Lukewarm Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 September

Revelation 3.15-16.

I give youth pastors a bad rap sometimes. Okay, often. Because I believe a lot of them fundamentally misunderstand their job. As did most of the youth pastors I’ve had to deal with, both decades ago as a teenager, and in the years since as I’ve worked with kids and young adults. Their job is to minister to the young people of the church, and share Jesus with the young people of their communities. You know, like any other pastor. Only with youth.

Problem is, many of the YPs I’ve run into, don’t think that way at all. Sometimes because their churches don’t think that way. My church, growing up, thought of the YPs as our babysitters. They were to make sure the church’s members’ kids behaved ourselves, and stayed Christian—at least till college. Once we graduated high school, we weren’t the YP’s responsibility anymore. My YPs made this fact quite clear to me when, shortly after my 18th birthday, they asked me to leave the high school group. Just like those parents who tell their offspring, “You’re 18; you’re outa here.”

Others of ’em think of the YP job as an internship, or “paying their dues” before they get their real ministry working with adults. Meanwhile they get to practice on us kids, and hopefully not screw us up too much. My first youth pastor was one of these. He really did make an effort with us kids… till that senior pastor job opened up in Colorado, and off he went.

Anyway, he was the one who first introduced me to the concept of out-of-context scriptures. He quoted the following Jesus statement from Revelation, then talked about how his fellow YPs typically misinterpreted it.

Revelation 3.15-16 KJV
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Y’see, this is a verse which comes up in youth ministry a lot. It’s because a lot of us kids are identified as “lukewarm.” Because the term, it’s believed, describes our lack of zeal.

And let’s be honest: Kids aren’t always all that zealous about God. See, the bulk of us had grown up Christian. We were led to Jesus when we were little kids—which is great; never stop sharing Jesus with your kids!—but children tend to believe most of the things adults tell ’em. Then they become teenagers, and learn to doubt. Which is fine: Let’s get those doubts out into the open, and deal with ’em! But babysitter YPs don’t deal with them. They tamp down the doubts with platitudes and quick fixes. After all, their job is only to keep the kids Christian till college. Then, in college, like so many other kids who grew up Christian… they can unthinkingly embrace those doubts and become pagan. Or even atheist.

Our YP, at the time, addressed some of those doubts. Good on him. And he made sure we’re aware of the existence of out-of-context scriptures, by correcting a few of the misinterpretations. Like what it means to be “lukewarm.”

“Jesus wants you to be hot.”

If you grew up a “lukewarm” kid, you’ve likely had this Revelation verse preached at you: If you’re neither hot nor cold, you make Jesus sick. And you don’t wanna make him sick, do you? So repent! Be hot or cold for Jesus.

Yeah, in verse 15 Jesus said he’d rather “you were cold or hot.” (That’s from the NKJV; I’m done, for today, with the old-timey English.) How that’s interpreted is ideally, Jesus wants us to be hot. By which he doesn’t mean attractive, as “hot” tends to mean: He wants us to be “on fire.” Enthusiastic. Excited, passionate, zealous, or otherwise emotional about Jesus. We love him so much, we’ll rile up faster than a politico at a rally.

’Cause too many sloppy Christians think wild emotion is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. In fact it’s not. Controlled emotion is. But I digress.

What about the cold? Well, that’s interpreted as not being Christian. Someone who left, went apostate, joined another religion, or went atheist. And yeah, that’s awful. But Jesus would much rather have us ditch Christianity altogether, than be lukewarm. ’Cause that’s just how much hypocrisy annoys him.

That’s leads us into the typical definition of a lukewarm Christian: Someone who’s not cold; they’re still Christian. But not hot either; they’re not “on fire for God,” and are just going through the motions of Christianity. They’re Christianist. Sometimes they pretend to be hot, and that’s where hypocrisy comes in.

Here’s the problem: They’re claiming Jesus would rather we be non-Christian, than a follower who’s not really feeling it.

This is why not every YP is comfortable with defining “cold” this way. It’s like they’re giving passive Christian kids license to say, “Oh, Jesus would respect me more if I quit? Fine, I quit.” God forbid one of these passive Christian kids actually do this—and go home and tell their parents, “Pastor said Jesus would rather I be hot or cold, so I chose cold.” Next thing, their outraged parents will burst into a church board meeting and demand the YP’s head on a pike.

As you’ve likely guessed by now, Jesus means none of these things.

On to the context.

When Jesus said this, he was speaking—through John—to the angel of the church of Laodikía, Phrygia (today’s Turkey). Rv 3.14 Traditionally Christians have interpreted this to mean the leaders of that church. That’s not accurate. Leadership is not the church. The people are.

In fact in many churches, you’re gonna find the people in leadership are wholeheartedly following God. They, and the one in five church members who are actually ministering, are doing just fine. But they’re only 20 percent of the church. The other 80 percent? That’s the church. That’s the supermajority. And they suck.

The reason Jesus was speaking to the angel of Laodikía’s church, was ’cause he didn’t need to speak to the leaders of Laodikía’s church. The leaders were doing just fine. So he bypassed the leaders to speak to the angel, the one interacting with the people far more closely than the leaders ever could. To give the people a needed wakeup call. They were working Jesus’s last nerve.

Revelation 3.14-19 KWL
14 “To the angel of the church of Laodikía, write,
Thus says the Amen, the Witness, the Faithful and True One, the Head of God’s Creation.
15 I’ve known your works. You’re not chilled; not boiling. Wish you’d be chilled or boiling.
16 So because you’re tepid, neither chilled nor boiling, I’m about to spit you out of my mouth:
17 You say, ‘I’m rich. I’ve been rich. I don’t need anything.’
You’ve not realized you’re miserable, need help—a blind, naked beggar.
18 Take my advice: Buy fire-tested gold from me, so you can be rich.
Buy a white robe so you can put it on, and stop exposing your shameful nakedness.
Buy eyedrops to drop on your eyes, so you can see.
19 When I consider anyone friends, I convict and discipline them. Pr 3.11-12
So be zealous: Repent!”

You’ve noticed the words I used for ψυχρός/sykhrós (“chilled,” KJV “cold”) ζεστὸς/zestós (“boiling,” KJV “hot”), and χλιαρὸς/khliarós (“tepid,” KJV “lukewarm”) are all words we tend to use to describe water. That’s true in Greek too.

Laodikía’s water was provided by several aqueducts. One was connected to Hierapolis, which had hot springs. Another was connected to Colossae, which had cold springs. Various Christians claim, “Well, that’s what Jesus was referring to—the Laodikíans had hot and cold running water!” But they actually didn’t. Both water sources were miles away. By the time the water reached the city it was the same temperature as any stream, river, or spring. Cold enough, but hardly “boiling” and “chilled” like Jesus is talking about. If the Laodikíans wanted hot water, they’d have to boil it, same as we do. And if they wanted cold, they’d need ice.

Interpreters also wrongly claim, “Well, Jesus said he’d spit out the water because it’s room-temperature. In those days you couldn’t trust the water supply. It might be full of bacteria. You had to boil it first.” This is largely true… but bacterial contamination is a problem of standing water. Not flowing water, like you’d get from the aqueduct. If you kept water for months in rain barrels, of course you’d have to boil it first. Then let it cool. Even down to room temperature. It’d still be drinkable. So no, Jesus wasn’t speaking about that either.

What he was speaking about was mineral water. That’s the stuff which came out of the aqueducts. We call it “hard water”—full of minerals from their underground sources. Just about all water has some minerals in it, ’cause that’s where water’s taste comes from. Pure water has no taste.

Most cities’ water systems strive for a balance of minerals which no one finds offensive. But Laodikía had no control over their mineral balance. They had to settle for what came out of the aqueduct.

Ever drank room-temperature mineral water? Once I bought two bottles of Alhambra, a California mineral water, from a convenience store. (It was a two-for-one special.) Drank one right away, while it was cold. Saved the other for later… and when I finally opened it, the bottle was room-temperature, and I found the mineral taste to be terrible.

A lot of people are the very same way with room-temperature mineral water: “It tastes like chemicals,” they’ll complain, and won’t drink it. Temperature affects the taste buds, y’see. Alhambra’s only meant to be drank hot or cold. And that’s what Jesus refers to: Laodikía’s mineral water needed to be at a drinkable temperature. Boiling was fine; chilled was fine. Tepid was awful.

Where we Christians go awry is we try to attach metaphors to “hot” and “cold.” Hot means zealous, cold means dead. But these are metaphors neither Jesus, nor the Laodikíans, would’ve attached to his meaning. They knew what he means: Jesus wanted them to be palatable. Jesus wants us to be useful. Not nasty.

The Laodikíans figured they had made themselves inoffensive… and in so doing had actually done the opposite. They were offensive to the people of their city, and their Lord.

“Nah, we’re good.”

Why were the Laodikíans room-temperature? Again, it has nothing to do with being apathetic, or hypocritical, or Christianist, or anything like that. It was their belief they needed no help. They needed plenty of help.

Laodikía was a wealthy city, the financial capital of Phrygia. Same with most Christians who believe they can simultaneously serve God and Mammon, they assumed their riches were the way God chose to bless them. Consequently they sought none of God’s other blessings. American Christians are in the same boat, which is why we so often get this interpretation wrong.

Some of us claim the Laodikíans weren’t really rich. A lot of bibles even translate πτωχὸς/tokhós, “beggar,” as “poor”: “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Rv 3.17 ESV So these people must’ve thought they were rich, but had no idea of their real financial situation. Much like a kid with a decent allowance who assumes, “We’re rich,” but has no clue of how much his parents really own. Or owe.

But if the Laodikíans were poor, Jesus couldn’t then turn round and instruct them, “Buy my gold. Buy a robe. Buy eyedrops.” Rv 3.18 They did have wealth. They rejoiced in it, and probably bought themselves a lot of nice Christian memorabilia. Nice Christian books for their private libraries, nice Christian art for the walls, nice Christian music and jewelry and a Christian fish eating a Darwin fish for their SUV’s back bumper… oh wait, I’m talking about Americans again.

But they weren’t doing anything constructive with their wealth. It wasn’t used to actually follow Jesus. Or spread God’s kingdom. Or do anything more than make the Laodikíans feel spiritually comfortable.

So not hot, ’cause that’s uncomfortable; not cold, ’cause that’s uncomfortable; but just right… and therefore useless.

That’s the lukewarm Christian. Not someone who’s not emotional about God. Lukewarm Christians can be very emotional about God. Love him like crazy. Follow him anywhere. Just never follow him when he directs us someplace uncomfortable. Because only comfort, they insist, comes from God. Anything else means he’s not there, and not really leading us there. If it’s really him, we assume we wouldn’t have that “check in our spirit” which makes us hesitant to go there. That check, by the way, which is really our own fears. Not the Holy Spirit, who doesn’t do fear.

As a result the lukewarm Christian does nothing with the wealth God gives them. Whether it’s money, skills, aptitudes, anything; like the useless servant in Jesus’s story of the talents, Mt 25.14-30 we bury the wealth and do nothing with it, and consider ourselves blessed because it was given to us in the first place.

No wonder Jesus wants to spit such people out, like bad-tasting water. What good are we to his kingdom?