What is a “lukewarm Christian”?

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January 22, 2015 by allistairg

In Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-16, Jesus described the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’. What does this actually mean? Does the text give us any indication as to how to interpret this saying accurately?

The passage is as follows:

3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things said the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
3:16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

3:17 Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
3:18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
3:22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches.

It appears (from numerous sermons, articles and videos) that the most popular and prevalent interpretation of the highlighted verses goes as follows:

An unbeliever is ‘cold’.

A fervent, zealous and utterly committed radical Christian believer is ‘hot’.

An undisciplined, half-hearted, worldly, lazy, cowardly, non-committal professing Christian is ‘lukewarm’.

Jesus has told us that He would prefer a Christian to be an out-and-out unbeliever than to be a half-hearted believer. Thus ‘cold’ is preferable to ‘lukewarm’.

The text in Revelation therefore presents us with a spiritual thermometer, in which the mercury rises as spiritual commitment increases, and yet our Lord hates the middle temperature more than the lower one.

A legalistic measuring stick
This interpretation thus provides the ammunition for certain church leaders to castigate their flock with accusations of “not doing enough for Jesus, not giving enough time or money; not evangelising enough and so on”. Those who wish to crush and control Christian believers with guilt and fear naturally champion such a reading of this text. Interestingly there are many images on the internet under the phrase “lukewarm Christian” which feature a thermometer. Clearly the idea of “cold – lukewarm – hot” is promoted as a rather legalistic measuring stick to assess a Christian believer’s level of commitment.

It might come as something of a shock to such overbearing leaders that this interpretation is completely false, as the application of common sense logic will reveal. A different – and indeed far more radical – interpretation can be deduced from the text itself, and this is supported by some background information regarding geographical context.

In verse 15 of the above mentioned biblical text we read: “I would you were cold or hot”.

Jesus made clear that He wants the believers at Laodicea to be either ‘cold’ or ‘hot’. Does Jesus Christ want professing Christians to be unbelievers and totally alienated from God? If this is what ‘cold’ means, then that is exactly what He wants! In the context of the entire testimony of Scripture, this is clearly absurd.

Scale of preferences
Of course, some may argue that what it means is not that Jesus really wants Christians to be out-and-out unbelievers, but that He would prefer that to their being ‘lukewarm’. There is a certain feeling of plausibility to this reading, but it is not supported either by the testimony of the rest of Scripture or indeed by this passage of Revelation. The verb ‘prefer’ or an equivalent does not appear in the text.

The original Greek word for “I would” is ophelon. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 1940) explains that “Ophelon (the 2nd aorist tense of opheilō, to owe) expresses a wish, “I would that”, either impracticable, 1 Cor. 4:8, R.V. (A.V., “would to God”); or possible, 2 Cor. 11:1; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 3:15.”

Clearly the verb expresses desire, and the use of the aorist tense indicates that the action should be understood to relate only to the immediate context in which it is relevant. Concerning the use of the aorist tense, the New Testament Greek scholar J.W. Wenham in his book The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge University Press: 1965) states: “The action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any regard to its continuance or frequency.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore the use of “I would that” relates directly and immediately to a particular church, that is, the Church of Laodicea, in which all to whom our Lord was speaking were professing believers in Him. Now it clearly makes no sense for Jesus to say to such people: “I would prefer that you were unbelievers than non-committal, compromising believers”. The point is that they were already believers, at least nominally. Was it really our Lord’s desire that they should completely unlearn and ‘unknow’ what they knew about the Christian faith and remain in that state of ignorance?

This would be as absurd as saying that a mathematics teacher, who is concerned about the educational attainment of his pupils in this subject, would say to those who are lazy and fail to do their homework: “I really want you to forget all about mathematics. Reject the subject and do all you can to obliterate all you have learnt from your memory.” Of course not! A responsible teacher would say: “What I really want is for you to knuckle down, do the work and get a good grasp of the subject”.

If the “spiritual commitment thermometer” reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is correct, then the only conceivable desire Jesus could have expressed is: “I would that you were hot, and not cold or lukewarm.” Now, as mentioned, someone may counter this by bringing up the question of preference: “OK, it is true that Jesus would really want believers to be ‘hot’, but He would prefer believers to be ‘cold’ rather than lukewarm.”

As I have already stated, this view sounds superficially plausible. The only problem with it is that it contains a terrible irony.

Second preference compromise
The whole point of this interpretation of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is that it speaks against compromise. Compromise is seen as the worst of all worlds. How then can such a position be defended by imputing compromise to our Lord? If what Jesus really wants for believers is complete commitment described by the adjective ‘hot’, then why would He state a second preference, namely, ‘cold’, and settle for that as long as His people were not ‘lukewarm’? The whole point of this interpretation is that there are no second preferences! There is no tolerating a ‘Plan B’ that falls short of God’s perfect and uncompromising desire for the Church. It is “all or nothing”.

Thus the interpretation shoots itself in the foot. How can we be expected to uncompromisingly serve a compromising God? It simply does not add up.

If the interpretation is not that of a spiritual commitment thermometer, then what is the correct reading of this text?

A question of water supply
Clearly both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are equally desired by Christ. Both describe genuine spiritual commitment and fruitfulness. In the context of the original saying, it really is not hard to understand that this is the case. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ concern the temperature of something to drink, which is, quite obviously, water. In a hot climate a cold drink is refreshing. Hot water can be therapeutic.

This interpretation is supported by the geographical and historical context of the city of Laodicea.

Laodicea was located near two other cities: Hierapolis to the north-west and Colossae to the south-east.

Hierapolis (today known as Pamukkale) was a spa town, with a natural spring producing hot water. This natural benefit induced the inhabitants to worship Heracles, the god of health and hot springs. Today there are seventeen hot springs at Pamukkale whose water ranges in temperature from 35 to 100 degrees centigrade.

Colossae was situated on the Lycus river, which disappeared underground for about 900 metres just north of where the city was located. The phenomenon would have cooled the water, and hence it explains the presence of cold springs near the city. It is understood that the ceiling of this underground chasm collapsed in the earthquake of AD 60.

Unlike these two cities, Laodicea, despite being the wealthiest city of the region, had no natural source of water. Water had to be piped in from other areas via an aquaduct. When the water arrived it was usually lukewarm and contaminated with various minerals.

It is therefore easy to understand how the Laodicean Christians would have understood Jesus’ words. Their water was neither refreshingly cold nor therapeutically hot. Being lukewarm, it had an emetic quality, likely therefore to cause vomiting.

The geographical context of the Laodicean Church strongly indicates that ‘cold’ cannot possibly describe anything other than spiritual blessing. In a hot climate cold water cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘bad’.

Therefore ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ represent qualities of spiritual blessing and fruitfulness, with neither one being superior or more desirable than the other. Both are facets of Christian commitment. For this reason Jesus desires them both and they simply characterise different approaches to the work of the gospel. This is further confirmed by other biblical references to cold water, representing the work of the Holy Spirit, for example, John 4:6-15, when Jesus, being wearied from His journey, asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well and give Him a drink. Obviously this water would have been cold water, and Jesus then likens it to “the living water” that He can give and that will become in the person receiving it “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Are we seriously to believe that the drink Jesus asked for really represents “unbelief and a lack of a relationship with God”, because it was a drink of cold rather than hot water?! Clearly this is nonsense.

Set against the ‘good’ of “hot and cold” is the evil of ‘lukewarm’. The adjective ‘lukewarm’ clearly describes the kind of ministry and spiritual life, which falls short of providing the benefits that, spiritually speaking, “hot and cold water” provide. Cold water brings refreshment in a hot and arid land. Hot water has a healing property. Cold water relieves those who are burdened and exhausted, while hot water comforts and heals those who are broken by illness. By contrast lukewarm water falls short of providing both these benefits.

The message is very clear.

What a lukewarm Christian is not
The lukewarm Christian is not someone who just doesn’t measure up against a legalistic “spiritual thermometer”. It does not describe someone who isn’t giving enough in terms of time, money and commitment to the local church. But rather it is someone who manifestly fails to bring refreshment, healing and deliverance to those who are weak, burdened, ill and suffering.

Those who take it upon themselves to trouble other Christians with accusations of half-heartedness and compromise, really ought to consider whether they themselves are actually candidates for being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. Burdening other Christians with guilt and playing on their vulnerability and fear of God’s judgment is not consistent with ministering the cold water of refreshment and the hot water of healing.

Those who refuse to live in the liberating grace of God and discourage others from doing so, are the true “lukewarm Christians”. As Galatians 1:6-7 indicate, they are “preaching another gospel”: the gospel of legalism. For this reason they are the ones who, tragically, will suffer the kind of judgment described in Revelation 3:16.

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