By Anthony Casperson
Imagine you’re playing a video game RPG. You have a larger group of characters from which to draw the active party that you take out on missions. There’s your favorite four party members, and most of the rest of the cast are okay too. But then, there’s this one character that doesn’t mesh with your playstyle or preferred manner of dealing with things. Other players of the game might be able to use him, but he just doesn’t gel with you. And that’s okay. You don’t need to use him.
About 20ish hours into the game (so getting close to the end of Act 1), you gain access to a quest that offers your first chance at one of the Legendary weapons for your characters. Each person has their own specific weapon that levels with the character, and is always the most effective item for that specific team member. Whoever gets the weapon will certainly be primed as permanent active party member for the rest of the game.
And you can’t even accidentally sell the item because the game makes it incapable to be traded at any store. They know that no one would ever want to get rid of the Legendary weapon for any reason.
You just need to finish this one quest, and then the quest-giver provides, at random, one of the Legendary items as payment. And after embarking on this quest, which has some peril involved, you return victorious.
Excitement wells up in you. Whose weapon are you gonna get? And it comes up as the one meant for the character that you don’t like.
Shoulders sagging, you feel it was all a waste of time. No enjoyment will come out of playing with that character, so this item is useless to you. You can’t even sell it and gain massive amounts of gold to equip the rest of the team. It’s utterly useless.
Then, the idea of save-scumming comes to your mind. A save slot that goes back a few minutes, before you turned in the quest, is still there. Since the item is random, you might get a different one. But after countless reloads, you keep getting the same useless thing.
And when you look up online for the reason why this is happening, you learn that the randomness of the item is set when you start a new game. It won’t change unless you undo the entire 20+ hours of gameplay.
You’re stuck with something completely useless that should’ve been amazingly wonderful.
This sort of disappointment takes center stage in Jesus’ words to the final of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. But before we get to Rev. 3:14-22 and see what the church in Laodicea is told, let’s take a quick look at several historical facts about the city.
Laodicea was the wealthiest city in its province, and proud of it. Among the most influential and powerful as well. It makes sense that Zeus, the head of the Olympian pantheon, is their patron deity.
The great banks of the city aided in this prosperity as well. So much so, that when the earthquake I mentioned in the previous blog hit the area, Laodicea refused monetary aid from the government and rebuilt using only their own funds.
Money also flowed because of several industries in the area. This includes textile manufacturing. They were famous for their black wool.
And then, there was the medical school in the city that produced many skilled healers. From all of their hard work, a substance known as “Phrygian eye salve” came into existence. It was claimed to be able to cure blindness. (I doubt it was Jesus-level miracle working, but it does appear to have been more than just snake oil.)
This city’s prosperity seems almost too good to be true. But there was one place where the wealthy citizens could relate to that type of disappointment that I mentioned above.
Unlike most cities at the time, Laodicea had no natural water supply. So, they had to be industrious and build in some plumbing.
An amazing hot spring rested 6 miles south of the city. Bathing in those spring waters did wonders. So, when the people installed pipes to carry the hot water the whole way to the city, it seemed like it would be heaven on earth. But the hot waters cooled as they traversed the mileage. And when the water arrived at the city, it was lukewarm. Room temperature. Useless.
Snow-capped mountains also rose a few miles away. And when the city built pipes that feed from the cool mountain streams, they expected refreshing cold water to drink. But again, as the water traveled along the way, it warmed. What flowed from the pipe was also lukewarm. Tepid. Useless.
No matter what they did, no mater how powerful, prosperous, and industrious they were, it was impossible to be pleased with the water that poured from their pipes.
To the church in this city, Jesus speaks. And he begins with an image of himself expressed as one who is truly powerful and in charge.
He says he’s the Amen. Now, this isn’t just a prayer-ending word. In the Gospels, Jesus often repeats this word before important statements of truth. It carries with it an idea of total and undeniable veracity. Quite a bit more meaningful than “cross my heart.”
Add this truthful image to the next bit. He’s the faithful and true witness. The word for faithful brings along with it the connotation of trustworthy and dependable. It is true. And then Jesus literally follows up this truthful word with the word true. These, then, describe the type of witness that he is. The person who is supposed to tell the truth of events they saw.
So Jesus calls himself the True One who is a trustworthy and truthful speaker of true events. Do you think he has a point here?
On top of that, he also reveals himself as “the beginning of God’s creation.” While there are certain religious groups who would have a field day with that descriptor, later parts of these words to Laodicea help us understand the connotation meant here.
The Greek word for “beginning” can also refer to a ruler because the king is the head/chief/beginning of their kingdom. It’s a natural and commonly used translation of the word. Plus, when we realize that the word for “creation” used here has been translated in 1 Peter 2:13 as “institution” or governmental authority, we can see a broader sense of order by decree of a creator. Since Jesus later speaks of his throne, I believe it preferable to translate this as “head of the created order.”
And so, it seems like Jesus frontloads these words to a city preoccupied with their own power by pointing to himself as the absolutely true ruler of the entirety of creation. His description of events is not just some opinion, but fact. That’s who’s coming at us with these words.
The importance for this qualification of Jesus appears as we realize that there is no commendation for the people of the church in the city. Even Sardis got a “you have a reputation of being alive” before Jesus laid into them. But not so with Laodicea. When Laodicea’s turn for achievements to be crowned came, crickets sounded.
Jesus speaks correction to the church in the self-reliant city in verses 15-17. The first two of those verses remind the people of the one complaint they can have about the city. Lukewarm water.
He’s not interested in extremes. The hot and cold have nothing to do with fanatical dogmatism or anything like that. Jesus wants the people who claim to follow him to be more than utter disappointments. More than useless. He has a purpose for us and we should live up to it.
Verse 17 explains what he means in this lukewarmness. The people believe themselves to be rich and prosperous, without a single need in the world. But they don’t realize that they are wretched blind beggars who are so poor that they don’t even have a shirt on their back.
Every single point of pride in the city is hammered down in these few words. You think that you can sit back in your comfort? You don’t realize the toil around you. External aid is unnecessary because you’ve got everything covered? Well, you’re actually so bad off that you’re the most pitiable. Does your status as wealthy raise your head high? Too bad, you don’t understand the depths of your poverty. You got miracle eye salve? Ha, you’re so blind, it wouldn’t even help. And you find comfort in your famous black wool? There’s nothing covering that body of yours at all.
The church acts as though it’s self-reliant. They have it all under control. But the true image reveals the disappointing reality of uselessness.
When we forget our place under the mighty rule of the God of the universe, when we live and act and believe that we have everything under our control, we become useless to the one who has lead us here. And in our self-reliance, we blind ourselves to the truth of our uselessness.
Jesus calls these followers of his to repentance in verses 18-19. He calls us to come to him. Buy his gold so that we can be truly rich. Wear his pure white garments so that our shame and nakedness can be covered. Anoint our eyes with his salve so that we can see the truth he tells.
He’s disappointed in the result of these self-reliant people, but doesn’t want to leave them as useless. He loves us even when we disappoint him like this. And these words of correction and discipline don’t come from hatred of what we’ve become, but from love of what he knows we’re capable of. And so he calls us to turn our backs on the self-reliance and zealously strive after what he has for us.
Jesus is there, knocking at the door to our lives, calling out to us. We don’t have to rely only on our own skills and aptitudes. Help isn’t far away or disappointed when we ask for it. No, he’s right there. We just gotta open the door and let reliance on him work into our lives. He wants to have deep fellowship with us. Let us be known intimately by him, and he by us.
And if we do, to those who victoriously overcome, Jesus promises that we’ll sit with him on his throne. Just like the Son reigns with the Father on the same throne, we can share in the power and authority of the kingdom.
Reliance on our own abilities and ingenuity might make us think that we’ll get exactly what we want, but it will only lead to a disappointing uselessness so bad that we can’t even see the terribleness of it. Only when we let go of our earthly prosperity will we witness the true glory of the kingdom of God.
Whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says.