In the United States of America, mention can be made of the “city that never sleeps,” or “the windy city.” Those that are used to operating within the social context of the United States, know that these are references to New York city and Chicago. This is not limited to the United States, but is a common practice the world over. One could use phrases such as “city of lights,” or “the eternal city,” in full knowledge that the user is making reference to Paris and Rome. Singapore, in southeast Asia, is sometimes referred to as “the fine country.” Upon first glance, this appears to be a positive appellation, expressing a subjective sentiment not unlike the way that we have traditionally thought when confronted with the “lukewarm” of Laodicea. However, upon further examination, though Singapore is indeed a fine place, we find that this use of “fine” is connected to the fact that the government of Singapore, in its efforts to keep the country clean, civil and highly organized, levies fines for littering, spitting, or chewing gum in public.
An analogy here is probably useful. In the United States, the city of Cleveland is roughly the midway point between Chicago and New York (much like Laodicea is roughly midway between Hierapolis and Colossae). If somebody wanted to address the city of Cleveland, encouraging the residents to do order their lives or engage in activities more akin to the goings-on in New York or Chicago for which there is a high level of notoriety (let’s say in the area of theatre), one might write something like, “I know your deeds, you are sleeping and lacking wind. I wish you were either not asleep or windy! So because you are mistaken, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!” (“Mistaken” because one of the not-so-flattering nicknames of Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake”) Given proper context, the residents of Cleveland would take this as a message that they needed to improve their offerings in the area of theatre, and would most definitely not understand it to be an indication that they needed to sleep less or construct windmills.
This initially subjective usage that becomes, upon further examination, highly objective, is quite similar to what we have discovered when it comes to the information being conveyed in Revelation’s letter to Laodicea. Clearly, the terms in use are not meant to convey any sense of morality or spiritual state, but are common identifiers. On the other hand, there are nicknames that do have negative connotations. One such nickname would be “sin city.” A socially and culturally aware reader in our day (like that which we expect in first century Asia Minor) would immediately think “Las Vegas.” In the time of Jesus and His apostles, “sin city” would have been the nickname of Corinth, in Greece. These examples (Las Vegas and Corinth) have obvious moral judgments attached to them, but we do not see that with the names associated with New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome.
So to put this lack of moral judgment associated with city identifiers into the context of the letter to Laodicea, which now seems to be pointing more logically towards identifiable activities and practices within the churches of the region (Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae) that would have been well known to the other churches (as information seemed to be able to flow freely between and amongst those churches, as indicated by what Paul writes to the Colossians), it would appear that we are no longer looking at a contrast. Rather, the three temperature-related terms can now be understood as applying in reference to what was taking place in those churches, with a certain activity of Hierapolis and Colossae being approved by God, whereas the related activity in Laodicea has Jesus indicating violent illness. With this, we now discard any idea that “hot or cold” are in anyway related to “good or bad.” It seems much more proper to think along the lines of both hot water and cold water as useful (with the practice of the Hierapolis and Colossae churches being useful within Christ’s kingdom and its proclamation), whereas lukewarm water is useless (with the practice of the church at Laodicea failing to serve the purposes of Christ). Understanding the message in this way will be far more useful to us as well, as we will eventually end up not being left to wonder whether we are hot, cold, or lukewarm based on either a subjective self-examination or the subjective examination of a self-appointed (on both ends of the relationship) spiritual authority that will generally be partially informed and unfortunately biased.