Post Author: Bill Pratt
One of the most familiar passages in Scripture is Rev 3:15-16, where Jesus addresses the Laodicean church:
“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.”
Many Christians interpret Jesus to be saying something like, “I wish you were passionate for me (hot) or spiritually dead (cold), but instead you are somewhere in the middle. Because you are neither on fire for me or spiritually dead, I am very displeased with you.”
Now, this interpretation never really made much sense to me. I could see why Jesus wanted people to be passionate for him (hot), but I could never understand why Jesus would prefer a person be lost or spiritually dead (cold) instead of somewhere in the middle between the two.
Authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien provide a possible answer to this question in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Richards and O’Brien explain:
In the summer of 2002, however, standing there among the then-unexcavated ruins of Laodicea, another interpretation of that famous passage presented itself. Several miles northwest of Laodicea, perched atop a small mountain, is a city called Hierapolis. At the base of Hierapolis is an extraordinary geological formation produced by the natural hot springs that surface around the city. Even today, the city is known for its steaming mineral baths.
Over the centuries, the subterranean springs have created a snow-white calcium deposit known in Turkish as Pamukkale, or “cotton castle,” that cascades down the slopes like ice. From our vantage point in Laodicea, Hierapolis gleamed white like a freshly powdered ski slope.
About the same distance from Laodicea in the opposite direction is Colossae. The city was not yet excavated in 2002, so we couldn’t see it; but it is almost certain that in the first century, you could have seen Colossae from Laodicea. Paul’s colleague Epaphras worked in Colossae, as well as in Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 4:13). It was a less notable city than Laodicea, but it had one thing Laodicea didn’t: a cold, freshwater spring. In fact, it was water—or the lack thereof—that set Laodicea apart.
Unlike its neighbors, Laodicea had no springs at all. It had to import its water via aqueduct from elsewhere: hot mineral water from Hierapolis or fresh cold water from Colossae. The trouble was, by the time the water from either city made it to Laodicea, it had lost the qualities that made it remarkable. The hot water was no longer hot; the cold water was no longer cold.
The Laodiceans were left with all the lukewarm water they could drink. Surely they wished their water was one or the other—either hot or cold. There isn’t much use for lukewarm water. I suspect that the meaning of the Lord’s warning was clear to the Laodiceans. He wished his people were hot (like the salubrious waters of Hierapolis) or cold (like the refreshing waters of Colossae). Instead, their discipleship was unremarkable.
So, for Jesus, hot and cold were both genuinely good conditions, and only lukewarm was a bad condition. In other words, in these verses hot and cold are used as synonyms to refer to strong, passionate, remarkable faith. Lukewarm refers to unremarkable faith.
Lukewarm is not some spiritual condition in between hot and cold at all. Lukewarm stands in opposition to both hot and cold, and that is most likely how the Laodiceans would have heard Jesus’s message to them.
To me, this interpretation of the verses makes a lot more sense. It’s amazing how a little geography and historical context can clear things up!