The letter to Laodicea – Part One (Rev 3:14-22)

The letter to Laodicea is, I think, the most famous of the seven. Probably because of its vivid imagery (Jesus spewing lukewarm water out of his mouth) and the famous verse “Behold, I stand at the door and knock!” But I also think it’s the most misunderstood. Particularly when it comes to this idea of being “lukewarm.” Let’s read the first part:

3:14-16 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. 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.

Many times I’ve heard this idea of being “lukewarm” taken to mean indifferent or half-hearted. That God has taken out his thermometer, stuck it in the mouth of the Laodicean church, and after waiting three minutes has just read their spiritual temperature. And the results are not good. Although at one point they might have been “on fire for God,” they’ve lost their fire and are only half-hearted. Going through the motions, rather than maintaining their spiritual zeal.

Now that may be the case. But then what do we make of the idea that God would prefer them to be cold (presumably, not believers?) than lukewarm? Some say it’s easier to bring a “cold” person to repentance, but still – is that really what’s going on here?

Allow me to illustrate with a subject dear to my heart. Caffeinated beverages. Whenever I preached on this passage, I used them as a kind of object lesson. Firstly, I get a volunteer to taste two cups of coffee, and ask which they prefer: the hot coffee, or the lukewarm coffee. No prizes for guessing which one they pick.

But then I offer them the choice between glasses of Coke: an ice-cold one, or a lukewarm one. (Usually I’ve microwaved the second one for a few seconds just to be sure it’s awful.) And once they recover from the ghastly, lukewarm mouthful they gladly accept the cold one. The hot coffee is good to drink. The ice-cold Coke is also good to drink. But the lukewarm drinks were useless. And if it weren’t for their respect for the church carpet, I’m sure they would have spat them out of their mouth.

This observation – that hot and cold are both good, but lukewarm is good for nothing – would have rung especially true for the Laodicean readers of this letter. Why?

Well, the Laodiceans were very familiar with lukewarm water. 
They had no drinking supply of their own, and had to have water piped in by an aqueduct from the nearby town of Denizli. The source at Denizli was actually a hot spring, but by the time it made its way down the limestone aqueduct to Laodicea, it had become lukewarm and bitter. The sort of water you’d spit out of your mouth. So Laodicea, as a city, was a bit of a laughing stock as far as its water supply went.

To add insult to injury, just up the road was the town of Hierapolis, famous for its hot natural springs. A tourist destination for the rich, people came from all over just to bathe in its waters, which supposedly cured many ailments.

Not only that, just down the road was the city of Colossae, with its own supply of cold, pure drinking water straight from a mountain stream. If only they’d invented plastic bottles back then, the Colossians would have made a killing exporting it to the rest of the empire: the Mount Franklin of the ancient world.

But stuck in the middle of the hot springs of Hierapolis, and the ice-cold drinking water of Colossae, was the city of Laodicea. With its lukewarm water supply that was pretty useless. It wasn’t hot enough to bathe in, or warm you up on a cold day. And it wasn’t cool and pure enough to be a refreshing drink.

And that’s what God is saying about the church in Laodicea. They’re like their own city’s water supply: lukewarm and useless. Not fit for the purpose for which God intended them. It wasn’t because they had ‘lost their fire’, and become half-hearted. No – it was worse than that. They had become useless in the service of God.

Why? Well that’s what tomorrow’s all about.

To think about

How might a church (or a believer) be useless to God?

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