Question: "What is the significance of the white garments in Revelation 3:18?"
Answer: Being commissioned directly by Jesus, the apostle John writes to seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 1:11). The seventh of those churches is Laodicea, and the message to that church is troubling. The churches in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1–7), Pergamum (Revelation 2:12–17), Thyatira (Revelation 2:18–29), and Sardis (Revelation 3:1–6) all had deficiencies they needed to resolve. Smyrna (Revelation 2:8–11) and Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7–13) were only commended and encouraged. Laodicea (Revelation 3:14–22), on the other hand, was warned that their situation was dire, and, among other things, they were told to buy white garments from Jesus (Revelation 3:18).
The deeds of the Laodiceans were lukewarm—neither hot nor cold, and because of this Jesus was disgusted with them (Revelation 3:15–16). They were prideful, thinking they were rich, but He says that in fact they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Contrast this with the church at Smyrna who, even though they were in poverty, are described as rich (Revelation 2:9). To remedy the Laodiceans’ condition, Jesus advises them to buy from Him refined gold in order to become rich, white garments for clothing so they would not be naked and ashamed, and eye salve so that they would be able to see (Revelation 3:18).
Because of the sorry state of affairs in Laodicea, some have assumed this to be a false church. But Jesus characterizes them as “the church in Laodicea” (Revelation 3:14), and there are no references in the New Testament to any such thing as a false church, so there is no biblical precedent for a group that is called “the church” to not actually be part of the church. Also, God never requires that people “buy” salvation or anything related to salvation—it is always by grace through faith (e.g., Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Ephesians 2:8–9). The metaphor Jesus uses—that He would spit them out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16)—speaks to the level of disgust Jesus has with them, not to any impending loss of position in Christ or loss of personal salvation of the members there. Still, it is a serious matter that Jesus exhorts the Laodiceans to buy gold, white garments, and eye salve. There is nothing else mentioned of the eye salve, other than in this context. It was apparent that the Laodiceans needed to be able to see from God’s perspective rather than their own, as they did not prioritize what God prioritized. They needed to be able to see the value of His gold and His white garments.
Peter characterizes the proof of believers’ faith as more precious than gold tested by fire (1 Peter 1:7). That proof is faith put into action. The action isn’t the faith itself, but it demonstrates the faith. Peter encourages his readers that, even though they were encountering trials and distress, they loved Jesus and believed in Him, and they could rejoice greatly (1 Peter 1:8). In Revelation 3, Jesus prescribes a transaction wherein the Laodicean believers would trade Him something for that gold—perhaps the cost was similar to what Paul prescribed in Romans 12:1 when he challenged believers to present their bodies as a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God. That was their reasonable service of worship.
Jesus also prescribes that the Laodiceans should purchase white garments to clothe the shame of their nakedness. White garments are prominent in Revelation, and they are illustrative of an important idea. Earlier, in the letter to Sardis, Jesus commended a few there who had white garments (Revelation 3:4), and He added that those who overcome will be clothed in white garments (Revelation 3:5). Later, we see that the twenty-four elders around the throne are clothed in white garments (Revelation 4:4). At the end of the tribulation, when the armies in heaven—including believers from all the previous eras—come to earth with Jesus, they are clothed in white and clean linen (Revelation 19:14). The bride of Christ is clothed in fine, bright, clean linen, and that linen is described as “the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8). If the Laodiceans were to “buy” righteous acts from Jesus, then it would seem a similar prescription to buying gold refined with fire. The Laodiceans should trade in their own selfish pursuits, giving themselves to God in order to gain not positional righteousness (they already had that) but righteous deeds, for which there would be great reward.