We’re looking at the last of the seven letters in Revelation 3 – the one to Laodicea. Yesterday, we saw that Jesus called them “lukewarm.” This wasn’t a measure of spiritual temperature, meaning they were half-hearted (although they may well have been). Being “lukewarm” meant they were useless. Hot is good (as in, hot coffee, or hot mineral springs for bathing), and cold is also good (ice-cold Coke, or the refreshing mountain springs of Colossae). But lukewarm is good-for-nothing. And that’s what Jesus calls the Laodicean church. Why? Let’s read on.
3:17 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.
We see that the Laodiceans were self-deceived and self-reliant. In the world’s eyes they were rich and successful, so they’d begun to rely on that, instead of God.
The city itself was very proud: in AD60 they refused disaster relief funds from Rome after an earthquake destroyed a large part of the city. We don’t need your help, thankyou very much!
Tragically, the Christians themselves fell into this kind of attitude; an attitude Jesus mocks by calling them “poor, blind and naked.”3:18 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.
The city of Laodicea prided itself on three things, which Jesus used as metaphors for the Church’s own self-reliance:
- Financial wealth – but Jesus told them they needed to buy gold from him!
- A large textile industry that specialised in black wool – but Jesus said they were naked, and didn’t realise it – like the emperor with no clothes.
- A medical school, famous for an eye-salve – but Jesus said they themselves were blind.
The very things the city prided itself on were the three things Jesus said they needed. It’s like telling Sydney to get a decent harbour, a bigger bridge, and some nicer beaches!
The Laodicean Christians, it seems, had adopted the same attitude as the city around it. They were useless because they were self-reliant, not God-reliant. God’s about to spit them out of his mouth like lukewarm drinking water, because he can’t use, he won’t use people who are relying on their own strength, rather than his. Self-reliance makes us useless to God.
Which is like much of the Western church today: the absence of persecution and abundance of prosperity blinds us to our own spiritual nakedness and poverty.
So how are we tempted to be self-reliant? Let’s spend a bit of time trying to answer that question over the next two days
Self-reliant in ministry
Today, let’s look at the area of ministry, which I think is the focus here in the letter to the Laodiceans. God wasn’t using them to further his kingdom, because they thought they could do it in their own strength. Using their own resources.
I think that’s the main way we become self-reliant, too. When we focus more on what we’re good at, rather than the enormity of the task. Or on the capacity of the God we’re serving.
In one of my classes a couple of years ago we were talking about the many challenges of ministry. The fact that it’s a difficult calling, and how progress is often frustratingly slow. One of my 19 year old students stood up from his seat, and in mock-horror exclaimed: “What! You mean I’m not going to change the world in two or three years? But I have the Holy Spirit. No-one’s ever had that before!”
If you knew him, you’d know he wasn’t serious. He was making fun of an attitude you can see in some younger Christians; particularly the kind that goes to Bible college. The combination of youthful enthusiasm and naïve self-confidence that thinks: as soon as I get to use my newfound training, and start putting into practice all of these new strategies that no-one has ever thought of before – look out, world, revival is coming!
I do think that phase is important to go through. We need people with new ideas and that optimistic kind of faith that expects to change the world. It just needs to become faith in God rather than in any particular idea or strategy for ministry.
Before I started Bible college, someone gave me this quote: “No-one knows more than a second-year college student.” I found that particularly helpful to know in advance, as it’s most assuredly true. You spend a year gaining an overview of both Old and New Testaments, of the history of the Church, and you look back at where you came from and think: wow. Look at all the cool stuff I’ve learned! It all makes so much more sense. I now feel so much more equipped to read and teach the Bible.
It’s only by the end of the second year that you stop looking backwards, and start looking forwards again. And realise that what you now know has simply served to make clearer how much there still is to learn.
It’s like climbing a mountain. (I’ve never climbed one. But I’m about to write like I have for rhetorical effect. Go with me on it, it’ll be less awkward for all of us.) It’s like climbing a mountain. When you get to the top, if you look back down at base camp, you get an incredible sense of achievement. Look what I’ve done! Look how far I’ve come! But when you turn around and look out, you see the vast, seemingly endless horizon of other mountains. Peaks you didn’t even know existed when you were back at base camp.
Part of the process of becoming God-reliant is to spend less time looking back at base camp; looking at how far you’ve come. And more time looking at how infinitely big the task ahead is. All of the other mountains out there. Because when you do – that’s when you’ll rid yourself of the ridiculous notion that you’re up to the task. You’re not. None of us is.
It’s hardest in “successful” churches. Where there are new people turning up, finances are steady, and there’s plenty of activity – always something happening. There’s a comfortable rhythm to church life, and it seems to be going OK at the very least. And that’s all good stuff to celebrate and be thankful for. But at what point does a “successful” church start doing ministry out of what they know they can do, rather than what they know they can’t do without God? At what point do they only take risks if the’re pretty confident they can get there?
That’s as a church. What about as individuals in ministry? When we decide to serve in a given area, do we make that decision based on our own abilities rather than a prayerful dependence on God? Do we pick ministries that suit our talents – which is fair enough – but to the exclusion of stretching ourselves in areas in which we’re not particularly talented? Where it’s clear we can’t get by without God?
We’re most useful to God in ministry when we’re most dependent on him. When we look not at our own talents, or where we’ve come from. But when we focus on the enormity of the task ahead. And the infinite capacity of the God who calls us to it.
To think about
How is your church tempted to be self-reliant in ministry? How about you?