“You gotta be hot, hot, hot for Jesus! You gotta get enthusiastic in evangelizing the lost. You gotta get on fire with passion for the Lord.” This is a message I used to preach, yet it is only half of what Jesus said. “You are neither cold or hot but lukewarm. I wish that you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15-16).
Wait, what? Cold is the opposite of hot. If hot is good, how can cold be good too? I have heard some silly answers to this one over the years.
“It is better to be dead in your sins than a half-hearted Christian.” Um, no, it’s not. Why would Jesus wish anyone to be dead in their sins?
“It is better to be coldly opposed to God, than on the fence.” Even if that were true, why would Jesus wish you were coldly opposed to God?
“Jesus is talking about extreme passion. Being really cold is exactly like being really hot.” Except it’s not. Hot and cold are opposites; they are not the same.
“It’s because of the aqueduct. Laodicea got hot water from Hierapolis and cold water from Colossae. History explains the metaphor.” This is a well-known story, but it’s not true (the aqueduct story is a myth). Even if it were, it doesn’t explain the metaphor.
This hot and cold passage is surely one of the most mangled metaphors in scripture. So what is Jesus really saying?
What is cold and hot?
There’s nothing colder than an unfeeling heart deadened by the implacable demands of the law, and there’s nothing hotter than a heart burning with the white-hot love of our heavenly Father. To be cold is to live under the stone-cold statutes of the law. To be hot is to live in the sunny warmth of your Father’s loving embrace. It’s basking in the white-hot passion of God’s wild and uncontainable love and reveling in his grace.
What does it mean to be neither cold nor hot?
Jesus is talking about mixture. Cold is cold and hot is hot and the Laodiceans were neither. They had not fully submitted to either law or grace. Had they been living under the death-dealing law, they would have been as cold as corpses, for a rigid law makes frigid followers. And if they had been walking in the sunshine of God’s love, they would have been warmed by his grace.
Why does Jesus wish we were cold?
Because the cold law reveals our need for hot grace.
Some have said that being cold refers to cool, refreshing works. But Jesus is speaking about people, not deeds. “I wish you were cold.”
Cold is what you are when you live 24/7 under a cold and unforgiving law. It’s recognizing that God has a zero-tolerance policy, and that he who keeps the whole law but stumbles on one point will be judged as guilty of all (Jas. 2:10).
He sends forth his commandment to the earth… who can stand before his cold? (Psalm 147:15, 17, AMP)
Like an icy blizzard, the unforgiving law is harsh on human flesh. No one can stand before it, and by it all are condemned. So why does Jesus wish the Laodiceans were cold? Because the merciless mirror of God’s law reveals our shortcomings and shame. It exposes our nakedness and condemns us as sinners in need of grace.
We know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:19, 23)
You may say, “I’m not perfect, but I’m basically a good person,” and the law replies, “You are not good enough. A holy God demands perfection and nothing less. As we hear the chilling rebuke of the law, winter descends. Our hearts are numbed and our mouths are frozen shut. That’s the bad news of Romans 3:23, but the good news follows in the next verse: “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The law condemns the best of us, but grace redeems even the worst of us.
Why does Jesus wish we were hot?
Because he loves us and he wants us to receive his love.
Contrary to what some have preached (myself included), being hot has nothing to do with having zealous faith or being on fire for God or being busy. The problem with approaching God on the basis of zeal is it’s all relative. You may think you’re hot stuff. “I fast every week and give a tenth of all I have.” But compared to the guy who fasts and gives twice as much you’re only lukewarm. You may have led 100 people to Jesus, but compared to renowned evangelists like Reinhard Bonnke, you’re a lackadaisical slacker.
Even if you were the most on-fire believer in the world, even if you could out-Bonnke Bonnke, do you think God would be impressed? Can you imagine the Almighty saying to the angels, “Look at this firecracker! Clear the seat next to Jesus because this guy is the Guy.” It’s not going to happen.
Being hot has nothing to do with whatever heat we can manufacture and everything to do with the burning heart of God. If we are hot, it is because our Father makes us so. His love shines on us, warming us to the very core of our being.
Jesus does not wish the Laodiceans were more enthusiastic or effective, although those are good things. His desire is that they would know and enjoy his love. The message is similar to that given to the Ephesians, but with one important difference. The Ephesians had known but had wandered from the love of Christ. In contrast, the Laodiceans had never experienced it. They had never opened their hearts to the love of the Lord.
Adapted from Paul Ellis’s forthcoming book, Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches