Please see Nick’s comment before reading further.
Some of you may have heard the joke that goes like this:
Mike and Larry were out hiking. They came to a beautiful area of the countryside that was ideal for a picnic, so they stopped and sat down. Larry began taking food out of his knapsack to share with Mike, and last out of the bag was a shiny container that looked like a cross between an artillery shell and a time capsule.
“What’s that?” Mike asked Larry.
“Oh, some new thing I saw at the store the other day,” replied Larry. “The salesperson called it a ‘thermos’. He told me it was ideal for storing liquids on long hiking trips ’cause it keeps hot things hot and cold things cold.”
“Fantastic! So, what have you got in there?”
“Coffee and a couple of cherry popsicles.”
Okay, groan or laugh, but you know why it’s supposed to be funny at least, right?*
“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.”
I’ve been thinking about this text a lot lately, and I’m sure I’m probably way behind the curve on understanding and appreciating it, but so be it. One of the purposes of this blog is for me to catalogue my thoughts as I go through Scripture, so I’ll just put them here even knowing full well that they’re probably redundant.
The thing that used to perplex me about Christ’s words here was His apparent insistence that it is better to be one of the extremes – either cold or hot – than to be what we might call moderate, or “lukewarm.”
The other thing that has perplexed me more recently is the existence of three categories. We know from Christ’s words that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (Matthew 12:30) which demonstrates the existence of only two categories: the faithful and the unfaithful, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the tares and – I have in the past thought – the hot and the cold.
So the questions for me have been: (1) how is it that here we have three categories instead of my expected two, and (2) why would it be better to be cold than lukewarm?
Starting with one, it seems to me that my previous understanding of hot and cold as belief and unbelief (or vice-versa) was on the right track, but not fully accurate. Rather, what we have in these three is not simply belief or unbelief (for then we would have only two categories, hot or cold, as stated above), but rather attitudes about belief.
That is, you have in the hot the attitude of devotion, even passionate devotion, to God and His word, and to Christ our Savior. You have what James talks about as true faith accompanied by works; not merely a head-knowledge of the fact of Christ’s work unto salvation (which cannot save and even the demons have), but a deep and abiding trust in that work which then brings works of one’s own to bear fruit in service of the neighbor.
You have in the cold an attitude of deliberate shunning of God, of the Gospel message, and the Christ it represents. It represents a blatantly antagonistic view of the Christian faith. One can see that this cold is the opposite of hot which, while like the hot remaining passionate, is in this case passionately opposed to the truth of salvation.
Which leaves the third, or lukewarm. This attitude is less an opposite of hot or cold and more of a simple negation of them. This is simply apathy. If “hot” is spiritual life, and “cold” is spiritual deadness, then “lukewarm” is spiritual failure to thrive. It is that head-knowledge of the Gospel that even the demons have. It is a lack of passion either for or against God and the Gospel, and unless cured it is the effect of the seed sown upon rocky ground or among the thorns.
Which brings us to the second question, the question of why it would be better to be passionately against God (cold) than to be merely nonchalant about Him and cavalier towards His gifts in the Gospel (lukewarm). I mean, if there’s a continuum with hot on one side and cold on the other, wouldn’t it at least be better to be lukewarm in the middle, since at least it’s closer to hot than cold is?
Obviously Christ doesn’t think so. And after some pondering, I think I begin to see why. Though hot or cold are polar opposites in terms of belief, the one thing they have in common with each other – and not with the lukewarm – is passion about God.
Yes the hot and cold do approach Him differently – one in fear and love, the other in anger and contempt – but in a sense they both do approach Him. Not so the lukewarm, whose apathy keeps them from caring overly much one way or the other. And while it may be that even a cold person can become a hot person as their passion against God leads them to be at least curious enough to interact with believers who can proclaim the Gospel (remember, C.S. Lewis started as a cold person), a lukewarm person has no time for the subject of God, as it is of no interest to them.
Revelation paints them as the picture of self-satisfied. The next verse in Revelation (v. 17) says: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,’ not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Lacking any concept of their need they do not seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and so languish in self-imposed obliviousness, making them easy prey for the roaring lion that tolls like the bell for them. Each attempt from their neighbors to rouse them out of their stupor is met with irritation, if it registers at all.
Upon due consideration, I would indeed rather a person be cold than lukewarm. I can talk to a cold person, reason with a cold person, proclaim the Law and preach the Gospel to a cold person, and they will at least engage the subject with their heart and mind. But spare me from the lukewarm person, who though he may sit in the pew contenting himself as being among the faithful, his heart and his mind are farther from the things of God by virtue of his apathy than the cold person by virtue of his unbelief.
Don’t get me wrong, the cold person is still going to hell unless he repents. But at least in his case the situation lies cut and dried before him. For the lukewarm, the situation does not appear that stark or that dire and he may continue to sit like a frog in a pot of water, which though it may begin as lukewarm, doesn’t stay that way for long.
*A thermos only keeps hot things hot if the only thing in there to start with was hot. Likewise with cold things. It’s all about the insulation from the outside temperature, not anything magic about the thermos that makes things retain whatever state they were in when they were put in. If the coffee and the popsicles are both in the thermos simultaneously then the heat of the coffee will have melted the popsicles and the cold of the popsicles will have chilled the coffee, resulting in a lukewarm swill of nastiness.