“I know your works, that you are neither hot nor cold. If only you were hot or cold!
So then: Because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am poised to spew you out of my mouth.”
In what is surely the sternest reproof addressed to any of the seven churches in Asia, the High King of heaven directed these words to the Christians at Laodicea.
How shall we understand them? Was he speaking to born-again believers? And if so, how shall we harmonize his words with the many other NT texts affirming or clearly implying the eternal security of true believers in Jesus Christ? Is it really possible that true Christians could become so backslidden—so lukewarm—that their Lord, in a dreadful moment of divine disgust, could spew them out of his once and for all?
Since many Christians fear this very thing, we do well to think deeply about it. Three closely related points may be made.
First, we cannot understand our text unless we realize that in the NT both Christ and his apostles interact with believers, not only on the basis of the reality of their faith, but also on the basis of their profession of faith.
For example, the Lord certainly counted Judas among his disciples, for over and again he sent him out to do the work of a disciple (Matt. 10:16-23). However, Jesus knew full well that in his heart Judas was no disciple at all that he did not believe as the eleven did (John 6:66-73), and that was not clean as the eleven were (John 13:10).
Again, in his Parable of the Talents the Lord speaks of three different men. All three he calls his servants, and all three call him Master. But only the first two were true servants, and were therefore judged to be good servants; whereas the third was no servant at all, and was therefore judged to be evil and lazy (Matt. 24:14-30).
Or again, the apostle Peter predicts the coming of false teachers who will secretly introduce destructive heresies into the Church, even to the extent of denying the Master who bought them, thereby bringing swift destruction upon themselves (2 Pet. 2:1). Will Christ have truly bought these teachers? Surely not, for then they would truly belong to him, and would truly love the truth rather than embrace and promote heresy. Nevertheless, they will profess that they belong to him. And Peter, in order to highlight the gravity of their inevitable apostasy, takes them at their word, charging that they will deny the Master who (they say) bought him.
In OT times God would speak of all Israelites as his people, for all Israelits, by natural birth, were descendants of Abraham, the physical father of the OT people of God. But, as we see both in the OT and the New, they were not all Israel who were descended from Israel; not all were circumcised in heart as spiritual Israel was (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6). The situation is similar in NT times. The Lord can speak of all professing Christians as his people, and can relate to them as such, knowing all the while that some are his only by verbal profession, while others are (more) truly his by spiritual possession; by spiritual rebirth.
This brings us to our second point, that he addressed the church at Laodicea our Lord was doing this very thing. He was speaking to the church as a whole, a church that no doubt included a few earnest born-again believers, many backslidden believers, and also many nominal believers: mere professors of the faith who in time might be born again, but who also in time might be revealed as hypocrites and/or apostates. Therefore, in the aggregate—on the whole—this church had become dangerously lukewarm, and therefore stood in need, not only of the sharpest possible rebuke, but also an earnest expression of love and an urgent invitation to new life in Christ.
How did the Laodicean church arrive at this dire condition? Let us consider a likely scenario. Early on, at the founding of the church, it members were no doubt much like the saints at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7). Having just been born from above, the majority were on fire for the King and his Kingdom. Now, however, a generation or two later, the affluence, materialism, and haughty self-sufficiency of the citizens of Laodicea have taken a dreadful toll on the church, with the result that the life and fervency of Christ have ebbed away, almost to nothing. Practically speaking, this means that while a few of the Laodicean Christians were surely dining intimately with their Lord (v. 20; 3:4), the vast majority were either badly backslidden or mere professors. This situation dishonored the Lord and imperiled his purposes for the city. It was deeply displeasing to Christ, and therefor stood the existing church in danger of judgment and destruction.
What might such a judgment have have looked like? A judicial hardening of hearts, such that many who once professed the faith now suddenly leave the church or even turn against it (1 John 2:19)? Strong persecution, purifying the earnest saints, alarming the backslidden, and driving nominal believers into hiding or apostasy? Numerous Laodiecean house churches folding altogether, leaving tiny remnant of true believers and penitent back-sliders forced to start the work of the Kingdom from scratch?
Whatever the Lord had in mind, we now hear him speaking mercifully, lovingly, and urgently to all: to the faithful, the nominal, and the backslidden. And since, in Laodicea, the latter two categories predominate, we find him outside of the church, standing at the door, knocking, seeking entry, and inviting all indiscriminately to a fellowship meal with the High King of Heaven. To the nominal he offers spiritual birth, and to the backslidden he offers spiritual renewal, all on condition of honest repentance and faith.
The invitation sets up a crisis, for inevitably it will result in a judgment. If the nominal spurn his offer, he will indeed spew them out of his mouth, in the sense of finally severing their external connection with the life-giving ordinances of the Church, and so from contact with the Head of the Church as well (John 15:1-7, Col. 2:18-19). As for the backslidden, if they will not repent, he may simply take them home (1 Cor. 11:30). In that sad case, they will be numbered among those who largely built with wood, hay, and stubble; whose works will be burned up in the judgment, though they themselves will be saved, yet only one escaping through a fire (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
These observations bring us to our third and final point, namely, that in the case of the true Christians—whether faithful or backslidden—the Lord will in fact never spew them out of his mouth. This happy truth is trumpeted over and again in the NT, and is embedded in the very nature of God’s redemptive work. The saints are chosen by God before the founding of the world, redeemed and purchased by Jesus Christ, effectually called, sealed, and preserved by the Holy Spirit, forgiven and justified once and for all at the moment of faith, and—in the mind, purpose, and plan of God—already glorified (Ephesians 1:3-14; Rom. 8:28-29). Most truly did the omnipotent Redeemer of the Church say to all his elect children, “No one will snatch you out my hand” (John 10:28-29).
But does this mean in Christ’s exhortation to the Laodicean church he had nothing to say to his faithful children; to all who, like Jacob of old, were clinging to the Messenger of the LORD with purpose of heart? Far from it! For here they learn yet again to respect and fear the soul-numbing power of affluence, creature comfort, prideful self-sufficiency, materialism, and laziness. They are reminded of the importance—indeed, the urgency—of dining daily intimately with the High King, who covenants with his subjects to warm their hearts, and to make them hot for the knowledge of God and the work of his Kingdom (v. 15; Rom. 12:11). Here they are admonished not only to teach their children the faith, but also to model it to them: to effuse upon them the love and warmth that can only daily imbibing the Spirit of Christ. And here they are counseled, above all, to receive true wealth from the only One who can give it; day by day they must buy from him—in a spirit of humble dependency and faith—gold refined in the fire, garments of white for covering all shame, and heavenly eye-salve by which alone their eyes may truly see.
Living as we do in especially dark times, I think it wise to conclude by reflecting on the eschatological significance of our text.
Though I do not embrace an historicist interpretation of Revelation 2-3, I nevertheless find it impossible not to believe that the local church in Ephesus symbolizes the universal Church at the beginning of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, while the local church in Laodicea symbolizes the universal Church at the end of the age. This view comports with a number of NT texts dealing with the Consummation. The Lord said that in the end the world will become like it was in the days of Noah (Matt. 24:36-41), and as it was in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah (luke 17:28-30). Leaving the question open—but all too clearly suggesting a negative reply—he asks all his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). And who in our time, reading Paul’s description of the last of the last days in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, can fail to see a description of our world?
Finally, we should also consider Revelation 18, in which the Holy Spirit depicts the world-system (“Great Babylon”) as being drunk with wealth and oblivious to its imminent doom, for which reason we hear the High King calling to his saints, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins and receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). One cannot help but feel that in the end Great Babylon will become as Laodicea was in the beginning. And one cannot help but wonder if at the end the institutional church will become as the Laodicean church was in the beginning. If so, let every earnest Christian see to it that he comes out of both, and that he takes up full residence in the City of God (Heb. 12:22; Rev. 21:2, 10).
We find, then, that warmhearted Christians who are dining daily with the King can indeed profit from the words of our text.
But if, as they read those words, they find themselves stricken with a fear of rejection, let them swiftly remember the King’s precious promise to his own: “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37, 1 John 4:18).
Most assuredly, that includes “spew out” as well.