What do a distasteful beverage, a clueless customer, an immature child, an impolite host, a triumphant conqueror, and an attentive listener all have in common? Not much, except that through John, Jesus used all six of these illustrations in quick succession to depict, correct, and inspire the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger (see Revelation 3:14-22).
The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like a distasteful, disgusting beverage, neither hot nor cold, which (or who) is at real risk of being spat out.
The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like a completely clueless customer who must first be informed of his or her embarrassing lack of discernment, and then be advised as to what he or she actually needs to acquire.
The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like an immature (and perhaps naughty) child in need of firm correction and discipline from a loving disciplinarian.
The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like an impolite host who leaves an invited (and very important!) dinner guest waiting and knocking at the front door.
The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea might eventually be a triumphant conqueror.
And anyone hearing Jesus’ message to the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger should be an especially attentive listener.
Suffice to say, to deliver his message to the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger, Jesus used a lot of short sermon illustrations.
But I ought to make an aside. Why do I insist on being so wordy? Why do I keep referring to the Messenger of the Church of Laodicea, when I could cut out the extra three words and simplify it to just the Church of Laodicea? Good question. And the answer is this: I want my readers and listeners to catch what gets otherwise omitted, almost every time, in English-speaking settings. Grammatically, it is very clear that Jesus is not addressing the whole congregation of believers at Laodicea — at least, not immediately and directly. Jesus is not speaking directly to the Laodicean church en masse. He is instead speaking first and foremost to someone who is the individual messenger of the church.
But why does that matter?
It matters because the grammatical onus of the passage is clearly on an individual, on the individual messenger, who must personally make necessary personal and corporate changes. This messenger is probably otherwise and more commonly known as the pastor. When the messenger or pastor makes necessary personal and corporate changes, the whole congregation will be better as a result. Thus Jesus’ message indicates that good church leadership matters, and that church leaders sometimes need words of correction — even public correction.
Alternatively and admittedly, the messenger could possibly be understood as a collective singular. While this is a more abstract concept, it basically means that the collective church is personified as a single individual. Maybe this is how we are supposed to understand it. Maybe. But it begs the crucial question of why the singular-collective ambiguity would be used there in the text at all. Jesus could just have spoken to the churches using plural pronouns and plural grammatical forms in general. It is easy to do and would have been much simpler, if indeed the whole church is intended. But no, singular pronouns and singular forms are always used, as if Jesus is speaking to an individual person (which I contend, he is). Therefore, the consistent use of singular grammatical forms points to an intended individual recipient, who is best understood as the leader of the church. (Yes, I do wonder why this grammatical point is so hard for English speakers to accept. It is there for the finding.)
But then again, there is an even better and more nuanced way to understand Jesus’ message to the Messenger at the Church of Laodicea. We can and should read it as applicable to both the individual messenger and the entire congregation. Jesus’ message is meant for both an individual leader and for an entire congregation. Yes, Jesus is speaking most immediately and primarily to an individual messenger, who holds a position of ecclesiastical leadership. But Jesus is also speaking indirectly to the whole congregation. Since the message is supposed to be read publicly, the congregation is meant to overhear it, and take it to heart as far as it applies. If the shoe fits… the listeners should each wear it together. Thus the onus is not entirely on the individual leader. It is also on the congregation, personally and corporately. When we hear and read the Message to the Church of Laodicea in particular, and the Messages to the Seven Churches in general, we do well to keep this intended duality in mind. With each of Jesus’ messages, two recipients per church are intended: the individual leader and the whole congregation. We should strive to keep each of the recipients in view, without forfeiting one for the other.
Perhaps another time we can look at Jesus’ interesting illustration of an impolite host, who leaves an important dinner guest (that is, Jesus himself) waiting and knocking at the front door.