I could subtitle this blogpost as “further adventures in misreading the Bible.”
Today’s concept of being “lukewarm” originated in the Bible, but it has permeated nearly all of contemporary culture. For example, football players are scolded by their coaches for having lukewarm enthusiasm for their team. “Step it up, folks, or get off the team!!” It is a well-worn word picture, warning against half-heartedness.
Unfortunately, to be lukewarm has taken on a meaning that has been completely ripped out of its original, biblical context. A standard definition of lukewarm has come to mean “neither cold nor hot; tepid,” but there is a figurative meaning that can be traced back to the period of the Reformation, in the 16th century, to describe a person, or their actions, as “lacking in zeal.”
In evangelical church culture, this has meant that a lukewarm Christian is someone who is neither hot; as in, “on fire for the Lord,” nor cold; as in “a nominal Christian,” or not even a Christian at all, one who is cold-hearted in their faith. Rather, such a lukewarm person is rather tepid in their faith, someone who says that they believe in Jesus, but that they are simply going through the motions of being Christian, with nothing truly heartfelt inside of them.
Being “hot” for the Lord is good. Being “cold” for the Lord is bad. Nevertheless, either being “hot” or “cold” is preferable to being lukewarm.
While this rebuke against lukewarm faith is surely correct, it completely misses the original context for where it is expressed in the Bible. In the early chapters of the Book of Revelation, Jesus issues a rebuke for each of the seven churches, being addressed in the text, with a particularly notable admonition towards the church in Laodicea:
- “(v.14-16) 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.
“‘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……(v.19) Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:14-16, 19)
The city of Laodicea, located near the modern city of Denizili, Turkey, was situated just a few miles from the neighboring cities of Hierapolis and Colossae (think, the Book of Colossians), during the New Testament period, of the 1st century C.E. All three cities were known for the spring waters that flowed near and through them. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs, which were useful for medicinal purposes. Colossae was known for its cold springs, which were useful for drinking and refreshment purposes.
Laodicea, on the other hand, was known for its tepid, lukewarm water springs, which were completely useless. Visitors to Laodicea, in the New Testament era, were known to taste the water of Laodicea, only to spit it out, because it was so yucky. As a result, an intricate piping system was built to supply Laodicea with useful water, from the two other nearby cities, or other acceptable water sources. You can still visit the ruins of this ancient plumbing system today.
Unfortunately, Bible interpreters of the 16th century Europe were unaware of this archaeological, historical context, for Laodicea. Presumably, Bible interpreters grabbed onto Jesus’ exhortation to be “zealous,” in the nearby verse, Revelation 3:19, and concluded that Jesus was primarily concerned about the temperature of the faith, of the believers in Laodicea. In other words, it is better to be “on fire for the Lord,” or to be spiritually dead, instead of being lukewarm.
However, a look at the original, historical context for this passage of the Bible, brings out the appropriate clarity, regarding what Jesus’ warning to the church of Laodicea, really meant. Being “hot” is indeed useful. Being “cold” is also useful as well. Being lukewarm is not. Jesus’ teaching here is that we are to have a faith that is useful to God, and His purposes…. not a useless faith.
The spiritual temperature of a person’s faith is still important, though. Being “sold-out for Jesus” is good teaching indeed.
But it is just not what Jesus is getting after in this particular passage.
As verse 19 indicates, the passage is intended to stir the heart of the believer to accept God’s patient discipline, in their practice of faith. It was never intended as a means of threatening punishment. Rather, this passage was meant to encourage the believer to accept the Lord’s loving discipline, and respond with zeal to become more useful.
Be “hot” for the Lord, or be “cold” for the Lord. YES! Both of these are good, useful things. Being lukewarm is not.
Being “hot’ for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord. But being “cold” for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord also, strangely enough, when you read this Bible passage, in its historical context.
Nevertheless, the word lukewarm has taken on a life of its own, detached from its original context, having been embedded in the consciousness of Christians for about 500 years now, and still going strong. Some habits with how we use words prove hard to break.
It is true that such insight into the original meaning of the passage can not be gained simply by reading the text in isolation, in the privacy of one’s home. A visit to this part of modern Turkey, where Laodicea is located, would quickly impress a Christian with the real meaning of the text. But not everyone has the luxury to hop on a plane, and learn this lesson for themselves. For the rest of us, the help provided by sound, biblical scholarship can give us the insight we need to understand God’s Word more effectively.
In other words, reading the Bible as sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is not the same thing as reading the Bible as scriptura nuda, “Scripture naked.” Thankfully, there are capable, faithful scholars of the Bible, who can open up our understanding, even for passages that have been taken out of context for centuries. There is a genuine place for historical scholarship that can help us to more faithfully and accurately interpret the Bible that we are reading.
Note: Peter Liethart quotes another New Testament scholar, Craig Koester, who suggests that the notion of “usefulness” of water, in Laodicea, was more specifically related to the practice of hospitality. Koester’s work indicates that when guests came to visit homes in Laodicea, Laodiceans may have used either cold water, to help chill (or supply) cold drinks, or warm water, to mix with wine, in order to warm up those type of beverages. Either way, the tepid water naturally found in Laodicea was not a useful beverage to anyone. So, the piped-in water was much preferred, whether it be hold or cold. This is a slightly different take, than what I presented above, but the principle remains similar: cold water is a good thing, not a bad thing!!