Jeremy Sarber


The lukewarm church

I preached the following sermon at Grace Point Church on Sunday, September 5, 2021.

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:14-22)

Blessing or curse?

Before we look at our text this morning, I’d like to pose a few questions intended to challenge our thinking as 21st-century American Christians.

Here are the questions, and they all go hand in hand.

Is it a blessing or a curse to be rich—that is, to have material, financial prosperity? Is it a blessing or a curse to have a large wardrobe with lots of nice clothing? Is it a blessing or a curse to have access to the greatest healthcare and medical advancements the world has ever known?

If you’re anything like me, your gut response is to call these things blessings. If you’re anything like me, you thank God daily for providing not only what you need, but also so much more. We typically think of the United States as supremely blessed. We often say, This is the greatest nation on earth,” and as Christians, we know whom to praise for that. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (Jas 1:17).

Then again, the Bible gives us reason to pause and consider the matter a bit deeper. Doesn’t it? For example, Jesus said:

How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:24, 25)

I’ll ask you again. Is it a blessing or a curse to be wealthy?

I can imagine someone saying, Well, I’m not sure the question is entirely relevant because I’m not rich.” Fair enough, but allow me to challenge you again.

If we compare our net worths or our annual incomes to the most wealthy in America—say, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos—then no, we’re not rich. I’m not anyhow. But maybe we need to think differently about wealth. What if we stop comparing ourselves to other people living in this country today? What if we stop thinking about net worth and annual incomes? Instead, what if we think about wealth in terms of quality of life?

King Solomon, for instance, was once the wealthiest man Israel had ever known—possibly the wealthiest man on earth at the time. In 1 Kings 3, God says to Solomon, I give you both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days (1Ki 3:13).

Yet, there were quite a few material things Solomon didn’t have. He didn’t have running water. He didn’t have electricity. He didn’t have a climate-controlled house. He didn’t have refrigeration. He didn’t have a comfortable car to take him a mile a minute anywhere he wanted to go. He didn’t have a phone in his pocket to send a message to anyone in the world anytime he wanted. He had nice clothes for the time period, but I’m guessing you and I are more comfortable in the winter than he ever was. I’m sure he had access to physicians, but healthcare in those days can’t compare to what we have today.

We can go back just one-hundred years, and the richest men on the planet did not have the quality of life we have today. Laying aside net worth and annual income, based on quality of life, I’m richer than John D. Rockefeller. I doubt anyone has ever looked at me, the clothes I wear, or the car I drive, and thought to themselves, He must be rich. But I am. And so are you.

Now that I’ve established we’re probably wealthier than we thought, I’ll ask again. Is it a blessing or a curse to be rich?

As I said in the beginning, that’s a challenging question. By default, we typically think of our prosperity as a blessing from God. Meanwhile, we have warning after warning in Scripture about the dangers of material prosperity. Furthermore, both history and experience contain plenty of warning signs. How many times have we heard of an individual winning the lottery only to have his life fall apart soon after? He seems to be crushed under the weight of his newfound wealth.

Think of the early church. It grew and multiplied despite facing poverty and persecution in most places. To be clear, the church didn’t merely survive. It thrived under some of the most adverse circumstances, which is a scenario that repeats itself throughout history. The true church has often emerged from some of the most anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-church governments and cultures to become a vibrant, growing community, albeit relatively small by comparison. Meanwhile, the church in prosperous, free places like the UK and the United States seems to be disappearing. If nothing else, it’s being swallowed up by false forms of Christianity.

That is what makes this final letter to the churches in Asia Minor so relevant to us. As we’ll see, our situation as 21st-century Americans isn’t much different than that of 1st-century Laodiceans.

Christ the Amen

Christ captures our attention from the start by declaring his identity. These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation (Rev 3:13).

First of all, what does Jesus mean when he refers to himself as the Amen? (Rev 3:14). There’s a lot more to that word than meets the eye. It’s not merely the traditional way to end a prayer. It’s rich with meaning.

The book of Isaiah refers to Yahweh as the God of truth (Isa 65:16). Literally, the phrase is, the God of Amen. God is the source of truth. He’s the embodiment of truth. He is truth. When Governor Pilate rhetorically asked, What is truth? his question actually has a legitimate answer (Jn 18:38). The answer is God. God is truth.

People spend their entire lives looking for meaning, looking for truth. They debate philosophies. They write books and make movies about their search. People are always asking, What is truth?” And the answer is God. If we are to understand truth, the search begins and ends with the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty God, who is the beginning and the end of truth (Rev 1:8).

The Jews of the first century understood this about God. That is what made some of Jesus’s claims so shocking. For instance, he once declared himself to be the way, and the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). He claimed to be **the* truth just as God the Father is the truth.

It is no small thing for Jesus to call himself the Amen (Rev 3:14). What is he saying?

Have you ever noticed how many times Christ began a statement with the words, Truly, truly.” He would say, Truly, truly, I say to you.” The old King James translates it, Verily, verily, I say unto you.” In other words, What I’m about to say is absolute truth. I’m not offering an opinion. I’m not speaking as a man prone to error. I’m telling you the absolute truth.”

That’s what we mean when we say, Amen.” We are affirming the truth. Specifically, we are saying, That is God’s truth. That is absolute truth.” When we amen” a preacher, we are saying, Yes, brother, that is God’s truth.”

Jesus is an affirmation of all that is true. He is the last word, and that word is truth. Jesus is the validation of everything God has ever said and done. Therefore, he is the faithful and true witness (Rev 3:14). For a time, he was God’s witness on earth, and now, he is God’s witness in heaven.

Last but not least, Christ here identifies himself as the beginning of God’s creation (Rev 3:14). Please don’t be confused by that statement. Jesus is not suggesting he was created by God. How do I know? I know because he inspired John, the same apostle who wrote this book of the Bible, to also write:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, is coeternal with God the Father (Jn 1:14). He was not created by God. He is co-creator. All things were made through him (Jn 1:3). In other words, all of God’s creation began with Christ. It was through Christ that all things were made.

We could even take this concept a step further and talk about Christ’s role in salvation. Paul writes, If anyone is in Christ, he is—what?—“a new creation (2Co 5:17).

If you want to take it even further, we could talk about Christ’s role in eschatology. Regarding end times, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). Right? We look forward to a new creation. Who makes this new creation possible? Before Jesus left this earth, he told his disciples, I go and prepare a place for you (Jn 14:3). In every conceivable way, Jesus is the beginning of God’s creation (Rev 3:14).

Lukewarm

Now that he has our attention, Jesus says, I know your works (Rev 3:15). In other words, I know what you’ve done. I know what you haven’t done. I even know the motivations behind what you’ve done or haven’t done.” When we think of works, we likely think about what we do, but Jesus implies a bit more than that. The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1Sa 16:7). In fact, a lifetime of good works means nothing if the heart is far from God (Mt 15:8). Paul said of Israel, They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Ro 10:2). Jesus said, In vain do they worship me (Mt 15:9).

When Jesus refers to the works of the Laodiceans, he has the totality of their faith and service in mind, not just what they do or don’t do. He sees it all and knows that, in the Laodiceans’ case, they are neither cold nor hot (Rev 3:15).

I have often said every book of the Bible has historical context. All Scripture is breathed out by God, but he did not inspire the Bible to be written in a vacuum (2Ti 3:16). He breathed out these sixty-six books through the personalities, experiences, and circumstances of their human authors. He also considered the circumstances of the original recipients of these books. In short, someone wrote each book of the Bible to someone else for some reason. There is historical context.

Understanding the context helps us to understand the message in each book, and that’s especially true here with this letter to the Laodicean church. When we hear hot or cold, we think passionate or not. We think good or evil. But that cannot be what Jesus means. Notice what he says next: Would that you were either cold or hot! (Rev 3:15). He says, I want you to be cold or hot, not something in between.”

If Jesus means passionate or not, then we’d have to conclude that he would rather we lack all passion than be halfway passionate. If Jesus means good or evil, we’d have to conclude he would rather we be evil than somewhat good. I don’t believe that’s what he’s saying.

The city of Laodicea was not blessed with a natural water supply, at least not one that was good for the people. Rather ingeniously, they built underground aqueducts that piped in water from neighboring cities. They piped in hot water from one place, which was used for medicinal purposes. They piped in cold water from another place, which was used for drinking. The problem was, the pipes had to run for miles. By the time the water from the hot springs of Hierapolis reached Laodicea, the water was lukewarm. By the time the cold water from Colossae reached Laodicea, the water was lukewarm.

Worse yet, the pipes would build up with calcium deposits that would either clog the pipes or make the water undrinkable. It could be so bad the water would actually induce vomiting. It would make a person nauseous.

That’s the historical, geographical backdrop to this letter. In this context, both hot and cold are good. Both are desirable. Again, hot water could be used for medicinal purposes, for healing. Cold water was used for drinking, for refreshment. And the Laodiceans knew better than anyone that contaminated lukewarm water was good for nothing. It was disgusting. It could actually make you vomit.

Frankly, the church is supposed to be both hot and cold, not one or the other. We should be a source of refreshment like a cold drink of water on a hot day. We should also be a source of healing. So, the issue here is not temperature—hot or cold—as much as it is distance from the source.

So, Jesus says, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you, I will vomit you out of my mouth (Rev 3:16). That is the natural consequence of lukewarmness. If you take a drink of this calcified lukewarm water, you won’t be able to help yourself. You will either spit it out or throw it up. You won’t be able to stomach it, and Jesus can’t either.

To reiterate, hot is good. Cold is good. Jesus doesn’t intend for his analogy to represent two opposite extremes, and he wants us to choose one or the other. Both hot and cold are good for different reasons, which I think we understand. On a hot day, we want cold water. When taking a shower or making a cup of coffee, we want hot water. Both temperatures are good for different reasons.

So, when Jesus compares the spiritual condition of the Laodiceans with lukewarmness, he’s not suggesting they are somewhere between good and bad. No, hot is good, cold is good, and lukewarm is bad. Again, the issue is not so much about temperature as it is distance from the source, which consequently, determines usefulness.

I think you’ll see what I mean as we continue.

I need nothing

There’s something else we should know about the Laodicean church. The Laodiceans were very wealthy. It was a prosperous city. In AD 60, for example, an earthquake devastated the region. In turn, the Roman Empire offered financial support to the cities in that region to help them rebuild, but Laodicea declined. Why? They didn’t need the help. They had the financial means to rebuild the city themselves. They didn’t need Rome’s money.

Notice what Jesus says to them here: For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing (Rev 3:17). And that’s the problem.

We don’t know all of the ways this lukewarmness manifested itself in the Laodicean church. Jesus says, I know your works,” but he doesn’t describe their works (Rev 3:15). He doesn’t provide details about what they were doing or not doing. For all we know, they appeared to be doing everything right, but perhaps there was something amiss in their motivations. Maybe there was something missing that could not be seen. We don’t know. But what we do know is that the root of the problem was self-reliance.

Is self-reliance really a problem? In this context, absolutely. Jesus says to them, For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). The problem with self-reliance is that it tends to be accompanied by self-deception. We only think we are self-reliant when, in fact, we are in desperate need of help.

The Laodiceans are rich. They are prosperous. They are so rich and prosperous, in fact, that they have come to believe they don’t need anything from anyone else. Isn’t that interesting? It’s interesting because they lack the most fundamental resource needed for survival—water. They lack water, yet they say, I need nothing (Rev 3:17).

Imagine you’re out on the lake in a rusty old rowboat. It isn’t much to look at, but it floats. As you row along, you come across a man treading water out in the middle of the lake. He’s miles from shore and doesn’t have a boat or even a life preserver. Sir,” you yell, climb aboard.” But he doesn’t climb aboard.

Instead, he laughs and says, I don’t need your help. I own a yacht worth half a million dollars. Why would I need your lousy rowboat?”

Sir,” you ask, where is your yacht?”

The man replies, It’s at the bottom of the lake. It sunk just before you arrived.”

That may seem like a silly illustration, but it’s not far from the truth. Self-reliance and self-deception tend to go hand in hand. The Laodiceans believed they were rich enough that they needed nothing, even though they lacked the most essential material possession of all—water. So, Jesus’s response is entirely appropriate. You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. You don’t even see it.” (Rev 3:17).

To be clear, and perhaps it goes without saying, this message to the Laodiceans is not really about water. The issue is that this church has become more reliant on themselves than on Christ. They should be a source of healing and refreshment, but they’re not. Why? It is because they are too far removed from the source of healing and refreshment—that is, Jesus Christ.

Maybe you’re beginning to see that the problem is not merely a lack of passion or zeal, as we often think of lukewarmness. This is far more serious. These people share the spirit of the Pharisees, who rejected God’s Messiah because they didn’t feel they needed a Savior. Those Jewish leaders believed they were righteous enough on their own to merit God’s favor. But the situation here is further complicated by the fact that these people have accepted Christ. They belong to a Christian church, yet they have become self-reliant to the point that they have lost their dependency on Christ, which is made even clearer in the next verse.

Poor, naked, and blind

Jesus says to them:

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. (Revelation 3:18)

I’ve already talked about the Laodiceans’ wealth, but what I didn’t mention is that the city was well-known throughout the Roman world for a couple of other things.

They were also known for their textile industry. They produced high-quality wool fabric. Specifically, they produced high-quality black wool fabric.

The city was also well-known for training physicians, who specialized in eye care.

Do you see what Christ is doing here? The Laodiceans are rich, and Jesus says, I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich (Rev 3:18). The Laodiceans produce beautiful black wool, and Jesus says, You need white garments from me so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen.” The Laodiceans have a lot of doctors who specialize in eye care, and Jesus says, You need my salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

Christ is chipping away at every last thing that has given this church a false sense of security. He’s chipping away at every last thing that has caused them to drift from the only real source of security.

As I said before, I don’t know how this problem of self-reliance manifested itself in the church, but I suspect it was subtle. You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t condemn them for committing any blatant sins. He doesn’t condemn them for tolerating heretics or their false doctrines. Meanwhile, he doesn’t commend them for anything either. He doesn’t have a positive word to say, which likely means this problem is not only subtle, but it’s also deadly serious.

Jesus says, You have great material wealth, but you’re poor. You have some of the finest garments, but you’re naked. You have salve that can heal the eyes, but you’re blind. All of these things you put your trust in— They are meaningless. They could be gone tomorrow, and then what? Where will your faith be then?”

Do you remember the parable of the sower? As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Mt 13:22). Material wealth is hardly fertile ground for the word of God. This is a warning the Bible repeats over and over again.

To be clear, the Bible never denounces wealth as evil, but contrary to what we hear from prosperity preachers, it warns us over and over again of the inherent dangers of wealth. The more comfortable we become, the more complacent we become. The more we have, the more we trust in what we have, the more we rely on what we have. And once we’ve been comfortable long enough, we begin to lose sight of the fleeting nature of material comforts. Worse yet, our dependence on God and his grace gets lost somewhere along the way. The deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Mt 13:22).

Just as you can’t become a Christian without sacrificing any notion of self-reliance and throwing yourself at the mercy of God, you can’t continue to walk with God if you lose your dependence on him and begin to trust in yourself and your material comforts.

Do you see how relevant this letter is to first-world Christians? I’ll ask you again. Is it a blessing or a curse to be rich? Is it a blessing or a curse to have a closet full of nice clothing? Is it a blessing or a curse to have access the greatest to medical care the world has ever known?

It seems the answer to these questions is hardly black or white.

Personally, I believe they are blessings, but they can quickly become curses if we’re not careful. Paul gives this advice in 1 Corinthians 7:

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

I realize he addresses more in that passage than just material goods, but it’s a helpful perspective nonetheless. He’s not suggesting we deny reality. If you’re married, you are, of course, married. If you are mourning, you are mourning. He’s not telling us to deny reality. Instead, he wants us to hold on to whatever we have in this world loosely because it can’t last forever.

The problem is not that we’re rich. The problem comes when we care too much about our riches. The problem comes when we invest too much in our riches. The problem comes when our riches stand in the way of our dependency on Christ.

Keep in mind, this problem is subtle. The thorns don’t choke out the word overnight. But the threat of this problem is also very real and extremely dangerous.

Loving discipline

Jesus says, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Rev 3:19).

What if Christ were to stand in this room today and say to us what he said to the Laodiceans? Would we think his words were too harsh? We shouldn’t because he is speaking out of love. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (Rev 3:19). That is the language of sonship. He is correcting the Laodicean church as his children. Hebrews 12 says, God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Heb 12:7, 8). Christ says what he says because he loves these people.

I had an interesting conversation last week. This woman asked me to preach her grandmother’s funeral, and she said to me, I have a lot of unbelievers in my family, so I want you to preach hellfire and brimstone if you think it’s necessary.”

I was taken aback. Most people tell me to stay away from that kind of thing, especially during a funeral, so I asked her, Why hellfire and brimstone?”

Because,” she said, I love my family that much. If you have to step on their toes before they’ll turn to Christ, I want you to step as hard as you can.”

It hurts to hear we are are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked, and it’s often hard to say to someone else, but sometimes that’s the most loving thing that could be said (Rev 3:17). In fact, love demands truth even when that truth is difficult.

Jesus at the door

Behold,” Jesus says in the next verse (Rev 3:20). That’s a word in Scripture that prompts us to brace ourselves. Something potentially shocking is coming. While it may just mark a transition in the flow of the story or the text, it’s often followed by a surprising revelation, and this one is particularly jarring.

Christ says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).

Maybe we’ve heard this verse so many times that we don’t see what could be shocking about it, but think about what Jesus is saying here. Consider that he is speaking to a Christian church that meets every week in his name. Consider that he is speaking to a Christian church that regularly gathers around a table to share a meal we call the Lord’s Supper.

Have you ever gotten that feeling that you’re forgetting something? You can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but you have that strong sense that you’re forgetting something.

Imagine you and your brothers and sisters in the church have sat down to share the Lord’s Supper together. You have the hymn books. You have your Bibles. The pastor is here. The bread and wine are on the table. Then, you hear a knock at the door. Everyone looks around the room at one another. Who could that be? Isn’t everyone here? Don’t we have everything we need?

And that’s when you realize someone is missing—Christ. Christ isn’t here.

Behold,” Jesus says, I’m not in the church. Without even realizing it, you’ve slowly but surely pushed me out the door. I’m standing outside. Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Rev 3:20).

It reminds me of the Jewish practice where they would unsynagogue” people. They would banish them from the synagogue for one reason or another. Jesus himself was unsynagogued in places like Nazareth. Without realizing what they’ve done, the Laodiceans had unchurched” Jesus. They’re meeting together in Christ’s name to worship Christ, but they’ve banished Christ from the church.

I can’t help but wonder how many churches in this nation of prosperity, wealth, and material comforts are still meeting together week after week while Christ stands outside the door, knocking, but they’re too comfortable, too self-satisfied to realize he’s missing.

Examine yourselves, the apostle Paul writes, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2Co 13:5).

The one who conquers, the one who prevails,” Jesus says, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev 3:21, 22).