by Harold Dean Trulear
“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.
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 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.”
(Revelation 3:14-18 ESV)
The book of Revelation is like blood in the water to the sharks of biblical prophecy. So many approach its pages for insight and direction with respect to issues of the future, the end times, and the second coming of Christ. Beasts and angels, seas of glass and lakes of fire, a veritable feast of images is served up to us as meaningful symbols concerning what will happen to humanity and the world in which we live. Charts, books, and graphs parade across the horizons of the prophetic sky like North Stars assuring us of the truth of some well-intentioned interpreter’s vision for the future.
And yet, such futuristic interpretations often overlook the present, especially the present as addressed by John from the Isle of Patmos. For these words were originally addressed to Christians who were concerned with the present– a present fraught with turmoil and trail, persecution and oppression. Suspend judgment on the future lake of fire for a moment; John’s sermon was preached to Christians under fire.
The emperor Domitian had put grave pressures on the young Christian church. Rome loomed large in the minds of contemporary believers, for its emperor and its empire had turned up the heat on anyone who dared to believe that Domitian was not god and his empire not the kingdom. “Worldliness,” so often reduced to violations of personal piety in modern definitions, presented itself as a system where the good of the empire was the goal and the worship of the emperor was the norm. Death, imprisonment, exile, and torture became the fate of those exposed as opponents of “Domitianity.” How should Christians respond?
Indeed, how should they have responded to a regime in which the ways of society and the worship of humanity were the order of the day? How should they have responded to a regime in which political exploitation and economic oppression were dominant motifs in the public ethic? How should they have responded when love, justice, and care for the world were replaced by division, domination, and the triumph of human ingenuity to master resources in the world at large?
John writes as one who would not compromise; indeed, exile of Patmos was punishment for his intentional noncooperation with the Roman emperor. John writes to those who struggle with compromise; indeed, seven churches in the heat of struggle with Domitian’s reign are identified as recipients of his message of encouragement, warning, and inspiration. With the press of the world all around them, they struggled to be faithful to Christ. One church is praised for its effort but rebuked for losing its love. Another is admonished to hold on under increasing persecution. Still another is stold that its reputation for being alive masks the truth of its emptiness and death. Two churches are given the word that they are majoring in profession while minoring in action. They could “talk the talk” but didn’t “walk the walk.” One church is singled out for its true faithfulness and is promised an “open door that no man can shut.”
But the last church on the list offers a curious case, an interesting challenge. The last church on the list, the church at Laodicea, arrests our attention today by virtue of its familiarity; it has a ring to it– I declare, I’ve seen it somewhere before.
This church, caught in the tension between Domitian and Christ, was a victim of the tug-of-war between Rome and Jerusalem. Pulled back and forth by the conflicting pressures of heaven and earth, this church is located in a setting that jars my memory.
Harold Dean Trulear was the Dean of First Professional Programs and Professor of Church and Society at New York Theological Seminary. He spent ten years an urban missionary for Youth for Christ/Campus Life. This excerpt appeared in The Best Preaching on Earth edited by Stan L. LeQuire and published by Judson Press in collaboration with the Evangelical Environmental Network in 1996. This is the first of a two part series.