Tough Love

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Revelation 3:14-22

If you’re like me you love to get an invitation and if you listen today you’re going to hear the greatest invitation the world has ever known.

These letters to the seven churches probably circulated together, brought by a courier on a roughly circular route, beginning at Ephesus. Each congregation would hear all the letters read, including the one especially addressed to them. Now the mailman has come to his final destination: Laodicea.

Can you picture these church members listening as the first six letters are read? They’re waiting excitedly to hear what the risen Jesus will say to them. I wonder if they thought he was saving the best for last, that they, the Laodiceans, would receive his highest praise? Now, finally, it’s their turn. A tense, eager silence falls over the congregation. Listen:

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Rev. 3:14-22

This was not what the church was expecting. In fact, it must have been a real shocker. The first words, “I know your works” were familiar, and seemed neutral enough. But what followed was devastating. Jesus saw them as “neither cold nor hot.” In the Roman baths of that day, there were three temperatures. The first, the caldarium, was really hot water. The second, the tepidarium, was the first step in the cooling process – the water here was tepid. The third, the frigidarium, was bracingly cold.

Any of these does well enough in a bath, but if we want water to drink, we like it either hot or cold. For the people in that area, there were the famed hot springs of Herapolis, or the cold streams from Mt. Hormas near Colossae. Either one could be a delight. But when tepid water enters our mouths, we don’t even want to swallow it. “Yuk!,” we say. Like many of you, perhaps, I like coffee, but I like it steaming hot. When once it becomes tepid, I don’t want it at all.

That’s how these Laodiceans seem to the risen Lord: Lukewarm. They are simply “blah.” He’s anything but pleased with them. Let there be the fervor of strong faith, he says, or even the icy cold of opposition. Anything but this! Is “nauseating” too strong a word for his reaction? Not at all. Jesus can’t stand their taste. He’s ready to spit them out.


What is it that he doesn’t like? The lukewarmness, the letdown, is this: they are sickeningly self-satisfied. Here’s what they say about themselves. “We’re wealthy, getting more prosperous all the time. We’re financially independent. We have all we need.” In fact, when Laodicea and several other cities had been leveled in an earthquake, the Laodiceans were the only ones who declined imperial help for the rebuilding. “We’ll handle it,” they said, in effect.

Now all of that is admirable. The Lord has no fault to find with enterprise and profit. But these people have let their sense of being “well-off” carry over into their spiritual life. They thought that as Christians, they had arrived. They saw themselves as more gifted, more godly, more strong and spiritual than the rest. They imagined that they had pretty well reached the top. They had it all. Maybe they wouldn’t have said that in so many words, but that was the attitude Jesus saw in them. They felt no need of him.

Was this like the Pharisee Jesus described, praying in the temple, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”?

Was this Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, seeing himself as blamelessly righteous?

Or, closer to home, is it I, when I think I’ve learned enough or grown enough, or served enough, or prayed enough, so that I begin to slack off? Is that to Jesus the most disappointing thing about the Laodiceans or about you or me? Is it our pride, our complacency, our self-congratulation?

Is the Lord saying to us: “Whatever you think about yourself, this is how I see you: wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”?


How does he counsel anyone who has fallen into that trap? Listen, “Buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Do you know what the people of Laodicea had been most famous for in those days? Three things. Their banking system, their clothing industry in linen and wool, and their coveted eye-ointment, made from a powder produced in Phrygia.

They had their gold, but Jesus said it didn’t make them rich. They had their glossy black wool, but it didn’t cover their shame. They had their eye salve, but they couldn’t even see what had happened to them. They needed to find their real treasure in Christ. That’s what happened in Paul’s life, wasn’t it? He had an impressive religious r?sum?: circumcised on the eighth day, stock of Israel, tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He was pretty proud of that pedigree until he met the risen Jesus. Then everything changed. Listen: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

And once the Apostle had found everything in Christ – riches, righteousness, vision, he was always yearning for more, always pressing on. And that is the only maturity we Christians know – realizing we haven’t arrived, running all-out, all the way to the finish line.


Why do you suppose the Lord so scorched this congregation? Here’s his answer. It may surprise you: “I reprove and discipline those I love.” What about that? He comes down so hard on them because he loves them so much. He wants them to wake up, get real, turn back, and find fullness of life in him. He can’t bear to see them go on in their self-deception, their stupid apathy. Talk about tough love – this is it! He blasts our pride to pieces so that he can get us ready for grace. He shatters our substitute securities so that he can give us the real thing.

And now, to the worst of the congregations, to a church that has sickened him, and caused him nothing but grief, he extends the most marvelous invitation every heard, “Listen. I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Isn’t that like the Lord, to offer grace like this to windbags like us?

Think of it, friends, Jesus at the door of your heart. He won’t break it down. He’ll never force an entrance. But he knocks. No doubt about it – he wants to enter your life, to have a relationship with you, to be your Savior, Master and friend. He’s knocking. Every time you hear his Word, every time you meet his servants, every time you sense a twinge of guilt or need, he’s there at your door, seeking your attention.

What do you need to do? Just open the door. You say, “Yes, Lord, I’ve been a proud, independent person, thinking I didn’t need you. But I realize today I’m one of the sinners you came to save, one of the mixed up, guilty ones you died for. I know you’re shaking me up because you love me and want to give me a new life. I’m sorry, Lord, for my foolishness, for thinking I had it all when I was really missing the best. I’m opening the door for you, Lord.”

You can count on it – when you’re ready to welcome him like that, he will come in. That’s his promise.

Let me tell you something that happened in this very place, Laodicea, just a few years ago. The tour group I was leading consisted mostly of believers in Jesus, but there was one couple who seemed resistant to the faith. The friends who had invited them along had been praying for their conversion over a number of years. These non-Christians were bright, personable people who entered fully into the trip, especially in picture taking. But when I brought messages from the Bible they seemed to drift away from the group.

Finally we had reached ancient Laodicea in our travels, and we were gathered on a Sunday morning in the shell of what once had been a grand amphitheatre. I was preaching on this very passage. The wife remained fairly close to the group but the husband had climbed high to the rim of the crater, as though to escape the preached word. But the acoustics in that amphitheater were remarkable. He could still hear me quite clearly!

We had planned to observe the Lord’s Supper that day, holy communion. As I spoke of opening the door to Jesus, I said that receiving the bread and the cup was like that, welcoming the Lord into our lives. When we take communion, I said, we are acting out our faith. We are taking the crucified and risen Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We are opening the door. We are saying, “Jesus, enter in. I now receive you.”

As I spoke, the man gradually made his way down toward us. As I went from person to person serving the bread and the cup, his wife was the last person I reached. And to my surprise, by the time I got to her, he was by her side. I said to her, using her first name, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” She took a piece of the bread and ate it. Then I said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” and she drank from the cup.

Then I turned to her husband with the same words. Without hesitation, he too received the bread and the cup. Tears filled my eyes. My heart was brimming over with joy. You can imagine how ecstatic their friends were. And since that morning in Laodicea, the lives of these new believers have been noticeably different. They are showing the signs of new life and new love.

As I have reflected on that experience, the Lord’s promise has become even more real and thrilling to me. I’ve realized afresh that whenever we take even a small step toward Jesus we find him coming to meet us. When in longing, or word or simple action we open our hearts, Jesus most surely enters in.

And, he says, for the one who conquers, who keeps on listening, keeps on opening the heart, pressing toward the goal, there waits the greatest gift of all, a place with him on his throne. Even the least and lowest of us, the most lukewarm, if only we repent and receive him, will reign with Christ. Lord, let it be so for each one who hears this word!