The Lukewarm Church (Rev. 3:14-22)
The members of the church in Laodicea inhabited a city in the Lycus valley that in Roman times was the wealthiest city in Phrygia. In fact, the wealth of this city was so great that when it was struck by a terrible earthquake in AD 60, the city was able to rebuild itself without any help from Rome, a fact attested to by Tacitus. Its wealth was in part due to the fact that it was located at the juncture of several important trade routes. In addition, it was known for making garments like the trimita, a tunic woven from the “soft, glossy black wool” from local sheep that made the region famous. There was a medical school also that was famous for an eye-salve made from “’Phrygian powder’ mixed with oil.”
But despite all these impressive advantages, it had one great disadvantage: the water supply. The fact of the matter was that it had no clean water nearby, and so water had to be piped in from a spring six miles away, coming through “a system of stone pipes approximately three feet in diameter.” By the time it got to Laodicea, the water was nasty. To help understand the symbolism our Lord uses for the church, however, there is something else we need to know about water near the city. Mounce explains:
Six miles north across the Lycus was the city of Hierapolis, famous for its hot springs that, rising within the city, flowed across a wide plateau and spilled over a broad escarpment directly opposite Laodicea. The cliff was some 300 feet high and about a mile wide. Covered with a white encrustation of calcium carbonate, it formed a spectacular natural phenomenon. As the hot, mineral-laden water traveled across the plateau, it gradually became lukewarm before cascading over the edge.
On the other hand, Colossae – which was a few miles south-east of Laodicea – was known for its cold and pure water supply. The cold, refreshing waters of Colossae and the hot-spring waters of Hierapolis stood in sharp contrast to the lukewarm, nasty waters in and around Laodicea.
With this background, let us now consider the words of our Lord to the church in Laodicea. This was a church that is described as “lukewarm” in verse 16, a spiritual condition that led the Lord to threaten to vomit them out of his mouth (“I will spue thee out of my mouth”). Given how serious this condition obviously is, we need to understand what is going on here, and what it is they are counseled to do in response to it. Of course, we should be asking ourselves if and how this applies to us. As we look at the words of our Lord, we will see that in them our Lord tells them where they are (diagnosis), what they are to do (prescription), and why they are to do it (hope).
Where they are (diagnosis)
It is often said that the “hot” and “cold” states of verses 15-16 are meant to refer to spiritual zeal and love for the Lord on the one hand (hot), and spiritual callousness on the other (cold). To be lukewarm, then, is to be neither on fire for the Lord nor to be hardened against him. It is just a state of spiritual carelessness.
Now I think that is true, as respects the lukewarmness – I think it does refer in part to spiritual carelessness, but I think the contrast that some make between hot and cold is often a bit mistaken, as if hot is good and cold is bad but lukewarm is worse. Our Lord is not saying, as is often said, that he prefers an atheist to a spiritually barren Christian (as if that is what is meant by “I would thou wert cold or hot”). It may be true that some atheists are easier to reach for the Lord than hypocritical Christians. But that’s not the point here. The point is that there is nothing good about their state – it is neither refreshing like the cold, pure water from Colossae, nor is it healing like the mineral laden hot springs of Hierapolis. Instead, what they are to the Lord is so bad that they are like lukewarm water in his mouth, which is disgusting and nasty, and worthy only to be spit out onto the ground. He can’t stand them as they are. Something has to change.
What then was it about their condition that caused the Lord to want to vomit? Notice the word “because” at the beginning of verse 17. This describes the reason why our Lord thought their condition was so terrible. It tells us what it was about them that made our Lord compare them to lukewarm, disgusting, and nasty water. It was for this reason: “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” (17). It is this description that fills out the content of their lukewarm condition.
This is a description of a self-satisfied church, a church that thought it had it all, that didn’t think it needed anything – anything from other believers, anything from Christ. Ladd tells us, “The Greek of this verse literally rendered is, ‘I am rich, and I have gotten riches.’” In other words, they not only thought they had it all, but that what they had was due to their own effort. Their church, so they thought, was a mighty church, a rich church, a powerful church, an influential church, a trend-setting church – all because of the things they had done. This attitude is summarized in the words: “and have need of nothing.”
This is the attitude of pride, of which God says, “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him,” the first of which is “a proud look” (Prov. 6:16-17). We are told that, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). On the other hand, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:13). We are also told that “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (Jam. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). “Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off” (Ps. 138:6). As the Lord speaks through the prophet, “to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isa. 66:2).
Fundamentally, God hates pride because pride is a denial of the gospel. Let me remind you what the gospel is. It is predicated on the fact that we have not just sinned against our fellow man, but that we have sinned against our Creator. Pride is a big part of that. Pride says to God, “I know better, thank you very much. I will go my own way; I refuse to let you have any say. My will be done!” But we cannot sin against God and expect to get away with it. To sin against a Being of infinite greatness is to amass a debt of infinite proportions and to be worthy of an infinite punishment. We cannot of course pay such a debt.
But God in his mercy intervened; not by demanding that we pay a debt we could never repay, but by taking the debt upon himself. He did this in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. For Christ came to take the punishment of our sins upon himself by dying on the cross. He then gives the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God and eternal life to all who believe on him: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:14-16).
What this means is that salvation from sin, its guilt and all its consequences, does not come to us because we are good enough but solely and entirely because of the grace of God. The fact that “by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9) means that we don’t merit God’s favor and God’s salvation in any sense of the word. We don’t work for it. Christ did the work for us, and we embrace it as a gift in the open hand of faith. We don’t purchase the gift of salvation; it was purchased by Christ when he died on the cross and suffered for the sins of others. As the apostle Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
So if you say that you believe the gospel, what are you saying? You are saying that you were a helpless, lost, sinner dead in your sins and without hope and that God in sovereign grace because of what Christ had done came and rescued you. In Christ you have been given “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3): adoption into the family of God, eternal inheritance, the forgiveness of sins, and the fellowship of God through the Holy Spirit. You have not only been given hope for a future after death, but you are given present power, the same kind of power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
In other words, you are making two very important claims when you say that you believe the gospel. First, you are claiming that you have been given salvation by grace and grace alone on the basis of what Christ has done – his righteousness, his atoning death. But second, you are also saying that every spiritual blessing – not just some or most but all of them – are gifts of grace to you. There is nothing for which we can boast.
Maybe by this point you can see why the attitude of the Laodiceans was so noxious to Christ. Their attitude that they were rich and increased with goods was a denial of the gospel. It was a denial of their dependence upon Christ and his righteousness and his riches. Though I doubt very seriously that they stopped claiming to believe in Jesus and his grace, for all practical purposes they had become works-based atheists.
How can a church get to this point? Well, I think to understand this we need to realize that there are two kinds of people that are being dealt with here. One is the nominal Christian. What is a nominal Christian? It is a Christian in name only, a CHRINO if you will! It is someone who professes that they know God but in works deny him (Tit. 1:16), who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5). They are those who are described by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt. 7:21-23). We must recognize that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is one. Not everyone who claims to be saved is saved. Not everyone who claims to be elect is so.
Why do I say this? Well, because a nominal Christian is someone who is truly bereft of the riches of Christ, who is naked before God, who is spiritually blind (Rev. 3:17-18). They are people who have Christ on the outside of their hearts (20). Now, I know that Jesus tells them that he loves them (19). But we must remember that there is a general love that God has for his creation (cf. Mt. 5:43-48) which is of course distinct from his electing, saving love, but it is a genuine love, nonetheless. It is the love behind Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem; it is the love behind God’s protestation, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he should repent and live” (Ezek. 18:23).
But this also addresses those who are genuine Christians (who are loved by Christ with electing, saving love) and yet who over time have descended into this lukewarm state, what I will call here the backslidden Christian. This is the person I want to focus on. How can a Christian get into this state? And what are the signs that we are there? We should want to know this because we don’t want to get there. To get there is to get into a state where we are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). To get there is to get into a state where Christ is ready to vomit us out of his mouth.
Now just think about that image for a moment. This is not a condition that you want to remain in. You don’t keep something in your mouth that is making you nauseous. The Lord is not going to let a person in this state go on like this indefinitely. Something has to be done, and it has to be done now. But we need to know if we are there. What are the signs that we are either there or are in danger of getting there?
One of the first steps down this path is to get what one writer has called gospel amnesia. It is forgetting the gospel. It is doing what the apostle Peter described in his second letter when he wrote, “But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins” (2 Pet. 1:9). Now maybe you haven’t forgotten the details of the gospel. Maybe you can recite the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as good as any. But you can still forget the gospel in the sense that you no longer feel a need for the gospel like you once did. The conviction that you once had of your need of God’s grace is diminished. The weight of the glory of God has faded in your heart and mind. Eternal things just don’t have the reality and relevance to you that they once had. The person and work of Jesus are just theological details rather than the lifeline of your soul.
This is where the Laodiceans were at. They didn’t see their need of the gospel; they didn’t see their need of Christ. They had need of nothing. And Christ was outside looking in.
And what that leads to is a diminished sense of God’s love. You can’t separate the gospel of God from the love of God, for God’s love is most clearly revealed in the cross of Christ and the redemption he accomplished there. Again, a person may extol the virtues of God’s love in such a lukewarm state. But it is either just an intellectual thing or it is misunderstood as a convenient excuse to ignore their sin. But a person who truly understands the love of God for them will be changed by it. Such a knowledge of God’s love is inconsistent with lukewarmness. How can the two coexist? When the apostle prays that the believers might “be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge,” he understand that the outcome is “that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19). That is about as far from a lukewarm state as you can get. People who are gripped by the love of God are not lukewarm; they are filled with all God’s fulness. Such people are rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:8).
As a result, the love of other things enter in (cf. Mk. 4:19). You love what you value. But when you become self-sufficient and self-righteous you are going to stop valuing God’s gospel and God’s Son and God’s love. However, that doesn’t mean you stop loving – your heart cannot endure a vacuum. You will love something, and if it is not Christ it will be the world.
I want you to notice this very tragic thing. They Laodiceans were not enjoying God. They were not enjoying fellowship with Jesus Christ, clearly! He was on the outside, knocking for admittance! They were spiritually poor and blind and naked. And yet they thought they were just fine. How can that happen? Well, it’s because they were filling their hearts up on the world. They were being satisfied, but not with God. And that is a tragedy, when we glut ourselves at the banquet of the world so that we become desensitized to hungering and thirsting for righteousness and no longer see our need for the bread of life.
What they are to do about it (prescription)
What then should they do? What should we do when we find ourselves in this kind of condition? Well, we should listen to the Lord: “I counsel thee…” (18). How do you hear the counsel of the Lord? You hear it in his word, the Scriptures. Here he has spoken. Here he counsels us. He is speaking to us right now in these words. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (22). Will we listen? Do we have ears to hear, or will the word be to us like the seed sown on the wayside that was picked up by the birds and left no enduring effect?
What is his counsel? It is given in verse 18: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.” What is striking about this is that it tells us that the church in Laodicea had taken on the attributes of the society in which it lived. Laodicea was famously wealthy, and the church thought it too was rich. The city was known for the garments made there from the black wool produced by the local sheep, and the church considered itself well arrayed. The city was known for its medical school and ointments, especially the eye salve produced there. The church thought it had spiritual sight and light. But our Lord’s rebuke and his counsel show that they are not what they think they are. They think they are rich, but they are poor. They think they are well-clothed, but they are naked. They think they can see, but they are blind (17).
I think this is especially relevant for the church today, for we too inhabit a very wealthy society, a society that considers itself with all its wealth and technology to be self-sufficient. Modern men and women don’t think they need God. They don’t need religion. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we are immune to the secular mindset. And even though we may not live in the Middle Ages, the fact of the matter is that self-righteousness abounds, even in the most secular parts of our society – just consider the whole cancel culture as a case in point. So we need to examine ourselves. Have we too imbibed this Laodicean spirit?
And so our Lord counsels them and us to come to him for what is missing. Are you poor? Then “buy of me gold tried in the fire.” Are you naked? Then “be clothed” by Christ so “that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear.” Are you blind? Then “anoint thine eyes” with the “eyesalve” of Christ, “that thou mayest see.”
You see, their problem (and ours) was that they stopped seeing their need for Christ. And so the solution is to come back to Christ and to treasure him and value him above everything else. We need to be men and women who really believe what the apostle Paul said of himself: “what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:7-11). In other words, the gospel is not something you believe and then move on from there: we are to live with a gospel mindset day in and day out.
Why they were to do it (hope)
Then there is the motivation. Our Lord doesn’t just tell us what to do; he gives us motivation to obey by faith in the promises of Scripture. He give us hope. And what we will see is that the primary motivation here is fellowship with Christ. You see, our Lord will not have fellowship with gospel deniers. He will not bless us when we live as though we can make it on our own. And so when we get into this mindset of prideful self-sufficiency and self-righteousness we will inevitably lose the fellowship we once had with the Lord. This is what had happened to the Laodiceans.
Has it happened to you? Then listen to the words of the Lord: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:19-20). Can you hear this rebuke as a rebuke of love? That is the first question. If you are in a place where you really don’t want to hear anyone rebuke you or to point out things that are wrong in your life and way of living, then that is a bad thing because that kind of attitude insulates you from any kind of meaningful and necessary change. We need to be willing to be rebuked. We need to be willing to be open to being challenged in our thinking and living. At the same time, we should gladly receive rebuke from the Lord because he gives us hope even as he chastises us.
The source of our hope is of course Christ himself: his faithfulness, his love, his victory.
Hope in the faithfulness of Christ
All along the Laodiceans were to remember the one who was speaking to them. These are not the words of John; they are the words of Christ, who comes to them as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God” (14). “Amen” is the Hebrew word which is an affirmation about the truth of something. In the gospels, when our Lord said, “Verily, verily,” or “truly, truly,” he was literally saying, “Amen, amen.” To say that Christ is “the Amen” is another way of telling us that he is the one who fulfills God’s promises to us, as the apostle Paul said: “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Cor. 1:20). This is filled out by the expression “the faithful and true witness.” Jesus always tells the truth to us. He always keeps his promises.
And that is significant because it tells us that he will always tell us the truth about ourselves. He will never lie about our condition. His word is true, we need to believe it, even when it is painful to do so. But is also means that he not only tells the truth about us; he also tells the truth about himself- that is, he keeps his promises and his commitments to us. He will never go back on his word. If he tells us that he loves us, that is true. If he tells us that we need to repent, that is true. If he promises to have fellowship with us, we can bank of it; that too is true.
There is one more thing that is significant here. In Isa. 65:16, God is called twice, “the God of truth.” In Hebrew, this is literally “God the Amen.” Hence, when Jesus addresses himself to the church of Laodicea as “the Amen,” this is not only a pointer to his faithfulness but also to his deity, and to the fact that he fully shares the nature of God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God.
And as such, he is “the beginning of the creation of God,” not in the silly sense of being the first created thing. The word here translated “beginning” means “ruler.” He is the one through whom the Father has created all things, and as such he stand preeminent over all creation. The fact that Colossae was so close to Laodicea and the fact that apparently letters from the apostle Paul had been shared by both churches (cf. Col. 4:16), indicates that they would have heard this language before, in Paul’s letter to Colossae: “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (Col. 1:15-19).
Hope in the love of Christ.
It is the love of Christ that chastens us. He does not rebuke us because he hates us; to fail to rebuke us, to leave us in our lukewarmness, that would be hate. Christ chastens those he loves. Which means that if we truly take heed to his warning, it will be for our good. Sin, remember, is deceitful. As one Puritan put it, Satan presents the bait and hides the hook. But not so the Lord. He takes away the bait and exposes the hook. This is for our good; it comes from the love of our Lord.
The counsel is simple: “Be zealous, therefore, and repent.” To be zealous means that we are through the Holy Spirit seeking to recover our zeal and passion and love for the Lord. We no longer love the world in the place of Christ. We are seeking the kingdom of God first. He is our priority, not the world and its values and its trifles. If you think you can’t do that, the reality is that you can, if you are a Christian. It doesn’t matter how far you have fallen; you can recover from the deadness and the coldness and the distance you have put between yourself and the Lord. For if you walk in the light, as he is in the light, God will have fellowship with you and the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse you from every sin (1 Jn. 1:7).
And then we are to repent. This is a radical break with sin. You cannot walk away from fellowship with Christ and away from the love of Christ without loving something else. And whatever you have put in the place of Christ is an idol and therefore sinful. You need to repent of that. You are to turn away from it completely. Is it the love of the praise of man? Is it the love of the comforts of this world? Is it the love of forbidden pleasures? Is it the love of money and wealth and prestige and status? Then repent! Turn from these trinkets and baubles and turn to Christ.
What happens when we repent? What happens when we hear the voice of Christ, when we hear his knock at the door of our hearts? This is truly amazing – remember, this is spoken to people that our Lord describes as making him nauseous! Here is the promise: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (20). In other words, we are promised fellowship and communion with the living Lord, with our Savior and King. It is what Paul prays for the Ephesians, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith,” that he would make his home in our hearts. My friend, there is no earthly honor, no worldly pleasure that can even come close to the peace and glory of knowing the Lord.
Hope in the victory of Christ
“To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Rev. 3:21). To overcome is to overcome all the things that prevent us from living faithfully and obediently in faith. To overcome is to not apostatize. It is to continue to the end, to endure, to persevere in the faith.
It is also to overcome as Christ overcame – “even as I also overcame.” Christ did not overcome on beds of ease. He did not overcome through worldly victory and conquest. He did not overcome by taking an earthly crown but by submitting to an excruciating cross. He overcame through defeat, through death! (We will see this illustrated again and again in the book of Revelation.). In the same way, Christ bids us come and die so that we too may overcome. Your dying to your earthly hopes and dreams is sometimes necessary to being a Christian. Will you do it? Is Christ worth it to you? Some of us may need to rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Have you come to him for loaves of bread, or have you come to him who is the bread of life?
But he does not just ask us to give. We gain infinitely more in Christ than we could ever give up. We give for a little time that we may inherit far greater riches forever. The gain promised here (remember who says this – the Amen!) is to sit with Christ in his throne, to share in his glorious kingdom reign. There is nothing like that. You can have this world’s temporary pleasures and power and peace; give me a place in his kingdom. Even the most menial place in the kingdom of God would be a place of privilege, but what our Lord promises here is truly amazing, to share with him in his glorious rule.
What do you need this morning? I can tell you what every person in the room, and indeed, what every person out of this room needs – we need Christ. We need the riches and the clothing and the medicine that he provides. We obtain them from him, but not by money or price, but simply by receiving them freely by trusting in him as our Lord and Savior. Oh, may we heed the word of God through the prophet: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isa. 55:1-3).
Let the one who has ears to hear, let him hear!