The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 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.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit sayas to the churches” (Revelations 3: 14-22 NIV).
Revelations – Day 9 “Letter to Laodicea – The Wealthy Church”
“It’s not about you.”
That’s how Pastor Rick Warren begins his book, The Purpose Driven Life. It’s a line that Christians tend to understand but others find bewildering. What in the world is he talking about?
He goes on to say, “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.”
Apparently, the church in Laodicea had forgotten this basic truth of their discipleship. Probably of all the churches in the book of Revelations, Laodicea is remembered the most for being the “lukewarm” church that God wanted to “vomit” out of his mouth. Strong words, indeed. In fact, this church is the only one of the seven where Jesus has absolutely nothing good to say about them.
Laodicea was probably the wealthiest church in the region. It was known for its banking establishments, its clothing industry, and even a medical school that specialized in ointments for the ears and a salve for the eyes. But Jesus called them “poor, blind and naked.” Harsh words especially with the other two things that he also says about them, that they are “wretched” and “pitiful” because of it. But it is still a church and Jesus still calls it to repentance.
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation” (Rev. 3:14 NIV).
Once again, the description of Jesus relates to the particular situation of the church in Laodicea. Of all the churches, Laodicea needed to hear these words. Jesus is all that we need. Nothing else needs to be added. Jesus is the Amen of God. God declares that he loves the world and is willing to die to save her. Jesus not only agrees but is the one who, in his own body, makes it possible. Paul reminds us that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so, through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (I Cor. 1:20 NIV).
But this isn’t just an agreement of words, any more than the Amen of Jesus was mere words. It was put into practice. For us to “live” out the Amen “to the glory of God” is to live in such a way that it is obvious that Jesus is sufficient for us, that the promises of God are enough, and that nothing more needs to be added.
After all, he is the “faithful and true witness” to the intentions of God to love the world in the most practical way possible. And his witness was unto death, and we need to follow in his footsteps. He is also “the ruler of God’s creation.” Another important reminder to the Laodiceans who relied on their wealth “and do not need a thing.” The promises of God include his providence to which Jesus as “the ruler of God’s creation” also gives his Amen. Everything that one needs in this life comes from his hand.
That fundamental belief in the goodness of God’s Providence that is focused on the eternal priorities of God and not merely on our comfort and pleasure in this life is at the heart of the idea of being a disciple and following God. After all, creation is the context for redemption and redemption is the focus of creation. Joy and peace come from embracing God’s eternal priorities that no amount of money, clothes, or medicine can provide you.
“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” (Rev. 3:15 NIV).
These are perhaps some of the most famous words in the book of Revelations and we all secretly wonder how much of it applies to us and to our church as well. This is the heart of the problem in the dangerous church. Many people are put off by the statement by Jesus that “I wish you were either one or the other!” Perhaps the assumption is that “hot” refers to enthusiasm for the things of God and “cold” refers to an indifference to Christ altogether. So why would Jesus prefer that?
But perhaps our interpretation of these words needs a bit of work. Being “hot” could refer to the hot springs of nearby Hierapolis and “cold” could refer to the fact that Laodicea was always in short supply of fresh, cool water because they had a lack of an adequate water supply.
In that case, it may mean something like that the church in Laodicea was neither able to provide the “hot” springs of healing for the spiritually sick or the “cold” water to refresh the spiritually weary. So, both options were preferred to a church that had no effective ministry either way.
When you are bringing up two teenage girls, you have to be prepared for the drama of boyfriends and the on-again, off-again nature of those early relationships. I often tell them that having a fight with their boyfriend isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether they are “hot” in anger or “cold” in rejection only tells you that they care. It bothers them. They are emotionally engaged either way. What you must worry about is the one who is “lukewarm” and indifferent. When they neither get angry nor shut up and stop talking, then you are in real trouble because they simply don’t care.
That’s the problem with being indifferent to the things of God, to be more concerned about your American Dream than you are about seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s difficult to do ministry of any kind in that context. Again, that’s why the church is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Everyone is welcome but not everyone is saved. Everyone can participate but not everyone is worshipping God. Laodicea is a good example of that very problem that plagues the church in every age especially now.
Yes, it is true that this is still the church and there is still time for repentance. But do not be fooled. You and I must repent. There is some hope because Jesus says, “I am about to spit (lit. vomit) you out of my mouth.” It is about to happen at any moment. There is still time. But it will happen if we don’t take action. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3: 19 NIV). Not just rebuke but discipline and that discipline can feel harsh and unloving, but it is the most loving effort of Jesus to bring you into a deeper relationship with him. Your eternal salvation may depend on it but certainly, the quality of your witness will depend on it.
There may be many ways in which we can be lukewarm and have no effective ministry, but in the case of the church in Laodicea, it was a problem with wealth.
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (Rev. 3:17 NIV).
Apparently, they weren’t having problems with an antagonistic community, especially the Jews, who wanted to accuse them before the Roman officials. After all, they were harmless. They minded their own business, pursued their own goals, and didn’t rock the boat. It was this pernicious insistence on evangelism, trying to convert people to their beliefs that put everyone on edge. It was an offense to their local religion and a potential threat to the imperial cult. But if you had no effective ministry of evangelism, you were no threat at all. You could get on with acquiring wealth and being like everyone else.
Perhaps that is one of the most terrible things that can be said about the modern church. That a normal, middle-class churchgoer isn’t that much different from a normal, middle-class person who doesn’t go to church. They are essentially the same. They all want the same thing. They work side by side in the same types of jobs. They have the same value systems. There is no evidence of transformation or a new identity in Christ, a purpose beyond themselves, or a sense of significance in a role that makes a difference both now and throughout eternity.
We all know that the problem is not money itself but rather our attitude towards it. In the case of the Laodiceans, they came to the proud conclusion that they “do not need a thing” including God. This attitude towards wealth negates a need to believe in the eternal providence of God that provides everything necessary for ministry. Not everything for a comfortable and prosperous life but rather everything that is necessary for ministry. The eternal priorities of God are an integral part of the providence of God.
They could have been wealthy but still humble enough to recognize that money is simply a tool to support themselves as ministry leaders and to be used for kingdom-building activities. Many people today see themselves as Kingdom Financiers. They recognize that they have the gift of stewardship and making money seems to work for them. But they still have a ministry focus and they do not rely on their wealth to be a surrogate for the eternal providence of God.
At the end of the day, the difference between those two approaches, where wealth distracts you from ministry or is a tool for ministry, has to do with fear. At least that is what I think. After all, it is not easy to embrace the radical discipleship of the eternal priorities of God. It is a humbling experience to realize that God could allow you to be hurt, or a loved one to get cancer, or a bankruptcy to derail all of your efforts to provide for your family. Not just to build your character in Christ but to empower your witness that, even in the face of difficulty and death, your faith is intact, and you will not waver.
That takes courage pure and simple. And faith, of course.
I know of a young girl, newly married and trying to have a baby, who is faced with the loss of that baby after three months. Difficult moments for everyone involved but especially this young mother. After the treatment to remove the baby, whose heartbeat simply stopped, the mother-to-be started bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. Apparently, a vein or artery had opened and was not clotting properly, and she had to face the prospect of major surgery. Losing the ability to ever have another baby or even the possibility of bleeding out during surgery is enough to put fear into anyone’s heart.
Now you will find out if you believe in the goodness of God, even when you have to suffer and possibly die. This is not a game but the real stuff of life. I don’t know how anyone can go through life without faith in God. As I told this young woman, it is like getting married. You promised to be true to your spouse in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, till death do you part.
The same is true with God. Anyone can pretend to believe in God when it is convenient or when things are going well but it is in the difficult moments that the truth is known. Are you in this relationship with God only for the benefits, only if he heals you, only if he prospers you, and only if he does what you want him to do? Or do you truly believe, like Job, that “you are His and He is mine” no matter what happens in life? You can pray for healing. You can ask for resources to do the work and ministry that he has called you to and take care of yourself and your family as part of that ministry. Of course. But the question is whether or not you can accept a ‘No’ from him when your whole being wants a ‘Yes.’
I often felt that way as a father to my children. So long as they got what they wanted, everything was fine. But if I dared to say ‘No,’ then all hell could break lose. The ability of children to accept a ‘No’ when they want a ‘Yes’ says something about the respect and love they have for one who is in authority over them.
And don’t think that marriage is much different because it isn’t. I can’t tell you how many stories there are of men who leave their marriages when their wives are diagnosed with cancer or how many women make their husband’s lives miserable because they are not able to provide for them or their children in the manner that they had come to expect. And the other way around as well. People get married for a lot of strange reasons, including social status, financial security, and the fear of loneliness. None of these are a strong foundation for marriage.
The same is true in the church. People go to church and claim to be Christians for a lot of strange reasons, including the social status of a moral character, the financial security of the promises of God, and the fear of hell or suffering which they believe that God will save them from if they are good. None of which are a strong foundation for a relationship with God.
But here is the point. Right here at the place where you abandon the benefits and you cling to God himself, the person himself, regardless of the benefits. You do that in marriage, at least at the beginning, when you actually believe that this person you have married truly meant his or her vows and will stay with you and love you no matter what happens in life. And how much more is that true, in the same with God, who can stay with you and love you in this life and in the life to come?
But you might argue that God has the ability to protect me from all harm in this life keep me healthy and prosper me in a way that my husband or wife cannot do. Why doesn’t he keep those promises to me? A number of things need to be said. First, many people replace God with their wives or husbands or family as the source of their providence. Perhaps they believe that their spouses can be persuaded, coerced, or influenced into doing what they want. Perhaps they just believe in the practical love of a spouse over the nebulous love of a supreme being that they don’t know if they can trust. But it is simply another form of idolatry.
Second, neither in marriage nor in our relationship with God should we be focused only on the benefits. There are “natural” benefits to a loving relationship and that is fine and good but to focus on them rather than on the person will destroy any kind of relationship with anyone, including your children, your friends, and your church.
Third, it is still true that our spouses are obligated by love to seek our good and to make our lives as safe and prosperous as possible. Spouses can only do so much, but God can do more. Why doesn’t he? Because there is a spiritual world at war with God and we are part of the conflict. Because, even without God, safe and prosperous can keep you from doing anything significant and meaningful. Because God must think of the eternal consequences of sin in the second death and not merely this life and its problems. Because we have a purpose in this life that goes beyond our comfort and safety to save the eternal lives of our loved ones, our friends, our fellow church members, our collegues at work.
God’s purpose for you is to reflect his glory and character of sacrificial love and it cannot be done alone. You and I will need help. In fact, that help, that relational need or dependence on God is natural and beautiful and absolutely necessary to accomplish the purpose of glory (to participate in and reflect and enjoy the divine love in the context of an evil and rebellious world). The help we get in a new and intimate relationship with God is its own reward. The help we need is a relationship of love and mutual enjoyment within a natural loving authority to which we respond with loving obedience. That creates faith and trust in any relationship which in turn nurtures and supports us through thick and thin.
Just as a partner is needed in a marriage, each fulfilling their own natural glory in order to bring forth their own image in a newborn child, so, too, is the help and involvement of God (and other Christians in whom the Holy Spirit dwells) is essential to bringing forth the glory of Jesus Christ reflected in us. If God truly exists, you are not an accident. You have eternal value. You have a new relationship, a new identity, a new purpose, a new significance that will bring joy and peace to your life.
And right there is the practical element that many Christians around the world and throughout time will attest to without hesitation. When you embrace radical discipleship and learn the power of accepting God’s eternal priorities, when you stop focusing on the benefits and seek the intimacy of the relationship with the person (just like in marriage), then you are ready to be “one” with the Lord in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, till in death you meet him face to face.
A non-believer may say, and with some justification, that life can deal you a lot of different situations, some good and some bad just the same as those who do not believe. There isn’t a lot of empirical evidence that following God means that you get sick less, you are protected more, or that you have any benefits at all. It’s a good point although I would argue that those who are involved in seeking the kingdom of heaven and fulfilling their life ministries have a lot of stories of God’s intervention for good in their lives. But still, it is true that from the outside or from a bit of distance, it may appear so. Christians also get cancer. Christians also have car accidents. Christians also suffer and die. So, what’s the difference?
The difference is faith, and that faith is a product of a relationship of trust. We may have to live this life on the same terms as everyone else, subject to the seemingly chaotic and variable nature of what many call “fate,” but we do so with faith when they do not. And that makes all the difference in the world.
When you are prepared to trust God whether you live or die, whether you are sick or are healed, whether you are rich or poor, you will discover both joy and peace. You may still cry and be scared and complain to God in prayer as Job did, but in your heart, you know that he loves you to pieces and only wants your best, eternal good. Peace in the midst of the storms of life and joy in the fulfillment of your significant life ministry even if it ends up in failure, suffering, and death.
The Laodiceans were not at that point. They had gotten distracted by wealth. They had replaced their reliance on the goodness of God with the fullness of their bank accounts, the nice clothes they wore, or the medicine that would protect them from harm.
Jesus said to them, “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” (Rev. 3:17b,18 NIV).
Of all the letters to the churches of Asia, this letter to the Laodiceans indicates how well Jesus understood them and their situation. They had failed to find in Christ the source of all true wealth, social standing, and health which is exactly why they had no witness and nothing to say to anyone about their faith. They had been distracted from the goal of becoming God’s “living martyrs” for the sake of the redemption of the world.
And yet, Jesus says, “I counsel you” and exhorts them to “be earnest and repent.” He even suggests that he “loves” them when he declares that “those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” It is a love that is only satisfied with an intimate relationship with him which he knows is the only true protection in this world of evil and sin. Add to that the immediacy of persecution by the Roman Empire and the urgency is even greater to find that place of joy and peace in an intimate relationship with Jesus, the person, not just the potential benefits of being a believer.
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20 NIV).
Probably the most famous verse in the book of Revelations and I remember memorizing it early in my ministry. We all applied it readily to our efforts at evangelism and encouraged people to let Jesus into their lives so that they could have a new life-giving relationship with him. And that is certainly true, but it isn’t the whole story.
After all, Jesus is speaking to the church in this context. Yes, to individuals in the church as well, but not really to new potential converts. The strange thing to note here is that Jesus is “outside” the church or the hearts of the people in the church. That’s why we so quickly apply it to unbelievers since, in their case, Jesus has not yet entered their hearts. But when you apply it to a church or to believers in a church, it is very disturbing.
At the very least, we can agree that Jesus is talking about coming in and having an intimate meal with them, perhaps a communion meal with the whole church together. Let’s leave the whole concept of “salvation” to one side for now and just talk about “intimacy” with Christ for a moment. And this should make you tremble just a bit.
Apparently, it is not enough to just go to church but not be engaged, not involved, not participating in a joint ministry, or pursuing your life ministry. It is not good enough to be just a moral person trying to bring up your children well. It is not good enough to pay your tithe and show up on Sunday morning any more than it is good enough to just be a good husband who provides for his family but is emotionally distant and uninterested in what is really going on at home.
To be “intimate” with God is to be emotionally engaged, mentally participating, and physically involved in building a relationship in the context of ministry together with others in the church. And it isn’t a question of morality but of love. Morality is a limit to our will when we make a decision to do the right thing even though we don’t want to. That has some value, especially at first. But can you imagine a husband who admits to his wife that he really wants to flirt with the barmaid but because he is a moral person, he has decided not to do so. That marriage isn’t going to last very long.
No, it is more than that. When you love someone, you do things for them that you don’t even consider a sacrifice. You do it because it makes them happy. You want to do it. It’s not like morality where you don’t want to do it. Even if it costs you something or everything, the relationship with the person is not based on morality but on intimacy, love, and relationship. And that makes all the difference in the world.
A beggar off the street may ask you for a meal and you may or may not give it to him but that is a question of morality. When your child asks for a meal, you don’t even hesitate to give them something, perhaps even something that they like to eat. You take the time and spend the money to prepare a wonderful meal without thinking about the “sacrifice” that you are making. That is the power of love.
After all, relationship can create morality, but morality will never create relationship.
So, yes, Jesus is on the outside of your relationship with him. He is there in the vicinity. He is outside the door but in the neighborhood. He is trying to get into your house, past your barriers, into the intimate part of your life. He is knocking, insisting, even pounding on the door asking to be let in. “Here I am!” he says, and it reminds me of the movie Notting Hill where Julia Roberts, playing a famous actress stands before Hugh Grant, a simple bookstore owner, and says “I am just a girl asking a boy to love her.” It really is that simple.
Jesus knows that you and I have these other “attachments” and “relationships” that are just another form of idolatry, and he is saying “I am here! I stand at the door and knock.” Normally we are the ones who need to seek to find, ask to get answers, and knock so that the door is opened for us. But here it is Jesus knocking on the door of his church, on the door of the hearts of his people, asking for a more intimate relationship with them as the source of everything they need especially in the context of the coming persecution. Without that intimacy, without that reliance on God, you cannot stand on your own when the storms of life come your way.
“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:21,22 NIV).
To sit down with Jesus on his throne is not merely about having authority in the abstract but rather having authority in the specific. Jesus sat on his throne, which is the throne of God, in order to lead his church in the great rescue mission of redemption during this church age. When the time comes, he will turn his authority back to God and present him with a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. So, Jesus exercises his authority on behalf of the gospel, and we can participate in that great ministry of reconciliation.
But only if we overcome and, in this context, to overcome is to open the door and have intimate communion with Jesus in preparation for the hour of trial when our witness to the power of that intimate relationship will result in the transformation of many hearts. And if that doesn’t thrill you to the core of your being, that your suffering and death, your every effort, your every word, your every sacrifice for the gospel is infused with meaning and significance into the halls of eternity, then I don’t know what to say anymore.
Perhaps the Spirit is not within, and you need to open that door for the first time. In any event, whether the first time or again and again, we need to recognize that only an intimate relationship with Jesus constitutes what we mean by radical discipleship. It is the weapons of love that will win the day and we learn those in the hands of Jesus, with his example and teaching and power.
Even for the Laodiceans, and the modern church, there is still hope for effective ministry when Jesus becomes more important than the security of wealth, the splendor of the latest fashion, or the promises of healing by the latest medicines and treatments. But there is no time to waste, no effort that should be avoided to fight and overcome until we get that door open and allow Jesus into the deepest parts of our hearts.
And if we have to give all of our wealth to the poor in order to get there, like the rich, young ruler, then so be it. If we have to dress down and get rid of our designer clothes, if we have to stop relying on potions and treatments or cosmetics to make us look good or be healthy, then so be it. We have a responsibility to take care of ourselves, but some people have made it their life’s ambition to fight off aging or cure every disease they may face rather than doing what is necessary and then focusing on the life ministry that God has called them to.
The church is a dangerous place to be when you are not serious about your discipleship and are part of a community that shares your same value system. “Woe to me!” Isaiah cried out when he saw Jesus high and lifted up. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5 NIV).
To see Jesus standing at the door to your heart, knocking and insisting that you let him in and that your very life depends on you opening that door, you must “be earnest, and repent.” If it does not fill you with a bit of dread and urgency that motivates you to action, then perhaps you don’t have “ears to hear” and you need to start by crying out to God to open your eyes and your heart to him for the first time.
The Desert Warrior