“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 was 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? Were they spoken to born-again believers? And if so, how shall we reconcile them with so many others in the NT, affirming or clearly implying the eternal security of true believers in Christ? Is it really possible that such persons could become so backslidden—so lukewarm—that their Lord, in a dreadful moment of divine disgust, would spew them out of his mouth once and for all?
Since many sincere Christians fear this very thing, we do well to think deeply about these questions. Three closely related points may be made.
First, we cannot understand our passage unless we realize that both Christ and his apostles interacted with disciples not only on the basis of the reality of their faith, but also on the basis of their simple profession of faith.
Some biblical examples will illustrate this fundamental point.
The Lord certainly counted Judas among his disciples, seeing that over and again he instructed him and 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 he was not clean as the eleven were (John 13:10).
Again, in his Parable of the Talents the Lord speaks of three different men. He calls all three his servants, and all three call him their Master. But only the first two were true servants and therefore judged to be good servants; whereas the third was no servant at all, and was therefore judged to be evil and lazy (Matt. 7:15-19; 25:14-30). Much the same is true of the wise and foolish virgins: Both were styled as virgins, and both called the Bridegroom “Lord”. However, the Bridegroom himself only knew the wise (Matt. 25:1-13; 7:21).
Or again, the apostle Peter predicts the arrival of false teachers who will secretly introduce destructive heresies into the Church, even to the extent of denying the Master who bought them (2 Pet. 2:1). Will Christ truly have 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 (John 14:16-18). Nevertheless, they will profess that they belong to him. And Peter, in order to highlight the gravity of their apostasy, here takes them at their word, charging that they will deny the Master who (they say) bought him.
In OT times God called all the Israelites his people, for all the Israelites, by natural birth, were descendants of Abraham, the physical father of the OT family and nation of God. However, as the apostle wrote, not all who were descended from Israel were Israel, for not all who were physically descended from Jacob were circumcised in their hearts, as Jacob and other members of spiritual Israel were (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6; Phil. 3:13-14).
In NT times the situation is similar. The Lord calls all professing Christians his people, and relates to them as such, even though he knows that some of them are his people only by verbal profession, whereas others are his people by verbal profession due to spiritual possession. They are his people by spiritual rebirth into the family of God, by possessing the indwelling Spirit of God (John 2:23-25; 3:1-8; 6:60-65; 14:17; 1 Cor. 12:13).
This brings us to our second point, namely, that when the Lord addressed the church at Laodicea, he was doing this very thing. He was speaking to the church as a whole, to all who named the name of Christ. No doubt this included a few fervent born-again believers, but also many backslidden, and many more nominal: mere professors of the faith, who in time might be born again, but who in time also might be revealed as hypocrites and/or apostates. In light of this great mixture, Christ judged that the church, on the whole, was dangerously lukewarm. Therefore it stood in need not only of a sharp rebuke, but also of a fresh expression of mercy, grace, and love, plus a sincere invitation to new life in him.
How did the Laodicean church arrive at this dire condition? Let us consider a likely scenario. Early on, at the founding of the church, its members were no doubt much like the fruitful saints in 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 arrogant self-sufficiency of Laodicea have taken a spiritual toll on the church, with the result that the life and fervency of Christ have all but drained away. Again, practically speaking, this means that while a few Laodicean Christians were surely dining intimately with their Lord (v. 20; 3:4), the vast majority were either badly backslidden or mere professors. This condition both dishonored the Lord and imperiled his purposes for the city. The church therefore stood in danger of judgment, even to the removal of the lampstand of the Lord (Rev. 2:5).
What might such a judgment have have looked like: a judicial hardening of hearts, such that many who once professed the faith suddenly depart from it, or even turn against it (1 John 2:19); strong persecution, purifying the earnest saints, alarming the backslidden, and driving the nominal into hiding or apostasy; numerous Laodicean house churches folding altogether, leaving a small remnant of true believers and penitent backsliders to start the work of the Kingdom from scratch?
Whatever the Lord had in mind, we now hear him speaking both sternly and lovingly to all: to the faithful, the backslidden, and the nominal. And since most of the Christians in Laodicea fell into the latter two categories, we find him outside of the church, standing at the door, knocking, seeking entry, and warmly inviting all without exception to a fellowship meal with the High King. To the nominal he offers spiritual birth, and to the backslidden spiritual renewal: all on condition of simply turning around, opening the door, and letting him in.
This invitation, while sweet, could nevertheless result in judgment. If the nominal spurn his offer, he will indeed spew them out of his mouth, likely by a judicial hardening that severs any further connection with the life-giving ordinances of the Church, and so with the Head of the Church (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; men whose works will be burned up in the judgment, though they themselves will be saved, yet only as someone 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 comforting truth is trumpeted over and again in the NT, and is embedded in the very nature of God’s redemptive work. The saints were 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 (John 5:24; Rom. 8:28-29; Ephesians 1:3-14). Most truly does the omnipotent Redeemer of the Church say to all his elect children, “No one can snatch you out my hand” (John 10:28-29; Rom. 8:31-39).
But does this encouraging truth mean that in his exhortation to the Laodiceans the Lord had nothing to say to his fervent children; to all who, like Jacob of old, were fighting the good fight of faith, clinging to the Messenger of the LORD with purpose of heart (Gen. 32:24-32)?
Far from it! For here they learned yet again to respect and fear the soul-numbing power of affluence, pride, self-sufficiency, materialism, and spiritual laziness. Here they were reminded of the importance—indeed, the urgency—of dining daily and intimately with the High King, who promises to warm the hearts of his subjects, and to make them hot for the knowledge of God and the work of his Kingdom (v. 15; Rom. 12:11). Implicitly, they were admonished not only to teach their children the faith, but also to model it for them; to effuse upon their kids the love and warmth that comes from daily imbibing the Spirit of Christ. And explicitly, they were counseled to receive God’s true wealth from the only One who can give it. In a manner unique to the earnest disciples of Christ, they must daily buy from him gold refined in the fire, garments of white for the covering of shame, and heavenly eye-salve, so that their eyes may truly see.
Reading our text, it’s easy to see how the Lord’s words were actually directed to all professing Christians of all times. But since our own time has suddenly become so extraordinarily dark, I think it’s important also to consider the distinctly eschatological significance of his exhortation. What might Christ be saying here to the Church that will name his Name at the end of the world?
Though I do not embrace an historicist interpretation of Revelation 2-3, I nevertheless believe that the local church in Ephesus does indeed symbolize the global Church at the beginning of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, whereas the local church in Laodicea symbolizes the global institutional Church at the end of the present evil age.
This sobering thesis is confirmed by a number of other NT texts describing the spiritual condition of the Church in the last of the last days, the days just prior to the return of Christ and the Consummation.
The Lord said that as the end draws near the world will become like it was in the days of Noah (Matt. 24:36-41), and like it was in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:28-30). Therefore, in those days lawlessness will increase, so that the love of many (professing Christians) will grow cold (Matt. 24:12). Was this not state of the Laodicean church?
Again, the Lord asked his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find (strong, vibrant) faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). He certainly didn’t find it in Laodicea at the end of the first century; and from the tone of his question, it appears he will not find it in the global, institutional church at the end of the age.1
And reading Paul’s description of the last of the last days (2 Timothy 3:1-5), who can fail to see a mirror image of the world in which we now live? But, says the apostle, in those days many professing disciples will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). I think it highly likely that many of professing Christians in Laodicea were doing the same.2
Finally, we have Revelation 18, a chapter in which the Holy Spirit depicts the fallen world-system much as it does Laodicea: as an affluent, arrogant, and self-sufficient city (“Great Babylon”), altogether oblivious to its imminent doom. This is why we hear the voice of 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).
And so I ask: Will not Great Babylon at the end be much like Laodicea in the beginning? And on that assumption, will not the global, institutional church at the end be much like the Laodicean church near the beginning? If so, let every earnest Christian hear afresh the call of the Lord. Let him swiftly come out of both cities, and let him take up full residence in the one true City of God (Heb. 12:22; Rev. 21:2, 10).3
We conclude, then, that warmhearted Christians of all generations can indeed profit from the words of our text, but especially those who are destined to live and serve the Lord in the last of the last days.
But if, in reading those words, any of them should find themselves stricken with a fear of rejection, let them recall the High King’s precious promise to his own: “All that the Father gives to 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.
1. Objectively, the answer to the Lord’s question is, “Yes, he will find faith on the earth” (Matt. 24:31, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). But the “Nevertheless” in Luke 18:18 suggests that it will not be widespread. As the Spirit of God tells us in Revelation 20:7-10, in the Last Battle the enemies of the Church will come from the four corners of the earth, and will be as numerous as the sands of the sea. In that day the camp of the saints and the City of God will be a little flock. And remembering well how worldly Lot was barely saved, and also how the Laodicean church teetered on the brink of destruction, serious Christians, intent on being a part of that holy flock, will very closely follow their Shepherd, and diligently dine daily with their King.
2. There is a primary reason why any church is filled with nominal and backslidden believers: Its leaders are no longer (purely) preaching the Gospel of Christ in the Spirit of Christ, if in fact they ever did. At least in a measure, such leaders have departed from the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and have been seduced by deceiving spirits. As a result, the flock is troubled, weakened, and headed for Laodicea (John 21:15-25; 1 Tim. 4:1-16). The bottom line: Let us pray for our elders!
3. On this point I do not wish to be misunderstood. Yes, I do indeed hear the Lord calling his people out of the institutional church, but only to the extent that the institution where they worship has become Laodicean in spirit, doctrine, and practice. In our day, this is precisely what has happened to a number of the mainline denominations, for which reason they are hemorrhaging members, and rightly so. Our Lord said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” There will always be healthy churches in the earth, “instituted” by God’s call. Healthy Christians will seek them out, build them up, and joyfully abide there for the duration!