I want to offer some encouragement to the Church from Revelation 3. Revelation 3 might not be your go-to passage for encouragement, especially when you read, "I'm going to vomit you out of my mouth" (lol). But this passage includes what I think is some of Jesus’ richest and most wonderful encouragement in all of Scripture.
In Revelation chapters 1-3, Jesus is speaking to the early churches, established just within a few decades of his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. He’s speaking through John the Apostle, in the form of letters written by John while exiled on the slavers' prison island of Patmos. We’re going to look specifically at Revelation 3:14-20.
Jesus says to church at Laodicea:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
Those whom I love, I reprove 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 to him and eat with him, and he with me.’”
Laodicea was a city situated in the Lycus River Valley, between the historical cities of Colossae and Hierapolis, in modern-day Turkey. We know the historical city of Colossae from Paul’s letters to the church there. We call his surviving letter the book of Colossians.
Laodicea was a prosperous city. Situated on the Lycus River, Laodicea was full of trade and industry of various kinds. We've learned a lot about the lives of the people of Colossae, Laodicea, and the nearby town of Hierapolis from secular historical manuscripts and extensive archaeological research.
For any city, access to clean water is vitally important. Curiously, while Colossae’s source of water was a pure, cold, mountain stream and Hierapolis’ sources of water were the hot springs for which it was known, Laodicea’s primary means of getting water into the city was by use of an aqueduct.
The calcium-rich water pumped through this aqueduct would cause clogging and its pipes would regularly require cleaning. When pipes were clogged, the standing water was lukewarm, tepid, emetic, and gross. Jesus uses this familiar characteristic of Laodicean water—its staleness—in his caution to the church at Laodicea.
He says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” To any Laodicean citizen familiar with the cool spring waters of Colossae or the boiling mineral waters of Hierapolis, this is a sharp criticism.
We so often interpret this passage to mean that Jesus is criticizing the church’s fervor. We say they’re not doing anything, they’ve grown stagnant, they’ve lost their passion. But this isn’t an accurate interpretation of the verse when you study Revelation 3’s context. That's important. Get that.
Jesus isn’t criticizing the church’s passion, he’s criticizing their effectiveness—their usefulness for the gospel. And I believe understanding this truth changes the entire passage.
Hot water from a mineral spring is effective for bathing, for staving off diseases, and for cooking. Boiled water is bacteria-free, it's clean, it's antiseptic. Cold mountain spring water is useful for drinking, bathing, and irrigation. Moreover, cold waters are refreshing.
If you’ve ever raised the frosty lip of an ice-cold glass of water to drink, and noticed how the cool runs right through you on a hot day, you know how refreshing cool waters can be. The Laodiceans knew it all too well. Each time they took a swig of that nauseating, metallic-tasting, throat-irritating vomit water, they remembered their last trip over to Colossae.
Here's something that's interesting and true: We find all throughout the Gospels that Jesus always knows just exactly what to say to make his point—to really hit home with his audience. He says that the church is just as useless as their nasty water. This would've punched them right in the face. He uses something with which they're well familiar, to make his point.
But how had Laodicea become ineffective? What are the characteristics of an ineffective person? of an ineffective church? Jesus answers in the next verse, and tells us: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” An ineffective church is arrogant.
They boast about how well-off they are. They place value in possessions. The Laodiceans had their technology, a modern Roman aqueduct, they had trade and they had food and they had people and cattle and sheep and gold and roads and the protection of the Roman Empire. To the people there, Laodicea had everything.
But we see that what they had wasn’t working for them.
Some churches seem to have everything. Have you ever walked into a church that has a bigger jumbo-tron than most stadiums but no one filling the plump theater-style seats?
Or they have a full band on stage and no one worshiping. They have classroom space and no one showing up for Bible study. They have money, they put on these enormous concerts and events, but there’s no life in the building. You ever see that? I have.
I’m not saying that’s all churches, nor all modern churches, and it is not wrong to have all that stuff. It’s not wrong to have cool gear but when your cool gear becomes the boast of your heart, that’s so dead wrong. Let the boast of my heart ever be Jesus. "No gifts, no powers, no wisdom," as the song says, "but I will boast in Jesus Christ."
The church at Laodicea was that church. From the outside, they had it all. They boasted in what they had. Therefore, Jesus counsels them to find a different kind of treasure. Matthew 6:20 is echoed in his words to this Church: “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Jesus says, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” He’s saying these things—he’s bringing this charge against the lukewarm church—because he loves them.
So very dearly.
I’m willing to bet by now you’re wondering when I’m going to offer that encouragement I promised. Here’s where the passage becomes so completely encouraging and uplifting and wonderful! There's a funny turn at the end of this passage.
Listen: Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Now why is that there? Kind of random, right? Jesus was talking about water and possessions and effectiveness and all these other things and then out of nowhere he hits us with a new metaphor: He’s standing at the door and he’s knocking.
He’s not literally at Laodicea’s door, no, so what’s up with this funny turn of phrase that seems like it’s randomly inserted at the end of a passage about something completely different?
Before, I mentioned that our common misinterpretation of the idea of lukewarm water in this passage has led to some issues throughout the passage as a whole. I want you to think about this next point very very carefully because I think it uncovers a mistake that all Christians everywhere—myself included—have made in interpreting this passage.
When we interpret the passage to mean that Laodicea has lost their passion, we can only infer that Christ is standing at the door, knocking on the door of their lives, hoping to come in because they are unsaved. No passion for Christ = no salvation. That's how we typically read this passage.
We use, “Behold I stand at the door and knock” most often when we’re sharing the gospel. We say, “Jesus is at the door of your life and wants to be invited into your heart,” and when we do, we usually mean, “Jesus wants to come in and save you.”
There’s nothing wrong with this statement whatsoever. But in the context of the passage, I believe Jesus’ words have a much deeper and much richer meaning for believers that can be so very incredibly joyously life-giving. This passage wasn't meant for non-believers.
Today I was in the truck with my dad, running the last of my grandmother’s things to our house, as she’s moving in with us for the winter. As we drove along he got a phone call and I admit I couldn't help but eavesdrop.
The call was from a church member who was making a tract to use to share the gospel (don’t know who it was but this person deserves a huge pat on the back). He asked my dad, what does it mean for Jesus Christ to be standing at the door and knocking?
After all, the passage never says he’s standing at the door of our hearts and knocking. And it never says he wants to come in and save us. We only infer that idea from our interpretation of the passage.
There’s nothing wrong with telling an unbeliever that Jesus is knocking at the door of their hearts and wants to come in and save them. Jesus is calling. Let him in. But to the believer, there’s a deeper meaning.
Because we now know that Jesus was criticizing the church’s ineffectiveness, the statement “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” means this: Jesus wants to come into our churches—he wants for us to be open to his presence.
Jesus doesn’t want to be another accessory in the life your church. He doesn’t want to be your aqueduct, your big-screens, your band, your modern music, your whatever. Jesus is knocking because he wants to come in and be the master of your church, his home.
He’s not knocking so that you’ll let him into your house on your terms, as a guest. Jesus is no one’s guest. When Jesus shows up, he’s the master.
Jesus was standing at the door and knocking because Laodicea had no Jesus in their ceremonies. No Christ in their proceedings. No Spirit in their services. Jesus is knocking because he wants you to let him come host the party, to be the master of ceremonies at your church.
And that’s what church ought to be—a big ol’ happy Jesus party with Christ at the center of all our goings-on. When Jesus sits to dine at your table, it is you who sits to dine at his.
See, if the Church is criticized as dispassionate, then we need Jesus in our hearts saving us. But if the Church is criticized as ineffective, we need Jesus at the center of all that we do, as Lord and master.
We so often make masters of the superfluous, passing trends, the gear, and the toys. We let the sound of the guitar drive our worship and we think that that is the same as producing disciples, as impacting the world, as changing hearts and minds and lives. We see hands lifted when the keyboard crescendos and we think that’s the same as Christ at the center.
We go out, as churches, to buy toys for the entertainment of our people and not tools for the advancement of the gospel. And this isn’t just in production and media, sound, and lighting. This is all over the modern church.
Be careful not to think that having a jungle-themed playplace for the kids and coffee stations on every classroom hall is what makes your church rich. Your church is rich when it sits to sup with Christ, when it has Christ at the center. When it opens the door and lets Christ take over to be master of the house.
I’m not just trying to tell you that the way you’ve always read this passage is wrong. That’s not my belief. What I’m trying to do is to encourage you to see Jesus, he’s yours, he’s right outside your door.
If your church is lukewarm, if you’ve lost your effectiveness, and you’ve traded useful tools with gospel purpose for silly toys that flaunt your worldly wealth, if you value the things that moths may destroy or thieves may steal, heed this passage.
Jesus Christ has not given up on you, Church. He’s standing at the door and he’s knocking and he wants to come in and be the Lord of the house, the host of the party, he wants you to be his guest.
We sing, “We welcome you in this place” like we intend for Jesus Christ himself to be our guest. As if we want him to come by the welcome center at the end of the service to fill out a guest card and get a free coffee mug on his way out.
But this passage ought to make us scream like I scream when the pizza guy is here ringing my doorbell and I'm tripping down the stairs and throwing on a pair of shorts and kicking my dog out of the way before opening up. “I’m here! I’m here! Don’t go away! I’m here!” Jesus, we’re here. We’re here for you. We are open to you.
Come into this house and be the Lord of our church.
Yes, he knocks on the doors of the hearts of the unsaved people with whom we share the gospel. Yes, that’s a decent Bible verse to share out of context with them on a tract or in a brochure. But to the Church, to the bride of Christ, oh, the deeper meaning gives me such abiding joy. Jesus wants us to open our churches to him.