Letters to the Churches of Asia - Laodicea

Chapter 30: The Letter to the Church in Laodicea

Revelation 3:14

These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God:

I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see.

The tone of the exordium is one of thoroughness, consistency from the beginning of the creation of God to the end of all things, a consistency that springs from faithfulness and truth. In the letter itself those are the qualities in which Laodicea is lacking. The Laodicean Church is neither one thing nor another. It is given to compromise. It cannot thoroughly reject the temptations and allurements of the world. And therefore it shall be rejected absolutely and inexorably by Him whose faithfulness and truth reject all half-heartedness and compromise.

The characteristics described in the previous chapter are insufficient to give a clear idea of the special and distinctive character of Laodicea as a city. There is a want of definiteness and individuality about them. They do not set before us the picture of a city recognisable in itself and distinguishable from other cities. But may not this be in itself a distinction? Of the Seven Cities Laodicea is the one which is least determined in character, the one of which the outline is least clearly and sharply defined in history. In the special duties imposed on it as the end and aim of its foundation, to guard a road and gateway, and to be a missionary of Greek language and culture in the Phrygian land, it proved unsuccessful. The one respect in which it stands forth pre-eminent is that it is the adaptable city, able to suit itself to the needs of others, because it has no strongly pronounced character of its own. Such a nature would be suited for the successful commercial city, which it was. But such a nature would least commend the city to St. John. Laodicea must appear to him undecided, devoid of initiative, pliable, irresolute, and unsatisfactory.

The ordinary historian would probably not condemn the spirit of Laodicea so strenuously as St. John did. In the tendency of the Laodiceans towards a policy of compromise he would probably see a tendency towards toleration and allowance, which indicated a certain sound practical sense, and showed that the various constituents of the population of Laodicea were well mixed and evenly balanced. He would regard its somewhat featureless character and its easy regular development as proving that it was a happy and well-ordered city, in whose constitution "the elements were kindlier mixed" than in any other city of Asia. He would consider probably that its success as a commercial city was the just reward of the strong common-sense which characterised its people. St. John, however, was not one of those who regarded a successful career in trade and money-making as the best proof of the higher qualities of citizenship. The very characteristics which made Laodicea a well-ordered, energetic and pushing centre of trade, seemed to him to evince a coldness of nature that was fatal to the highest side of human character, the spirit of self-sacrifice and enthusiasm.

An account which has been given elsewhere of the development of Christianity in Eumeneia, a city in the Laodicean circuit where Christian inscriptions are specially numerous, may be quoted here as an illustration of the probable character of the whole district of Laodicea. The evidence proves that Eumeneia was to a large extent a Christian city in the third century; and there is considerable probability that Eumeneia was the city whose fate is recorded by Eusebius and Lactantius, two excellent authorities, practically contemporaries of the event. In this city people and magistrates alike were Christian in the early years of the fourth century. During the last great persecution, AD 303-313, the population, when threatened, collected at the Church (which was in itself a defiance of the Imperial orders). They were surrounded by a ring of soldiers, and the usual alternative was offered, compliance or death. In ordinary circumstances, doubtless, some or even many of them would have lacked the boldness to choose death; but it lies in human nature that the general spirit of a crowd exercises a powerful influence on the individuals who compose it; and even those who, taken singly, might have compromised with their conscience, and shrunk from a terrible death, accepted it when inspired with the courage of the whole body. The entire people was burned with the church; and they died "calling upon the God over all." Eusebius writes as an epitaph over their ashes words that read like a memory of the formula by which the Christian character of the epitaphs on the tombs of their predecessors during the third century has been recognised.

Those inscriptions, by which we trace the character of that Christian city about AD 240-300, convey the impression that there was no violent break between Greek and Christian culture in Eumeneia, as it existed in that period. There is no sign of bitterness. The monuments place before us a picture of rich and generous development, of concession, and of liberality, through which people of diverse thought were practically reconciled in a single society; they exemplify the accommodation of two hostile religions in a peaceful and orderly city. This was impossible for the Christians without some sacrifice of strict principle to the exigencies of the situation and the demands of the Imperial government. The spirit of accommodation and even of compromise must have been strong in Eumeneia.

The result has been told: it was, first, the practically universal triumph of Christianity in the city, and thereafter the extermination of the Christian population in a great massacre. In their death no signs can be detected of the spirit of compromise which they had showed in practical matters during their life.

In view of these facts about Eumeneia, and a somewhat similar history in Apameia, another city of the Laodicean circuit, we may fairly regard the spirit of compromise, which is stigmatised in the Laodicean letter, as having been common to the district as a whole and as capable of showing at need a finer side than is recognised in the letter.

The Laodicean letter is the only one in which we have recognised the applicability of the letter to the district or circuit which was connected with the city. There seemed always to the Greek mind to be a certain homogeneity of spirit characterising Phrygia as a whole, which they regarded with some contempt as an indication of lower intelligence, contrasted with the strong development of individual character in the Greek cities. A tendency to compromise in religion was, indeed, never regarded as characteristic of the Phrygian spirit, which was considered prone to excess in religious devotion: the extremest examples of horrible actions under the stimulus of religion, such as self-mutilation, were associated in the ancient mind with Phrygia. But the tendency to excess inevitably results in failure to reach even the mean. The Church blamed the extravagant Phrygian provocation of martyrdom, because frequently overstrained human nature failed in the supreme test, and the would-be martyr, overconfident in his powers, became a renegade in the hour of trial.

It is characteristic of a city devoted to commercial interest and the material side of life, that the Church of Laodicea is entirely self-satisfied. It says, as the city said in AD 60, when it recovered its prosperity after the great earthquake without any of that help which the Imperial government was generally ready to bestow, and which the greatest cities of Asia had always been ready to accept, "I have grown rich, and have need of nothing." It has never seen its real condition: it is poor and blind and naked.

There is only one way open to it. It must cease to trust to itself. It must recognise that it is poor, and seek riches where the true riches can be found. Its banks and its wealthy money changers can give it only false money; but the Author can sell it "gold refined by fire." He does not give this gold for nothing: it must be bought with a price, the price of suffering and truth, fidelity and martyrdom.

The Church must recognise that it is naked, and seek to be clad. Its manufacturers cannot help it with their fine glossy black and violet garments, which they sell and export to the whole world. Only white garments, such as the faithful in Sardis wear, will be of any use to cover their shame; and those are sold only by the Author. They too must be bought with a price.

The Laodicean Church must also learn that it is blind, but yet not incurably blind. It is suffering from disease, and needs medical treatment. But the physicians of its famous medical school can do nothing for it. The tabloids which they prescribe, and which are now used all over the civilised world, to reduce to powder and smear on the eyes, will be useless for this kind of ophthalmia. The Laodiceans must buy the tabloid from the Author himself, at the price of suffering and steadfastness.

The description of the medicine here mentioned is obscured by a mistranslation. It was not an ointment, but a kollyrium, which had the form of small cylinders compounded of various ingredients, including some mineral elements, and was used either by simple application or by reduction to a powder to be smeared on the part. The term used by St. John is the same that Galen uses to describe the preparation of the Phrygian stone employed to strengthen weak eyes.

The Laodicean Church is the only one which is absolutely and wholly condemned. Not even a faithful remnant is left, such as even in Sardis, the dead Church, kept itself pure and white. No exception is allowed in Laodicea: advice is given, but there is no appearance that it will be taken. The weakness of the city will become apparent in the testing.

In the rest of the letter there is no recognisable allusion to the character or circumstances of an individual Church. The conclusion is rather an epilogue to the Seven Letters, treated as a literary whole, than an integral part of the Laodicean letter.