And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write . . . “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:14-16 NRSV)
The divine assessment of the works of the Laodicean Christians is a perfect example of the need to read the Scriptures again “for the first time.”
Sermon after sermon has tied the temperatures mentioned here to levels of Christian commitment. The logic is simple and consistent: God’s greatest desire is that Christians are hot – fiery, ablaze — in their commitment. If they are not hot, he had rather them be cold — without commitment and at least honest about. The worst spiritual condition is to be lukewarm — a partial, “sometimes,” incomplete, inconsistent commitment — that is neither hot with commitment or cold without commitment.
The only problem here is that this is not what the text says. Equating “hot” with good and “cold” with bad (but at least honest) is not at all point of the passage.
The angelic messenger condemns the works of the Laodicean church — the way they act, the way they practically live out their faith in the world. If read literally, either hot or cold works are desirable to God. Only lukewarm works are condemned.
This leads to a very different interpretation of the passage. The angel’s message offers a metaphor of usefulness. Hot water is useful — it cleanses, disinfects, soothes, heals, and drives out impurities. Cold water is useful — it quenches thirst, refreshes, and restores to strength. But lukewarm water is not useful — at least not when compared with the usefulness of hot or cold water.
The angelic pronouncement concerning the Laodicean works is a call to usefulness — let your works cleanse, purify, refresh, and restore and do not be satisfied with lukewarm works which make no useful difference in the world around you.
Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien, in their Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, tell of visiting the ruins of ancient Laodicea. Across the Lycus River, just to the north, lies the twin city of Hieropolis, famous for its hot springs that even today attract thousands of visitors. Just to the east, up the river a bit, lies the ancient city of Colossae, known for its natural springs of cold refreshing water. Laodicea stood between these two water sources — one hot and one cold — but having no water source of its own. All water came to Laodicea via aqueduct and with its flow lost its temperature. Surrounded by hot water on one side and cold on the other, the water in Laodicea ran lukewarm.
Alluding to the water supply to the city, the messenger called the Laodicean Christians to useful works — either hot or cold — and away from useless, tepid, lukewarm works.