Since at least the early 20th century, commentators have claimed that the messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3 are packed with local allusions that the recipients would have recognized (see, for instance, W.M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches).
Craig Koester (Revelation) doesn’t think this works. Nearly every one of the supposed local references could be applied to several of the cities. For instance: “Ephesus was supposed to have been uniquely associated with a tree shrine, but Smyrna’s refounding was linked to its own tree shrine. . . . Smyrna was supposed to have died and risen, yet that imagery would have been even more appropriate for Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, all of which were rebuilt following earthquakes during the early imperial period” (233).
Jesus famously condemns the lukewarmness of the church at Laodicea, and it is claimed that this refers to the Laodicean water supply: “since Laodicea had an aqueduct, the water that flowed into the city must have been lukewarm and undesirable. In contrast, the nearby city of Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and mineral baths, while the city of Colossae seems to have had cold water sources. Both types of water would be beneficial” (337).
Koester points out that:
Aqueducts were used in or around all of the cities in Revelation. . . . Laodicea’s water supply was like that of other cities—and water from aqueducts was considered good to drink. . . . To make their theory work, some interpreters imagine that Laodicea’s water originated at the hot springs of Hierapolis northwest of Laodicea. . . , even though the aqueduct actually comes in from the south. Others suppose that the source lying south of the city might have been a hot spring and that the water became tepid by the time it reached Laodicea . . . , but studies of the water system do not bear this out. . . . Laodicea had access to water from two rivers and two springs, the main one located five miles south of the city. A sophisticated network of channels, pipes, reservoirs, and fountains supplied the city’s needs. The system had features like those of the water systems in other cities, including provisions for keeping the pipes free-flowing. Structures were maintained and improved throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The water was not ‘undrinkable’ . . . but an essential resource that enabled the city to thrive. (337)
In fact, visitors praised the quality of Laodicean water: “Laodicea’s water was of good quality. A donor named Hedychrous gave his name to part of the first-century water system of the city. Since his name meant ‘sweet complexioned,’ he created a wordplay that emphasized the pleasing quality of the ‘sweet-complexioned’ water being brought to the city. . . . A fourth- or fifth-century inscription refers to a Laodicean fountain house that supplied ‘sweet clear water ’. . . Revelation’s imagery focuses on what was used for drinking—taken into the mouth—yet the hot water at Hierapolis was not valued for drinking but for bathing and dying fabric. Strabo said that the rivers near Laodicea were similar to those of Hierapolis in that they had a high mineral content, ‘although their water is drinkable.’ . . . In other words, Strabo thought that Laodicea’s water was drinkable, whereas the water from Hierapolis was not. A Jewish apocalyptic writer referred to ‘Laodicea . . . by the wonderful water of the Lycus’” (337). (For what it's worth, Koester doesn’t think the “eye salve” Jesus offers is a local reference either. Eye salves were produced all over the Roman empire, and other cities had reputations for medicine at least equal to that of Laodicea ).
What then? What does Jesus mean by rejecting the “lukewarm” Laodiceans and wishing for hot or cold? Koester suggests that the imagery has to do with hospitality. Chilled and warm wine were both popular drinks. When a guest arrived, his host might offer him wine chilled with snow, or wine mixed with warmed water. To be offered lukewarm wine was an insult to the guest and a mark against the host. In short, “The Laodiceans are unlike the hot or cold drink that a banqueter might desire. They are tepid, objectionable, and something to be vomited out of the mouth” (344). That fits with the overall imagery of the message to Laodicea, which ends with an explicit reference to a banquet.
The Laodiceans have not welcomed Jesus as an honored guest. Even when they don’t leave Him outside the door knocking to get in, they haven’t been good hosts.
(Photo by Novecentino.)