The Nauseating Church

A sermon on Revelation 3:14-22 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 4/10/2005

How do you grow a church?

For the last several decades, many researchers have been providing advice, gained from social surveys, about what makes churches grow. Several churches that have grown tremendously in size have served as models for one type of church growth strategy or another.

Recently, Mark Dever looked through a popular Christian magazine and found advertisements claiming that “churches can grow by attending a seminar on effectively training church leaders in the local church; by ordering some new Sunday School literature; by buying electrical communications gear from a store in Alabama; by picking the right study Bible or Christian book, the right college or seminary. One prominent seminary, if you enroll, claims to ‘empower you to be a world changer.’”

How do you grow a church?

In today’s passage, we find a church that looks very successful. Indeed, had someone conducted surveys of growing churches in the 1st century, this church may very well have been held up as a model for others. This church had money. This church had people in abundance. This church to all appearances was eminently successful.

Yet what does Jesus say to this church?

·        Does He say, “You know, you’ve developed some really innovative strategies here – do you think we can publish a book to share those with the rest of the Province of Asia? I’d really like to partner with you in growing other churches!

No. He says, “I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” He says, “You make me sick.”

 Now, we know that Jesus is not against churches that grow! At the end of Acts 1, the number of believers in Jerusalem is about the same as the number gathered here this morning. Then, as recorded in the next chapter, on the Day of Pentecost they baptized about 3,000 new believers – that’s pretty spectacular growth! From 120 to 3,120 overnight!

Numerical church growth is good. Indeed,

·        we are to be salt and light to those around us,

·        we are to implore those around us to be reconciled to God,

·        we are to love our neighbors,

·        we are to disciple all nations,

·        we are to pray for open doors to the Word.

So if numerical church growth is good and the church in Laodicea was growing, why is Jesus so upset with it? Why does the Laodicean church make Him want to vomit?

Let’s read the passage together prior to examining what God is saying to us:

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 am about to vomit 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, ESV except v16, own translation)

We’ll look at the passage under three headings:

The False Sign of Success

The True Sign of Success

Love and Repentance

The False Sign of Success: Earthly Success is No Sign of God’s Favor

Notice how Jesus introduces Himself in v 14: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness.” “The Amen” sounds strange to our ears. We normally only use this word at the end of prayers, or at the end of songs. But “amen” is a Hebrew word that means  “truly” or “truth” or “so be it”. There is one other verse in the Bible in which this word is used as a title: Isaiah 65:16. In our English translations, this phrase is generally rendered, “The God of Truth” but it literally reads “The God of Amen.”

So in Revelation 3:14 Jesus alludes to Isaiah 65:16, giving Himself the same title as God. As we have seen, in Revelation time and again the author emphasizes that Jesus is truly God.

Furthermore, Jesus is the true and faithful witness. He is the one who can see through all shadows, all deceit. And He witnesses to that truth, He faithfully proclaims what He sees and knows. In courtrooms, witnesses swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. That is how Jesus Christ always speaks

Finally, Jesus describes Himself as the “Beginning” or the “Ruler” of God’s creation. This refers both to His authority, as well as His role in redeeming creation, in making the new heavens and earth. Indeed, that is the context of the Isaiah 65:16 reference. In the very next verse, God says,

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. Isaiah 65:17 

This is the one who looks at the Laodicean church and criticizes it.

Before we look at what Jesus Christ says about the church, look in verse 17 to see what they say about themselves. They say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  In other words, they are saying:

“We’re successful! We’re doing great! We’ve surpassed our budget year after year! We’re growing in numbers, we’ve got multiplying small groups. Everyone looks at us and says, ‘Wow, what a great church!’ And compare us to other churches in the region, like that one in Smyrna. They have nothing! No numbers, no money. Hey, we know how to do church in the 1st century. Excuse me? What did you say? You want to offer us advice? You want to help us? No thanks. We don’t need any help. In fact, we were just thinking about sending a team to Smyrna to help them learn our principles!”

That’s their opinion. But that’s not what the Amen, the true and faithful witness sees. He says:

“You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!” Revelation 3:18

What does this mean? Some have interpreted this to mean that Jesus would prefer the church to ignore Him completely rather than have them to say they honor him but to keep him in second place. Now, clearly Jesus must be first in our hearts; we saw that explicitly in Revelation 2:1-7 (sermon) and implicitly many other places. But here Jesus sets up two alternatives that are equally attractive: cold and hot. The true and faithful witness would never imply that those heading to hell because of their indifference to Him are equal in status to those who love Him with all their hearts.

Think of it this way: When do you want to drink cold water? On a hot day after exercising, a cup of cold water is exactly what you want. It is very useful. What about hot water? When do you want to drink hot water? On a cold winter’s morning, sitting down with a cup of hot tea or coffee is just what you want. But, tell me, when do you ever want to drink lukewarm water? Do you ever have a craving, thinking, “Boy, I just can’t wait to sit down with my cup of lukewarm water!”?

Jesus is saying, “I would that you were useful for the Kingdom! There are different types of churches, that display My glory in different ways. My worldwide church manifests itself in different ways in different local assemblies – they don’t all look alike, and that is good! But you, Laodicean church -  you are good for nothing! You are not glorifying Me in any way! So I’m about to vomit you out of My mouth!”

With all their numbers, with all their riches, in the end they are absolutely worthless. With all their reputation, with all their growth – they are doing nothing to fulfill the purpose of the church: To bring glory to God. That’s why Jesus is about to vomit them out of His mouth.

Most English translations use less graphic language, “vomit” is what the word means. The Laodicean church nauseates Jesus, because they are good for nothing.

He goes on to say in verse 17 that they don’t realize that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

The bottom line: Earthly success is no sign of God’s favor. The only evaluation that matters is the evaluation of Jesus Christ. We may look great to others, we may look great to ourselves, but at the same time we may make Jesus Christ sick.

Oh, how we need to remember this! We must never evaluate a church or our own spiritual lives on the basis of this world’s criteria. And that includes evaluating a church by its growth in numbers. That’s a false sign of success.

The True Sign of Success

If success in the world’s terms is an unreliable indicator of God’s favor, what is the true sign of success? Jesus tells us in verse 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.

The key phrase is: “Buy from Me!” The only success that matters is success on Jesus’ terms. And the only terms He gives are: “Buy from Me!” When we “succeed” by any other means, we are despicable to Him.

But this phrase “buy from me” is strange. Let me ask you: How can you become rich by buying something from someone else? Imagine that I have one million dollars worth of Microsoft stock and say, “Buy this from me so that you might become rich.” You ask, “What’s the price?” I answer, “A million dollars, of course.” Would that make you rich? No! The only way you can buy it is if you already have a million dollars to spare. You are just exchanging one valuable asset for another. You’re no richer after the transaction than you were before.

Now rewind the video, and let’s play it out differently. I offer you the stock, and you ask, “What’s the price?” I answer, “Fifty cents.” Would that make you rich? If you could get a million dollars worth of Microsoft stock for fifty cents, would that enable you to become rich?

That’s the situation here. When Jesus says, “Buy gold from Me!”, He is not saying, “Let’s do a transaction: You give Me something valuable and I’ll give you something of the same value.” Instead, He is alluding to Isaiah 55:1:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. (emphasis added)

The language of buying is used, but there is no price. Jesus offers the Laodiceans a gift – gold, for nothing! That’s the way to become rich.

Consider then the three items Jesus tells the Laodiceans to buy from Him for nothing:

Gold refined in fire

Once again, Jesus uses an Old Testament image. Look at Zechariah 13:9. The prophet speaks of the remnant of God’s people whom He will put:

into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'They are my people'; and they will say, 'The LORD is my God.'

Malachi 3:2-3, a text that is well-known through Handel’s Messiah, reads:  

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap.  3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD.

So what is the gold refined with fire? The people themselves! They become a precious metal as they entrust themselves to the One who will make them into His pure, spotless Bride.

So buying refined gold means becoming holy, being set apart for God, becoming part of God’s intimate family – or, in the language of Romans 12:1, offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and well-pleasing to God.

White garments

We’ve seen the image several times already in Revelation. White garments picture the righteousness of Christ given to us, covering the shame of our sinfulness. Jesus dresses us in His righteousness, imputed to us, credited to us. Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law of God, and that righteousness is ours in Him.

Eye salve

In ancient times, the city of Laodicea was well-known for the eye-salve it produced and sold. People bought this salve in order to deal with eye infections, and thus to be able to see better. But the manufacturers of this famous remedy for bad vision can’t see themselves! They cannot see the reality of their own condition!

The only way to see our true status, the only way to see our true condition, is to use Jesus Christ’s eye salve. Then, and only then, can we truly see.

These are the true signs of success: People refined by Jesus Christ, becoming holy in the way they live, offering themselves completely to Him, loving Him with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength; people dressed in the righteousness of Christ, recognizing that apart from His work they are damned; people whose eyes are opened to the glories of God, the love of Christ, and their own sinfulness.

When you buy these from Jesus Christ – without cost, without price – then, and only then, are you successful in His eyes.

Now, let me ask you:

When we grow a church through worldly methods, we bring no glory to God. Indeed, we become repugnant to Christ.

But God tells us the means to grow a church to His glory:

That’s what we are trying to do here at Desiring God Church. Pray that God might grant us the grace to do it.

Love and Repentance

There is nothing attractive about this church of Laodicea; it is even worse than Sardis. That church too thinks it is in good shape when it is not, and Jesus reprimands it severely. But in Revelation 3:4, He says

you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments.

Evidently, there are no such people in Laodicea.

After this powerful rebuke, verses 19 and 20 are surprisingly comforting and tender. The Laodiceans make Jesus Christ sick, but He says:

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.

Do you see what He is saying? “I love you! That’s why I’m reproving you! This is my correction, my discipline – unless you don’t repent. I’m knocking! Have fellowship with me – instead of using me as a necklace or an amulet. Consider fellowship with me as most important! You will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

So when Jesus says, “I am about to vomit you out of my mouth,” He is speaking in love! His waking them from their stupor, He is stirring them up from their self-infatuated blindness, for their own good.

Note that Jesus makes the statement in verse 20 to those who call themselves Christians, those in the Laodicean church. We frequently think of this verse in terms of evangelism, but the context is the disobedient church. He tells them, “You are not now supping with me – and if you don’t you will be away from me for all eternity. So repent! I am here, knocking – so open the door!”

Then He offers to let them rule with Him for all eternity:

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.

This is what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-6:

ButGod, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved-  6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (emphasis added)

Exalted! Seated with Christ! So that no one other than Christ is over you. Jesus Christ is your intimate friend, whom you see face to face, whose infinite excellencies you learn more and more of for an infinity of time!

This is the promise to the one who seeks Him. This is the promise to the church that honors Him.

So He says in verse 19: “Be earnest! Be zealous! Don’t take this lightly!”

Imagine you lived at the time of Noah. You heard him preach, but didn’t believe the flood was coming. Indeed, you made fun of Noah. You walked by his construction site every day and laughed at him for building this huge box far away from any water.

But suddenly, you change. You become convinced that he is right: A flood will come and destroy everything! How will you then act?

You’d be earnest! You’d be zealous! You would do your best to get yourself, your loved one, your friends, your co-workers onto the ark!

Just so here: to be vomited out of Jesus’ mouth is hell. Don’t toy with this! Be earnest! Repent!

Are you ready to live for God’s glory?

Is Jesus Christ your delight above all?

Do you want to help build a church by God’s grace whose only passion is to glorify God?

Come to Him.

This is reality. This is truth. This is what the true and faithful witness tells us.

Do you have ears? Will you listen? Will you hear? Will you obey?

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 4/10/05. The Mark Dever quote is from his article, “Biblical Church Growth: I Thessalonians 3:12-4:12”; it is available at .  

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