Have you read the same thing as a friend but had a different interpretation of it? I once got into a discussion about what the difference between wearing a beanie ‘on my ears’ is versus what wearing a beanie ‘over my ears is.’ Both meant the same thing but were differently interpreted.
So often this misconnect happens due to different experiences and the way in which we see the world and receive the information we read. Biblically, this is a common issue for reading and interpreting the Word.
Often we put our own subjective twist or lens on the things that we read, without even realising we are doing it. But part of active faith, is seeking out to understand what is written and why it was written.
It is funny to think a scripture which is so often used to mean one thing actually when looked at in context of the historical and literal background means a completely different thing.
Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-17 has John speaking to the church in Laodicea. In this he says ‘ I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’
This passage so often has been talked about in relation to one’s personal faith instead of looking at the collective church.
Billy Graham also said a person with lukewarm faith is neither passionate about his faith nor is he hostile towards it, he just simply drifts along.
So often like Billy Graham, I have heard many preachers talk about this verse in relation to one’s zeal about their faith. That God would rather us be ‘on fire’ or not interested, but he doesn't want us to be indifferent. However when we look at the true context of this verse, we can see that it actually has nothing to do with indifference or a ‘sitting on the fence’ kind of faith.
So what really is ‘lukewarm’?
We automatically associate hot and cold with our own construed metaphors that fit in with our contemporary reality of what faith ‘should’ look like. However in this case the words hot and cold from Greek translation ζεστος (‘zes-tahs’) and ψυχρος (‘psoo-krahs’) are in reference to temperature, not even remotely hinting at a feeling or characteristic.
More so, this passage was addressed to the people of Laodicea, where the water metaphor, geographically had significance. Laodicea struggled to have its own supply of water so an aqueduct was set up to get water to them. It came from two places; in the north, Hierapolis had hot springs, and in the south, Colossae had cold springs.
However once they had reached Laodicea the water was lukewarm. So the people of the church were accustomed to this being their norm. However, unlike hot water which has connotations of healing and cleansing, or cold water which has connation’s of refreshment, lukewarm - which is what the people were used to, proved to be useless in comparison.
So in this case it wasn’t hot meaning on fire for God and cold meaning against God, the metaphor creates two antithetical points. Where instead of one being positive and the other negative - both hot and cold are used as positive images; and lukewarm is used adversely.
This was in regards to the complacency and self-sufficiency the people of the church and the church itself were living in, as they were following in the ways of the Roman Empire. They were ‘fitting in’ in order to stay alive while also adopting the ways of the wealthy and elite.
Thus, making their faith mundane, or of having no impact. In essence, as the lukewarm water was useless to the people of Laodicea, so their faith and deeds was to God.
When lukewarm is convenient
Now why am I talking about this in so much historical detail? I think this particular misinterpretation helps us understand simply what this passage means. This was used as a warning to the church of the time to stay away from focusing on the wealth which was creating spiritually complacent discipleship within the church.
However, from the perspective of the church, it was probably easier and more convenient for them to adopt the values of those that were in power. Yet it caused spiritual complacency to fester.
So often I have seen the church today fall into this same trap. In order to ‘stay relevant’ they have used all sorts of tactics to keep people coming into the church, yet their works to spiritually disciple the people in the church has fallen flat.
Things such as this, a particular passage being used to ‘fit’ in the message of getting people to reflect on where they are at with their faith, whilst it has proved to work, also misses the fundamental point that Christ wants to be in relationship with His children.
Saying that he prefers someone to not have faith, over people being open to faith but not fully committed, does not make sense when looked at from the purpose of the cross.
However when looked at with the context in mind - the deeds of the church to be hot or cold - being useful, and having faith that transforms and disciples, steering away from spiritual complacency; over the church being of ordinary faith fit for the world makes more sense.
When convenience and complacency go hand and hand, it is often very easy for us to fall in the trap of becoming lukewarm. For the church, it is convenient to be relevant to get more people coming but is this leading to spiritually complacency within the church? I’ll let you think about that question yourself.
I think it’s convenient for us to just believe what we hear in sermons, podcasts, from others etc, and it is important to as well. However I think active faith, requires us to ask questions, it requires us to steer away from subjective intrepretation, even though it may not feel all that convenient to do so.
Active faith requires use to go deeper into understanding the context of what we read before we can make judgement on what that means for us or how we can apply it to our lives.
So next time you read the word or hear someone’s perspective on a scripture make sure that your understanding off ‘over the ears’ or ‘on the ears’ aligns with the context that it was written!
Araina Kazia Pereira from Wellington, New Zealand is a published writer having written for various outlets and most recently joining as a Press Service International young writer. She enjoys asking the big questions and writing about the challenging questions that she has wrestled with in her own journey, as well as her learnings along the way. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.