“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Originator of God’s creation says:
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.
Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy, and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked,
I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, and white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.
As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent.
Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.
The victor: I will give him the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I also won the victory and sat down with My Father on His throne.
“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:14-22)
These underlined verses from the Book of Revelation are used frequently in sermons as well as in conversations about someone’s “spiritual temperature” so to speak. I used to think that this passage was referring to Jesus as wanting the Laodiceans to be spiritually hot or spiritually cold and hence be used and applied to the church today. Is this really what is being taught here? I think one can easily spot the problem with that, namely why would the Lord prefer someone to be spiritually cold? Especially since God “…who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).” That always puzzled me (despite my attempts to explain it away) so I held on to that understanding of the passage at arms length until I was able to find a better understanding of how to interpret those passages. After much study I have arrived at what I think is the most plausible interpretation of the verses in question. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and it brought new life to a text I often found odd and difficult, I pray it does the same for you. What I want to accomplish in this article is demonstrate the value of the historical background of a passage as a serious ally in finding the proper interpretation using the Laodicean church as an example.
Salvation or Works?
Above I mentioned that this text is often used as speaking about someone’s spiritual temperature so-to-speak. If that was the case, then what it seems the Lord would be discussing with them is their salvation. However, what Jesus states plainly in verse 15 is that “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot…” So the salvation of the believers in Laodicea is not in view here, but their works[ref]Colin Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, pg. 187[/ref]. Their works are neither cold nor hot and because of that the Lord will vomit them out of His mouth. What does that mean? This is where the historical background of the passage is incredibly helpful and clears the issue up well.
Water as an Illustration
For starters we need to mention the water supply in relation to the city of Laodicea. It was one of the few thriving cities not built based on a strategically located water supply, but “It’s location had been determined by the road system rather than by natural resources.[ref]Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), pg. 107[/ref]” This meant that the city’s water had to be brought in via aqueducts. The city received cold water from Collossae and hot spring water from Hierapolis.
(picture used by permission from http://www.padfield.com/2005/lycus-river.html)
This is significant because the hot spring waters of Hierapolis as well as the cold waters from Colossae were lukewarm by the time they reached Laodicea[ref]N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone), pg. 38[/ref]. When the hot spring water was lukewarm and someone took a drink it would make them vomit because of the minerals[ref]Ben Witherington III, Revelation (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), pg. 107[/ref]. This is the imagery Jesus is referring to by addressing the people of Laodicea where they are at and giving them an example of something they would have known about and understood first hand. How does this relate to their works? What we find is that unlike in English usages where hot and cold are always in contrast and viewed as opposites, one being positive and the other being negative, hot and cold are both positives in this case. Jesus wants them to have the same effect on others through their works as the hot spring water (used for medicinal/therapeutic purposes) or as the cold mountain water (provided refreshing)[ref]Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), pg. 109[/ref]. Since their works (rather, their lack thereof) were having no impact whatsoever Jesus was going to vomit them out of His mouth. This is because their lacking in works had an effect on Jesus like that of the lukewarm water from the city, hence why he wanted their works to be cold (like the mountain water from Colossae) or hot (like the hot spring waters of Hierapolis) each effecting people in a positive way.
I hope this helps you to understand the importance of digging into the historical background of a passage to get the proper interpretation. I only used this one instance as a brief example and not only are there more nuggets to be found like this in rest of the letter to the Laodiceans (like the allusions to them being rich, blind, naked, etc.), but all of the letters to seven churches. I pray you all dig deeper and explore the richness of the Biblical text. The entire text, whether we are discussing the Old Testament or the New Testament contains many examples just like this one, many of which I plan on writing about in future articles as time permits. This example helps to illustrate the value of putting in the time to study a passage to find the truth of what the author is trying to convey, not only to his immediate audience but how that relates to us now as well once properly interpreted. So rather than Jesus referring to the spiritual temperature of the Laodiceans He is referring to their works using an illustration that the local people receiving the letter would have recognized right away. This interpretation was to me as the cold water from Colossae, namely very refreshing.