(Rev. 3:15-16) What does it mean to be “hot or cold” for God?

CLAIM: Jesus tells the church in Laodicea, “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” (Rev. 3:15-16). Christian preachers often claim that Jesus is speaking to the “pew sitter” here, who neither wants to live radically for God (i.e. “hot”) nor wants to walk away from God (i.e. “cold”). Is this the proper interpretation?

RESPONSE: Logic should speak against this reading of Jesus’ words. Can we really believe that Jesus would prefer someone to be out living for the world (“I wish you were cold”). This doesn’t seem to fit with God’s desire for us. Instead, it would make more sense to believe that Christ would want us to repent and have a change of heart—not leave for the world. This passage makes sense when we realize the historical background of Laodicea. Osborne explains,

Six miles to the north lay Hierapolis, famed for its hot springs. Ten miles to the east lay Colosse, known for its cold, pure drinking water. As Hemer (1986: 187–91) points out, Hierapolis’s streams were so well known for their healing qualities that the city became a major health center, while the cold, life-giving water of Colosse, the only place in the region it was available, may account for its original settlement. Laodicea had no water supply of its own. It was founded at the junction of trade routes not for its natural but for its commercial and military advantages. When it piped in its water from the hot springs of Denizli (see the introduction to this letter), the water did not have enough time to cool in the aqueducts but arrived “lukewarm” (χλιαρός, chliaros). Even today, people in the area place the water in jars to cool. Porter (1987: 144–46) shows that passages from Herodotus and Xenophon indicate that it was the temperature as well as the minerals (see below) that made the water undrinkable. In this sense it is their barren works rather than their spirituality that is the focus, which fits the opening “I know your works.” Of course, there is no radical difference between the two, for its “deeds” showed its spiritual barrenness.[1]

Thus the hot water would have certain benefits to the Laodiceans (e.g. healing qualities, relaxation), and the cold water would have benefits, too (e.g. good to drink). But what about the lukewarm, sulfur water? This would truly make us gag! This is why Jesus says, “I will spit [literally vomit] you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16). If you’ve ever had a cup of lukewarm, sulfur water, you’ll know why Jesus says this; it tastes like raw eggs: putrid.

[1] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 205.