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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

What Does it Mean to Be a Lukewarm Church?

by Adriel Sanchez posted September 19, 2022

Among the idioms familiar in Christianese is the phrase, “They’re on fire for the Lord.” In High School, an on-fire Christian was someone totally committed to following Jesus. There was a youth conference back in those days called Acquire the Fire, and its goal was to ignite young believers through exuberant worship and motivational messages. I remember leaving enflamed a time or two—the only trouble was that the fire never seemed to last. A few weeks after the spiritual high, feelings would already begin to wane. Fortunately, you could always acquire the fire during next year’s conference—at least until the whole operation dissolved in 2015.

When Jesus spoke to the church in Laodicea, he accused them of being lukewarm. Perhaps it’s our Christianese that has added to the confusion concerning what exactly he meant. I always read the text as Jesus coming to the believers in Laodicea and saying, “You’re not on fire for me anymore!” You know, their devotional life was inconsistent and their worship lacked vigor. This tepid spirituality was offensive to Jesus, so he was going to spit them out. In this schema, being hot (on fire) for Jesus is good, lukewarm is bad, and cold is real bad.

But a closer reading of the text doesn’t allow for this kind of interpretation. Would that you were either cold or hot!” Jesus said (Rev. 3:15b). A chilled believer is just as pleasing to Jesus as a scorching saint. The problem is lukewarmness.

Lukewarm: Worthless and Inhospitable

Many recent commentators have appealed to a historical problem to illuminate this text: the Laodicean water supply. Situated just north of Laodicea were the hot springs of Hierapolis. Apparently, that area is still known for its thermal springs believed to have healing properties. Southeast of Laodicea you had the cold waters of Colossae which flowed down from Mt. Cadmus, perfect for a refreshing drink. But by the time the hot Hierapolian and the cold Colossian waters reached Laodicea, they had lost their coveted temperatures. The salt was flavorless, if you will. The waters were unable to heal or refresh.

Here, to be lukewarm is to be worthless. Perhaps the Laodiceans had so compromised their faith by capitulating to the surrounding paganism that their witness had become ineffective. While the historical background lends itself to this understanding (and there’s internal evidence the Laodiceans were indeed getting cozy with the pagan culture) there’s another interpretation that I think warrants our attention: to be lukewarm is to be inhospitable to Jesus.

In the ancient world, hospitality was a big deal. The way you treated your guest could bring you great honor or shame. In the foreground of the passage is the picture of table fellowship with Jesus: “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” (Rev. 3:20).

Strange that Jesus is on the doorstep of this church, isn’t it? We expect him around the table, but something is awry. The Laodicean church was inhospitable to the church’s head. Instead of cold water on a hot day, they offered him lukewarm pride. And God resists the proud by spitting them out. Note verse 17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” This isn’t a waned devotional life, it’s arrogant self-sufficiency that manifests itself in total spiritual blindness. The Laodiceans had started to think they simply didn’t need Jesus.

“Come, buy, and eat!”

Have you ever had a salesperson show up to your door and knock, and you pretended like you weren’t home? Sometimes we don’t answer the door because we have no interest in what’s for sale. Christ has something to sell us, but if we don’t think we need it, we’ll happily carry on around our Christless table. “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” (Rev. 3:18). No doubt Jesus’s rebuke of the Laodiceans is a strong one, but it’s issued in fatherly love (Rev. 3:19). The imagery of knocking at the door is probably taken from Song of Songs 5:2, where the lover is seeking intimacy with his beloved. Christ comes to this arrogant church as a concerned father and a jealous husband. He invites the lukewarm to buy what they need from him.

How do you buy gold, white garments, and eye salve from Jesus? You can’t—at least not with cash or credit. The language here reminds us of 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.” What we desperately need, Jesus freely gives.

The book of Revelation ends with an invitation, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17b). The Laodiceans had lukewarm waters because Jesus wasn’t at the table. He brings—and is himself—the main course of the feast, providing the ice-cold waters of salvation. Churches that proudly rely on their own wealth or wisdom may find that like the Laodiceans, they’re eating alone. To them, Jesus comes knocking.

Photo of Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program, a live, daily call-in talk show where he answers listeners' questions about the Bible and the Christian faith. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their five children.

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