The Peril of Lukewarm Christianity
Dr. Jim Denison
Jim Cymbala is pastor of the world-famous Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. But 30 years ago, it wasn’t that way at all: a handful of people at the weekday prayer meeting, and not many more at Sunday worship. Their building was falling apart, their future with it. In desperation, he and the church began calling on God, seeking the fullness of his Spirit and power and joy. And God has done a miraculous work with them. I have been part of their Tuesday night prayer service, attended by more than 2,000. God is very, very real in their lives and worship.
I was pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta when I met Jim the first time in his study. Second-Ponce is one of the wealthiest churches in the South. By contrast, I found myself on a campus with security cameras everywhere and two full-time bodyguards. I was taken aback by the poverty and difficulty faced by most of the church’s members. I asked Jim how they were able to do church in such a difficult place.
He smiled and replied, “I don’t see how you are able to do church in such a difficult place. Here, we know we need God. How many of your members can say the same?”
If this were all there is–if your faith story were to conclude today–would you be pleased with what you have experienced of God?
Have you discovered his joy and peace? Have you been used by his Spirit to save souls and change lives? Has your life become all your Father dreamed it would be?
Or, has it been a while since you even thought about such questions? Or since you wished for more in your experience with God than you have? Or since you wanted to be more effective and significant in his Kingdom than you are? Or since God was real for you?
Let’s see if we’re living in Laodicea today, by asking three questions of our souls.
Living in Laodicea
First, is your faith routine?. “I know your deeds,” Jesus says, “that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (v. 15). Laodicea was founded in the mid-third century B.C. by Antiochus II, who named the city after his wife. Its location, 43 miles southeast of Philadelphia, had every natural resource at its disposal except water. Water had to be transported through stone pipes which were three feet in diameter. This aqueduct system was an engineering marvel, but the water it supplied was adequate at best.
Pipes were laid to two sources, each six miles from Laodicea. One was located at Denizli, to the south. This water was fed by snows from the mountains, and started the journey to Laodicea at near freezing temperature. But by the time it had traveled six miles through sun-warmed stone pipes it became lukewarm.
The other source was the hot springs at Hierapolis to the north. These are still stunningly beautiful and a major tourist attraction. The springs rise from within the city, flow across a wide plateau, and spill over a broad cliff 300 feet high and a mile wide. At its source, this spring is at near boiling temperature, with steam rising from its surface. It felt like a sauna to my touch. But by the time it traveled through six miles of pipes it, too, had become lukewarm.
And so Laodicea knew all about lukewarm water. Unfortunately, lukewarm described not only the city’s water but her Christians as well. Their faith had become routine, comfortable, and boring. The new had worn off their Christianity in the forty years since their church had been founded, and their relationship with Jesus had become a religion about him. They came to worship, listened and gave and sang, but faith was just a part of their lives. They had lost their joy, zeal, and passion. Their hearts were as lukewarm as the water they drank.
The Laodicean Christians remind me of the boy who said to his sister in church, “This is boring!” She elbowed him in the ribs and said, “Shut up. It’s supposed to be boring!” If you wander away from the source of your faith, your faith will become as lukewarm, boring, and routine as Laodicea.
How long has it been since you were excited about coming to church to worship Jesus Christ? When was the last time you were overjoyed to read God’s word, or thrilled to be with him in prayer? Do you share your faith with zeal? Do you give your money to God gratefully? Or is your faith boring and routine?
Second, are you self-sufficient?. Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities on her continent. She sat astride the intersection of the two great trade routes of the day, one traveling north to south and the other running from west to east. She was also the site of large manufacturing and banking operations, and was especially known for her woolen carpets and clothing.
And so Jesus quotes this church: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing'” (v. 17a). They thought their future secure, their resources sufficient for any crisis. But self-reliant people are always wrong. We all need the protection and power only Jesus can give.
Today beautiful Laodicea lies in ruins, mostly unexcavated. Where this proud city once ruled its valley, it now lies buried beneath a dirt mound. These Christians and their city were self-sufficient, until they were gone.
It’s possible to live in a spiritual Laodicea and not even realize it. To become self-reliant, trusting in our own ideas and abilities. To make decisions, build careers and achieve success, all with little dependence on Jesus’ leadership and help. All the while assuming that our hard work must be pleasing to him.
We so easily make Jesus part of life instead of Lord. Prayer becomes an activity rather than a relationship, the Bible a book rather than a guide, church a building rather than a family, our faith in Jesus an occasional resource rather than a constant commitment. We become human doings rather than human beings.
Are you living in Laodicea today? When you can go through a day without praying dependently, without thinking of Jesus or your need of him, making decisions without his leadership and working without his help, you’re living in spiritual self-sufficiency. If Jesus were to remove his Holy Spirit from your life or church and most of your activities would be unaffected, you’re in Laodicea.
Third, are you satisfied spiritually?. These believers are satisfied with their material wealth and self-sufficient lifestyles. Their religion was enough for them, but not for Jesus. He must shout to them from behind their locked hearts: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (v. 17b). They are satisfied with so much less than they could have.
Their spiritual condition is truly ironic. The Laodiceans possessed the greatest bank in their region, yet they are actually “poor,” a word which indicates someone as destitute as a beggar. They were famous for an eye salve known as “kollura” which they exported in tablet form to the world, yet they are “blind.” They were known for the wool they manufactured, yet their souls are “naked.” They were satisfied with their spiritual lives and didn’t even realize how “wretched” and “pitiful” they were.
Are you happy with the state of your soul today?
A few years ago Oak Ridge, Tennessee experienced a period of explosive growth. A new nuclear power plant was being built in their area, and people moved in from everywhere. Many were living in trailer homes and some even in tents. The members of a local church were afraid so many of these newcomers would join their church that they would take it over. So the church members passed a resolution declaring that no one could belong to their church unless they owned property in the county.
Their strategy worked. Over time the church got smaller and smaller, until finally it died. A businessman bought the property and converted it into a barbecue restaurant called the Parson’s Table. Now when you go in, no one asks if you own property in the county. They only did that when it was a church.
When Jesus is alive and well in our spirit, he creates in us a hunger for God. We have a deep yearning to know him better, to be more like him, to serve him more effectively. Jesus defeats spiritual routine, and self-sufficiency, and satisfaction. But only he can.
How do we get out of Laodicea? Here’s the roadmap: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (v. 19). Laodicea is the only church which receives not a single word of commendation from Jesus. But it is also the only church to whom he says, “I love you.” How are we to respond to his love?
First, seek God with passion. . “Be earnest”–the Greek means, “be zealous, excited, passionate.” This is a command, not an option. And it is in the present tense, so that it should be translated, “Be continually passionate.” Passion is the cure for a lukewarm spirit. Drive, energy, and devotion should characterize our quest to know God.
But passion is a decision before it is an emotion. The feeling follows the action. We must choose to seek God with zeal, excluding all else. When we make it our life’s purpose to know God, we will.
To leave Laodicea, we must first choose to make knowing Jesus our passion. Change is inevitable–growth is an option. We can choose to seek God earnestly, to read Scripture avidly, to pray without ceasing, to worship God with heart, soul, mind and strength. We can choose to replace our staid religion with a living relationship. And we will open the door to the very One we seek.
Second, pay the price of spiritual joy. Jesus calls through the door to Laodicea: “Be earnest, and repent” (v. 19). Admit your sins and failures, and reject them. Turn from them, once and for all. The more your passion for me grows, the more your hatred for sin will grow as well. The light I bring into your darkened room will expose sin wherever it hides. Refuse it and repent.
A spiritual inventory is never more essential than in Laodicea. This is time alone with God, asking the Spirit to lead us as we write on paper every sin he calls to mind. Then we consciously and specifically reject and refuse each failure we see, and tear the paper up. We are forgiven, and set free. The living Christ is now welcome in our hearts. Our lukewarm spirits begin to boil with a new passion and joy. Life gains the significance only Jesus can give.
When we seek God with passionate, yielded, repentant hearts, we experience the reality of his presence, peace and joy: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (v. 20). This is a great and gracious promise.
And this dinner will last forever: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (v. 21). We will share in the feast of the Messiah for all eternity, as we rule with him.
Oswald Chambers, one of the greatest devotional writers of all time, once observed, “The surest sign that God has done a work of grace in my heart is that I love Jesus Christ best; not weakly and faintly, not intellectually, but passionately, personally and devotedly, overwhelming every other love of my life.” Is this where you are? Is this where you would choose to go, today?
A classic Christian painting is Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. It pictures a thorn- crowned Christ who stands knocking on a closed door overgrown with vines. The end of the harvest approaches and fruit lies unclaimed on the ground beneath the trees. The hinges on the door are rusty with disuse. The lantern which Jesus holds in his left hand glows and gives off a warmth the viewer can almost feel.
Standing before this touching scene, we wonder why Jesus does not open the door and go inside. Then we realize the artist has left one thing out of his painting: the handle on the outside of the door. There is no knob on Jesus’ side. Those inside the house must open their door to him. So with the human heart.
One day a small girl stood before this painting, her hand in her father’s. Finally she turned to him and asked, “Daddy, did He ever get in?”