A Missional Reading of the Letter to Laodicea

The last of the seven, the letter addressed to the church at Laodicea records the harshest words from Jesus to any of the churches in Asia Minor. The words or rebuke for the Laodicean church are not balanced by any words of commendation, making the church at Laodicea unique in its total lack of health – as a whole they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”. This assessment comes from the “the Amen, the faithful and true witness.”

His diagnosis would have seemed incongruous with the perceived situation of Laodicea, but his diagnosis is true. The city was wealthy; in fact, so wealthy it rebuilt itself, without Roman aide, after devastating earthquake in 60AD. Their ability to recover without aide was a source of great civic pride. The cities wealth came from various sources, including banking, trade, and textiles. Laodicea lay at the crossroads of major trade routes, serving as a gateway into Asia. In addition, Laodicea had a large textile industry and grew famous for the soft black wool they were able to produce.

Religiously, Laodicea was a diverse blend with a remarkably large pantheon of gods/goddesses. Many of the old Asian deities continued to be venerated even under Roman rule, though some were collapsed into the Greek/Roman system becoming associated with their gods. Worship of the traditional Phrygian god Men Karou and the temple of Men (also a healing center) were important to the city and it is likely that Men became associated with the Greek god Asklepios as both were healing gods. In addition, the god Zeus played a very prominent role in the religious life in Laodicea. The Laodicean version of Zeus was unique, however, being influenced by the traditional worship of Men and other Phrygian and possibly Syrian elements; thus, the chief god of the region was often referred to as Zeus Laodicenus.

The rise of the imperial cult was fairly natural and maybe even inevitable given the way the empire (and the emperor) was received by Asia. Augustus was received as the “Savior of the race of men”. In addition, Asian peoples worshipped Augustus as god incarnate and “hailed the birthday of Augustus as the beginning of a new year, and worshipped the incarnate god in public and in private.” In the early part of the first century, the city of Laodicea was in competition with other cities for a temple to Caesar. Toward the end of the 2nd century, Laodicea was so honored and given the title neokoros and the right to build a temple for the worship of Emperor Commodus.

When considering the religious life of Laodicea, we must not neglect to consider the Jews and the worship of YHWH. Under Antiochius III a good number of Diaspora Jews were relocated to the region, including the city of Laodicea, to provide stability to the region. These Jews were already more Hellenized than their Palestinian counterparts and received material benefits for relocation as well as ongoing religious freedoms. This population grew by to be quite large by the first century. Cicero records that a large sum of gold, 20 Roman pounds, was seized from Jews in Laodicea en route to the temple in Jerusalem in 62BC. Ramsay, citing Reinach, contends that this amount would be equivalent to 15,000 drachmas. Since the annual temple tax was two drachmas for every free adult, Ramsay concludes there was approximately 7500 Jewish freedman living in Laodicea.

No material witness to the existence of a large Jewish presence has yet been found in Laodicea. Based on this silence, some have concluded that the Jews of Laodicea must have been very Hellenized (making the identification of Jewish names on graves, etc., impossible). Ramsay, relying on material evidence from Hierapolis, notes many of the Jews in Laodicea must have been citizens and were quite possibly organized into trade guilds. Moreover, it is probable that the gospel was first carried to this group of Jews within Laodicea, as was Paul’s common practice.

The biblical witness seems to indicate that it was Epaphras who took the gospel to the people of Hierapolis and Laodicea instead of Paul directly (Colossians 4:12-13). The early converts to Christianity were, then, likely Hellenized Jews used to, in essence, blending in to the surrounding culture. This seems to have been a problem for the church whose mission demanded it stand out as a contrast society rather than blend in.

Jesus rebukes the church for being neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. As such, Jesus threatens to spit them out of his mouth. Hemer in his Letters, argues that Jesus’ condemnation of the Laodicean lukewarmness should be understood in light of the tepid water supply on which the city depended. The city was supplied with water via an aqueduct system from springs six miles to the south. Though potable, the water was very hard being filled with mineral deposits. When the water reached the city it was not hot and so had no therapeutic value (as the hot springs in Hierapolis did). Neither was the water cold and refreshing (as the water supply in Colossae was). Thus, on this interpretation, the water was useless and by implications, the church is useless to Christ. The church was not fulfilling its missional purpose and had become a dead weight, a nonfunctioning member of the body.

This interpretation stands in contrast to the more traditional interpretation that has taken “lukewarmness to denote a compromise between the fervent ‘heat’ of a believer, and the indifferent ‘cold’ of an unbeliever.” Against the traditional understanding, Rudwick and Green have convincingly argued that both “cold” and “hot” are presented as “equally commendable alternatives”, which certainly would not have been the case if “cold”’ was intended to convey “indifferent.”

Koester offers a better alternative to Hemer and to the traditional interpretation. Koester agrees with Hemer that cold and hot both have positive connotations in the text. However, he points out that Laodicea was not the only city that had its water piped in via aqueduct. If this would make the water lukewarm and undrinkable then the water of other cities (including Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Sardis) would be equally objectionable. In fact, as Koester notes, the water of Laodicea seems to be of a better quality than the water Hierapolis.

A further problem with the approach taken by Hemer is the connection of the “hot” in v. 15-16 with the therapeutic hot springs of Hierapolis. There is no indication that the hot water of Hierapolis was desirable for drinking. Yet, the words of Jesus seem to imply that both the hot and cold waters (actually, nothing is said about water at all) are taken into the mouth. If the church was hot or cold they would avoid being spewed out, leading to the conclusion that both were desirable for drinking.

Koester suggests, quoting Plato, “[when] thirst is accompanied by heat, then the desire is for a cold drink; or, if the thirst is accompanied by cold, then the desire is for a hot drink. ” Koester builds a compelling case for this alternative, drawing upon ancient written sources which speak of the practice of warming wine to be drunk on cold days or cooling it on warm ones.

If one believes the imagery is a reference to drinking habits rather than the Laodicean water supply, then Jesus is condemning the Laodicean church for not being sufficiently distinguished from its surrounding. Hot water or wine is desirable when the weather is cold (and cold water or wine when it is hot) because it stands in stark contrast to the environment. Lukewarm is undesirable because it does not stand in bold relief and consequently has no ability to refresh. The churches lukewarmness means they have become no different from their surrounding culture, but have acclimated themselves to it to such a degree they are no longer the contrast community they have been called to be. Jesus’ response to this lukewarm church is graphic – he threatens to spit them out from his mouth.

It seems very possible that the believer’s material richness is what led them to compromise in ways that blunted their witness. Beale suggests that the Laodicean church may have even looked to their economic prosperity as sign of their spiritual health, even citing the connection between OT Israel’s prosperity and spiritual health as a precedent to support her case. But, if the church at Smyrna was poor because she had maintained her witness and been ostracized by her pagan city, then Laodicea is rich because she has accommodated her pagan culture and set aside her calling to be a witness in favor of comfort, ease and wealth.

Jesus counsels the church to look past the luster of her worldly wealth and buy true treasure from him – the same true treasure that made Smyrnan believers wealthy despite their material poverty. Also, Jesus offers the white garments of holiness (and triumph) to cover the churches nakedness. The shame of nakedness is a prophet symbol for judgment, but to receive fine new clothing was an honor. This reality was hidden from the eyes of the Laodicean church, showing that, despite being in a city famed for their medicinal eye salve, they were blinded and needed the healing balm of Jesus applied to their spiritual eyes so they could see their pitiful spiritual condition.
Remarkably, even in the midst of this most harsh letter, Jesus affirms his ongoing love for his church. The harsh words of rebuke are born out of his love and hope that the church will repent. Jesus invites them to open the door for him, so he can come in and eat with them. This is a wonderful invitation to a wayward church and her individual members to renew fellowship with their Lord, and fellowship in the most intimate manner.

This church was not a conquering church, but an assimilated one. However, to those who repent and press on in the calling of being witnesses, in being the salt and light Jesus demanded they be, Jesus offers the extraordinary promise of sharing his throne with them. While much regarding the exact timing and nature of the rule Christ offers his overcoming followers remains ambiguous, the honor is surely great. This honor, like all the rewards that have been promised in the preceding letters, presumes the accomplishment of God’s redemptive mission through Christ, the establishment of the eternal kingdom, and the church’s faithful participation in it (only then will she be granted this honor).