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.
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.