First-century Laodicea sat astride two major trade routes. The first road ran from Rome eastward into Asia Minor, then beyond to Cilicia where Paul was born. At Derbe it split: One leg went to the south through Damascus and on into Egypt; the other leg struck across the east to Mesopotamia, the ancient home of Babylon. Connecting the city to southern Europe through Byzantium, the second route entered Laodicea from the north and continued to the Mediterranean.
The founders built the city in the Lycus Valley where these routes crossed. This provided Laodicea with unlimited opportunities for trade but caused other significant problems. Ideally, prosperous cities are built close to abundant natural resources, especially water. Great cities are usually founded on deep natural harbors or on the banks of navigable rivers where water is abundant. Unfortunately, Laodicea was not established near an adequate water supply. More driven by trade, its builders located it where the roads crossed.
However, the city had much in its favor, and of special note were its three main industries. The Laodiceans produced a glossy, black wool that was prized by the wealthy all over the world. No one knows whether its rich color came from a particular strain of sheep that they bred in the area, or whether they dyed it, but the quality of the wool is indisputable. In fact, they cornered the market in this commodity, producing tremendous wealth.
Their second business was medicine. Laodicea boasted of one of the most renowned medical schools in the world, and with it came all of its associated industries like pharmaceuticals. They produced a world-famous salve, reputed to cure certain kinds of eye diseases. Another salve supposedly healed ear problems. People came from all over the Roman world in search of remedies for their ailments.
These two industries produced a third that multiplied their already vast wealth—banking. Laodicea became a center of currency exchange and money lending. Cicero, it is said, cashed huge bank drafts there. So huge were its assets that, when it was demolished by a first-century earthquake, the city refused Rome's offer of help, rebuilding with its own funds.
So Laodicea had a monopoly in textiles, a world-renowned medical industry, and a prosperous financial center. Writers of the ancient world speak openly of their envy of Laodicean wealth. Record after record attests to their status.
Their one weakness was the water supply. Water had to be piped in to Laodicea. Cold water could come from the abundant supply at Colossae, but by the time it traveled the ten or so miles from the cold springs, it was lukewarm. About six miles away in Hierapolis were hot springs, but that water, too, was lukewarm when it reached Laodicea. Whether they piped in the cold or the hot water, it arrived at Laodicea lukewarm.
What does Christ mean by this metaphor? Cold water stimulates and invigorates. Nothing refreshes more than drinking a glass of cold water on a hot day. And hot water? It is useful for health. Not only do we mix it with teas, herbs, broths, and the like, but it also works as a solvent, good for cleaning just about anything.
What does lukewarm water do? Christ's complaint against the Laodiceans is revealed here: It is good for nothing! The Laodicean is useless to Him. Lukewarm water is an emetic: It makes one vomit. In terms of God's work, a lukewarm Christian is useless. The other traits of Laodiceanism spring from this characteristic of uselessness. As Head of the church, Christ cannot use them in the spiritual state in which He finds them. We should think of this in terms of biblical symbolism: Water represents God's Holy Spirit.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The World, the Church, and Laodiceanism