The Gospel for Lukewarm Christians

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In Douglas Adams’ classic novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams describes the back cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide as barren except for the words “Don’t Panic” prominently written in large, friendly letters to imbue the galactic traveler with a sense of confidence and calm as he braves the vast unknown. We would be remiss if we didn’t do the same for the book of Revelation.

The last book of the Bible has classically been a troubling and difficult book for people in every generation. Between the end times and Judgment Day, Revelation presents us with the whole mess of things to ponder and dissect. As we read, however, it’s important to view Revelation in a gospel-centric way and to say, “Don’t Panic!” because on account of Christ everything is really going to be okay. When Revelation speaks on its own terms it is not primarily a tale of judgment or doom, but a story of the person and work of Jesus Christ. What we come away with shouldn’t be anxiety, but comfort and hope.

This leads me to address the common concern for many Christians concerning their chances of surviving the final judgment. This concern comes especially from the letter to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3. Even if this letter doesn’t immediately ring a bell, I’m almost positive you’ve heard its language. This is the passage where we get the idea of being a “lukewarm” Christian, which is often translated into exhortations to be an “authentic” Christian or live “on fire for Christ.”  Many a pastor has turned to Revelation 3 in attempts to incite zeal for witnessing the faith we confess or to preach that we cannot rely on Word and Sacraments, but instead must have a separate indwelling of the Spirit to be saved. Under the guise of the “Gospel” this kind of preaching has caused more anxiety than comfort over the years, and causes many to question, “Am I a true believer? Am I witnessing enough, giving enough, doing enough? Am I enough?”

But what if these questions are precisely where we go wrong. What would happen if we asked Revelation who it was talking about? Then we might find that “A revelation of Jesus Christ” is not just a nice sentiment; it’s the theme statement of the entire book. John puts these words right at the beginning of his apocalyptic text, Revelation 1:1, so that the reader knows what she’s reading. Wherever she goes in Revelation, the reader is always going to be looking at Christ. Not only is she going to see Christ, but she is also going to hear Him. The letters to the seven churches of Asia are a perfect example of this. Christ Himself is present and Christ Himself speaks to His dear Christians.

To be lukewarm is to take refuge in your own works apart from the works of God.
— Philip Bartelt

The first person Christ speaks to is the angel of His church. When the text says, “to the angel of the church in...” it is actually referring to the pastors of these churches, so here, the “angel” is not a heavenly being but a very earthly “messenger” of God’s word. This places the reading and the receiving of these letters in the congregational setting. All the churches heard their letters read alongside the other six letters collected in the first few chapters of Revelation from the mouth of their very own pastor. Such is the case for the last letter in Revelation, the letter to Laodicea. “To the pastor in Laodicea, John, write these words from me, Jesus.” Although in each letter Jesus doesn’t simply sign His name but describes Himself according to His own unique attributes. In the letter to Laodicea, Jesus addresses Himself as the “Amen,” the “faithful and true witness,” and the “source/beginning of God’s creation.” This will become important later in the letter so keep these in mind. Jesus alone is true. Jesus alone is the source of all things.

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Now that we know both the author and receiver for the letter let’s get to the meat. From the previous six letters we can safely assume Jesus is about to do two things: 1) Call this congregation to repentance and 2) give them a promise. First the call to repentance. In earlier letters, the primary issue Jesus deals with is idolatry and the sins that flow from idolatry including sexual immorality, eating food sacrificed to idols, and licentious living. This is true for the church in Laodicea as well. Their issue is chiefly an issue of idolatry, but it’s more subtle than perhaps we’re accustomed to thinking about from the Old Testament. Their idol is not a statue of stone or wood, but their own power and self-reliance.

In the Large Catechism, Luther defines a “god” saying, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” Revelation 3:17 tells us that the Laodiceans trusted in themselves for every good thing. They claimed to be rich, self-sufficient and having no need, but in reality, this is their own false, man-made Religion. This is the reason why God threatens to spit them out. And this is truly what it means to be “lukewarm.” To be lukewarm is to take refuge in your own works apart from the works of God. It’s not that you aren’t working enough, but instead that you’re focused on working too much! Revelation 3 reminds its reader it is Christ and Christ alone who is the source of every good gift including our good works, and Christ alone who is true and faithful to His promises to provide for all needs of body and soul. He is truly our Amen.

In our blind, dead, and sinful ways, Christ comes to us, tells us the truth of our situation, and provides the solution which rests in His own self-giving love.
— Philip Bartelt

Christ spends the rest of the letter not with scolding or a call to repentance, but by boldly delivering a promise (3:18-22). Christ says you are, in fact, poor, wretched, pitiable, and blind, but I am rich. I will give you gold of eternal value which is my blood shed for you so you can be rich. You’re naked and your shame is exposed, but I will clothe you in the white garment of your Baptism that can cover every great shame and vice. You may be blind to your own folly in sin, but I will salve your eyes so you can discern the things which are good.

Furthermore, Christ promises the ones who heed His call that He will be with them and dine with them. As the Church, we recognize this as God’s presence in the bread and wine and finally in the feast of the Lamb to come at the resurrection! To the one who conquers by the blood of the Lamb by grace through faith, Christ even promises His very own throne which His Father gave to Him (3:21).

With these promises ringing in our ears, we can view both the letter to the church in Laodicea and Revelation in its entirety as a profound message of hope and comfort for the Christian. In our blind, dead, and sinful ways, Christ comes to us, tells us the truth of our situation, and provides the solution which rests in His own self-giving love. This is the gift we have in Baptism, the gift of Holy Communion, and the gift of the blood of the Lamb through whom we are indeed conquerors. So don’t panic! Everything is going to be okay.

Philip Bartelt is a currently studying to obtain a master of divinity at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University, Irvine, studying theology, biblical languages, and philosophy. Philip is married to his beautiful wife Jaclyn. They are expecting a baby girl this Spring.