To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.
(a) The angel; see entry for Rev. 2:1.
(b) The seven spirits of God refer to the Holy Spirit; see entry for Rev. 1:4.
(c) The seven stars. Jesus is portrayed as holding the seven stars in his letters to Sardis and Ephesus (Rev. 2:1). It’s a similar introduction for similar cities. Both Sardis and Ephesus were, at different times, the center of gravity for western Anatolia. Sardis was the past; Ephesus was the future. Sardis had been the capital; Ephesus would become the capital. Like the Ephesians, the proud Sardians considered themselves at the center of everything. So Jesus reveals himself as in the center of the seven stars, meaning the angels or leaders of the churches, and the seven churches led by those stars (Rev. 1:20).
(d) I know your deeds; see entry for Rev. 2:19.
(e) You have a name. In contrast with the no-name church down the road in Philadelphia, the Sardian church was highly regarded. It had a reputation as a thriving fellowship. But in the Lord’s eyes, that reputation was misplaced. The Sardians were all style and no substance.
(f) You are reputedly alive but dead. Jesus is talking about religious unbelievers who are disconnected from the One called Life (John 14:6). The Sardians had a religious reputation, but they remained dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). They impressed some with their religious activity, and they had an appearance of church life. But Jesus wasn’t fooled. “You are dead.”
Some say the Sardians were apathetic believers whose faith was waning. “They were a dying church.” But the Sardians were dead, not dying. The word Jesus used to describe them literally means corpse. A corpse is not an apathetic or lazy person; a corpse is dead.
There were a few believers in this church, and Jesus will get to them in a few verses. But most of the Sardians were spiritually dead. They had not received the Spirit that gives life (Rom. 8:11). That’s the bad news. The good news is that Jesus raises the dead.
Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
(a) To wake up and strengthen that which remains is to repent before it’s too late. Jesus was not speaking to lethargic Christians who need to perk up for the Lord. He’s speaking to those who need to “awake and arise from the dead” (Eph. 5:14).
The word for strengthen means to turn resolutely. It means, pay attention! Get up! Turn about! It is a call to immediate and definite action. It’s as though the Sardians are sleeping on the train tracks and Jesus is shouting, “Wake up before it’s too late!”
(b) About to die. The Sardians are going to die, maybe not this year or next, but one day. They are already spiritually dead; soon they will be physically dead, hence the urgent need to take action.
(c) I have not found your deeds complete. The Sardians had not put their faith in Jesus.
Some use this verse to burden believers with unholy demands for religious activity. “You have to perform for Jesus lest he find your deeds incomplete. You need to do more, study more, and pray more to maintain your fellowship with the Holy Spirit.” But Jesus is talking to dead sinners, not living believers. It is the self-righteous—those trying to make a name for themselves—whose deeds are incomplete.
By all accounts the Sardians were plenty busy. They had acquired a reputation for their good deeds. But those who are trying to earn God’s favor can never succeed. They may be slaving for the Lord, but their best will never be enough. Their deeds will always be incomplete.
Further reading: “Are your deeds incomplete?”
So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
(a) They had received and heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since Sardis had a substantial Jewish population, we can assume that the gospel came to this town via the synagogue. The Sardian Jews heard the good news, and some of them repented (Rev. 3:4). But many did not. Hence the Lord exhorts them to “remember what you heard (the gospel) and repent (change your unbelieving minds).”
(b) Keep it and repent. To keep or hold fast to the gospel is to believe or heed it.
The gospel reveals the free gift of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17). One sign that a person hasn’t received the gospel is they haven’t received the righteousness that comes from God. They are still trying to establish their own. This is what was happening in Sardis. The Jews had heard about Jesus, but they had not grasped what Christ had done. They were boasting in their reputation when they could have been boasting in the Lord.
(c) To wake up is to come to one’s senses and repent. See entry for Rev. 3:2.
(d) I will come like a thief. Jesus is talking about the glorious day of the Lord, when he shall return unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (1 Th. 5:2).
The original citadel of Sardis was situated atop a steep plateau. When Cyrus of Persia besieged their fortress, the Sardians did not bother to watch the cliffs. No one could climb the escarpment, they thought. However, Persian troops led by a soldier called Hyroiades clambered up in the dark, opened the gate, and took the city. Thus ended the reign of King Croesus.
Like the rich man in the parable, King Croesus did not know the hour of his demise. He went to bed thinking himself safe and secure, but when he awoke all was lost. Cyrus had entered the city, like a thief in the night, and taken everything.
Amazingly, the Sardians did not learn from their mistake, for they repeated it 300 years later. With the armies of Antiochus the Great waiting outside, a nimble soldier by the name of Lagoras scaled the cliff and Sardis fell again.
To lose your city once for not paying attention is bad enough, but to lose it twice is really something. Sardis was infamous for not watching. So when Jesus says, “You guys need to wake up and watch lest I come like a thief,” he is speaking their language.
(e) You will not know at what hour I will come to you. No one knows the day or hour of the Son’s return (Matt. 24:36).
But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.
(a) The few who had not soiled their garments were the believers who were clothed with Christ and his righteousness.
Once again, we find two groups of people within the same church: the many and the few, the soiled and the unsoiled. The many were those who were confident of their righteousness, while the few were those who had submitted to the Lord’s righteousness. The many were soiled by the stain of their self-righteousness (Is. 64:6), while the few were clean because they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).
Contrary to what some have taught, this has nothing to do with moral purity. Indeed, the many who were soiled were probably just as moral as the few who weren’t. They were good folk who did good works and had a good name. But they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Conversely, the few who were unsoiled were not necessarily more moral than the rest. The only thing that made them different was Jesus who makes all the difference. It’s Jesus who makes us washed, white, and worthy.
(b) White garments; see entry for Rev. 3:5.
(c) Walk with me. To walk with the Lord means sharing life together in wedded union of koinonia. Often translated as fellowship, koinonia literally means participating in the abundant and joyful life of God that is in Christ Jesus (see entry for 1 John 1:3).
In Sardis there were two kinds of people: the living and the dead. Only the living can walk with the Lord because only the living walk. To walk with the Lord is to live in intimate fellowship with Jesus. It’s walking each day by faith in the new way of the Spirit.
(d) Worthy. Those clothed with Christ and his righteousness are worthy to walk with the Lord. We are not made worthy through our performance and purity; we are made worthy by Jesus. In his eyes, you were worth dying for. You are the pearl of great price. You might say we are all worthy, for Jesus died for all of us. But those who dismiss Christ count themselves unworthy (Acts 13:46). They will not walk with Christ because they choose not to. They are unworthy because they scorn the love that says they are.
Worthy means deserving or suitable, and what is a more suitable response to the grace of God but to receive it? Those who receive Christ’s love and wear his righteous robes are worthy to walk with him.
He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
(a) He who overcomes; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
(b) White garments. The white and unsoiled garments represent Christ’s righteousness (Is. 61:10), but elsewhere in scripture they represent the righteous acts of the saints (Rev. 19:8). Which is it? Do the white garments symbolize his righteousness or our deeds? It’s both. The acts of the saints are righteous because the saints are righteous, and the saints are righteous because Jesus makes them so (Rom. 5:17).
The white garments also prefigure the dazzling white garments of glory that will clothe the saints when Jesus returns. When we are clothed with immortality we shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matt. 13:43).
(c) I will not erase. Jesus promises to never remove the believer’s name from the Book of Life. However, this comforting assurance is sometimes twisted into a threat. “If you don’t overcome to the end, Jesus may blot you out.” Relax. Jesus says it won’t happen. “I will not erase your name.” Since the word not in the original Greek is emphasized, we can read it as, “I will not ever, ever, under any circumstance, erase your name from the Book of Life.” It is an emphatic promise. It’s good news, not bad news.
Even so, some have trouble believing it. They doubt what the Lord said to the Sardians because of what he said to Moses: “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book” (Ex. 32:33). (See also Deu. 9:14, 29:20.) That is bad news indeed, for all of us have sinned and fallen short (Rom. 3:23, 5:12). None of us deserves to be in his book.
Here is the difference between the old and new covenants: Under Moses, no one was good enough for the Book of Life; under Jesus, no believer can be blotted out. Christ’s promise is good news, not bad. While those who lived under the old law covenant were perpetually worried that God would blot out their names from the Book of Life, this is not a worry the Christian needs to share. Under the new covenant of grace, your future is as secure as God’s rock-solid promises.
Further reading: “Does God use correction fluid?”
(d) The Book of Life is the heavenly register of those who inherit eternal life. It is a register of the citizens of the kingdom of God.
The Book of Life appears frequently in the Bible. It is mentioned by Jesus (here in the letter to Sardis and in Luke 10:20), Moses (Ex. 32:32), David (Ps. 69:28), Paul (Php. 4:3, Heb. 12:23) and several times by John (Rev. 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). The book is also hinted at by the prophets Isaiah (Is. 4:3), Daniel (Dan. 12:1), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 13:9).
(e) I will confess his name. The proud Sardians were concerned about their name and reputation. Jesus exposed the futility of their pride before offering them a better deal. “You want a name that is known on the earth? I’ll declare your name in the heavens!”
Any name the Sardians had made for themselves would soon be forgotten, but their name in Jesus’ book would last forever. Their name had been hailed by men, but their new name would be proclaimed by the Lord himself (Matt. 10:32).
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
He who has an ear; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:
(a) The angel; see entry for Rev. 2:1.
(b) The name of the angel of the church at Philadelphia is unknown but it might have been the highly regarded Demetrius of 3 John 1:12. (Demetrius is identified as the first bishop of Philadelphia in Clement’s Apostolical Constitutions.) If so, he was probably ordained by John.
(c) Philadelphia means Brotherly love. The city was named after its founder Attalus II Philadelphus (220–138BC), the king of Pergamum. Attalus was the younger brother and heir of Eumenes II. Attalus was given the nickname Philadelphus on account of the love and loyalty he showed to his older brother.
(d) Jesus is holy and true. In the same way that Jesus is not merely lord, but the Lord, he is the Holy and the True. Jesus refers to himself in this manner because he is addressing a Jewish church. In the Old Testament, God is often referred to as the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 71:22, 78:41, 89:18) and the God of truth (Ps. 31:5, Is. 65:16). By taking the name Holy and True, Jesus is revealing himself in a way that has special relevance to the Jews. He is saying, “I am the Holy and True revelation of the Holy and True God.”
When Jesus began his earthly ministry, the Jews were not sure who he was. But some recognized that he was the promised Messiah. They said, “You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). Jesus is reaffirming that claim here. “I am the Holy One from God that you have been waiting for.”
(e) The Key of David is another Old Testament reference that would have been familiar to Jewish listeners. This key, which unlocked the door of King Hezekiah’s palace, was taken from a steward called Shebna and laid on the shoulder of a faithful servant named Eliakim (Is. 22:15–22). Eliakim decided who got to see the king and who didn’t. “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Is. 22:22). Similarly, Jesus has the keys to the kingdom of God, and no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).
Yet Jesus is no mere gatekeeper, for the key upon the shoulder also symbolizes authority (Is. 9:6). Jesus is the Son of David who sits on the Throne of David and bears the Key of David (Luke 1:32). All the riches and resources of heaven are at his disposal.
The transfer of the key from unfaithful Shebna to Eliakim mirrors Israel’s fall from grace. Shebna, whose name means vigor, lost the key to Eliakim, whose name means resurrected of God. Shebna represents the religious Jews who served in the vigor of their own strength but who shut the door to the kingdom of heaven. “You yourselves do not enter,” said Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees. “Nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:13). In contrast, Eliakim represents the resurrected Messiah who opens doors and invites all to come in.
In Philadelphia, religious Jews from the synagogue made it difficult for people to turn to God. They hindered the gospel and opposed the Christians. Jesus wanted the church to know that he holds the key, and that no man can shut any door that he opens.
I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name.
(a) I know your deeds; see entry for Rev. 2:19.
(b) An open door is an opportunity to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 16:9, 2 Cor. 2:12). An open door is what you have when people respond to the gospel and come to Jesus.
The Lord-with-a-key opens doors for his gospel, and often he does so in the most unexpected places. Philadelphia, a city of earthquakes and hostile Jews, would not have ranked high on our list of places to evangelize. Yet this town was ripe for the gospel. It was full of low-hanging fruit. In this letter, Jesus prophesies that some of the religious Jews who are opposing the church are going to get saved.
(c) Little power. A church with little power is a small or weak church. The Philadelphians lacked the resources of their Laodicean neighbors, and they didn’t have the reputation of the Sardians. Like David, the shepherd boy, they were of little account in the eyes of man. But weakness is no barrier to God. If anything, it’s an advantage because God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27).
A God who shares the stage with no one seems to delight in choosing the least qualified and the most unlikely. When he needed a man to lead Israel against the Midianites, he chose chicken-hearted Gideon. When he needed a herald for the gospel of grace, he chose law-loving Saul. And when he needed a father of many nations, he chose grey-haired Abram. In the economy of grace, the weak and unqualified seem to have the inside track. Further reading: “Good news for small churches”
(d) You have kept my word. The Philadelphians believed Jesus and took him at his word. They were believing believers who were persuaded that the Lord is good and trustworthy. This is the only clue to their commendation. Nothing else is recorded. The Philadelphians simply believed Jesus, and that made all the difference.
(e) You have not denied my name. The Philadelphians had endured some kind of test. They had been challenged to renounce the name of the Lord, perhaps under threat of expulsion from the synagogue, but they had refused to do so.
The Ephesians endured for the sake of his name (Rev. 2:3); the Pergamenes held fast to his name (Rev. 2:13); and the Philadelphians did not deny his name (Rev. 3:8). The common element in all three churches was opposition: false apostles in Ephesus, Roman hostility in Pergamum, and religious oppression in Philadelphia.
Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.
(a) The synagogue of Satan. When Jesus refers to the synagogue of Satan, he is not talking about Jews in general, of which there were some in the church. He’s talking about religious Jews who despised the Jewish Christians as traitors and enemies of God. These fanatics thought nothing of flogging Christians with whips (2 Cor. 11:24). In the name of their religion they would incite the Romans to harass and persecute the followers of Jesus (e.g., Acts 17:5–8). See also the entry for Rev. 2:9.
(b) The Jews that are not Jews are those religious Jews who persecuted Jesus and his church.
(c) The Jews that lie are religious haters in the slander business.
By the end of the first century, the Jews had been in Philadelphia for 300 years. They were an established and influential community within the city. In contrast, the church of Philadelphia was new and small. All the evidence suggests that the big and powerful synagogue was picking on the little church. The Christians were preaching the gospel of the kingdom, but those coming in were being hindered by the “Jews who lie.” They lied about the gospel. “You need to keep the law to become acceptable to God.” And they lied about those preaching it. “These heretics are sending people to hell.”
It was hard going for the small church. Their enemies were organized, well-resourced, and highly motivated. They knew how to work the system. There must have been times when the saints felt like they were going to be shut down by irresistible forces. They needed encouragement, and that’s what Jesus gave them. “I’ve given you an open door that no one can shut.” What a reassuring word from the Lord-with-a-key.
(d) I will make them come and bow. The hostile Jews will come to realize that those in the church are God’s people. In the city of brotherly love, Jesus will show the Jews who his real brothers are.
This is some prophecy. For hundreds of years, the Jews were mistreated by Gentile nations. They had been besieged, enslaved, mocked, and murdered. Throughout this dark time, they had been encouraged by the thought that one day vindication would come (Is. 60:14). Eventually the tables would turn and the scales of justice would balance. The oppressors of the Jews would finally recognize them as God’s people and pay homage. They would say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:23). But Jesus upends the old prophecy by saying the Jews will come and bow to the church. Contrary to all expectation, they will be the ones who admit their error and declare, “God is with you.” It’s a startling reversal.
(e) Make them know that I have loved you. Jesus is going to love these Jews into the kingdom.
Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.
(a) The word of my perseverance is the good news that Jesus has persevered and overcome the world. It’s the joyful revelation that because Jesus has done it all, you have nothing to prove.
To keep his word (Rev. 3:8) or keep his deeds (Rev. 2:26) or keep his faith (Rev. 2:13) or keep the word of his perseverance (Rev. 3:10) is to believe in Jesus and his finished work. It’s guarding the truth, continuing in the faith, and staying settled on the rock. It is refusing to be tempted into the dead works of religion and unbelief.
Like the Galatians, the Philadelphians were pressured to accept another gospel, one that emphasized ritual observance of the law. But unlike the Galatians, the Philadelphians didn’t listen. They remained true to Christ and refused to allow themselves to become burdened by a yoke of slavery.
(b) I will keep you from the hour of testing. Some twist our Savior’s beautiful words into a Christian fitness test. They say you have to persevere and endure to be saved. You have to keep Christ’s commands and maintain an erect and noble bearing under pressure. Fail to persevere and you risk punishment, even damnation. Talk about putting an old covenant spin on a new covenant promise. We are not kept from the coming trial because we endure; we are kept because Christ has endured.
(c) The hour of testing coming on the whole world is Judgment Day, a day of shaking.
Along with Sardis and ten other cities, Philadelphia was badly damaged in the great Lydian Earthquake of AD17. Although Sardis suffered the most from that quake, Philadelphia experienced nerve-wracking aftershocks for several years. The city was “ever subject to earthquakes,” said Strabo, the first-century geographer.
To someone raised in the earthquake-prone region of Lydia, the hour of testing would evoke anxious memories of earthquakes and houses falling down. When Jesus says such an hour is coming on the whole world, they might imagine a global shaking, and they would not be far wrong (Heb. 12:26–27).
When Jesus returns, everything will be tested. Those things that are opposed to Christ will be shaken, but the believer who has been tested and approved in Christ will stand firm. Thus the hour of testing or judgment (Rev. 14:7) is for the world, not the church. It’s for those who dwell upon the earth, rather than the citizens of an unshakeable kingdom.
I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown.
(a) Coming quickly. Some translations say “coming soon.” However, Jesus never said he was coming soon. How could he (Matt. 24:36)? Rather, Jesus said he would come quickly. “When my Father gives the word, I will come swiftly and without delay. Further reading: “Is Jesus returning soon?”
(b) Hold fast to Jesus. The Philadelphians are often considered the best of the seven churches while the Thyatirans are typically dismissed as the worst, yet Jesus asks both churches to do one thing only: hold fast to him. This is significant: whatever you are facing, whether you are facing troubles outside or in, Jesus is your answer. He is your hope, your help, and your guiding hand. See also the entry for Rev. 2:25.
(c) No one will take your crown meaning your inheritance or harvest.
Some worry that if we don’t endure and hold fast we will lose our crown of life (Rev. 2:10), but that can’t happen. Just as we don’t merit salvation through our good deeds, we don’t lose it by our bad. But there is another kind of crown that can be lost and that crown is people (1 Th. 2:19). The Thessalonians were Paul’s crown and glory, and it’s this sort of crown that Jesus is describing here.
The Bible is full of stories of people who had their crown or inheritance taken by another: Jacob took Esau’s place, David took Saul’s, Eliakim took Shebna’s, and the Gentiles took the Jews’. The danger here is that the Philadelphians will be added to this list of those who lost their crown.
The Lord had given them an open door, but they were facing stiff opposition from the synagogue of Satan. If the church was bullied into silence, people wouldn’t hear the good news of Jesus, and the opportunity to win souls would slip through their fingers. Hence the Lord’s encouragement: “Hold fast to what you have (keep trusting in Jesus), so that no one will take your crown (those people who are your inheritance).”
He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.
(a) He who overcomes; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
(b) A pillar. We are weak and prone to falling, but Jesus makes us strong as pillars.
There is a perception that only influential Christians are pillars in the church, but in Christ we are all pillars. This is all to the glory of the Lord. We stand by grace; we hold fast by grace; we endure by grace. Every single one of us is a monument to the grace of God.
Further reading: “Who are the pillars in the church?”
(c) The temple of God refers to the body of believers, the household of faith.
In the Gospels Jesus said he would raise a temple and build a church (Matt. 16:18, John 2:19), and he does that by turning people into pillars. Once upon a time, the presence of God inhabited a manmade temple, but now the dwelling place of the Lord is his church (Eph. 2:21–22). “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?” (1 Cor. 3:16).
(d) Go out no more. Jesus is promising peace and security for those who trust in him.
Philadelphia was infamous for its frequent quakes and aftershocks. When the buildings began to shake, the Philadelphians would run out into the open air. The tremors were so frequent that running out almost became a way of life. When the shakes ended, the Philadelphians would return to find their homes cracked and damaged. When Jesus says, “You will not go out any more,” he’s saying, “I’m bringing an end to your anxiety.” It’s a comforting word for stressed-out people.
Jesus does not promise to end the tremors that shake our life, but he does offer his rock-solid word to help us endure. “I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God.” The faithless are restless, but those who are grounded on the Rock of Calvary have peace during times of upheaval. Their world might shake and collapse, but they stand firm on the word of the Lord.
(e) The name of my God. In the old covenant the priests put the name of God on the children of Israel by blessing them (Num. 6:24–27). When Jesus says he will write God’s name on us, he’s marking us for blessing. As a child of God, you are stamped highly favored.
(f) The name of the city of my God. According to the prophets, the name of the New Jerusalem was to be Jehovah-shammah, meaning “the Lord is there” (Eze. 48:35). Ancient cities were named after distant emperors, but the Holy City, which is the church, is the Lord’s dwelling place. He is there. He is not someplace else. This name conveys a sense of family because “Jerusalem above is our mother” (Gal. 4:26). You are a not a slave of empire, but a free child of Jerusalem, and Christ dwells in you.
(g) I will write on him my new name. To be marked with the name of Jesus means you belong to the Lord. You bear his Spirit as a seal of his ownership and a guarantee of his precious promises.
Jesus has many names and titles, and some of them are mysterious and unknown (Rev. 19:12). Here Jesus is talking about a name or title that is new to him, and that was kyrios or Lord or “the One who is supreme above all.” When Jesus walked the earth he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. But after he ascended to heaven he was given a new name above every name, and that name is Lord (Php. 2:9–11). Put it altogether and Jesus is saying this: “He who overcomes (i.e., believes in me), I will save. I will write my new name on them—that name that is above all names—and nothing and no one will ever separate them from my love.” It’s an emphatic declaration of friendship and salvation and aid and protection from the best Friend you could ever have.
Further reading: “The I wills of the New Covenant”
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
He who has an ear; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
(a) The angel; see entry for Rev. 2:1.
(b) The angel of the church in Laodicea was possibly Archippus, the son of Philemon (Phm. 1:2).
The church in Laodicea may have been planted by some anonymous Jew from Phrygia who happened to be in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:10). Or perhaps Epaphras took the gospel there on his journey from Ephesus to Colossae. By the time of Paul, this church was meeting in the house of a woman called Nympha (Col. 4:15), and Archippus seems to have been in charge. We know this because Paul says to him, “Be sure to do the work the Lord gave you” (Col. 4:17). In other words, “Do your job.” Was Archippus a bad bishop, negligent in preaching the gospel? Was he the reason this church was so strenuously rebuked by the Lord? It’s an intriguing possibility.
(c) Laodicea was named after the murderous Seleucid Queen Laodice. Her name was made up of two Greek words: laos, meaning people, and dike, meaning justice or judgment. Hence Laodicea means the judging people or people rule. It’s an apt name for a church that was ruled by people. King Jesus did not rule; the people did.
(d) Jesus is the Yes and the Amen and the underwriter of all the promises of the new covenant (2 Cor. 1:20).
(e) Jesus is the faithful and true Witness in contrast with the Laodiceans who were faithless and false.
(f) Jesus is the Beginning of creation. By him all things were made (John 1:1–4). This description would have been familiar to the Laodiceans for they had heard Jesus described this way in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:15–17). By calling himself the first cause or ruler of creation, Jesus is establishing his credentials as our Maker. He who made us knows our true condition better than we know ourselves.
The Laodiceans had an inflated opinion of themselves. They saw themselves as winners in the game of life. However, their Maker gives them a more honest assessment, and his diagnosis is not good.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
(a) I know your deeds; see entry for Rev. 2:19.
(b) You are neither cold nor hot. The Laodiceans had not submitted to either law or grace.
There’s nothing colder than an unfeeling heart deadened by the implacable demands of the law, and there’s nothing hotter than a heart burning with the white-hot love of our heavenly Father. To be cold is to live under the stone-cold statutes of the law. To be hot is to live in the sunny warmth of your Father’s loving embrace. It’s basking in the white-hot passion of God’s wild and uncontainable love and reveling in his grace.
Jesus is talking about mixture. Cold is cold and hot is hot and the Laodiceans were neither. Had they been living under the death-dealing law, they would have been as cold as corpses, for a rigid law makes frigid followers. And if they had been walking in the sunshine of God’s love, they would have been warmed by his grace. They were doing neither.
(c) I wish that you were cold because the cold law reveals our need for grace.
Cold is what you are when you live 24/7 under a cold and unforgiving law. It’s recognizing that God has a zero-tolerance policy, and that he who keeps the whole law but stumbles on one point will be judged as guilty of all (Jas. 2:10). “He sends forth his commandment to the earth… who can stand before his cold?” (Ps. 147:15, 17, AMP). Like an icy blizzard, the unforgiving law is harsh on human flesh. No one can stand before it, and by it all are condemned. Why does Jesus wish the Laodiceans were cold? Because the merciless mirror of God’s law reveals our shortcomings and shame. It exposes our nakedness and condemns us as sinners in need of grace (Rom. 3:19, 23).
You may say, “I’m not perfect, but I’m basically a good person,” and the law replies, “You are not good enough. A holy God demands perfection and nothing less. As we hear the chilling rebuke of the law, winter descends. Our hearts are numbed and our mouths are frozen shut. That’s the bad news of Romans 3:23, but the good news follows in the next verse: “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The law condemns the best of us, but grace redeems even the worst of us.
Some say that being cold means being indifferent to the things of God, but why would Jesus wish that? Others say that cold refers to cool, refreshing works. But Jesus is speaking about people, not deeds. “I wish you were cold. Further reading: “Why does Jesus wish we were cold?”
(c) I wish that you were hot because Jesus loves us and he wants us to bask in the warmth of his love.
Being hot has nothing to do with having zealous faith or being on fire for God. The problem with approaching God on the basis of zeal is it’s all relative. You may think you’re hot stuff. “I fast every week and give a tenth of all I have.” But compared to the guy who fasts and gives twice as much you’re only lukewarm.
Jesus does not wish the Laodiceans were more enthusiastic or effective, although those are good things. His desire is that they would know and enjoy his love. The message is similar to that given to the Ephesians, but with one important difference. The Ephesians had wandered from the love of Christ. In contrast, the Laodiceans had never experienced it. They had never opened their hearts to the love of the Lord.
So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
(a) The Laodiceans were lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold because they were mixing law with grace and receiving the benefits of neither.
Lukewarm is what you get when you mix hot with cold. It is mixing: the new covenant of grace with the old covenant of works; the new law written on our hearts with the old law written on stone; the rest of the new with the ceaseless demands of the old; the unbreakable promises of God with the brittle promises of man; the liberty of Zion with the bondage of Sinai; and the ministry of no condemnation with the ministry that condemns.
The Laodiceans’ problem was not zeal or ineffectiveness but self-trust. They were addicted to the lukewarm drink of homebrew righteousness. Further reading: “How do we become lukewarm?”
(b) I will spit you out of my mouth. This spitting out passage is sometimes used to terrorize the bride of Christ. “Fail to perform and the Lord will reject you. If you’re not on fire, you’ll be in the fire!” Such an evil line is a million miles from the gracious heart of the One who is faithful and true.
Some Bibles translate Jesus’ words as, “You make me want to vomit.” Have you ever vomited up a kidney or a toe? It’s a ridiculous notion, yet this is what some fear will happen. “Jesus vomits body parts.” Thankfully, this horrendous picture is refuted by scripture: “The one who comes to me I will most certainly not cast out [I will never, no never, reject one of them who comes to me]” (John 6:37, AMP).
Since Jesus will never ever reject those who come to him, who is in danger of being spat out? It’s those who are too proud to come. It is those who deny their need for Jesus. Jesus is talking about self-righteous hypocrites who scorn grace. He is not talking about Christians. Further reading: “Who will Jesus spit out?”
Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked
(a) You say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy.” For the first and only time in the Bible, we hear the Laodiceans speak, and in their few words we hear arrogance, self-assurance, and a vigorous streak of Adamic independence. Theirs is the boast of the self-made man.
“I am rich.” If you met a Laodicean at a party, the first thing you would notice was their affluence. Like the Pharisees, the Laodiceans were lovers of money (Luke 16:14). Wealth was their scorecard, the indisputable proof of their accomplishments. The Laodiceans were winners in the game of life, and they knew it.
“I have become wealthy.” There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, for Abraham, David, Joseph and many godly people had wealth. But the Laodiceans boasted that they had become wealthy. They were poor, but now they were rich and all credit went to themselves.
(b) “I have need of nothing.” The goal of the self-made life is to stand on one’s own feet and to live without aid. In this, the Laodiceans had spectacularly succeeded. They were go-getters whose products were known around the world. Nothing could hinder their driving ambition. Not even natural disasters.
In AD60, one of those earthquakes that afflict Anatolia from time to time, flattened several cities including Laodicea. When Rome offered to assist in the rebuild, the Laodiceans refused. They boasted, “We have need of nothing.” Unlike the Sardians and Philadelphians, the Laodiceans fixed themselves. Structures built with local funds were stamped with the proud inscription, “out of our own resources.” Lesser cities like Sardis might need aid, but not the self-sufficient Laodiceans. And therein lay the problem.
Grace is heavenly aid, but the self-sufficient don’t need it. “We have need of nothing.” Their pride will not let them receive what God offers. To ask for help would be an admission of failure. “Grace is for losers, not winners like us.”
(c) You are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked is an apt description of the self-righteous mindset. Who is wretched and pitiful but the one who is drowning mid-ocean and believes they can save themselves? Who is blind but the lost who can’t see their need for help? Who is naked but the one who refuses to be clothed with the life preserver called Jesus?
Why did Jesus say they were wretched? Because only the wretched cry out for rescue. And why did Jesus say they were naked? Because none but the naked will ever go to him for clothing.
Jesus only called two groups of people blind: the Laodiceans and the Pharisees. What did they have in common? They were both self-righteous. Jesus said the Pharisees were “fools and blind men” (Matt. 23:17). They were blind because they could not discern their true state before God. They were like white-washed tombs, outwardly beautiful but “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). In the same way, the Laodiceans had an outward appearance of success. Their church attracted social climbers, over-achievers, and winners. But the church was a tomb inhabited by the wretched and deceased. There was no life in it because Jesus wasn’t there.
(d) You do not know. The Laodiceans had no idea they were spiritually destitute. Like the rich man with his barns (Luke 12:18), they were stockpiling their good works, but they were not rich toward God.
Some say Jesus spoke harshly because he hates the Laodiceans. Others say his harsh words connote anger and condemnation. But Jesus loves the Laodiceans and wants them to turn around. He didn’t write to condemn them but to save them. If his words sound harsh it’s because the truth is sometimes hard to hear. It takes a hard truth to dislodge a deep deception, and that’s what Jesus dispenses here. In speaking harshly to the Laodiceans, the faithful and true Witness reveals their true condition. He lets them know, in no uncertain terms, that they have fallen short of God’s glory.
I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
(a) I advise. The law drives us, but Jesus draws us. The law whips, but the Lord woos. The law commands, but Christ counsels us like the true friend he is. The Ruler of all does not demand obedience from the Laodiceans. He does not threaten them with hellfire or damnation. Instead, he draws them aside like a trader in the marketplace with the deal of a lifetime.
(b) I advise you to buy from me. With unexpected generosity, he makes them an offer that’s too good to pass up. Why is Jesus talking like a businessman? Perhaps it is because this was a church of merchants and business people. They understood the art of the deal. “You want to do business?” Jesus said. “Then do business with me.”
Is Jesus saying we can buy our salvation? In a manner of speaking, he is. To buy something is to exchange something we have for something we value more. You might say we buy salvation by exchanging our sins for his forgiveness, but the real exchange is Jesus for us. Christianity is a divine exchange, our life for his. It’s the best deal you’ll ever make.
But how can they buy if they are poor? Because grace pays for all. The true riches that Christ offers come without cost, or rather, they come with a great cost that he has paid on our behalf. This deal makes no economic sense. We come to him poor and empty-handed, and receive everything in return. We come naked and are clothed. We come hungry and are filled. We come thirsty and are satisfied (Is. 55:1).
(c) Gold, garments, and salve. Laodicea’s fortunes rested on three legs: gold (their banking sector), garments (their world-famous woolen tunics), and eye salve (Phrygian powder).
Jesus counsels the Laodiceans to purchase the heavenly equivalents of their earthly treasures: refined gold, signifying your God-given faith (1 Pet. 1:7); the white clothes of his righteousness; and salve or revelation so that we may see who Christ is and what he has done for us.
Some say that Jesus is calling the Laodiceans to lay themselves on the altar of sacrifice, but that’s hardly the impression he’s giving. He’s inviting them to exchange something that won’t last, for something of eternal value. He’s offering himself and all the heavenly treasures of wisdom and knowledge that are hidden in him (Col. 2:3). It’s an unbeatable offer. To paraphrase the missionary Jim Elliot, “The Laodicean is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
(d) So that you may become rich toward God (Luke 12:21).
There are two kinds of people: the self-righteousness who say, “I am rich and don’t need a thing,” and the spiritually poor who say, “I need Jesus.” The first group are rich-but-poor (like the Laodiceans), while the second are poor-but-rich (like the Smyrneans; Rev. 2:9). When you have Jesus, you have the most priceless treasure in the universe. Without him we are poor, naked, and blind. With him we are truly and eternally rich.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.
(a) Those whom I love. Jesus loves everyone, from faithful Philadelphians to lukewarm Laodiceans.
Some typically dismiss the Laodiceans as the worst of the seven churches. If so, the good news is that Jesus loves even the worst of us. The Laodiceans were a pompous pack of poseurs. Smug, rich, and full of themselves, they likely had few friends. Yet here is Jesus, the friend of sinners and poseurs, extending the hand of friendship. It is an astonishing display of grace.
(b) I reprove and discipline. To reprove means to convict or expose; to discipline means to disciple or train. These activities are connected because one of the ways our loving Father trains us is by turning on the lights and exposing the dangers around us.
The Laodiceans were heading the wrong way. Jesus spoke sharply not to shame them but to save them and turn them around. By revealing the bankruptcy of their self-righteousness and the depths of their wretchedness, he hoped they would come to him for grace.
“To reprove is to punish,” says the grim-faced preacher. “Jesus punishes those he loves.” He does no such thing, and why would he, since he has borne our punishment on the cross? To penalize the Laodiceans, or anyone, would be to diminish his own costly sacrifice.
Pride is a prison. It diminishes us and severs our connection with others and the Lord. The illusion of self-sufficiency fills our mind with falsehoods. “I don’t need anyone or anything.” Thank God for the true and faithful Witness who speaks truth to our lies. When our conceits have deceived us and our successes have seduced us, thank God for a friend like Jesus.
(c) Be zealous and repent. Self-made religion reverses the order of Jesus’ words: “Repent and be zealous. Turn from sin then get busy serving the Lord.” This is the path to dead works. Heed this back-to-front advice and you’ll end up as self-righteous as a Laodicean. The proper order is, “Be zealous and repent.” Run, don’t walk to Jesus.
The traditional view is that the Laodiceans were lazy and half-hearted and needed to turn up the enthusiasm dial, but in reality they were as zealous as Pharisees. They weren’t apathetic; they were busy little beavers who had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They were successful business people, and Jesus acknowledges their endeavor. “You want to be zealous? Then zealously repent. Run from your dead works and come eagerly to my throne of grace.” He’s not mocking them; he’s exhorting them to channel their natural fervor in a healthy direction.
(d) Repent; see entry for Rev. 2:5.
Further reading: “Three things people get wrong about the Laodiceans”
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.
(a) I stand at the door and knock. Jesus doesn’t force his way into our lives.
Under Roman law, visiting officials had the power to requisition lodgings for themselves and their entourage. Even though it was an imposition to host, feed, and even pay hungry soldiers, nobody could shut their door. But the Laodiceans weren’t nobody. They were a proud people who, in 40BC, famously closed their doors to a Roman general called Labienus Parthicus.
The Laodiceans were known for their closed doors, and this is one of their more appealing traits. Shutting one’s door to a hostile invader is admirable. But Jesus is no Roman oppressor. Although he is the Ruler of All, he does not impose himself upon us. He does not demand that we open our doors and slay the fatted calf for his benefit. Instead, he gently asks us to open our door so that he may come in and dine with us.
In the Gospels, Jesus promises that if we knock the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7). But the Laodiceans aren’t knocking. They’re not the sort of people who do. “We have need of nothing.” They won’t come to Jesus, so the Ruler of Creation comes to them. It is a stunning act of condescension.
The Laodiceans’ religion is offensive, yet Jesus is not offended. Their self-righteousness stinks to high heaven, yet Jesus does not withdraw in a holy huff. Nor does he call down fire from above. Instead, he speaks tenderly with lovingkindness.
Those unacquainted with the grace of God make much of the punishment that Jesus will supposedly inflict on underperforming churches. Yet here is Jesus outside the worst church in the Bible hoping to enter and dine with them. Was there ever a more breathtaking picture of grace? By seeking to justify themselves, the Laodiceans had rejected Christ. Yet here is Jesus offering undeserved acceptance. They had spat upon his good name and insulted the Spirit of Grace, and Jesus replies, “Let’s eat.”
(b) If anyone hears my voice. Although this letter is for the church, his invitation is universal and personal. His invitation is for you and me and everyone besides. Jesus has not come to the marketplace to address the crowd; he has come to your door and mine to meet each of us where we are at. We all must choose what to do with the Savior outside our door.
(c) I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. To dine is to enjoy one another’s company. It’s resting from your labor, leaving the kitchen, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. It’s the ultimate happy meal.
Further reading: “Jesus at the door”
He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.
(a) He who overcomes; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
(b) I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne. This promise is a present reality for the Christian. God has raised us up. God has seated us with Christ. The moment you were placed in Christ, you were seated on his throne (Eph. 2:6). And it’s a very strange promise to offer to a Laodicean.
The Laodiceans were success stories. They had climbed the ladder and won the jackpot of life only to hear Jesus say, “You’re wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” Jesus hit them with a hard word to awaken them to their true state. But having done that, he unexpectedly offers them a free ride. “Stop trying to claw your way to the top and allow me to elevate you to the very throne of God.” This is not a deal we would offer. We’d rather knock the haughty Laodiceans off their high horse and let them stew in the pit of wretchedness for a while. But Jesus is not like us. He bears witness to the truth that humbles the proud, and then immediately gives grace to the recently humbled. It’s as if he’s in a hurry, as though he cannot wait to come in and have dinner with the sort of people the rest of us despise. Truly the world knows no love like his love.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
He who has an ear; see entry for Rev. 2:7.
Note: Much of the material on this page comes from Paul Ellis’s book Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches. This book explores these letters in greater depth as well as providing sources, notes, and illustrations.
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