“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." Rev. 3:14-16(ESV)

No church of the first century A.D. received more severe rebuke from the Lord than Laodicea. The basic teaching of the above passage taught almost universally is “I wish you were passionate for me (hot) or spiritually dead (cold), but instead you are somewhere in the middle. Because you are neither on fire for me or spiritually dead, I am very displeased with you.” This interpretation never really made much sense to me. I could see why Jesus wanted people to be passionate for him (hot), but I could never understand why Jesus would prefer a person be lost or spiritually dead (cold) instead of somewhere in the middle between the two. Literal interpretation of the Bible (aka ‘biblicism’) is often problematic, when a person lacks credible background about the whole biblical narrative, culture and colloquialisms of early Christendom. This is where I agree with the Catholic Church, laymen should not be left to interpret Scripturesolely by their own reasoning.

Both hot and cold water were considered luxuries during the days in which the epistles were written and both had positive qualities. Stagnant lukewarm water however had a special meaning to the Laodicean's as they would have understood it based on details common in their lifetimes.

The city of Laodicea was built in a region that was full of seismic activity and had experienced many earthquakes. As often happens in a seismic area, vents came up from the depths of the earth, allowing boiling hot water to reach the surface. In the nearby city of Hierapolis, these hot springs were famous for their steaming mineral baths. People came from great distances to bathe in those waters, believing they had medicinal powers. An experience in those waters was viewed to be therapeutic and effective in improving one's health. Today, the ruins of the baths, temples and other Greek monuments can be seen at the Hierapolis site, now known as Pamukkale in south-west Turkey. Pamukkale is Turkish for “cotton castle” as a description of the snow-white calcium deposit that cascades down the slopes like ice.

Another city named Colosse was not too far away. As Hierapolis was known for its hot springs, Colosse was known for its cold waters. Just as people journeyed to Hierapolis to bathe in the hot springs for health purposes, people would travel great distances to vacation in Colosse, where they could invigorate themselves by taking frequent dips into the famous, refreshing, cool-to-freezing waters of that city.

Laodicea may have been the biggest and richest city in the area, but it had neither hot nor cold water. Unlike its neighbors, Laodicea had no springs at all. Therefore, the people of Laodicea had to leave their luxurious homes and travel to Colosse if they wanted to enjoy fresh, cool water. On the other hand, those who desired to soak in the hot springs had to travel six miles to Hierapolis. The trouble with bringing the water in, by the time the water from either city made it to Laodicea, it had lost the qualities that made it remarkable. The hot water was no longer hot; the cold water was no longer cold.

Surely the Laodiceans wished their water was one or the other—either hot or cold. There isn’t much use for lukewarm water. I suspect that the meaning of the Lord’s warning was clear to the Laodiceans. He wished his people were hot (like the salubrious waters of Hierapolis) or cold (like the refreshing waters of Colossae). Instead, their discipleship was unremarkable. Jesus was in essence saying that hot and cold were both genuinely good conditions, and only lukewarm was a bad condition. In other words, in these verses hot and cold are used as synonyms to refer to strong, passionate, remarkable faith. Lukewarm refers to unremarkable faith. Lukewarm is not some spiritual condition in between hot and cold at all. Lukewarm stands in opposition to both hot and cold, and that is most likely how the Laodiceans would have heard Jesus’s message to them.

Once in an attempt to bring the hot water from Hierapolis to Laodicea, a huge construction project was commenced. The goal of those who initiated the project was to build pipes that would channel the hot water six miles from Hierapolis to the city of Laodicea. The pipes effectively delivered the water - a real feat of construction at that time. Sadly, however, the water lost its heat along the way. By the time the water reached Laodicea, it was not only lukewarm, but it had developed a sickening, nauseating smell. The smell was so revolting that no one could find any use for it! The hot waters emerged some fifty miles from under the mountains in Hierapolis to the surface heavy with carbon dioxide and lime, and in the open air the carbon dioxide escaped and the water-soluble calcium bicarbonate turned into insoluble limestone. Imagine how nauseating it was when it reduced to warm desert temperatures! Here is the reference to where the Lord said he would cast aside apathetic Christians, full of their own contaminates, away from him. Not out of cruelty, but he simply could not use them.

About A.D. 60 both the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis were severely damaged by an earthquake, which was recorded by Tacitus (Ann. xiv. 27). Laodicea was apparently so prosperous that it refused imperial financial assistance to rebuild. This may give us added insight into John's charge against the Laodiceans, "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17). During the first and second centuries A.D. The prominent religion of the city during this period was clearly pagan, with many temples and statues dedicated to Greek and Roman deities such as Apollo, Diana, and others.

In the year A.D. 367 the Council of Laodicea convened. Among other items, the church took measures against the teaching of the Montanists and the Quartodeciman Christians, who even then were considered heretical groups. Another important event of the Council was a pronouncement on the acceptance of Scripture. The New Testament canon was reviewed, and twenty-six books were confirmed. The missing book, as might be expected at Laodicea, was the book of Revelation. John's use of Laodicea as an example of spiritual poverty was apparently resented by this beautiful and proud city. Also, the initial omission of Revelation was due to a general reaction against this book in the east after excessive use was made of it by the Montanist cults (Today referred to by some as Pentecostalism: another study).

Both Laodicea and Hierapolis were destroyed by another earthquake in 1354, and neither city was ever rebuilt. The ruins of Hierapolis remain almost undisturbed today, silent clues to its past.