“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth!”
Most of us have heard this passage preached to professing Christians and living a different lifestyle. It is an urgent warning to their fellow believer to go all-in with their faith, and avoid being a Lukewarm Christian. If you haven’t heard the term lukewarm before, you’ve probably heard one of these verses preached with the same underlying warning…
Matthew 6:24- Man cannot serve both God and money, just as man cannot serve two masters
John 15:9- If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Romans 12:2- Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind
1 Peter 1:16- Be Holy as I am Holy
1 Peter 2:9- But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
All of these point to the same “fence-riding” lifestyle many have assumed of Revelation 3:15-16; God would rather you be a non-believer bound for hell than a lukewarm, fence-riding Christian. This is a message that encourages moral integrity, and more importantly, an authentic faith/relationship with the creator God.
Though virtue, integrity, morality, and authentic faith are thematic throughout all of Scripture, I am more than skeptical that this traditional understanding of the passage is the author’s intent. That is, does God really prefer people be unbelievers entirely rather than what so many have called lukewarm Christians? What really needs to be considered are the metaphors hot and cold: which of them is entirely good and which of them is entirely bad? How are we supposed to tell the difference? If there even is one…
For example, I prefer cold water over hot water to drink in the summer time, however, I’d prefer hot tea over iced tea in the winter. What about when hot and cold are used to describe a person’s character? We call bitter people cold and superstars hot. Which is supposed to be negative, and which is supposed to be positive?
I think its fair to say it depends on the season and circumstance which we prefer. In order to understand the how lukewarm is an antagonist to them, the relationship between hot and cold needs to be distinguished, at which we will investigate in two areas: Literary Context (use of language) and Historical Context (social/cultural conditions of the author and recipients).
The Greek word for “hot” is ζεστος (zes-tahs); the use of this word never has the connotation of being an “all in” Christian who is full of fiery passion. It is always used to describe temperature. Similarly, the Greek word for “cold” is ψυχρος (psoo-krahs), is never associated with those lacking faith or fiery passion; its use in the NT always refers to temperature without nuances of character like “bitter” or “angry”.
What if the metaphors for temperatures are both good? We are so used to reading these verses to mean that hot and cold automatically mean good and bad because they are opposites, but what if that’s not the author’s intended message? What if the understood contrast between hot and cold really isn’t as black and white (pun intended) as we’d perceive? What if the passage were read “you are neither apples nor oranges, you are radishes” instead, would we still interpret it with the same connotations? Understanding the context of the passage will help verify what an appropriate application for this passage is.
*Disclaimer: I am not arguing against morality or virtue that comes from the traditional understanding of this passage. I am pointing out that the application of the text is different from the traditional understanding of “be all in, or not at all”, because of the assumed antagonistic relationship between hot and cold.
Laodicea was centrally located between several cities. Two of these surrounding cities were known specifically for their water sources–Heirapolis and Colossae. Heirapolis was had several natural hot springs it was known for. In fact, many traveled to Heirapolis because of these infamous hot springs; kind of like how people travel to the Mayo Clinic today. These natural hot springs provided healing qualities to those immersed in the water, similar to taking hot shower or hot tub for healing or relief. Twelve miles east of Laodicea was the city of Colossae. Like Heirapolis, Colossae was also famous for their water source. The difference, however, is Colossae’s water source was cold, refreshing and life-giving. It came from the snow caps of Mount Cadmus located behind the city and fed the Lycus river, from where they would obtain it. If you were standing in Laodicea and were to look towards Colossae, you would be able to see this mountain clearly. It is doubtful to think that John would not have known this when writing this letter. He certainly was well aware of Laodicea’s location being between two water-sourced cities, and it is doubtful that he would have used this metaphor with the church of Laodicea otherwise. He knew of the healing hot springs of Heirapolis, the live-giving cold water of Colossae, and Laodicea’s centrality to both.
There is an underlying problem one may not immediately see; The city of Laodicea did not have a natural water supply. With the city being central to the landmarks of Hierapolis and Colossae, it was naturally a prime trading route, as well as a frequented stopping point for travelers. Their solution to this agricultural hurdle was to develop an aqueduct system to bring water into the city. The system was too far from Heirapolis or Colossae to be their water source. Instead, the aqueduct system was set up from what is now Denizli, a city closer in proximity to Laodicea. Denizli had hot springs as well, from which Laodicea funneled in their water. The hot water would be exported through this aqueduct system from there to Laodicea, and naturally the heat of the water would cool to a less desirable temperature. The Laodiceans put the water in the shade until it became desirably cool enough to drink. This custom was common. Below is an excerpt from the Greek historian Herodotus (484 B.C.-425 B.C.), which Stanley Porter included in his article I listed in my bibliography. He says:
“And they have another source of water, a spring, which in the morning is lukewarm, but as market time comes becomes colder. And at noon it is its coldest. At this time they [the Ammonians] water their gardens. When the day draws to a dose the coldness declines, until when the sun sets and the water becomes lukewarm. It is at its hottest when the time draws near to midnight, and at this time it boils and bubbles. When midnight passes, it becomes colder until dawn. This spring is called the spring of the sun.” –Description of the Ammonians of Northern Africa (4.181.3-4)
From this it can be seen that both cold water and hot water were desired. Neither was bad, but both were only attainable at certain points of the day. For the Laodiceans, the water’s desired temperature needed to be controlled. It was not going to be as hot as it was in the natural spring, and it took time afterwards for the water to reach it’s coolest. As Herodotus indicated earlier, the coldest temperature was achieved at market time. Market time would be when more people are awake and active in the city, which in turn means there would be an increased demand for water that was cool and refreshing.
This brings us to the understanding of lukewarm and how we apply it today. If Hot water is healing, and Cold water is rejuvenating/life-giving, then what are we to make of lukewarm? We know lukewarm is bad, but how does this apply to the church as a whole?
Personally, I think this passage should be considered in light of the collective church body more than the individual alone. The passage begins with, “I know your works” and is a letter written to the Laodicean church about their actions; works that are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. The church needs to be both hot and cold, spiritually healing, life-giving, and refreshing. Just as Colossae and Heirapolis were known for the healing and refreshing effects of their water, the church should be known as a place that is healing, refreshing, and life-giving. When we gather together as a community of faith, our desire should be to preserve our faith in a way that is desirable to others. Just like those who would get sick from drinking the lukewarm mineral water, there are many people who have been incredibly hurt by the church. They came to practice their faith with a community they expected to be life-giving, healing, and refreshing, and instead they experienced something vomit-worthy. The church has left a bad taste in the world’s mouth, which does not portray us as a loving community. The church has too often signed God’s name on bigotry, hateful, exclusive practices, and given it an undesirable reputation. To several, what we offer is nothing like the waters of Heirapolis or Colossae as it ought to be, all we’ve given the world is lukewarm water… bland, disgusting, bath water that nobody is drawn to…
Am I saying we need to be “seeker-driven” churches? No, not at all… I am saying that the world’s perception of the church didn’t come out of thin air. Many perceive it as a social-club exclusive to the well-behaved because that’s how many believers have carried themselves. What we need to do is be both Hot and Cold to all in need of a community that is spiritually refreshing and healing. The church should be known for these characteristics, and now is an excellent time in the world to take a step forward in practicing this so that we can be the community that.
What does it mean to be lukewarm and how do you avoid it? Cultivate spiritual healing and be the love of God to all you encounter. Foster a life-giving community, so that all who are thirsty and hurting may find healing, nourishment, and a family in the church just as God intended for it to be.
Hemer, Colin J. The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
Keener, Craig S. Revelation. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary of the NT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Porter, Stanley E. “Why the Laodiceans Received Lukewarm Water (Revelation 3:15-18).” Tyndale Bulletin—vol. 38, 1987: 143-149.*
*Click here if you’d like to read this article. It is an online PDF of Porter’s article alone, so there isn’t access to this volume of the Tyndale Bulletin.