But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. —1 John 1:7
Walking in the light is an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow. That’s how we experience fellowship and cleansing. That is Christianity, and there is no other. It’s what we do at Immanuel. This is not just a sermon I’m preaching. It’s a lifestyle we practice. For example, we’ll be launching small groups in a few weeks. The purpose of small groups at Immanuel is to create environments where people can experience 1 John 1:7. It’s what we do in community groups and men’s community and women’s Bible studies and the meetings of elders and deacons. This church is a safe place for sinners to walk together in the light of an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we can grow and change and be set free.
Revelation 3:14-22 paints a picture of a church not walking in the light. This is what we don’t want to do. What offends the Lord in this case is not intense sin but moderate Christianity. He says, “Would that you were either cold or hot!” He can melt a hard-frozen unbeliever. But he spits out a lukewarm believer. If ever a passage in the Bible told us that honest Christianity is not optional but essential, it’s this passage. And we know it’s relevant to all churches today, because verse 22 says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the [plural] churches.” The Lord meant this for all of us. I need this. We need this. There is a warning here, and there is an invitation here.
At Immanuel right now, my assessment is that we are in a zone of God’s gracious blessing. He’ll keep us there as long as we stay open. So let’s ask him now, “Lord, where am I in this picture? Am I being real with you? Or am I hoping your blessing on others around me will somehow rub off on me? Lord, search my heart. Correct me. I want to grow. I want to step out into the light, where you are.” Let’s think the passage through, taking it in four steps. One, what he knows and feels (verses 14-16). Two, what they say and do not feel (verse 17). Three, how he counsels and loves (verses 18-19). Four, what he offers and promises (verse 20).
What he knows and feels
“The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (verse 14). Why is that there? Because however much the Laodiceans did not realize how they had cooled off, however much they were mistaken in their own self-image, they had in Jesus a Friend who would tell them the truth. He sees through all appearances into what we really are. Chapter 1 of the Revelation says his eyes are like a flame of fire. He does not judge by second-hand reports and rumors and hearsay. He knows, because he looks and he levels with us. What then does the faithful and true witness say?
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! You are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold” (verses 15-16). He doesn’t say this church is heretical or wacko. He says they’re lukewarm. What does that mean? Well, what does it mean to be hot? The Bible says, “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you” (2 Timothy 1:6). The Bible says, “Be fervent in spirit” (Romans 12:11), and that verb translated “be fervent” means to boil or to burn. The Bible says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and the word “quench” means to extinguish, like putting out a fire. The Bible says, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us?” (Luke 24:32). The gospel message enflames us with an intense love for Jesus. He loves us intensely, not moderately, and his whole object is to win back from us a love that burns for him – loving him, loving the Bible, loving your church, loving your unbelieving friends, walking out of church thinking, “I want to live for Christ this week!” That’s hot.
One of the books that came out of my dad’s library after he died was a commentary on Revelation chapters 1-3. It included this paragraph, which my dad underlined:
Jesus loved the enthusiast, the man who knew what side he was on and threw himself whole-heartedly into the struggle. He liked energetic action, as in the men who climbed the roof and broke a way through for their paralyzed friend, or in Zacchaeus who forgot his dignity and swarmed up a tree. He loved the generous giver. All four Gospels quote His saying, ‘He who loves life loses it; he who spends keeps.’ It sums up His attitude to life. He praised the man who banged on the door till he got an answer. He praised the widow who badgered the unjust judge into doing justice. He did not like playing for safety or burying one’s talent. Goodness is a positive active loyalty.
What then does it mean to be cold? To be cold is to be frozen solid and icy toward the Lord, unmoved, unmelted, no warmth or thaw but hardened and determined not to yield to Christ, not to open up, not to make any adjustments to obey him more, because he isn’t worth it. That’s cold.
The Laodicean church was neither hot nor cold. They were somewhere in the mushy middle of things. They were room temperature. They neither promoted the gospel nor opposed it. They didn’t defend the cause of Christ or attack it. They weren’t doing anything really bad, nor were they moving out in great exploits for Christ. They liked the gospel, but they didn’t love it. They thought the Bible had some good ideas, but they didn’t relish it and dig into it and change in order to obey it more. They wanted their kids to grow up moral, but not missional. They found some space in their busy weekend schedule for going to church, but they didn’t structure their schedules around Jesus Community Mission. The world was at peace with these Christians, because they didn’t look much different from the world. And Jesus had a problem with that: “Would that you were either cold or hot!” Radical believers are great Christians, and radical unbelievers make great Christians! Real friends of Jesus know where they stand, and his enemies know where they stand. But these half-hearted, unthinking, indecisive, get-by-with-the-minimum compromisers – Jesus will not put up with it: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (verse 16).
What is the Lord saying? He is saying there is a kind of Christianity he finds disgusting. He put up to his lips the cup of their faith, their hope, their love, and he wanted to spit it out. It didn’t bother them, but to him it was distasteful. Lukewarm Christianity not only turns skeptics off and they look at it and point their fingers and say, “Christianity is empty. You Christians are no different from anyone else” – that turns off the skeptics, but Christ himself can’t stand it. He is in closer agreement with those doubters than with these lukewarm Christians.
But he loves his lukewarm churches and wants to bless them, if they’ll stop lying to themselves and step out into the light of who he really is and who they really are. Which way is it going to go for this Laodicean church? We know from verse 20 that Jesus is outside this church, knocking on their door, asking that someone, anyone, will let him back in. They didn’t kick him out. But neither did they notice when his presence left. And now he’s giving them another chance, because he loves them. But he tells them the truth. He is saying, “I am fully prepared to spit you out.” God said of ancient Israel, “For forty years I loathed that generation” (Psalm 95:10). He saved them, but they didn’t care. That offended him. It didn’t offend them. But all that matters is not how we see ourselves but how he sees us. And like any parent with a beloved child, the Lord is able to look at blood-bought people he dearly loves and also disapprove of them and even judge them. God’s acceptance of us through the cross of Christ is not an all-approving grin. Every parent understands this. You love you child. You delight in your child. And that is why, if your child is defiant or foolish or self-destructive, you are not okay with that. You are prepared to discipline your child. The Laodicean church needed a stern warning and, if they did not repent, severe discipline, and the risen Christ wants them to know that. It is possible for Jesus to turn away from a church that has a lot going for it at some level but is no longer walking in the light. What is it about this church that bothers the Lord so much?
What they say and do not feel
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (verse 17). We must see that the Laodicean church was sincere. The key words here are “not realizing.” They weren’t cynical and two-faced. They weren’t consciously doing anything wrong, but neither were they consciously walking in the light. There was enough good going on in their church that they could ignore the problem. What was the problem? The problem was this. All they saw and all they talked about was their strengths and their successes: “You say, I am rich.” They looked at themselves and liked what they saw. They weren’t even praying about how they could grow and change and do more for Jesus. And, in the nature of the case, they don’t even see the problem. So he helps them see it.
They’re like some guy walking down the street. Here he comes down the sidewalk, toward you. You can’t help but notice that he is wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. But here he comes, banged up from painful encounters with light posts and mailboxes. He is obviously in trouble. You feel sorry for him. So you approach him: “Sir, may I help you?” And he says, “I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.”
That was the church in Laodicea. But the Lord is saying, “Your lack of self-awareness, your dishonesty, your complacency – your whole mentality upsets me. I am not asking you whether you hate me. I almost wish you did. But I am confronting you that you don’t love me enough to walk in my light so that you grow and change under my blessing.”
How he counsels and loves
What do they need to do? They need to go all the way back to how they became Christians in the first place. They need to go back into repentance, and no glib repentance but zealous repentance: “Be zealous and repent” (verse 19). Specifically, they need to humble themselves and go back to Jesus himself and do business with him the same way they did when they were brand new Christians: “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” (verse 18).
You see the word “counsel” there. That is so sweet of the Lord. The risen Lord on high has every right to command them, but he doesn’t. He counsels them, he reasons with them, he advises them. He treats this self-important church with dignity. They were cold toward him, but he was warm toward them. How can they begin again? How can they get a fresh start with Jesus?
“I counsel you to buy from me . . . .” Obviously, we can’t buy the grace of Christ. How can we buy what isn’t for sale? So, what is the Lord saying? He’s saying, “Deal with me. I’m open for business. Value what I offer and promise. Consider me worth having. Bring me your need, and I will treat it as valuable currency. I will give you everything you need to trade with me. You give your emptiness to me, and I will give my fullness to you. But let’s do business, you and I, and I’ll prove to you what a satisfying purchase I am.”
He says, “. . . buy from me,” and the words “from me” are in the emphatic position. By his finished work on the cross, we can come directly and personally to Jesus himself. You don’t need a priest or a pastor as a mediator to pray in your place, as if you couldn’t pray yourself. You can deal directly and personally with Jesus himself. If you will, he will enrich you personally, as these metaphors in verse 18 make clear. All the grace we will ever need is waiting for us in Jesus, and he is offering himself to every one of us today. We don’t need to live off of our past experiences of him. You and I can and must do new business with him today. And the first step toward the darkness is thinking, “No, I don’t need to do that.” His store is open for business right now.
What is he offering you today? “Gold refined by fire.” His grace is pure gold for us sinners. There is no alloy of insincerity to disappoint us. We are halfhearted toward him, but he is wholehearted toward us.
“White garments” to clothe us. Real righteousness from Jesus, rather than the costume righteousness we put on. He dresses repentant sinners in his own white garments, to cover all our sins.
“Salve to anoint your eyes” is clarity of thought, so that we see the relevance of the gospel to our real lives. We see Jesus as he really is and ourselves as we really are, and how we can be honest before him.
Moment by moment – not just at conversion – the Lord Jesus is offering us his very best. And he isn’t offering this only to a first-rate church of high achievement. He gives his best to under-achievers, if they’re humble enough to receive it.
“Those whom I love I reprove and discipline” (verse 19). In other words, “This is how I treat people I like. I so want us to be friends again.” The verb translated “love” is used in Mark 14:44 in the sense “to kiss.” Verse 19 is not a slap. It’s a kiss. The Lord is making a positive response as easy as it can be. We might turn away from a smackdown, but not from a loving kiss. If this passage feels extreme to us, it’s only because lukewarmness is a more extreme condition than we think. So “be zealous and repent.” In other words, “Repent hard at that very point where I am rebuking you. You’re not repentant, if you’re sorry about every failure in your life except the one I want to talk to you about. Be honest about that sin I want to talk to you about, and then you’re repentant.” True repentance is letting the Lord control the conversation. What incentive does he give us for the honesty of strong repentance?
What he offers and promises
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (verse 20). There is the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of this church, excluded by their clueless self-admiration, patiently asking for readmission! He doesn’t force himself on them, but he offers himself with a friendly knock on their door.
If they open that door, the way they did when they became Christians, what does Jesus promise to do? Not embarrass them but to share his friendship with whoever wants him. He’ll sit at your table, so to speak, and receive whatever you put before him, and he’ll enjoy it and say, “That’s delicious. Thank you.” He says here, “I will eat with him.” Then he adds, “and he with me.” You will be his guest too. You will taste his love and goodness, as he makes himself real to you by the Holy Spirit.
But what I love the most about verse 20 is the word “anyone.” He doesn’t say, “If the pastor hears” but “If anyone hears my voice.” Of course, he isn’t inviting anyone to think, “Sure, I’ll be that one to rescue my church. I’m really good at being messianic.” That’s pride, and it’s disqualifying. But Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book on revival, says that you can see a striking pattern in Christian history. A new movement of blessing never begins by a majority vote. It begins when one person, or a small group of people, “begin to feel this burden, and they feel the burden so much that they are led to do something about it. . . . It may be anybody.” It might be a famous leader like Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, or it might be an unknown businessman like Jeremiah Lanphier in New York in 1857. He started a noon-hour prayer meeting for other laymen, it spread around the country by the power of God, and within a year around 100,000 people came to Christ. One man heard the Lord’s voice and opened the door, and Jesus came in. The next “anyone” might be you. Don’t think you can’t do anything and you should wait for someone else. Jesus offers himself to you, to anyone: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door . . . .”
That’s walking in the light. That’s honesty with Jesus, openness to him, longing for reality with him, no matter what the cost to you. That is Christianity. That’s what this church is for. You can have it.