Though we are certainly in a position to tease out spiritual truths from the whole of Revelation and from the letters to the churches in particular, we must have a constant awareness, as we analyze the book and the letters, that they were directed to real churches in real cities at a specific time in history, all of which were facing real situations. It is in approaching the Scriptures in this way, knowing that the Scriptures are rooted within history as they tell us about our Creator and His purposes, that will then make those Scriptures so much more important and telling for us. In Revelation, though there is an employment of a significant amount of apocalyptic imagery, much like in the prophetic works of the Hebrew Scriptures, this apocalyptic imagery is primarily designed to reveal the spiritual truths and activities that are at work and at play in relation to material and physical happenings.
As humans, we are limited in our vision, and as Isaiah says, God’s ways and plans are not our ways and plans, nor are His thoughts and deeds our thoughts and deeds (Isaiah 55:9). There is something of a veil that limits our vision, keeping us from seeing what God sees. The purpose of apocalypse (revelation), is to remove that veil, which is the very definition of the word. For those that were receiving communications from God through the Hebrew prophets in the centuries before Christ, and for those in the first century that were receiving communications directly from Jesus through John the Revelator, this removal of the veil, in a world in which there were no separations between religious activities and so-called “secular” activities---no division between the sacred and the profane, the unveiling would be understood as God condescending to reveal the spiritual goings-on that were related to what was happening in the world around them. This is dreadfully important for our understanding of words to be found within Revelation.
Let us remember that Paul and Peter, along with the Hebrews author and the author of the letters of John, all wrote letters to specific churches and individuals. Though these letters would become useful to the whole of the church, they were first directed to and dealt with places, people, and events. Knowing this, we should be restrained from treating John’s communications differently. Just because we can happen upon fantastic and difficult-to-understand imagery, that certainly doesn’t mean that we should dismiss John’s insistence that these letters, and this Revelation, are for the “seven churches that are in the province of Asia” (1:4a).
Returning then to the words of temperature (hot, cold, lukewarm), having insisted that they serve as geographic indicators, we realize that they are something of a play on familiar words and of what is well-known about the area in which Laodicea is set. We should not be surprised to find Jesus, through the author, employing such a strategy. Even the Apostle Paul’s famous phrase of “from faith to faith,” or “ek pisteos eis pistin” (Romans 1:17), is lifted from what could be termed as the liturgy of the Caesar cult. In this, Paul takes a familiar term and applies it to what should be truly understood about Jesus, rather than Caesar. This is even more pronounced with the New Testament’s employment of the very word “gospel,” which was also in heavy and specific use within the Caesar cult, in application to the works of Caesar himself. So we see plays on words and the usage of familiar terms, re-worked and re-deployed for particular effect on a regular basis.
With all of that said, having posited that the “temperature” terms were geographical indicators, we now posit that use of “hot” is in all likelihood a reference to the city of Hierapolis. It should be said that this is not groundbreaking by any means, and the same can be said for the applications that we will make of both cold and lukewarm. These things have long been understood, but for some reason, completely obscured in modern and popular considerations of Revelation and its letters to the churches. It might be casually referenced, but not worked out to its logical and contextual conclusion, as commentators want to tread the far more popular path of Revelation as a book that tells the future, rather than a writing that tells us about a faithful God and what He expects from His people as they go about living their lives in this world.
The city of Laodicea was located five miles north of the city of Hierapolis. In Hierapolis, there were hot springs. Owing to this, Hierapolis gained fame as a health resort, as well as being the place for the worship of the god Heracles, who was looked to as the god of health and hot waters. Archaeology indicates that Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis. If this is the case, remembering that we are attempting to determine the impetus of the communication from the context of what could be readily understood by its recipients rather than from the position of attempting to unravel the events of world history using Revelation as a guide in the effort, then not only should we think “Hierapolis” when we read “hot,” but we can easily imagine that the residents of the region would have thought of Hierapolis in connection with hot as well.
If “hot” is a reference to a city, then it would make sense that “cold” is also a reference to a city. Furthermore, if the “hot” of the nearby city of Hierapolis is a reference to its famous hot springs, then for rhetorical consistency, “cold” should also be making reference to water as well; and that city should be in the general vicinity of Laodicea. Is there a city to which we can logically apply this epithet? It seems that there is, and the candidate is the city of Colossae.