter Tryphaena became queen of Thrace and the mother of three kings. The branch of the family that remained in Laodicea were never kings of anything, but they acted as if they were, and the rest of the city followed suit.
Given this, it’s really not surprising that the church in Laodicea had the same sort of attitude. The culture of their city was patriotic to the point of being chauvinistic—they were rich, they didn’t need anyone else, they were better than everyone else—and the Christians in Laodicea had bought into that. They’d bought the hype, they’d bought the line their culture was selling, and they fit right in. You’ll notice there’s no hint of persecution in this letter; that’s because what the Laodiceans really worshiped was their own wonderfulness, and the church didn’t challenge that at all. Indeed, they were right there at that altar with all their neighbors.
Because of that, they were a dead church. They had no sense of their dependence on God, of their need for Christ, because they didn’t think they needed anybody at all. They probably kept praying, asking God to do things for them, but they had no sense that there was anything God could do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves if they wanted to. They couldn’t see past their material prosperity to their spiritual need, and it doesn’t appear it ever occurred to them to look; they were rich, so everything was going well, and what else did they need to know? They didn’t understand that all their money had made them spiritually bankrupt, or that all their medicines could do nothing to cure their blindness to the truth; they failed to realize that for all the fancy clothes they could make from their sheep, nothing they could do could make them white.
And so when Jesus says to them, “I know your works,” he describes them in extremely harsh terms, in language that would have hit home hard. You see, in the Lycus valley, water was a major problem. That might sound strange, since there was a river right there, but the river dried up in the summer, and when it was running its water was undrinkable from all the sediment it carried, almost milky with white mud. This is why Colossae was first settled—it was a defensible site which included a source of cold, pure water, in an area in which good drinking water was scarce. Interestingly, Hierapolis was also settled because of water—not cold water, but hot mineral springs which were valued for their medicinal purposes. (The water from these springs may have been one of the ingredients in the Laodicean eye salve.)
Laodicea, by contrast, was settled for reasons of trade, because it was a major crossroads. It had no water supply of its own; the nearest water source was several miles away, and that water was bad. It arrived at the city warm, and left thick mineral deposits in the stone aqueduct that carried it there. Straight out of the pipes, it was undrinkable—it would make you vomit; even in modern times, some who live in that area have had to let their water sit out in open jars before they could drink it. I’m not sure if it was just to cool the water, or if something in it actually had to oxidize first, but whatever the case, it’s been necessary to make the water even tolerable to drink.
The Laodicean church was just like their water. The cold water of Colossae was good for quenching thirst and refreshing the body. The hot water of Hierapolis was good for easing the muscles and healing aches and pains. The lukewarm water of Laodicea was good for neither, and just about worthless; the church there had become so impure that the same could be said of them. Christ essentially tells them, “You make me sick.”
So what do we take away from this? Above all else, one thing. After this vivid picture of the disaster of the Laodicean church, their complete spiritual calamity, we have verses 19-20: “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, 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.” Those whom I love. As little as they deserve it, he loves them anyway. He has spoken harshly to them because he loves them, and nothing less has any chance of cutting through their self-satisfied complacency; even as bad as they are, he hasn’t given up on them—he’s still calling them to repent. He’s still seeking to reconcile them to himself, and offering full restoration of fellowship with him, for in that culture, to share a meal together was to share life.