When the book of Revelation was first put together, it’s likely that a messenger would have carried the scroll that it was written on to the seven churches, starting with Ephesus. We’ve seen that the previous six churches were quite a cross-section of the state of the early Church. Ephesus: so zealous for theological purity and yet growing coldly indifferent to Jesus and to one another. Smyrna: wracked with poverty as a result of persecution and suffering, yet standing firm. Pergamum: so full of love and compassion but in danger of theological and moral compromise. Thyatira: a growing church, but overly tolerant of false teaching. Sardis: known throughout the world for life and love, but in reality spiritual decay was rampant. And Philadelphia: so small, so seemingly insignificant, yet so diligent and patient in the face of a hostile world. The messenger might have thought he’d seen it all – until arriving at Laodicea. Laodicea was in a completely different category to the previous churches. All of the others had some form of commendation. To the Laodicean church, there is no commendation. What Jesus says in effect is this: “Dear Laodicean Church: you make me sick.”
What we’re going to read tonight is perhaps amongst the saddest of all of Jesus’ words in the whole of Scripture. It’s a letter which, perhaps the greatest Christian teacher and leader of the 20th Century, John Stott, once said is the most important for contemporary hearing. So with that in mind, let’s dig into these words.
As normal, Jesus starts his letter by describing himself – the description comes in verse 14. Here Jesus describes himself as ‘the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation’. In describing himself as the Amen, Jesus takes a title given in Isaiah 65:16 used of God Almighty and uses it of himself. Jesus is speaking as God. And in particular, he is speaking as ‘the Amen’ or ‘the absolute truth’. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the truth.” Jesus is underlining the fact that what he’s about to say really is how things are, regardless of how themselves and others might perceive them. He’s saying: “You might have some views on what you’re life – I’m going to tell you the absolute truth, how things really are.”
And this is important because, clearly, the church has one view of themselves and of reality and Jesus has another. And Jesus discerns two things – firstly, a nauseating lukewarmness (described in verses 15-16); and secondly, a proud form of self-sufficiency (described in verse 17). We’ll tackle each of these symptoms in turn.
Firstly, the nauseating lukewarmness of the Laodicean church. Let’s re-read verses 15-16: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’
What is the problem of the Laodicean church? They are lukewarm. There’s some discussion about exactly what this lukewarmness is, but a helpful glance at verse 19 shows that this is the correction Jesus gives for their lukewarmness. He exhorts them to be earnest – or, better, ‘zealous’ – and to repent. And so that shows that the lukewarmness that Jesus has is mind is that the Laodicean church are not zealous and not particularly repentant. In other words, they are apathetic and indifferent about being Christians. They are just not very bothered about belonging to Jesus.
One of the key things that strikes me as I read the New Testament is the emotional intensity of so many of the Bible writers, which I often think sadly stands against much of contemporary British Christianity. Sometimes I think that in guarding against emotionalism – that form of spirituality which relies on emotional manipulation – we’re scared to show any emotion at all. Yet a quick look at church history shows that many Christian writers cannot comprehend a form of authentic Christianity in which the affections and emotions are not moved. Throughout his writings, Paul says that the default position of the Christian heart should be set to ‘joy’: a disposition that is deeper than the emotions, given that it is built on truth, but which must regularly touch the emotions. And Christian writers down the ages from the puritan Jonathan Edwards to the contemporary writer and speaker John Piper make the same point. The great Welsh preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones put it like this:
‘Can a man look into hell without emotion? Can a man listen to the thunderings of the Law and feel nothing? Or conversely, can a man really contemplate the love of God in Christ Jesus and feel no emotion? The whole position is utterly ridiculous. I fear that many people today in their reaction against excesses and emotionalism put themselves into a position in which, in the end, they are virtually denying the Truth. The gospel of Jesus Christ takes up the whole man, and if what purports to be the gospel does not do so it is not the gospel. The gospel is meant to do that, and it does that.’
Amen, amen and amen! There is no way that a person can truly be seized by the gospel and remain unmoved in spirit. I’m not saying that everyone has to jump up and down and wave their arms about – we’re all wired differently. But think about that thing which makes you most passionate – in the football stadium, listening to an incredible piece of music, looking at a sunset. If the intensity of emotion you express there is not regularly expressed toward the gospel, then beware. You may have become lukewarm.
And so here is the first diagnosis by Christ, the absolute truth, the Amen: he looks at the indifference of the Laodicean church: perhaps not very bothered about the fate of the lost, not moved by the sheer grace and love shown at the cross, never feeling safe in the eternal security of Christ’s sacrifice. And the fact they are so indifferent shows how far away from their hearts the gospel message has drifted.
Some of you will know that local topography makes this picture even more graphic. Laodicea lay six miles south of Hierapolis and eleven miles west of Colossae. Laodicea itself lacked a natural water supply and was dependent on water from Hierapolis. Hierapolis contained a hot spring of mineral water, famous for its medicinal use. People would come from far and wide to bathe in the waters – apparently, Cleopatra came all of the way from Egypt to bathe there.
Now to this day you can visit ancient Hierapolis, and if you go there you’ll see something that today is called ‘Pamukkale’ (pictured above). Pamukkale is an incredible snow-like deposit of calcium bicarbonate on the natural landscape, deposited by the mineral-rich spring water as it flows down the valley south from Hierapolis. A few miles later, it reaches Laodicea, neither hot nor cold and not drinkable, so putrefied the water has become. The water starts hot in Hierapolis, yet as it cascades down the valley all of the goodness of the water is taken away over time by the environment through which it flows. The water was just like the church in Laodicea, which had presumably once been hot - but which had lost its white-hot fervour for the gospel, distracted by other things, now without eternal focus and left putrefied and lukewarm.
And Jesus’ response is that he is about to spit them out of his mouth – literally, he is about to vomit the Laodicean church, so unpalatable and disgusting have they become. Using hyperbolic language, Jesus saying that he’d rather that they weren’t even claiming to be Christians, so discrediting are they on authentic hot, joyful Christianity.
The second symptom is that the Laodicean church are proud and self-sufficient. Let’s re-read verse 17: ‘You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’
What is the source of the Laodicean’s lukewarmness? Well, this verse shows that it is probably the fruit of a proud and self-sufficient attitude. The church boasts that it is healthy and prosperous – perhaps, at a first glance, it was. But look carefully at verse 17: what are the Laodiceans saying? “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” Not only did the church boast in their supposed spiritual well-being – but they boasted that they had acquired this wealth by their own effort. As so often happens, in the Laodicean church spiritual complacency is accompanied by pride.
You see, when I slip into thinking that it’s at least partly through my actions that I’m made acceptable to God, I’m going to have the tendency to fall into spiritual complacency and pride. I’m going to get complacent, because to think that I can make myself right before God, I’ve got to airbrush out vast swathes of the Bible that speak about God’s sheer holiness and my sheer depravity. I’m going to get proud when I compare myself to others that I consider worse than me, because it’s been through my own good morality that I think I’ve made myself right with God. And this will show itself in my life in lukewarmness: I’m not going to get very bothered about Jesus’ death on the cross, because deep down I think I’m a pretty good person that God should be happy to welcome into heaven. I’m not going to be very bothered about living a sacrificial Christian life because I’m not particularly astounded by God’s love for me – I just think I’m getting what I deserve from him. When I lose focus on God’s grace – the blazing and holy God reaching out to me in my sin and helplessness and taking my sin and punishment upon himself so that I can live with him forever – when I lose focus on the depth of God’s grace, I’m going to become lukewarm. As John Piper puts it, “The essence of lukewarmness is the statement, ‘I don’t really need anything.’”
In all of the recent political controversy about the 42-day detention, I’ve got to say that I’ve been pretty lukewarm about it all. Not because I’m unconcerned about civil liberties – intellectually speaking, I’m convinced that there are certain civil liberties that all people deserve as those living in this country. But it just doesn’t seem very real to me. I don’t know any terrorists and the law doesn’t seem like it will affect me. But just imagine that – somehow – the use of this law is to hold evangelical Christians in police custody for 42 days. In fact, they start holding Christians from down the road in Preston. All of sudden, I’m not able to stay lukewarm about this law, because it affects me.
Similarly, while we’re merely intellectually convinced of the need for the cross but not daily experiencing the implications that flow from it, we’ll end up lukewarm. Yet Jesus says that Christians should have such a deep understanding of our wretchedness and pity and poverty and blindness and nakedness, and the fact that we bring nothing, and feel so amazed by the depth of love and grace shown to us by the God who gives generously that there is no way that we can be lukewarm. In fact, in this context, to be lukewarm shows that we’re functionally denying the truth of the gospel in our lives. And that is something that makes Jesus want to vomit. If you wanted to shock a lukewarm Christian, you could hardly think of a more horrible image: Jesus Christ putting the cup to his lips in the hope of tasting a pleasing drink, then spitting it out on the ground.
Well – it’s perhaps amazing at all that Jesus still wants to speak to these Christians who have shunned him and walked all over his sacrifice – yet, it is testimony to the God of grace that the letter continues. In verses 18-20, Jesus speaks of the response that the Laodicean church should make.
Jesus starts by saying that they should receive from him those things that only can give them. The Laodiceans think that they are healthy and wealthy, yet Jesus has reminded them of their own poverty: before the blazing light of God’s holiness, lost in sin and facing an eternity of judgement. And now, Jesus likens himself to a merchant who visits the city to sell his wares and competes with other salesmen. “I advise you,” he says, “to trade with me. Only I can give you what you need.”
So he says, "Buy from me gold refined in the fire!" But how do you buy gold when you are broke? Jesus knows we're broke. He just said so in verse 17. And not just broke, but blind – it’s not even as if we can work. And not just blind, but shamefully naked – we can't even leave the house. So how do you buy gold and garments and salve when you are poor and blind and naked? The question posed by the image is this: how do you get the wealth of Christ’s death and resurrection, the power to be clothed with obedience, and the wisdom to see things like God does – how do you get these things you so desperately need for the eternal life you were created for with God when your house is empty, you have nothing to offer, and you are too frightened and ashamed to venture out?
Jesus gives the answer in verse 20: here’s the surprise: you don't go out; you invite Jesus in. You don't work for it – you can’t work for it; you receive from the one who comes to your door; from the only one who can give you what you require. "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." This verse is often applied to non-Christians, but that is not its purpose here. Remember, this verse is addressed to lukewarm Christians who have slipped into functionally thinking that they have need of nothing more of Jesus; to churchgoers and CU members who do not enjoy the riches of Christ or the clothes of Christ or the medicine of Christ because they keep the door shut to the inner room of their lives; to those who as Piper puts it, those for whom “all the dealings they have with Christ are businesslike lukewarm dealings with a salesman on the porch.”
And to these, Jesus says open your eyes. Recognise your own wretchedness, pity, poverty, blindness and nakedness – recognise how helpless you are: like a poor and blind beggar with no clothing in desperate need for material for existence but with no chance of leaving the house. That is what you are like before God. You have nothing, you can offer nothing except your sin and the judgement that you rightly face. But then Jesus says: “Through my death on the cross, I offer you everything – my righteousness, my sinlessness, my very position before the Father – it’s all won for you through my death on the cross. I have everything you need – and I will bring it to your door.” And that’s an offer which, surely, can’t leave us feeling lukewarm.
John Stott puts it like this: “Here is welcome news for naked, blind beggars! They are poor; but Christ has gold. They are naked; but Christ has clothes. They are blind; but Christ has eyesalve. Let them no longer trust in themsleves. Let them come to Him! He can enrich their poverty, clothe their nakedness and heal their blindness. He can open their eyes to perceive a spiritual world of which they have never dreamed. He can cover their sin and shame and make them fit to partake of the inheritance of the saints in light. He can enrich them with life and life abundant.”
The point is this: Jesus did not die to save a group of people who would be lukewarm. Jesus died for an eternal and full relationship to be enjoyed forever. Jesus didn’t die to save people so that they would leave him in the porch whilst they watched television in the lounge – in fact the very prospect that people could think that leaves Jesus wanting to vomit. Jesus’ will for Christians is that we open the door to him – indeed, that we open all the doors of our lives. He wants to join you in the dining room, spread a meal out for you, and eat with you and talk with you. That, of course, is what we were created for: a relationship with Christ, the likes of which is the only thing that offers us true satisfaction. And the opposite of lukewarmness is the fervour and zeal you experience when you enjoy a candlelit dinner with Jesus Christ in the innermost room of your heart, experiencing the relationship you were created for with him as Lord and Treasure. And just like you can’t have a dry and lukewarm romantic meal with someone that you really love, so you can’t have an authentic relationship with the living saviour and fount of all life, our living Lord Jesus, when he is in his rightful place.
And so I just want you to notice the antidote to lukewarmness. Often we think it’s to somehow try and whip ourselves up into a frenzy. I remember chatting to a mate of mine a few months ago who felt lukewarm who was trying to take just this course of action – to kind of just make himself feel passionate. Jesus commands something very different to the church in Laodicea - not 'make yourself passionate', but – verse 19 – to repent. Re It is re-experiencing the gospel in repentance, putting the living God back where he deserves in our life, that makes us aware of our true position and bankrupt sinners, as in repentance we are most aware of our complete reliance on Christ for everything; for gold, for clothing, for medicine. And it's when we are most aware of our need and the way in which Christ offers us everything for eternity that we become 'hot' for the gospel. We stay hot as we repent and keep repenting, as we keep asking God to put Jesus where he belongs.
So how do you become hot? The same way that you buy gold when you’re broke. You pray in repentance to Christ, and trust the promise: "I will come in and eat with you, and you with me." The God of grace still offers a relationship with us, even when we’ve left him out in the porch, even when we’ve grown lukewarm and tired and apathetic to him.
And so our passage closes with a promise to those who overcome. Verse 21: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne." Christ overcame sin and Satan and death by never veering from the path of serving others in humility and submitted to the Father. In the end, it cost him his life, but he gained the world. And now Jesus himself writes to the Laodicean church – and speaks to Lancaster CU tonight – he writes to offer us a share in his eternal universal rule if we will overcome the menace of lukewarmness and spiritual pride and self-satisfaction. Lukewarmness is perhaps the biggest threat that some of us will face in our Christians lives – like carbon monoxide it can slowly and invisibly poisons us until all of our spiritual life has been sucked away. So how will we overcome lukewarmness? How will we keep going over the summer or as we graduate and move away from Lancaster? There is only one way to get that kind of victory; namely, by taking all the locks off the door and asking the living Christ to come in and eat with you, asking him to come into every room in the house.
I would think it very likely that there are lukewarm people here tonight. You’ve not been moved by the gospel for weeks or months. It’s all pretty boring or superficial. Well – tonight – take time, once again, to repent – and keep repenting. Keep putting Jesus back where he belongs. Rediscover what it means to have nothing yet experience everything from Christ. Ask God to restore to you the joy of your salvation. For those graduating or going home to a situation over the summer where you know there’s a danger of growing lukewarm: why not ask people to pray for you and keep you accountable to repenting and keeping Jesus as Saviour and Lord in his rightful place? Let’s pray that none of us poisoned by lukewarmess and drift away from the gospel of grace.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.