A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:14-22
In a sermon I preached a couple years ago I was describing the significance and necessity of ministry in the suburbs. Despite the fact that urban ministry is all the rage, and ministry in the suburbs is often viewed by urban types/hipsters as “selling out,” I tried to point out that people are dying in the suburbs just as they’re dying in the city:
“It’s just that they’re dying of wealth; They’re dying of prosperity; They’re dying of overwhelming stress and impossible expectations; They’re dying of prescription drug addiction; They’re dying of families shattered by adultery and divorce and workaholism; People in the suburbs are dying of ‘The American Dream.’ And ultimately they’re dying for lack of a Savior.”
If there were a suburb-like environment in 1st century Asia Minor (roughly modern day turkey), it was Laodicea. It was situated in a prime location on important trade routes, is was the banking center of the entire region, people came from all over the Mediterranean world to study at its excellent medical schools, it was a style- and trend-setter in clothing; It was an enormously wealthy and comfortable city. Its residents were so wealthy that they had more or less lost all perspective on how wealthy they were and how the vast majority of the rest of the world lived.
And God tells them that they’re not wealthy enough.
Have you ever been kept awake at night because of money concerns?
I certainly have.
How am I ever going to pay back these student loans? How am I ever going to get rid of this credit card debt? How am I ever going to make the mortgage payment this month? If I lose this job, how am I going to provide for my family? What are we going to do with all of these medical expenses? How are we ever going to be able afford to adopt?…
I imagine most of us have been there at one point or another. Maybe when we were young and hadn’t gotten on our feet yet. Maybe when things went terribly wrong and everything suddenly became unstable and uncertain. Your mind races through the options again and again, reconsidering every possible way of bringing in money over and over and over again. Hard as you try, you cannot stop trying to think of ways that you might be able to get just a little more. Your eyes bore holes in the ceiling. You pace. You think. You watch some TV to try to get your mind off it. It doesn’t work. You pace and think some more.
New question: Have you ever been kept awake at night because you couldn’t stop trying to think of new ways to be rich in good deeds?
I wish I could say I have. I try to do good and love other people well, and I try to lead my family in the same. But I can’t think of a time I was literally kept awake trying to think of more ways to become rich in good deeds—not in the way I have been kept awake trying to think of the best way to ensure financial resources for my family.
God says to the wealthy Laodiceans: “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.” (v. 17) Every outward sign points to the Laodicean believers living rich lives. The American Dream. The Good Life. But they are desperately poor because they are leading almost entirely useless lives.
One of the most commonly misunderstood passages in all of Scripture is Rev. 3:15-16:
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.
It’s usually assumed that what God is saying is that he is revolted by what have come to be called “lukewarm Christians”—believers who are half-committed to following Jesus; who say they’re “Christ-ian,” but make no appreciable effort to make their lives look like Christ’s. And God would rather than they be fully committed or not committed at all. But that’s not quite what God is saying. I have a hard time believing God would ever “wish” that someone would not be committed at all.
Numerous commentators have pointed out that the one thing Laodicea lacked was its own natural water source. It’s city planners had built massive, miles-long aquaducts to bring hot spring water to the city from Hierapolis, and cold, mountain run-off from Colossae. But by the time the hot water had traveled the distance from Hierapolis, it wasn’t hot enough to bathe in or effectively wash clothes or dishes. By the time the water arrived from Colossae it was no longer cold enough to be refreshing to drink. All of Laodicea’s water was worthless. It wasn’t useful for anything.
What God is “spitting out of his mouth” is people whose lives aren’t useful.
The concern he raises in verse 15 is about deeds. “I know your deeds.” Despite the appearance of wealth, they are impoverished because their lives are not rich in good deeds.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not implying that we have to do a certain amount of good deeds to become acceptable to God. I’m not smuggling in a works-righteousness theology through the back door.
I’m saying that a poverty of good works in our lives should keep us awake at night.
How can I do more? How can I love better? How can I free up more to give? How can I bless more people? How can I serve my spouse and children more selflessly? I should get up and pace and think this through… How can my life be more useful?…
Before the end of the day, what good thing could you do for another? What blessing could you give?
May we be people whose dreaming and scheming about lives rich in good deeds make us lose sleep.