As we have looked briefly into the description of Christ in our last week’s post, we will now be able to further investigate the weakness of the church in Laodicea (vv. 15-16), the problem she is facing (v.17) – verses we will cover today – what Christ’s counsel for the church is (v. 18), his love for the church (v. 19), his desire for intimate fellowship (v. 20), and the challenges to overcome and to listen (vv. 21-22).
Right from the beginning Christ mentions that the church’s works are neither “cold” nor “hot”. Some might have heard that being interpreted as being “all in” (hot) or “not in at all” (cold) – yet it seems that “hot” and “cold” in this context are both extremes and viewed as something positive. A better way of understanding it is to take the reference of something “hot” or “cold” as pertaining to objects of drinkable substance: “Would that you were either cold or hot! But since you are neither I need to throw up!”
Thus we take Roman dining practices as the imagery behind those terms. Cold wine was drunk on hot days. As today we enjoy cold beverages (I prefer barley-juice; commonly referred to as beer) on hot days – or after working outside in the sun for quite some time some really cold water is extraordinary good – so did the Romans prefer something refreshing on hot days. Hot wine was then used on cold days (for us today that would be hot coffee/tea on cold days – but let’s be honest we all drink coffee at any time – but think about the winter time and you have been out for a while, then when you come home a nice cup of hot cocoa seems fabulous).
This then leaves us with the lukewarm wine and/or water. Such lukewarm water was used to induce throwing up. There is a fable where the protagonist Aesop is accused by his fellow servants to have eaten the master’s figs. Lukewarm (maybe hot) water was then used by Aesop to prove that he did not eat the figs. After drinking the water he stuck his finger into his mouth to induce the process of throwing up and since only water came out of him it was clear that he did not eat the figs of the master.
But back to the passage at hand: If we allow meal practices to shed some light on the text we see that throwing up is an image of rejection (cf. also Lev 18:5, 28 where the land would vomit out those who defile it). In the same way the sharing of a meal is an image of acceptance and fellowship.
We also see that lukewarmness is not only something unpleasant but also something which is common and not distinguishable from other things. The Christians in Laodicea behave like everyone else. There is actually nothing different about them. But what should have been so different? What are these “works” of distinguishable character? We think that the issue is that of witnessing. In the introduction of this letter we saw that Christ was introduced as “the faithful and true witness”. The introduction then gives us the key for where the letter is going and what is hinted at.
In verse 16 we read that Christ is on the point of or about to (BDAG, 627) “spit them out of [his] mouth” (as the TNIV rightly translates). This implies that repentance is still possible and that Christ loves the church and each individual and that he desires to have intimate fellowship (a point being more developed in Rev 3:19).
In v. 17 Christ now tells the church what her problem is. The church does not seem to see her needs. Beale writes insightfully: “Their boast may have been that they were in good spiritual condition or, more specifically, they might have believed that their healthy spiritual welfare was indicated by their economic prosperity” (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1999], 304). The term “rich” in context of boasting has a very negative connotation in Revelation; normally the reference is to those who do not believe and are willing to prosper materially in their prostitution to the ungodly world system (cf. 6:15; 13:16; 18:3, 15, 19). The Laodicean Christians might also have been willing to identify in some shape or form with the trade guilds and the deities worship in larger society so as not to suffer economical hardships. Such loyalty to the deities (who are responsible for economic wealth) of these trades were usually connected to the imperial cult (i.e., worship of the Emperor).
We read in Hosea 12:8 “Ephraim has said, ‘Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.’” Here the context of Hosea sees merchants prospering in Israel through oppression and the wider context lets us know that Israel thinks of her material prosperity as being a gift from idols (e.g., Hos. 2:5, 8; 12:8; cf. Hosea 11 and 13). This is religious syncretism: Yes, we believe in YHWH, but let us also get some other insurance; let us also worship the other gods as do the other people.
If the Hosea passage is a backdrop to the passage in Revelation we see that the Christians in Laodicea are facing similar problems with their faith. This is in stark contrast to the church in Smyrna who was economically poor but spiritually rich. The compromise of the Laodicean Christians with their culture (the blending in with society at large) made their witness to the Lord ineffective. The Christians in Laodicea think they are wealthy but are poor, blind, and naked. It is of interest to observe that
[w]ith no external pressure from pagan (like Sardis) or Jewish (like Smyrna or Philadelphia) persecution, with no internal threat from heretical movements (like Ephesus, Pergamum, or Thyatira), they had succumbed to their own affluent lifestyle, and they did not even know it! (Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002], 207)
These then are the weaknesses and problems the church in Laodicea is facing. But what can the church do? What is the ailment for her wounds? The answers to these questions will be explored when we see Christ’s counsel for the church is (v. 18), his love for the church (v. 19), his desire for intimate fellowship (v. 20), and the challenges to overcome and to listen (vv. 21-22).