Hot, Cold, or Lukewarm Water

Over the years I have wrestled with the passage in Revelation 3:15-16.  It states, “‘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.”

Both the “hot” and the “lukewarm” I understand.  We should be hot for Jesus and not sitting about complacent and lukewarm, or going through the motions of the Christian lifestyle thinking that we are all that in the eyes of God but in actuality doing our own things and not loving Him wholeheartedly.

It is the matter of Jesus saying, “Would that you were either hot or cold” that has been a source of struggling.  Growing up I had always been taught (and pretty much most commentaries I came across corresponded to this teaching) that being “cold” was that a person had zero feeling towards God and other Christians.  In other words, they were totally in the world and living in sin.  For Jesus to say that He would prefer people to be in that state rather than at least being in an environment where they could be influenced (even subconsciously) to love God, His Word, and His people has been something that I haven’t been able to swallow.  It just didn’t seem to mesh with the Bible, but I couldn’t (ok, I never really spent a lot of time trying to either) pin down a solid set of reasoning.  I read the various commentaries and see their logic, but still something didn’t quite resonate within me; especially when Christians would use this passage as a reason to go out and sin, “world-it-up”, and not gather with other Christians.

The other day I was wrestling with it and glanced down at a footnote in my ESV Study Bible (something that I do only after wrestling with the text itself for a while to see if anyone else has thoughts similar to mine, but footnotes are not the Bible nor the authoritative word on the Bible) and came across this entry:

Rev. 3:15-16 The waters of the nearby Lycus River were muddy and undrinkable, and the waters flowing by aqueduct from hot springs 5 miles (8 km) away were lukewarm when they reached Laodicea. Likewise, Jesus found his church’s tepid indifference repugnant. Cold and hot water represent something positive, for cold water refreshes in the heat, and hot water is a tonic when one is chilly.

I then checked an online version of a NLT Study Bible translation that I own and saw this note:

Revelation 3:15-16 neither hot nor cold: The hot springs in Hierapolis were famous for their healing qualities. Colosse was equally famous for its cold, refreshing springs. In contrast, the water available in Laodicea was smelly and lukewarm. Such water is distasteful; Jesus was saying that the church’s indecisive commitment to him was revolting.

After seeing two Bibles’ footnotes speaking along the same lines as my thoughts I felt much better about my hunch.  I then took this idea of cold water being a positive refreshing thing and looked in the Bible for examples that may back up this thought.  Using e-sword I looked up “cold” and out of the concordance I came across these two verses that seem to back up this thought of cold water being a positive thing:

“Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (Proverbs 25:25)

“And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

While my study is not complete, I must say that I am feeling much better about my gut feeling that cold water in Revelation 3:15-16 may not be referring to a bad thing.


2 thoughts on “Hot, Cold, or Lukewarm Water

  1. This is a complete random out-of-nowhere thought, but perhaps cold does refer to ones who are not following the Lord at all. When one is “cold”, however, they have no excuse before God when he prompts them towards repentance and so may be more easily coaxed back to warmth. They can more easily recognize that their ways are wrong and that they are serving the world rather than God. The “hot” ones are fine as their love is burning for the Lord and they are truly serving God. The lukewarm ones, however, might be those who are going through the motions, thinking that they are serving God, but are actually without the reality of God. It may be difficult to call these to repentance because they see no reason for them to repent as they still believe that they are doing all the right things.


    • Enoch,
      Your view on these verses is right along with the way that I have been taught and viewed them in the past. I think that it is a valid way of looking at these verses and it has the support of several good Bible commentators. Over time and as I have worked with people (some of who use the definition of “cold” as a negative thing to excuse away their sinful lifestyle) I have grown uncertain that it is “the way” of looking at the verses.

      Looking into the background and history of the city of Laodicea, as well as the context of water when referring to the city, has added to my thought that maybe “cold water” is not a bad thing, but more of a charge that the Lord wishes His church to be a refreshing (cold) and healing agent (hot) in the world around us and not lukewarm towards Him and the people around us. It seems that some commendable Bible scholars also hold this as a possible view of these verses.

      To me, the latter view seems to fit more consistently with the Lord’s charge to love Him and our neighbors passionately and His strong rebukes against those who are saved and yet live as though they are not. While both views of this set of verses seem valid, I am finding myself leaning more and more towards the latter as possible more consistent with Scripture as a whole.

      Either way, I think the subject is definitely worth some more study and prayer.

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