Chapter 13: The Local Church and its Censure and Commendation
by James M. Flanigan, N. Ireland
It is perhaps well-known that Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation are comprised entirely of seven letters written toward the end of the first century to seven local churches or assemblies. The letters are from Christ, the Lord of the assemblies, but sent through John the beloved apostle. These seven churches were all located in Asia Minor, now better known as Turkey, and many lessons may be learned from the letters, not only regarding the state and condition of each of these particular assemblies but also as to the approach and attitude of the Lord Jesus toward them, both in commendation and in censure.
There are invaluable lessons here concerning the centrality and sovereignty and authority of the Lord in the midst of the churches. There is clear teaching also as to the responsibility and the ministry of each church in its locality and there is too a very definite demonstration of the autonomy of the individual church. Yet, important also is the unity between the churches, a unity without union, an association without amalgamation, a fellowship without federation and an interdependence without interference.
Each of these assemblies was a golden lamp bearing light in its own locality, nevertheless it was most desirable that they should, in oneness, shine together for the glory of the One who walked among them. Because they are indeed autonomous each church is held accountable to Him for any failings which there may be in the testimony, and likewise the Lord Himself will heartily commend whatever there may be in that testimony for His pleasure. Censure there will be for what may be wrong, but commendation there will also be for what is commendable.
It seems to be a principle in the letters, a principle adopted by Paul in his letters to churches, that there will always be commendation first, if there is anything to be commended, and that the censure will follow after. Who would have thought, after reading those earliest verses in 1 Corinthians, that there would be much to reprove in that assembly? They were a church of God; sanctified in Christ Jesus; called saints; in everything enriched; all utterance; all knowledge; the testimony of Christ confirmed in them; coming behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the fellowship of God’s Son. How rich indeed they were at Corinth, and the apostle is quick to acknowledge all that they had and all that they were. But there was division, false doctrine, moral evil, pride, a failure to judge the evil, and disorder at the Lord’s Supper. All these departures Paul will deal with but he will commend them first. There is wisdom in this for a reminder of what we are through Christ and what we have in Him should produce regret for our failings and foster an ambition to do better.
It will be profitable then to consider each of the letters to these churches in Asia, to read of the commendations and the censures and to determine with honesty which message may suit the particular assembly to which each of us may belong. Then would follow the responsibility to respond and to adjust in whatever way might be necessary. These churches were located of course, at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
It is both interesting and important to see that there is one expression which is common to all the letters whatever the condition of the particular church may be. To each assembly the Lord says, "I know", and the import of this will become clear as each of the letters is read and examined.
There was so much to commend in the assembly at Ephesus. The Lord knew, and appreciated, their works, their labour, and their patient endurance. They could not, and would not, tolerate evil men, evil doctrine, or evil practice. Unlike the Corinthians, they had the moral strength and courage to judge these things, and they did. They had discernment too, to recognise false apostles and find them out in their lies. They had toiled faithfully in the Lord’s service and there is an interesting paradox in the words. It suggests that they had laboured to the point of weariness and yet had not wearied. The word "labour" which the Lord uses (Gk. kopos Strong 2872/3) implies fatigue, and even pain, but they had toiled on and in their toiling they had not fainted. It was as if their toil for Him had been no toil and all this deserved to be commended by the Lord whom they served. He noted and appreciated their faithful ministry for Him. The patience to which He twice refers may denote their cheerful endurance even while they suffered reproach for Christ.
Then there were the Nicolaitanes, probably self-asserting arrogant men lording it over the saints just as Diotrephes did in John’s day, 3 Jn.9. The assembly at Ephesus shared the Lord’s hatred for the deeds of these men and this was commendable too. It was indeed an evidence of spirituality that they abhorred that which the Lord Himself hated.
Well it is for that assembly which has as many fine features as the Ephesian assembly had. The Lord of assemblies will never hesitate or be lacking in His praise of such. Everything appeared desirable in Ephesus and ‘desirable’ is in fact the meaning of the name "Ephesus". Could there be anything in this assembly that required censure? Outwardly everything seemed beyond reproach but He who says, "I know", will soon reveal what is lacking in their testimony.
There is a certain sadness in that word "nevertheless". The Lord is not at all unmindful of all that is commendable in this assembly, "but"! Notwithstanding His words of approval there was something missing of which onlookers may not have been aware. They had left their first love. This does not necessarily mean first in order of time although it is indeed often the case that the early love of new-born souls may be more fervent than that of later life. The word "first" (Gk.protos) is in fact the word translated "the best" in Lk.15.22, "the chiefest" in Mk.10.44 and "the chief" in Lk.19.47 and in several other places throughout the New Testament. So that while the early ardour of the Ephesians could well have been the more intense, nevertheless it may be that the Lord’s complaint is that they had left a love of a better quality. They used to love Him more, with a love that gave Him pleasure. Where was that ardent affection now? If perhaps men could not appreciate what was missing, note now the importance of that word of His, "I know".
The word "somewhat" in the Lord’s charge against them in Rev.2.4 must be omitted for it seems to minimise the charge. It was not a mere "somewhat" which He had against them. Their departure from their better love was solemn indeed. It was a fall from the bridal affections of which Paul had written to them years earlier in Ephesians chapter 5. Orthodox they certainly were, and busy in His service, but is it then possible that we may be busy in a mechanical fashion, not truly motivated by love for the Lord Jesus?
Such was the seriousness, and the sadness, of their condition that it required repentance. There must be a searching of the heart and a return to that better love for the Saviour. His censure and His loving appeal may be summed up in three words, "Remember! Repent! Return!" Such repentance would be suitably rewarded but if it was not forthcoming He may decide to remove them as a lampstand, and this indeed is what has happened literally at Ephesus where there is now no assembly testimony for Him.
What lessons there are here for us of this later day. May we assess with frankness and honesty just how much, or how little, we love Him. May we strive faithfully for His commendation and earnestly seek to avoid any condition or practice which would warrant His censure.
The story of this suffering assembly is told in four verses in Revelation chapter 2 and indeed the name "Smyrna" is mentioned only twice in the New Testament, Rev.1.11 and Rev.2.8. All that we know of the assembly at Smyrna is contained in the letter in Revelation chapter 2 but it is obvious that the church was very precious to the Lord. It was indeed a golden lamp!
True to His gracious character the Saviour withholds all censure from the assembly in Smyrna. It can hardly be assumed that there was nothing there which needed reproof for no church is perfect, but this was not the time for censure. They were suffering at Smyrna and suffering saints needed consolation not correction. They needed comfort and encouragement. If there were things which must be corrected that could wait until a more appropriate time. What an example for those who minister the Word to believers. Paul speaks of the meekness and gentleness of Christ, 2 Cor.10.1, and while the Lord could administer censure at other times yet He is tenderly discriminatory in His dealings with saints and this is so evident in His approach to Smyrna.
Assemblies are all precious to Him but perhaps a special preciousness may be concealed in the very meaning of the name "Smyrna". The central part of the name "Smyrna" is "myrrh". "S – myr – na." Myrrh was an ingredient of the holy anointing oil of Exodus chapter 30 and it was a blending of sweetness and bitterness. It was sweet to the smell but bitter to the taste. The assembly at Smyrna was experiencing the bitterness of suffering, as did her Lord before her, but it was indeed sweet to Him that these saints should be willing to suffer for Him. Their sufferings were as fragrant to Him as the holy anointing oil.
In His opening remarks to them the Lord will not even refer to their works, which word should be omitted from the text, as in original manuscripts. Doubtless He appreciated any service rendered for Him but there is something even more precious to Him and He goes directly to that, saying, "I know thy tribulation and thy poverty" (J.N.D. and most others). Note that their sufferings were linked with their poverty and it may well have been that the tribulation which they endured was the very cause of their poverty, as it had been with other saints of whom it is said that they took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, Heb.10.34. In their tribulation they were under pressure, like grapes being crushed in a wine press. This is implied in the Greek word for tribulation, (thlipsis Strong 2346) and the Saviour Himself knew such anguish in Gethsemane, as He also knew poverty. The word here translated "poverty" occurs only three times in our New Testament, 2 Cor.8.2; 8.9; Rev.2.9. It is the Greek word ptochei (Strong 4432) and indicates poverty in the extreme in the sense of destitution or beggary. How much these believers at Smyrna were willing to endure for their Lord.
Here, in the letter to Smyrna, we may see again the importance of that little word "I know", but is there a difference now? This is not only the "I know" of Omniscience. It is the "I know" of experience. He for Whom they were suffering had known tribulation and poverty during the days of His flesh. In a most tender way He acknowledges their suffering and says "I know". How poor they were, and He says, "I know". Who is better able to comfort and succour those who suffer than One Who has Himself experienced the same?
Like many believers who suffer for Christ, the persecution at Smyrna came from religionists. There were blasphemous men in Smyrna professing to be Jews but who were in reality the very synagogue of Satan the accuser of the saints. From this same source their Lord had endured suffering also and He encourages them. They must remain fearless and faithful. Their suffering would be limited for He was in control. It would end and they would receive a victor’s crown of life from Him who had once become dead and now lived. If their sufferings should lead even to death, they would live too, and in their poverty they were really rich.
It is hardly possible to comment upon Smyrna without mentioning the famous and revered martyr Polycarp, who was almost certainly in the assembly there when this letter was received and read. Although never mentioned in Scripture, Polycarp was a faithful witness and a close companion in his earlier days with John the Apostle. As a prominent Christian teacher he was singled out for execution by the Romans, at the instigation of the local Jews. How like his Lord! It was the time of the great public games and the city was crowded. The very day and date has been preserved for us; it was Saturday 23rd February AD 155, when the cry went up, "Search for Polycarp." He submitted himself to them but when challenged again and again to renounce Christ and say "Caesar is Lord", he resolutely refused. His final reply to them is well-known and often quoted, "These eighty and six years have I served Him and He hath done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King?" It is recorded that when he came to suffer, as he was being led along a voice was heard by the bystanders, "Polycarp, be strong, and play the man!" They tied him to a stake and gathered faggots which were built around him. For a while the fire refused to burn and it was commanded that he be pierced with a dagger. This they did. His lifeless body was then burned but the custody of his charred remains was denied to his friends. They did however eventually retrieve his bones and bury them with reverence. The story of Polycarp is of importance because it is the story and spirit of the assembly at Smyrna and an inspiration to every suffering church of God.
There is no reproof or censure here, but the promise of a crown of life for their faithfulness, and an eternal security with Him. What an example and encouragement it is for saints today, "Be thou faithful". Some of us will never be asked to suffer imprisonment, scourgings, confiscation of our goods, or martyrdom, as did many of those early believers, but it behoves us nevertheless to be faithful to Him whom we love and at all costs to avoid those things which would call for His censure.
If the letter to Smyrna is sad reading that to Pergamos is equally sad, but for a very different reason. How subtly does Satan change his strategy and his tactics in his attacks on the testimony. It was as a roaring lion that he assailed the assembly at Smyrna but his fierce assault seemed only to strengthen the resolve of those saints. To Pergamos he comes rather as an angel of light, fostering friendship and fellowship with the world around. Ominously, the Lord approaches this assembly with a sharp two-edged sword, in judgment, but again, true to His character, He will first look for that which is commendable. After that He will censure. Again, in His omniscience He says, "I know", and His knowledge is infallible.
He knew their works at Pergamos, and He knew that most of them were faithful to Him even though their city was a veritable stronghold of Satan. Satan’s throne was there. There were temples, palaces and universities of paganism. Pergamos has been called the Capital City of Corruption. It was a city of wealth, fashion and mystery, famous for learning, refinement, medicine and science, with a library boasting 200,000 volumes, second only to Alexandria in Egypt. Satan ruled among the populace where they lived and it was to their credit that in such an environment the assembly had held fast the Name of the Lord Jesus and had not denied His faith. That they dwelt where Satan had his throne was a gracious consideration of the Lord and not a complaint as some suggest. Pergamos was their home and at home they must bear testimony to their Saviour. Like the beloved Polycarp of Smyrna they had refused to say "Caesar is Lord". They had maintained their allegiance to Christ, saying "Jesus is Lord". The fidelity of the saints was the more commendable too in that they had remained loyal to Christ even in days of the martyrdom of faithful witnesses like Antipas in their very midst.
Then there follows the sad "But". The Lord did have a few things against them. They had among them those who held the doctrine of Balaam, who, although he could not curse the people of God counselled Balak to arrange an unholy intermingling of the men of Israel with the daughters of Moab. This resulted in an idolatrous worshipping of Baal with an ensuing plague and judgment from the Lord in which 24,000 Israelites were slain, Num.25.1-9. Sadly, the assembly at Pergamos was harbouring some who similarly held such liaising with the world around.
Then again, whereas in Ephesus the saints were commendably intolerant of the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, here in Pergamos those deeds had become doctrine and this was being taught along with the doctrine of Balaam. It was a mingling with the world and its ways and an erosion of the line of demarcation between the people of God and the heathen around them.
These teachers of error must be dealt with, and again, as in Ephesus, the Lord calls upon the saints to repent for condoning the evil which was in their midst. He reminds them of the sharp sword which He bears and threatens that if things remain unchanged He will come unto them suddenly and wield that sword against the false teachers. Note that He does not say "I will fight against thee" but "I will fight against them" 2.16. His controversy was with the Balaamites and the Nicolaitanes but His complaint was against the assembly for tolerating these. In what particular way the Lord would execute His judgment on them is not stated but it was indeed a threat not to be ignored. It may even be a physical judgment. They would perhaps remember that the angel of the Lord with drawn sword had confronted Balaam in his ungodly mission and that eventually Balaam himself had been slain with the sword, Num.22.23; 31.8. It was a solemn warning that even if there were things in the assembly to be commended they must not be complacent for there were things that He must censure too. Complacency is never good. We need to be ever on our guard, always alert to dangers seen and unseen.
He Who says "I know" now reveals just what He knows about the saints in Thyatira. There was so much to commend that once again one might wonder if there could be anything at all requiring censure. How much good can at times exist alongside that which is positively evil! He knew their works, their love, their service, their faith, their patient endurance, and their latter works to be more than the first. There had actually been an increase in their labour for Him and the Lord recognises and commends all that they were, and all that they were doing, for Him.
In Thyatira there was love, both for Christ and for each other, and wherever such love is evident in any assembly He will commend it. Their service too, their ministry, would, like their love, be for Him and for one another. In their faith they had not wavered. There was a constancy in their trust in Him, and in patience they endured, persevering with a steadfast continuance in testimony for Him. All these virtues the Lord graciously acknowledges and commends, again mentioning the abounding nature of their works.
Then follows the sad "notwithstanding". It is the same word as the "nevertheless" in the letter to Ephesus, v.4, and the "but" in the letter to Pergamos, v.14. There was so much to commend in Thyatira, but this could not offset or cancel the need for censure. He who writes to them is the Son of God, and in His Divine omniscience He has eyes like a flame of fire which can discern what ordinary men can not see. Nothing can be hidden from Him. His feet too, are like burnished brass, symbols of activity in judgment when that is necessary. He has the knowledge and authority to execute that judgment when it is needed.
The Lord’s complaint against them was that they were tolerating the evil influence of a woman "Jezebel" in their midst. Who this woman was, or whether this was indeed her real name, we cannot tell, but whoever she was she bore the character of Jezebel of old. That Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Tyre and Zidon, 1 Kgs.16.31. She was an evil, unprincipled woman who corrupted Israel by introducing the worship of Baal alongside the worship of Jehovah, intending doubtless that this idolatrous system should eventually displace the worship of Jehovah altogether. Jezebel was an idolatress, a persecutor, a thief, a murderess, a liar and a hypocrite, intent on seducing the people of God and ruining their testimony for Him.
Jezebel in Thyatira was likewise a woman of dominant personality. Was she, as some think, the wife of some prominent brother in the assembly? She may well have been. Whether the fornication which she was promoting was actual immorality or perhaps an unholy fellowshipping with demon worshippers and idolaters, is of little account. It was evil; it was abominable that such a woman should be tolerated in the assembly. Of what real value was all that which the Lord had commended if the good name of the assembly and the lives of the saints were slowly being corrupted by the evil influence of this obnoxious woman? It was a serious error to tolerate her.
She was "teaching" too! How wrong it was for a woman to teach at all in the assembly, but this woman was teaching gross evil, posing as a prophetess. Was it her loud dominant manner? Was it her overbearing personality? Or was it her subtle deceitful appeal to the flesh? Whatever, some were being influenced by her presence and the assembly was indeed in grievous error by tolerating her. However, it seems to be a principle that if His people do not judge, then God Himself will judge. This happened in Corinth with the result that many were weak and sickly among them and some had died, 1 Cor.11.30. If there was no repentance the Lord would deal with this woman and with her children, those whom she had produced by her evil teaching. His judgment on them would be a salutary lesson to others and all the churches would know that their Lord was truly omniscient, searching the hearts and testing the motives of all men
Conniving with idol worship and with immorality was a most sad and solemn condition in Thyatira. Such evil practices were indeed "the depths of Satan". But there was a remnant, the rest in Thyatira, those who had not been influenced by the evil. These must hold fast to the truth until the Lord would come, v.25. Is this the first reference to the Rapture of the Church, the Coming of the Lord, in these letters? If so, what an incentive! He was coming, and while they waited for Him they must be loyal and true to Him, holding fast to all that they knew to be truth. The same exhortation remains pertinent today. Eventually He will judge the evil, and the evil-doers, and will vindicate those who in the midst of evil have lived true to Him. Let us strive for His commendation and dread anything that would call for His censure.
There is little if anything to commend in the assembly at Sardis. The Lord knew their works, and He knew that there were a few in the assembly who had remained undefiled. He does not elaborate or enlarge when he says, "I know thy works". Would the very indeterminate nature of the expression cause them to think, "What does He really know? What is there to know? What have we done for Him?" If He were to say to my assembly "I know thy works," would we not examine our service and try to assess in all honesty just what there is in it for Him?
What He did know was that their works were not complete; they were not up to standard. The commentator Adam Clarke assesses the situation very aptly when he writes, "They performed duties of all kinds, but no duty completely. They were constantly beginning, but never brought any thing to a proper end. Their resolutions were languid, their strength feeble, and their light dim. They probably maintained their reputation before men, but their works were not perfect before God." Was there preaching without power? Outward form? Externalities? A semblance of truth which did not really affect the lives and testimonies of those in the assembly?
What perhaps exacerbated the condition of things at Sardis was that there were infinite resources at their disposal and there was no excuse for their apparent barrenness. He Who wrote to them had the seven spirits of God and the seven stars; He possessed plenitude of spiritual power and He also had sovereign control of His servants. Had they but availed themselves of all that He was, things could have been so different at Sardis. What salutary lessons for assemblies today!
These saints had a name, a reputation that they lived, but it was a name only for as far as effective testimony was concerned they were dead. It was a lifeless profession and in the assembly as a whole there was indeed very little to be commended. Those few individuals in the assembly who had remained true to the Lord would not be forgotten. He will readily commend and encourage these but will exhort the assembly to better things.
They must be watchful. They must watch their thoughts and words, their affections and their actions. They had been lethargic. They had been careless and inattentive, like one asleep. It was imperative that they awake and strengthen whatever elements of good profession remained lest these should die also. Recovery could be accomplished in any assembly by revival of gospel interest and attention to sound ministry of the Word of God. Such activity would establish those who might be wavering in the assembly and would strengthen the flagging testimony.
The Lord encourages them to remember how they had at first received the message of pardon and peace. They should call to mind the joy and zeal of those earlier days when they first heard the glad tidings. Remembering the gladness of those days would surely produce repentance for their present deadness and cause them to hold fast what they had and return again to that former joy.
The alternative was both sad and serious. If they did not repent the Lord would come upon them unexpectedly and suddenly as a thief. This is not His Coming to the air for His saints. It is not His coming for them but His coming upon them. It is a coming in judicial and governmental judgment on the assembly but it is so solemn that the Lord uses the same metaphor as that which in the days of His ministry He had used to teach the suddenness of His return in power and glory as the Son of Man in judgment upon the nations. "But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up" Mt.12.43; Lk.12.39. In what particular way He would come upon Sardis is not clear but even this very lack of clarity about the nature of the threatened judgment should have aroused these saints from their lethargy. Failure to repent could well mean the removal of their lampstand.
But, as has already been mentioned briefly, there were a few in Sardis who had given their Lord pleasure. What a lovely tribute He pays to them when He says, "They are worthy!" He appreciated their faithfulness to Him. He commends them and promises a bright reward when their days of pilgrimage and testimony were finished. They had kept their garments white and they would one day walk in white with Him whose garments were white and glistering on the Mount of Transfiguration. How good it would have been if the commendation of the few could have been that of the whole assembly, but sadly it was not so in the assembly in Sardis. There was but a remnant.
We must ask, humbly and sincerely, if there is anything to commend in the assembly of which I form a part, or are there just, as He says, "A few names?" If we could with all honesty appraise our condition and then recognise that the resources which were there for Sardis are available to us too, things might be different. There could be a revival of both affection and activity for Him and a determination to live for His pleasure.
If, in the assembly at Sardis, there was a lack of commendation, here in the assembly at Philadelphia there is nothing to censure. Perhaps this should be modified by saying that, as in the case of Smyrna, if there was anything which required correction, this was not the time for such, and the Lord graciously withholds any reference to failure.
The letter opens with the familiar words "I know". The Saviour knew their works at Philadelphia and He knew their weakness. They had a little strength. This may mean that they were small in number, but more probably it may mean that compared with the power of the pagan society in which they lived they were but a poor and despised company. The Lord graciously takes notice of this and accordingly sets before them an open door of opportunity for service which no man could shut. He is on their side! He who wrote to them was holy and true and He had the key of David. Holiness and truth were what characterised Him and He desired the same from His saints. He was sovereign too and in that sovereignty He could order circumstances for His willing people. He will make a way for them in their testimony for Him and He recognises just how faithful these saints have been.
Philadelphia means "brotherly love" and in this spirit of love they had kept His Word. They had been obedient to His will. They had not denied His Name. They had been true to His Person. They had apparently known the opposition of the local Jews who were, in their hatred of Christ, but a synagogue of Satan, just as was the case in Smyrna, 2.9. The Lord would Himself deal with these at the appropriate time and cause them to know that He loved those who loved Him.
Meanwhile they must continue in the patient endurance which had already characterised them. In their weakness they had persevered in constant obedience to the Word of Christ and for this He commends them and gives His promise that He will keep them in every trial.
For their encouragement, He was coming! As He had exhorted the remnant in Thyatira so now He exhorts Philadelphia, "Hold that fast which thou hast" 2.25. They would one day wear a victor’s crown and they should guard this jealously. If this crown may be, as some think, a crown of present testimony, then the exhortation is still important; they should carefully maintain what they have for His glory. The Saviour would reward their fidelity and steadfastness and one day they would be as pillars in the temple, inscribed with His Name in the City of God. Like Jachin and Boaz, pillars in the porch of Solomon’s temple, 2 Chron.3.17, they would have a place of prominence in the New Jerusalem. There was a coming day of glory for the overcomer and from their present weakness the saints at Philadelphia could look forward with joy.
What a happy assembly is that which has His commendation, His encouragement and His promise, with no censure. May we too anticipate the day of His return, living daily in the hope of His coming and with the prospect of glory with Him forever. Such anticipation would, as the hymn says, "nerve our faint endeavour" and enable us, even in weakness, to serve Him faithfully.
The name Laodicea has become a synonym for lukewarmness. Of the seven assemblies addressed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 only Laodicea and Ephesus are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament and there is an interesting observation in the Epistle to the Colossians where Paul writes, "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" Col.4.16. Since many of Paul’s epistles would be encyclicals it is very possible that the letter which the Colossians were to receive "from" Laodicea could well have been the Epistle to the Ephesians which had been sent from Ephesus to Laodicea for the assembly there to read, and that they were also to have the Epistle to the Colossians sent to them. If only they had given heed would not the teaching of these two letters, to Ephesus and Colosse, have preserved the Laodiceans from their nauseating lukewarm condition? And would the same not apply to assemblies of the present day? Occupation with the Christ of those two epistles and a zeal for His glory would surely be the antidote to careless conditions such as prevailed in Laodicea. See Paul’s expressed concern for Laodicea in Col.2.1-2 "I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea … that their hearts may be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding." O that their hearts had responded to the desire of the apostle.
What an immediate rebuke to the Laodiceans to know that He Who now addressed them was the faithful and true witness? He had lived in the same world as they but throughout the years of His sojourn He had been the "Amen" to all that God had said and desired, unchanging in His fidelity and faithfulness to the God of Truth whom He served. His life and witness should have been an encouragement to them but instead it would be a rebuke as they contrasted their own witness with His.
Was there anything which the Lord could commend in this assembly? He knew their works but He does not elaborate and we are left to conclude that there was a half-heartedness in all that they did. They were neither cold nor hot, and both of these words are interesting. The first implies that they were not icily cold or chilly, but the second means that they were not fervently hot. They were lukewarm, tepid, neither one thing or the other, and their condition was indeed so nauseating that the Lord threatens to spue them out of His mouth. "Spue" (Gk.emeo; Strong 1692) is found only here in the New Testament. It is the word from which is derived the English word "emetic". Their condition was sickening, a profession with no conviction, a service with no zeal, a complacency which was tantamount to duplicity. There was formality, self-sufficiency, spiritual sloth, and like a weather vane they could move with the prevailing wind in any direction.
The Laodiceans boasted that they were rich, but did not know that they were really poor. Did the very blessing of material riches occasion their independence and pride? They claimed to have need of nothing and in their vanity they failed to recognise that in reality their need was very great indeed. There was a sad mingling of ignorance and arrogance in the claim that they needed nothing. In the Lord’s eyes they were pathetic. They were pitiable. It was a deplorable condition and they were blind to it. Morally naked they were too, when they should have been clothed with the beauty of holiness and garments of purity like those saints in Philadelphia who had kept themselves undefiled from the world, 3.4.
It was not that there was no provision for them, for all that they needed was in Christ. He had riches for their poverty. He had the cure for their blindness. He had white garments to cover their shame. He had the answer to all their need if only they could but recognise that need and return to Him.
So the Lord has counselled them and now He will appeal, but His appeal is to the individual saint who was willing to hear. "If any man hear my voice." This does not mean that assembly testimony will at any time be superseded by, or replaced by, individual testimony, as some suggest, but the Saviour’s appeal is to the individual in the assembly so that an individual believer by his godly influence in the assembly may indeed help to recover the assembly to better conditions. To such a responsive heart the Lord promises sweet fellowship now, and in the future a share with Him in the glory of His kingdom. Sadly, it would seem that there was no recovery of the assembly in Laodicea for as far as we know there is now nothing for God in the ruins of the town that once was the wealthy and flourishing Laodicea, now known as Eski Hissar, "the old castle".
It is touching in the extreme to find the Lord patiently and graciously standing knocking at the door of His assembly. There seems to be nothing to commend in this assembly. There has been much to censure. Yet He still pleads for a place in their midst. How is it with my assembly?
With what Divine wisdom have these seven assemblies been chosen for our learning. The letters to them are rich in lessons for us. They are full of warnings and encouragements, of instruction and direction for our testimony. The poor world in which we live is gloomy and dark. It needs the light which golden lamps can give but sadly there is so much that can dim that light and bring the Lord’s disapproval. When the Saviour was here on earth He said, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" Jn.9.5. He is now no longer in the world but says to His people, "Ye are the light of the world" Matt.5.14. On His last evening on earth He prayed, "And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are" Jn.17.11. He has left us here that we might, in some measure, carry on the ministry which He began, bringing light to a world in darkness, and His prayer is that we might be preserved in that ministry.
Individually we must shine as lights in the world, Phil.2.15, but it His declared mind, and the Scriptural pattern, that we should each be part of a local company, gathered to His Name and bearing light for Him in collective testimony. Every golden lamp, precious to Him, has the privilege and responsibility to bear that light and it should be the endeavour of all so to shine as to have our Lord’s commendation. May we avoid everything and anything that would dim the light and call for His censure. The churches are indeed "The glory of Christ" 2 Cor.8.23.