I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth! Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, take my advice… Revelation 3:15-18a (NET)
After making mention that their practice had Him displeased to the point of using the imagery of vomiting, Jesus goes on to say, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (Revelation 3:17a). Since hot, cold, and lukewarm are being employed for purposes of tangible and easily understandable geographical reference, so too should this statement be comprehended in the same manner. Accordingly, whatever it is in which the church is engaged is somehow tied to wealth.
The usual interpretation has the Laodiceans over-confident in regard to spiritual wealth, and unable to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy. Of course, that usual interpretation follows hard on the treatment of hot, cold, and lukewarm as spiritual epithets rather than the geographical indicators leading to an understanding centered on the practice of the church community that would have been readily grasped by those who would be receiving the letter. There is no initial need to spiritualize here, and we should resist the ingrained desire to do so. Spiritual analysis and application can and should come later, once Jesus’ words are understood in context.
With just a little bit of digging, we will find that this is not a subtle reference to a supposed self-righteousness or smug satisfaction with a wealth of spiritual gifts. Again, the readers of the letter would have to be able to understand what John is writing (and Jesus is saying) within their context in order for it to make sense to them, for it to have meaning, and for it to be productive of Jesus’ desired ends. If we carefully establish our hermeneutic (method of interpretation) in a way that keeps in mind that there are real church communities with real people receiving these very real and obviously important communications, we’ll find that we can engage and understand these words from Jesus, as well as the words that lead up to Jesus speaking of standing and knocking (though not in this study), quite easily and altogether profitably.
Though Laodicea was located on a major road, Laodicea was a place of little importance in its early history. This changed under the first few Roman emperors. During this time, Laodicea began to benefit from its location on a major road, and thus a major trade route, in time becoming one of the most important and flourishing cities of Asia Minor. Among other things, a specialization in large financial transactions sprung up in Laodicea, and it would also become important in the textile industry. We will return to these things in due course.
The area in which it was located also suffered from earthquakes. One especially strong earthquake occurred in 60AD, destroying the city completely. In that time, earthquakes were just as common as they are today, but of course, buildings were not constructed to be earthquake proof, so the general result of significantly powerful earthquakes would be the complete destruction of the cities in the effected regions. During the time of Roman domination, most cities destroyed by earthquake would quickly appeal to Rome to provide funds and resources to assist in rebuilding as quickly as possible. This would be especially true for cities on major trade routes, and likely even more true of Laodicea, considering the city’s role in the financial arena.
However, contrary to what we might expect, not only did Laodicea not request assistance from Rome or from the emperor, they actually declined the assistance that was offered, choosing instead to rebuild and restore the city from their own means. This, of course, would grant Laodicea some measure of independence from Rome; but only a measure, as they still relied on the existence of the empire and the relative security and stability it afforded. In fact, Laodicea received from Rome the title of “free city,” and was the “conventus” of its territory, meaning that it functioned as the capital city of a division of the Roman province in which it was located. This meant that it would be the seat of a district court, as well as the headquarters for other governmental functions for the region.