“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” Revelation 3.15-18.
This is part of the message of Jesus to the church at Laodicea, a city which lay close to Colosse about 100 miles east of Ephesus on the great Roman road that ran from Ephesus into the heart of Asia. Laodicea had in fact been built on the crossing of that road with another major Roman road that ran from the south to the north, and it was therefore a very important and wealthy trading and financial centre. Most of the words Jesus speaks here to the church in Laodicea draw their imagery from that aspect of the city’s life, but his first words refer to something of which Laodiceans were less proud.
Although it was sited well from a trading point of view, the city was badly sited as regards a water supply. There was no sufficient local source and water had to be brought in by way of a six-mile-long aquaduct from the south, with the consequence that the water was always luke-warm when it arrived in Laodicea. To drink it before it had been cooled could, it seems, induce nausea; and it is that image that Jesus first seizes upon as he begins to address the church about its spiritual state. It was, as we discover from Jesus’ next words, a smug, complacent, and self-satisfied church — a middle-of-the-road, “nice”, comfortable church that didn’t particular attract or upset anyone. And Jesus clearly found that brand of Christianity as nauseating as the city’s water.
Like the city itself, the church in Laodicea thought it was rich and lacking nothing. (The city was so rich that, after the great earthquake of AD17, it famously turned down an imperial offer of help and self-financed its restoration — surely the very thing that Jesus has in mind when he makes this comment.) Instead Jesus sees the spiritual reality: one of impoverished wretchedness; and he counsels the church to do something about it … all based again on features of the city in which it is placed.
Buy gold from me, he says. The city had huge gold reserves, but, says Jesus, they cannot alleviate your spiritual poverty. The wealth you need can come only from me. My gold is “refined in the fire” — it is completely pure, completely true.
Buy white clothes from me, he says. The city produced a very famous, sleek, black wool that made fine garments, but, says Jesus, they cannot cover your spiritual nakedness. Only I can give you the “garments of salvation” and the “robe of righteousness” that you so desperately need (Isaiah 61.10).
Buy salve from me to put on your eyes, he says. The city had a famous medical school that produced a special ointment for the treatment of eye problems, but, says Jesus, it will not cure your spiritual blindness. Only I can give you true sight and real vision.
Was it only the Laodicians who needed to come to Jesus for all these things or is it I who needs to come too? How luke-warm am I? Do I make Jesus sick? How smug and complacent am I about my own spiritual state? I think I am rich, but am I? When Jesus looks at me is he seeing someone who is, in truth, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”?
Lord Jesus, I come to you for gold this morning, for white clothes, for eye-salve. Make me rich in you, clothed in your righteousness, seeing with clear sight and true vision. Amen.