Neither Hot nor Cold

Question: Where would you place yourself on the meter above? Take a few seconds to think about it.

Of course, we'd love our needle to be pointing all the way to the left -- a red hot believer! But I imagine most Christians would rate themselves somewhere in the middle of the red zone… and hopefully not drifting down into the blue.

We say this because “hot” and “cold” are usually associated with “good” and “bad” in our culture, right? We describe winning athletes or sports teams as being on “hot streaks.” But no one wants to be left out in the cold or given the cold shoulder. Likewise, enthusiastic Christians are said to be “on fire” for the Lord. We're encouraged to “ignite” our faith lest our relationship with God grow “cold.”

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Revelation 3:15-16 can send a confusing message:

“ I know your deeds, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

What are these verses talking about?! Obviously the Lord desires us to be “hot” or “on fire” in the faith. Scripture would never urge us to be lukewarm, apathetic Christians. But what about the cold part? Does this passage teach that the Lord so disgusted with lethargic, half-hearted followers that He’d prefer that they were altogether cold, or completely uninvolved? That hardly seems logical.

This section of Scripture is a great example of why it’s important to look at historical background when studying the Bible. These verses were originally directed to believers in the ancient city of Laodicea, so a quick overview of their culture and society will help bring clarity to this otherwise confusing passage.

Laodicea was a large and prosperous city, but it had a major drawback: it lacked its own natural water supply. Citizens relied on a network of aqueducts to deliver its municipal water from miles away. Unlike Laodicea, the nearby cities of Hierapolis and Colossae both had prolific natural water sources. Hierapolis enjoyed luxurious natural hot springs, and was renowned for its soothing warm baths and natural spas. Colossae had a magnificent natural cold spring. Meanwhile, the water piped to Laodicea would have been tepid, discolored and unpalatable by the time it arrived.

So this analogy to the Laodicean believers does not correlate with our modern culture’s, “hot=good and cold=bad,” formula. Instead, it illustrates that both hot and cold extremes are desirable! God wants His followers to be helpful, healing Christians like the therapeutic hot water of Hierapolis. And God desires lively, spirited followers, like the refreshing cold water of Colossae. Both are far better than being spiritually uninspiring, or even distasteful, like the lukewarm water at Laodicea.

Spiritual analogies for the Laodicean Christians didn’t end at their Department of Utilities. The imagery used in the harsh rebuke of verses 17-18 is also based on their culture, so the historical context will help us understand the message:

“You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ But you don’t realize that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see.”

Let’s look at some quick points of background to help clarify these verses.

1. “You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’” (v17)

Laodicea was nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake around 60 AD. The Laodiceans refused financial help from the government, instead rebuilding the city by their own means. Laodicea was a proud and successful city, but their prosperity had gone to their heads. Even the Christians had forgotten about God and thought they were self-sufficient.

2. “But you don’t realize that you are wretched, miserable, poor… So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich.” (v17-18)

Laodicea was one of the most wealthy cities in the ancient world…. in earthly terms. But the enculturated believers had become spiritually poor. They needed to seek spiritual treasure, free from worldly impurities.

3. “Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness…” (v18)

The Laodiceans produced cloth for fine garments, specializing in a luxurious dark wool, but in God’s eyes they were spiritually bare. White garments are used as a symbol of righteousness throughout Revelation (3:4, 5; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9; 19:8, 14).

4. “…and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see.” (v18)

Laodicea was known for fine medical treatments and ointments for eyes, but the church had lost sight of the Lord. Despite all their optical remedies, they had become spiritually blind.

The lessons for Christians today are pretty obvious once we understand the historical context, right? Believers have a tendency to forget God when things are going well. We focus on our own successes and become self-confident. God is patient and long suffering, but He’s displeased-- even sickened--with Christians who become comfortable in their lives and complacent in their faith. Like the Laodiceans, we need a reminder that it is God who supplies true riches and clear vision.

Romans 12:11 -- “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”

- Ron Reid

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