“Lukewarm”: A Discussion

In Revelation 3:15-22, Jesus says the following to the church at Laodicea:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

On my Christian dating site recently, a few of us got into a discussion about “lukewarm Christianity.” It started when a pretty young lady asked a question:

God’s word tells us that if, as a lukewarm Christian, we come to face Him on the day of [judgment], He will spit us out, claiming He does not know us. I’ve been in several ‘arguments’ recently, with people who feel that God simply put that in the bible to frighten people, that as long as we love Him, believe what Jesus says, and treat people well, that He will not actually do that. I’m interested to see what the rest of you think about lukewarm Christianity?

The lady went on to define lukewarm Christianity as “the knowing pursuit of unGodly things, of things that are clearly against God, while supporting the claim and belief that you are saved simply because you believe.”

A gentleman then said that Jesus in Revelation 3 is saying, “Be either cold or hot, one side of the fence or the other. He wants us all to make a clear choice and then go and LIVE it!!” For him, “cold” means rejecting Jesus, whereas “hot” means accepting Jesus and living for him. “Lukewarm” is somewhere in between: believing in Jesus but not obeying his commandments. What he said reminded me of a sermon I once heard, in which the pastor was appealing to the Elijah story to rebuke people who dabbled in church without a formal commitment: “If God is God, then serve him. But if you want to serve the devil, then do it with all your might! But make up your mind rather than straddling the fence!”

Then, a young man offered what is perhaps the most common interpretation of “lukewarm”: Churches have lost people in them. Not everyone who says to Him on that day “Lord Lord”… The true Christians are the ones who will be on fire for Him. Pew warmers are the lukewarmers. They either need to get on fire for God ( get saved ) or they will be spit out when He separates the wheat from the tares. His view seems to be that the lukewarm are those who merely “go through the motions” of religion, while lacking a zeal for the worship and service of God.

I offered my customary “James Pate” swipe at evangelicalism, to which no one responded (maybe because they thought that to do so would be to answer a fool according to his folly): It depends on what “lukewarm” means. If it means not being as “enthusiastic for God” as some Christian Pharisee thinks I should be–according to his standard of enthusiasm–then, no, I don’t take that seriously one bit.

After calming down a bit, I looked again at the post that started this whole discussion. The young lady was criticizing her Christian friends for thinking that Jesus wouldn’t spew them out of his mouth if they “love Him, believe what Jesus says, and treat people well[.]” I said that I agreed with them, to which the guy who said we should be “on fire for God” replied, “If anything, that statement describes people who are not lukewarm.”

Then, out of the blue, a meek young man (the same one I mentioned in my post, Christians and the Literal Sense) presented an interpretation that I had not encountered before. He disputed the view that “cold” meant “dead to Christ,” or “rejecting Jesus,” or “just plain sinful,” since Jesus said that he’d like for the Laodiceans to be hot or cold. Would Jesus want people to be dead to him, or to reject him, or to sin with impunity? No. Actually, he’d probably prefer for people to be half-good than not good at all! But, overall, God and Jesus Christ encourage people to repent. So when Jesus told the Laodiceans that he wanted them to be “cold,” he couldn’t have had in mind what a lot of Christians think.

The young man went on to discuss water. In Colossae, there was a cold spring, which people used to quench their thirst and refresh themselves. In Hierapolis, there was a warm spring, which people used for medicinal purposes. The two springs combined at Laodicea to produce a lukewarm spring, which was useless and disgusting to the taste.

The young man said that the cold spring represents Christians who encourage and refresh others, whereas the warm spring depicts those who bring sinners to spiritual health through confrontation. Jesus would like for us to be useful either by refreshing others (“cold”) or bringing them to health (“hot”), but lukewarm Christians are those who are useless.

I responded: This is good. I always wondered why Jesus would prefer for Christians to be totally dead to him than lukewarm. That makes no sense! Your interpretation makes more sense. On a practical level, though, I have some of the same problems as I do with the commonplace interpretation, since it allows some self-righteous Christian Pharisee to say, “Well, you don’t have a bubbly personality, so obviously you’re not useful to God in refreshing others!” And, as usual for today, my comment was ignored (though some of my other comments have gotten responses today)!

When a lady posted an article that made the same argument as this meek young man, I replied: This helps too. One problem I was having was that I was wanting to define lukewarm as “indifferent to God,” since Jesus rebukes Laodicea for not knowing how blind and poor they are. Plus, even though I’m not super-Christian, at least I’m not indifferent to the things of God. But I didn’t think I could define lukewarm as indifferent, since I assumed cold was indifferent. But thanks to you and [the meek young man, I have a new way of looking at this passage. I don’t always remember what I read or hear, but I will remember this.

She then lamented that most Christians reach wrong interpretations because they don’t know history or archaeology, which I took as a slap to the face. I responded: Believe it or not, even some who know the history and archaeology use the same-old interpretation. My HarperCollins Study Bible, for example, refers to the lukewarm water that reached Laodicea, but it still says the cold ones are against Jesus, the hot ones are for him, and the lukewarm ones are indifferent. Sometimes it takes being willing to think outside-the-box, or thinking, “Wait a minute–even cold water is a good thing!”

I later cited John MacArthur’s interpretation of “lukewarm” in Revelation 3. MacArthur states in his Bible commentary: Nearby Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs, and Colosse for its cold, refreshing mountain stream. But Laodicea had dirty, tepid water that flowed for miles through an underground aqueduct. Visitors, unaccustomed to it, immediately spat it out. The church at Laodicea was neither cold, openly rejecting Christ, nor hot, filled with spiritual zeal. Instead, its members were lukewarm, hypocrites professing to know Christ, but not truly belonging to Him (cf. Matt. 7:21ff.).

I remarked, “He acknowledges that the cold water is refreshing, yet he allows himself to get sucked back into the usual interpretation: the cold people reject Christ. The usual interpretation is like a magnet, or a black hole!”

I’ve often felt put-down by evangelicals’ use of the term “lukewarm.” I thought that they were rebuking me for not having the most on-fire, enthusiastic, bubbly personality. And I assumed that Jesus sided with them, since Jesus criticized Christians who were “lukewarm.”

But I’ve concluded that being lukewarm is not the same as being imperfect, or less than enthusiastic about church or Bible reading or worship. Rather, it’s indifference to God. It’s thinking that one is perfect and does not need God’s help. That’s why Jesus tries to show the Laodiceans how blind they are: he is encouraging them to come to him for spiritual healing. And he assures them of his love.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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