The message to Laodicea was the last one given by Jesus to the seven churches of Revelation. Why did He call this church “lukewarm”? What does it mean for us?
Water is an important necessity for any metropolis, and the ancient city of Laodicea accommodated this need. According to Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “A six-mile-long aqueduct brought Laodicea its supply of water from the south. The water came either from hot springs and was cooled to lukewarm or came from a cooler source and warmed up in the aqueduct on the way. For all its wealth, the city had poor water” (comments on Revelation 3:14-22).
Other sources suggest that the water came from a hot spring with mineralized water containing sulfur, giving it an unpleasant taste and smell.
The term lukewarm is a key word used to describe Laodicea. It applied to the water of the city, and it was part of the message from Jesus Christ to the Church of God that was located there (Revelation 3:16). Before considering the significance of this term and the rest of the message from Christ, let’s note a few things about Laodicea’s history.
History of Laodicea
The city of Laodicea, currently located in modern Turkey, was situated in the Lycus valley, about 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia and about 100 miles east of Ephesus. Although it had earlier been called Diospolis and then Rhoas, Antiochus II of Syria “named it for his wife Laodike” and “populated it with Syrians and with Jews who were transplanted from Babylonia to the cities of Phrygia and Lydia” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939, “Laodicea”).
While the original name of the city came from Antiochus II’s wife, the name also has an interesting meaning in Greek. The name is derived from two words: laos, meaning “people” and dike, meaning “decision” (Strong’s Concordance). In other words, the name indicated that people made their own decisions. As we will see, this was clearly a characteristic of the self-reliant people of this city.
“Along with Colosse and Hierapolis, it was one of the cities in the fertile Lyous [sic.] valley. The great Roman road stretching to the inland of Asia from the coast at Ephesus ran straight through its center, making Laodicea an important center of trade and communication. In addition, its wealth came from the production of a fine quality of famous glossy black wool—whether dyed or natural in color is not known.
“That the city’s banking assets were noteworthy is evidenced by the fact that Cicero cashed huge bank drafts in Laodicea. So wealthy was Laodicea that after the great earthquake of A.D. 17, which destroyed it, the people refused imperial help in rebuilding the city, choosing rather to do it entirely by themselves.
“Laodicea had a famous school of medicine; and a special ointment known as ‘Phrygian powder,’ famous for its cure of eye defects, was either manufactured or distributed there, as were ear ointments also. Near the temple of the special god associated with healing, Men Karou (who later became identified with Asclepius), there was a market for trading all sorts of goods (Ramsay, Seven Churches, p. 417). Zeus, the supreme god, was also worshiped in the city” (Expositor’s).
As for rebuilding the city after an earthquake, history records that the Laodiceans did this again a few decades later. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Laodiceans had again refused aid from Rome following an earthquake that badly damaged the city in A.D. 60 (Annals, 14:27).
Although the Bible does not reveal how the Church of God began in Laodicea, a faithful minister named Epaphras served this congregation as well as members in Colosse and Hierapolis sometime during the first few decades after Christ’s death.
In a letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis” (Colossians 4:12-13, also see Colossians 1:7).
“The ruins, now called Eski Hissar, or old castle, lie near the modern Gonjelli on the railroad, and they have long served as a quarry to the builders of the neighboring town of Denizli. Among them nothing from before the Roman period has appeared.
“One of the two Roman theaters is remarkably well preserved, and there may still be seen the stadium, a colonnade, the aqueduct which brought the water across the valley to the city by an inverted siphon of stone pipes, a large necropolis, and the ruins of three early Christian churches” (ISBE).
“And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.
“Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore 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 to him and dine with him, and he with Me.
“To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”’” (Revelation 3:14-22).
Understanding the message
Once again, Jesus Christ begins this message by identifying Himself as the One giving the message. His names include: “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness” and “the Beginning of the creation of God” (verse 14). Some have wondered if the last name mentioned—“the Beginning of the creation of God”—indicates that Jesus was a created Being.
The Greek word arche, which is translated “Beginning,” has a range of meanings from “beginning, origin” to “the person or thing that commences” to “that by which anything begins to be” to “the first place, principality, rule, magistracy” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Since Scripture tells us that the Word (Jesus) “was in the beginning with God” and that “all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made” (John 1:1-3), we know that Jesus was not a created Being.
Instead, this name—“the Beginning of the creation of God”—means that Jesus was the Creator of the universe. And because Jesus was the Creator, He has the rule over it.
After identifying Himself, Jesus immediately tells the church at Laodicea that He knows their works—that they “are neither cold nor hot”—and because they “are lukewarm,” He will “vomit” them out of His mouth (Revelation 3:15-16). Similar to how some people likely spewed the city’s unpleasant drinking water out of their mouths, Jesus said He would do the same, yet more violently. He would “vomit” them out of His mouth because their works were so distasteful to Him.
Having gotten their attention, Jesus then explains why He described their spiritual condition as lukewarm. “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).
Christ’s words showed them that He knew that the citizens of their city were wealthy—they had at least twice declined the government’s help to rebuild their city after an earthquake and had rebuilt it with their own funds. Yet this wealth had blinded them from seeing their true spiritual condition. The culture of the city had infiltrated the church, and the members didn’t know how spiritually wretched and weak they were.
To heal their weak spiritual condition, Jesus said, “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (verse 18).
Christ’s threefold prescription to cure their condition paralleled the physical circumstances that had apparently deceived them. Consider the following:
- Although there was much gold in the city, the riches that really matter are spiritual in nature—knowing and practicing God’s truth (1 Peter 1:7; James 2:5).
- Although Laodicea had a reputation for producing excellent-quality garments from the wool produced in the area, the Bride of Christ will be dressed in “fine linen, clean and bright” representing “the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8).
- Although Laodicea produced medicine for healing various eye ailments, the most important things we need to see are spiritual. Throughout the ages Satan has “blinded” the minds of most people (2 Corinthians 4:4). This blindness “is taken away in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14).
Jesus then tells the Laodiceans that He has given them this strong correction because He loves them and wants them to “be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). Of course, God’s love extends to all humanity. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Wrapping up His message, Jesus then explains that He is standing at the door and knocking, meaning that He wants to come in and dine with them (Revelation 3:20). After such strong correction, it is especially poignant to note that God wants sinners to repent and will quickly forgive their sins if they do. Concluding with encouragement, Jesus reminds them that if they overcome, they will rule with Him (verse 21). When the messages to the churches of Revelation 2-3 are viewed as a chronological development of the Church, this passage also indicates that the return of Christ is near.
And finally, like all the previous messages, Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (verse 22). This message—as well as all of the others—is still important for Christians today.
Lessons for us
There are multiple lessons that we can learn from Christ’s message to Laodicea. One of these is what the Bible calls “the deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19). People commonly but mistakenly believe that wealth means that God is pleased with them. The truth is that sometimes the wicked prosper (Jeremiah 12:1).
In our world filled with technology, material prosperity and modern conveniences, many mistakenly assume that they do not need God. People who are going to be faithful to God must not allow material things to lull them into a false sense of spiritual security.
Another lesson from the message to Laodicea is that we must be doers of God’s Word. We can’t relax and mistakenly assume we have it made. God expects His people to maintain zeal for His way of life.
A third lesson is that we need to vigilantly maintain our spiritual eyesight—our ability to see things from a spiritual perspective. This occurs as we repent when we learn that we have sinned and as we allow ourselves to be led by God’s Holy Spirit.
As we await the return of Jesus Christ to earth, we need to avoid becoming callous to God’s way of life and His expectations of us. As Jesus warned in His Olivet Prophecy, “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:34-35).
Let’s remember the overall lesson from Christ’s message to Laodicea. Don’t become lukewarm about God’s way of life!
If you would like to learn more about the Church that Jesus founded, we highly recommend the section on this website titled “The Church: What Is It?”