What Does it Mean to Be Lukewarm? #351
Happy Saturday, friends! We’re reading 2nd Chronicles 13 today, as well as Haggai 1, John 2 and Revelation 3. We are going to see a more radical side to Jesus today in both of our New Testament passages. In John 2, Jesus will fashion a whip out of cords and absolutely turn over business as usual in the temple of Jerusalem – ‘business’ being the main problem there – the Father’s house is NOT supposed to be a marketplace of any kind. What Jesus does here is remarkable, and somewhat dispelling of the Jesus is always soft and cozy sort of myth. Jesus is LORD, and though He is gentle and kind, He is also fiery and passionate, and He overturns tables here and apparently chases people out of the temple courts with whip. Let me say that again – Jesus, using a whip, drove everyone out of the temple courts AND their sheep and their oxen. His disciples saw this, and probably sat there stunned until they remembered Numbers 25:13, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Fascinating – Jesus was consumed by zeal, and the very opposite of lukewarm. I do recall that on episode 155, half a lifetime ago, we talked about the dangers of being lukewarm from this very passage, and we will do so today too, but this time we will examine what lukewarmness is in a slightly different way. Let’s read our Revelation 3 passage and then discuss it.
In His letter to the church at Laodicea, Jesus presses that church using just about the strongest language He could use:
15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot.16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.
As we talked about on episode 155, the word there for ‘vomit’ might have even stronger connotations than our own word for vomit – this is serious business. I want to focus us on exactly what lukewarm means here. We defined the word on #155, “the word Jesus uses here is the Greek word ‘χλιαρός chliarós, khlee-ar-os’ and it means warmish, tepid, or, as Thayer’s colorfully puts it, “the condition of a soul wretchedly fluctuating between a torpor and a fervor of love.” (torpor means to be in a stunned state, or a state of absolute lethargy/hibernation. ” One thing we didn’t discuss, however, is the reason that Jesus describes the Laodicean church as lukewarm:
17 For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.18 I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.
So – what was the deal? What triggered this rebuke from Jesus? It appears that the Laodicean church was doing pretty well enough financially, and DID NOT THINK IT NEEDED ANYTHING. Now, I don’t necessarily think this means for sure that the church had a big bank account and a lot of money, but that the MEMBERS of the church were quite wealthy – all their needs met, etc. Things were going great for them in the natural, so they apparently lacked zeal, passion and HEAT…and, because of their great wealth, and the fact that all of their material needs were met, they couldn’t see how much they truly lacked in terms of heart, passion, and the presence of the Spirit in their midst. This attitude feeling like they needed nothing, led to an incredible amount of complacency – so much so that Jesus was considering spewing them out!
Why was this lack of need and extreme self-sufficiency such a big deal to Jesus? (And make no mistake, this is a BIG deal!) Dr. Craig Keener gives us a great answer to that question:
Jesus’ words to the church in Laodicea are uncomfortable not only because of the issues they address but simply because they constitute a rebuke (3:19). In the therapeutic mode of modern Western Christianity, we do not want to hear from a God who will speak harshly to us. Many Christians feel victimized (some for good reasons) and regard as insensitive any criticism of their own or anyone else’s values. But Christ has a harsh word for many of us.
To be sure, Jesus speaks tenderly to those who have truly been broken—to the weak and marginalized, to those who have suffered (2:9–10; 3:8–10). We should not be callous in applying Jesus’ forthright rebukes to Laodicea to our brothers and sisters working through genuine pain in their lives. But Jesus’ words strike like thunder those churches that are self-satisfied and secure in their own endowments—those who like the Laodicean society and its church feel little need for help from outside themselves.
Yet even when Jesus rebukes complacent, self-satisfied Christians, we must not miss the tone of his voice. His cries of reproof flow not from irrational anger but from a broken heart: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (3:19). Then he invites us over for dinner (the current Western idiom “do lunch” may not be quite strong enough in this instance) if we will but open the door to him (3:20). God desires intimacy with us in the deepest recesses of our lives. The focus of this text is Jesus’ reproof and summons to unrepentant Christians.
The church in Laodicea reflected the values of its culture: proud, self-sufficient, not needing any outside help, including much from the Lord (3:17). They contrasted with suffering churches that recognized their own desperation for God’s intervention (cf. 2:9; 3:8). Comparing the church in North America with churches in many other parts of the world, I fear that the problems of Laodicea’s Christians are most like our own. We hear of massive suffering elsewhere and often find theological or sociological explanations for it to avoid the thought that we could experience the same hardships. Many of us are eager to export the profound learning of North American Christianity without humbly listening first to the lessons learned by other churches who have suffered far more than we have.
Prayerlessness or dry devotional times, so typical of many of our lives in the West, often stem from a lack of sense of need before God. Our material abundance can, if we are unwary, prove a source of spiritual poverty as it did for the Christians of Laodicea. Our indifference to persecution, political oppression, and other forms of suffering pervasive among our spiritual siblings in many regions likewise betrays our contentment with the world as we experience it. As in Laodicea, our prosperity may blind us. Note this comment from Richard Stearns of World Vision, former CEO of Lenox, Inc. (a manufacturer of fine china): “If the Book of Revelation were written today, and there was a letter to the church in America, I think it would decry the fact that our materialism and wealth have deafened our ears and blinded our eyes to the cause of the poor.”
Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 163–165.
Now – some of you hearing that answer might detect a little wokeness, and I would counter by saying that, #1 Dr. Keener wrote this in the 90s, and #2, though I have no desire to be ‘woke’ in a worldly sense, it is Jesus who consistently and strongly calls His people to actively help and give to the poor and marginalized, and He even says in Matthew 25:31-46 that those who take care of the poor and least of these with their lives are taking care of Jesus, and thus will enter into eternal life, and those who ignore the poor and least of these are ignoring Jesus and thus will enter into eternal separation from God.