Laodicea was home to the last church Jesus addresses specifically in the book of Revelation, and our Lord has nothing positive to say about this congregation. Moreover, Jesus’ warning to this church is perhaps better known and yet more misunderstood than all the other warnings in Revelation 2–3.
In Revelation 3:15–16, our Savior charges the church in Laodicea with lukewarmness, stating that He will spit the believers out of His mouth unless they change. He would rather they be hot or cold. Many people think this means that Jesus does not want a half-hearted commitment, that it is better to fervently hate Him (cold) than to lukewarmly love Him. Of course, Jesus demands more than a half-hearted commitment (Luke 9:57–62). However, He is not saying that He prefers vigorous hatred over nominal love. Laodicea was known for its lukewarm, unclean, virtually useless water. Hierapolis, a city six miles north of Laodicea, had springs of hot water used for washing and for medical treatment. Colossae, a city ten miles east of Laodicea, had fresh, cold, drinkable water from a mountain stream. Jesus seems to be saying that the Laodicean Christians are useless in service to Him, perhaps comparing them to Laodicea’s poor water and exhorting them to be useful like the water of Hierapolis or Colossae.
Ironically, the Laodicean Christians thought that they needed nothing (v. 17). Laodicea was a wealthy center of banking and textiles, and it had a medical school that developed an ointment to treat eye problems. The Laodicean believers had grown comfortable with the culture, thinking that all these things gave them spiritual advantages. But Jesus’ exhortation that they buy gold refined by fire, white garments for their nakedness, and salve for their eyes (v. 18) showed that they actually lacked anything of spiritual advantage despite their possession of material benefits. He is calling them to seek spiritual advantage by comparing what they thought they had with true blessings only He can provide. This call to buy such things is not a call to merit His grace by works. God’s grace is “without price” (Isa. 55:1)—free to all who ask for it.
Jesus knocked at the door of this church, promising to reward all who let Him in (Rev. 3:20). This is not an evangelistic invitation for nonbelievers to believe in Jesus but a warning that He will break down the door and judge the church if it does not repent (James 5:9). Judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).