Rightly Dividing

The Instruction

As He did with each of the previous six churches, Jesus asserted His knowledge of the congregation’s condition, then leveled the following formal charge against the Laodiceans.

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. (Revelation 3:15-17)

Jesus knew their works, but this was not simply a reference to their external, public behavior. The entire paragraph (vv. 14-22) reveals that His indictment included a thorough familiarity with their internal, personal attitude as well. Works merely displayed the posture of their hearts.

The works of the Laodiceans revealed at least two problems.

1. Indifference (vv. 15-16)

Jesus confronted the Laodicean apathy with one of the most memorable word pictures in all the Bible.

You are neither cold nor hot. Hot and cold are temperature extremes, and the illustration would have connected immediately with the Laodicean consciousness. Water was a daily issue for them. Though they tried to fix their problem with external sources, the solution ended up creating it’s own problem. By the time the cold water crossed from Colosse to Laodicea, it was no longer cool and refreshing, nor was it hot like the hot spring water in Heiropolis. Cold was warm, hot was tepid, both were useless. More than that, Jesus declared that sort of water was disgusting.

Photo thanks to pulpolux

Interpretation questions surface regarding whether hot and cold are simply illustrations, or if both represented profitable uses, or if one was good (hot) and the other bad (cold). I’ve gone round and round over the intended meaning since I was in college. Obviously Jesus is confronting indifference and apathy, but is He saying Christians should be either refreshingly cold or therapeutically hot, not in between? Or is He saying it is better to be spiritually on fire or spiritually antagonistic rather than on the fence?

In the context, hot clearly represents spiritual fervency. It is commanded by Jesus in verse 19, “Be zealous,” and both the imperative (ζήλευε) and the adjective (ζεστὸς) here in verse 16 come from the same root (ζέω) meaning “to boil.” Figuratively the word meant to be stirred up emotionally, to be enthusiastic, or to be on fire.

I have also come to believe that cold represents open, outright obstinacy to Jesus. It isn’t that the cold don’t know. They do know, and they’re honest enough and take it serious enough to reject the truth. The cold have no interest in Christ whatsoever.

But could Jesus really mean this? Why would Jesus wish anyone to be cold, that is, in open rejection of Him? Even if our experience tells us that straightforward rejection is, at least in some respect, easier or better to deal with, does this passage actually teach it? I now think yes, based on the second part of the indictment seen below.

No matter what, being lukewarm is intolerable. Revelation 3:16 is the only occurrence of the word lukewarm (χλιαρὸς) in the Bible. These were the in-betweeners. The congregation in Laodicea was diluted, if in fact, there were any true believers at all. The church was worldly and their Christianity was nominal. It was not good.

The tepid spiritual temperature sickened Jesus. It disgusted Him like nothing else: I will spit you out of My mouth. Other translations say, “spue” (KJV) or even “vomit” (YNG). The point is, indifference is repulsive. Apathy is nauseating. Jesus is saddened by the lost, angered by the self-righteous, but He was and is sickened by the lukewarm, and wants nothing to do with them.

2. Ignorance (v. 17)

Verse 17 elaborates on lukewarmness by revealing the root of indifference. The Laodiceans were lukewarm because they failed to see their true condition.

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

What a dreadful branding they received at the end of verse 17: wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Each adjective depicted their spiritual state. The darkest affliction, however, was that they didn’t even know it. They saw themselves as just the opposite. They claimed I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. They thought they were really cooking. They thought they had arrived.

At best their perspective was naive, more likely they were arrogant, but worst of all they were deceived, not realizing that [they were actually] wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. They were ignorant of their true condition. Wretched refers to those in emergency requiring urgent help. The pitiable were those whose hopes had been smashed. The poor were penniless. The blind were visually impaired and naked were physically exposed. The Laodicean church was living in a spiritual fiction. Their presumed prosperity was actually poverty. Their souls were bankrupt. They supposed they had no need, failing to recognize that all they had was need.

The lukewarm, then, are the pretenders, the hypocrites, those in the “church” whose profession is unaware of, or unattached to reality. They presume that they are hot but in reality are not.

Jesus is not leveling a charge against baby Christians who understandably encounter growing pains. Instead, His holy impatience and disgust is with those in the church who are indifferent to Him and ignorant of their real spiritual condition. This might be an unbeliever who thinks he’s a believer, or perhaps a willfully immature believer who refuses, at least for a time, to acknowledge his need.

At least the cold know that they’re cold. At least their rejection cards are on the table to be dealt with. That kind of person we can talk to; that kind of person Jesus understands. But the lukewarm is vomited out. The Laodicean church was characterized by spiritual lukewarmness. Sadly, so are many of our churches.

Rightly Dividing

To the Church in Laodicea

Yesterday I suggested that things are not good and that if Jesus visited us today, He might confront us much like He confronted the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:14-22.

Exiled on Patmos island for preaching the gospel, the apostle John wrote the book of The Revelation of Jesus Christ from a vision he received from the Lord around AD 90 (a little less than 60 years after Christ’s ascension). Chapters two and three of Revelation contain Christ’s letters to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyratira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Only two of the seven are commended without any correction; only one of the seven receives no commendation whatsoever: the church in Laodicea.

Laodicea was located in the Lycus Valley, one of the tri-cities along with Colosse (10 miles east) and Heiropolis (six miles north). Laodicea was a large, often visited city, and well-known for at least three things. First, it was a wealthy city. In AD 60, a large earthquake destroyed the city along with a few neighboring cities. The Laodiceans refused financial aid from the Roman, Imperial government, rebuilding from their own resources. At least some of the city’s wealth was due to the second well-known product of Laodicea: soft, glossy black wool. The third well-known feature of the city was a pagan school of medicine famous for various healing compounds, in particular the production of salve for eye-diseases.

The city of Laodicea could have been extremely powerful, but their greatest weakness was a deficient water supply. As the city grew, the small Lycus River could not provide adequately for the needs of the population. Engineers built a channel from springs in Colosse, a combination above ground aqueduct and underground conduit, the remains of which are still visible today. In solving the issue of water quantity, however, the Laodiceans encountered another problem with the water quality, a fact Jesus used to illustrate the problem in the church.

The church in Laodicea was likely started by Epaphras, the same person responsible for the church in nearby Colosse. The apostle Paul connected the two churches in his letter to the Colossians (2:1) written in AD 62. By the time John addressed the Laodicean church in AD 90, things were not good.

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.

John wrote, but he wrote on behalf of Jesus Christ (the resurrected Lord described in Revelation 1:4-6, 12-16). To the Laodicean church, Jesus identified Himself as the Amen, that is, the one who is sure and certain. In Jesus, all of God’s promises are guaranteed. He is the faithful and true witness; He will not exaggerate or misrepresent. He can be believed. And He is the beginning of God’s creation, in other words, He is the preeminent one (cf. Colossians 1:15-20), and He was not pleased with what He saw.

Jesus offered no commendation to the Laodiceans whatsoever, and immediately launched into His indictment.

Rightly Dividing

Things Are Not Good

Things are not good. Nations are at war, babies are being aborted, businesses are collapsing, and people are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet it would be difficult to prove those realities based on how we’re acting. We’re still making jokes, buying lattes and Big Macs, renting movies and downloading music, and otherwise acting like everything is fine. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.

Things are not good in the church either. Christians and denominations bicker back and forth, influence on the culture seems nonexistent, truth is sparse, and people are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet it would be difficult to prove these realities based on how we’re acting. We still show up on Sunday with smiles and handshakes, perform silly skits and sing superficial songs, desperately trying to prove to our unchurched friends that we can do all the same fun things they can, with Jesus along for the ride. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.

Things are not good in our souls either. Our doubts and fears war within us, our faith and our morality are crumbling, we feel distant from God and from one another, so we are sad, lonely, and empty. Yet, other than an impulsive, unguarded status update on Facebook, it would be difficult to prove those realities based on how we’re acting. We keep consuming the latest entertainment offerings from the world. We adopt the world’s priorities and values at home, at school, and at work. It doesn’t really make sense; indifference to the problems, or ignorance that there are problems, won’t fix the problems or make them go away.

What’s wrong with us? Perhaps the problem is that, in general, we are spiritually dumb, sinfully fat, and superficially happy.

If Jesus visited us today, what would He say about our condition? I have a guess. I think He might confront us much like He confronted the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:14-22.

Enjoying the Process

Ordination Service

The elders of Grace Bible Church ordained me Sunday, January 18. I am grateful to all those who worked so hard to make the entire evening special, and humbled by the many testimonies of affirmation. I’m posting the slideshow, as well as the audio of the service, for those (like my mom, and some who were not able to attend) that may be interested.

The audio starts with a message about ordination by John Zimmer from 1 Timothy 5:22, followed by my brief testimony of salvation and call to ministry [starting at 15:51].

Next were numerous, gracious testimonies from friends, past and present ministry partners, and family [with the start time for each person in the brackets]:

And then the elders’ prayers followed: [1:32:48] John Williams, [1:33:25] Jim Martin, [1:34:01] Ward Brien, and [1:35:26] John Zimmer.

Enjoying the Process

My 2009 Resolutions

I’ve been marinating much in 1 Timothy 4:11-16 since Eric Alexander took it as his text at the 2003 Shepherds’ Conference. My recent ordination also put the passage back on my mental front burner. Verse 16 strikes at the core of my responsibility: “pay close attention to yourself and to the teaching”; I do desire for my “progress to be evident to all” (verse 15).

My flock benefits most when I grow personally, and according to Paul, my salvation and the salvation of those who hear me depends on it. There may be few things as demoralizing, or as dangerous, as a stagnant spiritual leader. And I’ve found over the last few years that a year-end review and resolution-making helps keeps me in check and provides accountability for future progress.

There are any number of things I would do well to examine this year. I need to continue thinking through how to best apply the sabbath principle. I want to keep praying more and more and more. I want to learn how to appreciate the “narrative.” Mo might add that I should make a commitment to be nice to my wife all the time.

But in light of ordination to the gospel ministry, and in light of being an image-bearer, here are my two 2009 resolutions.

Articulate something six days a week.

As an image-bearer of God, I am responsible to use the skills and desires He has given me. As a pastor, I am required to pay close attention to “the teaching.” Writing until I’m clear fulfills (at least parts of) both.

Of course, articulating something doesn’t require writing it out. Articulating simply means to express, to put in words, or to communicate. But I specifically have in mind writing out or annotating something all the work days of the week. Writing is a good discipline, beyond the physical, and more mental and possibly spiritual (cf. 1 Timothy 4:8) depending on the topic.

This is my most specific resolution ever. It is not a commitment to post to the Void six days a week. But whether I handwrite a sermon, post to the Void, dash off a rough draft, tweet a paragraph summary, or journal various thoughts, putting down more words on paper is my desire. It’s time to work and produce, even if it isn’t much. When I began running on the treadmill, I wasn’t stumbling over as many revolutions of the belt as I do now. I took it step by step. Now I’ll work sentence by sentence.

Initiate individual and interpersonal repentance.

As an image-bearer, I am made for relationship. Nothing disrupts community like sin, and the first step toward reconciliation is repentance. Likewise, in light of ordination, I must pay close attention to myself. I know it is easy for me, as a leader, to be defensive rather than humble when I’ve wronged someone else.

Repentance is the starting point of the Christian life, let alone a new year. While certainly not every problem under the sun comes from sin, most of them do. Sin is the dominant human problem, not personality flaws, not a genetic defects, not adolescent hormones, not difficult environments. Simply ignoring sin won’t make it go away. Rationalizing sin won’t overcome it. Medicating sin won’t pacify it. Repenting from it is the only proper course of treatment.

The fact that sin is our fundamental problem turns out to be good news in a way. If sin isn’t the problem then we are really stuck. There is no hope if the diagnosis is something other than spiritual. God doesn’t make any guarantees to get us out of a particular situation, to help us get organized, to increase our metabolism, to change our academic ability, or even to alter our emotional or mental make-up per se.

But He does have extraordinary news if the problem is sin. There is a Substitute Sacrifice who takes the guilt of our sin. There is a Spirit who frees us from slavery to sin. There are promises revealed in His Book about the impotence of sin for those united with Christ, along with detailed instructions on how to kill remaining sin. We can make all the resolutions we want, but unless those resolutions tackle our sin problem we are going to be fighting at the wrong front.

Nothing stunts personal spiritual growth like sin. Nothing cripple’s a leader’s influence like sin. I want to grow. I want to influence. So I want to be a person and a pastor whose default response is to consider my own sin, not another’s. When we sin for what it is and repent, we increase our influence rather than loose it. That certainly was the case for Augustine. Reading his Confessions, as well as his biography by Peter Brown, has been a great example to me of changing the world by confessing, not covering, sin.

I should have plenty of opportunities to put this particular resolution into practice since plenty of sin remains for me to mortify. Building this commitment to initiate repentance into my response paradigm is hopefully a good start.

A Shot of Encouragement

Repentance Quotes

Ian Lugg created a video for our snow retreat on Repentance last week. It moves my affections every time I watch it, and since many people have asked for the quotes, I’ve included those below for prolonged marination.


In order:

Repentance stands, then, in opposition to all our former prejudices against the divine character; and in opposition to that sin-extenuating, self-justifying, law-hating, God-blaming disposition which reigns in every impenitent soul. ~ Joseph Bellamy

Though it deserves to be hated with perfect hatred, and though there be every reason why we should be horrified on account of it and abase ourselves before God, mourning it in bitterness of heart, fearing it, watching against it as the greatest of all evils, yet we shall never do so until we see sin in its real hideousness. Thus a deep sense of the infinite evil of sin is plainly essential to repentance, yea, it is from this that repentance immediately springs. ~ A.W. Pink

You may today go home and pretend to pray, you may today be serious, tomorrow honest, and the next day you may pretend to be devout; but yet, if you return—as Scripture has it, like the dog to its vomit and like the sow to its wallowing in the mire—your repentance shall but sink you deeper into hell, instead of being a proof of divine grace in your heart. ~ Charles Spurgeon

If a soul is truly converted, there will be a battle, and an awful chasm that will never be filled up but with the love of God; and therefore when we say, Repent and be converted, it is no more than saying, Repent and be happy. Indeed we shall never be completely happy till we get to heaven. O that every man could see the good of every thing of a sublunary nature drop off like leaves in autumn: God grant this may be known by every one of you. ~ George Whitefield