Updated: Apr 30
"That guy's a lukewarm Christian."
What kind of person came to your mind when you read that?
Someone who sort of follows Jesus but not really? Someone who’s half-hearted and apathetic, who knows things about Jesus but isn't interested in him, who wears Christian logos but lives a richly self-indulgent life?
We may think of these things (and they're not wrong), but there’s more to the picture.
Jesus called the Christians at Laodicea “lukewarm”, and it meant something unique to them.
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that 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.” Revelation 3:15-16
In the traditional understanding, it seems like Jesus would prefer people to be all bad rather than a little good, as if he prefers serial killers over average do-gooders, but this isn't true.
They Had Everything But This
In keeping with this series on reading Revelation in context, let’s take off our cultural, modern glasses and put on their 1st century-Laodicean glasses to find out how they would have seen this.
Here’s a little about Laodicea:
Famous for gladiatorial games
Hosted several pagan cults
Exporters of expensive products
Had a lucrative banking center
Had their own medical center
Possessed two theatres, a stadium, a gymnasium
They were extremely wealthy. Due to their prolific exports, they were a proud and self-sufficient city. When a big earthquake devastated the area, they even turned down funds offered by the Roman emperor. That’s unheard of!
They were too rich for their own good and too self-sufficient for God’s good.
But there was one thing they didn’t have.
Their water was terribly calcified and filled with sediment, and they were far away from cold mountain water or warm spring water, so they had to build miles of pipes to other cities—this created a problem.
The nearest cities were Colossae and Hierapolis (six and ten miles away). That’s a lot of piping. By the time the water arrived at Laodicea, it was lukewarm.
Like us, people back then used warm water for bathing, hot water for medicinal reasons, and cold water for drinking.
They had little use for tepid water that was neither hot nor cold. Lukewarm water was undesirable and practically worthless. Everyone hated their water—including them.
Now, imagine how the Laodicean church felt when they heard that the risen Messiah judged them and concluded that they were like their crummy water.
Like turning on the shower expecting warm water but getting ice water, Jesus was not pleased with their community.
Imagine working all day in the heat, then reaching for a cold sports drink, only to be scalded with hot coffee. This is what Jesus thought about their service to him.
What does it mean?
Jesus gave them life, wealth, and prestige so they would use these to spread his name and kingdom by doing good to others. Instead, they used these privileges to boost themselves up with comforts and delights.
Just as they didn’t need the emperor’s help in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, so they didn’t need Jesus’ salvation (Rev. 3:17). This led to lives of indifference to Jesus’ promises, his commandments, and his commission.
This led to lifestyles of self-indulgence instead of self-sacrifice.
They claimed to be Jesus’ servants, but they only served their interests.
They claimed to be of his kingdom, but they only advanced their own.
They were useless like their water.
This is similar to our understanding of "lukewarm", but the point is a failure to live out one's function as an agent of Jesus' kingdom. It's effectual.
What do these images have in common?
A barren tree
A used menstrual cloth
A shaded lamp
They're useless—meaning that they do not serve a function.
Uselessness is the most common image for judgment in the Bible.
Here are five examples.
First, God said Israel was like a tree or vineyard planted to bear fruit for his pleasure (Isa. 5), but when they failed to do this, he threatened to cut them down. Then God sent John the Baptist to remind them that“every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down” (Matt. 3:10).
They failed to live out the purpose of their existence—the function of their lives. They proved to be useless.
Second, Psalm 1:3 describes the righteous as a fruitful tree, but pictures the wicked as “chaff that the wind drives away.” Why?
Chaff was the part of wheat they didn’t eat. It was garbage. Useless.
Third, Isaiah said "We," referring to Israel, "have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment.” (Is. 65:6).
The word here is a used menstrual cloth (same as Ezek. 36:17), which was ceremonially unclean. What good was it?
None. It was worthless.
Fourth, Jesus said a life without good works is like salt that’s not salty and “no longer good for anything” (Matt. 5:13-14). What’s he saying?
They’re not serving their purpose, which makes them effectually useless, or as Paul put it, "they became futile in their thinking" (Rom. 1:21).
Fifth, he then uses the analogy that everyone is like a lamp, and their good works are like the light from the lamp, but if they don’t shine, they’re like a lamp without light (Matt. 5:14-15). Again, useless.
This also gives some context to the image of the lake of fire in Revelation 19-20 (more on this next week).
What do you do with a barren tree, a dirty menstrual cloth, unsalty salt, a broken lamp, or foul water?
You throw them away!
Jesus’ message to the Laodiceans was a warning that:
He knew their works (Rev. 3:15)
He was displeased with their works
They were in danger if they didn't change
Revelation pictures Jesus drinking their good works like a thirsty man expecting refreshment from iced water, only to be disgusted that it’s room temperature.
He spits—rather, vomits—them out.
This is an eerily vague threat that means they would be cut off from the resources Jesus entrusted to them, up to and including their lives.
He’s disgusted by their worthless lifestyles, and if they persist, they would be disposed of like scummy water.
But he warned them because he cares about them (Rev. 3:19). He warned them with a purpose and an effect, which was to lead them into living purposeful and effectual lives.
He warned them to:
Urge them “to be zealous and repent”
Provoke them to love and good works
Church tradition shows that they heeded Jesus' sobering analogy.
What about us?
Like the Laodicean church, we can slide into self-sufficient independence from our God. Like them, this leads us to marginalize Jesus and his kingdom—sometimes even while we're busy with"Christian" activities!
Like the Laodicean church, it’s not enough to claim the name of Jesus as our master and king (see Matthew 7).
We need to live out our master’s will and serve our king’s interests.
That’s what we're called to.
Like Israel, we exist to be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:1). Jesus summarized this life of blessing as loving God and loving people (Matt. 22:38-40).
Our lives have incredible purpose.
Every day, every ability, every relationship, every dollar, every resource, every opportunity, every trial, every part of our bodies, and all our lives—it’s all entrusted to us so we’ll carry out the masterplan of our Master to love as he loves.
That's the effect we were made for. That’s why we’re alive and why we're saved. Indeed, Jesus even gave his life to redeem us from worthless lives to have lives “zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14).
But if we don’t live out this purpose, we’re as useful as a barren fruit tree. And like the barrent fruit tree or Laodicea's water, if we waste our lives we’re in danger of being wasted ourselves.
“But we’re saved by faith alone!” some might say.
True, but faith that doesn’t produce good works “is dead” (Jas. 2:17), and a dead faith is a useless faith.
“But we’re saved by grace alone, not our works!”
True, but as Paul said, “God’s grace for me is not in vain [not useless]. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it wasn’t me, but the grace of God in me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Grace works with faith to fuel our lives to burn brightly with his love.
Because of this:
It matters what we do with our lives.
It matters how we treat people.
It matters how we spend our time.
It matters what we say to others.
It matters how we use our money.
It matters that we love our enemies.
It deeply matters how we live, so live out the love of Jesus until the end.