UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.
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.
“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.