However, contrary to what might be expected, not only did Laodicea not request assistance from Rome or from the emperor, they actually declined the assistance that was offered, choosing instead to rebuild and restore the city from their own means. This, of course, would grant Laodicea some measure of independence from Rome; but only a measure, as they still relied on the existence of the empire and the relative security and stability it afforded. In fact, Laodicea received from Rome the title of “free city,” and was the “conventus” of its territory, meaning that it functioned as the capital city of a division of the Roman province in which it was located. This meant that it would be the seat of a district court, as well as the headquarters for other governmental functions for the region.
Taken together, the facts of the great wealth of the city, that the wealth enabled them to decline assistance from Rome after a catastrophe, and that it was a seat of provincial government (though not relying on the largesse or beneficence of Rome or of the emperor, in contrast to so many other cities of the region), Jesus’ chiding of His church for its insistence that they were rich, that they have acquired great wealth, and that they were in need of nothing becomes quite understandable.
Now, this is not meant to be a condemnation of wealth. Taking a negative view of wealth, whether civic or individual, based on these words, would be unwarranted and out of context. What one must keep in mind as progress is made in pulling back the layers of nearly two thousand years of cultural changes that have served to obfuscate from view what would have been easily seen and understood by the Laodiceans in their day (they would have known about declining imperial assistance in rebuilding, they would have known why, and as citizens of Laodicea they would have been quite proud of that fact), is that their wealth is what is causing them to engage in practices that have Jesus wanting to vomit them out of His mouth. Therefore, these practices are not in line with what can be observed in His mission, nor are they in accordance with the message of the Gospel.
The practice or practices (as the case may be) of this “lukewarm” city (Laodicea) stands in contrast to what takes place in the “hot” and “cold” cities (the well-known epithets assigned to Hierapolis and Colossae). The church in Laodicea, correspondingly, is being asked to observe the difference in practice between itself and the churches in those other cities and to mimic the practice, thereby becoming either hot or cold, either of which was perfectly acceptable to Jesus.
After commenting on their wealth and need of nothing, Jesus makes an interjection that serves to negate any vaunted ideas of self as citizens of Laodicea that might have arisen from such thoughts, saying that this church did not realize that they were actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b). Not only is this a challenge to their honor, metaphorical and analogical application seems to be unavoidable, as Jesus wants them to understand that though they may be wealthy, their nauseating practice that partially stemmed from the fact of their wealth actually showed them to be something far different.