Revelations 3:14-21 and the Tower of Babel

I wanted to talk to you today about a verse in Revelations, where Jesus talks about people being lukewarm. You probably know the passage. Lets read it:

Rev 3:14 "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
Rev 3:15 'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
Rev 3:16 'So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
Rev 3:17 'Because you say, "I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing," and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,
Rev 3:18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
Rev 3:19 'Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.
Rev 3:20 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.
Rev 3:21 'He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.

Over the years I have found that many people struggle with this verse. They wonder and worry, am I a lukewarm Christian… after all, we often don’t *feel* hot, more often than not we feel cold. Is there any such thing as a lukewarm Christian? In order to understand this story, there are a few crucial pieces of information. However, in order to understand the Laodiceans we first have to understand someone else, the Babylonians and the Tower of Babel.

This is the story of the tower of Babel and it has a unique place in Scripture. It ends the section of Genesis which sets up the whole of the rest of Scripture. The passage stands to show and highlight the ultimate in sin, and the extent to which humanity has fallen. A lot of what is in this passage is linked to Mesopotamian culture, and not Jewish culture. A very interesting play on words is in the word Babel, or Babylon. In Akkadian, Babel, or Babylon means ‘the way to God’ – however in Hebrew it means confusion, confusion relating to completely missing the way to God.

One of the most interesting things about this passage is that there is a lot of rich language in the Hebrew text, in fact, it’s what’s called busy. It’s a bit like one of those stories or movies like say, Hot Shots, or something, which has lots of symbolism and innuendo. Likewise this story is full of plays on words, parallels, symbolism, and contrasts.

Let’s review the story briefly. We’re told firstly, that the entire world had one language. This ties the passage all together up to verse 9. It makes what is called an inclusio. This means an inclusion, a neat little package, or a little section. (read Gen 11:1-9).

How does this explain Rev 3 you ask? Well, it’s like this. This passage seems to be summed up in its word plays. Here are a few, the first one we have mentioned, with Babel in the different languages. Another is a play around the Hebrew letters N, B, and L. The word nabal, containing those letters means folly, and so does laban, which means brick. Another is on the word shem, meaning name. They want to make a name for themselves. Which is held in contrast with Shem, whose genealogy was the last preceding this passage, and is restated immediately after this. Also in chapter 12 we are introduced to Abraham, who of course has his named Changed by God, he is given a name.

We are told that these people migrated, which incidentally, the word for migrate means ‘to pull up tent pegs’, to this Plain. Incidentally, Babylon was also constructed on a plain, and the links are considered fairly tight. Cain also made himself a city, and it seems this is an important link. Another link is also the nephilim, and the Sons of God. The offspring of these despotic rulers and kings who are known as the ‘warriors of reknown’ – or the warriors of name. Gen 64 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

The obvious intention is to draw a line between the physical and spiritual line of Cain, the sinners, who are drawing further from God, and deeper into sin, and to contrast that with the ones who call on the name of God, the ones who are called by, and named by God.

Commentators say that the Tower of Babel is the height of sin, but why? The clue is in the bricks. In order to build the city, they need something to make it permanent. These particular bricks are unusual, they are made of bitumen and kiln fired bricks. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation, we are told; ‘for one whole year they molded bricks. When the second year arrived they raised high the head of Esagila’. Esagila means “the house whose head is raised up”. On top of it there was a lofty tower called ‘e-temen-an-ki’ – or House of the foundation of Heaven and Earth. There is a description of this Babylonian tower preserved on a stone tablet which is an 3Rd C BC Akkadian description. There is also a portrayal of it by a chap named Herodotus in about 460 BC.

The crucial point here is that they have made their own stone. It is defiance towards God. They don’t need Him to supply their rocks, they can make their own. They believe that they can make something permanent using their own technology. It’s seen as a substitute for trusting God to supply their needs. It’s quite fascinating and historically interesting that the writer chooses these words for brick, as it indicates knowledge of early techniques. It also enables him to indicate the folly of it.

To make it worse, and the height of arrogance, they take it a step further, in verse 4: 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

As the Akkadian name for the tower reveals, the object of the tower is to join Heaven to earth. This is a challenge to God Himself, to divine sovereignty. They have discarded their need for His grace and provision. It is quite simply, sacrilege.

The tower itself is reputed to stand something like 300 high, above the temple which is underneath it. There is an existing ruin which has what is left of the tower, and it stands about 150 feet high at the moment. It’s quite an achievement to be sure, something to be proud of and boast about. However, the writer has it almost sarcastically “5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” The indication is that this tower was so small and insignificant that God has to ‘come down’ to see it. Human works are insignificant, and there is no way that it can get you to heaven. And worse, what it does get you is a curse.

Now that we have an idea about what went on at Babel. There is a lot more of course, but this is the basic outline of it, we can investigate Revelations 3.

In Rev 3 we read, in verses; 15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.

Think carefully about these words. Why were they lukewarm? Because they said they are rich, in need of nothing. Laodicea is a City which was founded on a cliff, and was known for its prosperity. They were known for their fine clothes made of wool from black sheep, and also for a special poultice which was used to treat eye ailments. The city was destroyed by an earthquake, and rebuilt by the wealth of its inhabitants. This city was known for its self sufficiency. The story is told that they had no natural water supply, so they built an aqueduct system. By the time the water got to the city it was lukewarm.

Just like that inhabitants of Babel, the Laodiceans were proud people, who thought they could do without God. But God says to them, that they are pitiful, poor, blind and naked. They don’t need God, they are their own gods. Like the people of Babel, they have created a tower to the heavens of their own pride and self sufficiency, and it is sacrilege.

So, are you a lukewarm Christian? No. You can not be a lukewarm Christian, because that’s an oxymoron. You can be a Christian struggling to trust God, to be humble and reliant on God, but to be lukewarm is to be and do the opposite of what is required. A person who is lukewarm is completely the opposite in nature to a person who relies on God, who believes God, who trusts in God.

You, or we, rather, are either Christians, or we are not. As Master Yoda said, do, or do not, there is no try. What we can learn from this passage and the story Babel is this though, that the height of sin, the ultimate in rebellion against God, is when we do things in our own strength, and not allowing God to provide for us. We learn that God wants to do for us is clothe us in new clothes, to refine us, and to open our eyes to the truth. God wants to give us His name and invite us into His family. This only occurs by His grace, and by His provision, and by His strength.

This is what God says: 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

So, rest assured that if you are a believer in God, that you trust Him and rely on Him, you are not a lukewarm person, like the Laodiceans. That doesn’t mean that you won’t struggle to trust him, rely on him, and to allow Him to provide for you. That struggle in itself proves to me, and to you that you are not a Laodicean.