Lukewarm? Feed the Fire! – Revelation 3:14-22 (Laodicea)


In this season of Easter we have been reflecting on how the light of Easter shines in our lives.  What does it mean for us to follow the resurrected living Christ?  On Easter we asked, “So What?  What Does it Mean that He’s Alive?”  Then we walked with Christ and the people on the way to Emmaus reflecting on their words: “We had hoped, but we have not seen him.”  Last Sunday we heard Jesus ask Peter and us, “Do You Love Me?”

My plan was to begin a series in June on the letters to the 7 churches from the first part of Revelations.  However, the Gem’s theme today is taken from the last of those letters, so we will begin today and start at the end.  It all begins in Revelation 1 where the Apostle John saw a vision of the resurrected, ascended Christ walking among the golden lamp stands that represented the 7 churches in Asia Minor.  More accurately they are cities or areas with many groups that together made up the church in that area.

What strikes us first is that in John’s vision there is no doubt that this is the  glorified Christ speaking.  He is the Lord addressing his churches.  John sees him (vs. 13)

“dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  His head and air were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.  His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.  His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

In the pictorial power of apocalyptic literature John and his Lord want to get our undivided attention.  The words that come out of his mouth powerfully reinforce the picture and call us to our knees in worship: “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One: I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!  I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  Living with the resurrected Christ brings us to awe in worship.

The City

Jesus is identified to Laodicea with some interesting names.  He is the Amen.  Christ is the AMEN – (we say the word to mean, “so be it” or “it is true for us”) it is a Hebrew word that means foundation or the faithful one or the trustworthy one.  He is therefore the faithful and true witness – the revelation of God.  He is the very WORD OF GOD.  He is the ruler or foundation or first one at the creation of God.  This takes us back to John’s gospel: all things were made through him.  The images would have reminded the church at Laodicea of Paul’s words in Colossians about the eternal Christ, the 2nd Person of the Trinity – which would have come to them given their location.

Of all the churches addressed in this first vision of Revelation, Laodicea was the richest, the most successful.  The city was a commercial center, noted for its black wool and carpets.  It also had a medical school, and it was well known for the eye salve called Phrygian ointment.  The Roman historian Tacitus writes that Laodicea was so rich that after an earthquake there they turned down aide from Rome.

An interesting thing about this city was that they had no local water supply. They had developed a stone aqueduct system to bring water from the hot springs of Hieropolis about six miles away (note map).  By the time the water reached the city is was tepid and had a bad taste.  As we look at the realities of the city and the detail in the letters it becomes very clear that though apocalyptic in style, these letter were written to specific churches and real people.

The Judgment of Christ

This is the last letter in the series of 7, and it is the most devastating statement of all the letters.  It seems that Laodicea is a church so self-satisfied that it is totally blind to its true condition.  It is so far from what it should be that Jesus stands outside, knocking for admittance to the lives of individuals who call themselves Christian.  Notice again, Jesus is outside.  That pictures should always challenge us.  We need him in here, inside.

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”  The image of lukewarmness is so powerful and contemporary, because they knew from experience the reputation they had for nauseating water.  It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for a Christian Church than to hear the risen Christ say, “You make me sick You are just like your water.”  It is clear that as they were, they were unacceptable to God.  Jesus goes on to explain the reasons for their lukewarmness.

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”  Financiers, physicians specialized in eye ailments, clothing manufacturers are among the most notable citizens of Laodicea; but poor, blind, and naked is the verdict on them and their church.  These were Christians who were so self-confident, so self-righteous, so impressed with themselves that they didn’t even see the deterioration in their spiritual life to the place where they were lukewarm, hollow shells doing church stuff without humility, without passion, without joy, without compassion, without Christ.

Standing outside the church Christ calls to them:  don’t you understand the true source of your riches, your clothing, and your sight?  “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”  (Notice all are images from the city and their prideful attitudes) They thought they were going to get security from their wealth.  They thought they are going to get beauty, importance, acceptance and grace from their black clothing.  They thought they are going to be healed by their physicians, but they remained insecure, broken, and spiritually blind while they told themselves they were wonderful.  One gets the impression here that what angered Christ was not so much their condition but that they were so satisfied with themselves.  It was their apathy.  Christian apathy disgusts Christ!

I am reminded of something I have struggled with and see almost every day in others.  Some of us are driven in our work or driven to be successful or driven to be the best at something so we get acknowledgement and attention from others so that we will feel worthwhile and valuable.   We end up feeling depressed and lonely because our work cannot give enough value to make us happy and content.  There is not enough popularity, not enough power, not enough success, not enough attention or love or pity, not enough narcissistic manipulation – not enough stuff external to us to give us a sense of value, contentment, happiness and joy.  It all falls short because the only real source for human value is the God who made us in his image and the Savior who redeemed us back to that image.  Here our spiritual life and physical life and emotional life all come together as one.  Once we claim that, accept it in faith, know it in Christ, then other gifts from him in our lives reinforce and strengthen us so that we are free – free to give, free to love, free to hold life loosely, free to feel compassion, free to be the ambassadors of Christ in other people’s lives.  Christ calls to us: Come, get from me the real gold that makes you truly rich, that buys clothing that surrounds you in love and acceptance, and salve that makes you see reality clearly.

And sometimes we just settle for what we get from the externals, just get really lukewarm about life, just self-satisfied in our lies to ourselves, self-centered and apathetic in our religion, and Jesus stands outside and calls and knocks and threatens to spit us out.  The only good thing that the church in Laodicea had going was their opinion about themselves, and that was false.

Jesus judged this church more harshly than all the others, but he doesn’t turn away, even though he expressed his disgust.  Affirming his love and call to them he said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”  Sometimes when we struggle – especially with our feelings and relationships and discontent and fears – we would do well to remind ourselves of this statement.  “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent.  Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.”

The focus of the Gems study this year has been about how do we see lukewarmness? and what do we do about it?  One of the statements in their material says this: “Countering spiritual apathy, rejecting casual Christianity is desperately needed.  We live in a culture that has created its own version of faith – a faith that focuses not on God and what He wants, but on the individual – on me and my comfort and my wants.  It is imperative that we wake-up and pay attention to how our culture is influencing us.  We need to replace this lackluster faith with a vibrant passion and love for serving Christ.”  We need, according to the Gems theme, to feed the fire.

They studied symptoms of lukewarmness and spiritual disciplines to counter it.  The goal was to get the girls to sense Christ standing at the door of their hearts and calling to a deeper spiritual life, a more passionate love.  We hear Jesus telling us this morning to be aware of his love for us, to be earnest and repent – to evaluate our lives, our attitudes, our faith, and seeing if our self-confidence is really just apathy.  I think every one of us sense there are times in our lives when we need to earnestly review where we are at, and then repent by inviting him back in.  I would challenge you as I challenge myself today to overcome any resistance, denial or apathy and examine ourselves to see if Jesus is standing outside looking in and calling us.

As obviously frustrated as Jesus was with Laodicea and is with us sometimes, he calls to us with love and promises: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”  Eating together, just like for us at an intimate dinner party – it is enjoying each other, it is sharing, it is communion with Christ, it is seeing him in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, it is intimate joy with our God.   And the promises keep coming.  “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  Here is the wonderful picture of victory.  We will be with him.  We have a seat reserved at the divine banquet and a seat reserved on the divine throne.

This letter from the risen Christ through John to the church at Laodicea ends with a formula statement.  You will hear it often in these passages: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  It means, pay attention!  This is important!

What do we do with all of this today?  We celebrate with the Gems, grateful for them and for their growth and study.  And their study challenges us to earnestly evaluate ourselves and repent of any lukewarmness we find in us and feed the fire.  In the promise to do that we bask in the love of Christ who calls us to dine with him and spend eternity with him.  We are challenged again with the reality of living with the resurrected Christ in this season of Easter.