It does indeed seem to be the case that it is the possession of wealth that is causing the problem that is being worked out in their practice as a church. In introducing these three things, Jesus, through John, has called attention to Laodicea’s rejection of imperial assistance for rebuilding efforts following an earthquake. They were rich, had acquired great wealth, and were in need of nothing. This was true of Laodicea as a city, and apparently, had also become true of this church as well. The celebration of wealth had infected the church in such a way that they were denying the kingdom of God by their practice (much like Laodicea denied Rome’s assistance, which also denies the extension of Roman power), causing Jesus to see them as being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.
Having made His point concerning what the wealth had accomplished, always with an eye towards correcting the practice of the church, Jesus takes up a discourse that utilizes the three main wealth generators (financial/gold transactions, textiles, eye salve), relating them to Himself and what is available through Him, so as to make it clear that the blessings that are available to His people as part of His kingdom are far superior to anything that could bring them wealth in the world’s present form, especially if it brought about a denial of Him and His kingdom principles and practices. This denial of kingdom has placed Jesus, as far as He is concerned, outside the church, where He stands at the door and knocks, speaking to them (as He is doing in this letter), and desiring to re-join them. Before expressing what it is that He desires to do, Jesus says, “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent!” (3:19)
With this mention of rebuke, discipline, and repentance, Jesus offers them a path back to where they belong. As we shall see, Jesus’ words are quite specific and quite telling. Jesus is being very explicit, and this church will have no problem in identifying what they are getting wrong, and setting it right. Clearly, the church community at Laodicea believes themselves to be quite special. It would appear that, in this case, there are some wealthy individuals in the church, which is not problematic in and of itself. However, allowing cherished non-church-community ideals to infect the church and its fellowship is highly problematic. The church, of course, while taking the full measure of its cultural context, attempts to shift their community’s culture in the direction of the cross, recognizing above all the sovereign claim of God’s kingdom and its consequent demand on those that confess allegiance to its King. The church, which is identified within its community by its fellowship, is not to be overrun by a dominating social ethos in such a way that it begins to reflect society back on itself. If the church is reflecting the values and ethics of the community in which it is to be found, then unless that community is one that is predominantly shaped by an abiding concern for the kingdom of God, then that church is going to be quite handicapped (wretched, poor, pitiful, blind, naked) in its ability to reflect the glory of God into the world.
The world, of course, is the new world that began taking shape at the Resurrection. Just as a people of God was sent into a promised land to live in a certain way that God desired and to redeem that land as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and creation, so too are the people of God following the Resurrection, and in the transformative power of the Spirit and the Gospel confession, delivered into their promised land (now the entire creation), to live as their God desires, as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and a redeemed cosmos. When Jesus says, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (3:17a), He lets them know that the grand claim and accompanying attitude of the city of Laodicea following the earthquake that leveled their city, that they needed no help or funds from Rome to rebuild, had infiltrated their church. This is what lets us know that there were very likely some wealthy individuals to be found in the church (and perhaps they were preaching a very early version of the “prosperity gospel”?). Again, this is not a problem unless the presence of the wealth leads to ungainly results, in which the wealthy are treated better simply within the church and afforded greater honor (in the honor and shame culture) simply because of the fact of their wealth.
Lest they become too puffed up with their wealth, which would have been gained through their business of money exchange for the region (3:18a), their sale of high-end clothing made from the black wool for which Laodicea was famous (3:18b), or the sale of their eye salve (3:18c), Jesus lets them know that they are actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b), and encourages them to “take My advice and buy gold from Me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from Me white clothing so you can be clothes and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (3:18) We must notice the use of “shameful.” Such language, given the cultural context, is quite specific and should not escape our attention.
This is a bit of a double entendre, as it serves as both a rebuke against unwarranted puffery as it relates to what is of true value in the kingdom of God and amongst the people that represent that kingdom, while also reminding them that this is the attitude that those that have acquired wealth (regardless of the means by which it was acquired, whether that be skill, diligence, luck, inheritance, oppression, or fraud) should take when it comes to their position inside the church. The wealthy, who are seated at the places of honor at the world’s banqueting tables, should be even more fervent in their efforts to take the lowest place when it comes to the gathering together of the church. Yes, even making a strenuous and concerted effort to do so, while not trumpeting the fact that it is occurring. Ultimately, the practice of serving in the church will spill over into their participation in the wider community (as should be the case for all, whether rich or poor), thus the gathering together as a church and exemplifying the power of the Gospel to turn the world upside down (the accusation leveled against the church community in Acts 17), allows the people of the kingdom of God to learn the way that God expects them to serve and prefer one another so that they may effectively represent His kingdom to a watching and waiting world, in an ongoing development of the virtue of serving and preferring, so that such things become a matter of habit.