The Tolerant Church

Revelation 2:18-29

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2012

We are currently studying the Book of Revelation and for the last few weeks have been looking at the letters of Jesus to the seven churches of Asia. Jesus knows the strengths and weaknesses of each church and he gives each one of the churches he inspects a report card.

He walks in the midst of each church, which means that he walks in the midst of our church. This evening, we will be looking at the fourth letter of Jesus, the letter to the Church of Thyatira. It is found in Revelation 2:18-29.

This letter of Jesus is the longest of the seven letters. The letter to the Church of Smyrna was the shortest letter. This is the longest of the seven letters of Jesus to the churches. Interestingly, this letter went to Thyatira, which was the smallest of the seven cities. The city was small and obscure. Ancient historians rarely even allude to it. It was also the least important of the seven cities.

The city of Thyatira was not important politically or militarily. Thyatira had temples, but nothing on the grand scale of the other three. It was, however, an important center of business and trade. It was a town of merchants and craftsmen.

The city was known for only one thing – its trade guilds. Thyatira was a blue-collar town dominated by unions. It had more trade guilds than any other town of its size in Asia.

Thyatira was a small city. We do not know how big the church was but we do know one member of this church. Her name was Lydia (Acts 16:13-15).

Lydia was a woman from Thyatira. She took a business trip to Philippi and became converted through the ministry of the Apostle Paul. She sold purple cloth. In those days, purple cloth was valuable and expensive, it was claimed to be worth its weight in silver.

The Bible says that God opened her heart and she responded to Paul’s message. She became a believer. In fact, she became the first person in Europe to convert to Christianity. She most likely returned to Thyatira where a church was eventually started.

The Church of Thyatira was similar to some of the other churches Jesus wrote to and very different from some others. It had one thing in common with the Church of Pergamum.

Both churches had idolatry and sexual immorality in the church (2:14-15, 20). The Church of Thyatira was very different form the Church of Ephesus. These two churches were polar opposites. One church was weak where the other was strong. What were some of the differences?

Comparison of Two Churches

The Church of Ephesus did not have love.  It lost its first love (2:4). The Church of Thyatira had love (2:19). In fact, these are the only two times the Greek word for love (αγαπη) is used in the whole book.

The Church of Ephesus was backsliding.  It used to have some qualities that it no longer possessed (2:4). Thyatira, on the other hand, had more spiritual qualities than it used to have (2:19).

The Church of Ephesus was very intolerant and judgmental (2:2, 6).  The Church of Thyatira was very tolerant and less critical. It was more accepting of people (2:20).

The Church of Ephesus elevated truth above love.  The Church of Thyatira elevated love above truth

Strengths of the Church of Thyatira

Jesus pays the Church of Thyatira a visit. He examines the church closely and what does he see. Jesus sees things very differently that we do. I am convinced that most people today would give this church very high marks. It had a lot of good points.

In fact, in some ways it was the best of the four churches. What were its strengths? Jesus mentions six good things about the Church of Thyatira (2:19). What are they? The church was commended by Jesus for five things.  Jesus commended this church for their deeds, faith, service. perseverance, and growth.

In fact, in some ways it was the best of the four churches. What did Jesus say to the Church of Smyrna? I know your afflictions and poverty and the fact that people are slandering you (2:9). What did Jesus say to the church of Pergamum?

“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name” (2:13). That is the whole commendation for that church but for Thyatira Jesus commends them for six things.

Now he did commend the Church of Ephesus for many things as well but that church did NOT have love. Paul said that if you have everything else but you do not have love, you are nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-3).

Not only was the church commended for its love, it is the only church of the seven that received a commendation for love. That is the greatest Christian virtue. I Corinthians 13:13 says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. This church had love.

We would say that any church that has these six things is a good church. Any church would love to have all of these qualities. This was not only a good church, it was a growing church. Not all churches grow. Some never grow.

In fact, many are declining and are on the verge of dying. This one did better this year than it did the last year. In fact, Jesus said in 2:19, “you are now doing more than you did at first” (NIV). The NLT reads, “And I can see your constant improvement in all these things”. This was not a church that lives in the past, remembering how great the church used to be. It got better each year.

It grew numerically. More people came to church. More people came to Christ. More people got baptized. More people were in small groups. More people gave financially. Sounds like a great church but despite all the good points of the church Jesus says, “but I have this against you”.

Those are words that no church and no Christian wants to hear from Jesus. We all want to hear the words “well done good and faithful servant” and not the words “but I have this against you”.

Weakness of the Church of Thyatira

What was the sin of the church? Many get this completely wrong here. The problem was NOT that Jezebel was in the church. The problem was that the church TOLERATED her in the church (2:20). Who does Jesus rebuke in 2:20? It is not Jezebel but the church. It was a problem of church leadership. The main problem of the church was weak leadership.

We still have that problem today. Weak leaders produce weak churches. What happened in this church seems unthinkable to us. At Thyatira, there was an outspoken, domineering and strong-willed woman the church who publicly promoted sexual immorality and idolatry and the leaders of the church didn’t have the courage to stand up to her. No one opposed her. No one in the church had the moral strength or backbone to oppose this woman head-on.

Limits to Tolerance

What was the sin of the Thyatiran Church? It tolerated a heretic. The world would see this as a good thing, not a bad thing. The church was tolerant. They would argue that the church today should be more tolerant, not less tolerant.

Many churches pride themselves on their tolerance. In this section, Jesus was critical of the tolerant church. The Bible teaches that God’s thought are NOT our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  In many ways, tolerance is good.

There are many things that we should tolerate in a church. The church should not be narrow-minded, bigoted and judgmental. That sounds like a church of the Pharisees but there are some things that a church should not tolerate. There are limits to tolerance.

We don’t tolerate babies playing with sharp objects. We don’t tolerate cancer in your body. We cut it out, because cancer will kill us. Society does not tolerate rapists and murderers and child molesters walking on the streets.

Teachers do not tolerate wrong answers on tests.  They do not say that any answer is acceptable.  The church should not tolerate sin. It should not tolerate evil. It also should not tolerate doctrinal error.

The Bible teaches that a person who is a heretic is to be rejected (Titus 3:10), not tolerated. That is a command in Greek. Of course, we have to be careful here. Who is a heretic? A heretic is not someone who disagrees with us on some obscure doctrine of Scripture. A heretic is someone who denies major doctrines of the faith.

They deny that Hell is eternal. They deny that Jesus is God. They deny the Virgin Birth. Their teaching is to be rejected (I Timothy 4:7; II Timothy 2:23) but the teachers are to be rejected as well (Titus 3:10).

Paul says that they are to be rejected. He doesn’t say to burn them at the stake or use force or violence against them, like they did in the Middle Ages. He says to reject them.

Mystery about the NT Jezebel

Jesus criticized the church for tolerating a woman named Jezebel in the church. Some in the church today describe her as a demon spirit.  In the Bible, she is a real person but there are a lot of things we do not know about this person.

1) We do not know who she was

She may have been the pastor’s wife but we do not know that for sure. However, the OT Jezebel was married to the King of Israel. A textual variant reads, “Your wife Jezebel”

2) We do not know her real name

Almost certainly, her real name was not Jezebel. No one would have named their daughter Jezebel. That was not her name but her nickname. Jesus called this woman Jezebel because she acted like the woman called Jezebel in the OT.

The OT Jezebel was one of the most wicked women in the Bible. Her name became a synonym of evil, just like the name Hitler is today. Jezebel was a Baal worshiper.

She was a foreigner who came from a long line of  Baal worshipers and this pagan idol worshiper married the King of Israel. She brought Baal worship into Israel. Because of her Jews in Israel began worshiping Baal.

In fact, because of her, Baal worship became the state religion and the worship of Jehovah was outlawed and many who worshiped the true God were executed.

The Sin of Jezebel

1. She claimed to be something she was not.

She calls herself a prophet. Notice that God does not call her to be a prophet. She calls herself. She claimed to have revelations and words from God. She claimed to speak for God but God never sent her and people still do that today (cf. Jeremiah 23:21).

She claimed to be a spokesman for God but was actually a spokesman or spokeswoman for Satan. She claimed to speak for God but was telling people to worship idols. She was promoting the deep things of Satan” (2:24), not “the deep things of God’ (I Corinthians 2:10).

Incidentally, this says very little about the role of women in the church today. Male chauvinists use this passage as an excuse to bash women. They say that this church had a female problem named Jezebel.

Jezebel was NOT condemned for being a female prophet in the church but for being a false prophet in the church. There is no evidence that this woman held any office in the church but she did exercise the gift of prophecy. Women were allowed to prophesy in the NT.

There were female prophets in both the OT (Miriam, Deborah) and NT (Anna, Philip’s daughters). If a man did the same thing (called himself a prophet and seduced believers into idolatry and immorality) it would have been just as wrong.

2. She caused other people to sin.

“By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (2:20). How did she do that? In order to answer that question, you have to know some historical background.

Thyatira was known for its commerce and manufacturing. Every trade (bakers, shoe makers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths etc.) had a trade guild that went with it. In order to get a job, you had to be a member of a trade guild. You had to join the union.

The problem was that each union was under the patronage of a particular deity. Trade guilds were each associated with an idol. To be a member of one of the many trade guilds, you were required to participate in the guild banquets these guilds would often have meetings in the pagan temples around town.

These meetings would also involve a meal that would either begin or end with a sacrifice to a pagan god. At the regular guild meetings, you would have food offered to idols at business dinners. Sexual immorality was a part of idolatry in the ancient world. The two went together.

That created a moral dilemma for Christians in Thyatira. The question was this: Is it right for a Christian to join a trade guild? The burning question of the day was whether Christians had a right to join social clubs of the day. One prominent and outspoken woman in the Church said that she had a word from God on the matter and that Christians could participate in these clubs.

She was apparently able to convince many in the church to join these guilds. Jesus said, ‘By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols’ (2:20). My question for you to think about is how did she do it? What did she say? We do not know but she probably said things like:

  • How do expect to have an influence on the trade guilds and be salt to the world if you are not a part of them? You can be a greater witness and impact if you participate than if you do not participate“.
  • Idolatry is part of the festival but that is just a tradition that most people do not take that seriously. Most people do not believe that the local god in Thyatira (who was called Tyrimnos, the ancient Sun god, another name for the Greek god Apollo) actually exists. After all, the Apostle Paul said ‘concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one’ (I Corinthians 8:4). He also said, ‘food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat’ (8:8)”.
  • It is not like you have much of a choice. It is the only way to get a job and you have to get a job to provide for your family. You should do what you have to do to provide for you and your family. The Apostle Paul says, ‘A man who does not provide for his own is worse than an infidel‘ (I Timothy 5:8).”
  • You can’t criticize sin unless you have tried it first. How can you criticize something that you have not tried? As the famous quote says, “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in his or her shoes

Description of Jesus to the Church of Thyatira

We have seen Jesus’ criticism of the church. He also has a warning to the church. Before we look at that warning, let’s quickly look at the title of Jesus to the church of Thyatira (2:18). How does Jesus describe himself to this church? “These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze”. Everything here speaks of judgment.

1. He calls himself the Son of God.

It is a common title of Jesus in the NT. Jesus is called the “Son of God” forty-six times in the NT but this is the only time in the Book of Revelation where we see that title. If you remember in chapter one, he was called “the Son of Man” but here he is called “The Son of God.” Why is that title of Jesus mentioned to this church? That title emphasizes Jesus Christ’s Deity and right to judge and it may be a contrast to the sun god they worshipped in the city.

2. His feet are like burnished bronze. Brass, or bronze, in the Bible is symbolic of judgment.

3. The eyes of the risen Jesus are like a flame of fire.

Jesus’ Eyes Are a Flame of Fire

1. This is a picture of omniscience

It means that He sees everything. Our eyes are not flames of fire but Jesus’ eyes are. He can see in the dark. Nothing can be hidden from him. With his eyes he searches hearts (2:23). I have taught the Bible for many years and have been accused of all kinds of things. I have been accused of pride.

I have been accused of being a Pharisee but only God is capable of searching people’s hearts and judging people’s motives. Only God knows our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 17:10). That is something that only God can do. That is another proof that Jesus is God because Jesus says that is what He does.

2. This is a picture of judgment

Fire is an instrument of judgment. The wicked will be judged by fire (19:11-12; II Thessalonians 1:7-8). The unsaved will be cast into the Lake of Fire (20:15). Even Christians will face fire when they see Jesus. The works of Christians will one day face fire and be judged (I Corinthians 3:10-15).

Warning to the Church of Thyatira

The warning is found in 2:21-23. Jesus says, “You tolerate Jezebel but I will not”. The warning involves three things: sickness, suffering and death for her and her followers in the church.

1. Physical sickness

Notice how the punishment fits the crime. The place where she sinned is the place where she will be punished. A bed of sickness replaces a bed of immorality.

2. Intense suffering

That is very interesting because θλιψιν μεγάλην literally means “great tribulation” (so KJV, ESV, RSV, NASB). We have seen that the first few times in the Book of Revelation we see the word “tribulation” it has absolutely nothing to do with the future period of judgment on the earth. Here, we see the words “great tribulation” together and again they have absolutely nothing to do with a future period of judgment on the earth.

Now, there will be a Tribulation period on the earth but this was a warning of intense suffering for the unrepentant members of the Church of Thyatira. None of those members are alive today. None will be around when the future Tribulation occurs and none will be resurrected to endure it.

3. Her followers will die

Jesus says “and I will give to each of you according to your works”. That is a strong warning. What does Jesus say will happen to the followers of Jezebel? He says, “I will strike her children dead” (2:23). Who are these children? In 2:20 Jesus described them as “my servants”.

Promises to the Overcomer in this Church

God rewards faithful believers. Notice the two rewards promised to the overcomer.

1. They will share in Christ’s millennial rule on the earth.

Jesus says they will have authority over the nations. That is a very interesting promise to this church because the city of Thyatira was not important politically. It didn’t rule over anything.

2. They will be given the morning star.

Most scholars believe that this is another reference to sharing in Christ’s messianic rule. The morning star was a symbol of sovereignty in the ancient world, especially in Rome.

Lessons from this Church

There are many lessons we can learn from these verses. We learn that:

1) False teaching often exists in churches.

In this case it was by a woman (Jezebel) but it often is done by a man because it is the men who tend to be in leadership positions in the church.

2) There is a tolerance that is right and a tolerance that is wrong.

We should know the difference between the two. There are some things that should not be tolerated in a local church.

3) Genuine Christians can commit horrendous sins.

“Jezebel leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols”.   King David was guilty of Adultery and murder. Noah was guilty of drunkenness.

4) God judges churches and individual Christians because of sin

That’s what was happening in Corinth. Some of the Corinthians were getting sick and some were dropping dead. It was the result of sin.

5) Believers who fall into sin can be restored.

God gave the wicked Jezebel time to repent before He judged her (I gave her time to repent). Even Jezebel could have been forgiven if she repented. When we sin, God gives us time to repent but the time is limited. What does this say to people who profess to be followers of Christ who have committed sexual sins or committed idolatry? They can be restored.

6) God does not lump everyone in the church together.

He condemned the sin of Jezebel and spoke against her followers but commended the rest of the church that did not follow her teaching (2:24-25).

7) Churches contain believers and unbelievers in them.

Notice the promise to the overcomer in the church (2:26). The one who overcomes is the one who is saved. The overcomer is promised things like eternal life (2:7), not being cast into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 2:11) and not being removed from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5). What is the implication?

Some in the church will overcome and some will not. Not everyone who makes a simple profession of faith or is baptized or is a member of a local church overcomes. The promise to the overcome in this church is given “to the one who does my will to the end.” It is one of the strongest passages for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints in the Bible.

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