In chapters two and three of Revelation, the risen, glorified Christ dictates seven letters to seven churches through John, who is in exile on the island of Patmos. In today's passage, chapter three, we have letters to the churches in Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. These letters contain correction, encouragement and promises. Let’s consider these three letters together:
To the church in Sardis, John is instructed to write that Christ knows their works, which are incomplete. Although this church had the reputation of being alive, it was actually dead. They are called to repent by waking-up from their slumber, to strengthen what little life remains, and to continuously remember what they have received. Jesus repeats his warning from Matthew 24:43, that he will come like a thief in the night. This would be especially poignant for those in Sardis, since twice in their history they had been captured, not in battle, but by stealth in the night.
There is a ray of hope in Sardis, however, a remnant that have not soiled their garments, who will walk with the Lord clothed in white garments. In pagan temples it was forbidden to enter with soiled clothes, as this could insult the gods. To the Christian, this imagery of unsoiled white clothes represents an outward expression of an inward condition: Christ has made us clean!
The last thing to notice here is the book of life, a theme that runs from Genesis to Revelation. Interestingly, Greek and Roman cities had official rolls of their citizens. New citizens would be added, and the expelled would be removed from the roll. The promise is given that true believers will never be expelled, but we have an eternal citizenship in heaven.
No correction is given to the church in Philadelphia. Jesus is encouraging the Christian Jews, who have been expelled from the synagogue. In some Roman cities, Jews were exempted from participating in pagan worship. If anyone was expelled, however, they would no longer be considered exempt, and would face persecution if they did not participate.
Verses 7 and 8 harken back to Isaiah 22:22 “And I shall place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Jesus is claiming the authority to determine who does or does not belong, and it is not dependent on ethnicity but on faith.
Laodicea was a wealthy city, and proud of it. It was known for textiles, medical school, the production of ear medicine, and eye salve. The citizens lived in relative comfort, except for one issue: there was no natural water source within the city. Aqueducts brought water in from hot springs and cold water from mountains, but by the time it travelled to the city, it would be lukewarm, and sickening to drink.
Jesus uses this in his rebuke to the church, essentially telling them that like their water supply makes them sick, their lukewarm works make Him sick! Everything the city could have confidence in outwardly, the local church lacked spiritually. Among other things, He calls them poor, blind and naked. Motivated by love, Christ calls them to repent of their lack of zeal. He invites them into sweet fellowship with Himself, and even to rule with Him in future glory.
Father in heaven, we thank you for your word, through which you rule, and through which we know you. We thank you for giving us your Spirit, who quickens our spirits and draws us closer to you. We thank you for your patience toward us, and that you lovingly call us into repentance when we falter. We thank you most of all for your beautiful son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and for His complete work on the cross. May we constantly remember His ultimate sacrifice, and may our works never lack zeal. Amen.