by Roger McCay
11 July 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 3:14-22
Link to Audio Version
What is at the top of the mountain of success? John L. Cooper, in his book Awake & Alive to Truth, answers this query with the testimony of a man who had been there:
… a man [as Cooper tells it] who had created several businesses had many employees, and created an incredible amount of wealth. He’d never been in need of anything that he couldn’t buy. There was nothing left to conquer because he had reached the top of the mountain of success. In his later years in life, he discovered the truth of Jesus and the God of the universe. He had finally found the joy and fulfillment he had been looking for in all of his endless pursuits. He was asked what he wanted to do for the remaining years of his life. His answer was simple:
In the time I have left, as I climb down the mountain of success and pass everyone who is clawing and scraping their way up, I want to tell them as loudly as I can that I have been to the top of the mountain. I have seen everything there is to see. And there is nothing up there. 
“There is nothing up there.” Or, as Jesus says to the church in Laodicea, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Worldly success and affluence does not mean that one is rich in any meaningful way when it comes to eternal things. One cannot look at all one has, at one’s influence, power on this earth, one’s worldly accomplishments and equate that with God’s approval and assurance and that one is squared up with him. The Scriptures are clear on this. Yet, in the midst of the headiness and confidence engendered by worldly achievements and prosperity, there can be a tendency to get confused—confusing worldly affluence and self-sufficiency with being right with God.
Sure, worldly success is a blessing from God, and we need to remember this truth before we fall into the trap of Nebuchadnezzar, in Dan. 4. Worldly success is not, however, the measure of one’s eternal assurance, but it is a measure of what is expected from you, in your work for the Kingdom of God (Luke 12:48). And outside of communion with the Lord, worldly success (whether one is a billionaire, the ruler of nations, successful in business, famous on the internet, or whatever earthly pursuit one sets his or her hand to) … worldly success outside of communion with the Lord is empty, fleeting, and just pitifully sad, as it is merely “vanity and a striving after wind.”
The Laodiceans, in the first century, were confused on this matter, equating affluence with spiritual assurance and self-sufficiency with righteousness. Thus Jesus sent them this letter to set them straight—a letter that has great relevance for the church today (v. 22).
Laodicea was a remarkably wealthy city, one of the richest in the world. Their location was at a junction of trade routes going north-south and east-west through Phrygia, and they profited greatly from the traffic. With their wealth and location, they naturally became the banking center of the region. They further boasted a medical school, with a focus on ophthalmology, the healing of eyes, and were known for a medicinal eye powder. They also had a unique trade in the wool of black sheep, with the clothes made of the soft black wool being in vogue. The city was so wealthy, that, in AD 60, when a great earthquake damaged the city (along with several others), the city refused imperial help to rebuild. So they rebuilt without help. Indeed, with many of the new structures, the city was even more impressive than it was before the earthquake.
Laodicea was close to two other cities, Hierapolis and Colossae, and it is thought that the churches in these cities sprang up as a result of Epaphras’ preaching, during the years that Paul was in Ephesus (Col. 4:13). And you may remember that Paul’s letter to the Colossians was also meant to be read in Laodicea, and the letter he wrote to Laodicea (which we don’t have) was meant to be read at Colossae. Also in Laodicea, there was a large Jewish population, and the primary pagan Gods worshipped were Zeus and Men Karou, the god of healing.
In our passage today, Jesus dictates to John this letter to the church in Laodicea. He identifies himself in three ways: “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” That Jesus is the Amen, means he is true, the true God who is true to his Word and true to his people (Isa. 65:15). Thus he is the faithful and true witness, the Word of God, whose proclamations and judgments are the very judgments and proclamations of God, and whose promises are as sure as existence itself. That he is the beginning of God’s creation hearkens to his being the pre-incarnate Son of God, the Word of God that spoke the universe into being. And this title brings to mind that he is the one testified to in Col. 1:15-20, a passage the Laodiceans should have known:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
And Jesus, “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation,” had some issues with the church in Laodicea.
First off there is the problem Jesus raises with them, in vv. 15-16:
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
There was an interesting contrast between the cities of Hierapolis, Colossae, and Laodicea, which Jesus picks up on here in Rev. 3. It was the condition of the water in each city. In Colossae, the water was cold and refreshing, coming down from a nearby mountain. In Hieropolis, there were hot mineral springs, which people enjoyed for their healing properties. But, in Laodicea, they had water issues. The water piped to them from Hierapolis through aqueducts was particularly bad as it was lukewarm by the time it got to them and the mineral content made it undrinkable, inducing vomiting. It was neither cold and refreshing or hot for healing, but lukewarm and disgusting—much like the works and spiritual condition of the local church (vv. 15-16).
Now, what might that lukewarmness in the church look like? We aren’t told specifically. But it seems that it was probably a combination of issues. Perhaps it was that they were apathetic towards living the Christian life, displaying a nonchalance towards communion with Christ (v. 20). Blending in with the world, eschewing the set-apartness that is distinctive in followers of the Way (true disciples of Christ), there would have been no risk of hardship or suffering for Christ, allowing them to live comfortably in their society, living out some sort of amalgamation of religious affectations. Along those lines, they may have had a pretense of Christian piety, yet without heart engagement (like in Isaiah 29:13)—an affectation respected, perhaps, by pious pagans (who respected the gods), particularly if it accommodated syncretism. And/or, it could have included the pharisaism of works righteousness and empty religious practices (the attempt at self-sufficient works to assure salvation) perhaps by incorporating the false teachings of the Judaizers, an affectation keeping them at peace with the Jews (Acts 15:1, Gal. 1:6-9).
As it was, whatever the particulars, because they left Jesus out of the equation (v. 20), they were not following Jesus in the manner in which he calls his disciples. They were not living lives of faith and repentance, denying self, taking up their cross, while empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good works of love in the name of Jesus (Mark 8:34; Phil. 2:13; 1 Thess. 1:3). They were not, in faith, relying on Jesus alone for salvation and assurance. No matter how pious and righteous their outward appearance may have been it was false. The comfort of their affluence had blinded them to their lukewarm reality that made Jesus want to vomit.
And so, v. 17:
17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
The economy of the Kingdom of God flips what the world values upon its head (hence Smyrna in Rev. 2:9). Yet, what the church in Laodicea valued was what the world valued—affluence and personal peace. And they had achieved these things. The problem was that such things offered them no advantages in what truly matters. From the Good Shepherd’s point of view, they were wretched and pitiable—a sad case who needed to be dragged back onto the path of righteousness through the means of his rod and his staff. In the eyes of Christ, they were poor, blind, and naked (terms speaking to the very opposite of the boasts of the city of Laodicea – extreme wealth, a medical school of ophthalmology, and their black woolen garment industry). The church, thinking it was right with God basing their assumption on their worldly self-reliance, success, and affluence, was unable to discern the spiritual realities of their plight, which was a situation where they had pushed Jesus out of the picture. And such is a pitiful state.
So my friends, beware worldly affluence. Sure, the accumulation of wealth and all that goes with it is not in itself evil, and it can be a blessing from the Lord. But, when it begins to serve as a measure of the quality of one’s Christian life and spirituality, when you come to rely on it for assurance in this life and the next (and not on Christ), it can become a curse and a false Christ.
Have you fallen into that trap? Does your self-sufficiency in this world make you think your works mean diddly when it comes to your eternal assurance? Do you think that your affluence or success or comfort means you are right with God? Have you somehow ceased to rely on Jesus and rely on something else instead?
Friends, take this to heart, neither affluence, success, comfort, good health, or any worldly advantage is a sign that one is right with God. Rather, in the economy of the Kingdom, as Jesus tells the church in Laodicea (a message to be heeded by every church – v. 22) the solution to such a disgustingly lukewarm situation is to “buy” from him what is free.
18 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.
Here Jesus reminds the church to heed his call to access the spiritual realities that the believer already possesses by God’s grace and love. The idea to “buy” from Jesus hearkens to Isa. 55:1, where the Lord calls out, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Jesus is calling the church to take ownership of what he has already purchased and given to them.
He mentions three things: “gold refined by fire,” “white garments,” and “salve to anoint your eyes.” In contrast to worldly wealth, “gold refined by fire” is one’s faith, tried and found true through suffering (1 Pet 1:7). Openly wearing the white garments of righteousness that Christ has provided, purchased with his blood, would mean living in righteous integrity of witness to the world for Christ in both word and deed. And then the healing eye salve Jesus mentions opens the eyes to discern their true spiritual reality, needing “spiritual healing from Christ, who alone is the source of the healing.”
In such a way, Jesus gave them a true picture of where they stood. Such assurance has nothing to do with affluence (wrapped up in Laodicea’s banking, garment trade, and ophthalmological healing) but everything to do with Christ’s loving provision of spiritual gold, garments, and healing—something of which the world cannot provide and of which it knows nothing.
But note that faith refined by fire and wearing the righteousness of Christ in witness both involve suffering for Christ (2 Tim. 2:7). Yet such would not be arbitrary suffering; rather it would be an affirmation of Jesus’ love. Jesus loved the church in Laodicea, despite how bad a condition they were in. His love is not only for the attaboy churches, but also his struggling churches. He had not forsaken the church in Laodicea, despite their pathetic condition. So he was taking action to bless them. Thus, as he says in v. 19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.”
The point of this letter, specifically for Laodicea, was to reprove the church (in other words wake them up and correct them with a sharp Word). Responding to the reproof of the letter, the chastened church’s newfound zeal and repentance would then invite persecution from the pagans and the Jews. But, as Jesus had opened their eyes to the spiritual realities of suffering for him, they could see it for what it was. In this case, recognizing their suffering as Christ’s discipline, which should have been an encouragement for them.
The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he uses all sorts of methods to accomplish this discipline, even the persecution of his enemies. Jesus, here, is hearkening to the truths expressed in Prov. 3:11-12 and Heb. 12:5-6. Proverbs tells us, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Heb. 12 picks up that thought and applies it to those suffering persecution. Thus, the promise of Christ was that the loving discipline of the Lord would refine and strengthen their faith, sanctifying them, and giving them true assurance as to their status with Christ (something affluence is powerless to do). And perhaps, when they faced the suffering they would rejoice, their eyes opened to the spiritual realities of what was going on (Rom. 5:3). And maybe they would be in awe like the apostles, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Jesus loved the church of Laodicea. He wanted to have a deep and abiding relationship with them. Hence, he was persistent in his actions towards them, calling to them. So, v. 20:
20 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.
This is not a call of evangelism to the lost people of the world. It is, rather, an invitation specifically addressed to the church of Christ, whom he purchased with his blood (although it would have had a certain significance to the unbelievers in the church). It is a call and a promise to fellowship with those who are his, by grace through faith. Such is along the lines of John’s emphasis on koinonia, fellowshipping with the Lord, in the first chapter of his first epistle. He writes, in v. 3, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Here in Rev. 3, Christ reveals his strong desire to partake of such fellowship. Despite the failures of his church, he yearns for fellowship with his people.
The church in Laodicea, in their spiritual self-sufficiency had pushed Jesus out of the equation. He was seeking to rectify that. He had appealed to them in his reproof; he was now displaying his love and deep desire to commune with them in an intimate way. And this is not about church rituals; it is about relationship.
Jesus wants to be in close relationship with his people. Jesus desires that his people have deep soul-communion with him, like Daniel enjoyed. This includes corporate worship, of course. But it goes far deeper. When we rely totally and completely upon him; when we pray daily, including the ongoing conversation throughout the day; when we spend time in his Word, meditate on his Word, experiencing his Word transform us as it speaks into our lives; when he is our best friend and greatest love, whom we live for and would die for, just as he did for us, we engage in soul-communion. The God of the universe wants to keep you close and share with you his life, his holiness, and his power. He wants to bless you in every conceivable way, blessings beyond the understanding of the world.
Why would we ever rely on worldly affluence when we have Jesus? I mean, come on! Jesus! Soul-communion with him is one of the greatest privileges and joys conceivable. It’s an eternal privilege and full of infinite promise.
In such communion, Jesus even promises to share his throne. Verse 21:
21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
From a worldly point of view, the idea of those in power sharing their throne is ridiculous. Those in power are jealous of their power, and hold tightly to it. They might delegate power, but they don’t share it. Jesus (the King of Kings and Lord of Lords) is so secure in his power, that he promises sharing his throne and rule (which he shares with the Father) with his beloved. You cannot possibly get such a mind-blowing blessing through the vanity of worldly affluence. You can only receive it by trusting in Christ, following him to the end.
How important is worldly success to you? What would you give, what would you be willing to do to have it? Would you push Jesus out of the house, so that you wouldn’t be hindered by him and the call to righteousness he puts on your life?
My friends, the success and wealth of the world is nice to have, but it provides no assurance as to our eternal state. It is fleeting. Trust in Jesus. Rely on him. He is eternal. He is the truth, the faithful witness, and the ultimate power and purpose. Jesus loves you so much that he died for you. In his resurrection and life of power he proved himself true and reliable. Trust in him.
James Hamilton speaks of a man you probably know. He writes:
A certain man was the adopted son of the princess, and the princess was daughter to the world’s most powerful king. They knew affluence. They knew resources. They knew prestige, fine food, and stylish clothing. In worldly terms they lacked nothing. As the young man grew he was educated and cultivated. There were girls. There were privileges. There were family expectations. There were possibilities. There were the concerns of the realm. But he left it all. He had something greater, more valuable, something that would make enjoying everything he had a waste of his life. Do you know this man?
Any guesses? The Scriptures tell us about him:
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Heb. 11:24–26)
Where do you find your hope, your life, your assurance of salvation? Is it in Christ? Are you willing to suffer for him?
My friends, Jesus loves you. He wants to fellowship with you. He wants to be your greatest friend and greatest love. He loves you. Do you love him? If you do, then truly love him. In that loving relationship, there you will find your true assurance of being right with God. Because in Jesus alone we find our eternal assurance, Christians must rely on him.
 A major theme in Ecclesiastes.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 210.
 James M. Hamilton Jr., Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 126–127.