15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot.
16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,
18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent.
We have a rich heritage. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. This courageous act sparked the Protestant Reformation. Soon, John Calvin followed by publishing his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Reformed Churches were formed. Creeds, catechisms and confessions were written.
Today we have the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and the little book that has such a cherished place in our hearts: the Heidelberg Catechism.
A rich heritage is a tremendous blessing. But a rich heritage does not leave us immune to the attacks of Satan. It does not leave us immune from the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. There is a great danger that is lurking for churches with a rich heritage.
To warn each of us away from this danger, Jesus speaks to the church of the Laodiceans. They also had a rich heritage. They were founded by the apostles. It is likely that Paul himself preached there. They had embraced God’s word and embraced Christ. They were part of a rich circle of churches that were the bulwark of Christianity in the area now known as Turkey.
They were also very wealthy in material things. God had greatly prospered the city, including the church within the city. Laodicea was a tremendously influential and wealthy Roman city.
But now something is very wrong. Jesus himself addresses them. There is something so wrong here that Jesus says that he is about to vomit them up.
He uses a metaphor to explain to them what their problem is. He calls them “lukewarm”. Perhaps He is referring to the mineral waters that were piped in from nearby hot springs. Perhaps he is speaking of the drinking water piped in from the nearby fresh water springs. By the time Laodicea got these waters, they were lukewarm and disgusting.
Hot water is good. Cold water is good. Tepid water is disgusting – especially tepid mineral waters. It is good for nothing but to be spat up. It makes the stomach sick.
It is tempting to simply exegete the word “lukewarm” and to ignore the rest of the text. Many sermons on this text do just that. A sermon on this text generally involves telling the congregation that they need to be hot for Jesus. Either be passionate about God or an outright unbeliever, but tepid Christianity is sickening.
They are right to a certain extent. But the text itself does not define what “hot” is, or what “cold” is. “Hot” and “cold” are simply used to contrast with “lukewarm”. Lukewarm water is neither therapeutically hot, nor is it refreshingly cool. It is simply sickening. Since the text is silent on the meaning of cold and hot, it would do no good to speculate. It is not actually necessary to know what hot and cold are in order to understand the message of the Lord, for the text does tell us clearly what is meant by “lukewarm”.
The reason, Jesus says, that Laodicea is “lukewarm” is because they say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.”
The problem is this. The Laodiceans have lied to themselves. They said that they were rich and didn’t need anything, when the reality was far different. They weren’t rich. They were “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.”
Jesus is probably referring to a recent event as an illustration of the problem. In 60 AD, Laodicea had suffered a tremendous earthquake. The Empire had offered assistance, but the town refused. They said, “We have need of nothing. We are rich”.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should try not to be a burden to others. It is a good thing to labor so that we have enough to give to those who have need (Eph. 4:28).
But here was the problem: this attitude crept into the church. They began to think of themselves as rich, in need of nothing. They were all “good Christians”. The preaching of the gospel that the preacher does is good – but it is good for those “others”. “We, of course, are rich. The sinners need to hear it. A sinner is a poor unfortunate that really needs Christ – not like us, of course. We are rich.”
A rich heritage is a blessing. But too often it turns into pride. We begin to think that we are somehow a little holier, a little wiser and a little better that those “others” out there. Soon we begin to sound like the Pharisee in the front of the church, looking boldly into heaven and saying, “I thank God I am not like other men”.
Soon, like the Laodiceans, we begin to believe what every child of Adam believes deep in his heart: I am rich, and have need of nothing. “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. I learned the catechism when I was a kid. I was baptized. I am in church every Sunday. I really don’t need anything. I am rich.”
But this is a lie. And Jesus is about to vomit them out of his mouth.
For the reality is that the Laodiceans were not rich. They were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked – just as all of us are.
Learning the catechism is a good thing. Learning theology from the wise pastors who have gone before is a good thing. Being reformed is a good thing. But these are only good things if they constantly remind us that we are NOT rich, but in continual, desperate need of a savior. We have never gone a moment – even AFTER we became Christians – when we have not deserved God’s eternal wrath against sin. And our misery is such that we are blinded to our own sins – even now!
This is why God put us all in churches – because we need to be constantly reminded that we are not really the cat’s meow. We are not “all that”. We are not the pinnacles of virtue and wisdom that we like to think we are. God is not “lucky” that we came to church today and put our tithes in the offering plate. We are really wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.
This is why we learned the catechism when we were young. This is why the catechism has been so beloved for so long. It continually reminds us how great our sin and misery is, and how great our saviour is. The more we know, the more we offer our lives as living sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.
But at no time in our lives, from the cradle to the grave, can we ever say, “We are rich, and have need of nothing.” We know this in our own consciences. Our consciences still daily accuse us that we have “grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and are still prone always to all evil.”
We confess this with our mouths. But do we confess this in our innermost being? Whether we are new Christians or have been Christians our whole lives, do we still say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”? Or is our attitude, “I am rich, and have need of nothing.”
We can argue with Solomon’s wisdom on the total depravity of man, and astutely apply the doctrine to politicians, celebrities, musicians, pastors and everyone in the pew next to us – but refuse to apply it to ourselves. Too often we act as if everyone else is wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked and we ourselves are rich, and have need of nothing.
This is why God so strictly enjoined the Ten Commandments upon us. Not so that we can pat ourselves on the back for our good efforts, but so we may always learn more and more of our sinful nature and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness of Christ.
Which is exactly what Jesus tells the Laodiceans to do (verse 18): “Buy from me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments that you may be clothed…and anoint your eyes with eye-salve that you may see.”
As long as we stubbornly refuse to confess our poverty, we will never know the riches that are found only in Christ. As long as we continue to take pride in the fig leaves that we have sewn together in the vain attempt to cover our shame, we will never know the white garments that come only from Christ. As long as we clamp our eyes shut while shouting “We see!”, we remain blind and have no part in the tremendous freedom that comes from open eyes.
And this is not a good place to be. Jesus says he will vomit you up. But Jesus is patient, and he pleads with us. It is not enough to simply admit that you are a sinner and then expect the world to deal with it. Rather, Jesus tells us that if we really are poor, naked, and blind then we are to DO something about it. “Buy from me,” he says.
But how do you buy gold and raiment and eye-salve when you are as poor as the Bible says you are?
Isaiah answers this question for us:
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance” (Isa. 55:1-2).
Our fallen nature uses all of the wealth that we think we have to purchase those things that we think will quench our thirst. But the only thing that can cover our nakedness, quench our thirst, and make us rich is offered to us for free.
We seek to alleviate powerlessness and loneliness through adultery and fornication, because we refuse to see that Jesus was forsaken by all so that we might never be alone.
We covet and steal because we have forgotten that Jesus gave up the riches of heaven so that we may become richer than we can even imagine.
We fight and cause division and strife in order to gain recognition, acceptance and significance, because we forget that he was outcast as a criminal, made himself of no reputation, and crucified among thieves so that we might be “accepted in the beloved”.
We are anxious and full of worry about the future because we forget that he rose from the dead and is even now sitting at the right hand of God, ruling over all things for the good of the church.
We have not, because we ask not. We ask not because we think we are rich, and in need of nothing.
This disease is prevalent: none of us is immune. It is deadly: we cannot believe that we have need of nothing and have any part in Christ. It is deceptive: we don’t even know how pervasive it is in our own souls.
But Jesus will never allow any of his sheep to perish. Therefore he says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
Since the disease is common to every child of Adam, the cure is applied to every member of Christ: it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of heaven. It is through tribulation and trials that we learn by the grace of God just how miserable, wretched, poor, blind and naked we really are. It is when those trials that we cannot solve come upon us that we understand how utterly lacking in wisdom we really are. It is only when the armies of Sennacherib surround us that we realize our helplessness and danger. Only when we are brought face to face with giants do we fall on our faces and cry out, “Lord, save us!”
But we are also stubborn. Our tendency is to refuse the yoke and kick against the pricks. So Jesus says, “Repent”. In other words, stop thinking the way that you normally think and remember the promises of God. In hard times, our tendency is to complain, doubting God’s goodness. We struggle letting our idols go. We still think that we can fix this if only we were smarter, wiser, or better people. It is precisely this that Jesus commands us to repent from. For the bread that we seek is free. The clothing that we need is free. The wisdom that we so desperately long for is free.
God brings us face to face with giants that are so formidable that we have no weapons that are any match against them. We have no armies coming over the hills to back us up. We have no strategy that will overcome. Retreat is impossible. Advance is suicide. We stand on the mountain with Barak and a host of farmers with sticks, while the valley below is full of chariots of iron, undefeatable soldiers and horses without number. What can be done? Why does God bring us to that point?
He brings us to that point because he loves us. He calls us to quit thinking that we are smart enough, strong enough and rich enough to overcome anything. As long as we say that we are rich and in need of nothing, we will never know the strength of Jesus Christ, our king.
Jesus uses a figure of speech to plead with us (verse 20). This passage does not speak of the universal call of the gospel. He is not saying to “invite Jesus into your hearts”. That sentiment is meaningless and foreign to the text. He is speaking to the ones whom he loves (verse 19) that would rather dine alone on the empty waste of their own wisdom and strength than admit their nakedness and fall before their king. He is speaking to those in the churches with rich heritages who are too wise, too righteous and too astute to need a savior.
He is not unwilling to save. He is standing at the door and knocking. He is pleading with the church to stop spending their money on that which isn’t bread, and open the door.
The Reformed Churches have a rich heritage. But something happened. The seminaries began to turn out pastors who were too wise to need a resurrected saviour. They were too righteous to need a crucified Lord. They were too strong to need an ascended Christ. These pastors inflicted the churches. They denied the resurrection, the incarnation, and eventually denied that Jesus ever existed at all. Soon the sound of knocking became the sound of retching, and Jesus vomited them up, just as He promised. The landscape of Europe and the United States became littered with useless, vain, empty churches that once proudly proclaimed their rich heritage. The dead fly of human wisdom and strength caused the ointment to stink, and Jesus removed the candlestick.
But for all who open the door, who remember their poverty and wretchedness, Jesus makes a tremendous promise. He will come in and dine with them.
Only when we are in fellowship with Christ can we soar with eagles’ wings. And we can only be in fellowship with Christ if we never forget that we ourselves are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. But when we come to Christ again in our poverty and need, we find that we do not dine alone. Indeed, he prepares a table for us even in the presence of our enemies, and causes us to rest safely in green pastures.
When we are in fellowship with Christ, we are truly flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. His death was our death. The law has no more hold on us, for we have been crucified with him. His resurrection is our resurrection. We are no longer in bondage to the curse for we have been raised again to new life. And his triumph is our triumph. Where the head goes, the body goes. So he says, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).
This is our rich heritage. Victory is not in our wisdom, nor our strength, nor the ingenuity of our fig-leaves, but only in the mercy of Christ. It isn’t in “accepting Jesus into your heart”, whatever that means. It isn’t in masses, submission to the pope or confession to a priest. It isn’t in the rituals of the church, nor is it in military strength.
Victory only lies in falling down again before our Lord and crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”