Revelation 3:14-16 reads,
"And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 'The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. "'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’”
Christians often come to this passage of Scripture wondering if God wants lukewarm saints to either reignite their hearts with a fresh passion for Him or simply chuck it all and become hardened sinners. This seeming polarity is borne out of verse 15 where God says, “Would that you were either cold or hot!”
Be zealous or be nothing! Is that what the verse suggests?
I’m inclined to think otherwise.
In order to get at the meaning of verse 15, we need to delve into the historical and geographical circumstances surrounding first century Laodicea. In his lecture series on Revelation, D.A. Carson provides us with the crucial background information. He notes that Laodicea is nestled in the Lycos Valley, along with Hierapolis and Colosse. Interestingly, Hierapolis was known for its hot healing springs, while Colosse could boast of possessing cold refreshing water (the only cold water in the valley, in fact). Now while Laodicea could proudly point to its commerce and abundance of wealth, it couldn’t brag about its water. Quite the contrary. Its water was terrible. Really terrible.
The Romans had to pipe water into the city, which in turn required a subterranean aqueduct system. Unfortunately, the water was full of chemicals (such as calcium carbonate), and by the time it reached the city, the water was disgusting. Cicero (a well traveled man who had seen many a city) is even said to have expressed particular disgust, saying that it was the foulest water in the entire empire.
With this background information in hand, Revelation 3:15 comes into focus. By declaring His desire for the Laodiceans to be either hot or cold, God was expressing a desire for His people to be either useful like the hot water of Hierapolis or useful like the cold water of Colosse. Because of their worldliness, they were lukewarm, and not at all unlike the disgusting Laodicean water, which made the Lord want to spew them out of His mouth.
The above point is made in the sixth lecture of Carson’s extensive treatment of the book of Revelation, which can be found here. In order to locate the entire series, they can be found here. Look for “Revelation (Part 1).” The date is 2005. The lectures are filled with similar insights and are certainly worth your while.