WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 21, 2017)—The church of Laodicea is called “lukewarm” in Revelation 3:15–16. 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. 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.
The church of Laodicea is the last of seven churches addressed in Revelation. During the Roman period, Laodicea was a wealthy city. Not only was it 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 as 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.
Domitian persecuted those who would not participate in the imperial cult (emperor worship). Although Jews were exempt from participating, Christians were not. Thus, the church at Laodicea was affected greatly by Domitian’s decrees. Christian merchants were faced with two options: Either they could participate in the imperial cult and continue their trade associations, or they could refuse to participate in the imperial cult—maintaining their loyalty to the Christian faith—and suffer the consequences of no longer being able to buy and sell. The Laodicean church’s mixed response to this persecution is what causes the author of Revelation to call it “lukewarm.”
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, 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.
Laodicea remained an important city until the seventh century C.E. when it was struck by a devastating earthquake and subsequently abandoned.