A believer recently asked, “what did Jesus mean when He characterized His messenger to the church in Laodicea as being ‘lukewarm’ in Rev. 3:16?” Such an astute question from one of the saints probably reflects the paucity of preaching in today’s churches about fellowship, particularly about fellowship with the Father and His Son (cf. 1 John 1:3).
This essay will explore the meaning of spiritual fellowship from the relevant New Testament scriptures. All scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible. 1995.
Definition of Fellowship
Some wag defined fellowship as “two fellows in a ship.” This definition could have some validity depending on the size of the ship and if the fellows were in the ship voluntarily.
For example, imagine a huge cruise ship in distress with its life-boats deployed. The two fellows could be total strangers involuntarily forced into a life-boat. Granted, under such conditions some fellowship might develop, but not the kind one generally envisions when hearing the word fellowship.
Webster’s Dictionary defines fellowship as “the companionship of persons on equal and friendly terms” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam, 1971. 836). An appropriate modification of Webster’s definition for believers might be “the companionship of persons on equal and friendly physical and spiritual terms, but not necessarily including equal roles.” Furthermore, companionship demands communication.
Context of “Being Lukewarm”
Since Jesus held seven stars in His right hand, and the stars represented the seven angels (messengers) to the seven churches—one of which was the church in Laodicea—it is most probable that the messenger to Laodicea was a Jewish believer in Jesus (cf. Rev. 1:16 for the stars in Jesus’ hand, 1:20 for identification of the stars as messengers, and Gal. 2: 9 for John’s apostleship to believing Jews).
Note: the Greek word “angel” is sometimes translated “messenger” (e.g., Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:24; 9:52; Phil. 2:25; Jas. 2:25). The translation “messenger” will be used consistently throughout this study.
According to Jesus’ figurative description, the spiritual state of the Laodicean messenger was “lukewarm” judged on the basis of his unacceptable deeds (Rev. 3:15-16). It is likely that Jesus also knew the messenger’s motives underlying his unacceptable deeds (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5).
Jesus’ dramatic and dire warning to His lukewarm messenger was that “I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16). This is like projectile vomiting and not like a baby’s spit-up. So without equivocation, Jesus expressed His warning in forcefully figurative language. However, the implied spiritual reality of Jesus’ language was that His believing messenger was “in Him” and would be forcibly separated “from Him.”
Being “in Jesus” meant the messenger momentarily enjoyed spiritual fellowship with his Lord. And biblically speaking, separation meant the messenger would die (cf. Rom. 13:8 for the consequence of dying from doing deeds “according to the flesh” and therefore unacceptable to Jesus due to sin compellingly motivating those deeds).
Some Preliminary Realities
Spiritual fellowship with the Father and His Son did not become a reality until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and baptism by the Holy Spirit of both Jews and gentiles into a single body biblically known as the church. Prior to this point in history, fellowship with the Father and Son was both unthinkable and indeed impossible.
Fellowship with the Father and His Son is the most profound and prestigious relationship in the universe—even more significant than being head of the most powerful nation on earth. And fellowship is a free gift from God, never earned by a believer’s deeds (cf. Rom. 6:23).
To further explore the ramifications of a ruptured fellowship, it is helpful to understand the meaning of death. The biblical word “death” does not mean annihilation or extinction. The word simply means separation.
Furthermore, four different meanings of the word death appear in the New Testament. The context in which the word appears determines which meaning the writer intended. The four distinct uses related to humans are:
- physical death which is the separation of the spirit from the body;
- spiritual death which is the separation of the spirit from God;
- eternal death which is permanent separation of an unbeliever from the presence of God in heaven; and
- relational death which is herein defined as the separation of a believer from fellowship with the Father and His Son.
A good example of relational death comes from the illustration Jesus spoke to His disciples about a father with two sons (Luke 15:11-32). The illustration has become popularly known as the story of the Prodigal Son.
The younger of the two sons requested and received his share of the estate from his father. He then separated from his father by leaving home. Ultimately, the son squandered his estate share thereby becoming impoverished. After some serious reflection about his financial situation and the separation from his father, the son resolved to return home to his father and confess his sin. Upon his son’s return, his father ordered a celebratory feast—a sure indication of restored fellowship.
What is significant for understanding relational death was the father’s twice repeated assessment of his son’s relationship with him while absent. That assessment: “. . . this son of mine was dead (emphasis mine) . . .” (Luke 15:24, 32). Thus, one might confidently conclude that the son suffered relational death due to separation from fellowship with his father.
To the saints beloved of God in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote, “. . . if you are living according to the flesh, you must die . . . (Rom. 8:13). The uniquely Pauline phrase “according to the flesh” meant a believer was potentially living under enslavement to sin.
Sin is an evil entity permanently resident from birth in all human bodies. Jesus was the one exception to this universal and tragic human state because He was born biologically without a human father—the channel through which sin is transmitted to all humans (Rom. 5:12 for transmission of sin, and John 8:34 for slavery to sin). Sin universally and inexorably ends in committing an act of sin. One should keep in mind the distinction between resident sin and an act of sin.
In Rom. 13:8 partially quoted above, Paul was clearly not warning saints of physical, spiritual, or eternal death. So, he must have had in mind the “relational death” of separation from fellowship with the Father and His Son when he wrote “you must die.”
The Spiritual Consequences of Lost Fellowship and Restoration to Fellowship
The central passage in scripture that teaches about aspects of spiritual fellowship is elaborated in the entire first chapter of John’s first epistle. Summarizing John’s first chapter:
- for the first time in all human history after the Fall, spiritual fellowship with the Father can be the norm for all believers;
- fellowship is maintained by abiding in God’s Son (i.e., Christ as one’s Lord) which brings cleansing from the sin that resides in—and contaminates all—believers;
- fellowship is ruptured by committing a sin;
- fellowship is restored simply by naming the specific sin (confession) to God; and,
- confession brings about God’s forgiveness of the specific sin plus spiritual cleansing from the impurity of sin resident in one’s body.
The Consequences and Causes of Being “Lukewarm”
In Jesus’ comments to His Laodicean messenger (Rev. 3:15-20), He never explicitly used the word “fellowship.” However, from the nature of the Lord’s figurative statements, the subject of fellowship can be strongly inferred.
For example, Jesus said “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me (Rev. 3:20). In context, Jesus was addressing those whom He loved, reproved, and disciplined—clearly identifying them as believers (Rev. 3:19). The promise that “I will come in to him (a believer) and will dine with him, and he with me” are words strongly suggesting an invitation to spiritual fellowship with Jesus. These are certainly not the words that promise forgiveness of sins to an unbeliever.
Therefore, being “lukewarm” can lead inexorably to the consequence of a loss of spiritual fellowship with the Son and also the Father.
The first causes of being spiritually lukewarm that Jesus mentioned to His Laodicean messenger were twofold: one, his deeds were neither cold nor hot; and two, the messenger himself was neither hot nor cold (Rev. 3:15-16). The word “hot” is likely figurative for zealousness because Jesus commanded His messenger to be zealous as a remedy for being lukewarm (cf. Rev. 3:19).
Paul might have added that for Jewish believers, zeal should be in accordance with knowledge (cf. Rom. 10:2).
Being cold was at the opposite end of the spectrum from being hot. So the opposite of zeal was probably hostility. The New Testament record of Peter’s experience shows that believing Jews could sometimes be hostile or at least confrontational (cf. Acts 11:2-3). So “being lukewarm” is somewhere in the middle of being cold and hot, and probably indicates spiritual indifference, apathy, or more particularly, disengagement.
Being hot or cold means a believer is at least engaged in spiritual matters. However, being lukewarm means a believer has become disengaged, and therefore with no hope—humanly speaking—of becoming re-engaged.
A third cause of being spiritually lukewarm was physical and financial independence fostered by riches and wealth (Rev. 3:17). Jesus had warned about the deceitfulness of wealth and its effect of choking out the word of God so that the word becomes unfruitful (Matt. 13:18-22; Luke 8:11-14).
Indeed, money management and asset management with their respective records-keeping requirements are full-time activities that often dominate and consume one’s thinking and emotions. Of course, wealth allows the hiring of trusty assistants; however, that only adds personnel management to the situation.
An ancillary effect of physical and financial independence is ignorance of one’s own spiritual state. Jesus’ own knowledgeable and accurate five-fold insight into His messenger’s spiritual state was that “. . . you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rev. 3:17).
Jesus’ saw His church messenger as a spiritually miserable wretch, impoverished, clueless, and naked. The impact of a messenger in such a spiritual state could have catastrophic consequences on members of his congregation (cf. Heb. 13:17).
The Spiritual Remedy for Being Lukewarm
Jesus introduced the remedy for being spiritually lukewarm with some mentally jarring advice: “I advise you to buy from Me
- gold refined by fire . . . ,
- white garments . . . ; and
- eye salve . . .” (Rev. 3:18).
The Lord’s advice is jarring because He is presently in heaven. And just how does a human go about accessing a heavenly precious-metals emporium for refined gold, a clothing outlet for white garments, and a pharmacy for eye salve? Impossible!
Furthermore, “. . . the free gift (emphasis mine) of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Why is the Lord now charging for a free gift from God? He’s not!
Perhaps Jesus’ attention-arresting advice was to alert His messenger that he was indeed needy and his wealth could not fill his spiritual needs which are freely given by God. In other words, he was in dire spiritual straits and his wealth was worthless. Finally, Jesus directed His messenger’s attention to the One who could freely remedy spiritual problems, i.e., Himself.
Jesus’ was emphatically directing the messenger to exchange his wealth for spiritually worthwhile items: the refined gold meaning faith (cf. 1 Pet. 1:7); the white garments meaning God’s righteousness (cf. Phil. 3:9); and the eye salve meaning the Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry (cf. 1 John 2:27).
During His earthly ministry, Jesus gave some advice to a rich young ruler: go, sell everything you own, give to the poor, and follow Me (Mark 10:17-21). This advice was given to a believer who wanted to do something good himself to inherit eternal life. Jesus had made it clear that no human could do anything good, but following Him in total dependence upon Him (and not upon wealth) would bring a reward in heaven.
The parallels between the rich young ruler and church messenger are close and spiritually instructive.
Being lukewarm spiritually means a believer has become disengaged from Jesus Christ. Disengagement leads to relational death, i.e., broken fellowship with Jesus and the Father.
The personal financial wealth of a believer can become the root cause of disengagement. Remember, wealth is a relative thing depending upon the social structure and economy wherein the believer lives.
Solution to the lukewarm problem is prayer for the lukewarm believer by other believers (cf. Rom. 10:1-3; Col. 4:13-14).