Revelation (Part 43): Churches—Laodicea
Jesus tells the Philadelphians that he knows them (3:8) as he had told the other churches. He begins recounting this knowledge by saying that he knows they have limited strength. In that, Jesus is not comparing them with the people of other churches. The Philadelphian Christians don’t have less strength to endurance or to care or to advance Christ. After all, the next phrases in the same verse tell us that they had kept his word and had not denied his name. Therefore, they’re limitation must have to do with something else. More likely (I think) Jesus is remarking on the shared ability of all the human race. We are limited, and therefore we are dependent on God. Jesus is not so much telling the Philadelphian Christians something they did not know. They already knew it. Jesus is giving words of comfort and understanding. He says, “I know. And that is why because of your limited strength, and yet keeping my word and not denying my name, I will come through for you.”
The limited strength is a limited strength in righteousness—the covenant commitment to trust in the truth, goodness, and beauty revealed to them from God. They knew of their limited strength. They knew they needed to depend on God, but felt insecure on their own of holding on. Jesus says he will help. This relational help of the able offered to the more vulnerable is genuine love community living. It is the basis for I Corinthians 11:3 in which Paul tells us that God is the head of Christ (the able caring for the more vulnerable), that Christ is the head of every man (the able caring for the more vulnerable), that man is the head of woman (the able—here in terms of created characteristics of physical strength ability—caring for the more vulnerable). It is important to understand this truth, especially related to God and Jesus.
Jesus is God—one of the equal-in-every-way Godhead. Yet to be human, Jesus gave up certain attributes in order to become fully man for our representation. He never stopped being God—and we, as humans in our limited understanding, do struggle with how Jesus could at the same time be fully God and fully man. But we must never confuse the two to say that Jesus as man held and exercised the full powers of God. Doing so would have left him unqualified to represent us on the cross. Jesus set aside those Godly powers (omniscience, creation-altering power, determination based on his knowledge and will alone) in order to demonstrate the image bearer’s necessary full and complete dependence on God for the truth, goodness, and beauty from God necessary for full and complete relationship—for life. And so we read of Jesus that he was led by the Spirit (Mt 4:1), that he was dependent on God (Mt. 4:3–10), that he trusted God for the timing of God’s will (Mt. 24:36), and that in all things Jesus submitted knowledge, will, and determination to God (Acts 10:37–38).
This idea of Jesus’s dependence on God as a man is confused by those today who, in their rush to find fault with a book or movie like The Shack, begin to nitpick at items they should not (e.g., Al Mohler’s “The Shack—The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment,” https://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/27/the-shack-the-missing-art-of-evangelical-discernment/, paragraphs 5–6). The theological concept of Jesus as fully man is not simply that God appeared in a human body. He was fully man, as Hebrews attempts to explain, particularly in his dependence on God in his will, attitude, and action. And dependence comes necessarily from not having infinite knowledge and ability on your own.
So then, the Philadelphian Christians appeared to image God faithfully—understanding their limitations and therefore continuing in their dependence on Christ by keeping his word and not denying his name.
Because of that Jesus sets before them an open door—one that allows entry to the embrace of God. Jesus goes on to censure the unbelieving Jews, calling them a synagogue of Satan, highlighting that the name “Jew” has full meaning only as it labels those who are God’s people and not merely those of some ethnic origin. Those unbelieving Jews were seeking to shut out Christians who trusted in God’s revealed redemption through Jesus. Jesus will have none of that, proclaiming that he alone—not they—is the one who controls access to God. Those unbelieving Jews would, in the end, recognize the superiority of the Christian’s position (not literally bow at their feet, but rather understand themselves as deficient—a phrase borrowed from Isaiah 45:14; 49; 23; 60:14).
By their faithfulness in trusting Jesus and by God’s faithfulness in care, these Christians (and us) would be kept from (or through) the hour of testing—this current age of sin corruption whose human-focused self-seekers battle against God and his people. This description is no mere final seven-year battle scene in which many Christians may lose their lives. After all and literally, so what? Why would Christians fear something, and require removal from something, that Christ in the Gospels told us not to fear (Mt. 10:28)? We who are physical seem to think physical tribulation or physical battle is the ultimate expression. This whole age of world corruption through which God gathers (takes out of spiritual death) and protects (gives hope and the beginning of everlasting life) firmly demonstrates God’s keeping his own from that testing of evil.
Finally, Jesus tells the Philadelphian Christians that he is coming quickly. The time of tribulation is always pictured as short because relationship with God is forever.
The rewards God offers is full of assurance and security—exactly what the Philadelphian Christians needed. They would be pillars in God’s sanctuary. For earthquake survivors, fearing the collapse of buildings, this image provides surety and strength. They would also have written on them the name of God, the city of God, and Christ’s new name. What a flood of relational imaging is there!
Laodicea was a rich city. They were known for the black wool fabric produced there. The city was a medical center, having also developed an eye salve that was sold throughout the Roman empire even on up all over Europe. With money coming in from trade, they developed into a banking and finance center as well. But all this wealth had tended to make them feel less dependent. While the Philadelphians were insecure, the Laodiceans felt secure, but wrongly within themselves. They too had suffered the effects of the AD 17 earthquake, but Tiberius didn’t need to support their rebuild as he had to for the Philadelphians. Laodicea was rich enough to rebuild and even help other smaller towns in the area with rebuilding.
Jesus appears to them as the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, and the Leader of God’s creation. These are names showing surety, and they are meant to offer a bewilderment as to why the Laodiceans felt secure when security can be found only in dependence on Christ.
People from all over traveled to Hierapolis, a city just to the north of Laodicea, because of the medicinal hot springs there. People of Colossae, a city just to the south, enjoyed clear, cold mountain spring water. Laodicea, caught in the middle, had no clear water source. Jesus draws on this image to highlight their apathy in their Christianity. Laodicea built aqueducts to bring in water from five miles away. Though they depended on this lukewarm water, it was full of calcium carbonate which made its taste…well…putrid—so that people wanted to spit it out. Just so, says Jesus is the lukewarm Christian, neither hot nor cold, but seemingly just drifting along in Christianity without full dedication or felt need.
Jesus tells them to turn from this attitude. In direct assault against their lifestyle, Jesus encourages them in verse 18 to turn from their riches to the gold he would bring, to turn from their black wool clothes to the purity of the white garments he would give, and to turn from their eye salve cures to have their eyes truly opened by Christ’s healing. Those who do so would sit on the throne with Christ just as Christ in victory sat on the throne with the Father. The sitting on the throne—the reigning with Christ—speaks of victory over sin and death. It is the embrace of and living in the community alive with the truth, goodness, and beauty of God that constitutes a victorious life of reigning with Christ and with God.
The book of Revelation highlights the glory of God’s full redemption story from estrangement from God (chapter 4) through atoning victory (chapter 10) to everlasting love relationship (chapter 22). Along the way, during the great portion of the gathering of this age, evil swirls about us attempting to harm God’s community and build themselves up (chapters 13–19). Christ warns of this battle and encourages firm trust in him (chapters 2 and 3).
But this is not only the story of Revelation; it is the story of the entire Bible, summarized in Revelation as a full recap of God’s plan. Jesus told his disciples that he no longer called them slaves because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. He calls them friends because he made known to them everything he heard from the Father. And so now we who have this complete story from God through the revelation of Jesus, who have believed it and hope in it, are embraced as friends of God and will be so forever.