'Neither Cold Nor Hot' — The Real Lesson of Lukewarm Laodicea

When it comes to our religious faith, we all know it’s better to be on fire than to be lukewarm.

We ask the Holy Spirit to “enkindle in us the fire of your love.” If we cool off — if we don't stay “hot” — we risk quenching the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

It would seem that if cold is the opposite of hot, then to be spiritually lukewarm is better than being spiritually cold. If you go from cold to lukewarm, you're making progress! You're going in the right direction. The closer we are to God, the better. Right?

We want to be like the two men on the road to Emmaus who recognized the resurrected Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread. When he vanished from their sight, they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). This kind of heat — this spiritual “heart burn” — is what we desire.

What we don’t want is to be like those of whom Jesus spoke in his Olivet prophecy: “And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

So what is the deal with Jesus’ words in Saint John’s letter to the church in Laodicea?

His warning to the Laodiceans is found in Revelation 3:15–16:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

Does it make sense to believe Jesus wants us to either love him or hate him — but what displeases him most is if we're somewhere in the middle? By analogy, is a so-so marriage worse than a marriage grown ice cold?

It's indeed counterintuitive to think cold is better than lukewarm — if what we have in mind is a range of spiritual temperatures, with “hot” being good and “cold” being bad.

The truth is, contrary to popular belief, that's not what Jesus meant.

Another read-through

If we discard the “spiritual degrees” paradigm and reread the letter to Laodicea, understanding the city in its historical context, we can unlock this apparent dilemma. We can make sense of Jesus’ call for the Laodicean church to be either “cold or hot” rather than “lukewarm.”

Here is the full warning message to Laodicea in Revelation 3:15–22:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.

Laodicea's fame

Jesus references specific things notable about first-century Laodicea:

Putting the pieces together

If we understand these things about Laodicea, we begin to understand Jesus more clearly. The correlations between Laodicea’s attributes and Jesus’ admonitions should become obvious.

Despite the eye salve that Laodicea offered, the church there was spiritually “blind,” but Jesus offers the readers true “salve to anoint [their] eyes, that [they] may see.”

The church’s members were “naked,” and in contrast to the glossy black wool found in the city, Jesus offers “white garments to clothe [them].”

The riches from the city’s industries and banking does not mean the people are not “poor.” “Therefore I [Jesus] counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich.”

Now what about the reference to being “lukewarm”?

Less than 10 miles away was the city of Colosse, where there was cool water, suitable for drinking. And just to the north of nearby Hieropolis, there were hot springs, suitable for therapeutic and healing baths.

But Laodicea? Remember, their water was tepid and full of sediment, which was good for neither drinking nor bathing. That’s why Jesus compared their sins of pride and complacency to their “lukewarm” water. “I will spew you out of my mouth,” he says, because, like their water, they were good for nothing.

So it’s not that Jesus prefers cold mortal sins over lukewarm venial sins. In terms of spiritual degrees, some warmth is better than none. But Jesus was not speaking of spiritual degrees; he was speaking of spiritual usefulness.

Our takeaway

Our takeaway from all of this is simple: “be zealous and repent” (3:19).

Be like hot water, which can be used for bathing. Or be like cold water, as a refreshing drink. Anything but lukewarm. We don’t want to be an emetic — a substance that induces spiritual vomiting in our Lord.

But how do we do that? What does that look like?

Laodicea was just one of the seven churches in Asia Minor that received a custom-tailored message. To most of them, Jesus says, “I know your works” (2:2; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15).

Specifically, he says to “repent, and do the works you did at first” (2:5).

So whether you've cultivated vices in your life or allowed yourself to become spiritually tepid — if you feel stuck in a rut, then the only way out is to fall on your knees. Pray. Repent. Confess.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

And no matter how you feel, “do the works you did at first.” Get back to the basics.

Get back to the traditional, tested, and true teachings of the Catholic Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

It's the only way to avoid the “lukewarm” condition.

By the way, despite the lukewarm condition of the Laodiceans, Jesus concludes his letter to them with encouragement:

Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3:19-22).

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