The Church of Laodicea in the Bible and Archaeology

A look at Laodicea’s “lukewarm” legacy from Revelation 3:15–16

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”—Revelation 3:15–16

Why does the author of the Book of Revelation call the church of Laodicea “lukewarm”?

The church of Laodicea is the last of seven churches addressed in Revelation. This harsh pronouncement suggests that the Christians at Laodicea—located in modern Turkey—wavered in their commitments to the Christian faith. The historical and archaeological context of this situation is worth investigating.

laodicea-temple-a

Temple A at Laodicea, Turkey. Originally dedicated to Apollo, Artemis and Aphrodite, Temple A at Laodicea, Turkey, later was used for the imperial cult. It dates to the second century C.E. Photo: © Mark R. Fairchild, Huntington University.

Mark R. Fairchild of Huntington University explores the Laodicean church’s lukewarm reputation, while examining the recent archaeological excavations at Laodicea, Turkey, in his article “Laodicea’s ‘Lukewarm’ Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City,” published in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

We are not told who founded the church of Laodicea in the Bible, yet from textual evidence in the New Testament, we can infer that Epaphras, one the apostle Paul’s disciples, likely planted it. We know that Epaphras founded the church at Colossae (Colossians 1:6–7), one of Laodicea’s close neighbors. Therefore, it seems plausible that he would also be responsible for planting the church at Laodicea.
 


 
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Laodicea was a wealthy city during the Roman period. Not only was Laodicea located on major trade routes that connected it to important cities like Ephesus, Smyrna and Sardis, but also it was a center of textile production and banking. Perhaps not surprisingly, the church of Laodicea is noted as being wealthy in the Bible (see Revelation 3:17).

The Book of Revelation was penned during the Roman emperor Domitian’s reign (r. 81–96 C.E.). Domitian was notorious for being the first Roman emperor who declared himself a god while still alive. This affronted Christians, Jews and the Roman Senate alike. Other emperors were deified only after their death.

laodicea-column

Etched into this broken column fragment are four religious symbols: a menorah, lulav (palm branch), shofar (ram’s horn) and cross. The first three symbols are Jewish, but the cross is distinctly Christian. The column originally belonged to a nymphaeum (a public fountain) in Laodicea. The Jewish symbols were likely added to the column in the late Roman or early Byzantine period, and the cross was added in the early Byzantine period. That the Christian cross extends from the Jewish menorah suggests that the Laodicean church grew out of the synagogue. Photo: © Mark R. Fairchild, Huntington University.

Domitian persecuted those who would not participate in the imperial cult (the worship of emperors and dynastic families). Although Jews were exempt from participating, Christians were not. Fairchild explains, “As part of the Pax Romana, the staunchly monotheistic Jews in the cities of the Mediterranean world were exempt from the requirements of emperor worship. As long as Christianity was considered a sect within Judaism, the Christians in these cities were likewise exempt from emperor worship.” At first, the Christian Church was composed almost entirely of Jews. However, as more Gentiles (non-Jews) converted to Christianity, the percentage of Jewish people in the Christian Church decreased, and, therefore, Christians’ special status as Jewish monotheists, which permitted them to refrain from emperor worship, was removed.

The Christians at Laodicea were affected by Domitian’s decrees. Their response to this persecution—which even involved their ability to buy and sell—is what causes the author of Revelation to call them “lukewarm.” Fairchild elaborates:

The difficulties that this placed upon the Christians of Asia were expressed in detail throughout the Book of Revelation. Those who refused to worship the image of the beast (the emperor) were killed. Christians could no longer buy or sell unless they had taken the mark of the beast (Revelation 13). The pressure upon rich Christians to maintain their wealth was intense. Since a great deal of Laodicea’s wealth depended upon trade, the Christian merchants were in a quandary. Would they cooperate with the imperial cult and maintain their trade associations, or would they forswear Domitian and reaffirm their faith in Christ? Many of the Laodicean Christians compromised their faith in such ways that the writer of the apocalypse could say, “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).

Other churches throughout the Roman Empire responded differently. For example, the Christians at Smyrna are applauded in the Book of Revelation for maintaining their faith in the midst of extreme difficulty by refusing to participate in the imperial cult—even though this meant affliction and poverty for them (see Revelation 2:9).

Yet the Laodicean church’s “lukewarm” legacy was not its final legacy.

The church at Laodicea survived Domitian’s reign. The city became a bishopric (seat of a Christian bishop), and a Christian council was even held there in the fourth century C.E. Archaeologists have discovered about 20 ancient Christian chapels and churches at the site. The largest church at Laodicea, called the Church of Laodicea took up an entire city block and dates to the beginning of the fourth century.

church-of-laodicea

The Church of Laodicea. Dated to the beginning of the fourth century C.E., the Church of Laodicea spanned an entire city block. The church faced east and was decorated with marble floors. Photo: © Mark R. Fairchild, Huntington University.

Laodicea remained an important city until the seventh century C.E. when it was struck by a devastating earthquake and subsequently abandoned.

To learn more about the church of Laodicea in the Bible and the recent archaeological excavations at the site, read “Laodicea’s ‘Lukewarm’ Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City” by Mark R. Fairchild in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Laodicea’s ‘Lukewarm’ Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City,” by Mark R. Fairchild in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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  1. gary says

    Very good information and the interpretation on the mark of the beast is correct. Most state this mark as future, as they do the anti-Christ, but in I John chapter two he states the the anti-Christ is now happening. The mark of the beast is anyone who denies that Jesus was divine. That would have been the gnostics and Jews.

    Thanks again
    Gary Howard

  2. CB says

    1. It was neither the Book of the Revelation given to John, nor John himself, who said that the church in Laodicaea was “lukewarm” – it was the risen Yeshua HaMashiach!

    2. The “mark of the beast” is, surely, a sign of the end times, and was not a contemporary requirement. If it is going to be argued that it was, then one must ask “What was it?”

  3. Lois says

    It seems to me there’s a lot more to apply to this. I don’t have my references with me, but here are a few :

    1. Their water tasted awful! It came via an aquaduct a long ways away. Its bad taste came from the means of sending the water to Laodicea (the minerals in the aquaduct?). by the time it got there, it was not cold, and it wasn’t hot, it was merely awful.

    2. They were known as a source for a balm that would heal eyes, thus “anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” in v. 18.

    3. They were known as a source for a beautiful black wool. thus the referral to “white raiment” in v. 18.

  4. Dean says

    Revelation was written in Nero’s time. Domitian does not fit as a suitable time. The allusion is to the earthquake in Nero’s time and to the church’s self-sufficiency, as manifested at that time.

  5. Dean says

    “The difficulties that this placed upon the Christians of Asia were expressed in detail throughout the Book of Revelation. Those who refused to worship the image of the beast (the emperor) were killed.”

    This is a remarkable statement. I thought BAR was scholarly? Scholars overwhelmingly reject the theory that Domitian enforced emperor worship in Asia Minor or that Christians were persecuted there by him to any unusual extent.

  6. Lyall says

    Lois , you have introduced some great concepts:
    The water came from two sources – firstly the very hot springs and the cool mountain water. The two merged in the acquaduct to eventually arrive at Laodices in a lukewarm state. The water started out fresh and usable but eventually became “merely awful” as you say.
    The eyelash for which Ladies was noted and vaunted itself iOS taken by the Holy Spirit and applied to their spiritual state.
    There is so much more
    Lyall Phillips Australia

  7. Mark R. says

    Dean, you ask if this article is scholarly. Overwhelmingly, scholars claim that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign, not Nero’s reign as you claim. Second, the author is expressing what Revelation 13:15 claimed: that those who refused to worship the image of the beast were killed. Moreover if you read the full article in BAR, the author clearly stated that the demand for imperial worship was chiefly enforced by local officials, rather than Domitian himself.

  8. Dean says

    I would hope that in the main article, the author points out that the overwhelming consensus of scholarship is that there was no Domitianic persecution as such, and that what persecution existed was sporadic and in no way exceptional. The summary states these things as fact, as though there is no question over them, which is just plain poor scholarship which creates a mistaken impression on the readers. I suspect the main article does the same. Rev. 13:15 does not claim that. This verse is presented as a prophecy of the future, not as a contemporary event, and in any case does not fit any historical circumstance during the first century.
    My view is that the evidence points to Nero. If I were writing an article on the subject, I would not state it as a fact and fail to make the reader aware that I am breaking with the consensus. Indeed, it would be irresponsible of me if I did.

  9. David says

    The final fulfillment of the prophecy in Rev 13 must remain future. In Rev 13:7, we are told two attributes of the coming world leader: 1) He overcomes the saints – thus, before the end of his reign, there would be NO, none, zero Christians (or Jews?), yet, today Christianity is flourishing; 2) the world leader exercises control over ALL peoples and ALL ethnic groups, and ALL nations – that seems to be an inclusive statement, yet, it has not happened in world history as of today. So, if 13:7 remains to be fulfilled, and his mark is the mechanism of his ultimate control over all people, then the Mark referred to in Rev 13 must also be future (yet, not very much farther in the future…)

  10. David says

    A Question for Mark Fairchild or members of the group. In the above article, reference is made to the Laodicean’s wealth and Revelations 3 tells them to buy from Messiah gold tried in the fire; and reference to their textiles and Revelation 3 tells them to buy white raiment from Messiah; and finally to “anoint thine eyes with eyesalve”; was there an airborne or waterborne contaminant that would have affected the eyes of the Laodiceans?

  11. Clark says

    From “Bible Places” http://www.bibleplaces.com/hierapolis/ :
    “Hierapolis, the “Sacred City,” is located at present-day Pamukkale in south central Turkey. In the first century it was part of the tri-city area of Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis. This connection between the cities lies behind Paul’s reference to Hierapolis and Laodicea in his epistle to the Colossians (Col 4:13). Before AD 70 Phillip (either the apostle or the evangelist) moved to Hierapolis, where he was believed to have been martyred.”

    When I visited this site it was explained that many came from far places for the healing properties of the hot springs of Hieropolis, and Laodicea, being of the tri-city area, people would often take their accommodations there. So, as the article alludes, the Laodicean churches were being accused of their sense of self-sufficiency due to the healing properties of the local springs. BTW, Pamukkale is a beautiful site to behold, I haven’t seen anything like it in my travels, so I can see why the ancients were so enamored and drawn to it.


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