If you’ve been a Christian for a while, it’s quite possible that you’ve heard a message from this passage of Scripture:

“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. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:14–19).1

The common take on this is that we in the Church are “lukewarm,” that we should “catch fire” or “get rid of worldliness in the Church.” Why? Because, if we don’t, Jesus will spit, spew, vomit us out of His mouth. We make Him sick!

There is some truth here, but it’s inadequate and perhaps even misleading. I think we’ve got the understanding of this passage wrong. Let’s start with the very first thing that Jesus says to the Laodiceans: “I know your works.” The people in the church in that city were working. That’s not the problem. So, right off the bat, if we’re using this as an admonition to do more works, as noble as they may be, we’re already missing something. Jesus’s problem with the Laodiceans wasn’t that they weren’t working—it’s that they were lukewarm as they were involved in whatever works they were doing. But what does it mean to be lukewarm? A little background.

A few years ago, this question popped into my mind concerning these verses. If Jesus is spitting these people out of His mouth, how did they get there in the first place? Here’s my answer, and I think it might just open up our understanding of the passage and contradict the “We’re lukewarm, so we gotta get hot” mantra—which never made much sense in the first place, because Jesus said that He’d rather that we were cold or hot. Jesus would prefer that we be cold? How can that be? However, it all begins to make sense if we answer the question about how the Laodiceans got into Jesus’s mouth in the first place. Clearly, He was “taking a drink” from them. Now, when you’re hot, nothing is more refreshing that a cold drink. Conversely, when we’re cold, nothing is better than a hot drink. But what isn’t refreshing? You guessed it—a lukewarm drink on a hot or cold day. No one would choose a lukewarm drink over a hot or cold one. So, if we have a choice, we may actually spit out such a drink, as Jesus said He would do here.

But why the Laodiceans were in Jesus’s mouth in the first place? Well, if you’re a servant and your Master is thirsty, what should you do? Exactly. These church people were not “refreshing” to Jesus in their service to Him. Why? Well, again, it wasn’t because they weren’t working. Something else is going on here, and the beginning of our answer lies in verse 17, where Jesus tells them why they are not refreshing to Him: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Apparently, these Christians were doing quite well. They had prospered. They had experienced God’s blessing. Now, whether they had experienced that prosperity in their own individual lives or in their ministries, we’re not told. Curious, isn’t it, when the thing that all of us want—prosperity in our finances and our ministries—can actually be dangerous to us. Jesus tells the Laodiceans that, even though they had prospered, they were really quite poor. Well, it’s more than that. They are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

Sounds like trouble to me. Whatever was going on was not refreshing to Jesus. He didn’t consider it an adequate ministry to Him.

So, what would our great God say to a church that had prospered but wasn’t refreshing? Work harder? Turn up the passion?

No. Here’s the first thing Jesus told them to do: “…buy from me gold refined by fire.” What does that mean? Well, being refined by fire doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it? When the Lord was getting after Israel through the prophet Zechariah, He said, “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God’” (Zechariah 13:9).

Refining is difficult. Refining means the Lord will test us. As Jeremiah wrote, “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, I will refine them and test them, for what else can I do, because of my people?’” (Jeremiah 9:7). As difficult as refining and testing may be, however, it is the antidote to feeling self-satisfyingly prosperous, according to Jesus.

But how does one buy gold refined by fire from Jesus? We’ll look at that next time.2

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

2This article is from a previously published post entitled, Jesus Speaks to the Church in Laodicea.