Pastor John, what does it mean to be spiritually lukewarm?
If somebody asked me that, the first thing I would say is, Do you mean you want me to say what your pastor meant last Sunday, or what the Bible means? And I don’t know what their pastor said last Sunday, so all I have got to go on here is the Bible. And the Bible only uses this word — I mean the whole Bible: Septuagint, Hebrew Old Testament, Greek New Testament — one time. And so I know what they are talking about. They are talking about Revelation 3:15–16. So here is what it says. Jesus says to the Laodicean church, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” And that is about as scary as it gets, right? For if a Christian says, “I am lukewarm,” that means Jesus is spitting him out of his mouth. That means rejection. So I can see why the question comes up.
Boiling in Spirit
Now I will give my take on this. Some people take cold and hot to both refer to good things. Cold is good because iced tea is great, and hot is good because hot coffee is good. So, “I would that you were cold or hot” means, “I would that you were serviceable for refreshment as cold, or I would that you were warming as hot.” I doubt, frankly, that is what it means. I mean, there wouldn’t be any theological error in that, I don’t think, but I am inclined to think that when he says cold, he doesn’t mean something positive, but rather he means utter indifference to the gospel and to Christ outside the church — a person who is blatantly rejecting Christ and unbelieving. And hot are those who are utterly devoted to Christ like Paul said in Romans 12:11 — “boil.” He said, “Be fervent in spirit.” The word is literally “boil in spirit.” So Paul and Jesus want us to be red hot for God.
But, of course, the person who has that other interpretation would ask me, Well, why in the world would Jesus say, “I would that you were cold”? I mean, why would he say that if you think cold is unbelieving? And my answer is, It is Jesus’s way of saying that it is better to be totally outside the church and clearly, blatantly, unhypocritically unbelieving than to be a compromised believer who puts on all the pretenses of church membership and religiosity, but inside there is no true commitment to Christ and no sense of need for Jesus at all.
You know, I had in my mind 2 Peter 2:20–22 where it says that there are people who have escaped from the defilements of the world though the knowledge of the Lord. Then they become entangled in them again and their last state is worse for them than the first. So that is what I think Jesus has in mind. Better to be a person who has never tasted the powers of the kingdom than taste them and then play the game of churchiness and have no true zeal for Jesus, because the last state of that person is going to be worse than the first — better not to have known.
Pitiable, Poor, Blind, and Naked
So if you ask me, “Well, then, what is lukewarm?” Jesus, I think, points in the next verse to what it means. It says, “You [lukewarm people] say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). The picture of the lukewarm person is a person in church who is self-satisfied: I am rich. I have prospered. I need nothing. I have arrived. And they are not desperate. They are not desperate. They don’t have a true view of themselves.
“The picture of the lukewarm person is a person in church who is self-satisfied: ‘I am rich. I have arrived.’ And they are not desperate.”
What are they missing? They are missing the last part of that verse — “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” So this is a group of people whose spiritual condition is in terrible shape, and they don’t know it. They think they are just fine. And that is what will be spit out of Jesus’s mouth. They are hypocrites. They are not true Christians. And what they need to do, according to the next verse, is “buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich and white garments so that you may clothe yourself . . . and salve to anoint your eyes, so you may see” (Revelation 3:18).
Buy Free Gold
And here is the paradox: He just told them that they are poor. They can’t buy anything. I remember preaching a sermon on this years and years ago. I think I entitled it, “How to Buy Gold When You Are Broke”. And the answer is faith. This is a picture of a wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked person waking up and saying, “God, I am naked. I don’t know anything. I don’t have anything. I am utterly wretched.” Then they fly to Jesus who has free gold and free garments and free salve for their eyes, and he will give it all to them. And they are going to wake up, and the effect is that it produces warmth toward Jesus. It produces the boiling in our spirit of gratitude and trust. So that is my take on what it means to be lukewarm.
Lukewarm does not mean true Christians don’t have seasons of languishing. It doesn’t mean that. It means true saints don’t settle in with mediocrity and say, “I am rich. I am prospered. I need nothing. I will just do this religious thing, and I will be just fine.” No, no, no. A true Christian has an ongoing sense that, in himself, he is wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore, he is ever turning to Jesus for gold and for clothing and for salve for his eyes.