Churches face the danger of disgusting the Lord

Located forty-five miles southeast of Philadelphia was a city named Laodicea. Situated in the fertile Lycus Valley of what was at one time southern Phrygia, Laodicea is thought to have been established by the Seleucid king Antiochus II (261–246 BC) and named after his wife, Laodice. The city was near the confluence of the Meander and Lycus Rivers and was located on an important trade route. It was a city noted for its carpets and cloths woven of rich, glossy black wool. In addition, it was noted for its medical school with its powders and eye salve. Finally, it was noted for its wealth. After an earthquake in AD 60 nearly destroyed the city, the inhabitants told those willing to help rebuild, “We have need of nothing.” Their response was rather pompous.

All of these traits could be characteristic of other cities, but what made Laodicea particularly unique was its water. Located six miles south of Hierapolis with its hot springs and eleven miles north of Colosse with its cold springs, Laodicea had the distinction of being “Lukewarm Laodicea.” While many people visited Hierapolis for its healing hot springs, and those living in Colosse were thankful for their cold refreshing water, the citizens of Laodicea could only tolerate their lukewarm water until an aqueduct was built to bring in cold water. In this city of lukewarm water was a church. Perhaps established by Ephaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12, 13), the church was the one with which Paul asked the Colossians to share the letter he wrote to them.

The realization of lukewarmness (Revelation 3:14, 15)

As with the church at Sardis, Christ had no positive comment for the church at Laodicea, yet He did not rebuke it for immorality, idolatry, or doctrinal error.

Is your church free from immorality, idolatry, and doctrinal error? Does that mean Christ is pleased?

Not far from the center of the state of Wyoming is the city of Thermopolis. It attracts a host of visitors purely because it is a city (polis) with a hot spring (thermo). You can easily imagine the joy of a waterslide fed by a hot spring. Not many miles away on the road toward the Tetons is a cold spring. Many stop to drink its refreshing waters. Now, imagine if you combined the hot waters of Thermopolis with the cold waters of a mountain spring. Would you want to drink that water? Would you want to swim in it?

Christ found fault with the Laodiceans’ lukewarmness. The believers were neither hot nor cold, but were insipid like the waters of their own city. They lived daily with the realization of the disadvantage of being lukewarm, so Christ’s words must have struck a resounding chord.

We often get bogged down wondering what Christ meant by the words “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm.” Do they have to do with who is saved? For example, does “hot” refer to true believers, “cold” refer to clear unbelievers, and “lukewarm” refer to those who profess yet do not possess Christ? Perhaps these terms have to do with the intensity of love for Christ in the believer. For example, the hot have a zeal for Christ; the cold are saved yet have lost all care for Christ; and the lukewarm are mediocre Christians. Or perhaps these terms fail to distinguish a person’s salvation or sanctification but simply address his or her spiritual attractiveness. For example, are the terms “hot” and “cold” used positively for desirable Christians—for opposite but equally valid reasons—while “lukewarm” describes disgusting saints? Whatever the meaning, the significance to Christ is that He disapproves of the lukewarm.

Do you believe Christ would rate you as hot, cold, or lukewarm?

The reaction to lukewarmness (Revelation 3:16)

The natural reaction to disgusting water is to spit it out. I can relate well to this natural revulsion. In 1981 I spent a year in Africa. One task was to siphon kerosene from a fifty-five gallon barrel to a smaller tank. Often in the process of sucking kerosene into the hose, I would not get the hose out of my mouth quickly enough, and some kerosene would enter my mouth. Spontaneously, I spit it out. It was repulsive.

While it is startling to realize that lukewarmness catches the Savior’s attention, it is even more startling to realize His intense reaction to it: He wants to spit out lukewarm Christians. Like their own insipid waters, the lukewarm Laodiceans were disgusting—not to the unsaved or even to the saved, but to the “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God,” Who could not tolerate them (v. 14).

Why would Christ always be disgusted with lukewarmness?

To unsaved people, lukewarm Christians are not disgusting, because having a little of the world in their lives makes these Christians more acceptable. To the saved, lukewarm saints are often tolerated since they often attend church, do some of the activities Christians do, and don’t really bother anyone. It is Christ Who is so appalled by their lukewarmness. As He clearly noted, those who want to be His followers must be willing to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24, 25). We are shocked at the reaction of Christ and challenged to again ask, Am I lukewarm and therefore disgusting to Christ?

The resource for lukewarmness (Revelation 3:20–22)

I visited a man suffering the effects of illegal drug use. As he lay in the hospital, he had come to realize the depth of his problem and pain. The issue was no longer whether he realized he had a problem or whether he wanted to overcome his problem, but how to gain the victory. To his credit, he realized he could not do it on his own, but sought help from those qualified to help.

It may seem that a lukewarm church could easily repent and become zealous; however, Christ’s last words to the Laodiceans were to show them that they could never become zealous on their own and that Christ would not make them zealous without their invitation. Standing at the door, He knocked and sought admission. This image has been called the saddest picture ever painted. It is an image of Christ’s love for the lukewarm—His availability at the door, His initiative to get their attention, and His desire for fellowship, yet He is averse to enter until they open the door.

Read Revelation 3:20. Imagine you were part of the Laodicean church. What emotions and thoughts would this verse cause within you?

The Laodiceans were to grasp the reality that they needed Christ in an intimate relationship found only as they would respond and open to Him. In a city whose lukewarm water was repulsive to the citizens was a church whose lukewarm character was repulsive to Christ. You can believe you are rich and appreciated by Christ yet be lukewarm and distasteful to Him.

How’s your temperature?

Take some time to examine your life. How intimate are you with God? Are you cold, hot, or lukewarm?

Review the lessons in this Bible-study guide. In what ways did God knock and call to you in these lessons—ways that you still need to answer?

Don’t let His voice grow dim and His knocking become drowned out by the noise of life. Answer His call today!

About the Author

Dr. Richard Van Heukelum had preached many times on the Seven Churches of Revelation, but his real inspiration for the book Priority Mail! came from a sabbatical trip in 2005 to Greece and Turkey, where he and his wife visited many of the sites mentioned in the recent Bible study from Regular Baptist Press.

“Suddenly it was very personal and very real. I can tell you about the Grand Canyon, but when you visit it in person you begin to understand it better,” said Van Heukelum. “I think the thing that really struck me was that each city historically had some connection to what was happening in the church. Once you understood the place, it became a living illustration of what was going on in their church and what was reported in Revelation.”

Van Heukelum graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in civil engineering. After building bridges for five years, he obtained his Masters of Divinity from Grace Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Ministry from Baptist Bible Seminary. Van Heukelum became senior pastor of Walnut Ridge Baptist Church in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1999. He previously pastored in New York for 16 years.