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Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV)

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

What does Jesus mean by "lukewarm"? From the context it is clear that it refers to a middle state between two extremes (hot and cold), but this begs the question: what is meant by "hot" and "cold"?

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  • "Hot" and "cold" are 2 muscles of the brain in the region of the brain that deals with time. Other muscles of the brain are "wet" and "dry" and "soft" and "hard" and "light" and "dark".
    – R. Emery
    Sep 29, 2022 at 6:34
  • “Seek and you will find”: Jesus said. Both believers and atheists are seekers. Agnostics, on the other hand are not. They don’t care about existential matters and can be said to be lukewarm. Both Atheists and believers have some kind of conviction based on personal truths and are open for new revelations, while the lukewarm agnostics are closed and not open for revelations. Aug 31, 2023 at 14:44
  • Another possibility is that the cold ones are the supporters and backers of the people who are in active Christian service (warm). David stipulated that the people at the truss will share the bounty with the active soldiers. Jesus also said that if someone gives a prophet a glass of water they will get a prophets reward. The lukewarm ones would be the ones who are involved in neither front-line, nor base-camp ministry. Sep 14, 2023 at 9:56

7 Answers 7

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The word, "hot", "cold", and "lukewarm" present a difficulty here:

  • The word for "cold" is ψυχρός (psychros) and apart from Matt 10:42 (the literal meaning) only occurs in Rev 3:15, 16. BDAF suggests that its metaphoric meaning is Rev 3:15, 16 is "being without enthusiasm"
  • The word for "hot" is ζεστός (zestos, hence the English "zesty" = hot or spicy) which only occurs in Rev 3:15, 16. DBAG suggests: "the underlying idea is that the membership at Laodicea is as ineffective as its water (for the most part undesirable for drinking purposes) in pleasing one's palate"
  • The word for "lukewarm" is χλιαρός (chliaros) and is a hapex legomenon. The effect of tepid water as an emetic is well known.

The origin of the metaphor is well-understood from the hot mineral (limestone) springs near Laodicea that gradually cool and produce lukewarm water, popular for bathing and therapy but never for drinking. Ironically, the city of Laodicea made large sums of money from people seeking remedies for various ailments in these bathing pools.

So, what is the meaning of the metaphor of cold, lukewarm and hot water when applied to the Christian church?

In the case of "lukewarm", we are explicitly told - it is a metaphor of offensiveness - so much so that Christ wants to vomit them out. This all very well but what is "hot and cold"?

There have been two ways to understand the metaphor of hot and cold Christians:

  1. Hot and cold refers to their spiritual state - hot people being "on fire for the Lord"; and cold people meaning those who have not or will not accept the Gospel message. If this is true, the "lukewarm" would mean those described in 2 Tim 3:5, who "have a form of godliness but denying its power" and those in Heb 6:4, 5, "who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age", but who have fallen away.
  2. Both hot and cold are acceptable because good drinks can consist of either. But Lukewarm is offensive, even producing the extreme of vomiting.

I am inclined to the first view because the Christians at Laodicea were wealthy self-satisfied and self-sufficient people (Rev 3:17) who only went through the motions of service to Christ. Ellicott offers this comment:

If religion is worth anything, it is worth every thing. Christ expects men should be in earnest. How many professors of gospel doctrine are neither hot nor cold; except as they are indifferent in needful matters, and hot and fiery in disputes about things of lesser moment! A severe punishment is threatened. They would give a false opinion of Christianity, as if it were an unholy religion; while others would conclude it could afford no real satisfaction, otherwise its professors would not have been heartless in it, or so ready to seek pleasure or happiness from the world. One cause of this indifference and inconsistency in religion is, self-conceit and self-delusion; Because thou sayest. What a difference between their thoughts of themselves, and the thoughts Christ had of them! How careful should we be not to cheat our owns souls! There are many in hell, who once thought themselves far in the way to heaven. Let us beg of God that we may not be left to flatter and deceive ourselves.

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  • I get it that "on fire for the Lord" is better than being lukewarm, but why is "have not or will not accept the Gospel message" better than being lukewarm? My understanding would be that if someone is "cold" he might still open up for the Gospel in the future, but by being lukewarm one might not seek it out and remain wrongly confident that it's enough. Yet this is only my personal opinion.
    – vsz
    May 10, 2022 at 21:16
  • @vsz - good question - the problem here is that the lukewarm have been inoculated to the Gospel message - a cold person can be preached to and reached but lukewarm people become indifferent and self sufficient.
    – Dottard
    May 10, 2022 at 21:19
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The Laodiceans did not have a fresh water supply. They built an aqueduct to bring the cold water down from the mountains, but by the time it got to Laodicea the water was lukewarm, and very disgusting. There were hot springs in the valley below them where the Lycus River met the Meander River, but by the time they could take it up to Laodicea it was again lukewarm. (See here)

The church at Laodicea understood exactly what Jesus referred to. They were counting on their riches as a sign of approval, and not being active in the work.

Some take the position that the cold church would mean those that turned away from the gospel, but there is a better point that both hot and cold water are considered good to drink, whereas lukewarm is distasteful. Therefore, being either hot or cold indicates a good condition, healthy, and active.

"What does Christ mean by this metaphor? Cold water stimulates and invigorates. Nothing refreshes more than drinking a glass of cold water on a hot day. And hot water? It is useful for health. Not only do we mix it with teas, herbs, broths, and the like, but it also works as a solvent, good for cleaning just about anything." (Source: here)

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  • Laodicea transported water from two nearby cities, not one. One source was a hot spring, the other was a cool spring. By the time either water reached the city it was lukewarm. Aug 29, 2023 at 19:53
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Romans 12:10-11 is a helpful companion passage:

10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly clove; in honour preferring one another;

11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;

The word translated "fervent" is from the word ζέω, literally meaning to boil (or to be hot). In the parlance of modern physics, we might call it "energized". John's letter, like Paul's, is calling upon people to be energetic and committed, not complacent. One that is energized in God's work carries it forward and transfers energy to others. One that is cold is (as yet) untouched by the source of heat. One that is lukewarm is one that has been exposed to heat, and has failed to be transformed by it.

In the first century, people did not have electric water heaters[citation needed] that could provide warm water almost instantly. Boiling water was a fairly laborious process and took some time; if the effect of applying energy to a pot of water was to produce room-temperature water, the effort would be wasted and the water would not accomplish whatever its intended purpose (cooking, cleaning, etc.) may have been.

(The well-known presence of hot springs in the area provides an excellent case for why this analogy was used, though I suggest it does not directly answer the OP's question regarding what the analogy meant)

MacLaren's Exposition offers a sharp critique of the complacency of being "lukewarm":

Then again, this deficiency of warmth is worse than absolute zero. ‘I would thou wert cold or hot.’ That is no spurt of impatience on the part of the ‘true Witness.’ It is for their sake that He would they were cold or hot. And why? Because there is no man more hopeless than a man on whom the power of Christianity has been brought to bear, and has failed in warming and quickening him. If you were cold, at absolute zero, there would be at least a possibility that when you were brought in contact with the warmth you might kindle. But you have been brought in contact with the warmth, and this is the effect. Then what is to be done with you? There is nothing more that can be brought to bear on your consciousness to make you anything higher or better than you are, than what you have already had in operation in your spiritual life.

This passage criticizes those who have been exposed to light & truth, but have not permitted it to transform them. They are attempting to strike a middle ground between serving God & mammon, and are finding out the hard way that they can neither love nor worship two masters (see Matt. 6:24).

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  • Someone downvoted this :-/
    – user38524
    May 10, 2022 at 11:04
  • 2
    I don't know why someone downvoted this. This is a fantastic answer. Here's an upvote! +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    May 10, 2022 at 17:46
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learn something from this page - Thank you. v15 says I know your deeds, -- so it has something to do with deeds... i wish you were either one or the other! - so it means it is OK to be HOT or COLD but not in-Between. I m still contemplating - HOT DEEDS and COLD DEEDS - what would that be? There are two things that we could come, - either OLD Covenant of Works or New Covenant of Jesus works. Not sure, if this is the path of thought i m leaning on. Would love to hear some other thought.

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  • 1
    Don't post such kind of answers like social media. First study the best answers carefully by others in many other questions.
    – Michael16
    Sep 29, 2022 at 11:12
  • Hi @Michael16, What made you the impression that i did not carefully read the answer of others here in the social media forum :) I was not posting an answer but rather clarifying and trying to get more information. For a while i thought this is where we try to learn from each other, am i wrong? - Cheers.
    – lexsch
    Oct 3, 2022 at 0:47
  • For questions there is a comment section, which only opens up after getting some points. Learn how this site works. Don't post without proper answers. Check the overview of the site, your post is not a valid answer by any means.
    – Michael16
    Oct 3, 2022 at 6:25
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The metaphor of "lukewarm" is clear, but what about "hot" and "cold"?

Our instinct will bring forth an image that "hot" and "cold" are in contrast, which is true physically but may be wrong spiritually. If it meant spiritually contrast, then why only the "lukewarm" was rebuked, neither the "hot" nor the "cold"?

Reading Rev 3:16 again

So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (NIV)

The focus is not "lukewarm", the consequence - spit you out of my mouth - is the focus. The contrast to "lukewarm" is either "hot" or "cold", both suitable to drink. So in this metaphor from Jesus, further exploration in the meaning of "hot" or "cold" might be overthinking. If I had to give an explanation, I would say "hot" means those zealous in action, and "cold" means those zealous in reading the scripture.

Jesus described the "lukewarm" people as follows (Rev 3:17-19)

17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.

Obviously Jesus had not rejected those "lukewarm" people, and He still loved them and disciplined them (vv19), and wanted them to be cured (vv18). Therefore, any thinking about "cold" with a negative sense is likely misunderstanding.

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I have thought for several years cold referred to refreshing as a cold drink. I then read that Laodacia is close to Colossae and it had refreshingly cold mountain streams for their water supply. The other water supply was hot springs that provided healing and therapeutic elements. I am encouraged to see comments that support what I felt the Spirit was showing me. There is no rebuke to the cold or hot only just the lukewarm. This is a letter to the Church.

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    – Community Bot
    Aug 29, 2023 at 17:33
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My understanding might be wrong and correct me if I'm wrong.

Hot comes from fire and cold comes from ice. Hot will help in cooking something and cold will help in preserving something. Lukewarm is like mixing cold and hot in the same bowl which may spoil the taste. On earth hot (Sun, fire) and cold (Moon, water) are essential for all living creatures to live a life, so I assume Jesus doesn't mean to say being hot or cold is Good or Bad because both are essential and necessary. Here Jesus might be talking about the human character or nature. People generally don't stick to their words or characters but rather change conveniently depending on the situation. Either sail in a hot boat or cold boat but don't sail on two boats at the same time. Lukewarm might denote being double mind, double tongue. Being rich is not bad but feeling pride in thinking rich is not good. No tree says it is rich because it gives many fruits. It just grows and gives a shadow to many. While growing to the heights our humbleness should also grow.

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    – Community Bot
    Oct 2, 2023 at 14:06

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