Letter to Thyatira

Revelation 2:18-29

6 March 2011

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


Introduction

My first observation is that this letter is an alliterator's paradise! All the key points very helpfully begin with an S, at least in the translation I usually use, if not the NIV. From the top: son, service, seducing, sexual immorality, sacrifices to idols, suffering (verse 22), striking dead, searching (verse 23), Satan's secrets, seizing hold of (verse 25), sceptre, star and Spirit.

Since we don't have time for a thirteen-point sermon, I'm going to pick three headings which summarise the themes nicely: Service Commended, Seduction Condemned and Seizing Commanded.

But before I get into that, let's look briefly at the background to Thyatira. Of the seven cities that Jesus writes to in these chapters, Thyatira is the least significant. It's not well-known for any particular reason. It seems to have been a centre of manufacturing: there is evidence of bronze-working and various other trades. We do hear about Thyatira in one other place in the Bible - in Acts chapter 16, we read about the conversion of Lydia who was a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira.

Thyatira was not an important place, and the least of all the seven cities listed in Revelation. Not at all strategic. But to this church in an unimportant place, Jesus writes the longest of his letters.

That's interesting, isn't it? Jesus values his church — perhaps especially values his church — in insignificant places like Thyatira. Like Woodley.

To this church he introduces himself as the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronzeref. Eyes like the blazing furnaces of the metalworkers; towering over them so they can see only his polished bronze feet. A rather scary Jesus, the reason for which we will find out later.

Service Commended (v19)

But first we find Jesus praising this church by commending their service, Service Commended.

Verse 19, I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at firstref.

A certain kind of preacher always likes to beat up the church, but Jesus loves to give praise where praise is due. And here they really are doing well.

This church's deeds are built firmly on the two great Christian virtues: faith and love. And their deeds are deeds of service.

Best of all, they are not only persevering, but growing in their service. Thyatira is a busy church, but their busyness is well grounded: not activity for the sake of activity, but grounded in faith and love. They had remembered what the church is for: to serve Jesus out of faith, to serve others out of love. To know Jesus and to make him known.

In this respect they are a contrast with the church at Ephesus, who had forsaken their first loveref, although they were very hot on right doctrine.

So, Jesus has lovely praise for this lively church, growing in good works as they persevere in loving others and putting their faith in him. Their Service is Commended.

Seduction Condemned (v20-23)

But, as ever in these letters, not everything is rosy. Although in some ways a thriving church, there is evil in their midst. Which brings us to verses 20 to 23, Seduction Condemned.

The inevitable "but" comes in verse 20. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads [or seduces] my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.ref

It seems that, in their midst, there is a woman whose teaching has become prominent and she is seducing some of the people away from the truth and into immorality. And the church has not dealt with her; they are tolerating her and her teaching.

The name given to this woman is significant. Jezebel was the evil wife of King Ahab in the book of 1 Kings. Among her crimes she tried to systematically kill all the prophets of Yahweh and impose the worship of Baal on the people of God. She abused her power and led Ahab and Israel astray into horrific immorality and idolatry.

How does she manage to lead this otherwise healthy church astray?

Well, first she has declared herself a prophetess. She is claiming a special revelation from God. That she has access to truth that others do not. She has claimed to be a source of authority.

And then she has begun to teach. No doubt her teaching was attractive and persuasive. There's a clue in verse 24 that she is claiming to be teaching deep secrets of some sort. Obviously she wouldn't have styled them as the "deep secrets of Satan", but that's what they were. Her line would have been that the apostles had made a decent start, but there's much more to learn. "Listen to me and you will gain a deeper experience of spirituality; your life will be more fulfilled."

But, as always, bad teaching results in bad behaviour. Those who followed her have been led into sexual immorality and idolatry. The very same things that the church at Pergamum was condemned for.

We'll look at the antidote to this in the next section. But first I want to consider a question.

The question is this: do you and I care nearly as much about sexual purity as Jesus does?

What we could do with this passage is to "spiritualise" it and keep it "out there", at arm's length. We could say, as some of my commentaries do, that what was really going on here was primarily a kind of spiritual adultery, that the sexual immorality Jesus describes is more figurative than real, and so this passage is more about idolatry. And there is some truth in that. And it would be a nice way of avoiding Jesus' searching gaze on our lives.

No, in my view, it is clear that there really is real sexual immorality being tolerated in this church as a result of this woman's teaching, and Jesus is appalled by it. He says of this Jezebel, I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely [meaning those who are influenced by her teaching], unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead [meaning those who have become her disciples]ref. Jesus will judge.

So I ask, do you and I care nearly as much about sexual purity as Jesus does?

For example, are we appalled by Christians having sex before marriage? The world laughs at us for concepts like "living in sin" First Peter 4 verse 4 says They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on youref. And I get the sense that some parts of the church have given up the fight. They are not nearly so concerned about sexual purity as Jesus is, because they have not understood the nature of marriage or the nature of sex.

Again, are we appalled by pornography? I have no doubt that there are some in the church who are in the grip of pornography. But it's so easy to dismiss: it does no harm; it's so easy to access; everyone is doing it; God doesn't really care. But he does! Jesus cares deeply about sexual purity; do we care as much? What are we doing to fight the casual acceptance of porn in our world, and in our lives, and its stealthy reach into the church?

And what about the government's plans to confer the sacred status of marriage on homosexual relationships, and, extraordinarily, with the blessing of many in the wider church. Here is an example of Jezebel-like teaching, the teaching that homosexual sex is not a perversion, but somehow a mainstream equivalent to marriage. Are we appalled by this?

Do we quietly tolerate adultery? Do we quietly tolerate promiscuity?

These are all things we should be deeply intolerant of, just as Jesus is. In a world where all of these things and more are thought quite acceptable and commonplace, it's easy for us to be unthinkingly pulled along, to be squeezed into its mould. But we should set ourselves to care about purity as much as Jesus cares. Like the church at Thyatira, we should never tolerate anyone whose teaching seduces people into sexual immorality.

But rather than simply condemning others, we should search our own hearts and minds, because Jesus certainly does. Verse 23, 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 deedsref. When Jesus turns those burning eyes on you, what will he see? Do you care about purity nearly as much as he does? Is the truth that you believe in your heart and that know with your mind being worked out in your deeds and actions?

If not, there is only one thing to do. Verse 21, repent! Verse 22, repent! Jesus may be terrifying to the sinful, but to anyone who will turn away from sin and back to him, he is love personified.

Seizing Commanded (v24-29)

Finally, let's look at verses 24 to 29 which I've called Seizing Commanded.

What is the antidote to this false teaching? In verse 24, Jesus addresses those in the church who have not been led astray by this false teaching, saying, (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come.ref

The word the NIV translates "hold on to" is really much stronger. It means hold fast, lay hold of, grab on to, grasp, or (as in my scheme of Ss) seize! Hence the title, seizing commanded. Seize hold of what you already have! Don't let go of it!

Had this church paid attention to what they already had, they would not have been led astray. In Acts chapter 15, the apostles and elders met in Jerusalem to try to work out what to do with all the Gentile converts that Paul and Barnabas were making. Should they impose Jewish practices on them such as circumcision?

Out of this meeting came a letter to the churches which said this It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you — note: the same words as verse 24 of our passage — not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these thingsref.

Food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality! If they had only held on to what they already had, they could have avoided Jesus' anger entirely.

So there is the application for us: Only hold on to what you have until I comeref.

We are novelty-seekers by nature, aren't we? We prefer new ideas to old ideas. We are easily bored of the familiar; there's always a new fad, a new, more exciting way of doing things. The promise of deeper spirituality if we follow this new thing or that new thing.

But Jesus commands us: seize hold of what you have. If you want to know the deep truths, then get a better grasp on what you already have. Dig deeper into the Bible. His word will protect you from every kind of waywardness. Jesus commands us to hold fast to what we have, and we already have all of his word to us. Seize hold of it with your hands, your hearts, your minds and your wills!

For those who will do so, Jesus ends with two promises. The first, taken from Psalm 2 is that he will share his authority with us. Thyatira may have been an unimportant and uninfluential place, but Jesus promises them, and us, that, if we keep on keeping on, we will one day rule with him.

The final promise is in verse 28. Enigmatically he says I will also give him the morning starref. On its own this is puzzling. But in Revelation chapter 22 verse 16 Jesus says, I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Starref. Jesus is the bright Morning Star.

So, verse 28 is a promise that Jesus will one day give us himself. We will be in infinitely close, everlasting relationship with him.

If we hold fast to what we already have, then we will learn to long for him, and for him alone. Our hearts will turn towards Him rather than away from him; our minds will be full of him rather than idolatry. And one day we will receive what we long for.

Conclusion

In many ways Thyatira was a great church: their Service was Commended. But they had failed to deal with evil in their midst: their Seduction was Condemned. Jesus tells them exactly how to deal with it: Seizing is Commanded; seizing hold of what they already had.

Let's pray. Lord, make us a church that digs deeper into the word you have given us, that grasps hold of it, and has ears to hear what your Spirit says. Protect us Lord, we beg you, from being led astray into immorality and idolatry. Help us, please, to overcome and do your will until the end.