The Lukewarm Church
August 9, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos
We now come to the last of the seven “Letters to the Churches” found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. As we have done before in our previous studies of the six churches, we are going to look at our study today using a seven-point outline. Again to save time, let’s go quickly to the first point, “The Church Addressed.” Here I will give you a little background of the city of Laodicea and some words about the church in this city.
The church addressed (3:14a)
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
- Laodicea was the southeasternmost of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. It lay 65 km southeast of Philadelphia and almost straight east of Ephesus. It is located in the Lycus Valley with its sister cities of Colossae and Hierapolis. It was founded about 250 B.C. by Antiochus of Syria and was named after his wife Laodice.
- Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Its location at an important travel intersection, manufacturing and medicine made it a great commercial and financial center. Robert Thomas writes:
The prosperity of the city was illustrated following a great earthquake of A.D. 60, which destroyed the city and other cities around it. As was its habit, the Roman government offered substantial aid in rebuilding the devastation. Yet Laodicea was not among those cities who received help. Whether the government refused to offer it because of their great wealth, or Laodicea refused it be they did not need it, is debated. Whatever the case, the reasons was wealth. Even nearby Hierapolis, a prosperous city in its own right, received imperial aid for rebuilding. Laodicea not only received none, but its citizens even contributed heavily in helping rebuild some of the other cities.
- Laodicea was famous for the soft, violet-black, glossy wool it produced. The wool was made into clothes and woven into carpets that were both highly valued. Though its neighbors in Colosse and Hierapolis also produced wool, Laodicea’s wool was more sought after because of its peculiar black and soft qualities.
- Laodicea was also an important center of ancient medicine. The city had an important medical school that associated with the nearby temple of the Phrygian god Men Karou. That school was most famous for an eye salve that it had developed, which was exported all over the Greco-Roman world.
- One of the problems of Laodicea was a poor water supply that made it vulnerable to attack through siege. Its main water supply came by an underground aqueduct from the hot springs of Hierapolis ten kilometers away, which arrived full of minerals and warm. An attacking enemy could easily learn of its existence and destroy them, denying the city its needed water.
All this background information about Laodicea—the three things that it prided itself in, the financial wealth, a thriving textile industry, and a popular eye-salve, and the lukewarm water that arrived in their city—come into play in this letter to the Laodicean church.
The church at Laodicea is mentioned by Paul in Col 2:1 and Col 4:16
but the NT does not record anything about its founding. It was likely established during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus. In Act 19:10 we read of Paul’s extended ministry in Ephesus, which resulted in all Jewish and Greek residents of Asia to hear the gospel. Remember that Asia refers to Asia Minor, or today, Western Turkey.
MacArthur had this to write about this church:
The church at Laodicea was the last—and worst—of the seven churches written to by Christ. ... It has the grim distinction of being the only church of the seven for which Christ offers nothing positive.
A description of Christ (3:14b)
‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
The self-descriptions of Christ are suited to make an impression on the minds of the Laodicean church.
- Jesus is the Amen.
It is common understanding that when we say “Amen” when prayer is uttered it means ‘let it be so,’ or “Yes, may the Lord answer that petition.” Amen is also often used in Scripture to affirm the truthfulness of a statement.
The word “Amen” actually means “true,” “certain,” or “faithful.” When applied to Jesus it means that He is exceptionally true and faithful. He is the Amen because He is the One who confirmed all of God’s promises (2Co 1:20). What He affirms is true; what He promises or threatens is certain. He Himself is characterized by sincerity and truth. What a contrast His character is to the character of the Laodiceans who were insincere in their faith.
- Jesus is the Faithful and True Witness.
This means that whatever Jesus speaks is the truth. He is completely trustworthy and reliable. MacArthur writes:
This was an appropriate way to begin the letter to the Laodiceans because it affirmed to them that Christ had accurately assessed their spiritual condition. It also affirmed that His offer of fellowship and salvation in verse 20 was true...”
- Jesus is the beginning of God’s creation.
This phrase, as it stands in English, is ambiguous and misleading. As a result, cults have used this verse in an attempt to prove that Jesus is a created being. It could mean, either, that Jesus was the first person to be created or that he is the “beginner,” “originator,” or “initiator” of creation. Clearly, it is the second meaning. which is intended here; Jesus is the originator of creation.
This is consistent with the teaching of Scripture that Jesus is co-Creator with God. Jn 1:3, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made."
This is also the meaning intended in Col 1:15 where it says that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation
. This is another passage often misused by cults. They misunderstand this to mean that Jesus is the first being created by God. This is wrong.
In Ps 89:27 we gain some idea of what firstborn means: "And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth."
David wasn’t really a firstborn child, but God says He will make him the firstborn. What this means is that God will give to him all the privileges associated with being the firstborn. The firstborn child was given a place of special honor and a double portion of the inheritance (Gen. 27; 2 Kings 2:9). In this sense of prominent favor, Christ can be called the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15), in that he is given the preeminence over all created beings. This is made more clear when you read the verses before and after Colossians 1:15.
Col 1:15-17 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Jesus is firstborn over all creation means means He is far superior and surpasses the whole of creation because He is its creator and sustainer.
Christ’s diagnosis of the church (3:15)
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
- When Jesus says, “I know,” what He means is that He has complete and infallible knowledge of the condition of the Laodiceans. “Works” refers the their life and conduct in general, whether good or bad. Since there was nothing positive to mention for the church at Laodicea, the Lord goes straight to his negative assessment of the church.
- Christ rebuked them for being “neither cold nor hot” but “lukewarm.” This picture of lukewarmness would immediately strike the Christians of Laodicea because the water they drank every day was lukewarm having to pass through several kilometers of underground aqueduct before it came to their city. Laodicea’s lukewarm water was repulsive to its people.
Just as the water the Laodiceans drink is lukewarm and repulsive to its people, so in a spiritual sense, the Laodicean church is lukewarm and repulsive to the taste of the Lord Jesus. Because of this, the Lord expresses the most severe rebuke of any of the seven churches. He says that He will spit them out of His mouth.
“Hot” describes a person who is spiritually alive and possess the fervency of a transformed life. He can be described in terms of the 10 marks of a healthy church member that we have learned about:
- He is an expositional listener,
- a biblical theologian,
- gospel saturated,
- genuinely converted,
- a biblical evangelist,
- a committed member,
- seeks discipline,
- a growing disciple-maker,
- a humble follower,
- and devoted to prayer.
“Cold,” on the other hand, describes a person who is an unbeliever who has some contact with the gospel but has no interest in Christ, His Word, or His church, and makes no pretense about it; he is not a hypocrite. He rejects the gospel openly and aggressively.
What about the “lukewarm,” what are they?
Lukewarm is a description of church people who have professed Christ hypocritically but do not have in their hearts the reality of what they pretend to be in their actions.
The lukewarm … are not genuinely saved, yet they do not openly reject Christ. They attend church and claim to know the Lord. Like the Pharisees, they are content to practice a self-righteous religion. They are hypocrites playing games (cf. Mt 7:22-23).
- How could Jesus say, “Would that you were either cold or hot”?
We know that our Lord’s desire is that they be “hot,” with a boiling hot love for Him. Yet if they would not be hot, Jesus prefers
“cold” rather than lukewarm. Why? Because there may be more hope to the person who is cold than the person who is lukewarm.
For example, the thief on the cross was at first cold towards Jesus. At first, he aggressively mocked Jesus. But soon he realized his need and put his trust in Christ. The Laodiceans however were a different kind of unbelievers. They were part of the church and gave the impression that they were Christians. They were unregenerate but because they were members of the church they thought they were going to heaven and so they did not feel any need to repent and to trust in Christ for salvation.
In his sermon “An Earnest Warning against Lukewarmness,” Spurgeon described the lukewarm church. Here is a modern version of a portion based on his sermon:
They were not cold, but they were not hot. They were not aggressive atheists, but they were not earnest believers. They did not oppose the gospel, neither did they defend it. They were not causing trouble, neither were they doing any great good. They were not notorious for bad character, but they were not distinguished for holiness. They were not irreligious but they were not enthusiastic in their devotion for God. They carefully maintained respectability, but they were not evidently zealous for God.
Good things were maintained among them, but they did not make too much of them. They had prayer meetings, but there were few present. When more attended they were still very dull for they went through the motions. They were content to have all things done decently and in order, but the vigor and zeal they considered to be improper.
Some churches have Sunday schools, bible study groups, libraries and several other ministries but they might as well be without them for no energy is displayed and no good comes from them.
The rich families are not offended, the critical party is conciliated, and the good people are alienated.
Worship gatherings are often business as usual and people attend as though they attended a boring lecture or seminar.
They have deacons and elders who look like excellent pillars in the church, if the main quality of pillars is to stand still and exhibit no motion or emotion. They have ministers who may be shining lights of eloquence, but they certainly are not burning lights of grace, setting men’s hearts on fire.
In such communities everything is done in a half-hearted, listless, dead-and-alive way, as if it did not matter much whether it was done or not. The right things are done, but as to doing them with all their might, and soul, and strength, a Laodicean church has no idea of what that means. They are not so cold as to abandon their work, or to give up their meetings for prayer, or to reject the gospel. If they did so, then they could be convinced of their error and brought to repentance. But on the other hand they are not hot for the truth, not hot for conversions, not hot for holiness, they are not fiery enough to burn the wood of sin, nor zealous enough to make Satan angry, nor fervent enough to make a living sacrifice of themselves upon the altar of their God. They are “neither cold nor hot.”
This is a horrible state, because it is one wherein a church wearing a good repute renders the reputation a lie. When other churches are saying, “See how they prosper!” see what they do for God!” Jesus sees that the church is doing His work in a mediocre, make-believe manner, and he considers justly that it is deceiving its friends. ... God forgive us if we are that sort.
Words of reproof (3:16-17)
Because the Laodiceans are lukewarm, Jesus will spit them out of his mouth. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
“Spit out” is literally “vomit,” something any person with a stomach sickness would do. “This is a most contemptuous expression, one He does not use elsewhere” (Thomas).
MacArthur wrote that “Some churches make the Lord weep. Others make Him angry. The Laodicean church made Him sick.”
What does Christ mean when He spits a person out of His mouth and when will this happen?
I have not yet read any commentary that satisfactorily answers these questions. But I have my own answer, although I will not be dogmatic about my interpretation. A person who is in Christ may be said to be in Crist’s kingdom. But there are many hypocrites whose attachment to Christ and the church, which is a manifestation of His kingdom, merely external and superficial. When Christ returns and establishes his kingdom and when God’s real children are revealed, the hypocrite will find himself excluded from that kingdom. I think it is in this sense that Christ will vomited the lukewarm. I based my interpretation from an OT passage, Leviticus 20:22:
"You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out."
Verse 17 Jesus explains why their works of the Laodiceans were offensive to Him: For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,
Robert Mounce writes,
The material wealth of Laodicea is well established. It is frequently noted that Laodicea prided itself on three things: financial wealth, an extensive textile industry, and a popular eye salve that was exported around the world. The “wealth” claimed by the Laodicean church was not only material but spiritual as well. Their pretentious claim was not only that they were rich but that they had achieved it on their own. And beyond that, they had need of nothing.
Jesus said, “I know your works” (v. 15), and now he tells the Laodiceans that they lack knowledge of themselves. He describes the church with five adjectives:
- wretched – this is the description of a person in a very unhappy or unfortunate state.
- pitiable – this pictures one worthy of extreme pity because he is in peril of eternal death if he should remain in his present state.
- poor – describes the condition of one who is extremely poor that he has to beg.
- blind – refers to mental and spiritual blindness, one who is unable to understand which is often the result of self-deception.
- naked – sometimes salvation is represented as a garment. For example Isaiah 61:10 says, “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation.” And so to be naked means to be without salvation.
Words of exhortation (3:18-20)
Christ could have instantly judged and destroyed this church filled with unbelieving hypocrites. Instead, He graciously offered them genuine salvation. Christ’s three-part appeal played on the three features the city of Laodicea was most noted for: its wealth, wool industry, and production of eye-salve. Christ offered them spiritual gold, spiritual clothes, and spiritual sight.
The Lord, of course, did not teach that salvation could be earned by good works. Lost people have no way to buy salvation (Isaiah 64:5-6). The buying here is the same as the invitation in Isaiah 55:1, “ Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”
(ESV). All sinners have to offer is their helplessly lost condition. In exchange, Christ offers His righteousness to those who truly repent.
- First, Christ exhorts the Laodiceans to buy from Him three things:
- I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire
The gold here is a picture of high quality of faith, a faith capable of withstanding trials. Peter said in 1Pe 1:6-7, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith —more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire —may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
This kind of faith comes from a new heart and results in good works.
- buy … white garments. This is going to clothe their nakedness and remove their shame.
MacArthur writes, “Laodicea’s famed black wool symbolized the dirty, sinful garments that cover the unsaved (see Isaiah 64:6; Zech 3:3-4). In contrast, the God clothes the redeemed with white garments, symbolizing the righteous deeds that always accompany genuine saving faith (cf. Rev 19:8)”
In Rev 19:8 the garment of the believers refers to their good works:
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
“The putting on of the garments Christ supplies comes at the moment of personal faith in Him, but the avoidance of shame will come at the time of His second advent.
This is the shame of one who has professed Christ, but has not truly put on Christ” (Thomas).
- and [buy] salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
The eye-salve refers to the spiritual illumination or discernment that the Holy Spirit provides in salvation.
MacArthur: Like all unregenerate people, the Laodiceans desperately need Christ to ‘open their eyes so that they [might] turn from darkness to light and from dominion of Satan to God, that they [might] receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in [Him] (Acts 26:18).
Spiritually speaking, the church at Laodicea was seriously lacking in three areas: genuine faith (gold), good works (white garments) and spiritual discernment and illumination (eyesalve). All these three could be resolved by a single act, by their acceptance of the gift of salvation from Christ (Thomas).
19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
- Second, Christ exhorts the Laodiceans to be zealous and repent.
MacArthur: The wordings of verse 19 does not mean that Christ is speaking to believers. … Both vv. 18 and 20 indicate that Christ was speaking here to unbelievers. God certainly loves the unconverted (cf. John 3:16).
The word "love" here in verse 19 is not the word agapaō
but the phileō.
The word is probably chosen here to show that in spite of the church’s poor attitude toward Him, he still has tender and affectionate feelings toward it. The surprising choice of this emotional word comes as a touching and unexpected manifestation of love toward those who deserve it least among the seven churches. (Thomas).
“Reprove” refers to a verbal
rebuke designed to bring a person to acknowledge his fault while “discipline” refers to the act
in order to reach the same goal. “Reprove” and “discipline” often refer to God’s convicting and punishing the unregenerate.
MacArthur: In order for the Laodiceans to be saved, they would have to be “zealous and repent.” This would include an attitude of mourning over sin and hungering and thirsting for the righteousness for which Jesus poke (Mt 5:4,6). The New Testament call to salvation always includes a call to repentance (e.g., Mt 3:2, 8; 4:17; Mk 6:12).
The Lord Jesus Christ followed the call to repentance in verse 19 with a tender, gracious invitation in verse 20:
20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
- Third, Christ invites anyone in the church to open the door so that He could come in and have fellowship with him.
The popular application of this verse among Christian circles today is to use this in the context of an evangelistic invitation for unbelievers to open their hearts to Jesus who is knocking at the door of their hearts so that Jesus will come into their heart and they will experience salvation now.
Although it is not wrong to use verse 20 for an evangelistic invitation Jesus may be speaking here about something greater than just entering an individual’s heart and bringing salvation. The primary idea behind Christ’s standing at the door and knocking may be referring to the second coming of Christ. The door is the eschatological door through which Christ will enter at His second coming.
This may sound like a new interpretation but comparing Scripture with Scripture will show you that this may well be the right interpretation.
- Lk 12:35-40 “ Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
- Jas 5:8-9 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 … behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
Robert Thomas writes,
This is not a plea for the straying Christian to return to fellowship with Christ, nor is it a general invitation to Christians and non Christians alike. [There may have existed] a faithful remnant in Laodicea as in the other cities, though they are not mentioned … They do not need to open the door again. They have already done so, and Christ will enter at His second advent. This is an opportunity for those who have not yet experienced conversion to Christ to do so and thereby make ready for His return.
Christ’s offer to dine with the repentant church speaks of fellowship, communion, and intimacy. Sharing a meal in ancient times symbolized the union of people in loving fellowship. Believers will dine with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9), and in the millennial kingdom (Lk 22:16, 29-30). … Christ urged them to repent and have fellowship with Him before the night of judgment fell and it was too late forever.
A promise to the overcomer (3:21)
21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
NTCS: The language must be understood to convey a symbolical message. ... It is futile to ask whether the throne is large enough to accommodate Christ’s followers.
The promise to the overcomer here is that the Lord Jesus will delegate some of his ruling authority to his people. This is a promise to the overcomer that he will reign with Christ in the millennium.
This promise is an extension of the promise that Jesus made to the Twelve while on earth that they would not only eat and drink with Him in His kingdom but also sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Lk 22:29-30 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.,
Paul expanded this promise to include all Christians as rulers and broadened the area of ruling to the world, not just Israel.
1Co 6:2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?
A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (3:22)
MacArthur: As did the other six letters, the letter to the Laodiceans closed with Christ’s exhortation, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The message to this hypocritical church is obvious: Repent, and open up to Christ before the night of judgment falls. The implication for true believers is that, like Christ, we must compassionately call those in the unbelieving church to repent and receive salvation in Jesus Christ.