I doubt one could find words any more confusing and controversial than those uttered by Jesus in Revelation 3:15-16 to the church at Laodicea. Christians have expressed either befuddlement or revulsion, and sometimes both, at what our Lord says to this wayward congregation. Look at it again:
“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” (Rev. 3:15-16).
It makes perfectly good sense that Jesus would prefer the Laodiceans (and all of us) to be “hot” rather than “lukewarm.” But how could he possibly say that being “lukewarm” is worse than being “cold”? Doesn’t this put Jesus in the position of affirming the indifferent pagan over the backslidden, half-hearted Christian? Granted, the latter is bad, but is it really the case that Jesus would prefer his lukewarm people to be in blatant unbelief?
Then there is the rather revolting image of Jesus spitting the Laodicean church out of his mouth. The marginal reference in the NASV indicates that “vomit” is actually the more literal meaning of this word. Notwithstanding the numerous threats of discipline and judgment throughout these seven letters, there’s something about Jesus being sickened to the point of vomiting his people out of his mouth that strikes us as uncharacteristically unseemly.
Our Lord’s diagnosis of the problem in Laodicea is two-fold. He first discerns a moral and religious tepidity in the church, a lukewarmness that borders on outright indifference to the things of God and a life of godliness. Second, he traces this to a prideful self-sufficiency (v. 17), a problem we’ll address in a later meditation. So let’s begin by trying to make sense of his language.
To come straight to the point, Christianity at Laodicea was flabby and anemic! Our Lord uses the language of “cold,” “hot,” and “lukewarm” What does he mean by this?
As I said earlier, people have typically believed that by “hot” Jesus is referring to zealous, lively, passionate, hard-working Christians, and that by “cold” he is referring to unregenerate pagans, devoid of any spiritual life whatsoever. Hot, so goes the argument, refers to spiritually active believers whereas cold refers to apathetic unbelievers. But as I said, this creates the problem of Jesus appearing to say he would rather they be in utter unbelief than in a backslidden, albeit still saved, condition.
The key to making sense of this comes from an understanding of certain features of the topography of the land in which the Laodiceans found themselves.
We must remember that Laodicea was only six miles south of Hierapolis< and eleven miles west of Colossa. These three cities were the most important of all in the Lycus Valley. Laodicea itself lacked a natural water supply and was dependent on its neighbors for this vital resource. This, I believe, explains the imagery in this remarkable passage.
In all likelihood, “hot” and “cold” don’t refer to the spiritual “temperature” or religious “mood” or “attitude”, as it were, of the believer and the unbeliever, as has traditionally been thought. Rather, the word “hot” refers to the well-known medicinal waters of Hierapolis, whose “hot springs” reached 95 degrees. The word “cold”, on the other hand, points to the refreshing waters of Colossae.
If this is what Jesus had in mind, “the church is not being called to task for its spiritual temperature but for the barrenness of its works” (Mounce, 125-26). The church was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary (portrayed through the imagery of “cold” water from Colossae), nor healing for the spiritually sick (portrayed through the imagery of “hot” water from Hierapolis). The church was simply ineffective and thus distasteful to the Lord.
If correct, this relieves the problem of why Christ would prefer the church to be “cold” rather than “lukewarm”. The church in Laodicea is rebuked, therefore, for the useless and barren nature of its works, indicative of its stagnant spiritual condition. “You’ve become of no benefit to anyone,” says Jesus, “and I will not stomach such behavior.”
One doesn’t like to think of professing Christians on whose hearts Jesus rests lightly, but the Laodiceans fit the bill. This isn’t to say they weren’t a passionate people; only that the focus of their dedication was something other than the Lord Jesus Christ. They probably burned with desire, just not for him.
The topography of the region also sheds light on his use of the word “lukewarm”. This is probably another allusion to the hot springs of Hierapolis, located just six miles north of Laodicea. As the hot, mineral-laden waters traveled across the plateau towards Laodicea, they gradually became lukewarm before cascading over the edge directly in view of the Laodicean populace.
There are actually archaeological remains in Laodicea of an aqueduct system that would have carried water from Hierapolis. The people in Laodicea would have been keenly aware of the nauseating effect of drinking from that source.
“That is what you are like to me,” says Jesus. “When I look upon your lack of zeal, your indifference toward the needs of others, and your blasé response to my beauty, I feel like a man who has over imbibed on tepid, tasteless water.” It’s difficult to rid one’s mind of the picture of Jesus lifting to his lips a cup of what he anticipates to be a flavorful and refreshing drink, only to regurgitate it in wholesale disgust.
Does the “spitting” / “spewing” / “vomiting” of such people from his mouth suggest that all hope is lost for their salvation and enjoyment of eternal fellowship with Christ? Not necessarily. This imagery, at minimum, indicates a serious threat of divine discipline. But there may yet be hope through repentance and obedience (cf. v. 19; more on this later).
In keeping with the vivid language of this text, will you join me in the following prayer? “Oh, precious Christ Jesus, the Amen, the faithful and true witness. Fill me to overflowing with the sin-killing grace of your Spirit. Draw near and shatter any complacency in my soul. May my life be a fragrant aroma in your nostrils, a melodious symphony in your hearing, a beautiful sight in your eyes, a pleasing touch to your hand, and a sweet taste in your mouth! By your grace and for your glory, may my life bring refreshment to the weary soul and healing to the spiritually sick. Preserve me from lukewarm indifference. Deliver me from presumption and pride. Amen.”