The Pharisees of Revelation 3
by Danny Bell
By Danny Bell, July 30, 2013
What if I told you that the Laodicean Christian was not a backslider at all but in fact the very opposite? What if I told you that the Laodicean was a nicely dressed, well spoken, regular church attending, active Christian? What if I said that the common belief of the last day Laodicean as being someone who struggles with sin, sliding in his walk with the Lord was a false application of Revelation 3? What if I told you that we are experiencing the Laodicean spirit now in western Christianity more than ever before?
Most of us have read about the seven churches in Revelation. While visiting John in a vision on the Isle of Patmos, Jesus gave pointed messages to each of the seven churches that were in existence at the time. Starting in chapter two, Jesus delivers some wise counsel to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
Adventists, along with many commentators, teach that the seven churches have a future application to the seven phases of church history right down to the end of time. Each message to the churches becomes strikingly similar to the successive eras of the Christian movement with a descriptive likeness to what happened to the Church after the time of the Apostles. From the first organic roots of Christianity, a pattern emerges with matching counsel for each of the seven churches right down to Laodicea—the last era of Christians at the time of the end.
Out of the seven churches, however, the counsel given to Laodicea is the least flattering. In fact there’s no encouragement about their performance like the other churches, but only a stern rebuke that their condition makes Jesus sick: “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Revelation, 3:16, NKJV).
The condition of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3 is astonishing. They are presented as being in denial about their true condition and say to themselves that they are “rich, have become wealthy and have need of nothing” (v17), but in reality they are the opposite. Jesus calls them “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” (ibid). The last-day Laodicean does not fare well among the seven churches, earning the strongest rebuke from Christ Himself.
From my earliest memories, the Laodicean message has always been presented as being about backsliders. Preachers were not neglectful to point out that those who have continued to sin, leaving their first love, were Laodicean and had backslidden to a point where, if they didn’t change, God would spew them out of his mouth.
Backsliders are said to be those who have not overcome besetting sins, sliding backwards in their relationship with God. The Laodicean backsliders, therefore, were urged to buy ‘gold’ from God, “refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v18).
Under such instruction it seemed to me that I must feel even more ashamed of my sins and have more guilt that I had not overcome. The message was clear—the Laodicean Christian was a sinful backslider and should repent, coming up to a higher standard of behaviour than other church saints had attained, the saints who always seemed to be looking down at me with a kind of smug sympathy. For years I had held this belief, and for years… I was wrong.
While backsliders are in all churches and are in need of Gods ‘gold’, they are not the focus of Jesus’ message to Laodicea. The condition of the Laodicean is one of spiritual blindness, and because they cannot see their poverty of spirit, they feel no need to change. In fact it has nothing to do with backsliders at all, but more to do with a mentality that Jesus often encountered and warned about in his parables. The Laodicean spirit is not about specific sins but an attitude.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray reflects the difference perfectly. The Pharisee, proud of his spiritual attainments and blind to his true condition, prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke18:11). The tax collector, representing more the backslider, prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (v13). Jesus concluded by giving credit to the man who was aware of his sins as opposed to him who was blind to his.
My favourite grandmother had this to say:
The people of God are represented in the message to the Laodiceans in a position of carnal security. They are at ease, believing themselves in an exalted condition of spiritual attainments. (RH, September 16, 1873).
The Laodicean message is not about backsliders but about proud Christians. Self sufficient spiritual superiority versus the humility of common sinners can be seen in other parables such as the Prodigal Son, the Ten Virgins, the Sheep and the Goats, all of which point to the dangers of becoming spiritually proud and self-sufficient. Over and over, Jesus warned his disciples not to think of themselves too highly but rather be aware of their own spiritual poverty and dependence on God. This spiritual blindness was a constant source of discussion with Jesus, and he attributed it mostly to the Pharisees—a group responsible for His death and distorting what God actually requires from believers.
The Pharisees were in denial about many things when Jesus called them blind guides (Matt 23:24). In very descriptive rebukes, these self-sufficient worshippers were said to have: majored in minors, stopped the growth of churches, exalted themselves, made rules for others to follow but didn’t practice themselves, followed the law scrupulously, had an obsession with outward appearances and were full of hypocrisy.
The warnings about becoming spiritually proud were a precursor to the Laodicean condition spoken of in Revelation 3. It’s not about Christians who are aware of their sins and status before God. To the contrary, the Laodicean would likely fly under the radar and be sitting in our pews fully engaged in worship and the internal ministries of the church. The Laodicean holds positions of influence and authority, and their church record, for all appearances, is impeccable.
Unfortunately, the Laodicean is one who is happy in their religious walk and confident in their standing when it comes to being saved at the end (Matt 7:22). They may talk of their salvation as if it were a foregone conclusion and would perhaps deride those who didn’t exhibit such confidence and certainty. Their over-confidence is their downfall because it’s based on their apparent spiritual wealth, biblical knowledge and standing in the church. They are not struggling fringe-dwellers, but are at the core of church life and its functions, often leading out in high praise and sanctimonious acts of worship (Matt 6:2).
My grandmother again said,
“I asked the meaning of the shaking I had seen and was shown that it would be caused by the straight testimony called forth by the counsel of the True Witness to the Laodiceans. This will have its effect upon the heart of the receiver, and will lead him to exalt the standard and pour forth the straight truth. Some will not bear this straight testimony. They will rise up against it, and this is what will cause a shaking among God's people” (1T, p181).
The Shaking, as is commonly taught, is something that precedes the Latter Rain—a much coveted event by many Adventists who want to go home. Could this be, however, the reason why the Shaking has not come? Have we been applying the message of the Laodicean wrongly? Could it be in our pride of our high achievements and status within the church that we are unwittingly placing a burden on those who are stragglers in the spiritual department? In our concerns about being good rather than doing good are we not playing into the spirit of Laodicea and setting the bar too high for those who struggle?
Our foremother concludes:
It seems to me that the Lord is giving the erring, the weak and trembling, and even those who have apostatized from the truth, a special call to come fully into the fold. But there are but few in our churches who feel that this is the case. And there are still fewer who stand where they can help such. There are more who stand directly in the way of these poor souls. Very many have an exacting spirit. They require them to come to just such and such terms before they will reach to them the helping hand. Thus they hold them off at arms' length (T2, pg20).
This to me is classic Laodicea and again was encountered in Jesus’ time, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt 23:4-5). This distancing oneself from the rabble, the repulsion of dirty sinners, the selfish focus on our own comfort to the detriment of others is a strong theme that runs right through the New Testament to Revelation 3. There at the end of time, we see a church that is self-absorbed, self-sufficient and proud of her achievements.
All our prayers and wishful thinking for Jesus to come quickly may need to be tempered with this thought. The predicted Shaking will not come, as it depends greatly on our preachers and publications addressing the self-righteous and self-centred religion that infects the last-day western church culture.
We may also have to revise our teaching on the “Unpardonable Sin.” Is it right to attribute it to sinners who continue to fail in their attempts to live right, or could the unpardonable sin instead be about those who cannot see anything wrong? How can a sin be forgiven if it is not confessed? Maybe that’s why it is termed unpardonable?
The Laodicean is in a state of confidence and happiness concerning their stand with God and the church. They cannot see the needs of others beyond their own. They are self-sufficient, and their way of doing religion centers on externals and achievements they have acquired within their community. Jesus loves the Laodicean and pleads, “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (Rev 3:20). It’s not a surprise then that Jesus is found outside of the Laodicean church’s door knocking. Could it be that these are the things they lack—a heart for those who are desperate to come in and the capacity to see who it is who knocks?