This week we find ourselves at the middle letter Christ is addressing to the 7 churches. The letter to Thyatira is the longest letter of the 7 and since it is in the middle, it seems to serve as the focal point of Jesus’ words to the church universal. So let’s pay particular attention to the words of the risen Christ today.
The first thing to notice is the four wonderful descriptions Jesus gives of himself. Jesus describes himself as “the Son of God” (Rv 2:18). We first find these words on the lips of Peter as he confesses to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). But it is John’s gospel where this description of Jesus is found more than in any other gospel. John places these words upon the lips of John the Baptist (Jn 1:34), Nathanael (Jn 1:49), and Martha, Lazarus’ sister (Jn 11:27). Even John himself declares that his entire gospel was written, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). In fact, John uses the title “Son of God” in 2/3 of all the New Testament occurrences.Why all this focus on Jesus as the Son of God? Because Psalm 2, which is quoted at the end of this letter is all about the Son of God who rules over the earth. It is the son whom Psalm 2 declares is the king on Zion; it is the Son who has been given possession of the ends of the earth; it is the Son who will rule with an iron scepter; and it is the Son whom all the world must serve or else be destroyed in your way[s] (Ps 2:6-12). All of that is alluded to by the quotation of Psalm 2 in the letter to Thyatira.
Also this ruling Son of God is described as one whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze (Rv 2:18). In each letter, so far, Jesus has drawn something from the local city to illustrate his power and superiority. And that is no different here. You see, Thyatira was a small and fairly insignificant city compared to Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum. But it had two notable qualities. The first was that the trade guilds in Thyatira appear to have been the most organized and extensive of any city in the region, of particular note were the trade guilds for Wool, dyeing and brass. The other notable feature of Thyatira was its pagan worship, which centered on various gods of the sun like Apollo and Helius, as well as having a temple for Sambethe, the Persian Sybil who spoke for Apollo.
So when Jesus is described as the one whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze (Rv 2:18) the visual imagery works on two levels. To the metal workers guild, the vision of blazing fire, and burnished bronze would be quite a picture of purifying power and cleansing wonder as well as the strength of feet firmly rooted and immovable. Even at this point bronze was stronger than iron. The Roman officers carried swords of bronze for this reason while the foot soldier had an iron sword. This is a picture of strength and purity.
And to those not involved in the metal guilds, the eyes like blazing fire would be reminiscent of the blinding brilliance of Apollo as he pulled the sun across the sky in his chariot. Either way, this image of Christ is set in direct conflict with the pagan world. Here are the words of the one who searches hearts and minds, whose strength is legendary and who is the Son of God, brilliant and holy.
But there is more, Jesus not only has all these qualities, but he also continues to remind his church that he knows. He knows the strengths of the Church in Thyatira and he knows her weaknesses. He knows the godly as well as the ungodly in her midst. And he knows how to punish the unrepentant, and how to encourage and reward the faithful.
Given what the Son of God knows, lets look at the rest of the letter. Jesus knows the strengths of the church. He knows that they are a church that has love. There is a love for God and a love for others. Listen, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Rv 2:19). Unlike the Ephesians who have lost their first love, the residents of Thyatira have not lost the ability to love others. They love one another and serve one another. They are a church of faith and perseverance. They trust in the words that were preached by the apostles. And in the midst of trial they have persevered. And to top all of that off, they have been doing all of these things in increasing measure. They are growing in their Christian faith. These aren’t just qualities the church talks about, but they are actual ways of living that have been ingrained in daily life. This is good news.
This is a message that every church and every christian would be proud to hear. You are excelling in the faith. You are growing in the graces of Christian conduct. You are developing as a faithful witness. And that leads us to our first application point: As individuals are we growing in these areas? It is common for us to develop in one area, we may be people who excel at loving others and being compassionate and welcoming, but we haven’t grown in the faith. Our understanding of the gospel is stagnant and stunted. Or we may be ever increasing in our knowledge of the faith but our life of service to others and our ability to act out the knowledge we have accrued is depressed. Or maybe we are quick to serve but our staying power is limited, we have no perseverance. But Jesus doesn’t applaud the church for being lopsided, but for being full and robust, complete and growing in all of these areas. So how are you doing? Are you growing? Have you made progress in all of these areas of Christian living? If so, rejoice, you Lord knows and he is very pleased. If not, take stock of your situation and set a course for tackling that lagging area by praying, studying and practicing it and remember that it is only by the power of God at work in you that such an endeavor will prove profitable.
But Jesus doesn’t just know the strengths of his church, he also knows her weaknesses. She is overly tolerant. In an age of tolerance, we might be wise to sit up and take note of our Lord’s limits of tolerance. False prophets and prophetess’ as well as teaching leading people into idolatrous compromise cannot be tolerated. In Pergamum, there were people around who had bad theology and praxis, but in Thyatira they are actually letting it be openly taught to others. There is a Jezebel in the church.
So who is this Jezebel? We don’t really know. One thing we can be fairly certain is that whoever this person is, her name was probably not Jezebel. Just as Jesus drew on the Balaam story in the last letter, so he is drawing on another Old Testament character who personified evil and who led the people of God astray.
Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and she is notoriously known for these acts: 1) She killed the Lord’s prophets (1Ki 18:4), 2) She fed and cared for the prophets of Baal and Asherah (1Ki 18:19), 3) She staged a false trial that brought about the death of Naboth in order to give her husband the vineyard he wanted (1Ki 21); 4) before her death, Jehu declares, “How can there be peace as long as all the idolatry and witchcraft of you mother Jezebel abound?” (2Ki 9:22). In fact, the biblical writers summarize her life and her husband’s with these words, “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife” (1Ki 22:25).
Jesus is comparing this false prophetess to a woman in the Old Testament with such a résumé. Like Ahab’s wife, this Jezebel is teaching people to worship false gods and to compromise in their faithfulness to the Lord and all of this leads people to perform evil which they ought tone fleeing.. And what is worse is she is doing it in the name of the Lord. She claims that she is speaking the words of the Lord, but this is a lie. And how do we know that? Because Deuteronomy 13:1-4 declares, “If a prophet…appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder and if the sign of wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods…and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer…It is the LORD your God you must follow and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.”
This woman was teaching and deceiving people into engaging in the idolatrous practices of the day. Though we don’t know exactly how she was doing this, given the highly organized trade guilds of the city and that it would be nearly impossible for a craftsman to stay engaged in his employment without some participation in the guild’s worship, it is highly likely that she was teaching people that it was okay to engage in the guild rituals in order to make a living, even when those rituals involved clear violations of God’s law. Like Jezebel this woman’s words were leading people into an active lifestyle of sin, and Jesus calls this kind of teaching, not a ‘deeper Christianity’ but Satan’s so called deep secrets (Rv 2:24).
And Christ hates it. His heart breaks when his people fall victim to slick talking teachers, prophets, pastors, and evangelists who call people away from true devotion to the Lord and lead them into a life of compromise and sin. He hates it so much that he calls people to repentance and he even grants them time to turn from the errors of their ways but they must be willing to walk on the narrow path that leads to life and not the wide path that leads to destruction.
Jezebel of the Old Testament worshipped Baal, so it might be helpful if we had a definition of Baal worship in order to apply this passage more meaningfully to our day. Baal worship is natural religion. What I mean is that it is getting our ‘clues about right and wrong from nature as it is instead of from what it ought to be…[It is] Basing your life on ‘the way things are’” instead of the way God wants us to live.1
Now, I know that last week’s sermon gave each of us a lot to ponder. I personally had to wrestle with God over my constant entrance into the temple of prudence, or human wisdom, instead of faith and trust in the words God has declared. And though I have made some great headways this past week, I am not done with my wrestling. I suspect that many of you are in the same place. So instead of giving you a new set of practical applications2 for your personal life today, I would rather allow you to continue wrestling with your issues and simply declare to you that we cannot have a part in Christ and a part in evil and idolatry.
Every day, the Christian faces a crossroads, many in fact, where we must choose whether we will submit to God and his Word and suffer in this world. Or will we compromise, taking our cues from the world, or culture, or expediency and then find people who will support our compromises and make them sound religious, even pious? But let me remind each of us that these compromises are idolatry, which Christ promises to war against and judge and so the church and her leaders and her members must be intolerant of these kinds of compromises.
Jesus is very clear that the unrepentant heart, the life that persists in ungodliness will suffer judgment whether or not the person appears to be a Christian or not. And the punishment will be terrible. Just as Jezebel was thrown down from a tower to die and trampled over by Jehu’s chariot and her blood was licked up by the dogs, so also will the unrepentant ‘Christian’ leader and all who walk in her idolatrous ways be ‘cast down’ upon a bed of suffering (Rv 2:22). In fact, death awaits all who walk the road of unrepentance, as Jesus declares, “I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Rv 2:23).
Isn’t that a terrifying statement for an unrepentant person, whether they are in the church or outside of it? To be judged according to the works done in the body should cause every person to pause and reflect. Every act of disobedience to the law of God will be judged, for the Son of God knows and sees every single one, remember, he has eyes of blazing fire that penetrate and bring to light all that is evil. To have every act of anger, hatred, malice judged and condemned; to have every false word, every sideways glance, every hateful thought brought out and for all of them to receive a just punishment is a nightmare of nightmares for the unrepentant. This is a sobering reality for every person who persists in sinful actions, sinful habits and sinful ways of living. We must remember, Our Lord knows not only our good and our bad; he also knows how to punish the wrongdoer as Jude declares, “the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly or all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14-15).
The teaching of Jesus to his church is very clear: to persist in sin and to remain unrepentant is to bring about death! Four letters ago I began by telling you these are love letters. A strange love letter you are probably thinking, and maybe you are right. But the fact remains that Jesus loves his church and he writes her these strong warnings because he wants her to be spotless and pure, undefiled and devoted in her actual experience of life. So in every letter he includes a magnificent hope and reward. To all who are repentant, to those who refrain from sinful compromise and willful violation of the word of God, to those who remain faithful to the gospel proclamation to repent and believe that God reigns, hear this good news.
To the faithful Jesus simply declares, hold on to what you have until I come (Rv 2:25). Hold on to your love of God and others. Hold on to your faith in Christ. Hold on to your service to God and people. Hold on in the midst of trial and tribulation. Hold on to a faith that causes you to grow and become more and more the picture of godliness in a dying and decaying world. Hold on to Christ and a repentant heart; nothing more is needed. Hold on and receive the reward and oh what a reward it is.
It is the promise of ruling with the Savior. It is the promise of being an authority in the new creation. It is the promise of being a part of the destruction of all that is in opposition to the reign and rule of God. This is the promise of being a victor and enjoying the victory of light over darkness, life over death and righteousness over sinful rebellion. And it is all yours when you hold on to the faith, that was once entrusted to you, a faith that is living and active, and a faith that is fruitful and alive.
And if that isn’t enough of a reward, then Jesus also promises to give the faithful who endure to the end, the morning star (Rv 2:28). And what is the morning star. Let me read you a verse from the end of Revelation 22:16 where Jesus declares in some of his last words, “I am the Root and Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” Jesus’ promised reward to the faithful who endure in a way of life that is in conformity to the faith they proclaim is himself. He declares that He will give himself to them. All of his life, all of his righteousness, all of his authority, all of his holiness, all of him will be given to you and I if we are faithful to trust in his atoning work and to live a life submitted to his word and spirit.
And isn’t that what Psalm 2 is all about? For that psalm closes with these words, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:12). What greater blessing is there than receiving Christ himself? So stand strong, persist in the faith, live out your declarations, refuse to tolerate evil in the church, be quick to repent and slow to persist in sin and most certainly look forward to the day when you will take your place on the victor’s stage and receive your promised reward.
1 Darrell Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, p.91
2 Possible applications for inserting at the end of thie paragraph include, “So where is compromise and false worship being encouraged because this is the way things are? Does it happen when we join organizations that promote business, and even faith, but at the expense of Jesus preaching? The Masonic Lodge is one example from our past, which the church rightly condemned for its false worship. But isn’t this the very mission of InterFaith, to serve the poor from the religious community without the stigma of Jesus attached? Is this not the adaptation of cultural media and entertainment, using images of ghosts, vampires and goblins as saviors of society and comparing them to Christ in those on the forefront of Christian cultural engagement? And finally is this not the reality that each and every person faces as they head off to work or school or play and they are faced with situations that demand allegiance to either Christ or popular ways of doing business? Isn’t it the error of situational ethics, or a great term once popular but still practically lived out called “compartmentalization,” when we try to have both God/Jesus AND success, popularity, riches, power, lewd entertainment, etc. There is no both/and Jesus is saying, it is always either Jesus OR something else.1
This is also what we see happening in many denominations, including our own who want to rewrite the moral and religious boundaries based on the latest scientific studies regarding human nature or human sexuality, or cultural patterns of life. This is Baalism by forming our worship to what ‘is’ not what God says should be.”