Laodicea is a beautiful location in Asia Minor. Nearby are the great ruins of the cities of Colosse and Hierapolis, known for their springs, hot at Hierapolis and cold at Colosse. To the church at Laodicea, in between the two, John wrote these words: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm;neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16). What was it about the believers in Laodicea that led John to address them with those words "to portray their unfaithfulness in terms of hot and cold water" Could it be that there's more to the meaning of hot water and cold water than what meets the eye when we first read that verse? An understanding of the geography, and particularly the water sources, of these neighboring cities gives us a new understanding of what this message may have meant to the church of Laodicea and what it means for Christians today.
The Domitian Gate: Hierapolis, known for its healing hot springs, was about six miles from Laodicea. What is left of the entrance to the city;a gate complex of two gigantic towers and three arches that opened onto a paved street about a mile and a half long, stands as a testimony to the city's former majesty. What is most important is not the gate's size or architecture, however, but what it represented.
Like most city gates of the ancient world, the gates of the Hierapolis expressed the people's devotion to their deities or rulers. For Hierapolis, that god was the Roman emperor Domitian, one of the first emperors to declare himself to be divine. Thus anyone who entered the Domitian Gate was in a sense acknowledging that Domitian was god-their provider and protector whom they would honor and obey above all others.
Obviously, the early believers who lived in the Hierapolis had to choose to serve and worship Caesar (in this case, Domitian) or to serve and worship the God of Israel. According to ancient church tradition, an early missionary named Philip, who most likely was Philip the disciple of Jesus, refused to recognize the authority of Domitian. Philip and his children stood fast in their declaration that Jesus alone is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and they paid the ultimate price. High on a hill overlooking Hierapolis are the remains of a small building known as the Martyrium of Philip.
The Apollo Temple and Plutonium: Hierapolis was also the site of the Apollo Temple and Plutonium, where the god of music, prophecy, and light was worshiped. Inside the temple, a grand fountain called Nymphia was a constant reminder to the people that Apollo was supposed to be their source of life. Next to the temple was a mysterious hole in the ground known as the Plutonium, the Devil's Hole, or the Gates of Hades. It was believed to be an entrance to the underworld where Pluto (Latin) or Hades (Greek) lived. Poisonous gases emanated from the hole and instantly killed any animals that wandered in. But the priests of Apollo, who apparently held their breath or had some other means of breathing fresh air, amazed the people by going into the hole and coming out again unharmed, seeming to have power over death.
The Theater: Another prominent feature of Hierapolis was its theater, which communicated through its architecture as well as its activities the people's devotion to their gods and goddesses. One can still see the images of gods and goddesses depicted in the ornately carved stones.
The Baths: By far the most impressive feature of Hierapolis was its hot springs. The baths of the Hierapolis were among the largest in all of Asia Minor, allowing hundreds of people to bathe at the same time. People from distant regions came to soak in warm baths and seek healing for arthritis, skin diseases, and even abdominal problems.
In contrast to the Hierapolis, the ancient city of Colosse was known for its cold water. Located about eleven miles from Laodicea, Colosse was built at the foot of Mt. Cadmus, which towered more than nine thousand feet high. Colosse was known for a purple dye called colissinus and for its many, ice-cold snow-and-rain-fed streams that rushed down from the snow-covered peak of Mt. Cadmus. People in the fertile Lycus River Valley commonly talked about this wonderful, invigorating water.
Founded several hundreds of years before the Hierapolis, Colosse's inhabitants worshiped many gods, including Artemis, Athena, and Demeter. The city was in serious decline by the time of Paul and John because of the growth of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It is known by Christians today because Paul wrote a letter to the Colossians, which was the home of his friend Philemon, and his slave Onesimus.
During the first century, the city of Laodicea was the richest and most powerful of the three cities. Located in the Lycus River Valley on the main trade route between the Mediterranean region and Persia, Laodicea was known for its soft black wool that was appreciated throughout the Roman world; its healing eye salve; and its banking. In fact, an ancient writer recorded that the city of approximately 120,000 people refused an emperor's offer to rebuild following an earthquake. The Laodiceans apparently told the emperor that they were rich and didn't need his money.
Despite its prosperity, however, Laodicea had a serious problem. Its water, unlike the healing hot springs of Hierapolis or the fresh, cold mountain water of Colosse, was lukewarm and full of minerals. It tasted so bad that it made people sick.
Changing the World by Being Hot and Cold
In light of the water for which the cities of Hierapolis, Colosse and Laodicea were known, the apostle John might have been saying, "If you were hot, like the springs of Hierapolis, you'd bring healing, restoration, and comfort to people who suffer. If you were cold, like the water in Colosse, you'd refresh and encourage people who are hurting. Instead, you are lukewarm. You don't do anyone any good and you make me sick, just like your own water." So he challenged Christians today to be hot and cold in our daily lives, to bring people the healing, caring, encouraging touch of Jesus.
We must also be aware of how God prepares people to receive his message and to make the most of the opportunities he has provided. He uses as his example two earthquakes, one in AD 17 and one in AD 60, that destroyed Laodicea before the gospel arrived. Because of these disasters, the people's faith in their pagan gods wavered. Zeus, Apollo, Domitian, and Demeter didn't save us, they thought, so who will? They were searching for someone who could fill the gap. So the message of Jesus the Messiah took root in fertile ground. And it appears the believers of Laodicea took John's warning to heart: the church of Laodicea remained a dynamic community after most of the churches in Asia Minor had disappeared.