Lukewarm Christians with Good Intentions

I remember growing up and going to summer camp. oftentimes the speaker, wanting to bring conviction, would often quote Revelation 3:15-16.

15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

This was often combined with a statement about continual sin struggles and how we need to behave better, or we were a “lukewarm Christian”. 

What if I were to tell you that preaching and teaching this verse for the sake of convicting someone’s behavior so that they are put under shame for their continual struggle is to actually do the opposite of what you are trying to do, and you are actually creating a “lukewarm Christian”? Like many verses that are quoted in ways that are common sounds right, but when you see it in the context of Revelation 3, you can see a slightly different and more accurate message.

Revelation 3 is a portion of scripture that we call “the seven letters to the seven churches”. Jesus is speaking through the Revelation that He gave John, and John wrote to seven churches in Asia Minor. We have to first see that this is written to a church and not to an individual. When we read many portions of scripture, we have to realize that it is not written to “me” individually. It is not God’s love letter to me! It is for me to read now, but portions were written to a person or a group of people at a different time and place. When we seek to understand the Bible, we must read it as if we are trying to understand what the original author was saying and what the original readers would have understood.

Why are the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation?

Jesus is speaking to each church to highlight their good deeds, and also to call them to repentance in areas where they had failed. In those days, the Emperor would gather His dignitaries. He would turn to each one praising them for their good deeds and then would say, “I have this against you…” and call them to change their ways so that they would be in line with His desires. We see Jesus accommodating to this practice through John speaking to the Churches in this style.  

A great example is Revelation 2:2-8:

2 I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

When we get to the portion of Revelation about being Lukewarm, we see that Jesus spoke to the Church Laodicea (not an individual) in this style as well. 

Let’s look at it again:

Revelation 3

15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Why is this talk about water here? 

Looking at a simple map gives us some answers. 

It is between Hierapolis and Colossae. This is super important!

Colossae was known for its cold springs and Hierapolis was known as hot springs. There were aqueducts that would pipe the water to Laodicea, but by the time the hot or cold water made it to Laodicea, it was lukewarm. Part of what is saying is that neither is directly connected to the source.

The hot and cold water in their extremes would be used for healing in both their source towns, but by the time it made it to Laodicea they couldn’t be used for healing. It couldn’t even be pleasant to drink. When reading the letter to their church, they would have understood this. This is questioning not of the behavior of an individual, but of the identity and purpose of a church in a city.

Aqua ducts coming to Laodicea from south of town

Jesus then goes at what many believe that they have identity and purpose by (both then and even today).

Revelation 3

17 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.

You can draw out practically that it is easy to mistake success in our faith walk for the way the world sees success. This is why successful habits of successful people try to copy and paste process into the Christian life. It becomes about performance for a result, in the same way they might work hard to become rich in this life. The church in Laodicea was trying to find their identity in the wealth of the individuals of their collective community (the successful ways and measurements of the world), but they were spiritually poor or bankrupt!

This reminds me of Matthew 5:3 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

The Message says this,

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule.

What does all this mean then?

This isn’t saying that because you don’t behave better, continually struggle with sin, or don’t read your Bible or pray enough that you are “lukewarm”. This is saying that the congregation in Laodicea did not come to the reality that they can’t do better or impressive, and they are in need of the Lord. 

How many churches, Bible studies, devotionals, small groups, etc. continually preach a message of pulling up your bootstraps and performing better as a Christian, often times using self-help strategies for success (5 steps to a better…)? When we preach or teach performance by our own attempt at success, we don’t preach a message that we are spiritually poor and need Jesus. We don’t get to the gospel!

There are whole churches, church movements, and groups that are today leading people in a way that does not remind people that they can’t perform perfectly or successfully. They are not teaching a message like what Paul said in Romans 7:24-25, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” They are preaching that the key to not being “Lukewarm” is a message of behaving better and trying harder by our own ways of success. 

Let’s continue on as it is a call to the church of Laodicea to the gospel:

Revelation 3

18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

The gospel covers our shame. Preaching on successful behavioral performance brings shame. This passage is a call to invite Jesus into the Laodicean church, because they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”, but they looked successful. 

Our identity comes fully from Christ, and our purpose comes from that source. If we are not rooted in that, we are “lukewarm”, no matter what our performance and success look like! If we are preaching or teaching a message of behavior modification and performance to bring shame and conviction as if we have the power for successful performance, we are “lukewarm” and creating “lukewarm Christians”.

Continuing on:

Revelation 3

19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

I have heard this preached as a call to a personal relationship with Jesus. This is actually saying to a whole church in Laodicea, “you have kicked me out!” I am the refining fire, so you can become rich in me; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” 

If you are a pastor, teacher, writer, leader, or parent that has taught a message of performance that is void of the message that we can’t perform and need Jesus, when we interpret and apply Revelation 3, this is a call to repent and invite Jesus back as the one who did for us what we couldn’t do for our spiritually poor selves.

If you are someone who is wrestling with the messages preached in churches, maybe you were raised in the church and continually live in fear and shame that you are not performing enough and you might feel lukewarm. Come to Jesus who places no shame on you, no condemnation on you, and He wants you to cover your shame so that you can see the world in a new way, through Him and His self-sacrificial love.

This message of not needing to perform, but finding everything we need in Jesus’s performance, is both to invite those who are not convinced of Jesus, but also like Laodicea it is for those who are followers of Jesus (the church) as well. Jesus is knocking, will you let Him join, or will you continue teaching and/or living in a way that is full of shame and void of Christ?

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