by Lee Anderson Jr. —
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”Revelation 3:15–161
Just as it is important to pay attention to the literary context in interpreting the Bible, so too it is vital to pay attention to the historical context surrounding the writing of Scripture. That attention to both the literary and historical contexts is the very essence of a proper grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and the need to employ this principle is perhaps showcased in no place more clearly than it is in the verses that lay before us: Revelation 3:15–16.
Up until now in this series on “Sunday school myths,” we have looked specifically at mistaken interpretive views which have virtually no support among Bible scholars. The errant perspectives have gained traction and proliferated mainly in the setting of local churches—that is, in sermons and Sunday school lessons. The interpretation of Revelation 3:15–16 that is our concern today is somewhat different in that it has garnered limited support from top-level Bible scholars (and because of that, we will spend more time than usual interacting with written source material). But I suspect that the flawed interpretation we encounter today still has spread mostly because of how it has been taught in sermons and Sunday school material. That is not to say that those teaching in the local church have intended to introduce errant interpretive perspectives. It is simply that the local church environment sometimes does not provide sufficient opportunity for interaction between differing interpretations (or engagement with the best theological material), and so mistaken interpretations can gain support as they are relayed—often by word of mouth—from one well-meaning believer to the next, unchecked.
Years ago (let’s not say how many years ago; I don’t want to date myself), I attended a church youth program that happened to be going through the book of Revelation. In chapter 3, we encountered Christ’s letter, written down by John, to the church at Laodicea.2 Here we see a relatively harsh admonition. Unlike the letters, say, to Smyrna and Philadelphia, which were full of gentle exhortation to encourage those churches in the face of persecution, the message to the church in Laodicea contains essentially nothing by way of commendation. Christ states that the church had become “lukewarm,” that is to say that it had become incredibly repulsive, much as certain food or beverages, when neither hot nor cold, are so unappetizing that they must be spit out. The way that this passage was presented was that the adjectives “hot” and “cold” must refer to spiritual fervor, and that Christ would ultimately prefer for people to be spiritually passionate (i.e., “hot”) or unsaved and hostile to Him (i.e., “cold”), rather than—as the Laodiceans were—complacent in their faith and self-sufficient (i.e., “lukewarm”).
On the outset, I fear that the notion of associating spiritual fervor with a thermometer is largely a contemporary trend (I just think of the older children’s Sunday school song “Get Hot, Stay Hot,” and its call to “be on fire for Jesus”). However, I will grant, as Robert Thomas argues, that there is some basis for this in Scripture (e.g., words from ζέω, “to boil, be fervent,” in Acts 18:25 and Romans 12:11; and from ψύχω, “to go out, grow cold” in Matthew 24:12).3 This is rather scant support, but even allowing for it, we are not able to evade a much bigger theological problem. Does God really prefer that people be openly opposed to Him and reject the Gospel of Christ outright (i.e., be “cold”) than be “lukewarm,” allegedly connoting spiritual indifference? That question probably hinges on how spiritual indifference is defined. To be fair, Thomas takes it as the state of complacent individuals who merely profess faith in Christ but who are unmoved by the Gospel; they are not actually saved.4 If we accept Thomas’ view, then we might grant that, at least hypothetically, there is a greater chance for the spiritually obstinate than the spiritually indifferent to reconsider their state before God and respond to Christ (as with Paul in Acts 9). In such case, God may prefer that someone be “cold” than “lukewarm” insofar as it concerns their likelihood of eventually responding to Christ. This perspective does not, though, sit well in view of eternity, where those who knew the full truth of God’s word and yet openly and aggressively rejected the Gospel (e.g., the Pharisees) will face a far more severe judgment than those who merely were indifferent to spiritual matters (see, e.g., Luke 7:36–50; John 9:39–41). How in that light could God genuinely prefer they be “cold” than “lukewarm”?
More significantly, however, is that this is not, at least in my experience, the way that the “lukewarm” person is thought of in most church teaching (remember, this is a series on Sunday school myths). Rather, the lukewarm person is viewed as an actual Christian, a saved individual, who is complacent in the service of the Lord, presumably self-sufficient, and stagnate rather than growing in their faith.5 If, contra Thomas, “lukewarm” describes authentic believers, then the notion that God prefers for people to be “cold” (outright hostile to Him and thus destined for His judgment) as opposed to “lukewarm” (spiritually complacent but saved) is ludicrous!6 The state of the most complacent, spiritually unfruitful Christian (including, for instance, he who suffers a total loss of reward as in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15) is still better (definitely in eternity and, I would maintain, in this life as well), than the person who rejects the Gospel and remains under the just wrath of God (cf. John 3:36), destined for a future endlessly separated from His love.
How then should we read this passage? As I alluded to earlier, the historical background can give us a helpful clue. Laodicea, though a very wealthy city, lacked a natural water supply. Hierapolis, six miles to the north of Laodicea, was known for its natural hot springs, medicinal waters desired for bathing. Colosse, eleven miles east of Laodicea, had a constant supply of cool, fresh mountain water, refreshing for drinking. Laodicea had to receive its water via an aqueduct built by the Romans. By the time the water reached Laodicea, it was distastefully lukewarm and, according to some sources, so unpleasant that it could be used to induce vomiting.7
The imagery of Revelation 3:15–16 very likely draws on the historical situation regarding the city’s water. The cold water and the hot water alike had useful purposes, but the lukewarm water was worthless for anything other than for drinking when one absolutely had to. To be either “hot” or “cold” in this view would be desirable (the adjectives “cold” and “hot” referring not to spiritual hostility or zeal, but to one way or another of being useful and productive in the spiritual service of God). But to be “lukewarm” indicated a kind of spiritual disregard that made the self-sufficient members of the Laodicean church effectively useless in God’s service. Apparently, the works of the Laodiceans (note the opening of verse 15) had become so empty and ineffective that they were as distasteful to God as the city’s water was to the Laodiceans themselves.8
While there is some measure of disagreement among scholars, I find that this view is far more palatable theologically than the idea that God would ever desire for anyone to be spiritually cold and hostile to Him. Would that be the same God who declares He is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)?
In the end, we may grant that Revelation 3:15–16 is a challenging passage, perhaps more so than the other verses we have looked at in this series. However, it serves well to teach us the value of attending to the historical context in interpreting God’s word. And it is that kind of care in interpretation that guards us from buying into Sunday school myths.
1All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2In the interest of full disclosure, I hold that this section of John’s apocalypse was written to the believers in Laodicea about A.D. 96 and that the message, while using figurative language, addresses real problems within the literal church in Laodicea at that time. I do not believe there is any textual support for applying the letter to Laodicea either directly or secondarily to a particular era in the history of the universal church. This is critical, because if the very specific imagery of this section of Scripture is removed from the cultural and historical context associated with the ancient Laodicean church, the text essentially loses its meaning. It then becomes possible for the interpreter to impose on the passage any number of alternative interpretations that are foreign to the text.
3Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1992), 306.
4Ibid, 307. Such a view finds support in the description of the Laodicean church, in that they are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17), although I find that this description is not definitive given other contextual clues.
5Indicators in the passage seem to suggest that the “lukewarm” people at Laodicea may well be believers. In verse 19, Christ says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” Within the context, it would seem odd for “love” to mean the general benevolence that God has for all human beings rather than the special love of Christ for those whom He has saved. Likewise, God’s loving reproof and discipline is reserved for His own; unbelievers will face His judgement, which is an altogether different thing than discipline.
6Alan F. Johnson in his work maintains that, regardless of the point of contrast, it is inconceivable that God would actually desire for anyone to be hostile to Him. “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, edited by Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 457.
8In addition to the aforementioned work by Johnson, see Mark W. Wilson “Revelation,” in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 4, Hebrews to Revelation, edited by Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 276, and Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 774–75.