************ Sermon on Revelation 2:18-29 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 9, 2007
"Thyatira: The Tolerant Church"
I The Letter's Introduction
A This letter is written "to the angel of the church in Thyatira" (Rev 2:18). As in all the letters, the angel functions as a divine messenger (cf Rev 1:1-3).
"To the angel of the church ..." is a reminder that spiritual and divine forces are at work and are watching. Each of the angels is held by Christ (Rev 1:16,20) and lives in the presence of Christ. So here is another reminder that each of the churches is under the guidance and protection of Christ the King. It is obvious that Christ loves the church – but, then, she is His body, His bride.
In this light, consider how Christ identifies Himself: "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). This self-description indicates coming judgment and wrath. His eyes are like lasers that cut through everything. His heavy bronze feet trample over anything and everything that gets in the way. Christ loves His church, His body, His bride, and His judgment awaits those who would destroy her or wreck her or mislead her or damage her in any way (cf Rev 2:27; Ps 2:9). It is a terrible sin to hurt what Christ loves.
B "To the angel of the church in Thyatira write" (Rev 2:18). The city of Thyatira was the smallest and least significant of the seven cities of Asia Minor. Yet, the church there receives the longest letter. Unlike Pergamum, it was not a center of emperor worship. Unlike Smyrna, it did not have a large Jewish population. Unlike Ephesus, it was not a center for banking and finance. Thyatira had no political or religious significance.
The outstanding characteristic of Thyatira was the large number of trade guilds that flourished there. In today's language, we would call it a union town – something like Detroit, Michigan or Flint, Michigan. The guilds, the unions, of Thyatira controlled and dominated the city, its politics, its trade, its business. You did not work or do business in Thyatira apart from the guilds.
In Thyatira there were guilds for wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, and slave-dealers. Above and beyond these trades, Thyatira was especially known for two trades. The first was metal-working. In verse 18 Christ 's self-description includes feet like "burnished bronze" (Rev 2:18). "Burnished bronze" is a special kind of bronze produced only in Thyatira. The guild there carefully guarded the secret process for making this kind of bronze. It is interesting and significant that Christ identifies Himself to the church in Thyatira as this bronze for which Thyatira was famous. But Christ also identifies Himself as He "whose eyes are like blazing fire" (Rev 2:18). Here is a reminder that He is the risen and glorified Christ Who knows and sees everything – including a secret metal-working process, the thoughts of hearts and minds (Rev 2:23), and the deep secrets of Satan (Rev 2:24).
The second trade for which Thyatira was famous was the dying of fabric. In Acts 16 we meet a woman from Thyatira, an exporter of dyed fabric. Her name is Lydia. Lydia became a Christian through the ministry of Paul in Philippi. We don't know for sure, but it is possible that Lydia was the first Christian convert of Thyatira and was responsible for starting the church there.
C Guilds were significant to the church of Thyatira because the guilds mixed business with religion. Each guild had its own pagan god. Membership in a guild required that you worshiped its god. You were expected to attend guild festivals – which included the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. And, when the eating and drinking came to an end, you were then expected to engage in sexual activity with the priests and priestesses of the guild as an act of worship to its god. In this light, do you remember what the Jerusalem Council decided about Gentile membership in the church?
(Acts 15:29) You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.Do you see the problems guild membership created for the Christians of Thyatira?
So, what does a Christian in Thyatira do? Can he join a guild? Can he join a guild but not show up for the festivals? Does he slip out the door when the compromises begin? If so, how long will it be before this is noticed and someone gets upset about this? These are not just academic questions? These were real questions faced by real people like Lydia every single day in Thyatira. And, these questions are real and relevant for us today as well.
How do we Christians relate to culture? How far can I go as a Christian in adopting the practices of society? No matter what your occupation or circumstance, you end up facing questions like this. As a Christian doctor or nurse you are pressured to assist in abortions. A teacher is told to keep quiet about her faith in Jesus. A construction worker is asked to build a strip-joint. A salesman is tempted to lie about insurance or cars in order to meet the sales quota. Young people join a sports club and are forced to miss Sunday worship, to become a cheer leader they find they have to rip down the competition, to fit in with the crowd they have to attend a concert or a movie they would not want to be caught at.
How far can a Christian go? He cannot deny his faith, of course. We all know that. But what can he do?
For Christians in Thyatira it became a matter of survival. Expulsion from the guild or exclusion from the guild meant no job, no income, no business, no trade, not even a place to live. How does one support a family and raise children in Thyatira without guild membership? To be a follower of Jesus Christ meant economic suicide in Thyatira! How many of us would be Christians if it meant economic suicide, if it meant we gave up our riches, if it meant we lost our dairies and our businesses, if it meant our children could not attend school, if it meant we could not own a home or rent a home? Remember what Jesus said? He said,
(Mt 10:37-38) "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; (38) and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."Anyone who loves his home or business or occupation or car or computer or bicycle or toy or money or sport more than Jesus is not worthy of Jesus. By this measurement, how many of us are worthy of Jesus Christ, the Lord?
II Positive Evaluation
A When Jesus, "whose eyes are like blazing fire," looks at the church of Thyatira He sees much to praise, encourage, and acclaim. Don't forget, He sees and knows everything – nothing is missed, nothing is overlooked. He says,
(Rev 2:19) I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
"I know your deeds." What deeds? They are explained by four words: love, faith, service, perseverance. The last two words explain the first two words. Their love expresses itself in service. Their faith expresses itself in perseverance.
"I know your deeds." That is, "I know how you show love by serving me and one another." Don't forget, in that time and place service was something done by a slave. The Christians of Thyatira were willing to humble themselves before one another. A rich business woman like Lydia was willing to wash the feet of a slave girl, or to feed someone in a sick bed. They loved Jesus so much they were willing to do anything for the members of His body.
"I know your deeds." That is, "I know how your faith perseveres even in the face of trials and persecution." Here were Christians willing to die for Jesus, just like Antipas of Pergamum (Rev 2:13), just like Polycarp of Smyrna (Rev 2:10).
In the church of Thyatira there was no small love nor was there a small faith.
B But there is more Jesus wants to say about their virtues. "I know ... that you are now doing more than you did at first" (Rev 2:19). We cannot help but observe that this is the opposite of the church in Ephesus. The church in Ephesus started so well but then she lost her first love. "Remember the height from which you have fallen!" says Jesus to Ephesus. "Repent and do the things you did at first" (Rev 2:5). Ephesus has gone backwards; she has regressed. But Thyatira has progressed. She is doing more than she did at first. This is a church that is showing more love and more faith. This is a church that is growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is a church that is becoming more mature, more and more like Christ.
III Negative Evaluation
A Praise is not all that the Lord gives to the church of Thyatira. He "whose eyes are like blazing fire" also has a word of criticism for her lack of theological discernment.
Permit me another comparison with the church of Ephesus. Ephesus has theological discernment. In fact, Ephesus is known and praised by the lord for her theological discernment; but Ephesus is also admonished because she has lost her first love. The church of Thyatira, in comparison, is praised for her love and faith; but she is admonished because she shows no theological discernment. Exact opposites, aren't they?!
What is the problem in Thyatira? Jesus boils it down to a woman He calls "Jezebel." We can safely assume that Jezebel is not the real name of the woman Jesus is speaking against. We can further assume that the name is symbolic. We can hardly imagine anyone having the same name as King Ahab's evil wife.
The Jezebel of Thyatira must have been persuasive, authoritative, eloquent, a smooth talker, someone able to say Bible verses at the drop of a hat. She was successful, powerful, and influential. Why else would she have a following in the church?
Notice what Jesus says? Jesus says, "Jezebel ... calls herself a prophetess" (Rev 2:20). She calls herself. She wasn't called of God. She wasn't appointed by God. And yet, like a prophet, she dared to say, "This is what the Lord says ..." She dared to pretend she had a message from God. We know her message is not from God because Jesus gives her the name "Jezebel." We know her message is not from God because she taught the opposite of what was said by the Jerusalem Council. We know her message is not from God because Jesus says she misleads, beguiles, deceives. We know her message is not from God because Jesus calls it "Satan's so-called deep secrets" (Rev 2:24).
Contrast the Jezebel of Thyatira to Lydia – another successful, powerful, and influential woman who is her exact opposite: Lydia put herself under the Word of God, Lydia opened her heart and her home to the Gospel message, Lydia was a believer in the Lord (Acts 16:14-15).
Jezebel of Thyatira, who calls herself a prophetess, has a simple message:
God spoke to me. Christians can participate in the pagan guild festivals. Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Christians can engage in the sexual games of guild worship. It is possible to engage in pagan worship while being a Christian. After all, you are not being asked to renounce your faith in Jesus Christ. And, we all know pagan gods are not real gods; they are only imaginary gods. So, don't jeopardize your families, your careers, you business. You can do this with a clear conscience. Because God told me this.
I want you to notice something very important. Jezebel was in the church. She was part of the church. She was not the big, bad wolf out there. She was inside. She was a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing. She sounded Christian. She looked Christian. People believed her when she said she had a message from God. Satan's attack against Thyatira came from within the church. But if there is anything church history teach us, it is this: the attack almost always comes from within the church. The biggest and worst heresies always come from within the rank of Christians. Oh, do we need spiritual discernment. Oh, do we need to be watching. Oh, do we need to be careful – especially when someone says, "God told me ..." All of our spiritual defenses should be tingling when we hear this.
B Now, what was the response of the church of Thyatira to Jezebel and her message? According to verse 24, some in the church accepted what Jezebel said – and presumably followed her advice – while others in the church rejected what she said. But whether they accepted her or rejected her they all "tolerated" what she said and taught.
Jesus uses the word "tolerate." They tolerated Jezebel and her teaching. They didn't reject her. They didn't point out that what she said was wrong. They didn't show how her message couldn't have come from God. They tolerated Jezebel and her message.
Do you know what they did? They swept all theological differences aside into the ocean of brotherly love. We don't agree but we need to show love, we need to show understanding, we can't appear harsh and divisive and unloving. We don't agree but let's bathe this in prayer. Let's be understanding of those who need to work and provide for their families. Let's not forget the innocent little children who need to eat. We need to fit into the system. We need to be part of the community. We can't expect everyone to think the same way we do. This was an issue worth fighting for but instead they swept their differences under the rug.
Do you know why they did this? Why they tolerated Jezebel and her message? They bowed at the altar of cultural approval in order to secure economic well-being. Let me repeat this: They bowed at the altar of cultural approval in order to secure economic well-being. Or, as people today put it, "I am only doing good business." Amazing, isn't it? When it comes to business and work and livelihood our conscience and morals become very elastic – they stretch and stretch and stretch. If money is involved we are willing to tolerate almost anything.
Jesus is not quite so tolerant in His thinking. He has said you cannot serve both God and money (Lk 16:13). So Jesus calls Jezebel and her followers to repent (Rev 2:21).
C I want you to notice exactly whom Jesus is talking to and about in His letter to Thyatira. He calls them "my servants" (Rev 2:20). In Scripture a servant of God is one who is totally committed to the Lord. A servant of Jesus is one who has offered his or her life to Jesus as the risen and exalted Lord. These are not false believers, then, who tolerate and are led astray by Jezebel. Remember, their love and their faith are not false or fake (Rev 2:19). These are people within the church. But they have compromised. They have fallen before the altar of cultural acceptance in order to gain jobs or keep jobs.
This, then, is the evaluation of Jesus "who searches hearts and minds," "whose eyes are like blazing fire," who "walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev 2:23; 2:18; 2:1). In Thyatira there has been growth in love, faith, service, and perseverance. But this cannot begin to compensate for their toleration of Jezebel and her teachings.
What does Jesus want the church of Thyatira to do: "Only hold on to what you have until I come" (Rev 2:25). "Hold on." Grasp. Seize. Don't let go. Keep your grip on the truth.
How does Thyatira do this? How do we do this? How do we maintain a pure Christian faith? How do we keep ourselves from being defiled and tainted by the world? How do we remain orthodox? How do we block falsehood? How do we hold on to what we have?
I have three answers: Read the Word. Read the Word. Read the Word. This is the only thing to do.
You don't need to become an expert in the cults to refute false teaching; you need to know the Word. You don't need to bow before false gods; you need to read the Word. You don't have to wonder about what is the right thing to do when popular culture confronts you; you need to spend time with the Word. When someone says, "God told me ..." open the Word as quickly as possible and test what that person is saying. All that you have to do, the only thing to do, is to spend time with the Word.
I know this runs contrary to what happens today. Do you know what would happen to Jezebel today? We would put her on TV. We would buy her books from Amazon.com. She would be a speaker at one of our national religious conferences. She would be a guest on Larry King Live and Oprah. You would hear her messages from the Lord on Christian radio.
Forget all this. Instead, read the Word.
I've noticed that it is very easy to skip family devotions. It is really easy to miss church on Sunday. It is easy to avoid being part of a Bible study. Satan loves this because then he can plant a Jezebel in our midst who finds it far too easy to lead us astray.
"Only hold on to what you have" (Rev 2:25).
V Promised Blessing
A Jesus makes two promises to those who overcome, to those who don't bow before the altar of cultural acceptance in order to secure economic well-being.
The first promise: "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations ... just as I have received authority from my Father" (Rev 2:26). In the middle of this is a quote from Psalm 2 – a coronation psalm. By this, Jesus identifies Himself as Israel's King. More than that, we know He is the King of the universe. Psalm 2 refers to the king of Israel in an amazing way – as "God's son." Some of you might have noticed that I skipped part of Jesus' self-identification at the beginning of this letter. Let's go back to it for a moment: "These are the words of the Son of God ..." (Rev 2:18). Remember, the Son of God is King. Jesus begins and ends His letter to Thyatira speaking of His rule, His reign, His Kingdom, His authority. Why is this important? Because someday the Kingdom of God is the only kingdom that will exist and all His enemies will be destroyed – unless they repent.
Those who are faithful to Christ, those who don't compromise for economic well-being, those who don't tolerate evil because that is business, they have a place in Christ's Kingdom. They will rule with Christ.
B And a second promise for overcomers: "I will also give him the morning star (Rev 2:28). The book of Numbers can talk of a star that will come out of Jacob (Num 24:17). We all understand this as a reference to the coming of Christ. And listen to Revelation 22:16
(Rev 22:16) "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star."When Jesus promises overcomers the gift of the bright morning star, He is promising them the gift of Himself. They will have Christ in all His fullness, all His glory, all His wisdom, all His power, all His majesty, all His grace, all His love.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 2:29).
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