Revelation 3:16 is the only place in the New Testament where churchgoers are called lukewarm, and Jesus is the one who utters the description. It’s clear from the context of the passage that the description is a criticism. However, it’s also clear that repentance and forgiveness are possible. Many readers are interested to know more about what it means to be lukewarm and what its remedy is.
A lukewarm Christian is an ineffective one, whose faith doesn’t result in good works. In the book of Revelation, John compares the Church at Laodecia to lukewarm water. In contrast, hot water had medicinal purposes, and cold water quenched thirst. Yet warm water didn’t have an effective function.
Does hot, cold, and warm water describe spiritual temperature? What purpose did hot water have? What purpose did cold water have? Why would Jesus wish that the Laodecians were cold? What is the remedy to lukewarm Christianity? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see What Does It Mean to Be A Christian? to learn more.
Does hot, cold, and warm water describe spiritual temperature?
A common traditional interpretation of the word “lukewarm” is that it describes a Christian who is halfway committed to their faith. Rather than exhibiting a firey passion for reading the Bible, praying, worshiping, evangelizing, and other aspects of the Christian life, they are lukewarm, as in apathetic and disinterested.
Most modern commentators of Revelation challenge the traditional interpretation, redefining what “lukewarm” implies. The point of the analogy isn’t to lament a lack of spiritual and emotional zeal. Instead, the description emphasizes a lack of effectiveness. The Christians at the Church at Laodecia weren’t producing fruit; sadly, their branches were barren.
|Part of speech
|tepid [halfhearted], warm
|only once (Rev. 3:16)
Hot water and cold water had important purposes
Lukewarm was an ineffective temperature for water compared to the important uses of hot and cold water in the first century.
- The town six miles north of Laodecia, called Heirapolis, was known for its hot water, which had important medicinal purposes.
- The town ten miles east, called Colossae, was known for its cold water, which was important to travelers and the physically ill, in addition to everyone else, because of the body’s physical need for hydration.
Revelation scholar Grant Osborne explains, “Hierapolis’s streams were so well known for their healing qualities that the city became a major health center, while the cold, life-giving waters of Colossae, the only place in the region it was available, may account for its original settlement.” 
In contrast, warm water didn’t have an important purpose. It wasn’t effective in accomplishing something significant like facilitating healing for the sick or sustaining health for everyone else. Most modern scholars on Revelation believe that this interpretation, rooted in historical facts of nearby first-century towns, fits the context better than the traditional interpretation.
Osborne continues, “Laodecia had no water supply of its own. It was founded at the conjunction of trade routes not for its natural but for its commercial and military advantages. When it piped in water from the hot springs of Denizli, the water did not have enough time to cool in the aqueducts but arrived ‘lukewarm.’ Even today, people place the water in jars to cool.” 
Also see How Did Christianity Spread? to learn more.
Why would Jesus wish that the Laodecians were cold?
In Revelation 3:15, Jesus says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!” (ESV). An interpretive problem with the traditional interpretation is explaining why Jesus would wish that anyone would be cold. If the descriptions of temperature in the passage refer to spiritual fervor, it’s problematic to conclude that Jesus prefers “cold” people over “lukewarm” ones.
However, if both hot and cold water had important purposes, then Jesus’ desire for the Laodecians to be one or the other makes sense. He desired that their Christian lives would be effective and bear fruit. This interpretation fits well with the first statement Jesus makes, which refers to their works, not their spiritual and emotional temperature.
|I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
|For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
|so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God
|2 Peter 1:8
|For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
|And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.
Also see Who Is the Founder of Christianity? to learn more.
What is the remedy to lukewarm Christianity?
Lukewarm Christianity is so bad in Jesus’ perspective that he uses graphic imagery to explain what the consequences of it will be. “I will spit you out of my mouth,” Jesus says (Rev. 3:16b). However, this doesn’t have to be the Laodecian’s fate.
The remedy to lukewarm Christianity isn’t simply doing good works apart from faith. More precisely, the remedy is to have a mature, growing, sanctified faith that results in righteous deeds. “Hot” and “cold” Christians live out a vibrant faith that bears fruit, whereas the lukewarm do not.
James 2:14-16 reads, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The first step is repentance
To stop being lukewarm, and prior to doing effective good works, Jesus told the Church at Laodecia to repent. They need to turn away from being “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Next, Jesus encourages them to look to him. “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Rev. 3:18, emphasis added).
Jesus’ chastisement of the Laodecians is like a parent disciplining their child. Revelation 3:19 reads, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
Jesus invites the lukewarm to reunite with him. Revelation 3:20 reads, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Revelation scholar Buist Fanning writes, “Those who base their well-being on material possessions couldn’t be more wrong about their true condition, as Jesus powerfully communicates (3:17). Our constant need instead is to draw real and lasting life from Christ rather than from property we amass (3:18). When we get these things backward, we are of no use to God, to others, or even ourselves.” 
Also see Why Are Christians So Mean? to learn more.
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