Revelation 3:16 and the Concept of Being Lukewarm

If you’re familiar with popular Christianity you’ve probably heard the term “lukewarm” used once or twice. But what does the term mean and can it apply to more than bad behaviour?

Righteousness is something we all, as followers of Christ, strive for. We may live morally pure lives in order to earn God’s favour or to acquire His good graces. But in our pursuit of righteousness, I’ve seen things get a little out of hand. It can be all too easy to get angry at the world, the sin they choose to dwell in, and the vices they idolize. Evangelism can even begin to look like an act of erasing moral corruption. How we should approach the world is a question I’ve wrestled with before, but one of the most convicting examples of good evangelism comes from an unlikely place. Revelation 3:16.

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16 ESV)

Let’s take a step back for a moment. This verse has often been used as a proverbial rod, a warning to get a wandering believer back onto the straight and narrow. Scripture says you cannot serve two masters. Desiring an immoral life, whilst professing the name of Jesus, is worse than denying Christ altogether. I’m not going to dispute this idea because it is a true and Biblical principle (Matthew 7:21-23), however, is this all we can gather from our verse in Revelation? If you’re one of the people who like to beat struggling believers over the head with this verse you may want to re-evaluate what Jesus is really saying here. In order to understand the full extent of this verse, we need some cultural context.

This verse was written to the church in a city called Laodicea (“city” being a relative term for the period). Laodicea was a city that boasted a magnitude of resources and took pride in their self-sufficiency and wealth.

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing…. (Revelation 3:17 ESV)

However, the one thing Laodicea couldn’t boast of was their water supply. Laodicea was situated between two other cities: Hierapolis to the north and Colossae to the south. Hierapolis had a natural hot spring that brought forth warm water while Colossae had a natural spring that brought forth cool, refreshing water. Laodicea didn’t have their own natural spring, so they had to import water from either one of these two cities. The problem was obvious. If Laodicea brought water from Hierapolis it would cool down and become lukewarm by the time it arrived. If they brought water from Colossae the same thing would occur, it would heat up and become lukewarm. Because the water was neither cool and refreshing or warm and soothing it was useless. Water was the most important resource and Laodicea’s was utterly worthless.

Because Laodicea was familiar with their poor water supply, Jesus used this as an analogy to the church itself. The church in Laodicea was like their water; they were neither cool and refreshing or warm and soothing. They were living for themselves, satisfied to bask in their own wealth and righteousness.

With the background in mind, this verse takes on an entirely different meaning. The term “lukewarm” is not an analogy for personal sin. I do not dispute the idea that Jesus would rather you deny Him completely than live willingly in sin while simultaneously professing His name. However, associating the term “lukewarm” to this does not give us the full and proper picture. Jesus spat the Laodicean church out, not because of personal sin, but because they were useless as a church. They were not loving the world as they should be. They were not being a church that reached out to the lost and needy with a compassionate hand. They wanted to live for themselves in isolation. It almost sounds like the church today, doesn’t it?

I’ve seen the church at large slowly turn from a hospital for the lost and broken into a safe place for Christians alone to dwell. They feared that they would become corrupt if the world were to enter the church, not realizing that that was precisely what the church was for: to bring the lost into the light. Notice Jesus’ choice of words for His rebuke,

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poorblind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17 ESV)

To Jesus, the church who basked in their wealth and righteousness was wretched and blind, poor and naked. He thought they were deserving of the lowest form of pity!

The question for us today is: how are we treating the world? Are we angry and repulsed at them because of the sin they live in? Do we believe we should pull them up and force them to change their ways? Is that being like refreshing cool water or soothing warm water to them? Are we showing them the love of Christ and welcoming them into the church or are we looking down on them with contempt? Is it better that the world would live morally perfect lives without Christ, or that they know Christ and become righteous through Him? Let’s learn from the Laodicean church and not repeat the mistakes they made.