Most Christians are quite familiar with the hard words of Jesus spoken to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2-3. And most would know about the hard words spoken by him about the Laodicean church in 3:14-22. And most would recall the very strong words he has for the lukewarm in that church (vv. 15-16).
Those verses read: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” These stinging words are of course metaphorical in nature.
This church was in bad shape indeed, and even worse off than the other six, as hard as that might be to imagine. G. K. Beale offers this summary of the situation: “The church needs an injection of Christ’s resurrection power, since they are in the worst condition of all the churches in the letters. Even in the nearly dead church of Sardis there was a faithful remnant, but no such remnant is clearly discernible in the Laodicean church, nor is there any commendation as occurs to varying degrees in all the other letters.”
So this was a church in a pretty bad way, and their lukewarm condition should serve as a warning to all. Most believers would have heard many sermons about this over the years, and read many articles about this. In more recent times there has been more emphasis placed on the historical and geographical context of Laodicea.
Beale offers a short description of this backdrop: “The picture of hot, cold, and lukewarm water is seen as a unique feature of Laodicea and the surrounding region in the first century. The hot waters of Hierapolis had a medicinal effect and the cold waters of Colossae were pure, drinkable, and had a life-giving effect. However, there is evidence that Laodicea had access only to warm water, which was not very palatable and caused nausea. . . . When the city tried to pipe water in, it could manage only to obtain tepid, emetic water.”
As Grant Osborne comments, “The church should not have matched its water supply. The Laodiceans should have been known for their spiritual healing (like Hierapolis) or the refreshing, life-giving ministry (like Colosse). Instead, as Jesus’ next statement reads, they were ‘lukewarm.’ They were devoid of works and useless to the Lord.”
Such a condition means Jesus will vomit them out of his mouth. Osborne continues, “The mineral waters were full of calcium carbonate deposits, and the effect of attempting to drink the water would be to vomit (the Greek verb is apparent in the English word ‘emetic,’ referring to a substance that induces vomiting).”
It is not a very pretty picture. Says Osborne, “The exalted Christ is challenging them with a powerful rhetorical question: ‘Don’t you realize you make me sick?’” Or as David Aune comments, “Here the verb ‘vomit’ is a coarse expression of speech meaning ‘utterly reject.’ In Lev. 18:25, 28; 20:22, the expression ‘to vomit’ out of the land is used of the fate of the Canaanites upon Israel’s entry into Palestine, and the potential fate of the Israelites themselves.”
As William Hendriksen writes, “Even Christ Himself cannot stand them. An emotion, a feeling is here ascribed to the Lord which is not predicated of Him anywhere else in the Good Book. We do not read that He is grieved with them. Neither do we read that He is angry with them. No, He is disgusted with these straddlers. And not just slightly disgusted but thoroughly nauseated.”
Today we still use the Laodicean church as an example of spiritual mediocrity and ineffectiveness. Lukewarmness is a perennial problem for believers, and the warnings found here are relevant for Christians of all ages. The very sober warnings we find in this passage must be taken to heart by every one of us.
Plenty of commentary on this is available. Perhaps a few lines from Francis Chan’s Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God might suffice. He has an entire chapter on this called “Profile of the Lukewarm”. Discussing the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, he says this:
“My caution to you is this: Do not assume you are good soil. I think most American churchgoers are the soil that chokes the seed because of all the thorns. Thorns are anything that distracts us from God. When we want God and a bunch of other stuff then that means we have thorns in our soil. A relationship with God simply cannot grow when money, sins, activities, favorite sports teams, addictions or commitments are piled on top of it.”
He asks this searching question: “Would you describe yourself as totally in love with Jesus Christ? Or do the words halfhearted, lukewarm, and partially committed fit better?” He then offers a number of characteristics of the lukewarm. Here are some of them:
“Lukewarm people give money to charity and to the church – as long as it doesn’t impinge on their standard of living.”
“Lukewarm people tend to choose what is popular over what is right when they are in conflict.”
“Lukewarm people don’t really want to be saved from their sin; they want only to be saved from the penalty of their sin.”
“Lukewarm people are moved by stories about people who do radical things for Christ, yet they do not act. They assume such action is for ‘extreme’ Christians, not average ones. Lukewarm people call ‘radical’ what Jesus expected of all His followers.”
“Lukewarm people rarely share their faith with their neighbours, co-workers, or friends. They do not want to be rejected, nor do they want to make people uncomfortable by talking about private issues like religion.”
“Lukewarm people gauge their morality or ‘goodness’ by comparing themselves to the secular world. They feel satisfied that while they aren’t as hard-core for Jesus as so-and-so, they are nowhere as horrible as the guy down the street.”
“Lukewarm people will serve God and others, but there are limits to how far they will go or how much time, money, and energy they are willing to give.”
“Lukewarm people think about life on earth much more often than eternity in heaven.”
“Lukewarm people are continually concerned with playing it safe; they are slaves to the god of control. This focus on safe living keeps them from sacrificing and risking for God.”
His entire list is well worth using in a process of a spiritual check-up. Just how do we measure up? Chan summarises: “As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it bluntly, churchgoers who are lukewarm are not Christians.” Quite so. He explains:
“The core problem isn’t the fact that we’re lukewarm, halfhearted, or stagnant Christians. The crux of it all is why we are this way, and it is because we have an inaccurate view of God. We see Him as a benevolent Being who is satisfied when people manage to fit Him into their lives in some small way. We forget that God never had an identity crisis. He knows that He’s great and deserves to be the center of our lives.”
So what is the solution to all this? Jesus himself gives us the answer in v. 19: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent”. Repentance is always the first port of call. As James Hamilton says, in this verse Jesus “explains what has been driving him in everything he has said – the confrontational things and the encouraging things – in these seven letters.”
He continues, “Jesus loves you enough to want you to be righteous. He loves you enough to confront your unrighteousness. He loves you enough to inspire the Bible. He loves you enough to call you to zeal and repentance.
“If Jesus did not call people to repentance, he would be sending them a message. Do you know what that message would be? ‘Go to hell.’ But Jesus loves people, so he calls them to repent. The believers in the church in Laodicea are self-reliant, and Jesus rebukes them. They are lukewarm, and he calls them to zeal.”
Thank God he loves us enough to rebuke us. Thank God he loves us enough not to leave us in our putrid condition of lukewarmness. Thank God he chastises and disciplines each one of us as sons. Thank God that he will pursue us and keep hounding us.
We really do need this hound of heaven.