Whatever the Lord had in mind, we now hear him speaking both sternly and lovingly to all: to the faithful, the backslidden, and the nominal. And since most of the Christians in Laodicea fell into the latter two categories, we find him outside of the church, standing at the door, knocking, seeking entry, and warmly inviting all without exception to a fellowship meal with the High King. To the nominal he offers spiritual birth, and to the backslidden he offers spiritual renewal: all on the simple condition of turning around, opening the door, and letting him in. This invitation, while sweet, could nevertheless result in judgment. If the nominal spurn his offer, he will indeed spew them out of his mouth, in the sense of finally severing their external connection with the life-giving ordinances of the Church, and so also from spiritual contact with the Head of the Church (John 15:1-7, Col. 2:18-19).
I know your works, that you are neither hot nor cold. If only you were hot or cold!
So then: Because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am poised to spew you out of my mouth.
In what was surely the sternest reproof addressed to any of the seven churches in Asia, the High King of Heaven directed these words to the Christians at Laodicea. How shall we understand them? Were they spoken to born-again believers? And if so, how shall we reconcile them with so many others in the NT, affirming or clearly implying the eternal security of true believers in Christ? Is it really possible that such persons could become so backslidden—so lukewarm—that their Lord, in a dreadful moment of divine disgust, would spew them out of his mouth once and for all?
Since many sincere Christians fear this very thing, we do well to think deeply about these questions. Three closely related points may be made.
First, we cannot understand our passage unless we realize that both Christ and his apostles interacted with disciples not only on the basis of the reality of their faith, but also on the basis of their simple profession of faith.
Some biblical examples will illustrate this fundamental point.
The Lord certainly counted Judas among his disciples, seeing that over and again he instructed him and sent him out to do the work of a disciple (Matt. 10:16-23). However, Jesus knew full well that in his heart Judas was no disciple at all; that he did not believe as the eleven did (John 6:66-73), and that he was not clean as the eleven were (John 13:10).
Again, in his Parable of the Talents the Lord speaks of three different men. He calls all three his servants, and all three call him their Master. But only the first two were true servants and therefore judged to be good servants; whereas the third was no servant at all, and was therefore judged to be evil and lazy (Matt. 7:15-19; 25:14-30). Much the same is true of the wise and foolish virgins: Both were styled as virgins, and both called the Bridegroom “Lord”. However, the Bridegroom himself only knew the wise (Matt. 25:1-13).
Or again, the apostle Peter predicts the arrival of false teachers who will secretly introduce destructive heresies into the Church, even to the extent of denying the Master who bought them (2 Pet. 2:1). Will Christ truly have bought these teachers? Surely not, for then they would truly belong to him, and would truly love the truth rather than embrace and promote heresy (John 14:16-18). Nevertheless, they will profess that they belong to him. And Peter, in order to highlight the gravity of their apostasy, here takes them at their word, charging that they will deny the Master who (they say) bought him.
In OT times God called all the Israelites his people, for all the Israelites, by natural birth, were descendants of Abraham, the physical father of the OT family and nation of God. However, as the apostle wrote, not all who were descended from Israel were Israel, for not all who were physically descended from Jacob were circumcised in their hearts, as Jacob and other members of spiritual Israel were (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6; Phil. 3:13-14). In NT times the situation is similar. The Lord calls all professing Christians his people, and relates to them as such, even though he knows that some of them are his people only by verbal profession, whereas others are his people by verbal profession due to spiritual possession. They are his people by spiritual rebirth into the family of God, by possessing the indwelling Spirit of God (John 2:23-25; 3:1-8; 6:60-65; 14:17; 1 Cor. 12:13).
This brings us to our second point, namely, that when the Lord addressed the church at Laodicea, he was doing this very thing. He was speaking to the church as a whole, to all who named the name of Christ. No doubt this included a few fervent born-again believers, but also many backslidden, and many more nominal: mere professors of the faith who in time might be born again, but who also in time might be revealed as hypocrites and/or apostates. In light of this very great mixture, Christ judged that this church, on the whole, was dangerously lukewarm. Therefore it stood in need not only of a sharp rebuke, but also of a strong expression of mercy, grace, and love, plus a sincere invitation to new life in him.
How did the Laodicean church arrive at this dire condition? Let us consider a likely scenario. Early on, at the founding of the church, its members were no doubt much like the fruitful saints in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7). Having just been born from above, the majority were on fire for the King and his Kingdom. Now, however, a generation or two later, the affluence, materialism, and arrogant self-sufficiency of Laodicea have taken a dreadful spiritual toll on the church, with the result that the life and fervency of Christ have all but drained away.