Would You Rather be Hot or Cold? (Dan Liu)

The eastern entrance to Laodicea’s ruins, near the Syrian Gate, photo taken March 22, 2023.

Representing Hong Kong at an overseas meeting usually means visiting an American city well-served by an airport hub. This past spring, we convened in a different place: Izmir, Türkiye. In antiquity Izmir was known as Smyrna, the place that lent its name to the church in Revelation 2:8-11. After our formal meetings I had the opportunity to visit some of the city ruins where the seven churches in Asia, mentioned in Revelation 2-3,[1] were located. This article will focus on the church in Laodicea, in the hope that a visit to the ruins and a re-study of the challenging message of Revelation 3:14-22 can awaken understanding and conviction as we practice our Christianity in Hong Kong today.

The sites of the Seven Churches almost form an arc in modern Türkiye. (Jonadab, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Background on the Seventh Church of Asia, Laodicea

The writer of Revelation states the following:

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

Revelation 1:9-11

Each church received its own message, calling it out to face its own challenge in its own context. Ephesus had “forsaken” its first love (2:4). Pergamum had compromised to idols, immorality, and the Nicolaitans’ teaching (2:14-15). Smyrna was to prepare for upcoming suffering. Jesus strongly critiqued the last church, Laodicea.

The Seleucid ruler Antiochus II founded Laodicea around 260 BC, one of five cities named after his wife,[2] along the Lycus River. Nine kilometers to the north were Hierapolis’ hot thermal springs,[3] its white-faced cliffs produced by the mineralized water. Mounts Salbakos and Cadmus range above and provided snow used in the city to chill beverages, such as wine.[4] These two very different water sources provide the backdrop for the famous hot-cold-lukewarm metaphor Jesus used, but more on that later.

Laodicea’s position between Syria and Ephesus “at the junction of three imperial roads traversing Asia Minor favoured its development as a wealthy commercial and administrative centre.”[5] The city was well-known as a banking center, recommended by Cicero as good place to exchange money.[6] Nearby sheep farmers produced a quality black wool used to manufacture tunics. Laodicea had a medical school, the alma mater of famed ophthalmologist Demosthenes Philalethes, “who wrote an influential textbook on the eye.”[7] Merchants marketed popular eye salves made from zinc and alum found nearby.[8]

Besides its importance as a financial, manufacturing, and medical center, Laodicea’s star as a prominent city in the region shone in other ways. Like others, it sought to honor the Roman Empire by building a temple to the imperial cult. Smyrna had become “…the first city to establish a cult to Rome by building a temple for the goddess Roma,” in 195 BC.[9] Vying for recognition,

in AD 25 Laodicea applied for permission to build the second imperial cult temple in Asia, but was disqualified due to lack of civic wealth required to maintain a provincial cult. The emperor Hadrian stayed in Laodicea during the summer of AD 129.[10]

Ephesus[11] only built an imperial cult temple in AD 89/90. Moreover, Ephesus also overtook Pergamum as the provincial capital sometime in the first century.[12] Though not as large as Ephesus, Laodicea nonetheless impressed: it housed “the largest ancient stadium of Anatolia,” [13] and built not one but two (!!) theaters into its hillsides, with a total capacity of 20,000.  After the west theater could no longer accommodate its needs, the city built the north theater in 2nd century AD and had “the names of civic associations and leading families…carved into the theater seats.”[14]

Laodicea’s North (top) and West (bottom) Theaters, photos taken March 22, 2023.

Finally, throughout history Laodicea has experienced several earthquakes. A plaque at the city ruins’ entrance records the following:

Devastating Earthquakes in Laodikeia’s History:
Earthquake in 27 BC during the reign of Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14)
Earthquake in AD 47 during the reign of Claudius (r. 41-54)
Earthquake in AD 60 during the reign of Nero (r. 54-68) razed the city to the ground[15]

Laodicea received assistance from Rome after the first two earthquakes. Interestingly, “after the earthquake in AD 60 Laodicea was the only Asian city to refuse Roman financial assistance.”[16] Laodicea considered itself wealthy enough to fund its own recovery, deciding not to rely on help from Rome to rebuild, even though it had been “razed…to the ground.”

Laodicea’s special characteristics and history figure significantly in how Jesus addresses the community of Christians there. Let’s now turn to Revelation 3:14-22.

To the Text

Verse 14 emphasizes Jesus as the “faithful and true witness,” contrasting greatly with what God found in Laodicea.  Then we find the famous rebuke:

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.

Revelation 3:15-16

Many have tried to explain the meaning of “lukewarm—neither hot not cold.” One is that cool spring water flowing to the city in its aqueducts would have arrived lukewarm. [17] Another explanation is that Laodicea’s bath complexes had hot and cold-water areas and that it was better to be in either one or the other.[18] However, both these explanations would not have been unique to Laodicea—other cities would have had lukewarm water flowing in and separate hot and cold-water Roman baths. Moreover, neither accounts for the city’s unique position between the hot springs and snowy mountains.[19] Fundamentally, water that was neither cold nor hot was no longer useful, neither for chilling beverages nor therapeutic bathing.[20] Lukewarmness meant that the “hotness” (“fervor,” zestos)[21] of disciples had been cooled by a cold, worldly culture.

Another historical explanation for the meaning of “lukewarm” goes like this: Domitian, the Roman emperor at the time of Revelation’s writing, insisted on being worshipped as a god even while he was alive. Rich Laodicean Christians would have been required to worship the emperor—failure to do so would have jeopardized their business connections and their ability even to operate:

The pressure upon rich Christians to maintain their wealth was intense. Since a great deal of Laodicea’s wealth depended upon trade, the Christian merchants were in a quandary. Would they cooperate with the imperial cult and maintain their trade associations, or would they forswear Domitian and reaffirm their faith in Christ?[22] 

Laodicean Christians were compromising. They were losing their zeal and courage. They were in danger of being no longer useful to God and His mission, becoming lukewarm. Jesus was about to “spit” them out.

In verse 17, the Laodicean disciples are then critiqued for being “self-sufficient in their spiritual smugness.”[23] Influenced by civic pride, they relied on their own resources and accomplishments as a strategically situated commercial and administrative center. Jesus calls them to forego their money exchanges and instead to buy gold from Christ to obtain true wealth, to exchange their glossy black wool tunics for white robes from Him, and to purchase Jesus’ salve in order to truly see (3:18). The Christians resembled too much their fellow Laodiceans, boasting in their wealth and needing help from no one, not even Rome. Jesus rebuked them, calling them “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17).

I do, however, find genuine comfort in how the message ends. Though Jesus’ words sting, His message to them ends on an encouraging note. He holds nothing back, speaking to them with images and language that they surely understood. As Ferguson remarks, “true love cares enough to intervene.”[24] Jesus promises to eat with them if they chose to repent. As strongly as He rebukes the Laodiceans, Jesus holds out tremendous, distinct honor to those who would repent: “to the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21).


The language, images, and references used to rebuke the lukewarm Christian community in Laodicea are derived from the city’s geography, culture, history, and its pursuit of wealth. No one wants to receive the rebuke of being “lukewarm—neither hot nor cold.” Nowadays I can sometimes feel like I am fully engaged in one aspect of my walk with God (say my Bible study), but not as much in another (such as in sharing the gospel with others). It’s hard to live this all out, consistently, but Jesus’s message speaks loudly, even from the city’s quiet, rocky remains. Perhaps later generations of Laodicean believers heeded the original message: it has been recorded that “about AD 166 a bishop named Sagaris was martyred in Laodicea.”[25] God had a message for them in the first century. What language would He use and metaphors would He employ to address any lukewarmness in us today? As John writes, “let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:22).


Some questions or practical suggestions for you to consider:

1. What does “lukewarm” mean to you, either now or earlier in your Christian walk? For example, could it show up in your personal Bible study, love for one another, evangelism, or attitude toward sin? Discuss with a friend or in your small group.

2. Is there someone you know who is consistently engaged (“hot or cold”) in one aspect of the Christian life, someone you respect ? Find out how that disciple does it and imitate his/her faith.

3. What aspect of Hong Kong—its wealth, culture, geography—do we boast in? How would relying on these things tempt us to stray from God?

4. Just as God spoke directly out of love to the Laodiceans, do you need to intervene with anyone in your circle of influence? Imitating the message to the city, how might you frame your conversation with him/her?

5. Study out the messages to all seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3) in your small group. Which message do you and your ministry most need to heed today? Why? Which promise (2:7, 2:10-11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:12) appeals to you the most? Why?

[1] I am grateful for the support of the Hong Kong Church of Christ, enabling myself and my wife to join many other conference participants on this educational tour of several Asian church city sites.

[2] Mark Wilson, Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor, Updated and Revised (Istanbul, Turkey: Zero Produksiyon Ltd, 2020), 242.

[3] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 248.

[4] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 249.

[5] George R. Beasley-Murray, “Revelation,” in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1432.

[6] Beasley-Murray, “Revelation,” 1432.

[7] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 243.

[8] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 243.

[9] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 301

[10] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 242.

[11] “During the 1C AD Ephesus was the fourth largest city of the Roman Empire after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch on the Orontes, with an estimated population of 250,000.” Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 199.

[12] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 199-200.

[13] UNESCO, “Archaeological site of Laodikeia,” at UNESCO: World Heritage Convention, accessed on July 12-13 at https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5823/.

[14] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 246.

[15] Plaque found at the entrance to the city ruins of Laodicea, photographed on March 21, 2023.

[16] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 242.

[17] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 249.

[18] Our tour guide suggested this way of thinking about the passage in Revelation.

[19] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 249.

[20] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 249. Also see Peter Leithart, “Laodicean Water,” accessed July 2023 at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/laodicean-water/, and his references to Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015).

[21] Gordon Ferguson, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (The Victory of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation) (Woburn, Massachusetts: Discipleship Publications International, 1996), 56.

[22] Mark R. Fairchild, “Laodicea’s ‘Lukewarm’ Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City,” published in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, quoted in “The Church of Laodicea in the Bible and Archaeology,” accessed July 2023 at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/church-of-laodicea-in-the-bible-and-archaeology/ .

[23] Ferguson, Mine Eyes, 56.

[24] Ferguson, Mine Eyes, 56.

[25] Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 243.

Author: Dan Liu

Dan has degrees from Yale (American Studies), Harvard (public policy), and Rochester University (religious education). He serves as an elder in the Hong Kong Church of Christ. Married for 32 years, he has two sons, one daughter-in-law, and one grandchild. Email: danliu1961@gmail.com. Dan 擁有耶魯(美國研究)、哈佛 (公共政策)、Rochester University (宗教教育) 等院校學位。現時是香港基督教會長老。結婚32年,育有兩子及一兒媳、一孫兒。電郵:danliu1961@gmail.com

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