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We All Read Through Tinted Lenses (The Bible, Pt. 2)

We read the words of Scripture through a particular lens, made up of our language, culture, worldview, and another wheelbarrow full of assumptions. Most of the time, we are not even aware of our assumptions or the tinted lens through which we read.
We All Read Through Tinted Lenses (The Bible, Pt. 2)
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

We All Read Through Tinted Lenses

The Bible, Part 2

Previous article video, audio, and article links can be found at the end of this article

In Revelation 3:15-16 the apostle John hears the words of the risen Jesus,

“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.”
– NIV, emphasis added.

Jesus’ words directed at the church in Laodicea seem pretty harsh.

What is going on here?

As a young person, I remember this passage was taught and preached from a perspective that viewed these three temperatures — hot, cold, and lukewarm — as indications of spiritual commitment and zeal. In other words, Jesus wants us to be on fire for him, totally committed and sold out to Christ! No problem so far.

Then things get a little weird.

If we aren’t hot, then Jesus seems to say that the next best option is ice cold—uncommitted or lost. The worst possible option was lukewarm—not fully committed, but also not completely lost.

Would Jesus really rather people be ice-cold than lukewarm?

Something doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

… one can quickly forget that we all interpret the Bible through a cultural lens.
Jackson Wu

There are two factors at play when we read and attempt to interpret verses like these:

  1. The writers of the Bible wrote the words of Scripture through a particular cultural lens made up of their language, culture, worldview, and wheelbarrow full of assumptions. Most of these assumptions are never explained or stated because it is taken for granted that the people to whom they are writing have a similar lens.

Today, when we communicate, we do the same thing all the time. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to explain every minute detail of everything we say every time we say it?

  1. We read the words of Scripture through a particular lens, made up of our language, culture, worldview, and another wheelbarrow full of assumptions. Most of the time, we are unaware of our assumptions or the tinted lens through which we read. Our modern, contemporary language translations make it easy to forget the massive time, culture, and linguistic gap between us and the original readers of these ancient writings.

There is no such thing as a purely objective reading of the Bible. It’s simply not possible. We all read with tinted glasses, and the words we read in Scripture have been shaped and formed through glasses of a very different tint than our own. These two verses, directed at the ancient Laodicean church in the book of Revelation, are straightforward but significant examples of this.

When we read these words in Revelation, there are things the writer leaves unsaid—like what he means by hot and cold—because they would have been clear to their original audience. When we read these words, we assume that John (quoting Jesus) is using them the same way we would. So, as we see above, we can easily come to a rather strange and potentially very incorrect interpretation of what Jesus is saying in these two verses.

brown field near mountain under blue sky during daytime
Photo by Levan Badzgaradze / Unsplash

If you were to poke around the remains of the ancient city of Laodicea today, you’d notice something interesting. There’s another city, Hierapolis, perched on a little mountain a few miles northwest of Laodicea. At the foot of this city are hot springs that bubble up around the city. Even today, people visit this city for its steaming mineral baths.

In the opposite direction is the ancient city of Colossae. It’s almost certain that this city, too, would have been visible from Laodicea. Colossae was not as wealthy as Laodicea, but it did have something Laodicea did not — a cold, freshwater spring. In a world before refrigerators and ice-makers, a cold water a beautiful thing of which to have access.

Laodicea lacked water. They had to use aqueducts to transport water—hot water from Hierapolis or cold water from Colossae. Either way, when it reached Laodicea, the water was lukewarm, great for neither bathing nor drinking.

When the original readers of Revelation read John's words, they did not read them as opposing measures of spiritual vitality as we tend to do. Jesus, it seems, is saying that the Laodiceans ought to be hot (like the healing hot springs of Hierapolis) or cold (like the refreshing waters of Colossae). Both options were good because they represented the natural resources with which they had been blessed.

The church is tepid like the water in Laodicea, good neither for medicine nor refreshment. They are totally ineffective.
— M.J.S. Rudwick and E.M.B. Green

If we were to interpret and apply these words to our contemporary situation, we might be able to imagine Jesus saying something like:

  • You ought to be serving the refugee people among you (hot) or caring for the special needs families in your community (cold), but instead, you can see no further than the end of your nose. You are blind to your neighbors' needs (lukewarm)!
  • You should encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ (hot) or invest time discipling the children in your church (cold). Instead, you simply show up on Sunday, sit for an hour, and then go about with your personal business (lukewarm)!
  • You should go to the right (hot) or go to the left (cold), but instead, you sit still, going nowhere at all (lukewarm)!

We could substitute many things into those hot and cold spaces based on the gifts, abilities, personalities, and opportunities God has provided. We could also include several other things into that lukewarm space, each being a way of NOT leveraging the gifts, abilities, personalities, and opportunities that God provides.

Boiling it all down, Jesus seems to be telling us to be and do what God has created us to be and do — first and foremost as the church and secondarily as families, couples, and individuals.

Be hot…or be cold…but don’t be lukewarm.

…our goal is to grasp the meaning of the text God has intended. We do not create meaning out of a text; rather, we seek to find the meaning that is already there.
Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Mark L. Strauss
a body of water surrounded by a forest
Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister / Unsplash

It’s easy to forget that the Scriptures originated in foreign lands so unimaginably different from our own. Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. Understanding and applying Scripture requires more than a surface reading of the text. Recognizing that every reader approaches the Bible with a unique paradigm or lens is essential. The influence of these paradigms is significant. They can lead us to different interpretations of the same passage and even cause us to miss the full richness of Scripture's message.

As a result, a deep understanding of a biblical passage's cultural and historical context is valuable and important. Understanding these things can aid us in uncovering the original intent and meaning behind the text, which might be obscured or distorted when viewed through our own cultural or personal lenses. It provides a richer, more nuanced understanding of the biblical narrative.

Removing our interpretive lenses is impossible, but being aware of them and understanding their influence can lead us to a more accurate and profound understanding of Scripture. As such, we are reminded of the importance of delving deeper into the Bible's historical and cultural contexts, peeling back the layers of time and culture to get closer to the core message that transcends all contexts.

Questions to consider:

Think about the following lenses through which you read the Bible. How does each affect how you read, interpret, and live out what you read?

  • Western individualistic culture.
  • English language.
  • American cultural values.
  • Your age and economic status.
  • Current relationship and family status.
  • The family, church, and situation in which you grew up
  • Your religious background.
  • Your own life experiences

Resources used in this story

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All Previous Links in The Bible series:

Bible, Part 1 : Article | Audio | Video