When studying the Seven Churches Jesus addressed in Revelation, most readers of the NT are familiar with the words of Jesus to the church at Laodicea. Jesus Christ, who is the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness (3:14), the One whose words can be trusted, the One who is the Head of “creation” (3:14), indicts the church saying, “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (3:15-16). The church made Christ nauseated!
Three times He pleads with them to be hot or cold. Why would Christ prefer the church to be “cold” as well as “hot” (3:15)? The words of Jesus indicate that “hot” and “cold” are desirable alternatives to lukewarmness. The contextual interpretation has to do with the “hot” waters from Hierapolis and the “cold” waters from Colossae that were piped into Laodicea and when they mixed lukewarmness resulted. Just as when the waters are compromised, when the church compromises with the culture the result will always be spiritual ineffectiveness, unfruitfulness, and lukewarmness in the church.
Let us examine the text to gain an understanding of Jesus’ picturesque words.
To understand the full impact of Christ’s words a look at the local background is necessary. While the city of Laodicea was a place of industry and wealth, it did not have a suitable water supply. Hierapolis, which was only six miles away from Laodicea, was known for its hot mineral-laden springs which people came to for its cleansing and healing qualities. Colossae, which was only ten miles away, was known for his cold waters which brought refreshing to those who drank it. Laodicea had their water piped in from a six-mile long aqueduct. When the water arrived it was lukewarm, disgusting to the taste, not fit to drink. One historian wrote, “The water supply of Laodicea was derived from an artificial pipeline, bringing water which was literally lukewarm and so impure as to have an emetic (vomiting) effect.”
The contrast in the words of Jesus is between the hot spa-like healing waters of Hierapolis and the refreshing cold waters of Colossae. Jesus is saying to the church at Laodicea that He desired they have “works” (v. 14) that supply the city/community with spiritual cleansing and healing for the spiritually sick (hot) or spiritual refreshing for the spiritually weary (cold), but they were doing neither. Instead, they were spiritually like the lukewarm water piped into the city, disgusting to the taste, unfit to drink or use. While the church should have been ministering to the city and providing spiritual waters of cleansing, healing and refreshment, their compromising with the culture around them made them spiritually ineffective in providing healing and refreshing waters to others. They should have been proclaiming the gospel of Christ to their city, but because of their compromising the Word they were unfit of being used by Jesus.
Jesus knew their works (3:14), which were devoid of spiritual quality. He rebukes the church for their disgusting lack of witness, barrenness and ineffectiveness which was distasteful to Him like the drinking of lukewarm water that makes one want to “spew” it out of their mouth (3:16). The Greek word translated “spew” is intensely strong and used nowhere else in the New Testament and paints a vivid picture of someone about to vomit. Albert Barnes writes that “the image denotes deep disgust and loathing at the indifference which prevailed in the church at Laodicea.” Their spiritual condition made Christ sick!
Anytime a church compromises the Word of God under the delusional assumption that compromise will attract those outside the church, the church is weakened, becomes lukewarm and loses its effectiveness to make an impact for Christ. The church will never win the world by becoming like the world, it only becomes barren and fruitless.
The words of Christ contain a touch of irony. The church at Laodicea was to be His mouthpiece to spread the Good News, but because in their works they had failed to do so, He who is called the Word was ready to spew them out of His mouth. Jesus’ charge against the church was their total lack of ineffectiveness in ministering to those who needed spiritual healing and refreshing. They needed to repent, because their compromising with the culture around them had resulted in their loss of a community witness, fruitfulness and effectiveness, the loss of being Christ’s mouthpiece for truth.
John R. Stott has written, “The Laodicean church was a half-hearted church. Perhaps none of the seven letters is more appropriate to the twenty-first century church than this. It describes vividly the respectable, sentimental, nominal, skin-deep religiosity which is so wide spread among us today. Our Christianity is flabby and anemic, we appear to have taken a lukewarm bath.”
Even though Christ said He was about to spew them out of his mouth because their ineffectiveness was so distasteful to Him, there was still opportunity to repent and be restored to fellowship and fruitfulness. Sadly, many churches today have compromised with the culture in a delusional attempt to impact the culture, and as a result have become barren, fruitless and non-impactful. May the Church today heed the words of Jesus and once again be uncompromising, “zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).