The Church’s Spiritual Poverty and Blindness
In Revelation 3:17, Jesus clarifies his source of dissatisfaction with the Laodicean church. He says, “Because you are saying, ‘I am rich,’ and ‘I have become rich,’ and ‘I am in need of nothing,’ but you do not know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked…” (3:17). The boasts that Jesus attributes to the Laodicean church portray a sense of security and satisfaction that comes from her wealth. According to the Old Testament, material wealth can be a sign of God’s blessing upon those who follow God and his wisdom (Prov. 8:18; 22:4). It is not wise, however, to place too much confidence in one’s riches rather than in God (Prov. 11:28; 18:10-11). Thus, it is possible that the Laodicean church sees its wealth as a sign of God’s blessing and that she has fallen into placing too much confidence in her wealth. However, in Jesus’ estimation the church is far from wealthy and secure. Her actual situation is that of a person in poverty, that is, “wretched, pitiful, poor,” as well as “naked” (Rev. 3:17). Even worse, she is “blind” to her true poverty in the estimation of God, because she is going around boasting in her riches (see Hos. 12:8). Jesus’ allegation that the Laodicean church is spiritually blind suggests that their situation is parallel to the situation of the people of God in Isaiah. It requires insight, and perhaps deliverance, from God to help those who are spiritually blind to perceive what they cannot see. This is the insight that Jesus is revealing to the Laodicean church. Furthermore, just as God and his suffering servant are the ones who open the eyes of the blind in Isaiah, Jesus promises that he can heal the spiritual blindness of his people. He can also relieve their spiritual poverty.
The Church’s Three Purchases
In order to emerge from blindness and poverty, the church needs to make three purchases from Jesus according to Revelation 3:18. Jesus says, “I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you might become rich, and white garments so that you might clothe yourselves and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you might see” (3:18). The three purposes of the three purchases correspond to “poor, blind, and naked” in the previous verse, but they are in a different order. The order of Revelation 3:18 is important for its interpretation, because the logical order of the purchases is the reverse of their order in the verse. Logically, the Laodiceans would need the eye salve before the white garments and before the gold (see below). The purchase of the gold comes first in Jesus’ list, because it relates to the emphasis that Revelation 3:17 places upon riches.
Immediate Changes with Eternal Rewards
The three purchases that the Laodiceans need to make involve both immediate changes and eternal rewards. In other words, their purchases involve a return to living in careful obedience to the commandments of God so that they might be worthy of his eternal rewards. Logically speaking, they must purchase eye salve first in order to relieve their spiritual blindness. If they remain blind, then they cannot hope to see their sin and repent of it. Of course, this is symbolic language. They do not literally purchase eye salve. Rather, they appeal to Christ to heal their spiritual blindness. Those who are spiritually blind when Jesus comes will not have the privilege of entering the New Jerusalem and seeing God there (22:4).
After eye salve, the Laodicean church’s next most important purchase is white garments from Christ “so that you might clothe yourselves and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed” (3:18). In essence, they need to become like those at Sardis who are “worthy” and “have not defiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4). If they do this, then they will be prepared to clothe themselves in white garments, which have been made white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). Therefore, they purchase white garments from Christ by preparing themselves to receive the white garments that Jesus promises to his faithful conquerors (3:4-5). The Laodiceans presumably believed in Jesus at some point and were cleansed from sin, but they have allowed themselves to become defiled due to their sins, like so many in the church at Sardis. They are not preparing to “clothe themselves in white garments” (3:5). Therefore, Jesus’ exhortation to purchase white garments is an exhortation for them to repent of their sins and to practice careful obedience to Christ. Then, Christ will reward them with white garments when he rewards his conquerors. Those who are preparing themselves to receive white garments will have no fear of having the shame of their nakedness be revealed when Christ comes (3:18). Revelation 16:15 seems to imply that those who have defiled their garments will lose them if Jesus the judge returns and finds them in defiled garments. In that day, the shame of their nakedness will be revealed. To avoid this fate, the Laodiceans must prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus the judge. This is how they will both purchase white garments from Jesus and avoid having their nakedness revealed when he comes.
In terms of logical order or necessity, the Laodicean church’s final purchase is “gold refined by fire so that you might become rich” (3:18). Although she has bragged about her riches in this world, she is apparently not rich in the ways that truly matter. She needs to store up “treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). According to each of the seven letters, heavenly rewards await those who serve Christ by obeying his commandments. Surely, these rewards are true riches with eternal value.
These paragraphs are slightly edited portions of my book:
Paul Hoskins, The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, pp. 114-16 (those pages provides further sources and footnotes that I have omitted above).