Immorality - Thyatira
21/05/2006 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Andrew Giffen
If you remember back to the beginning of our series on Revelation, we learnt in chapter one how John, the author of this book, has been caught up in a heavenly vision and has seen the risen Christ standing among his churches speaking to them messages of encouragement and/or judgement. This evening we come to the fourth of the seven letters or messages to the churches. Letters addressed to an individual church, but also of relevance to all the churches in Asia Minor, and applicable to us today, the church of Christ spread throughout the world.
This evening we are looking at Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira. Thyatira was a city known for its skill in manufacturing. It had numerous trade gilds covering such skills as metal work, pottery, and tailoring. Each of those trade groups would have had their own pagan god, and the god would have been honoured in the workplace and when the workers ate together. That becomes important background to what we are about to read, because there would have been lots of pagan festivals going on in this city, with associated eating, drinking and frequently sexual promiscuity.
First, THE RISEN JESUS KNOWS HIS CHURCH
Jesus addresses the church within this busy city and his words are both an encouragement and a challenge. Which brings me to my first section and my first heading, The Risen Jesus knows his Church.
It is the risen Christ who is speaking in verse 18. He says
18 “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Rev 2:18).Jesus is reminding his church that he is God the Son. He has power and authority. His feet of bronze remind us that he cannot be shaken or moved. His eyes like blazing fire remind us that he sees into our lives and the life of his church with penetrating accuracy.
If you are into comic strips or superheroes you will know there is often a character who has x-ray eyes who can see what is going on inside a building. Well Jesus is being described a bit like that – not as a superhero, but as someone who can see what is happening inside his church. Christ cannot be deceived.
And he proclaims verse 19,
19 "I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Rev 2:19).The Son of God knows their character and actions. He knows the good things and the bad things. He praises them for their love and faith, their service and perseverance. He acknowledges that the church has grown in faith – the believers are now doing more than they did at first.
But like the majority of theses seven churches in Revelation, Christ also speaks a word of judgement and rebuke to them. He tells them verse 20,
20 "Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20).Before we consider the problems in this church, it is however worth drawing encouragement from what Christ sees that is good. Sometimes for you and me today as we work away in our various areas of ministry, we can feel a bit un-noticed. There might be lots for instance, that is good in your small group or your ministry area, but little opportunity to celebrate that within the wider church.
Well verse 19 reminds us that Jesus knows. He knows how much effort you put in behind the scenes. He knows your service in the holiday club, or the uniformed organisation. He knows about the way you love, and keep loving, in that difficult situation. He knows all about it when you and I persevere in our faith, and live for him in our home or workplace. And Christ is pleased. The risen Jesus knows each of us and he knows this church.
Secondly, JEZEBEL AND HER FALSE TEACHING
But what about the problems in Thyatira? Who is this woman Jezebel and what is she teaching? Which brings me to the second heading on your outline, Jezebel and her False Teaching.
Well the first thing to realise is that Jezebel wasn’t her real name. We know that because of the evocative, pictorial language that John is using. He is picking up on a key Old Testament character and describing this problematic woman in Thyatira by labelling her with the name Jezebel. It is a bit like when we describe someone today as a Judas. We are saying that they are a betrayer like Judas the disciple of Jesus. We could put John’s words in another way and say that the church in Thyatira is tolerating a woman who is behaving like Jezebel.
We read about the Old Testament character Jezebel in the book of 1 Kings. Ahab king of Israel married a foreign woman called Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31) who led the people of Israel into the worship of Baal. Because of her influence in the palace, Baal worship became the dominant religion in Israel, and God’s people compromised their religion and mixed together the worship of the true God with the worship of Baal and other idols.
In a similar way this Jezebel character in Thyatira has come in among God’s people and is leading them into pagan idolatry. Specifically the “sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” that was associated with pagan feasts, and the work related parties and social occasions of her day. The Christians in Thyatira were constantly being challenged by their pagan environment to compromise over idol worship or emperor worship, over morality and ethical values. And Jezebel is encouraging such compromise.
Her teaching role is not necessarily a formal one, but she is clearly having a lot of influence among the believers. You might wonder why this woman was taken seriously. Why was she tolerated? Christ certainly rebukes this church for tolerating her teaching, but why did they accept it?
I think they tolerated it for two reasons. They tolerated her teaching number one, because she claimed to be a prophetess, verse 20. But Jesus’ rebuke makes it clear that she is only a self-proclaimed prophetess.
There was a film that came out a few years ago in which the main character worked for a while in a hospital as a doctor without having any qualifications or training. He got away with it simply by confidently pretending to be a doctor. It is the same idea in Thyatira. Jezebel’s teaching was tolerated because she confidently claimed to be a prophetess.
And it is worth mentioning in passing that there is here a reminder to you and me today, that not everyone who claims to be a prophet is a prophet. Not every one who claims to speak the word of God does so. Prophecy and teaching must always be tested against the Bible, because the Bible is the complete and sufficient word of God.
But I think the second reason they tolerated her teaching was that it sounded convincing. Admittedly I am going a lot on background material, but I think what was going on in Thyatira was that this Jezebel character was saying that it didn’t really matter if a Christian participated in idol worship, with its associated sexual immorality and indulgent feasts. It didn’t really matter if the Christians in Thyatira got total immersed in their workplace culture, with its patron deities. You could still be a Christian and enjoy the “so-called deep secrets” of Satan that we read about in verse 24.
But you might ask why would any Christian think like that? Why would any Christian be convinced by someone saying that it was OK to live in sin and wickedness? Well Jezebel was probably putting it in theological language. It was theologically legitimised immorality.
She would have been saying something like “Christ’s power is sufficient to cover any sin”, or that “You can’t know what you have been saved from unless you really experience the pleasures of sin”, or “It doesn’t matter what you do with your body because everyone knows that you are saved spiritually. You might as well enjoy the pleasures of the world around you”.
It would be a bit like someone teaching today that a Christian need exercise no caution when they go out with their friends to the pub, or go to their workplace party, or dancing at a night club. Those are probably the equivalent social locations for us today.
Such a false teacher today might say that it’s fine getting drunk and having sex with your boss or a work college because after all how else can you truly relate to your non-Christian friends. You need to show them you can have a good time, so just go for it. Such a teacher today might say that you need to really experience sin, to know what you have been saved from.
It is legitimising immorality under the cloak of evangelism, or saying that a Christian is securely saved by Christ and can therefore push the boundaries of sinful behaviour, whether that is sexually or in other ways. But such teaching is a distortion of the truth. It is theologically legitimising wickedness. Christians are called to let their light shine in dark places but that light must never be allowed to go out. Christians are not immune from sin. We must not call something good that God has labelled evil.
Thirdly, CHRIST’S JUDGEMENT ON SIN AND FALSE TEACHING
So Jezebel is teaching falsehood in Thyatira, and Christ announces judgement. That is the third heading on your outline. Christ’s judgement on sin and false teaching.
We know already from verse 20 that Christ is not pleased that the church in Thyatira has tolerated this Jezebel woman and her teaching. Yet one of the things that is particularly interesting about this letter is that the church itself is not called, on this occasion, to exercise punishment on Jezebel. They are not even specifically told to repent of being tolerant. Rather the emphasis in what follows is on Christ himself who is about to exercise judgment and bring about punishment.
The risen Christ is not prepared to tolerate false teaching in his church. His burning eyes can see through the deceptive teaching of Jezebel. He is going to act in judgement against the false teacher.
Over the last few months in our sermons here at JPC there has been quite a lot of talk about false teaching and false teachers in the world of our day, particularly within the Church of England. If you are like me you may have been left feeling a bit powerless to do anything about it. Yes we can of course challenge false teaching at JPC if it happens, but we have little power to discipline false teachers in the church at large.
So I find Christ’s words to the church in Thyatira encouraging. It is Christ who is going to exercise judgement against this false teacher Jezebel, not the church itself, or even another church. For us today we can pray for and even expect God to act in a similar way against the false teachers of our day. Christ is concerned for the holiness of his church. We can ask him to act in judgement and remove those who teach falsehood.
Notice as well that we are told in verse 21 that Christ has already given Jezebel an opportunity to repent but it is now too late for that. Have a look with me at what Jesus says in verses 21 to 23. He declares
21 "I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Rev 2:21-23).There comes a time when there are no more opportunities to repent. For Jezebel her time is up. She is unwilling to change. She is about to be cast on a bed of suffering. Probably a literal bed of physical suffering and sickness. On a number of occasions in the Bible sickness is used by God as direct judgement and punishment (c.f. 1 Cor 11:27-30).
Christ’s pronouncement is a stark reminder of the precarious nature of our situation even today. There is a limit to the length of time that God withholds his judgement.
So for instance, if you are not a Christian, if you have not yet trusted in Christ for salvation, then the Bible warns that you are running out of time. At some point God will decide that you have had enough opportunities. He will judge you and confirm you in your unwillingness to accept him. Even if it is not this week you have no idea when Christ might possible return and exercise his final judgement on the world. If you are not yet a Christian, turn to him now, ask him to save you, before you run out of time.
If you are a Christian, then perhaps the warning you need to here this evening is don’t play around with sin. Don’t think to yourself, like Jezebel and her followers, that it is OK to dabble a bit in sinful behaviour. Don’t think to yourself for instance that you can always repent of sin at a later stage. Or even that you are strong enough to withstand the temptation. Instead flee from sin. You and I are called to holiness. We are told to trust in Christ and to hold to his teaching – not false teaching, not distorted truths.
It is only Jezebel who has run out of time here in Thyatira. Those who are committing adultery with her, verse 22, (which is probably a figurative way of saying those who are flirting with her teaching), they are given an opportunity to repent. God is gracious. But there is a definite warning here to those who persist in holding onto her teaching, her spiritual children, her followers will like her suffer intensely or be struck dead.
Christ is exercising judgement. The stakes are high. The risen Jesus is not prepared to tolerate the immorality and the false teaching in Thyatira. He is too concerned for his servants who are being led astray to allow Jezebel’s influence to continue.
And when Christ acts in judgement, when he strikes Jezebel down, then all the churches will know, verse 23, that it is he who searches hearts and minds, and will repay each person according to his deeds. Christ is Lord, and he wants every church, and every person to know that.
Fourthly, CHRIST’S REWARD FOR THOSE WHO OVERCOME
This letter to the church in Thyatira however ends on a more positive note. Which brings us to my final heading on your outline, Christ’s reward for those who overcome.
It is not all bad news and idolatrous compromise. Not everyone has accepted Jezebel’s teaching. The remainder of the church are guilty of tolerating a false teacher but they have not swallowed the lie. And Jesus’ words in verses 24 and 25 are an encouragement to them, a note of hope. Have a look with me at what those verses say.
24 "Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): 25 Only hold on to what you have until I come” (Rev 2:21-23).Jesus encourages them to hold on to the truth until he comes, hold on to true teaching, hold on to a true understanding of sin, and the importance of not compromising with the world. Jesus knows that it has been a burden for this church in having Jezebel amongst them. They have not acted to get rid of her and they have had to struggle to not give in to her teaching. A bit like having a painful tooth that you should have had filled months ago but have been putting up with the pain of ever since. The church had not removed Jezebel and her false teaching and her teaching had been a burden to them.
It would have been so much easier if they could have accepted what Jezebel said about sin – that it didn’t really matter. At a surface level it is much easier to live for pleasure than to live for Christ. But this group of Christians did not compromise. They stood firm. They did not participate in Satan’s so-called deep secrets – sexual immorality, pagan festivals, food sacrificed to idols. They did not pretend that that which is evil is good.
Jesus will not impose any other burden on these Christians, verse 24. You might be here this evening thinking that it is a burden to live as a Christian – so many rules to keep. Your view on all this might be that it is easier to just go with your feelings, have sex with the person you are attracted to, give in to homosexual urges, serve the gods of this age – pleasure, money, overindulgence. Surely it is a burden to live as a Christian, you say.
But Christ says instead that the Christian life is perfect freedom. It is those who live for themselves and the pleasures of this world who are slaves – slaves to sin. As Jesus makes clear in speaking to the church in Thyatira he has no desire to burden his church or his people. In Matthew’s gospel we read Jesus’ words,
28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).The Christian life is one of freedom not burden.
Jesus’ final message to the church is also one of great encouragement. Look at what Jesus says in verse 26 and following.
26 "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— 27 ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ — just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:21-23).Persevering in our Christian faith to the very end of our lives is what it means to overcome. You and I overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, when we stand firm, trusting in Christ for salvation, pursuing holiness until the day we die, or Jesus returns. And there is a reward for that. Our reward is participation in Christ’s rule and kingdom.
Christ is coming back. He is God the Son. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him. His penetrating eyes will accurately allow him to judge each person’s heart and mind. One day history will be brought to an end and God’s new kingdom will begin. A new day will dawn. A new morning star will rise.
I once stayed up all night to watch the dawn from the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. It was a beautiful clear night. As you might be aware, the time before dawn is the darkest part of the night. And I remember how the stars looked particularly bright. It is at that time, in the few hours before dawn, that the morning star (the planet Venus) becomes most visible. The dawn has not quite arrived. It is coming. And Christ’s message is hold on a bit longer.
The Christians in Thyatira will face more pressure to compromise in the coming days, as the message of Revelation goes on to explain. Persecution is coming, particularly from the pagan empire they live under. But for them and for us today Christ’s message is one of hope and encouragement. We are to stand firm, to keep going, to persevere, to overcome. He who overcomes will participate in the new creation.
The message to the church in Thyatira concerned a specific false teacher, a Jezebel like character, who was misleading Christ’s servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
You and I probably don’t have to deal with Jezebel or pagan festivals in idol temples. But we are reminded not to tolerate false teaching and not to compromise when it comes to sinful behaviour. As Christians we have a great reward to look forward to if we overcome.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” Amen.
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