Some people in my life refer to the Bible verse about not being “lukewarm” in what feels like a really hurtful way. They leave me wondering if I am getting this faith thing right. Am I lukewarm? Will god spit me out? Is there perhaps a misunderstanding here? Can we read this in other ways that don’t feel so discouraging, like either you’re in or you’re out?
That’s such an important question. I recall the many times when it was used as a heavy-handed “clobber verse” used to contrive conviction and manipulate a response. It was a classic revivalist rhetorical technique.
It might help if we start by reading it in context. John records those words as a prophetic exhortation to a specific church community located in Laodicea. Here is the whole message from Revelation 3:
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Laodicea in Historical Context
The Laodicean church faced a quandary that began with their wealth (vs. 17). As a major trade center, Laodicea business connections were a source of prosperity and self-sufficiency. We know how the benefits of booming commerce commonly tempt us with apathy toward God and unconcern for our struggling neighbor.
But in Laodicea, Christians also faced pressure to worship other gods, including the deified emperor, on the threat of losing their ability to buy or sell. The church in Smyrna (Revelation 2) withstood this affliction despite the great cost and received Christ’s approval. But some among the Laodiceans had fallen under the spell of compromise with dumbed-down faith that wouldn’t jeopardize their wealth and status. Worse, they even seemed proud about it. In that state, their very existence as a faithful Jesus-following community was precarious. As One who desperately loves them (verse 19), what is Jesus to do?
The preachers who used to threaten me with this passage usually assumed that ‘hot’ meant ‘on fire for God’ and ‘cold’ meant hard-hearted atheism. And they insisted that if you were just a mediocre Christian (meaning you didn’t measure up to their self-righteousness), then you might as well give up because Jesus would spit you out.
A closer look at the imagery seems to relate to an analogy familiar to Laodicean locals. They could relate ‘hot’ to the wonderful hot springs in Hierapolis and connect ‘cold’ with the crisp, clear water in Colossae. Laodicea, however, seems to have drawn its water supply from five miles away via an aqueduct. They could likely relate to the gag reflex of drinking its tepid and unfiltered water.
Having first lived in towns where you shouldn’t drink the water, then in my current city, which has twice won “best tasting water in the world” (yes, such contests exist), I can relate. And I can relate it to my own faith. Sometimes I feel focused and awake to God’s love and presence. At other times, I lose my rhythm, and my love for Christ and for others is like “salt that loses its savor” (Matthew 5:13). As the One who never stops loving me, what is Jesus to do?
A Cold Splash of Rhetoric
Now, to a sensitive soul like yours, the harshness of these words applied against you can feel like a condemning slap in the face. That’s already a signal that the words aren’t directed your way at all. How do I know? Because it doesn’t resonate as aligning with the good news of Jesus Christ. But even though you can’t and shouldn’t relate directly, maybe you can observe how these words function for those to whom they’re addressed.
First, they function as a cold splash of water. What if we don’t read them as a kick in the face, but they’re more like a cold splash of water or smelling salts for someone who is falling asleep? Jesus is helping them wake up and get moving, not throwing them to the ground and stomping on them.
Second, they function as a visceral analogy they connect to. Jesus is helping them understand their condition in a way they can begin to see and understand. They were blind to their situation, but he uses a vivid point of connection to diagnose the peril.
Third, they function as the discipline of a loving friend. Those of us active in the recovery community know how much a sponsor cares about us, and we hear their harshest tones as true friendship. They are truth-tellers committed to our restoration, just like Jesus.
Fourth, they function as an invitation to a second chance. The full passage is obviously not about casting anyone out or discarding them. Just the opposite. He offers them spiritual gifts of gold, white raiments, and salve for the eyes of their heart. He offers them intimate fellowship and even, maybe most striking, a place with him on his throne!
The thing I least liked about the old preaching was when the revivalist said, “And where is Laodicea now? It is nothing but rubble. So make your choice. Behold, Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Open the door or you too will be left in rubble.”
What bothers me about that is that it’s simply not true. Jesus’ stern warning and evocative imagery DID awake the Laodiceans to repentance! According to church tradition and biblical archaeology, Laodicea became a major Christian center, seat of a bishop, and hosted a church council in the 4th century. Archaeologists have discovered 20 ancient chapels, and the largest of these occupied a whole city block (also dating to the 4th century). The city remained important until the 7th century, when it was finally abandoned after a major earthquake.
To sum up, how we read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 requires care. First, we remember that they were specific instructions to specific situations in local communities many centuries past. But as Scripture, they also speak to us. They reveal names and tiles for Christ that reveal his character. They provide cautionary tales of wayward paths for us to avoid. These only speak to us where the shoe actually fits, not as general threats of condemnation as we struggle along. And most of all, they offer powerful and beautiful promises to all who faithfully follow Jesus… including the fact that even the lukewarm experienced a glorious second chance of an even deeper fellowship with Jesus, even if it took a blast of cold water to get there.