By Zach Hoag
The concept of the lukewarm Christian is drawn from Revelation 3, which gives us the last in a series of seven messages to seven influential churches in Asia Minor. Jesus, speaking through the apostle John, saved his strongest words for last: “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. 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. 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.”
Like many things that become Christian cliches, the metaphor of lukewarmness is usually taken out of context. It becomes a general warning against not having a hot enough faith, a committed enough walk with the Lord, a holy enough lifestyle, and instead being only halfheartedly devoted. Jesus hates this halfheartedness, preachers say, so you should rededicate your life to him or come to the front of the church and get delivered from whatever sin or spiritual laziness afflicts you. Jesus would rather you be cold or hot—either a licentious heathen or a totally on-fire follower. No more messing around in the middle.
(I sometimes wonder how many sincere but struggling Christians actually have chosen the cold option as a result of this browbeating.)
But the context of this warning to the church in Laodicea leads to a much different emphasis than individual commitment and spiritual holiness.
Our first clue comes in the fact that the message is addressed to a church—a body of Christians. Something was wrong collectively.
Our second clue is what Jesus quotes this group as saying: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’” The something wrong in this church was wrapped up in its economic status: it was wealthy and self-reliant.
And our third clue has to do with the metaphor itself. Why was Jesus, through John, using the metaphor of lukewarmness in the first place? As with most things in Scripture, we have to look at the historical context—the geography and background of the city. To the north of Laodicea, Hierapolis had healthy hot springs, and to the south, Colossae had cold springs that were clean and refreshing to drink from. But Laodicea had perpetual problems with its water supply, which was brought by aqueduct six miles from the south. By the time the water reached Laodicea, it had become lukewarm. It was tepid, unclean, and undrinkable, the kind of water that makes you sick, that you might spit or vomit out of your mouth, as Jesus is said to do, metaphorically speaking, with the entire Laodicean church.
Jesus’ words here, rather than a call to hot personal commitment and revival, confront a social sickness in the church that springs from embracing the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite. This sickness is especially hard to detect because the church appears to be numerically healthy and self sufficient. But with respect to the gospel and the kingdom mission, it is “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
To be spiritually healthy is to be either cold or hot. To be spiritually sick is to be lukewarm. In the words of New Testament scholar Michael Gorman, “Lukewarmness is not an ancient metaphor for indifference. The text, therefore, does not present a spectrum with two extremes—hot (for Jesus) and cold (against Jesus)—and a wishy-washy middle. Rather, it presents two antithetical points, the first of which is illustrated with two images, hot water and cold water. Both of these are pleasing and beneficial, while lukewarm water is precisely the opposite, disgusting to taste and not salutary. ‘Lukewarm’ here means so prosperous and supposedly self-sufficient (3:17) as to be completely out of fellowship with Jesus.”
The lukewarm Laodicean church was compromised by the status quo ways of the Roman Empire. They were, according to Gorman, “not only participating with the status quo when necessary as a means of survival, but fully embracing the lifestyle and values of the elite and powerful.” And in this sense, lukewarmness is a temptation that the church has always faced, right up to the present day. The living water that Jesus offers can quickly become tainted by indulging in the wealth and power of the empire.
And that’s because empire wealth and power are signs of allegiance to a kingdom other than the kingdom of God. The Laodiceans’ spiritual malady was not a lack of individual moral or spiritual commitment but the collective compromise with empire values that put them out of step with the kingdom of God.
If anyone had good reason to join the league of the “Nones,” the “Dones,” and the deconstructionists, it would be Zach Hoag. After growing up and out of the compound walls of a Texas cult, and becoming a failed church planter in one of the most post-Christian cities in America, Zach was faced with both a crisis and a choice. He loved Jesus, yet questioned: If the church is such a broken system, is it really worth belonging to anymore?
The viral upswing of the “spiritual but not religious” trend has cast religion as going rapidly out of style. Yet even in his own desert of deconstruction, Zach couldn’t shake his desire for a spiritual home. His search ultimately led him to look behind the statistics, where Zach found an astonishing undercurrent subversively at work.
The truth, as Zach discovered, is that we are in a cultural moment of apocalypse. Not an end-of-the-world apocalypse, but in the very literal sense of the word which translates simply, “a revealing.” Perhaps the downtrend of Christian faith in America is just the kind of Great Revealing we need to show us who we really are as American Christians, who Jesus really is in our midst, and how we can step into the flourishing faith he has always intended for us.
For anyone who is anxious about the future of the church and their place in it, The Light Is Winning rallies to an unexpected, unshakeable hope: Could it be that we’ve made religion out to be the culprit when in fact, religion is just what we need to revive us? Could it be that our struggle for relevance must come to a necessary end, so that we can get to the real? After all, isn’t this the essence of the story of God: death paves the way for a resurrected, deeply rooted, flourishing faith. Such faith can be yours. The Light Is Winning will show you how.
Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the US (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in Westford, Vermont where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com and follow him on Twitter @zhoag.