Revelation 3:15-16 was the text of the first sermon I ever preached. I was 14, wrapping up a month-long summer camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. On one of our last nights at camp, we had a time of worship which ended with an open mic. We were invited to come up and share something we’d learned over the last month, something to encourage the group as we all headed home. I felt compelled to speak.
So, I nervously made my way to the front with my Bible in my hand. And I said something like this, “In Revelation 3 Jesus says, ‘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.’ This summer I’ve learned that we can hate Jesus or we can love Jesus, but the worst thing we can do is be indifferent toward Jesus. If I’m honest, I’ve been a lukewarm Christian, giving Jesus only a small part of my life. But I want that to change when I get home and I hope you do too. Let’s not be lukewarm toward Jesus. Let’s live on fire for him!”
People clapped, I sat down quite pleased with myself, and my first sermon ever was in the books. The only problem was that I had butchered the actual meaning of that text.
I’ve often heard people explain these verses the way I did that night at camp. So, since I can’t go back in time and correct my 14-year-old self, let me help you. What is Jesus’s point when he calls out the lukewarm Laodiceans?
There are two main problems with the explanation I gave. First, I said that Jesus actually prefers outright hatred and hostility toward him over apathy and indifference. Is that right? Surely Jesus wants neither. Second, I argued that point from the image of hot, cold, and lukewarm water. I assumed that hot water is positive and illustrates a person or a church living boldly for the Lord (“on fire for him”). I also assumed that cold water is negative and illustrates a person opposed to the Lord. But hold on a second, isn’t cold water good too? Yes, yes it is.
The key to understanding Jesus’s illustration is in the geography. Laodicea is located in the western region of modern day Turkey. I had the chance to visit the ruins of Laodicea when I was in college and I will never forget the experience of standing on the city’s hillside looking out at the surrounding country.
Just to the north of Laodicea is Hierapolis. Hierapolis is an ancient city known for the natural hot springs that run down its hills (the picture on the top of this post is from Hierapolis – and that’s not ice, it’s mineral deposits from the springs). Like an ancient health spa, these springs were used for medicinal purposes, and you can still visit and dip your toes in the hot waters today.
To the east of Laodicea is Colossae. Colossae is a large un-excavated mound (at least that’s how it was when I was there). So, there’s not much to see. But, Colossae is located near excellent sources of cold and refreshing water. That means on a hot day in the ancient world Colossae was a prime spot to grab a cold drink.
Then there’s Laodicea. Both Hierapolis and Colossae are within eyesight of Laodicea. And yet, G.K. Beale writes that Laodicea “had no good water source… and had to pipe it in. By the time it arrived, it was lukewarm and dirty – fit only for spitting out.”1 So, while these poor Laodiceans drank their nasty lukewarm water, they would have looked longingly at their neighboring cities which both had desirable sources of refreshment.
Knowing this, the point of Jesus’s illustration comes into focus. Jesus is critiquing the faith of the Laodiceans in a way they could easily understand. Like lukewarm water, their faith, in its current state, is good for nothing. What went wrong? They have slipped into a self-sufficient, self-righteous forgetfulness of their true condition. Jesus says, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Since they are failing to see the depth of their sin and poverty before God, they are forgetting to hold fast to his mercy in Christ. This attitude is destroying their faith, changing the foundational reality of their lives into a mere formality. Therefore, they need to wake up, they need to “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
So, the point of Revelation 3:15-16 is not that indifference toward Jesus is the worst-possible attitude, worse than outright rejection of him. That is not what Jesus means when he says, “Would that you were either cold or hot!” The point is that Jesus calls his church to a kind of faith that is truly living and vibrant. When repentance of sin and dependance on him begins to wane in our lives, we are in danger of a merely formal faith. That kind of faith, like lukewarm water, is not beneficial to anyone. But a people of genuine, dependent faith in Christ will honor him and bless this world like healing hot springs and refreshing cool water. That’s what Jesus wants from the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, and that’s what he wants from us.
- G.K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015) 91. ↩