Laodicea, Part 1: Are You “Hot” Enough for God? (Rev 3:15)

The letter to the Laodicean church may be the best known of the seven Revelations letters. But it is also the most troubling letter for many Christians. The difficulty stems from the rebuke spoken by Jesus:

“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. 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.” (Rev 3:15-17)

What does it mean to say a church is lukewarm? What does it mean to be spit out of Jesus’ mouth? What does it mean to be wretched and pitiful, blind and naked? In this series I will look at each of these questions in turn.

What does it mean to be lukewarm? Many commentators define lukewarmness in terms of apathy or lack of zeal. They say it’s better to be on fire for God or coldly opposed to him than be halfhearted in the middle. This interpretation has become so widely known that even among sinners the term lukewarm has become synonymous with apathy and complacency.

But there are at least three problems with interpreting this scripture in terms of zeal.

Problem 1: Zeal is a subjective term

What is hot to you will be lukewarm to someone else. You might think that you are “on fire” for God. You may say, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have.” Then you meet someone who is fasting four times a week and giving 20% away. Compared to them you look like a casual believer. After all, you’re only doing half as much as them. You begin to wonder, “Am I doing enough? Will Jesus spit me out?”

I’ve heard preachers use Revelations 3:16 to condemn Christians who have become, in their eyes, complacent and lackadaisical. It’s funny, but when preachers say this, they usually define “hot” in terms of whatever level of zeal they happen to be living at. It’s an amazing coincidence.

No matter how zealous or enthusiastic you may be, there will always be someone more zealous who makes you look lukewarm by comparison. The only appropriate response is one of competitive insecurity. And that leads to the second problem with this interpretation.

Problem 2: Zeal implies God’s acceptance of us is based on our performance

The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans had put them in danger of being “spit out” or rejected by the Lord. This begs the question, what makes us acceptable to God? Is it our zeal?

Usually when people preach on this text, zeal is defined in terms of things we should do, or rather things we aren’t doing enough of. And we sit there and nod our heads because, yes, we could be doing a lot more of all those good things.

But think about this for a second. Since when did we buy into the idea that our performance makes us acceptable to God? This is just self-righteousness in disguise. You can tell that by looking at the fruit. What if you did fast twice a week and give 10% away and then you met a believer who didn’t fast or tithe at all? Pride would swell up inside. You might think, “I’m no Billy Graham, but compared to this person I’m hot, hot, hot!”

Yeah, that impresses God.

Religion deals in relatives and leads people to say, “I’m basically a good person,” or, “I may not be perfect, but I’m above average.” But God deals in absolutes. You’re either in the kingdom or you’re not. You’re either a sheep or a goat, wheat or weeds, a sinner or a saint. Defining lukewarmness in terms of our performance gets people thinking that there is some middle ground when it comes to our acceptance. But there is no middle ground.

Problem 3: Jesus says we’re better off cold

Most people agree that it’s better to be hot than lukewarm, but Jesus said it’s also better to be cold. Either hot or cold is good. But if Jesus was referring to enthusiasm, why would he say it’s better to have none that some? If Jesus was referring to the things we do for him, why would he say it’s better to do nothing than something? This doesn’t make any sense.

Some have defined “cold” as meaning “being opposed to God” or “rejecting the truth outright.” If so, why would Jesus say, “I wish you were hot or cold”? Why would Jesus want anyone to reject the truth of the gospel? That doesn’t make sense either.

Lukewarmness is not about human zeal

People who preach zeal are essentially saying, “be good for Jesus.” Well it’s good to be good but our goodness never makes us acceptable to a holy and perfect God. Apart from him we are all tarnished by sin, we are all unworthy. Most believers accept that God’s grace makes the sinner righteous, yet they don’t believe his grace also makes the Christian righteous! It’s as if God helps the sinner all the way to the cross and then leaves the new Christian to make it the rest of the way on his own. This dumb idea has been floating around since the time of the Galatians:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:1-3)

The Message Bible translates the last verse this way:

“Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.” (Gal 3:3)

The Contemporary English Version puts it like this, “How can you be so stupid?” while Darby’s translation wonders, “Are ye so senseless?”

So there you have it. The Bible says those who preach human effort are crazy, foolish, stupid and senseless. Whether we are saved or unsaved, our self-righteous acts can never make us acceptable to God.

You might say, “It’s not about works, it’s about attitude. God looks at the heart.” But Jesus did not say to the Laodiceans, “I know your heart.” He said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.” There was clearly something they were doing that made them lukewarm and unacceptable. So what was it?

Lukewarmness is about mixing stuff

When Jesus says he would prefer that we are hot or cold rather than lukewarm, most people automatically think of a thermometer: cold and hot temperatures are good, but being stuck in the middle is bad. As we have seen this is a poor metaphor because there is no middle ground with God. But lukewarmness can also refer to mixing things. When you mix cold with hot you get lukewarm.

Now what are two good things in the Bible that, if you mix them together, you end up with something bad? Here’s a hint – what were the Galatians mixing together? Answer: law and grace.

We all know that the grace of God is good, but what about the law?

“The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” (Rom 7:12)

Why is the law good? Because it leads us to Christ that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24). The law was written on tablets of cold stone. The law has no power to make you righteous and good, but if you are honest, it will reveal your need for a Savior:

“Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” (Rom 7:13)

The law – which is good – brings despair, condemnation and guilt, and leads us to Christ. God’s grace – which is very good – brings hope, justification and freedom through Jesus Christ. But these two good things cannot be mixed together. If you try to mix law with grace you’ll end up with the benefits of neither.

How do you dilute the power of the law? By lowering God’s holy standards to attainable levels of human performance.

How do you negate the unmerited favor of God? By trying to earn it through observing the commandments and other acts self-righteousness.

The Laodicean’s problem was not that they were complacent, but that they were trying to attain through human effort that which only God can do. Their problem was far more serious than a poor attitude. They were trying to make themselves righteous.

Good and bad zeal

It is good to be enthusiastic for Jesus. But there is good zeal and bad zeal. Look at what Paul said of the Jews:

“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Rms 10:2-4)

Bad zeal is what you get when you try to establish your own righteousness instead of submitting to God’s righteousness. Good zeal is what you get when you know that Christ has set you free from the demands of the law and given you his righteousness. When you apprehend what Jesus has done for you, you will be as enthusiastic as a freed prisoner! You will run like a cripple with new legs, like a blind man with new eyes!

Jesus did not suffer and die on the cross to give us a chance to compete for God’s approval. He died to make us righteous. If Christians are apathetic today it’s probably because they’re tired of trying to stir up carnal zeal. They are weary of being told they are not praying enough, reading enough, witnessing enough, giving enough. No matter how much they do, it is never enough. The unfinished work of the law always demands more.

What will set Christians free is the revelation that Jesus has done it all. His was a one-time sacrifice for all the sins of the world. Not only did Jesus die for us but he lives for us, he keeps us, and he intercedes for us. As you begin to understand the significance this, it will set you free like never before.

In Part 2, I will look at what it means to be spit out of Jesus’ mouth.

enjoy_signup

Comments

  1. awesome message!

  2. Adam Howell says:

    I love it! Beautiful :-)

  3. Susana Vivas says:

    WOW!!!! Amazing Grace!!! Thank you!!!!!

  4. Ronald R says:

    Great revelation.. Pastor paul, doyou have facebook account? I want to be intouch with you from time to time if its not bothering you.

  5. Wow.. That is why EVERYTHING must be in context…

  6. Pennee Rowland says:

    February 14, 1981 I sensed the Spirit of the Lord speak this word over me and I “surrendered all.” I know I interpreted it incorrectly and began my “zeal.” The Spirit of the Lord is so sweet to me and had on numerous spoken to me prophetic words/dreams/visions (while I was yet a sinner.) And, yet, for whatever reason (the dEvIL) I did not grasp this truth. The early 90’s the light on these scriptures began to shine and I began to know my identity in Christ. Now in 2011 I am so peaceful in Him, receiving, resting and relaxing in His love. Thank you for your commitment to these truths and for sharing with others who are thirsty.

  7. Scott Evans says:

    I’m grateful for having stumbled upon your message. I needed to hear this, again. It’s not that I didn’t know of God’s amazing, unconditional grace, it just became lost and jumbled after reading a well intentioned but error filled book. The author in question, also a pastor here in Southern California, completely misinterpreted Rev 3:16.

  8. Great stuff! I’m yet to find anything on the internet that blesses my like your posts. Thx

    Magoo

  9. Good comment, however I would like to give one thought for food……and you’re absolutely right, JESUS did not say “I know your heart, but your work” But where does works come from? All of our works come from our Hearts…..that’s why we do what we do! Therefore this part of the scripture could be speaking about the heart, because He also said, ” that you are neither cold nor hot.” You referring to the person or heart of the person, which JESUS looks at when He looks at us. Just food for thought, and may the HOLY SPIRIT, always be our guide and final Authority.

  10. LaKetra Cox says:

    Father God is so awesome. During a time of consecration unto Him, when I had became so digusted with church religion, laws, rules, and regulations; He allowed me to cross paths with this web page that explains exactly where I’ve been the last few years. His agappe for us is so amazing. Please keep these posts going. Jesus is more than ready to set more captives free from religion and this is one of His weapons. Be blessed. I thank God for you.

  11. AntiPharisee says:

    Hi Paul Ellis, I am studying about Law vs. Grace. Can you help me to explain Psalms 1:2 “but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” A Christian friend told me that it is by obeying the Law that God is satisfied with us. Thank you and hope you answer my question.

    • I actually love these verses. In this Psalm, the Law of the Lord simply means God’s Word. Psalm 1 is teaching an incredible truth: those who delight in God’s Word and meditate on it day and night will become healthy, fruit bearing trees. What it is saying is that what we feed ourselves will become our reality. A tree is pictured, which digs it’s roots down deep into the soil which is constantly nourished by the stream (God’s Word). This is not a command to obey all of God’s Laws. It’s actually a picture of what happens when we are constantly fed by God’s Word : good fruit will be easy and natural for us to bear, in season and out. So get into your Bible and cherish its words and the words of Jesus, and you will naturally be strong and bear fruit.

  12. Here is some awesome Truths. First, some historical aspects: Laodicea was a wealthy city however it did not have local water sources. So they built aqueducts to bring water from Colosse (cold, refreshing waters) and from Hieropolis (hot mineral springs, invigorating waters) which had plenty of water sources. The problem is that by the time the water from the sources got to Laodicea, the temperature were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. In addition, the taste of the water was putrid -to make one vomit- from the distances and aqueduct material eroded into the water source. So these are the two aspects that are of importance: being invigorating (hot) or refreshing (cold) but not lukewarm that would be a state to be vomitted out.

    But now, how does all this background line up with the works of the Laodicean? In the context on the address to the pastor (messenger) of the church (v14-19) we have v.15: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked”. You see them boasting of riches, they’ve lost focussed on what owning money is about (blessed to be a blessing) and now rather are owned by money. You see them boasting of not having need of anything, and sadly almost sounds like a word-of-faith / prosperity gospel… where there is SUCH an ego-centric messagë: “bless me, bless me oh Father!”… “look what I believed God for and if you had faith you would too”… but when it is time to be refreshing or invigorating to OTHERS… they can’t even help a person that is oppressed of the enemy with sickness or disease or lack because “they are suppossed to have faith to receive”, or “haven’t been led to bless them”, rather than as an Ambassador of Christ, go and set the captives free enforcing Christ’s authority over the works of the enemy by giving freely what we’ve received freely.

    Sadly, in the body of Christ we do see this focus: there is boasting on what they have… but in His eyes they are the ones in necessity because their compassion has been shut blind and they don’t even know it! They’ve lost (or maybe not understood) the Love of Christ and how as New Creations, we ARE His representatives… we are His hands and feet to do the same works and even greater.

  13. louoliveros says:

    Bro. Paul,
    I have found your site this week and I am so blessed. I was just filled witb joy as I finally saw Jesus in His beauty. Grace took away the veil, set me free and transformss me. I am free to live loved. :) Thank you Lord Jesus! I love you.

  14. Just a question: How can you claim that that Jesus is not speaking about and increase of zeal when he gives the Laodiceans the solution to their lukewarmness: “be ZEALOUS and repent” (vs. 19). Contextually, the passage IS about zeal and repentance.

  15. I have had a confused thiking on this scripture but this makes so much sence that it liberates me. Thank you for such a clear and insightful exegesis of this. It is the bearer of good tidings it gives me peace..

  16. Thanks sooooo much Paul!!
    This is incredibly liberating news!! :-)

  17. Jason Emmanuel says:

    Thank you thank you thank you God for speaking through this man… You hit the nail on the head brother. I went through this “zealous” phase myself early in my walk and was humbled and brought back to a place of resting on His grace… but it has been on my radar here and there in different preachers or brothers or sisters in the Lord and was not sure how to explain why it troubled me except that it reminded me of the old me lol. God bless!

  18. It is amazing how grace stirs my heart towards zeal and freedom. It does what the well intentioned preachers try to accomplish through the preaching of works. Thanks again, I am being refreshed and encouraged. Feeling good about my life in Christ as opposed to my depression over my lack of ability and effort.

  19. Amen. I did know this truth but was never able to articulate like you have here. THANK YOU Paul. Maybe the best article I’ve read on the SUBJECT EVER. I am going to pass this along.

  20. Cherita McNeill Denning says:

    I was truly blessed by this HOLY SPIRIT given revelation of hot cold & LUKEWARM! My husband and I will definitely teach this and give you honor!

  21. Imeobong Samuel says:

    Question:Does this passage also mean we should not mix worldly things with the spiritual? Bless you. Pat.

  22. The Laodicean church is naked and blind.The importance is to know what does mean by naked and blind and why? The danger is in the personal interpretation in reading.the Scriptures without the AUTHORITY and the presence of the Holy Spirit.The Laodicean church is an apostate,disgusting and useless church.

  23. Zeal does matter and the word does not make it about competing or comparing nor is it spiritually subjective. Zeal shall be determined in our hearts and only Jesus can do that. Jesus measures our bad deeds by our hearts, but he also measures our GOOD deeds by our hearts too. So a man fasting can be an act of love of Christ. If its done out of love for Christ, then Jesus shall recognize what you do. It not so much the act, but the love you act out. Zeal does not come inherently with comparison. Jesus spoke about the poor person giving little compared to the rich, but in their hearts they gave much more.

    Cold is simple. God’s love is a burning fire that purifies, that’s scriptural. If you are cold you have no love in you and Jesus recognizes this and just like he said on the cross, “forgive them father for they know not what they do”. A cold person has not found that fire and Jesus acknowledges that.

    Lukewarm can be a person that tries to only love Christ through the law, but its worse than that. The lukewarm person has only a little fire in them and extinguishes it with things of this world; desires of this world burn much hotter inside their hearts. Luke warm is the person that goes out into the world claiming it for Christ and boasts of his sins not in his word but in what he does or what he fails to do. We all sin, but we are to repent and the lukewarm feels no need to repent because he sees no fault in himself. The lukewarm claims to be a believer but does not live it. This person is a danger to all that consider the faith and that are looking for the shepherd, this person is spoilage to the faith and therefore Jesus spits them out. The cold person does no harm to the hot , but the luke warm person can creep into the hot or cold person and appear like something of God.

    • Scott Evans says:

      It never fails: it’s a spiritual law: everything after the word ‘but’ will be a lie. Thanks, you’ve reaffirmed what I’ve believed for years…
      “We all sin, but we are to repent and the lukewarm feels no need to repent because he sees no fault in himself.”
      You got the first part right, the three words before ‘but’ and then the wheels came off. First off, Jesus paid the sin debt in full, and not just removing them far as East is from West. He was buried with them, all of them, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself in the only way He could: eradicating the sin entirely. Furthermore, we are not under law. For the Grace of God that was upon Jesus as a child and throughout His life is now upon ALL who ‘believe’ the Gospel. As for judging, bone up on the subject: “In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” (Romans 2:16)
      Note it says ‘secrets of men’ and also ‘according to my gospel, Paul’s Gospel delivered to him by Jesus, the Gospel of Grace, also known as the Gospel of Christ, and not things you personally disapprove of. As for seeing “no fault in him or herself” well Howdy-Doo. Finally, the Truth. If you’re IN Christ God isn’t seeing you anymore — He is seeing Christ. If One did die than all did die. You’ve been dead for 2000 years already. Are you alive IN Christ. That is what will matter, and that is determined by whether or not you believe the Gospel. So to alleviate any confusion… churchianity can be very confusing… let me relay the Gospel by which men are saved….

      Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;

      2By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.

      3For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

      4And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures”

      Jesus really did an amazing thing 2000 years ago. Please don’t diminish it by suggesting that there is something left for us to do. If the only prayer anyone ever offered was Thank You, Jesus… it’d be enough. Unfortunately Christians, for the most part, are preoccupied with trying to pay God back for His Gift. Talk about ingrates LOL God Bless, hope you put your trust in Christ solely, and leave the ‘yeah but’ tribe forever.

  24. Tom NeSmith says:

    Boy am I ever hot enough for God! When I look in the mirror… I don’t see it… but God most definitely can’t get enough of me!

    I heard a knock on my door one day. I opened it a little to see who was there. He barged in and with a goofy smile said “I’m HERE! Boy! Are we ever gonna have a lot of fun together!”.

    Uhhhhh

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