Revelation Commentary, 3:14-22, To Laodicea
Laodicea was one of three cities which were connected economically (the others being Colossae and Hierapolis) and was located forty miles south-east of Philadelphia in the Lycus valley. The city was situationed on a major trade route and its name ‘Laodicea’ comes from its founder, Antiochus 2nd (261-246) who named it after his wife.
During the reign of Antiochus 3rd (242-187BC) a large Jewish population (circa 2000 families) from Mesopotamia was relocated in the area, this explaining the strong Jewish presence in Laodicea down through the decades.
In 40BC Labienus, Parthicus (a Roman republican general), sided with the Parthians and attacked Roman territory. He invaded Asia and all the cities opened their gates to him until he arrived at Laodicea. There the orator Zeno and his son Polemno stood against him. As a reward, the Laodicea became a throne city with additional privileges.
At the time of John’s writing, Laodicea was a wealthy city and a major hub for banking. Wealth was also derived from the raven-black wool of sheep exclusive to the locality.
After a major earthquake in 60AD, the city was the only one who refused help from Rome concerning a rebuilding programme, choosing instead to finance the work itself. It was at this time that finance for the famous triple gate of the city was donated.
The church in Laodicea.
The self-sufficiency of the Laodiceans had an impact on the church which did not suffer the persecution other churches had gone through and thought themselves to be rich. In reality, the church was not looking with their spiritual eyes because if they had done so, they would see that they were poor.
Ironically, Laodicea was a leading city for the treatment of eye disease with a temple to Asklepios, the so-called god of medicine. As a leading city for the study and treatment of eyes, Laodicea produced one of the most famous graduates of its day, Demosthenes Philalethes, a renowned ophthalmologist and occultist. Philalethes followed the teachings of Herophilos (said to be the first anatomist) and became the head of the Herophilean School of medicine, twenty miles down the road from Laodicea at Carura. The medical school developed a salve and power to treat eye conditions which was sold throughout the region, adding to the income of the area. Later, as we look at what Jesus says to the Laodiceans, we see Him speaking of Himself as the One true great physician and encouraging people to ‘buy’ from Him.
One final point to make concerning the city of Laodicea is that six miles to the north was the city of Hierapolis. This city was known for its hot springs which rose from pools on the city-plateau whilst eight miles to the south was Colossae which was known for its pure, cold drinking water. Laodicea’s Achilles heel (apart from her pride and wealth) was that she had no natural drinking water and by the time it was piped, it was both dirty and tepid. All this has bearing on what Jesus had to say.
Jesus introduces Himself.
Jesus introduces Himself to the Laodiciean church as the One whose words are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, ruler of God’s creation (Rev 3:14). He is our true source of stability and security and not the world around us no matter how stable it may seem. This is why His words are the words of the ‘Amen.’
The word ‘Amen’ speaks of that which is true and faithful and is used to confirm a statement and it’s interesting to see where the word ‘Amen’ is first used in the Bible.
The first appearance of ‘Amen’ in the Bible is seen in the case of a husband accusing his wife of adultery (whilst she protested innocent), with the matter being settled by God. Let’s now ‘colour’ in the picture so as to see what was going on.
Firstly we note that in the male-dominated society of the Ancient Near East it could be a more serious issue for a woman to be accused of something like adultery. Who was going to stand in her corner and how would she defend herself in a world where people often listen to gossip and believe it without thinking issues through? Apart from this, when you view someone as a lesser person it becomes easier to attack them as the following story clearly reveals.
Recently in Pakistan (July 2015) a young Muslim law graduate was stoned to death by a crowd of men. She was attending her local Mosque and took issue with a vendor selling verses of the Quran as verses for healing. He did not like this and started shouting, “She has burnt the Quran, she has burnt the Quran”. Within minutes she was stoned and even whilst trying to escape was pushed to the ground and kicked and beaten. When she died (and I have seen footage of the whole event) a car ran over her body and then young men continued to throw large rocks on her corpse. During her horrific death police officers had looked on and no-one came to her aid. If women had not come together and complained vehemently, the case would never have been taken to court. When it did, there were sentences ranging from twenty-years down to a year for each policeman who had not intervened. All of this was, of course, too late for the young woman.
Now let’s move back to look at the passage where we first find the word ‘Amen’ being used.
In (Num 5:14-22) we read that the accused was to be brought before the priest and made to drink some water containing dust from the tabernacle floor. The word Tabernacle means ‘dwelling place’, ‘tent of meeting’ and is from the root ‘to entwine’. In its precision (designed in seven stages) and God’s presence, it was a microscopic representation of God’s creation and perfection. In the ritual mentioned above there is the reminder that man has come from the dust of the ground in a place which has been set apart as holy, representing renewed creation and God’s localised presence. The priest represents the ways of God to man and man before God (perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the High Priest (Heb 6:19-20)).
In the ritual spoken of in Numbers and during the drinking of the water with dust in it, a priest would pronounce a curse and the accused was required to say, ‘Amen, Amen’. A curse speaks of being separated from our natural environment (ultimately the localised presence of God). When we break God’s laws we do not so much break the law as ‘break’ our own lives.
“May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away." "'Then the woman is to say, "Amen. So be it." Numbers 5:22
In saying ‘Amen’ there is the declaration of being faithful and true – of being firmly rooted in and accepting the ways and teaching of God.
To our modern day way of thinking the above ritual may seem rather strange, but if we think about it, we see that it is about God’s protection for the weak in a potentially destructive situation whatever way you look at it. In all ways Israel was called to be rooted in the Lord.
Seeing the need to be rooted in God explains why some of the Hebraic pictures of faithfulness are of a tent peg in solid ground, or that of a tree rooted and established in God’s promises (e.g. Psalm 1). God’s words, actions and promises clearly reveal His nature and character as the One who is full of loving-kindness. In light of this we can see why the Hebraic understanding of the word ‘Amen’ was also a reminder that God is the faithful King.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and this is why He speaks of Himself as the Amen - the faithful and true witness, the One who sees and knows all things.
In a city of elaborate temples, financial security, a famous school of medicine in the local district and well-known eye products, Jesus reminds the church that He is the true ruler of God’s creation who sees and knows all things. We need to remember that the One who designed the human eye in all its intricate detail is fully capable of helping us see exactly who He is and help us to trust in Him and not our own achievements. Let’s just think about that for a moment as we read the following description of the human eye.
“Millions of cells lining the interior of each eye function as photo-chemical receivers that convert light waves into a myriad of electrical impulses which are forwarded, at a speed of about 200 miles per hour, to the brain – and then sorted, organised and analysed; this is accomplished in milliseconds. Eyes are like antennae for the brain.”
Dr G. Simmons in, ‘What Darwin Didn’t Know, page 106.
Jesus’ words to the Laodiciean church.
Jesus told the Laodiciean church that although they thought themselves rich, they were actually poor. As already mentioned, the words ‘I am rich’ probably allude to the self-sufficiency of the population (e.g. not wanting finance for their reconstruction programme after the earthquake of 60AD) which had crept into the church. Jesus did not say that the church was totally inactive but points out is that what was being done was being done in their own strength and resources which ignored the fruit, gifting and leading of the Holy Spirit. Many churches can have great visions when it comes to building programmes yet what is their vision of God; are they a praying people?
Jesus then tells the church that He would spit them out of His mouth. In seeking to do God’s work in their own strength they were like the tepid water that ran through the pipes at Laodicea. They were far from the souce of life and, like the Laodiceans who had built their own water course, ended up with that which was neither hot nor cold.
Some of the Laodiciean church were poor, blind and naked. Through their lack of a connection with God, they could not receive His riches (2 Cor 8:9), see the truth and were not clothed in His work. They were nominal and not spiritual in any way.
In a city that was known for its riches, Jesus then says to buy true gold (note again 1 Corinthians 3:12-16), this speaking of Holy Spirit empowered living and building. In a city known for its clothing and special raven-black wool, they were naked. In a city which was famous for its eye salve, they needed to get ‘ointment’ from Him so that they could see properly.
I stand at the door.
Jesus then goes on to encourage the nominal believers to see that He stands at the door of their community life as He invites them to open the door and let Him in. This knocking and His invitation is in total contrast to the use of authority by many Roman officials.
Laodicea was a Conventus capital which meant that she was the capital city of a subdivision of a province in the Roman Empire. As a prominent city, she would have been exploited by Roman officials who could enforce the local dignitaries to house their staff as and when they liked. They could literally barge in.
Jesus, the all-powerful One, never forces His way into our lives. He expects us to respond to His gracious invitation and will then eat (fellowship) with us, this being a clear sign of friendship and acceptance in the ancient world. Those who take up His gracious offer to do so will live in His victory. What the Laodecians were being encouraged to do was to stop leaning on their own ways and totally hand their lives over to God.
Jesus then concludes His message to the churches by encouraging them to listen to the Spirit and understand what was being said. Down through the ages all churches will face at least some of the difficulties that the seven churches in Revelation face. However a simple and sobering truth remains as a warning to us all: it is only the believer who can quench the work of the Spirit in his or her life. Yet, in reading how Jesus seeks to get alongside and encourage the church we too can be encouraged. The good news is that the One who spoke to those churches is still about His business and with us today. Therefore, let us seek to measure life through what He says and not through our own experiences - good or bad.