Sermon: Laodicea (Part 2) – Lukewarm Revelation 3:14-22

Old Testament Reading: 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels. My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the Lord; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord. Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit, but Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One” (Hosea 11, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Revelation 3:14-22

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.’ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’” (Revelation 3:14–22, ESV).


It seems to me that the letter to Laodicea is strategically placed in the position of letter seven of seven. In previous sermons I’ve tried to describe the literary structure of the seven letters and how the structure impacts our interpretation of the overall message communicated in chapters two and three of the book of Revelation. I will not rehash all of that here, lest I frustrate you with the redundancy. But I do wish to make a few general observations about the letter to Laodicea and why the position of seven of seven matters before dealing with the details of the text.

Notice that Laodicea is in the worst shape of all the churches. Nothing good is said about her. She is only rebuked. Notice that Christ threatens to be done with her as a church in the most graphic way. If the church would not repent Christ would spit, or vomit, her out of his mouth!

Remember that Ephesus – the first church mentioned in chapter two – was also threatened with loosing their status as a church of Christ. Christ threatened to remove their lampstand if they would not repent. But remember that something positive was actually said about them! To Ephesus Christ said,

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:2–3, ESV).

Ephesus was commended for being strong in this regard. Their problem was that they had stopped loving one another. And this problem was all pervasive. By that I mean that everyone in the congregation (or at least the vast majority) were guilty in this regard. In other words, no remnant remained in Ephesus. This is why they were on the verge of having their “lampstand” removed. And notice that the same can said of Laodicea – no remnant remained! Churches three through five – Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis – were all rebuked, but they were not on the verge, as Ephesus and Laodicea were, for a remnant remained in them. This is how they were rebuked:  “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam…” (Revelation 2:14, ESV), or “But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden” (Revelation 2:24, ESV). Clearly, churches three through five had problems, but those problems were isolated to some within the church. Their problems were not all pervasive.

Laodicea was in double trouble, then. One, nothing good was said about her – she had no commendable quality (this was worse than the situation in Ephesus). And two, there was no remnant. The problem was all pervasive. The sin had effected (or rather, infected) all of the members in such a way that the church was left utterly impotent. The church in Laodicea had lost her churchy-ness. Can you picture it?

It is no accident that the letter to Laodicea comes last. True, there may be a geographical reason for it – the letters might be listed in the order that a messenger would travel – but there is clearly a literary reason for it. When you are reading a document or listening to a message, what parts do you tend to remember the most? Usually it is the the things said at first, but especially last, that are remembered the most. This is why you, when you are in an argument, want to get the last word!

The letter to Laodicea serves as a kind of concussion to this whole section of the book of Revelation. The effect is that reader, or listener, is sent off into the rest of the book with a sober and somber disposition. We are sent off in our study of the rest of Revelation with this taste in our mouths. Fresh on our mind is the pitiful state of the church in Laodicea. In other words, the public rebuke leveled against Laodicea was not only for them, but also for us, along with all who have ever read this marvelous book. Christ made an example of the Laodiceans. He rebuked them, not privately – not in a letter written only to them – but in a public letter – one that would be circulated to all of the seven churches and preserved for all, even for us. Why? So to that we might fear with a godly kind of fear the thought of becoming what they had become. Public rebuke has that effect, doesn’t it? It has an effect, not only upon the one being rebuked, but upon all who hear. The witnesses are compelled to say, “may it never be said of us!” and “but by the grace of God go I”. This is the effect that the letter should have upon us. It should cause us to tremble at the thought of going the way of the Laodiceans.

I believe the positioning of the letter is significant, but I would also argue that the language and imagery used in this letter is most memorable. This is impossible to prove, I know. I’ll admit that this is a subjective opinion. But I think you might agree that some of most memorable, and, therefore, famous portions of the seven letters are found in the letter to Laodicea. They are famously rebuked for being lukewarm. Christ famously threatened to spit, or vomit, them out of his mouth. The irony is also thick and memorable. The Laodiceans thought of themselves as rich, prosperous, and in need of nothing, but Christ, ironically, had a completely different opinion of them. In Christ’s eyes they were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Christ invited the Laodiceans to come and do business with him. He said, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Revelation 3:18, ESV). And then there is a that most famous (and often misused and misapplied) statement where Christ says to the church, “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” (Revelation 3:20, ESV). Perhaps it is just me, but I find the letter to Laodicea to be most memorable.

The point I am making is that I think all of this is intentional. Laodicea, in my opinion, is set forth as the prototypical “church in really bad shape”. The reason they are addressed last is so that we might be left to tremble at the thought of going in the way of the Laodiceans.

So what was their problem? That is the question. What was so bad about the church in Laodicea?

Christ rebuked the Laodiceans because they were lukewarm: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15–16, ESV)”.

There is something that you should know about the city of Laodicea before we try to answer the question, what did Christ mean when he called the church in that city, lukewarm?

Laodicea was a prosperous city. You know the saying in real estate that it’s all about “location, location, location.” So it is with trade. Laodocea was situated in a location that made her prosperous in trade. The city was also a center for banking as well as medicine. Really, Laodicea had a lot going for it. But the city was lacking in regard to one vital resource – water. Think of the irony! The city was rich in so many ways, but lacked that which is absolutely vital to life! Water had to be piped into the city from hot springs six miles to the south. The citizens complained that the water was tepid and milky – distastefully lukewarm.  The water was actually known to cause nausea. All of this should be compared to the situation in the nearby cities of Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis had hot springs in the city. They were used medicinally and also for bathing. Colossae had access to water that was cold and pure. Those cities enjoyed water that, in one way or another, gave life and brought refreshment to the people. But Laodocea’s water was lukewarm by the time it reached city. The hot water from the hot springs had lost it’s heat, and the cold water carried from the cold springs in the mountains was no longer cold by the time that it reached Laodocea. The water that was at one time extreme – that is either hot or cold – had acclimated to the temperature of the air by the time the Laodiceans took it to their mouths. It was most distasteful and unappealing. I’m sure that the citizens knew what it was like to take a drink of that Laodicean water only to spit it out in disgust.

With that as the background it is not hard to understand what Christ meant when he said to the Laodiceans, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Christ used this common experience familiar to all of the citizens of Laodicea to illustrate something about the churches spiritual state.

Notice a couple of things about Christ’s words:

One, Christ’s desire was that the church in Laodicea be either hot or cold. I’ve found that readers often assume that to be hot is good and to be cold is bad. They assume that to be “hot” means that we are “on fire for Jesus”, “passionate for him”, or something like that. And to be “cold” means that we are “spiritually dead”. But that interpretation does not fit with the text, does it? For Christ says, “Would [I wish] that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.“ In this metaphor either hot or cold would be good. Christ’s desire was that one or the other would be true of his people. The problem was that they were neither.

Two, notice that Christ does not rebuke them because they lack passion. This is not primarily about emotion. This would also be a typical, but incorrect, interpretation. The thought is that hot is good and cold is bad, and that these two descriptors describe the level of our passion or zeal. To be hot is to feel passion for Jesus. To be cold is to lack passion. Again, this does not fit with the text, for Christ says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot.” This was about the works of the Christians, not their emotional state. In other words, it was about the churches way of life – that was what Christ was concerned with.

I really wish that we would stop measuring our spiritual health – our spiritual maturity – by the question, am I experiencing intense emotion or passion for God and for Christ. By no means am I denying the importance of emotion in the Christian life. I’m simply saying that it is a poor gauge for measuring spiritual maturity or heath. A mature Christian is one who trusts God and obeys him in this world. A mature Christian is one who knows the truth of God’s word and lives according to it. A mature Christians is one who walks by faith and in wisdom. I promise you, I’ve met Christians who, although very “passionate”, are really immature and foolish in their way of life.

Emotion is not unimportant, friends. It is right that you feel love for God. It is right that you feel gratitude. It is right that you feel joy and peace. Emotions are a wonderful thing, and we should never suppress them or disregard their significance. How could you not feel emotion when considering the glory of God and all that he done for us in and through Christ Jesus? But we must allow emotions to take their proper place. Emotions follow where obedience leads. They arise when knowledge grows. Godly emotions accompany a godly way of life. You know this to be true in your human relationships. If you are mean to your spouse – if you speak harshly to him and neglect him – do not be surprised when the feelings of fondness disappear from your heart and his. But if you love him and are kind to him – if you love him with your words and actions – do not be surprised when the feelings of fondness grow.

I emphasize these things only because Christianity in America today tends get it really wrong when it comes to emotion. Passion for Jesus is made to be the goal. Emotion becomes the test of maturity. Having a “spiritual experience” has taken the place of loving God. And what did Christ say? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV). Friends, the mature Christian is one who trusts God and obeys him. The mature Christian is the one who knows God’s word and lives according to it.

This passage is often misinterpreted, the thought being that when Laodicea was called lukewarm it was due to their having lost their passion for Christ. In fact, they were called lukewarm because they had compromised in their way of life. They had lost their zeal for him. They had lost their edge. They had become just like the world around them. They were no linger Christlike. Instead, they were just like the world.

This interpretation is the one that fits perfectly with the analogy of the water, doesn’t it? The waters of Colosae were cold. They descended from mountain springs made cold by winter storms. The water was enjoyed by them before it could acclimate to the warm temperatures. It was cool and refreshing because it was different from the surrounding environment – the air was hot but the water was cold. The same was true of the hot water of Hierapolis. It bubbled up from deep within the earth where tectonic powers made it hot. And it was hot and refreshing because it was different from all that surrounded it. The hot waters of Hierapolis would have been most soothing on a cold day, and perhaps even useful medicinally. Both the hot and cold waters brought life. They were refreshing because they maintained their distinction from the surrounding environment. They had not yet acclimated to the environment into which they emerged. Not so with the waters of Laodicea. Their water was lukewarm, room temperature, tepid and murky. Their water, instead of maintaining its refreshing characteristic, had given in to the surrounding environment.

And so it is with the Christian. A church is full of life and is pleasing to Christ when she is different from the sinful world around her. Never should a Christian acclimate to the world. In the moment they acclimate – in the moment they become, neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm – they become useless and disgusting to Christ, who is Lord of the church.

You know how easy it is to acclimate. You know how easy it is grow comfortable and complacent. It is so easy for Christians to become just like the world in which they live. We live our lives in the world, and the world is fallen. The world worships the wrong things. The world loves and serves the wrong things. The world lives in disobedience to God and his word. The world is in darkness and walks according to that darkness. But the Christian is worships God alone. The Christian is to love and serve God supremely. The Christians is to know God’s word and obey it in every arena of life. We are to walk according to the light of God and his word. So we have this constant conflict, don’t we? We have these two “worlds”, these two ways, these two kingdoms – they couldn’t be more different – and the one is constantly pulling upon the other, trying to make it just as it is. Gravity functions like this. Anything that is high, gravity wants to bring low. And the earth functions like this. It possesses the power of decay. Anything that sits upon the earth that is alive and whole, the earth seeks to break down. So it is with everything in this fallen world. The sinfulness of the world is forever pulling down upon the kingdom of God and the people of God. The world’s desire is that we would conform to it. The world wants us to acclimate to it. The world would love for us to become just like them – lukewarm – indistinct in both doctrine and life.

So how do we stay hot or cold, and not grow lukewarm? Or, if we are lukewarm, how to grow hot or cold? That is this question.

As I was thinking about this question, an illustration came to mind. You know, today it is really easy for us to take things that are lukewarm and to make them either hot or cold. If we want to make something hot we put it in the stove, in the oven, or in the microwave. And if we want to make something cold we put it in the refrigerator or freezer. It is easy for us to make things that are lukewarm either hot or cold. That is because we have invented devices that are able to create an environment that will, over time, pull something that is room temperature in one of those directions – either to hot or to cold. But what must we do with those devices – the refrigerator or the stove – in order for them to work? We must plug them into power! Power has to be involved. The whole process must be empowered. Everything naturally tends to acclimate to the world around it. If that power is to be resisted or reversed power from without must be applied. Go home and unplug your refrigerator and see what happens over three days time. Or go home and unplug your stove, turn the dial to 350, put a turkey in it, and check back three hours later. You’ll be disappointed, I’m sure. You’ll find that everything is room temperature, neither hot nor cold, because there is no power. But when those devices are plugged in, not only do the they themselves become hot or cold, but they have the power to make other things hot and cold too.

So it is with us, friends. If you disconnect from the power that God has provided, do not be surprised if over time you become just like the world around you. If you neglect to maintain your spiritual life do not be surprised if you become lukewarm. And if you become just like the world around you, you can forget having an impact upon anyone else for good. Things that are hot have the potential to make other things hot. Things that are cold have the potential to make others things cold. Lukewarm things can only generate lukewarm things. And Christ takes no pleasure in that, for his people are to be either hot or cold in this world. More than that they have been called to affect others – to serve as witness to lead others to Christ.

But where is the power found for the Christian life? That is the next question. We know where the power  it is found for the refrigerator and stove, but where does the Christian go to be empowered according to the Spirit?

The answer, friends, is that the Christian is to run to the means of grace that God has provided. We are to go thoughtfully and full of faith to the word of God, to prayer, and to the Lord’s Supper. And these things are to be consumed and enjoyed, not as isolated individuals, but in the church. These are the ordinary means of grace that God has given to us. What the outlet is to the refrigerator – what the gas line is to the stove – the word of God, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper are to the Christian. These are the means of grace – the conduits of power – that God has given to his people so that they might be strengthened to live in this world as he has called them to.

However, it is very important to remember that the power does not come from these things. The power does not originate in the words of scripture, in the act of prayer, or in the elements of the Lord’s Supper itself. The power, friends, is in God himself, and in Christ. He is our life. He is the one who has made us alive, and who sustains us day by day. The outlet and the copper wires that run through the walls of your house are not the source of power, but the conduit of it. So too the word of God read and heard, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper are not the source of power, but the conduit of it. Indeed we are to read and hear the word! Indeed we are to pray! Indeed Christians are to partake of the Lord Supper! But why? Because it is in this way that we enjoy communion with the living God, who is the source of our life, both physical and spiritual.

Friends, I’m sure that you understand that these conduits of grace – the word, prayer, and the sacraments – function as a conduit of grace only when we partake of them thoughtfully and with faith. In other words, they do not convey grace or power automatically. Another way to say it is that is possible to read the word, but not read it. It is possible to hear the word, but not hear it. It is possible to pray, but not pray. And it is possible to eat the Supper, but not eat it. There is a kind of religion that is merely external. There is kind of faith that only goes through the motions. It is possible to be in the church but not be the church, it is possible to name the name of Christ, but to in the end hear him say, “depart from me, I never new you.

I’m afraid this was the situation in Laodicea. Their’s was a merely external form of religion. The had the appearance of godliness, but denied its power. They named the name of Christ, but were in fact far from him. They lacked authentic faith.

Notice that Christ was speaking, not to non-Christians, but to those who claim to be Christians when he said, “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” (Revelation 3:20, ESV). The langue here suggests that the observance of the Lord’s Supper is in mind. The image is this: the church is gathered and is observing the Supper, but where is Christ? He is out in the cold, knocking on the door requesting to come in so that he might commune with them. The people bore the name “Christian”, but there hearts were very far from Christ. Clearly the situation in this church was bleak. The church was so compromised and so worldly that Christ himself is portrayed as standing outside, asking to come in.

Notice also in chapter 3 verse 18 Christ counseled the Laodiceans  “to buy from [him] gold refined by fire, so that [they] may be rich, and white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint [their] eyes, so that [they] may see” (Revelation 3:18, ESV). In other words, you have looked to the world for satisfaction, comfort, health and security. You’ve fallen in love with the world. You’ve done business with the world. Now come and do business with me! I have what you really need, Christ says.

It is well known that the city of “Laodicea was a prosperous banking center; proud of its wealth… It was also known for its textiles (especially wool) and for its medical school and production of ear medicine and undoubtedly the highly reputed Phrygian eye salve.” Do you see what Christ does here? He capitalizes on this fact and says, you’ve been banking with the world, now come bank with me. You’ve clothed yourselves with the luxuries of this world, now come and be clothed by me. You’ve anointed your physical eyes, now come and anoint your spiritual eyes so that you might truly see.

These Christians were compromised. They had fallen in love with the world and had become just like the world. And notice this: they were completely blind to all of this. If asked to assess their health, here is what the Laodiceans would have said. We are rich, we have prospered, and we need nothing. But what did Christ think of them? “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17, ESV).

This is the terrifying thing about sin. When we are caught in sin we tend to be blind to the severity of the situation. We have a tendency to justify ourselves. We tend to rationalize our behavior. We tend to compare ourselves to others and think, I’m not as bad as him. We tend to minimize the urgency, thinking, I will change tomorrow, but not today. In short, sin not only entraps us, it also binds. Sin has away of lulling us to sleep so that it might devour.

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12–13, ESV).

What do we need, then? We need God’s word. We need to learn to reflect upon it deeply with the Spirit’s help. We need to come to worship with hearts prepared. We need to check ourselves before we partake of the Supper. When we pray we must pray humbly, asking that the Lord would be glorified in us, advance his kingdom through us, make us able and willing to keep his will, forgive all of our sins, and keep us from evil. Thoughtfulness is what is needed. We are to look to God and his word as a mirror. We are to inspect ourselves with it, asking, does my life look like the kind of life that God, in his word, has called me to live. His word is a mirror by which we can examine and assess all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

The Laodiceans were going through the motions. Their Christianity was Christ-less – the church gathered but he was standing out in the cold. Their faith was really faith-less – though they claimed to believe, it was not authentic faith. They trusted in the world, not in Christ. The loved the world, not Christ. The lived according to the world, not the words of Christ. It is no wonder Christ was disgusted with them and threatened to vomit them out of his mouth.

But here is some good news. Listen to how Christ spoke to this degenerate church. He comforted him with these words: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19, ESV).

It may be that you are feeling conviction this morning. The conviction ought to draw you to Christ, not cause you to run from him. He rebukes those he loves! I rebuke my children from time to time. And why do I do it? Because of love for them! So it is with Christ.

And do you see that an open door remains? “Be zealous and repent!”, Christ says. There is always room for repentance. It is never too late. To repent is to turn from your sin and to Christ. He is always willing to receive the one who repents and believes upon him.

And then there is this promise: “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” (Revelation 3:21, ESV).  The Laodiceans were in love with this world. The wanted to be rich in this world. They did whatever it would take to prosper in this world, even bowing the knee to false god and running with the wicked in their wickedness. Christ held before them the prospect of being prosperous in the world to come. Friends, we are to store up treasures in that world, not this one.

And then we have this familiar conclusion: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:22, ESV). My prayer for you each Lord’s Day is that you would really hear the word, and not just hear it. This is one of the reasons that the Lord’s Day should be set apart as holy. It should be a day set aside for worship and to reflect deeply upon the things of God.

May the Lord give us grace. May he refine us day by day so that we be a church that brings a smile to our Saviors face.

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