Sep 092010
 

Another in my series of weekly posts for Quivering Daughters

There’s this sermon I’ve heard a few dozen times. You’ve probably heard it too. It goes like this. Some Christians are really passionate and sold out for the Lord. They do great things. They live ri­ghteously. They don’t do anything that could be considered worldly. They only listen to Christian music. They have biblical family values. They’re on fire.

And others? Well, they’re “lukewarm Christians.” Sure, they say they believe, but they’re not that committed. They show up in church to warm the pews, but they still do worldly things. You should see the way they dress and those movies and music they listen to! If only they knew all the right things to do so they could be on fire like us. Jesus says, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16). That, strong children, is why you have to be on fire for the Lord. Let us pray.

Obviously, I can’t object to an exhortation to be more committed to the Lord, and I dislike “easy-believe-ism” as much as the next disillusioned evangelical does. But if you know about Spiritual Abuse, you recognize a few other all-too-familiar themes lurking in the subtext.

There’s a strong temptation to elitism there—you want to be better than all those “lukewarm” folks, don’t you? Legalism’s waiting to pounce, too; it blends in perfectly as long as you define “On fire” as “Doing our things” and “Worldly” as “Not.” All that’s left is for us to spin “I will spit you out of my mouth” as “You might be eternally lost if you don’t do our thing” and we’re practically in cult territory.

But it’s biblical, right? It even has a Bible verse in it, and you can find dozens of people interpreting that verse in exactly that way, pretty much that same sermon, even. Tweak the applications a bit and it’s good for weeks.

Well, there’s one tiny problem: That’s not what that Bible verse means. Actually, it means pretty much the opposite.

Yes, Jesus says He doesn’t like it if you’re “lukewarm.” Yes, Jesus says “I will spit you out of my mouth,” and yes, it’s true (as you’ve probably heard) that that refers to puking. But what makes Jesus want to vomit? Is it really people who claim to follow Him and still (horrors!) watch PG-13 movies with wizards in them? Is it people who claim to follow Him but are just pew-warmers?

Or is it something different? Not just a different token “worldly” action, but a completely different way of thinking about your relationship to the Lord?

The answer, like the answers to most things, is found in context. The context here is the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, that is, the part that you don’t need an advanced degree in theology or screenwriting to interpret. John records letters from Jesus to seven churches in Asia Minor, at once pointing out their sins and shortcomings and encouraging them to stand firm in what faith they have. It’s dynamite stuff; I wish I had time to expound all of it.

The letter with the “lukewarm” verse is the seventh and last, addressed to the church in Laodicea. It begins like this:

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.

Already this is a bit confusing, given the standard interpretation. If the “hot” people are those who are “on fire” for the Lord, then the “cold” people must be… atheists? Flagrant sinners? Crooked politicians? Richard Dawkins and his merry band of infidels? Could be, but then why does Jesus say “I wish you were cold or hot” like they’re both equally good? Surely He doesn’t consider it the same to be on fire for Him and stone-cold against Him?

16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

That bit we know. Jesus doesn’t like lukewarm beverages. He spits them out. Insipidity, something that’s the same temperature as the room, doesn’t do it for Him.

That’s obviously a metaphor for something (unless you’re a hyper-literalist and think that Jesus drinks people). Yet there’s no mention of the behaviors we’re often told are “worldly.” Is Jesus speaking in riddles, or will He explain what He means? What’s the difference between “hot” and “cold”? What makes a person “lukewarm”?

The next verse tells us. Specifically. It even starts with “Because” so we won’t miss that it’s connected. Here’s why Jesus gets nauseated by “lukewarm” believers:

17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked…

Oh.

Well, that’s not what they told us it meant.

The “lukewarm” people Jesus is criticizing think they have it all together, but they don’t. They think they are rich when they are actually poor; they think they can see when they are really blind; they think they need nothing when they are living on the streets. They have the worst of both worlds—all the smugness of wealth and all the neediness of poverty. They need help, but they think they’re well off.

This makes the rest of Jesus’ metaphor perfectly clear. “Lukewarm,” obviously, means a mixture of hot and cold, producing something bland and tepid. The Laodicean church combined feelings of passion for the Lord (hot) with the condition of being apart from the Lord (cold). The result is horrible: people in spiritual need who can’t recognize it because they think they’re doing great.

“Lukewarm” means “self-righteous.”

A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who claims to follow Jesus but also does worldly things. It’s somebody who says “I don’t do worldly things, so I’m living in God’s will.”

A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who claims to follow Jesus but only shows up on Sundays. It’s somebody who says, “God must be pleased with my devoted church attendance.”

A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who doesn’t have a quiver full of children. It’s somebody who says, “I have biblical family values, so I’m more sold out to the Lord than those feminists are.”

Lukewarm Christians are satisfied in themselves. Lukewarm Christians are proud of their spiritual commitment and pleased with all that they do for the Lord. Lukewarm Christians believe that they are living the right way, with all the right values, and all the right methods, and all the right works.

Except they aren’t. The fact that lukewarmness—self-righteousness—nauseates the Lord matches what He said (terrifyingly) about people who won’t make it into heaven:

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’” (Matthew 7:22–23)

These people did great works for the Lord—even miracles—and thought well of themselves, but they missed their need for the Lord Himself. Jesus said, “Only one thing is needful,” and it isn’t to do great works for Him. Jesus wants us to trust Him, rest in Him, believe in Him, see our need for Him, get to know Him, let Him get to know us. That’s all one thing: it’s called Faith.

That may explain why Jesus says “I wish you were cold or hot.” If you’re “hot,” then of course you’re exactly where the Lord wants you to be—surrendering to the All-Consuming Fire. You’re seeing your need of Him and depending on Him to burn away your impurities and kindle your love.

If you’re “cold,” you’re apart from Him—and you feel it. Sometimes we have to hit the bottom before we learn to look up. As Martin Luther said, if you’re going to sin, you may as well sin boldly. None of this socially respectable stuff. Try it all, if that’s what it will take for you to see it doesn’t satisfy. When the Prodigal wound up in a pigsty, he realized how good his father really was. The sooner you get to the end of your rope, the sooner you’ll see your need to be rescued.

Being “cold” is just as good as being “hot,” from a salvific standpoint, because in both cases you’re seeing your need, insufficiency, and helplessness, and coming to depend on Jesus for His grace, forgiveness, and righteousness. The one fatal condition is to be needy while depending on your own righteousness. That’s disgusting. That will get you spit out of Jesus’ mouth. That’s lukewarm.

The point is not that we should be lazy, worldly, or half-hearted in our commitment to Jesus. The point is that there are much worse sins than laziness or worldliness. As C. S. Lewis said, “A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

What’s the cure for lukewarmness? Jesus (again) tells us exactly in context. Here’s the rest of His letter:

18 ‘I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21 ‘He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The answer is to look to Jesus. It’s to see your need and see that only Jesus can fill it. It’s to ask Him to give you whatever it takes to fill it, and to give up anything it takes to get it. It’s to let Jesus enrich you, cover you, heal you.

There’s hope. Jesus counts even the “lukewarm” people among “those whom I love”; otherwise He wouldn’t take the trouble to correct them. It’s never too late to repent and open the door to friendship with Christ. If you let Jesus sit down with you at your table, He’ll let you sit down with Him on His throne.

If you simply do that—if you open the door to Jesus, trust in Him, get to know Him, and let Him help you overcome your self-righteousness—then you’re not lukewarm anymore. You’re one who overcomes. You’re on fire.

Don’t let any of the lukewarm Christians tell you otherwise.

  • AnnieOakley

    Thank you! Wow! That is definitely NOT what I was taught, but that is amazing. It fits so much better with what we see of Jesus in the gospels too. very interesting!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      You’re welcome, Annie! That’s definitely the connection I was trying to make.

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  • Carolyn

    Thank you!! I have been so troubled by the mixed messages I’ve heard relating to this passage and the gospel. Your explanation however is consistent with the Jesus I know! It’s just beautiful.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      @Carolyn: You’re welcome! I’m glad I could be encouraging for you. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  • April

    I studied this exact verse recently and wrote a devotional on it–except my interpretation was that the Laodiceans had become so materialistic that they could not see their need for Jesus. Probably a valid take in itself, but I like yours much better. In any case, no one can rightfully claim that this scripture refers to Christians who don’t jump up and down enough during worship. It’s time the truth of what Jesus taught was proclaimed. No more twisted scriptures. Let’s fight the good fight for our generation!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      I think there’s something to that; certainly self-righteousness and materialism go together for many people. (For a biblical example, compare the rich young ruler.) The application comes out much the same, of course. Thanks for the comment and the encouragement!

  • Waidmann

    Eric,

    There is another intrepretation you should probably consider for the words to the church at Laodicia. Each of the messages to the seven churches (and, by the way, why “the” seven churches? We know there were at least two more that aren’t mentioned–the churches at Colosse and Hierapolis) make cultural references. The medical school is alluded to in one city, the purple linen in another, etc. Well, Laodicia is no different. Jesus may well have been referring to the geographical fact that the river that should have provided the city drinking water was lukewarm from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis that spilled into it. The river was unfit for drinking. The city actually got its drinking water via an aquaduct that ran the seven miles or so from the mountains near Colosse. It was clear, cold mountain spring water, and very good for drinking.

    The hot mineral springs at Hierapolis were world-reknown for their healing properties. The cold mountain water was great for refreshment. Both are valuable. However, when you mix them, you get lukewarm water, good only for spitting out. I verified this personally about ten years ago when I took a tour of the seven cities to whom the Book of Revelation was sent. I drank some of the lukewarm, mineral-rich water–or, rather, I tried to drink it. It was good only for vomiting it out.

    I think Jesus was saying “Be good for healing, or be good for refreshing, but don’t be rancid”.

    Waidmann

    .

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Waidmann, great application! I like the historical and cultural context. I think the text is worded to allow for either or both of these readings, though not the legalistic one of course. Thanks for your comment.

  • Debbie Wilson

    It’s what they always say, “Context is King”. Thanks for this!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      You’re very welcome, Debbie! Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/writing/the-myth-of-the-lukewarm-christian/ jon

    This didn’t help me at all because even if Lukewarm does not mean half-hearted. It is still possible to be half-hearted. which means I still fear I am half-hearted towards God. Hebrews 6:12 and James 1:8.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Jon —

      First of all, take a closer look at those verses. Neither of them has the word “half-hearted” in it. Hebrews 6:12 says “sluggish” and James 1:8 says “double-minded.” The cure for the first is diligence and the second is decisiveness in faith– that’s clear in the context of each. I don’t see any reason what I wrote above shouldn’t apply to you. (Possibly you’ve been exposed to some misguided teaching on the subject?)

      Second, if you were really half-hearted towards God, you’d be apathetic about your relationship with Him. Obviously you’re not. Otherwise you wouldn’t see half-heartedness as something to fear. Only a wholehearted person would see it that way; a half-hearted person wouldn’t notice or care about it.

      I hope that helps!

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  • passion_for_purpose

    Thank you. I was afraid of where you were going at first but this makes a lot of sense.

    Be blessed.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/ Eric

      You’re welcome! Yeah, as a writer I do tend to favor setting up a twist in my introductions.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dgevert1 Duane Gevert

    “Salvific” was an unfamiliar word that I looked it up! You should too!
    Great article!

  • Michael Martin

    Thumbs up. Good post dude.

  • James B

    This is a disgusting, false article. So the only believers who will go to hell are those who try hard to please Yeshua, out of their love for Him. Was Satan helping you write this? Workers of lawlessness (quite literally, according to 1 John, the definition of sinner, and lawlessness is breaking Torah) means those who don’t trust in their righteousness based on having said a sinner’s prayer once? Read Ezekiel 18:24-26! YHVH does not change! YHVH cannot lie! The same standard applies today! Paul said it! Yeshua said it! All prophets said it!

    Your comments about worldliness are all the more heinous when scripture directly refutes them! ‘Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”. Is Yeshua just a constant liar who changed His mind so that lukewarm Christians could sin however they like!? The thing Yeshua hates more than anything!?

    Do not be deceived! God cannot be mocked! Whatsoever a man reaps, he sows!

    You blind shepherds leading blind men into pits! It is to you Yeshua spoke! This is the Laodecean church, today!

    Yeshua wishes you were hot or cold, rather than be lukewarm, because the hot are saved, and while the cold are just as damned for their sins as the lukewarm, there’s more of a chance that someone who is cold will repent and come to knowledge of the truth! You base your whole theology and life on a few verses from Paul’s letters and one statement by Yeshua which you never understood.

    Paul rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees, because they pointed out that scripture says the seed of Jacob will inherit then promise… they were -adamently- convinced that all Jews were saved by virtue of birth alone, and so Yeshua said to them: “Do not say to yourselves, we are sons of Abraham, for I tell you that God can raise up sons for Abraham from these very stones.”. Paul explained that the -seed- of Jacob was Yeshua, not all Jewish people!

    So too, those who the Father gives to the Son are those who REPENT and live a holy life, as YHVH said unto Abraham! “You must be holy as I am holy.”. Where does it say in Scripture, anyone who prays a sinner’s prayer has been given by the Father to the Son and cannot lose his salvation? “There is -now- no condemnation for those who are in the Mashiach, Yeshua.”. You aren’t -in- Yeshua if you blatantly sin against Him with complete disregard. Am I pleasing man or God now? If what I say pleases man, then I no longer serve God!

    1 John 3:6 – “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”

    Repent to the Father in Yeshua’s name and ask Him to sell you gold tried in the fire! Tell Him you are ready to do ANYTHING He desires of you, just please don’t say to you on that day “I never knew you.”

  • travis

    Excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree the only thing I would object to is that Jesus doesn’t actually say they don’t get into heaven. that’s adding to what is not there.

  • sly

    I still think it means both are considered lukewarm (the self-righteous & the worldly). We are saved by grace, through faith, UNTO WORKS – which means once u become born again, the fruit of that is to live right (via the fruit of the spirit). So if one’s lifestyle is sin (let’s say gays or lesbians), then they’re not really born again cause sin still dominates them (meaning evil is their master). So I think it’s both, if you live worldly & you’re self-righteous – you’re considered lukewarm, and I think it means you won’t go to heaven, cause you’re not really born again.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/ Eric

      The problem I have with this, sly, is that the Scripture passage itself here simply doesn’t say anything at all about being “worldly” or having a “sinful lifestyle.” So that can’t be what “lukewarm” refers to in context.

      The Bible does say that our salvation will produce good works; Jesus also compared it to bearing fruit. An apple tree will naturally grow apples in season, but we don’t have to wait for the apples to appear to know that it’s not a lemon tree. The fruit reveals what kind of tree it is; it doesn’t determine it.

      So, while you do have a fair point about salvation affecting our lives for good, I think we should be extremely careful about using that to judge whether people are saved, especially not on the basis of outward appearances. After all, even worldly people with sinful lifestyles can receive God’s grace. As Paul said, “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

      Thanks for the comment though!

  • ckp

    While I agree with you, I have to believe based on my own studies that it does include the “half-hearted” (seems to be the word most referred to). In its original Greek, the word lukewarm translates to mean metaphorically a fluctuation between torpor and fervour. Also, why then would the writer instruct the church to “be zealous” in verse 19 if they were not already so? This passage not only instructs those who rely on themselves rather than God, but also the half-hearted”, although I prefer the term complacent.

  • Brian

    Right + Right = Right; Wrong + Wrong = Wrong however, Right + Wrong = Wrong. When associating hot and cold with right and wrong, I believe that he wanted use to avoid assimilation, meaning that if we mix right with wrong, we then have justified ourselves for creating more Wrong. Therefore it is better to be completely Right or completely Wrong than to justify a half truth which can continue to misconstrued as truth.

  • Adelia Kimsey

    I’m laughin! So good that, in all my sinful, judgementalness, He graciously reminds me over & over that I am nothing without Him! I love You Lord Jesus!!

  • Stephen Sponsler

    I was thinking you were going to write it was a myth because a lukewarm Christian doesn’t exist. One is either in Christ or not in Christ , and you will Know them by their fruits. The argument being that if one’s moral code of conduct doesn’t fit certain standards then one would assume they aren’t ‘Christian enough?”…I’m aware that is out there, but as people can be all those ‘things’ and still not be in Christ. We all grow Spiritually at different rates..many times Christ said, “IF you Loved me you would obey my teachings”…the ‘luke warms’ are those that are not following him but for a matter of convenience so they might be self righteous, or they might also be those who call it “All Grace” and see no reason to be shaped and molded into this image ;their actions speak for themselves .. chances are, these are but worldly individuals claiming to be of Christ but He knows our hearts and the inclinations of the heart, and their heart is not with them, at best they are half-assed and lazy.