The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, inspired by the words in the Letter to Laodicea: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me (Revelation 3: 20)
The seven letters to the Churches of Asia continue in Chapter 3, with three further letters to the churches in Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Well-known and popular images from the letters in this chapter include the pillars of the Church in Phildelphia, the luke-warm faith of the Church in Laodiecea, which is neither hot nor cold, and the image of Christ knocking at the door which inspired Holman Hunts famous paintings of The Light of the World, now in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Keble College, Oxford.
3: 1-6, The Letter to Sardis:
1 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Σάρδεσιν ἐκκλησίας γράψον:
Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἔχων τὰ ἑπτὰ πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἀστέρας: Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα, ὅτι ὄνομα ἔχεις ὅτι ζῇς, καὶ νεκρὸς εἶ. 2 γίνου γρηγορῶν, καὶ στήρισον τὰ λοιπὰ ἃ ἔμελλον ἀποθανεῖν, οὐ γὰρ εὕρηκά σου τὰ ἔργα πεπληρωμένα ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ μου: 3 μνημόνευε οὖν πῶς εἴληφας καὶ ἤκουσας, καὶ τήρει, καὶ μετανόησον. ἐὰν οὖν μὴ γρηγορήσῃς, ἥξω ὡς κλέπτης, καὶ οὐ μὴ γνῷς ποίαν ὥραν ἥξω ἐπὶ σέ. 4 ἀλλὰ ἔχεις ὀλίγα ὀνόματα ἐν Σάρδεσιν ἃ οὐκ ἐμόλυναν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν, καὶ περιπατήσουσιν μετ' ἐμοῦ ἐν λευκοῖς, ὅτι ἄξιοί εἰσιν. 5 ὁ νικῶν οὕτως περιβαλεῖται ἐν ἱματίοις λευκοῖς, καὶ οὐ μὴ ἐξαλείψω τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐκ τῆς βίβλου τῆς ζωῆς, καὶ ὁμολογήσω τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐνώπιον τοῦ πατρός μου καὶ ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων αὐτοῦ. 6 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.
1 ‘And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
Classical and Biblical Sardis:
The ruins of the synagogue in Sardis ... evidence of a strong and long-surviving Jewish community in the city
The fifth letter is addressed to the Church in Sardis, or Sardes (Σάρδεις), modern Sartmustafa in the Manisa province of Turkey.
Sardis stood in the middle of the Hermus Valley, about 4 km south of the Hermus. Today, the village of Sart is close to the main road from Izmir to Ankara, about 72 km from Izmir (Smyrna). It was an important city because of its military strength, its place on an important highway leading from the interior to the Aegean coast, and its position commanding the wide and fertile plain of the Hermus.
The earliest reference to Sardis is by Aeschylus in The Persians (472 BC). In the Persian era, it was captured from the fabulously wealthy and greedy King Croesus by Cyrus the Great, whose consequent wealth is referred to in Isaiah 45: 3. Sardis then became the end station for the Persian Royal Road which began in Persepolis. During the Ionian Revolt, the Athenians burnt the city, and Sardis finally surrendered to Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
At the time Revelation was written, Sardis was a city known for its luxury and licentiousness. It was centre of the imperial cult and had a great temple dedicated to Artemis, built along similar lines to the temple in Ephesus. It remained one of the great cities of western Asia Minor until the later Byzantine period.
By the 19th century, Sardis was in ruins. The remains at Sardis include the bath-gymnasium complex, the synagogue and Byzantine shops. The recent discovery of the large synagogue in Sardis has reversed previous assumptions about Judaism in the later Roman Empire, and provides evidence for the continued vitality of Jewish communities in Asia Minor into the third or fourth century at a time when many scholars previously assumed that Christianity had eclipsed Judaism. The name Sardis may have been the origin of the word Sephardic, which describes many Jewish communities of Oriental and Mediterranean origin.
Verses 1 and 2:
The Church in Sardis is addressed by Christ as the one who has the seven spirits and the seven stars of God. The letter implies that the people of Sardis were notoriously soft and faint-hearted. They appear to be alive but may as well be dead, appear to be awake but are asleep. The church exists only in name and not in deed.
The image of being the unsuspecting and unprepared victim of a cunning thief is particularly apt for Sardis: the city was twice captured, first by Cyrus and then Antiochus III because no guard was posted above the steep slopes. The Church in Sardis is now in danger of finding what it has being stolen.
Yet, there is a faithful remnant within the Church, who have not soiled their clothes.
White robes are the robes of baptism and the robes of pure worship. The Letter says that Christ will grant to those who are pure in this world a white robe and walk with Christ. The white robes or garments point to the resurrected body.
The book of life is the register of God containing the names of the redeemed (see Exodus 32: 32; Psalm 69: 28; Daniel 12: 1; Malachi 3: 16).
3: 7-13, The Letter to Philadelphia:
7 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Φιλαδελφείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον:
Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἅγιος, ὁ ἀληθινός,
ὁ ἔχων τὴν κλεῖν Δαυίδ,
ὁ ἀνοίγων καὶ οὐδεὶς κλείσει,
καὶ κλείων καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀνοίγει:
8 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα ἰδοὺ δέδωκα ἐνώπιόν σου θύραν ἠνεῳγμένην, ἣν οὐδεὶς δύναται κλεῖσαι αὐτήν ὅτι μικρὰν ἔχεις δύναμιν, καὶ ἐτήρησάς μου τὸν λόγον, καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσω τὸ ὄνομά μου. 9 ἰδοὺ διδῶ ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς τοῦ Σατανᾶ, τῶν λεγόντων ἑαυτοὺς Ἰουδαίους εἶναι, καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν ἀλλὰ ψεύδονται: ἰδοὺ ποιήσω αὐτοὺς ἵνα ἥξουσιν καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν ἐνώπιον τῶν ποδῶν σου, καὶ γνῶσιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἠγάπησά σε. 10 ὅτι ἐτήρησας τὸν λόγον τῆς ὑπομονῆς μου, κἀγώ σε τηρήσω ἐκ τῆς ὥρας τοῦ πειρασμοῦ τῆς μελλούσης ἔρχεσθαι ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκουμένης ὅλης πειράσαι τοὺς κατοικοῦντας ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. 11 ἔρχομαι ταχύ: κράτει ὃ ἔχεις, ἵνα μηδεὶς λάβῃ τὸν στέφανόν σου. 12 ὁ νικῶν ποιήσω αὐτὸν στῦλον ἐν τῷ ναῷ τοῦ θεοῦ μου, καὶ ἔξω οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃ ἔτι, καὶ γράψω ἐπ' αὐτὸν τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ θεοῦ μου καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς πόλεως τοῦ θεοῦ μου, τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλήμ, ἡ καταβαίνουσα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ μου, καὶ τὸ ὄνομά μου τὸ καινόν. 13 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.
7 ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:
8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying – I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Classical and Biblical Philadelphia:
The pillars of the Byzantine Church of Saint John in Philadelphia frame the view towards a mosque in present-day Alaşehir
The sixth letter is addressed to the Church in Philadelphia, a small town in Lydia. Several ancient cities bore the name of Philadelphia, but the city named as the sixth-city church in the Book of Revelation is present-day Alaşehir. This Philadelphia (Φιλαδέλφεια) is also located in Manisa province. It lies in the valley of the Kuzuçay, at the foot of the Bozdağ or Mount Tmolus, about 105 km from Smyrna.
Philadelphia was established in 189 BC by King Eumenes of Pergamon, who named it so because of his love for his brother, who succeeded him as Attalos II.
This region still produces some of the best grapes and wine in Turkey, and as a centre of vine-growing wine-making, Philadelphia was a centre for the worship of Dionysius (Bacchus), the god of wine and merry-making. Under Roman rule, the city was in the administrative district of Sardis.
When the city suffered badly in an earthquake in AD 17, the Emperor Tiberius relieved it from having to pay taxes. It was renamed Neo Caesarea and became a centre of the imperial cult. It remained an important centre in the early Christian and Byzantine times. In the sixth century, prosperous Philadelphia was known as “little Athens” because of its festivals and temples, which indicates the city was not entirely converted to Christianity. Ammia, the Montanist prophetess, was from Philadelphia. The domed Basilica of Saint John was built around the year 600. Its remains are the principal archaeological attraction there today, and include three of the six original pillars, with some barely visible 11th century painting; a fourth pillar is half-buried in the soil.
In the 14th century, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople made Philadelphia the metropolis of Lydia by, a status it still holds. Philadelphia was the last Byzantine stronghold in inner Asia Minor. Its Greek population fled the town during World War I. Today it is known as Alaşehir.
This letter gives the impression that the Church of Philadelphia was small in numbers, or poor, or both. But it has remained faithful, and has not denied Christ. In this letter Philadelphia, like Smyrna, receives no warning or condemnation. The Church has lived through difficult circumstances and is urged to hold fast in the face of further difficulties.
The key of David is a symbol of authority and allows access to the king’s palace (see Isaiah 22: 15-22), but earlier in Revelation we have also encountered the keys of Hades and Death (1: 18) that give access to the eschatological kingdom.
An open door symbolises opportunity.
According to this letter, the Christians in Philadelphia were suffering persecution at the hands of the local Jews, who are called the “synagogue of Satan.” Once again, this is a difficult passage to deal with, and refers to clashes at the time rather than anything in the future – it cannot be applied to Jewish communities today.
Those Christians in Philadelphia who are persistent in the faith and are victorious are to become the pillars of the temple of God. This means that the people themselves become the temple of God. The metaphor may refer to the pillars of Solomon’s Temple (see I Kings 7: 21 and II Chronicles 3: 17). But the city’s history of earthquakes may lie behind the reference to making this church a temple pillar, for permanency was of vital importance to the city’s residents.
These pillars are given new names – there is the name of God, the name of the city of God, Jerusalem, and the new name of the Lamb, Christ. Each of these promises point to a new and promised reality.
3: 14-22, The Letter to Laodicea:
14 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Λαοδικείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ Ἀμήν, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ: 15 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα, ὅτι οὔτε ψυχρὸς εἶ οὔτε ζεστός. ὄφελον ψυχρὸς ἦς ἢ ζεστός. 16 οὕτως, ὅτι χλιαρὸς εἶ καὶ οὔτε ζεστὸς οὔτε ψυχρός, μέλλω σε ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός μου. 17 ὅτι λέγεις ὅτι Πλούσιός εἰμι καὶ πεπλούτηκα καὶ οὐδὲν χρείαν ἔχω, καὶ οὐκ οἶδας ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ταλαίπωρος καὶ ἐλεεινὸς καὶ πτωχὸς καὶ τυφλὸς καὶ γυμνός, 18 συμβουλεύω σοι ἀγοράσαι παρ' ἐμοῦ χρυσίον πεπυρωμένον ἐκ πυρὸς ἵνα πλουτήσῃς, καὶ ἱμάτια λευκὰ ἵνα περιβάλῃ καὶ μὴ φανερωθῇ ἡ αἰσχύνη τῆς γυμνότητός σου, καὶ κολλ[ο]ύριον ἐγχρῖσαι τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς σου ἵνα βλέπῃς. 19 ἐγὼ ὅσους ἐὰν φιλῶ ἐλέγχω καὶ παιδεύω: ζήλευε οὖν καὶ μετανόησον. 20 ἰδοὺ ἕστηκα ἐπὶ τὴν θύραν καὶ κρούω: ἐάν τις ἀκούσῃ τῆς φωνῆς μου καὶ ἀνοίξῃ τὴν θύραν, [καὶ] εἰσελεύσομαι πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ δειπνήσω μετ' αὐτοῦ καὶ αὐτὸς μετ' ἐμοῦ. 21 ὁ νικῶν δώσω αὐτῷ καθίσαι μετ' ἐμοῦ ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ μου, ὡς κἀγὼ ἐνίκησα καὶ ἐκάθισα μετὰ τοῦ πατρός μου ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ αὐτοῦ. 22 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.
14 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
Classical and Biblical Laodicea:
The hot water from Hierapolis became polluted and cooled as it flowed down through the calcified terraces on the slopes above Laodecia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2005)
The seventh and last letter is addressed to the Church in Laodicea, a proud and wealthy city near Colossae. Laodicea on the Lycus (Λαοδίκεια πρός τοῦ Λύκου), once known as Diospolis (the City of Zeus) and as Rhoas, lies about 160 km east of Ephesus. This ancient metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana It was built on the River Lycus, 10 km south of Hierapolis, near the present village of Eskihisar in Asia Minor, by Antiochus II Theos ca 261-253 BC in honour of his wife Laodice.
At first, Laodicea had little importance, and in 188 BC it passed to the Kingdom of Pergamum. Under Roman rule, Laodicea prospered because of its advantageous position on a trade route and became an important and flourishing commercial city that minted its own coins and with its prosperity built on banking, money transactions and an extensive trade in black wool. It was also known as a centre for the arts, science and literature, and had a famed medical school. It was also a centre for the worship of Zeus, Aesculapius, Apollo and the imperial cult.
Antiochus the Great transported 2,000 Jewish families to Phrygia from Babylon, and so at the time the Book of Revelation was written Laodicea had a large Jewish community, which sent large donations each year to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Perhaps because of this large Jewish community, Laodicea became an early seat of Christianity with its own bishop. Laodicea is mentioned in passing in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, and the Church in Laodicea may have been founded by the Epaphras of Colossae, who shared the care of it with Nymphas, in whose house the Church assembled. Paul asks the Colossians to communicate to the Church of Laodicea the letter he sends them, and to read publicly a letter that should come to them from Laodicea – perhaps one he had written himself or was about to write, to the Laodiceans. In addition, some Greek manuscripts end I Timothy with the phrase: “Written at Laodicea, Metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana.”
The Church in Laodicea survived its rebukes in this letter, and a famous Church council met there in the year 363.
The surviving archaeological ruins in Laodicea attest to its former greatness. They include the city’s stadium, gymnasium, and theatres, along with the remains of an aqueduct.
The “Amen” is Christ himself.
No other Church is rebuked as sternly and as harshly as the Church in Laodicea. The church is as unpalatable as the local water which has come from the hot springs in Hierapolis (Pamukkale), and has been cooled and polluted as it drips down through the encrusted, calcified terraces on the hillsides above Laodicea. This lukewarm water is now so polluted and so poisoned, it is better to spit it out.
Although this is a rich, proud, boastful city, the people spiritually are quite the opposite.
Those who have grown rich through banking and money-changing do not know the true value of real, refined, golden faith. They need to replace their black wool garments which are a sign of their prosperous trading with the white robes of baptism and true worship.
These people are also spiritually blind, and need fresh spiritual insight. Laodicea was famous at the time for the eye medicine produced locally from powdered Phrygian stone. There is a touch of irony here as the city that is famous for its eye medicine is home to Christians who are blind to their own condition.
Christ stands at the door, knocking. This image has inspired Holman Hunt’s painting, “The Light of the World.” If we open door to Christ, then we can sit with him at the banquet, at the Eucharist.
Although no other church among the seven is rebuked as harshly as the Church in Laodicea, nevertheless Christ says that those who are victorious will sit with him on the Throne of God.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 22 April 2009.