‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
There are some Bible texts that are commonly abused by bible teachers, Christians, preachers and parents in general… and it is done to bring their intended point across – forcefully. One such is this text from the apostle John’s last written revelation committed to the church at his exile on Patmos.
Context: There are much in the letter that is stirring – but notice that it begins with God’s assessment on the churches that existed in those days. It would not be difficult to see that this is not merely intended for the 7 churches named in the second and third chapter of the letter – for numbers in the bible do convey meaning and is commonly symbolic. Rather, the 7 churches gave a good snapshot of what was happening in the churches throughout the known land (predominantly in Asia Minor, although many churches have been planted far off, in Europe and also in the South Asia). The assessment is not positive, as many were compromising with the truth or buckling from the insidious agents of the evil one. Few, like Philadelphia and Smyrna, were able to maintain purity of the Gospel, although they were suffering intensely under persecution. I believe in all generations, this snapshot given in the time of the apostle is true; the churches that maintain a vibrant, pure (undefiled) Gospel are usually located in obscure, dangerous territory, while churches that are outwardly prospering in a peaceful, economically thriving environment are usually compromising either in the doctrines, practices or spirit of the Gospel truth.
It is within this context that the rebuke given by the Lord to the church of Laodicea needs to be properly considered. Before jumping into what does “hot, cold and lukewarm” means, we need to address the works that is attached to them (v.15a). Verse 17 gives us a good hint – if we were to paraphrase this verse, we may render it as “For you, who are lukewarm in your works, say “I am rich, I have prospered…” not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” (My addition in italics, and using the ESV translation). Thus, the works that displeases the Lord is hypocrisy that brings out a false view of them selves – they thought they were strong in material and spiritual things but were spiritually destitute in reality. The Lord’s counsel to them in v.18 is to adorn the spiritual benefits given graciously in the Gospel – if they would repent and believe (see also the much misquoted verse Revelation 3:20 – but I’ll save that for another day). The Lord hates hypocrisy – marked by self-righteousness that denies reality but adorns duplicity. We should equally hate it because at the root of it is the continual disbelief that there is anything wrong with us because we have ‘dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s’ of our man-made and man-enforced spiritual checklist. This is blindness that is harder than the crying sinner who is stuck in their predicament, never knowing true freedom. This is blindness that is deeper than the rejected man who lost everything and is now an outcast of society. This is blindness that is so deep that C. S. Lewis wrote in “The Last Battle” – “You see,” said Aslan, “they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. .“
Lukewarm Works: Coming back to the temperature adjectives used – “hot and cold” are extreme states. You get to “feel” them – it is clear. Other preachers and bible teachers who are more experienced would add the historical context of the city’s usage of hot water and cold water. According to them, lukewarm water was tepid and not used for anything – unlike in our days. There is much truth – but remember, the works of Christian believers ought to be with “spirit” and “passion” – done out of a true, sincere conviction in mind and heart that there is real purpose in our actions, behaviour, decisions – the apostle Paul puts it as our “whole being/body” in Romans 12:1. Thus, the worse thing that a Christian believer can do is to offer “routine” – mindless sacrifice that is out of convenience, minimal, man-centred and ultimately, indifferent of the true purpose and Person behind it.
Application: This is the great sin of our time – indifference. I do not care. It is not I do not care about this person or that: it is “I do not care what God thinks”. This indifference is hard to detect because it misdirects itself by our hawkish “differentiation” of the specks of other people’s wrongs; ignoring our own. No wonder the Lord uses a very ‘strong’ language in responding to such indifference from those who claim His name as their identity – “I will spit you out of my mouth“. God rejects them. More correctly, God ejects them from the comforts of His being and protection to the chaos of the world and the instability of Satan’s manipulation to bring about discipline and repentance in the lives of His beloved. This… this is something I have not heard enough from preachers who would really dissect the verse for all its worth. Why? I suspect, because we do not like discipline. We live in a world that is all about removing obstacles and not in going through discipline/correction.
God knows how often our hearts may wander from Him and rest in the comforts of our disobedience – but that is why the words, strong words to the church in Laodicea is needful to us.