What Is the Laodicean Problem?

"Who is Laodicea?" has been a hot topic in the Church of God in recent decades. Could it be that too narrow a view of this topic has caused many to lose the broader-and more pertinent-message that Christ intended?

by Cecil E. Maranville

To people who have been around the Church of God for any length of time, "Laodicean" has a strong and unpleasant connotation. Some have erred by finger-pointing judgments at others, pronouncing them to be Laodicean. Instead of asking or trying to determine "Who is Laodicean?" have you asked yourself "What is Laodicean?"

Laodicea was but one of seven churches in western Asia Minor at the time that Christ gave the message of the book of Revelation to John on the island of Patmos. While each church received a unique message, Christ told John that all of the messages were to be applied to all of the churches. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" is repeated seven times.

Did you know that not only the brief messages of chapters 2 and 3, but also the entire prophecy was sent to these seven churches in Asia Minor? "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," and, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea" (Revelation 1:11).

There can be no doubt that Revelation is an end-time book, that its message is for what Moffatt so aptly translated a phrase in Daniel as "the crisis at the close." It contains instruction for all Christians, especially for those living at the end of the age. "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near" (Revelation 1:3).

Laodiceans Not Rejected-Yet...

Revelation 3:14-17 is the primary reference in the Bible to Laodicea. "And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, 'These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing"-and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked....'"

Certainly no Christian wants to hear such an appraisal! And yet, we would be wrong to assume that this hard evaluation meant that Christ already rejected the members of the Church of God in Laodicea. Although they were indisputably in serious spiritual condition, they were offered an opportunity to change. Upon repentance, they were promised a share in the same destiny that awaits all faithful Christians-rulership with Jesus Christ on His Father's throne. In fact one of the most often quoted scriptures about our future service in the Kingdom of God is taken from what Christ said to Laodicea (Revelation 3:21).

Knowing that even the shocking and sobering part of Christ's message to Laodicea applies to the Church of God throughout the ages, let's see what we might learn from it.

What Is the Laodicean Problem?

What exactly is "Laodicean"? Christ used several key words in Revelation 3:14-17 to convey His message. There are actually four repetitions of a singular theme. Some background about the city before and during the first century will help us understand, for Christ's words to John drew upon well-known facts of the day.

Laodicea was well known in the ancient world for its wealth. "For example, in 62 B.C. Flaccus seized the annual contribution of the Jews of Laodicea for Jerusalem amounting to 20 pounds of gold" (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers, "Laodicea").

"The extent of its wealth is illustrated by the fact that Laodicea was rebuilt without the financial help of Rome after the disastrous earthquake of A.D. 60. Laodicea earned its wealth in the textile industry in the production of black wool and in the banking industry. Laodicea was also known for its medical school [school of opthamology] which concocted a spikenard for the treatment of the ears and an eyesalve. The major weakness of Laodicea was its lack of a water supply. This need was met by bringing water six miles north from Denizli through a system of stone pipes (another sign of Laodicea's wealth)" (Holman Bible Dictionary, 1994, Parson's Technology, "Laodicea"). Water conveyed to Laodicea through these pipes was tepid by the time it reached the city.

The eye salve was called "collyrium," probably a reference to how it was applied-that is, in the form of plaster or a poultice.

Christ, always the quintessential teacher, integrated these well-known facts about Laodicea into His spiritual message about them.

Laodicean Wealth

Illustration #1 was wealth. Did Christ criticize them for their wealth? No, wealth wasn't the problem. They had suffered a devastating loss. Disaster forced them to have to rebuild. The fact that they did, without outside help, was certainly to their credit and worthy of commendation. The problem lay in the fact that their wealth allowed them to feel self-sufficient or self-reliant.

Christ quoted someone, perhaps an official letter from Laodicea to Rome, in Revelation 3:17. "You say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.'" These words were not necessarily said in materialistic arrogance, but because the city faced the need to recover from a terrible disaster.

Did they refuse Rome's financial help because of a desire to retain control over their own city? We do not know. We do know that they did not rebel against or withdraw from the Empire. They remained "citizens of the Kingdom"-the Kingdom of Rome.

Why did Christ refer to wealth in His warning to Laodicea? He simply used the independence their physical wealth afforded them to illustrate a spiritual lesson-that spiritual independence is not a strength.

Paul wrote of this to Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:21). Christians cannot say, "I have no need" of some other part of the body of Christ, no need to be a part of that body in order to function spiritually.

Laodiceans did not deny their Roman citizenship, only their need for dependence upon Rome. Spiritually, the Laodicean does not deny God or depart from the fundamental beliefs of the Church. Rather, individuals took care of themselves, feeling spiritually wealthy enough-experienced in the Church enough-to do so. Laodiceans aren't the embodiment of evil or the personification of unfaithfulness. They are just people who rely on their own resources.

Could they be people who have been through disaster, a veritable earthquake, having endured terrible losses-people who need to rebuild? That would be analogous to what the citizens of Laodicea endured physically. Whatever their reasons, Laodiceans are people who feel more comfortable relying on themselves to recover from disaster than in being dependent on or interdependent with others.

Laodicean Clothing

Illustration #2 of the same problem was clothing. Did Christ criticize them for their prosperous textile industry? Not at all, for once again it was commendable that they were industrious and successful. As with wealth, what was a physical strength became a convenient and evident teaching tool about a potential spiritual weakness. Clothing is symbolic of putting on righteousness. Making a contrast with the black clothing of Laodicea, Christ spoke of the white clothing of the saints.

Righteous people dress in bright clothing. "And to [the Church of God] it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:8).

The Christian puts on "the armor of light," an analogous way of contrasting God's way of life with "the dark side"-the way of human nature (Romans 13:12-14). This theme of light versus darkness is carried throughout the New Testament. But aren't these characteristics of all godly people?

Note the language used by Paul in Colossians 3:10 when urging the Christian to "put on" the new man, this righteous character of light. The Greek is enduo, the same word for putting on clothing. Righteousness is described in the context of interacting, putting up with and getting along with other people.

He wrote that in the Church, "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection" (Colossians 3:11-14).

Spirit-led Christians are making positive contributions to the body of Christ-as opposed to pulling back into isolation.

These qualities should be practiced in the context of a group that is larger than the circle of one's closest friends. There is a type of growth possible only when one is in the body of believers, as opposed to independent of it.

Christians are told that they should resist pulling back-and especially so in the time of the end. We're admonished to pull together, not to be found "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).

Although people who have suffered personal disaster may be able to argue good reasons to pull back from the Church, there is grave spiritual danger in doing so. "But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul" (Hebrews 10:39).

Laodicean Health Care

Illustration #3 was eye salve. Again, the Laodiceans' record of helping to restore the sight of other people is nothing to be condemned, but rather complimented. Christ used this positive physical quality to demonstrate how its spiritual counterpart could be a shortcoming.

People who have helped others "to see" in a spiritual way can unwittingly take on a sense of self-sufficiency. It's often said that doctors-people who make their living treating the ills of others-make poor patients. That can be true in religion as well. Teachers and helpers may make poor students, failing to recognize that they still need to receive teaching, to be helped-that they are still dependent.

Do you recall the abject shock in the Pharisees' response to the suggestion by a mere common man that they might have been wrong? "You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?" (John 9:34.) In one way I hesitate to use the example of the Pharisees, lest it imply that such behavior is uncharacteristically carnal. The truth is that the expression of the Pharisees' human nature illustrates what can happen to anyone.

Paul was aware of the potential for a Christian to excuse himself from the rules about which he so readily advised others.

"Indeed you are called a Jew [one could easily substitute 'member of the Church of God' today], and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?" (Romans 2:17-21.)

Paul was acutely aware of the need for self-discipline, lest he slip away from the truth after having been a teacher of many (1 Corinthians 9:27).

It could well be that the Christians in Laodicea had been at times as helpful to others spiritually as the medical school was in a physical way. But they were not asking anyone to apply a plaster or poultice to their eyes. For whatever reason, they were more willing to take care of their own spiritual needs.

Laodicean Water

The fourth illustration was the water, the most often referenced symbolism of Laodicea. Transported over 5 or 6 miles, it was neither refreshingly cold like the waters of Colosse nor therapeutically hot like the springs of Hierapolis. It was tepid. As such, it lent itself as another teaching tool to emphasize the same warning: self-sufficiency, independence, isolation from the source-whether hot or cold-is a spiritually weak and dangerous quality.

What to Do About These Problems

Read the solution Christ counseled. His advice was, "Buy from Me" the gold, clothing and, by extension, eye salve (Revelation 3:18). That was in contrast to their making it on their own spiritually. Christ counseled the Laodiceans to reverse their pulling back from Him. It isn't enough to become rich in spiritual strength by being in the Church and part of its Work for many years, only to pull back when the going gets tough. It is dangerous to assume that one can live solely upon the achievements of the past.

Although the Laodiceans had extensive physical resources, they were spiritually bankrupt. So much so that Christ portrayed Himself as outside their fellowship, seeking to be allowed back in (Revelation 3:20). What a bizarre and shocking thought-Christ excluded from a Church of God congregation! Fellowshipping with Christ, like the putting on of bright clothing, is accomplished by fellowship with each other in the context of the Body and Work of Christ, thereby fellowshipping with Christ and His Father. John implored Christians to band together, reminding them "that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).

What is Laodicean? It is spiritual bankruptcy while at the same time viewing one's self as spiritually rich. Christians who may have what to them are arguably good reasons to pull back into isolation need to resist the Laodicean weakness. Christ, although understanding everyone's wounds with perfect sympathy, warns, "Becoming spiritually independent isn't the solution. It is another problem that portends a greater disaster than any you have experienced." Spiritual independence is, in reality, an oxymoron. A true Christian is interdependent. We must overcome spiritual independence, as we must overcome the spiritual weaknesses that befell all of the churches of Revelation.

Do we hear Christ's words? "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also 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" (Revelation 3:20-22).

This article first appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Ministerial Quarterly.

Reprinted with permission of the United Church of God, an International Association. This article is not to be sold.  It is a free educational service in the public interest.   Published by United Church of God, an International Association, PO Box 541027, Cincinnati, OH 45254-1027.  2000 United Church of God