According to John, Jesus continues on to say, “Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed” (3:18b). Here we have yet another contrast. The issue of putting on clothing appears to be a regular theme in the earliest church. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes: “For in this earthly house we grown, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, in indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house we will not be found naked. For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:2-4). Though Paul makes reference to houses, dwellings, tents, and clothes, the subject at hand is the glorified, resurrection body that the believer will have when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness.
In the letter to Laodicea, the shameful nakedness would seem to have the same point of reference, as there will be no glorified body available, and no place in the kingdom of God made possible for those that operate contrary to the principles of the kingdom in the course of their natural term. The purchasing of “white clothing” is yet another reference to that which has garnered wealth for Laodicea, which was the textile industry. Laodicea was a center for the manufacture of clothing, and the sheep that grazed around Laodicea were quite famous for the soft, black wool that they produced, which in turn created a high demand for clothes made from this black wool.
With His words of white clothing, Jesus produces a sharp contrast between His white clothing that is on offer, and the clothing made from black wool that was productive of wealth in this city. That wealth is creating an insidious problem in the church, and that problem need not exist. Again, the crux of the issue is not the wealth but rather the response to the wealth by those that are calling Jesus Lord, yet denying Him by their actions.
Having made reference to Laodicea’s place in the world of finance (buying gold), as well as their position in the fashion world (white clothing in contrast to the black wool), mention is then made of one more source of wealth that has a hand in contributing to that which is happening within this church in Laodicea, and is displeasing to Jesus. John reports Jesus saying, “buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (Revelation 3:18c) While this could be thought of as an allusion to Jesus’ healing of the blind, and specifically to the instance of record in which Jesus spits on the eyes of the man whose sight is restored (Mark 8:23), or to the time when Jesus spit on the ground to make some mud and smeared the mud into the eyes of a man that had been born blind (John 9:6)---both of which were interesting types of eye salve to be sure, it is far more likely that the reference hits much closer to home for those that made up this particular congregation.
This reference to eye salve, or to some type of eye medication, is more than likely yet another reflection of the historical situation in Laodicea. So once again, these words have an important contextual setting that, when recognized, will keep us from running off the tracks into strictly spiritual (and possibly incorrect) interpretations. At the risk of being overly repetitive (though this is not truly a risk), spiritual applications (for lack of a better term) can best be accomplished and are most effective when steps are taken to hear the words as they would have been heard by the original hearers, to be understood and applied in that context so as to grasp the underlying truths that are being communicated, and then translated through time for personal application.
That said, the historical situation in regards to the eye salve has to do with the fact that the region in which Laodicea is located is Phrygia. There is some debate as to whether or not this is actually the case, as Laodicea is sometimes said to have been a part of other regions, such as Caria. Contributing to the inability to pin down exact locations is the fact that territorial limitations were often very poorly defined and always changing. The region of Phrygia was famous in the ancient world because of the “Phrygian powder” produced there. This powder was an ingredient in various eye medications. To go along with the fact of the Phrygian powder, an ancient historian by the name of Strabo reports that there was a medical school in Laodicea, and that this was the location of the practice of a renowned eye doctor. When we couple the statement about eye salve in the letter to Laodicea with the fact of the Phrygian powder, it becomes reasonable to presume that Laodicea was located within this territory, at the very least, at the time of the penning of Revelation. Putting that aside, this is a clear indication that the Laodicean church has become blind to something in particular, that it must be corrected, and that the issue that must be corrected must be identifiable for the church.