40) The Most (In)Famous Church of All (Revelation 3:14)
I’ve lived in eight cities, for each of which I’m profoundly grateful. I was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, from which we moved when I was ten to settle in Midland, Texas. I attended high school in Duncan, Oklahoma, and went to college in Norman. My wife and I lived in Dallas, Texas, for twelve years, and then moved back to Oklahoma, this time to Ardmore, in 1985. Since then we’ve lived in Kansas City, Chicago, and now again in Kansas City.
As I said, I’m grateful for what I experienced in each city. Three of them are relatively small (Shawnee, Duncan, Ardmore), two are what we might call mid-sized (Midland and Norman), while the other three are among the largest cities in our nation (Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City). I have no hesitation in claiming them all.
I’m not sure the same could be said for our seventh and final city in Revelation 2-3. Whether or not the citizens of ancient Laodicea were proud of their home town or ashamed of its failures is impossible to know. But of one thing we may be sure, it had massive spiritual problems and called forth the most stringent and stinging rebuke yet issued by our Lord. Indeed, this city, this church, and this letter are the most famous (infamous?) of the seven. A brief introduction to Laodicea, therefore, will prove beneficial in our study of the letter addressed to it.
The courier who had been entrusted by the apostle John with the seven letters to the seven churches neared his journey’s end. Having embarked from the island of Patmos with the book of Revelation securely tucked away in his messenger’s pouch, he would have begun his travel along the circular route by first visiting Ephesus. Moving northward he would pass through the cities of Smyrna and Pergamum, at which point, turning southeast, his journey would lead him to Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia. Finally, having come almost full circle along the well-beaten trade route, he would arrive at his final destination: Laodicea.
As he no doubt tarried in each of the cities long enough to hear the public reading of the respective letters, his understanding of the nature and practice of the local church surely blossomed.
There was, first of all, Ephesus: so zealous for theological purity and yet growing coldly indifferent to one another.
This was followed by Smyrna: wracked with poverty as a result of persecution and suffering, yet standing firm.
Then Pergamum: so full of love and compassion but in danger of theological and moral compromise.
Thyatira was fourth: the epitome of growth and development but overly tolerant of false teaching.
Sardis: known throughout the world for life and love, but in reality spiritual putrefaction was rampant.
And Philadelphia: so small, so seemingly insignificant, yet so diligent and patient in the face of a hostile world.
He must have thought he had seen it all . . . until he came to Laodicea!
Laodicea was a wealthy city, perhaps the wealthiest in all of Phrygia. It was so wealthy that following a devastating earthquake in 60 a.d. the city rebuilt itself without financial aid from Rome. In the Annals (xiv.27) Tacitus wrote: “Laodicea arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us.”
It was a city known not simply for its monetary success (it was a banking center) but for its linen and wool industry (especially black sheep!), as well as its medical school. Probably the most famous medicinal product to come out of Laodicea was an eye ointment made from a powder produced in Phrygia.
Laodicea: self-confident, self-sufficient, seemingly well-endowed. Yet, to such a church that considered itself rich and in need of nothing, our Lord says “Buy from me gold . . . so that you may be rich” (v. 18).
To a church that took boasted of its textile industry, our Lord declares, “Buy from me . . . white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen” (v. 18).
To a church that reveled in its contribution to ophthalmic medicine our Lord says, “Buy from me . . . salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (v. 18).
The severity of this letter is unmistakable, as is also the absence of a single word of praise or commendation. As virtually dead as was the church in Sardis, there at least survived a small remnant. Not so, Laodicea, in which no evidence of vitality or passion is found.
We don’t know how or when the gospel came to Laodicea. Paul most likely never visited the church and thus it seems probable that Epaphras, servant of the Lord in Colossae, initiated the work there. But this we do know: the Laodiceans could hardly claim ignorance as an excuse for their spiritual slovenliness. Their failures were not due to ignorance or lack of opportunity.
Paul prayed often for the church in Laodicea (Col. 2:1). How can we begin to calculate the blessing of being the focus of such passionate apostolic intercession? They were privileged to receive the faithful and diligent ministry of Epaphras (Col. 4:13). And Paul went out of his way to make certain that his epistle to the Colossians be read to all in the church at Laodicea. No, if there were problems, and there most certainly were, it cannot be for lack of opportunity or insight or apostolic guidance.
As if that weren’t enough, Paul even wrote a letter to the Laodiceans! He refers to it in Colossians 4:16 as “the letter from Laodicea,” leading some to believe it was a letter written to Paul by the Laodicean church, or perhaps by its leadership, or even one of its members. But it’s more likely that Paul has in mind a letter from him, currently in the possession of the Laodiceans, written to them, that he now wants read to the church in Colossae. But what letter might this be?
Some contend Paul is referring to his canonical letter to the Ephesians. However, the epistle to the Ephesians was most likely written after Colossians. I suppose someone could argue that Paul wrote Colossians 4:16 in view of his intent to write a more general epistle to the church at Ephesus, but this seems a bit far-fetched.
Another theory is that it was Paul’s letter to Philemon, but this was a distinctly personal and private letter. Also, Philemon lived in Colossae, not Laodicea. I’m persuaded that Paul is referring to a letter that he himself wrote to the Laodiceans, one that obviously did not survive for inclusion in the canon of Scripture. We don’t know what happened to it, but it’s possible that it was destroyed in the massive earthquake that hit the region in 61 a.d. But that’s only speculation.
You shouldn’t be bothered by this, given the fact that Paul most likely wrote four (!) letters to the Corinthian church, only two of which are included in our canon (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, a reference to the letter written in 54 a.d., now lost; and 2 Corinthians 2:4,9, a reference to the letter written in the summer of 55 a.d., often called the “severe” or “tearful” letter, also now lost).
We have no idea why God chose not to preserve these and other apostolic writings for the church of subsequent generations. Evidently once they served their divinely designed function for the early church, God sovereignly arranged for their disappearance or destruction. In his infinite and gracious wisdom he determined that the content of those epistles was not essential for the life and faith of the church beyond the first century. Ultimately we must trust in divine providence and believe that God has preserved for us everything that is necessary for a life of truth and godliness.
In any case, it may well be that Laodicea’s multiplied failures were regarded by our Lord as all the more egregious because of the remarkable opportunities she had. With much revelation comes much responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required.
I suppose the residents in that unusual city were, in certain respects, proud of what they had accomplished. But in regard to that which matters most, Laodicea was a disgrace. We would do well to listen carefully to what the Spirit said to this particular church!