Laodicea: The significance of Hot, Cold, and Lukewarm in Rev. 3:15-16

Revelation 3:14-16 (NASB)
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

My first understanding of this passage was that “hot” represents passionate Christianity, while “cold” represents those who are without Christ and capable of recognizing their desperate need for Him. Lukewarm, then, would refer to those who have entered into a relationship with God and since grown complacent. So—hot and cold both have great potential, but lukewarm Christianity is pretty disgusting and useless. Made sense to me.

But then I read a commentary or two that suggested a different word picture was intended. Drawing on the history and geography of the area around Laodicea, these commentators contend that what Christ found offensive was the amount of professing Christians in the church who were never genuine believers at all…

The terms cold, hot and lukewarm are likely to relate to waters around and in Laodicea. Nearby Hierapolis was famed for its hot springs; Colosse, also near at hand, was noted for a cold, clear stream of excellent drinking water. Since, however, the River Lycus dried up in summer, Laodicea had to use a long viaduct for its water, which was not only tepid, but impure and sometimes foul, making people sick. The church of that city had that effect on Christ…(V 16 should not be taken as indicating that the Lord prefers an atheist or fanatical religious zealot to a tepid Christian. The issue is the possession of genuine life in Christ by those who profess the Christian faith, not the way they hold it.)”                                                                                                                                                                                    New Bible Commentary 21st Century Edition

In other words, the readers would have understood both hot and cold (since they are both desirable) to be representing those who were in Christ. Lukewarm, then, would be those within the church who never knew Christ but claimed to.

Well, that sorta made sense too. So, as is often the case, I asked my husband what he thought about it. And, as is often the case, he offered an interesting perspective. He pointed out that even if the water situation in Laodicea was in mind here, most anyone would still understand hot and cold to be opposite extremes, and lukewarm to be something in the middle.


And that’s exactly how I left it with him. His was pretty convincing logic, but my particular form of stubborn pride only allows me to adopt a view after I’ve given myself a concessionary period of time to “weigh” the options and feel like I’ve come to a conclusion on my own. Fortunately, another look at the text afforded me the opportunity to shorten my weighing time and still feel like a critical, independent thinker.

The rest of the passage goes on to describe what lukewarm looks like.

Revelation 3:17-20 (NASB) 17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

That just really sounds like complacent Christianity to me—a kind I’ve seen in the church and in myself at times. We are glad enough for Christ’s sacrifice to be our way into heaven, and for His Spirit to help us cope with life’s inconveniences, but we live like this world is the one that really matters. We’re comfortable with our religion and our lifestyle and we don’t see how shallow, spoiled, and empty our spirituality is. We don’t really care to know Christ’s heart and we certainly don’t endeavor to make His priorities our own. We are not an asset for kingdom warfare; we are weak and vulnerable.

So, given the opposite natures of hot and cold, and the description of what lukewarm looks like, I’m going to have to go with my first understanding on this. Hot describes a person who loves and trusts God and faithfully lives for Him; cold describes those who are without Christ, but in a position to recognize their need for Him. Lukewarm, then, most likely speaks of those who once trusted Christ, but have since grown comfortable living for themselves. They still identify themselves with the community of believers, but their hearts are in no way captivated by God.

In verses 18 -20, Christ exhorts the church to repent. He doesn’t want to spit them out—He wants them to know the depths and the riches of His love.

This was a specific message for a church in a specific place a couple thousand years ago, but I believe the same offer is held out to us today.

He is knocking. Will we, individually and corporately, let Him in? Are we willing to see and enter into His grief for lost humanity so that we can also genuinely share in His joy at their restoration? I’m pretty sure that’s how evangelism and discipleship move from being our Christian duty to being our life’s passion.

So what do you think? Was Christ threatening to spew non-believers out of His mouth? (In which case I’d still kinda wonder what were they doing in there in the first place?) Or was He warning believers that they would be disciplined if they refused to repent and pursue Him wholeheartedly?


3 thoughts on “Laodicea: The significance of Hot, Cold, and Lukewarm in Rev. 3:15-16”

  1. “Either cold or hot water is good for something, but lukewarm water is not. The point of the rebuke is not lack of zeal or enthusiasm. If it were, “lukewarm” would at least have been better than “cold”! The point is rather the utter worthlessness of what the congregation has done and is doing.” …From Rev 3 Commentary- Bible Gateway

    “Worthlessness”…As in the congregations of today’s prosperity based churches, where it’s not about the Gospel, it’s not about the Blood of Jesus, it’s not about repentance or evangelism. It’s about what God can do for ME in this life. It’s about “claiming” what’s MINE. It’s about thinking that “victory in Christ” is but worthless, worldly gain.

  2. Trust the commentary. The idea of “hot” being alive, “cold” being dead and “lukewarm” being in the middle is a 21st century postmodern perspective. Christ was not writing to a 21st century postmodern mind, He was writing to 1st century Laodicea. 1st century Laodicea would have understood hot water to be healing and rejuvinating, cold water to be refreshing, and lukewarm water to be absolutely useless crap. Don’t fall into the 21st century postmodern trap of biblical interpretation

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