We know that Colossae and Laodicea are situated in relative proximity, not only because we know that they are approximately eleven miles apart, but also owing to the Apostle Paul’s references to Laodicea in the close of his letter to the Colossians, in which he instructs the church at Colossae to share the letter with the church at Laodicea, while also indicating that they church at Laodicea will share its letter with the church at Colossae. Paul also makes mention of Laodicea earlier in the letter, when he writes: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea” (2:1a). Clearly, there is something of a close connection between Laodicea and Colossae. The churches were familiar with each other.
Beyond the multiple mentions (five) of Laodicea, we also happily find a reference to Hierapolis in this letter. Paul, writing about Ephaphras, says that “he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:13b). This implies a relationship between Hierapolis and Laodicea beyond that of an aqueduct. If the church at Colossae “learned the gospel from Ephaphras” (1:7a), as Paul communicates within his opening statements to the Colossians, and then goes on to mention Epaphras in connection with both Laodicea and Hierapolis, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Epaphras may well have been responsible for bringing the message to all three cities (though we will certainly refrain from dogmatism on this statement).
Having established the close connection between Colossae and Laodicea, this does not account for the use of “cold” in conjunction with the city. It is the presence of Colossae’s cold, fresh water streams that would have supplied this descriptive title to the city. Laodicea was located to the southeast of Colossae, and to the northeast of Hierapolis, near the Lycus River. This meant that the waters of Colossae (colder because Colossae was situated at the foothills of a mountain), flowed down towards Laodicea. The water, quite naturally, would lose some of its coolness as it did, rising a few degrees in temperature by the time it reached Laodicea. On the other hand, the water from Hierapolis had to be brought uphill, which explains the aqueduct. That water from the hot springs of Hierapolis would, of course, cool down as it traveled the aqueduct to reach Laodicea, though it would still be prized for its healing qualities even if it had fallen in temperature.
In the case of both the water from Colossae and the water from Hierapolis, by the time it reached Laodicea, the water would be lukewarm. Thus, the rhetorical effect is preserved, with hot, cold, and lukewarm all making reference to water. Furthermore, in conceptual terms, the city that would be located roughly halfway between the hot city and the cold city could easily be thought of as the lukewarm city (halfway between hot and cold). Thus Laodicea would come to be referred to as the lukewarm city, with this being common knowledge for all of the residents of the region, with nary a thought related to the spiritual tenor of the city.
Because of the interesting geographical positioning, and the unique feature of the water supplies to Laodicea, the cities came to be linked together in common usage as the “triangle cities.” So if it was common for the cities to be linked and identified together, and if Paul links the cities in his letter, why should we be surprised if Jesus, communicating through the author of Revelation, also links the cities, doing so by taking advantage of common nicknames that were applied to them? Is it warranted to think that these highly spiritualized (in our own day and way of thinking) terms are little more than nicknames that are meant to help us in identifying the real problem within the church in Laodicea, rather than an indicator of those problems? Why not? Once we get it into our heads that we cannot revert back to thinking that hot, cold, and lukewarm are to be applied in spiritual terms or to spiritual state, then we can move towards a far more proper understanding of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to this, one of His churches.
Is it warranted to think that these were simply nicknames or shorthand references for those cities? Again, why not? This is not without precedence in our own day. Much like what we saw was true of the utilization of terminology in context and according to then-current understanding in order to rightly understand what is being communicated (as in the case of Nimrod), we make these types of applications such that they become second nature, which should cause us to realize that thinking about the letter to Laodicea in this way is not wholly unique. We freely and casually operate within our own historical and cultural context, so imagining that men and women of the first century also operated in such ways is not exactly far-fetched.