“Because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This verse from Revelation 3 certainly must rank as one of the most misused in the Bible. In the last month alone I have heard two speakers give it the same incorrect interpretation.
In the first three chapters of Revelation we find seven letters from Jesus to seven churches in late first-century Asia Minor (now western Turkey). In the letter to Laodicea, he says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” As a result, he will spit out their tepidness.
Often this is misinterpreted to mean that Jesus is tired of namby-pamby middle of the roaders. He would rather people be passionately against him or for him. This is ridiculous on two counts. First, Jesus simply does not want people to turn resolutely against him. He wants all to come to him and be saved.
when Jesus refers to hot and cold water, he is drawing an analogy from the fact that Laodicea did not have a good water source. Instead, using Roman aqueducts, it received hot water from the north, from the city of Hierapolis, famous for its soothing and healing hot springs. Refreshing cold water came from the south, from Colossae, eleven miles away, from snow melt on the mountains. Unfortunately, by the time the hot water and the cold water got to Laodicea, both were lukewarm. As Richards and O’Brien say in Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes, Jesus “wished his people were hot (like the salubrious waters of Hierapolis) or cold (like the refreshing waters of Colossae). Instead, their discipleship was unremarkable.”
The problem was not that Laodicea lacked zeal. The problem was that the church was good for nothing.
So why describe the church as lukewarm? The answer found in the next verse. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Laodicea as a city had a reputation for its many banks, for its excellent medical school and for its clothing industry. But, Jesus says, actually it was not rich but poor, not healthy but blind, not well clothed but naked. Their resources led them to rely on themselves instead of on Jesus. Their problem was not lack of fervor but a sense of self-sufficiency. They relied on themselves instead of on God.
For a culture that prides itself on its massive economy, the best medicine in the world, and a fashion industry second to none–Revelation 3, correctly interpreted, becomes all too relevant.
photo credit: BiblePlaces.com
5 thoughts on “A Lukewarm Interpretation of Hot and Cold: Revelation 3:15-16”
Too relevant indeed. This looks like an excellent book. A good study Bible with culture sensitive commentary is a useful tool… in terms of helping us to see more clearly through our tinted Western glasses.
I accept that I may have misinterpreted this text. However, if your interpretation of the hot/cold dichotomy is correct, then would not Jesus have wished that they were both hot and cold? Rather he laments that they are neither.
Further, the text does indicate that there was a lack of zeal which is birthing this lukewarmth in the Laodicean church. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” Rev. 3:19.
Jesus has given the reproof. He has warned of discipline to come. The church in response must repent. Repent from what? Lack of zeal.
Alex–Excellent. I like your engagement here. Thanks. Regarding your first point, Christians don’t need to have all the gifts. One gift will do. So if one has the gift of healing, that is sufficient. If one has the gift of encouraging others who are weary, that is sufficient. So, Jesus, I believe, is saying have and use at least one gift.
Regarding Rev. 3:19, yes, I think what you suggest is a possible interpretation, though I would not favor it. The word sometimes translated by the rather archaic English word “zealous” (KJV, ESV, NASB) has connotations of emotionalism. It is probably better understood as “earnest” (NIV, NRSV, Mounce) or “diligent” (NLB). If Laodicea were steady, consistent and determined in its reliance on God and therefore of value to others (not worthless) in its efforts to cloth the naked, heal the sick and give to the poor, that would be truly earnest and and truly repentant. The point is not to be particularly passionate and demonstrative in expressions of faith but faithful.
As J. Ramsey Michaels says in his Revelation commentary, “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.” (p. 88).
Brother I couldn’t help but notice a rather arogant tone to this post that you need to seriously repent of. Or perhaps with your far superior scholarship to so many godly saints down the ages who disagree with you, you think you are rich and in need of nothing.
“wisdom is justified by her deeds”
Thanks for this very good post. Years ago I was a youth pastor at a mid-sized evangelical church. The pastoral staff was preaching through the letters to the 7 churches, and the senior pastor did the typical poor interpretation of “lukewarm” for the Laodicean church. It was the 3rd or 4th time I had heard it. I struggled since, being young and zealous, I had really done my homework not just for the 2 letters I was preaching but also for the other 5. Some of the better commentaries on Revelation have your correct interpretation above. Hot (usually highly mineralized) water is good for healing and bathing, cold water for quenching thirst and irrigation. But lukewarm is really not good for either, being neither as effective for healing nor as good to drink.
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