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The church at Sardis was described as being “dead” (3:1). It appeared to be alive – had “a reputation of being alive” – looked spiritually vibrant on the outside – but was spiritually lifeless. The church was Christian in name only. This recalls Christ’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees who “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
Says G.R. Beasley-Murray: “The appearance [of the Sardis church] is that of a beautifully adorned corpse in a funeral parlour, and the Lord is not deceived” (Revelation, p. 95). The church needed to stir up the living Spirit of God in order to come to life.
One of the most terrifying passages in the New Testament reads:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20).
In order to appreciate the significance of the foregoing verse, one must know something of the background. Jesus sent letters to seven congregations of his people throughout Asia Minor. We may assume that these churches were typical of that day, and even of our own time. Generally (but with some exception), the letters contained a mixture of praise and rebuke.
The final epistle, to Laodicea, was pure censure (3:14-22). It is within this context that the Savior depicted himself as being outside the pale of fellowship with this group. What a strange and tragic situation! There are a number of very important truths to be gleaned from this passage.
The Ousted Savior
Christ is standing at the door, knocking to obtain entrance. The verb “stand” is a perfect tense form, suggesting that the Lord had been at the door for some time, and had remained there. He had not given up on these wayward saints.
Too, “knock” is a present tense verb; the Savior continued to rap on their door. Interestingly, “knock” is from krouo, to knock with the knuckles, as opposed to koptein, to hit with a heavy blow (Thayer, 362). The Lord wanted entrance, but he was not about to pound the door open.
It is a matter of amazement that the Son of God stands on the outside of his own congregation. In view of the great sacrifice which the Lord made to purchase the church (Acts 20:28), and the love he sustains for his spiritual body (Eph. 5:25ff), why is he estranged from these people? The reason is obvious — they drove him out!
Here is a point worthy of fearful contemplation. A congregation of the Lord’s people can get so rotten that he will sever fellowship with them. Does the doctrine of once-saved, always-saved make any sense in view of this passage?
One of the more frightening features of this case is the fact that Christ had severed his communion with this church, and yet they were totally oblivious to this grim situation. Elsewhere in the letter, Jesus chided the group for their prideful boasting regarding wealth. And then he said:
[You] know not that you are the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked (17).
One wonders how many churches today are priding themselves on their magnificent edifices and exciting “programs” — only to be wholly unaware that the Savior has departed from their midst.
The Peril of Mere Formality
Of paramount interest must be the question: What were the factors that forced the Son of God to walk out of this congregation?
The general criticism was that the church was neither hot (zealous), nor cold (completely dead); rather, it was “lukewarm.” This was a condition that sickened the Savior and made him vow that eventually he would “vomit” them out (so reads the original text). The language symbolically signifies “to reject with extreme disgust” (Thayer, 207).
But the question is: What is lukewarmness? Perhaps that can best be determined by looking at the traits commended in the other churches (endurance, faith, service, for example), and then noting the specific indictments catalogued against the other congregations (e.g., the advocacy of rank heresy).
One may deduce that Laodicea occupied a sort of neutral status between these extremes. These folks were not stone-cold dead, like most of those in Sardis (3:1), but they had no measurable zeal. They appear not to have been proponents of flagrant false doctrine, but they certainly would not have opposed such. They were “keeping house.”
The Laodicean church might well have been one of the most popular religious movements in the city. But they rocked no boats; created no ripples. They were a sorry mass of jellyfish do-nothings. Little wonder that they made the Lord nauseous.
It is an incredible commentary on the love of Christ that he was willing to come back into this congregation and reestablish communion with them. Is there anything more thrilling than the contemplation of divine love?
The Power of One
The Savior’s invitation hints of the power inherent within a solitary individual. “If any man [person]” — a single soul — had been willing to open the door, the Master would have come in to him or her. Unlike the situation at Sardis, where at least “a few … did not defile their garments” (3:4), at Laodicea there was not a person with conviction sufficient to entice the Master’s return. Are there churches of this caliber today?
The Role of Christ’s Word
The key to Christ’s return was this: The church must once again “hear” (i.e., respond to) his “voice.” Christianity is a religion of instruction. There is no other motivational impetus that will bring about reformation. “Programs” will not do it; fluff theology won’t accomplish it; entertainment will not achieve it.
The Lord promised that if anyone would open to him, he would come in and “sup” with that person. First, let us comment on the term “sup.” It means “to take supper.” Here, the word may simply be a figure for fellowship in general. On the other hand, it could allude to Christ’s actual promise of “eating” the communion supper with us. Jesus had promised: “I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new [kainon] in my father’s kingdom” (Mt. 26:29). The adjective kainos denotes a qualitative newness.
Observe then that Jesus promised: “I will sup with him, and he with me.” The communion is personal. The Lord only “sups” with the one who hears his voice and opens to him. Christianity doesn’t “rub off.” Another’s response does not count for you. Moreover, no one can “sup” with Christ until the Lord is ready to commune with him. There is a divine sequence there.
What an important passage this is — so brimming with meaning. Was it ever more needed than today?
The “lukewarm” are of such foul quality that they even make our loving Savior sick to his stomach. Figuratively, therefore, he “vomits” (the literal meaning of the term) them out as one would rotten food. Here is an interesting question: why are the “lukewarm” censured more sharply than those who are “cold”? Doubtless because by “hanging on” they convey the superficial impression to the world that they are faithful Christians, hence bring enormous disgrace to the cause of Christ by their unspiritual lives. They are walking commentaries on the meaning of the term “hypocrite.”
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