One of my favorite Chicago landmarks is the iconic breakfast destination known as Ann Sathers, on 909 West Belmont. Ann Sathers is a good place on one level. They serve gooey and life-changing cinnamon rolls. Ann Sathers is also a good place on a deeper, more personal level for me. It's a historic landmark in my relationship with my wife Laura.
Fourteen years ago, we had one of the most painful conversations of our relationship over cinnamon rolls at 909 West Belmont. We had been seeing each other for about six months. But unless something changed, the relationship was going to end. So together, we asked each other hard questions. We identified our hurts; we spoke our doubts. Truth and tears came out at 909 West Belmont. That painful conversation saved our fledging romance.
Have you ever had a conversation like that? You're not just defining a relationship; you're actually trying to save a relationship. Some people call it an "intervention." One or both parties have to say, "I love you, but unless something changes, it's over. If our relationship is going to survive, I must speak truth. I must plead for a response. I must identify one of your blind spots." Interventions are painful; interventions are good.
On this Good Friday, Jesus is staging an intervention.
An intervention for Laodicea
We've been looking at Jesus' letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation. Each letter contains three basic elements: a commendation for their faithfulness, a rebuke for their lack of faithfulness (in some cases), and a promise for those who endure. Commendation, rebuke, and a promise.
The letter to the church in Laodicea contains no commendation. Jesus has nothing encouraging to say. Whereas other churches had been at least partially faithful to Jesus in their cities, this church had totally assimilated to the culture of their city. Jesus has come to save the relationship. He's come to have a Good Friday conversation—an intervention.
Jesus comes with absolutely true insights: "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation" (Rev. 3:14). Jesus comes with deep love: "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent" (v. 19).
What are conversations like with someone who knows the truth about us and yet loves us at the same time? Those are life-changing, relationship-saving, Good Friday conversations. Sometimes Good Friday is hard because of what we have to see—Jesus on the Cross. Good Friday might be hard because of what we have to hear. Tears and truth might come out. And we might return to our first love.
"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth" (v. 15-16).
Jesus here diagnoses the true spiritual condition of the church in Laodicea. He's been watching their life, their words, their relationships, their attitudes, their prayer life, their appetites, their imaginations, their public life, the flow of their money, and he concludes: "You're like lukewarm water. And in fact, your life repulses me; your choices make me want to gag and vomit. Your spiritual condition turns my stomach." Could a loving Savior say this? Only a loving Savior could say this.
Jesus wishes the Laodicean Christians were either cold or hot. What does he mean? Well, the metaphor is ambiguous. Perhaps he means that it would be better for someone to reject him outright—to be cold—than to pretend to love him in a lukewarm way. There's something to be said for this. But he could also be referring to the water supply in Laodicea.
Laodicea had no natural water supply and had to pipe in all their water. The supply of cold water came from Colossae, 11 miles to the east. This cold water was refreshing to drink. Their supply of hot water came from hot springs in Hierapolis, six miles to the north. The hot water could reach 95 degrees and had a healing, medicinal impact.
What happens when you have to pipe cold water or hot water from many miles away? Along the way, it takes on the temperature of the day. By the time it reaches you, it's not cold enough to drink, and it's not hot enough to heal. The water has assimilated to the air around it. The cold water isn't refreshing anymore; the hot water isn't soothing anymore.
"I know your deeds," Jesus says, "that you are neither cold nor hot." They've completely assimilated to their local climate and are neither a source of refreshment to the spiritually weary nor of healing to the spiritually sick.
The lukewarm Laodiceans
So how had the Laodiceans assimilated? What made them lukewarm? "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (v. 17).
Of all the churches in Asia Minor, the church in Laodicea was the most wealthy and self-sufficient. The city of Laodicea was known for its financial strength, its medical advances, and its linen and wool industry. It was so wealthy that after a devastating earthquake in A.D. 60, Laodicea was the only city not asking for financial assistance from Rome. In the Annals (xiv.27), Tacitus wrote: "Laodicea arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us."
Laodicea was also a home to a medical school for eye doctors, and it was well-known for producing an eye salve sold all over the Roman Empire. What's more, Laodicea made black linens: rare, beautiful, and in high demand. In short, Laodiceans enjoyed a pretty charmed life. They had it all—material wealth, bodily health, and the finest clothes around. "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing" (v. 17).
What happens to us when we have it all? When we don't really need anything from anybody, and when we've never really failed? It can be a spiritual handicap, a moral handicap, and it makes it hard to relate meaningfully to God and other people. We start to believe we don't need God and that we're better than everyone else who is suffering. We become unaware of our profound vulnerability.
And that's why Jesus had to intervene for the Laodiceans: "[Y]ou do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (v. 17). As one commentator of this passage says, "Thus, despite their banks, they were beggars! Despite their famous eye-salve, they were blind! Despite their prosperous clothing factories, they were naked!"
In the Scriptures, spiritual nakedness is a metaphor for our guilt and shame. Our track record before God comes up short. Spiritual poverty is our inability to do anything about it. We can't fix it—we're poor! And spiritual blindness is just what it sounds like: We can't see our true condition. We haven't the faintest clue how deep the problem goes.
The truth is that the Laodiceans were likely compromising in every imaginable way in their city: confessing that Caesar was Lord in order to protect themselves; attending idol feasts, with the sex, drinking, and pagan worship, in order to keep their business contracts; keeping their relationship with Jesus absolutely as private as it needed to be. It would be private enough to avoid pain, not doing works of justice.
Tears and truth. This would have been really hard to take. But that's not where it ends.
Gifts from Jesus
So what does Jesus offer the Laodiceans? He wants to give them a series of gifts. This is an offer of grace! If they say yes to these gifts, the relationship is saved.
"I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see" (Rev. 3:18).
Gold refined by fire—that's spiritual wealth that comes with suffering. People who walk with Jesus in suffering have a spiritual depth they wouldn't trade for the world. We all want it to be different, but it isn't. Suffering is like fire underneath the gold of our lives. It brings all the impurities and immaturities to the surface so it can be dealt with. Saying "yes" to Jesus and saying "no" to his rivals usually makes the fire hotter.
White garments are the works of righteousness carried out in love for Jesus, love for each other, and love for the people in our city. When our love for God and neighbor turns into care for the least of these, saying no to temptation, loving generosity, and faithful witness to Jesus, we are literally wearing the clothes of heaven. We are demonstrating our citizenry in the coming city, once you've moved beyond complacency toward God and neighbor to passionate love. Again, these robes are a gift that Jesus wants to impart to them in his grace. But he wants them to put on the robes, whatever the cost.
Eye salve is the capacity for spiritual discernment. With Jesus' eye salve, they can begin to see themselves realistically.
These are all good and gracious gifts from Jesus.
In the words of John Stott:
Here is welcome news for naked, blind beggars! They are poor; but Christ has gold. They are naked; but Christ has clothes. They are blind; but Christ has eyesalve. Let them no longer trust in their banks, their eyepowders and their clothing factories. Let them come to him! He can enrich their poverty, clothe their nakedness and heal their blindness. He can open their eyes to perceive a spiritual world of which they have never dreamed. He can cover their sin and shame and make them fit to partake of the inheritance of the saints in light. He can enrich them with life and life abundant.
As we consider our own lives, it might be that Jesus' letter to the Laodiceans might hit home. Perhaps we have over-assimilated to the air around us. We are lukewarm—the passion for God and love for neighbor is gone. We are no longer a source of God's refreshing, no longer a source of God's healing. Perhaps our education, our independence, or our growing influence has left us feeling like we don't need God anymore. We've become blind to our own spiritual need because we've become useful and impressive.
But it might be that you don't relate with the Laodiceans. It's not so much that you don't need God—it's that for the life of you, you can't feel God. Something has gone almost completely numb. You're sitting at the table with Jesus, but you can't hold his gaze because the thrill is gone, the love has died. And in its place is spiritual doubt, confusion, and a massive disconnect between your head and your heart.
If that's you, please know that Jesus has everything you need to return to your first love. His grace for you is inexhaustible.
Some diagnostic questions Jesus might ask those of us who have gone numb: "When was the last time you let me satisfy you? Or are you just completely satiated all the time? Is there even one hunger of the body that you haven't fed? Is there even one craving you haven't indulged? Do you just not need me at all to satisfy you? Because there's a real strong connection between spiritual numbness and bodily indulgence."
Laodicea had the eye salve, but Chicago's got those gooey cinnamon rolls, the Italian beef, and the microbrews. Sure, Laodicea had the banks, but Chicago has the Internet: Netflix, Spotify, peer-to-peer video games, free streaming porn of every variety, Tinder, and all the Instagram attention you could ever want. See, Laodicea could take care of your clothes, but Chicago can take care of your cravings. You can get your fill here with zero shame. People might like you better for it. You might even feel closer to ultimate meaning in the process. Who needs Jesus to satisfy when you have everything your body could ever want or need—and it's so cheap, acceptable, and thrilling?
We may have a whole different set of interests than the Laodiceans, and yet we might come to the same conclusion as they did: "I need nothing." Personal indulgence and spiritual numbness are dancing partners: "Honestly Jesus, I don't need you anymore." When was the last time you let Jesus satisfy you? Can you trust him with unsatisfied desire?
He calls himself the living water, the bread of heaven. He can refresh you; he can satisfy you. You'll no longer be harassed by unmet cravings. You'll no longer be a slave to pleasure. He can heal your numbness and bring you back to life; he can heal the breach between head and heart.
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me" (Rev. 3:20). What an invitation. Please listen to it! Jesus stands at the door. He won't break the door down—he loves you, but he also respects you. He's speaking a loving invitation on the other side of the door to every single person here. Are you willing to listen?
It doesn't matter what's going on for you on the other side of the door. Maybe it's a long-standing hookup. Maybe you're counting your money. Maybe you're on your fourth drink or twelfth episode. "I stand at the door and knock." God himself is knocking. Holiness is at your doorstep. Would you but open the door, you would find a suffering servant who bled for you. Light and healing flow out of his very being. He's overcome death. Don't worry about cleaning up; that's not on his agenda. He wants to sit down and have the conversation. Sweet fellowship. Save the relationship; savor the relationship.
What's Jesus' invitation to you? What is Jesus calling you to die to? For some, it's something specific. Leave it at the Cross. Come to the Cross. Get prayer. Make confession. Return to your first love.