Letters from Revelation 2 & 3

The Materialistic Church

Revelation 3:14-22

Teaching t20273


Briefly review the setting of these letters (MAP) and their relevance (spiritual check-up). We come now to the 7th and last of these letters—to the church in Laodicea. Before we read this letter, two facts about the city will help you to understand this letter.

Laodicea was a very wealthy city. When an earthquake leveled the city in 60 AD, the citizens refused Rome’s financial help and rebuilt Laodicea from their own funds. This would be like the citizens of New Orleans rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina without help from the federal government. Their wealth came from three industries. They bred a sheep with black wool which became empire-renowned. The tunics woven from this wool (trimita) were chic for centuries. Their herding and agricultural wealth made Laodecia banking center and therefore a repository of huge amounts of gold. The city also had a medical school which marketed a famous eye-salve (“Phrygian powder” mixed with oil).

Laodicea’s main deficit was that it had no natural water supply. They built an aqueduct to bring in water from the hot springs in Denzili (6 miles to the south), but it was both lukewarm and full of minerals—virtually undrinkable to visitors.

Jesus’ diagnosis

Read 3:14-22. Like Sardis, Jesus has no praise for this church—only rebuke. In fact, they are in even worse shape than Sardis because they don’t even have a loyal remnant.

“You are repulsive...” 3:16b means “You make me sick.” Why? Because, like Laodicea’s water, they were lukewarm. Hot and cold water are great (hot baths & tea; cold water & tea), but lukewarm water is repulsive (bath, water, tea). Jesus isn’t saying “I wish you loved me or hated me” (as many Christians interpret “hot” and “cold”); he is saying “I wish you were faithful to me, but you are so repulsive that I’m about to vomit you out of my mouth.” What had once been a vibrant Christian community only 40 years earlier was now devoid of spiritual life. In fact, many or perhaps most of them were apparently second-generation “churchians” rather than Christians—people who attend church services, nominally believe in Jesus, etc., but have no real spiritual connection with him at all. This becomes an important fact when we hear Jesus’ treatment plan.

What was it about them that Jesus found so repulsive? Not that they caved into persecution, or reverted to pagan idolatry, or succumbed to overt moral compromise (e.g., sexual immorality), or followed false teachers—but that they succumbed to the pervasive materialism of their city: “... because you have allowed your material wealth to deceive you.” Jesus does not fault them for being materially prosperous; he faults them for embracing the values of their materially prosperous culture—values that have both spiritually corrupted them and blinded them to corruption (re-read 3:17). What is it about material prosperity that makes it so easy to stray from Jesus without even realizing it? We really need to know the answer to this question, because we live in Laodicea (AMERICA; SUBURBAN COLUMBUS; XENOS SOCIO-ECONOMICAL PROFILE)! I struggle with this a lot, so I can share three reasons I see:

For one thing, material prosperity is morally ambiguous. Unlike idolatry or sexual immorality or heresy, there is no clear line between what is right and what is wrong (NUMBER & PRICE OF CARS; SQUARE FOOTAGE OF HOUSE; ANNUAL INCOME). It is possible to be wealthy and faithful to Jesus (ABRAHAM; 1Tim.6:19). This fact can lead us to lower our guardto two dangers...

Material prosperity tends to deaden our awareness of our spiritual need for Jesus. Jesus said Matt.5:3 (quote). Awareness of your abject spiritual poverty is necessary to obtain and flourish in God’s kingdom. But financial prosperity tends to affect us like spiritual Novocaine. Financial/temporal security makes it harder to appreciate your need for spiritual/eternal security (Matt.16:26). Respect from people makes it harder to feel hungry to be pleasing to God. Economic self-sufficiency makes it harder to appreciate your complete spiritual incompetence apart from personally depending on Jesus (Jn.15:4,5). This is why material poverty generally correlates with spiritual prosperity (Jesus’ public ministry; church movements), while material prosperity generally correlates with spiritual poverty (Hos.13:5,6; Jas.1,2; LAODICEANS).

Finally, our culture creatively and relentlessly tells us: “Material prosperity will make you happy.” Although most Americans still mentally assent to “Money can’t buy happiness,” our increasing obedience to consumerist advertising shows what we really believe. It is an amazing (and diabolical) thing that Americans positively correlate wealth with happiness when all of the research refutes this. Consider this preface to a secular book on this research.

“Vast numbers of us have been seduced into believing that having more wealth and material possessions is essential to the good life... (But Kasser’s) formidable body of research highlights what for most of us is a quite counter-intuitive fact: even when people obtain more money and material goods, they do not become more satisfied with their lives, or more psychologically healthy because of it. More specifically, once people are above poverty levels of income, gains in wealth have little to no incremental payoff in terms of happiness or well-being. (Moreover) merely aspiring to have greater wealth or more material possessions is likely to be associated with increased personal unhappiness... People with strong materialistic values and desires report more symptoms of anxiety, are at greater risk for depression... use more alcohol and drugs, and have more impoverished personal relationships... Thus, insofar as people have adopted the ‘American dream’ of stuffing their pockets, they seem to that extent be emptier of self and soul.”

Now you can see why Jesus is so outraged with the Laodicean church. He hates the way materialism deceives people and ruins their lives. He wants his church to be a powerful alternative that exposes by positive contrast the emptiness of this way of life. But instead of being the way out of this lie, they were merely a religious version of it! They were just as deceived as the people who knew nothing about the true God.

The American church not only lives in “Laodicea” (not its fault); much of it is like the Laodicean church. There is no measurable difference between American Christians and other Americans in their ever-growing credit debt. And there is virtually no difference between American Christians and other Americans in charitable giving. This has got to be a big reason for the spiritual impotence of the evangelical church!

Xenos has been different in this area over the years. We’ve had a strong critique of materialism, even when this critique has cost us popularity. Many of us have lived far more simply and frugally than we could have so we can be faithful to Jesus and reach out to people deceived by and enslaved to materialism. Many of you live within your means and give generously. But will we remain a counter-cultural alternative to materialism—or will we succumb to the self-deception of the Laodicean church? With greater earning power comes greater temptation. With more pressure to give our kids “the best” can come confusion about what “the best” is. We are being tested in this crucial area.

I think every one of us needs to hear Jesus’ warning on this issue. I sure do! Whether we’re enmeshed in materialism and need to be rescued, or fairly free and need to practice prevention, we need to pay attention to his treatment plan. And I’m so thankful that he has a treatment plan. Jesus loved the Laodiceans in spite of their spiritual state (3:19), and he loves us too. And Jesus was willing and able to rescue the Laodiceans from their self-deception, and he is willing and able to rescue/prevent us from this fate. Let’s take a look at it...

Jesus’ treatment plan

As in all of these corrective letters, Jesus’ treatment plan is to “repent” (3:19)—turn around, change directions. Repentance always involves a negative—realizing and admitting you’ve been going the wrong direction. In this case, repentance involves admitting to Jesus that pursuing material prosperity as a priority is both wrong and foolish. Hopefully, the first part of this teaching has helped to form/deepen convictions about this. But repentance also involves a positive—pursuing and enjoying the right direction. In fact, unless you pursue the positive, you will be unable to lastingly turn from the negative. This is what one Christian leader calls “the expulsive power of a new affection.” In order to get free from a destructive obsession, we need to replace it with a healthy obsession (TEEN WITH MOTORCYCLE >> GIRLFRIEND). If you want to be free from materialism’s enslaving power, you must replace it with a health-giving relationship with Jesus. That’s why Jesus explains what repentance looks like through two intensely positive images.

Open your heart to Jesus’ love for you (3:20). In near eastern culture, sharing an evening meal with someone is secondarily about the food and primarily about the relationship. Meeting Jesus Christ and experiencing his love for you is absolutely foundational to rescue. You were created to have this love relationship, and you will be spiritually poor until you have it, no matter how much money and things you own. This verse emphasizes how easy is to meet Jesus and experience his love. He doesn’t expect you to make the first move—he wants to meet you so much that he is knocking at your door. He doesn’t expect you to do major house-cleaning before you invite him in—he wants to come in and get to know you just the way you are. The only condition is that you must grant him entry—he politely knocks until you open the door, because he wants a freely-chosen relationship with you. If you know how to open the door to let someone into your house, you know how to begin a personal relationship with Jesus. I said, “Jesus, if you’re real I want to know you. There is a hole in my heart that I don’t know how to fill. If you come into my heart and show me that you love me, I will follow you.” Opening the door like that was the best decision I ever made! Knowing Jesus has enriched my life beyond anything I could imagine. Why not open the door today?

Acquire spiritual wealth from Jesus (3:18). Jesus is saying, “Change your broker, change your definition of wealth/prosperity—and go for it all out!” I’m not positive what exactly the gold, white clothes and eye-salve signify—but I know what the Bible says will make us spiritually wealthy. It is faith in God, living faith forged in the fires of testing and adversity, that is more precious than gold (1Pet.1:7). It is godly character (especially love) that is meant to clothe us so that others are attracted to God through us (Col.3:5-17). It is truth that enables us to see reality accurately, and his Word is truth (Jn.17:17). Jesus is the Source of all these riches, and he wants to enrich your life with them. Tell him you want these riches, ask him to teach you how to acquire them—and pursue them with others who have the same priorities.

Let’s listen to Gary Ware’s story of why he changed brokers and how he is pursuing spiritual wealth. Then I’d like to hear from others what’s helped them pursue spiritual wealth.

NEXT WEEK we’ll talk more about this challenge (and Jesus’ solution) in a two-week mini-series “Faithfulness in a Spiritually Seductive World.”

“Laodecia arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us.” (Tacitus, Annals xiv.27)

Richard M. Ryan in Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002), pp.x,xi.

The average American household has $18,700 consumer debt (credit cards & car loans). This is 18% of after-tax income. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/jan2004/debt-j15.shtml

“The amount of American giving to charitable organizations of all kinds remains relatively constant at somewhere between 1.6% and 2.16% of a family’s income. American Christians do only slightly better, averaging somewhere around 2.4% of the national per capita income.” “In most... suburban Western communities, it is impossible to detect any outward differences between the expenditures of professing Christians and the religiously unaffiliated who surround them in their neighborhoods.” Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Riches Nor Poverty: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), pp.19,20.