By Thomas Schreiner –
Many of us are very familiar with Mark Dever’s book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. Well, the apostle John wrote his own book on the topic long before Dever’s. And he titled it 3 Marks of a Dead Church, and it is found in his letter to the church in Laodicea. I guess many churches didn’t get the book, for many churches throughout history have copied the Laodiceans. They have mastered the 3 marks of a dead church without knowing it. The problem with many dead churches and many dead Christians is that they think they are alive. They are self-deceived. They can’t tell the difference between life and death.
When I was in high school, we bought a puppy, a beagle. One day I came home and found him lying on the driveway. I picked him up and started petting him. I thought he was sleeping, since he was warm and soft to the touch. I was totally blind, though, for he had just been run over by my brother! My dad came around the corner and told me that I was quite out of my wits not to know that I was petting a dead dog. Well, a lot of churches are like me in the driveway. They can’t tell the difference between life and death. They think they are alive because they are warm, friendly, and there are many activities. But in God’s eyes they are dead.
Well, let’s see the 3 marks of a dead church in Rev. 3:14-21.
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:14-22)
The first mark of a dead church is that it is apathetic (3:14-16).
The church of Laodicea didn’t care much about anything. They sat in the sun, so to speak, on a lazy warm afternoon and were lulled to sleep. They forgot that a war is going on between good and evil, between light and darkness. Jesus stands in contrast to the church in Laodicea. He is the faithful and the true witness. He confessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate and went to his death. And he is calling on believers to follow him on the road to Calvary. Like Jesus they are to be faithful witnesses.
Now let’s pause and think for a moment and think about the fact that Jesus is called “the beginning of God’s creation.” Does this mean that Jesus was the first person created? Definitely not. That would contradict everything we read in Revelation. Remember, John says that Jesus like God is the first and the last, and the alpha and omega. In fact, Revelation especially emphasizes that Jesus is fully God. So calling Jesus “the beginning of God’s creation” could refer to Jesus’ role as the creator of the world. If the creation of the world is in view, then John is not saying that Jesus was the first person created, but that he is the origin and source of all creation. But I think it is more likely that the words “the beginning of God’s creation” refers to the new creation inaugurated by Jesus Christ. John draws on words about Jesus from Rev. 1:5, where Jesus is introduced as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.” The words “firstborn of the dead” signify that Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation, the church of Jesus Christ. So if John follows the pattern of Revelation 1:5, he is teaching that Jesus is the beginning of God’s new creation with his resurrection from the dead.
But the question is whether the Laodiceans will be part of that new creation, for they are not faithful witnesses. Their works are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. It has often been pointed out that both cold and hot water are good. Cold water is refreshing when you are sweating and unbelievably thirsty. If you run five miles on a hot day or come in from working in the yard, cold water is a tonic to your system. In the same way, hot water in tea or coffee or for bathing is soothing and comforting. But lukewarm water is disgusting. It doesn’t refresh you nor does it soothe.
The Laodiceans knew all about lukewarm water, for water was piped into Laodicea from about 5 miles away, and so the water was lukewarm by the time it reached Laodicea. Jesus says that the believers in Laodicea are like their water. They have the first mark of a dead church. They are apathetic. Nothing fires them up. They aren’t fervent about the things of God. They don’t have a passion for anything.
I have a friend who is very fervent and sometimes oversteps what he should do and say. But I always say to him: Yes, you have made mistakes, but at least you are fervent. At least you care. At least you have a fire burning in you. How many believers remain unruffled by everything? Nothing seems to move them. They even sit back and criticize those who are fervent. The church of Laodicea was like that. Jesus threatens the church, saying that he will spit them out of his mouth because they are lukewarm. Being spit out of the mouth stands for final judgment. Those who are spit out of Jesus’ mouth don’t belong to him at all. Anyone whom Jesus spits out in disgust has no hope of eternal life.
The second mark of a dead church is a breezy self-confidence (3:17-18)
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” (Rev. 3:17-18) The Laodiceans were lukewarm, but they were blessed with a wonderful self-image. They were convinced of their own spiritual maturity. They thought they were spiritually rich and had arrived. They were utterly self-deceived, and didn’t know that in Jesus’ eyes they were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
This reminds me of what Paul Vitz wrote in comparing the mathematical abilities of Koreans and Americans. A 1989 study of mathematical skills compared students in eight different countries. American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest. But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics. The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while the Koreans ranked lowest. Even if Americans were terrible in math, they felt they were the best. The Laodiceans were like that. They had no idea that they were spiritually impoverished. Feeling good about how you are doing spiritually doesn’t mean you are doing well spiritually!
But here is the good news. If you feel you are weak, needy, desperate, then you truly understand your position before God. The Pharisee in Luke 18 was filled to the brim with how moral and good and righteous he was, but the tax collector despised himself as a sinner. And Jesus said that the tax collector was justified before God rather than the Pharisee. How do we move from death to life? Jesus tells us in v. 18. We need to buy gold from him so that we will be spiritually rich. We need new white garments from him so that we will be clothed with his righteousness. And we need his eye salve to cure our spiritual blindness.
The Laodiceans would be able to connect with Jesus’ words here. For instance, there was a famous banking center in Laodicea. Jesus argues that he has better gold than any bank. They need to get gold from him, so that they would be truly rich. Laodicea was also well known for their textile industry, which produced all kinds of clothing. Jesus says the garments they need are more than can be produced by local businessmen. They need white garments from Jesus to cover their nakedness. And Laodicea was well known for its ophthalmology. Their medical doctors were skilled in treating eye disease. But Jesus tells them that he can cure their blindness better than any ophthalmologist. He has eye salve that will restore their sight again.
If you are an unbeliever, you can discover here the heart of what it means to be a Christian. You might think Christians are people who are very moral. They go to church. They read their Bibles. They pray, and they try to be nice to their neighbors. But that isn’t fundamentally what it means to be a Christian. Christians are those who recognize that they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. They recognize that they have rebelled against God. They realize that they need someone else’s righteousness to be spared on the day of judgment. They pin their hopes on Jesus who died for their sins, so that they can be rich with gold given to them by Jesus, and so that they can have white garments cleansed by the blood of the lamb.
The third mark of a dead church is that it refuses to listen (3:19-22)
A dead church is an apathetic church and a dead church is filled with breezy self-esteem, and we see that the third mark of a dead church is a refusal to listen. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:19-20) Jesus calls upon the believers to renew their zeal and to repent, but a dead church doesn’t listen to words like that. It refuses to change. It doesn’t listen to reproof anymore.
It is a scary sign when no one can criticize us anymore. If you are married, one of the signs that you are spiritually alive is if you listen to the criticisms of your wife or husband. Do you just get angry when you are criticized? When was the last time you really listened to anyone or heard the Lord correcting you? It is a bad sign if you can’t think of the last time when you were corrected. If that is the case, you are not listening.
And note what Jesus says here. Jesus reproves us because he loves us. If he didn’t care about us, he wouldn’t correct us. If a wife loves a husband and sees him going in a bad direction, she begs him to change precisely because she loves him. If someone doesn’t love you, they don’t care if you wreck your life. But if we have hardened our hearts to Jesus, he stands and knocks. And he summons us to open the door. In context these words of Jesus are directed to believers. They are addressed to believers who refuse to listen to him. He says, “Open the door.” In other words, repent and be zealous again. If you open the door, then you will eat with me at the great messianic feast. Even though these words are addressed to believers, I don’t think it is wrong to apply them to unbelievers as well. If you are an unbeliever hearing these words today, then Jesus is knocking on the door of your life as well. He is saying. Listen to me. Open the doors of your life to me. Or, as he says in Revelation 3:21-22, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Jesus pleads with the church one last time in v. 22. Hear what the Spirit is saying to you. Open your heart and your ears. Don’t be stubborn and stiff-necked. With humility and repentance comes joy and fruitfulness. Indeed, those who turn will reign with Jesus forever. We are stubborn because we are embarrassed about admitting that we have done what is wrong. But amazingly it is those who admit they are naked who will be clothed. It is those who admit that they are poor who will become rich. Those who admit that they are blind will see. And those who give up their own way will end up ruling and reigning with Jesus.
Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.