When I check my mailbox, I usually receive an offer for a credit card. Sometimes there’s an Amazon box or a newsletter from a ministry. There is occasionally something unique, like an invitation to a friend’s wedding or a Christmas card. Never, however, have I received a letter from Jesus Christ. Yet in Revelation 2–3, Jesus sends letters to several churches. Can you imagine you or your church receiving a letter directly from Jesus Christ?
In one sense, of course, we have letters from Jesus Christ given to us in sacred Scripture. Though Peter wrote to the “elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1), there is a very real sense in which he also wrote to those who would believe on Jesus through the Apostle Peter’s word (John 17:20). First Peter, as well as all the letters of the New Testament, are letters for the church of all ages.
We have in Revelation 2–3 unique letters composed by Christ Himself addressing specific circumstances of churches in the first century. One of these churches was the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14–22). There is an admonition given by Christ therein. He says: “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” (vv. 15–16).
God will not abide a lukewarm Christianity or a heart that is only partially His.
We, like first-century peoples, would have recognized lukewarmness as a less-than-ideal temperature. The word itself sounds negative to us. How often have you asked for lukewarm coffee? Lukewarm soup? A lukewarm shower? Not often, I hope. Lukewarmness is associated with negativity. It doesn’t taste or feel good.
Yet here is where this verse is often misunderstood. Jesus, in His letter, goes on to say that He wishes that the church at Laodicea was either cold or hot instead of being lukewarm (v. 15). Many have interpreted this verse to mean that Christ would like His followers to either (1) become “hot,” that is, more fervent in spirit, zealously serving God’s kingdom with their whole hearts; or (2) become “cold,” that is, abandon the faith altogether, showing themselves to be what they really are—unbelievers.
That is not, however, what this verse is insinuating. Rather, to understand this verse, we need to know more about Laodicea. Laodicea was situated some five miles south of another city, Hierapolis. Hierapolis was built on a plateau, and it had natural and medicinal hot springs. People in the ancient world, as in our day, used hot springs for bathing and healing. The hot springs came directly out of the earth and were full of minerals. On the other hand, the city Colossae, which was about ten miles east of Laodicea, had another spring. It was, however, a cold spring that was excellent for drinking. Laodicea received much of its water supply via a system of aqueducts—it didn’t have these refreshing hot and cold natural resources.
Given this context, we should understand Jesus’ words in a different way. Yes, He would like the Laodicean church to be fervent in spirit, zealously serving God’s kingdom with their whole hearts. But by suggesting they either be “hot or cold,” He is not asking them to “just get on with it”—that is, choose between obedience and disobedience. Rather, He is encouraging them to be profitable servants. He is asking them to be useful, that is, hot or cold.
If they are not hot or cold, of course, He says that He will spit them out of His mouth (v. 16). This is a warning. God will not abide a lukewarm Christianity or a heart that is only partially His. No, God demands our whole lives. Why shouldn’t He? He is the God of the universe, the very Creator of our hearts. But more than that, He gave us His whole life in Jesus Christ. So, yes, lukewarmness is bad, and Christ wants us to be wholeheartedly dedicated to Him and His kingdom.
What a sweet thought it is to remember that our Savior did not pour Himself out for us in a lukewarm fashion. He didn’t condescend to us in a hesitant manner. He didn’t begrudge His association with His disciples. Rather, He became their Chief Shepherd, and the Chief Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. Christ was both hot and cold—useful to His Father in teaching and leading His disciples when He needed to and laying down His life when it was His time. We should likewise be useful for the kingdom of God. Robert Robertson puts it well:
Oh to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be. . . . Here’s my heart Lord, take and seal it Seal it for Thy courts above.
Thomas Brewer is managing editor of Tabletalk magazine and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.