Jesus is the friend of sinners, but not the theology sinners create.
When I was a kid, our family moved to a place out on a country road. In addition to the yard, there was a huge rectangular fenced-off section where a jungle grew. “What’s that?” I asked. My dad said, “That’s the garden.” The former owner had let it go. A few seasons of neglect had come and gone, leaving old dead vegetation in place, while new green stuff was trying to grow up through it. Apparently no matter what grew there, as long as it was inside that fenced boundary, it was considered “the garden.”
This reminds me of what happens when we Christians carelessly assimilate culture, allow it to warp our faith, and then we sanctify the whole mess, calling it the church.
This was exactly where the church in Thyatira got in trouble. It had become a confusing tangle of error and truth, fact and fiction, like a garden where both poison ivy and raspberries grow side by side.
Thyatira has been called “the heretical church.” Heresy is what happens when someone takes an essential of the faith—the inerrancy of Scripture, the Person and work of Christ, the nature and identity of God, or some sin-related issue—twists it, and then packages the new meaning for popular consumption.
Christ however, expects the church to shine out and exhibit the pure, unadulterated gospel of Christ.
In fact, He is zealous to clear away extra rubbish.
In Revelation 2:18, the Lord says, “and to the angel of the church in Thyatira write the words of the son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”
Christ presents Himself exactly as what the church needs. In this case, His burning eyes and His trampling feet were needed to deal with the debris that has accumulated in Thyatira.
Eventually, the garden I was telling you about was in such bad shape that my Dad decided to clear it with a controlled burn. He wanted to eliminate all the surface clutter. Plus men like to play with fire. Anyway, he got out some gasoline and matches, and went to work. I’ll never forget each fresh concussion of flame as it erupted in that foliage. For a kid my age, it was a treat every bit as good as going to a movie.
Like that garden, if we allow ourselves to develop wildly and grow everything, it will eventually take a conflagration of some sort to deal with it.
That was what Thyatira needed, and in vv. 19-23, we see the “burn off.”
Jesus has an identical approach with each of the seven churches. First, He presents Himself to be what each respectively needs. Then He moves on to affirm their good things, then a rebuke of any bad which may be there, and then finally, a promise for those who “Hear what the Spirit says.” Thyatira’s epistle is the longest of the seven churches, and its problems the thorniest. Nothing less than the incineration of His burning eyes, and the trampling judgment of His bronze feet would help it.
He says in verse 19, I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.” This church had proliferated relief efforts, charities, and various activities–things Christians should excel at doing. But even a dense layer of goodness can mask a terrible situation.
He says in verse 20, “But I have this against you that you tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophetess, and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” This moral and spiritual compromise was nothing new, already having been rebuked in Pergamum. If you view the seven churches as reflecting sequential church history, then apparently the same evil not fully repented of in Pergamum had shown up in Thyatira, except worse and more established than before.
Back in Pergamum, Balaam at least had a rudimentary knowledge and respect of God (though he was money hungry), and God actually spoke through him (although God also spoke through a donkey). But the spirit of Jezebel, mentioned here in Thyatira, was modeled upon an utterly godless woman in the Old Testament. She was a gentile who married Ahab, the king of Israel. Then she embarked on a one-woman campaign to convert Israel from the worship of Yahweh to the worship of Baal, a pagan fertility god. She had a zeal for religion as long as it was false, supporting 450 false prophets, while trying to destroy the prophets of the Lord, including Elijah. It was a true crisis moment in the history of Israel. Would the nation continue as the covenant people of Yahweh, or would it change into just another pagan country?
Jezebel was named as being in Thyatira, not because a literal person there had this name, but because the situation in the church was analogous to what had gone on back in the Old Testament. Would the church continue as the new covenant people of God, or would it become just another immoral Roman mystery cult?
In verse 21, the Lord said, “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” For a long while the Lord’s true servants and the Holy Spirit had worked to convict her, but she simply would not repent. Unrepentance only goes one place, and that is right into verse 22, where it says, “Behold, I will throw her into a sickbed.” A hardened heart and spiritual illness go hand in hand.
If the condition continues, Jesus warns, “those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works.” Finally, for those who stubbornly resist Him, He says in verse 23, “And I will strike her children dead.” Idolatry and sexual immorality will always take the adherents of heretical systems into spiritual death.
“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (v. 24). We’re supposed to look at the example of Thyatira and be warned, sobered. No camouflage, regardless of its religious sophistication, can conceal our true condition from the One who knows the avenues and alleys, the footpaths and breadcrumb trails of our inner life.
The tone here is surprisingly terse, more so than we would expect from Jesus. However, He Himself reminds us that He will give to us according to our works, in a reward/discipline arrangement. That doesn’t mean grace gets suspended after we’re saved. No, in fact everything the Lord will ever do with you, or in you, or through you, or to you, will be based on grace.
The day you believed and trusted in the fact that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead, the Holy Spirit entered you, and from that moment on, you have always been favored by God and always will be. If not for grace, He would simply lump you together with His enemies in the latter section of Revelation where there is condemnation, and eternal punishment. Instead, He works hard here in the opening chapters of this book through warnings of discipline, and promises of reward, to provoke our repentance so we will shine.
The Lord said in verse 24, “But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. “Hold fast what you have until I come” (v. 25). Apparently, it was difficult enough surviving the spiritually compromised environment of Thyatira, so they only needed to hold on to what they truly had from Christ.¹
After my dad’s controlled burn of the garden, the only thing left was the most basic element of all–the ground itself. You could say he liberated that garden from the snakes, the mice, and the rabbits that had dominated it, as well as from the Johnson grass, brambles, and pigweed. Yes, there had been a few food products in it–a scattering of pearl onions, and thumbnail sized wild strawberries, but never a bushel of anything edible. The burn freed the ground for new possibilities–a table full of corn on the cob, mustard greens, turnips, and snap beans.
The Lord knows how to see through, to burn through, the subterfuge human beings generate, and get down to the real issues.
He also knows how to make promises for the future that exactly matches our needs in the present:
26 “To the one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Christ’s promise of authority implies there might have been powerful pressures upon those who were faithful not to accept Thyatira’s heresies. Doubtless it would have come from religious consensus–Hey, everybody agrees with this! You’re out of step! You’re on the wrong side of history! Or maybe it was from political or economic authorities.
Whatever the case, Jesus promised to vindicate those who conquered the system. Don’t bow to the nations and their opinions, because one day you will be ruling over them with Me! Not only so, but He offered them the morning star, a veiled reference to His second coming. This star is visible in the east before sunrise when many people are still sleeping. However, while the rest of the world was in deep slumber, the faithful in Thyatira would be awake and ready for His appearing.
In the heretical church, teaching is always guided by a motive or a cause other than truth. The fact is, if we want something badly enough and long enough, we’ll get “creative” with doctrine. If we’re protecting or defending some personal weakness, it will affect our interpretation of Scripture. With heresy, there’s always a driver other than a pure heart. That’s why it’s so hard to correct; not only the teaching is wrong, the person behind the teaching is wrong. He or she wants something, and they’re not disclosing what it is. In fact, they may not even be aware of it themselves.
Worse, heresy can be a hot commodity, with some proudly wearing the heretic label, thinking it means the same as “hero,” or “maverick.” Over the course of the last decade I’ve seen gifted young preachers and writers who have aspired to this unfortunate mantle. They attract a following with their considerable communication gifts, usually teaching partial truths while subtly criticizing the part of the gospel they don’t like. They are insightful and funny, have the pulse of the people, and typically spin a victimization narrative (You poor people are being suckered by the historic Christian church, the Bible is hopelessly mired in the context of its times, etc.). And most importantly, they come bearing tons of Thyatiran tolerance. It makes them look broad, but at the end of the day it is a cover for disobedience.
In come the mice, and the snakes, and the weeds.
The church must shine by holding on to the plain, unadulterated gospel of truth. Before Jesus can advance to execute the great judgments of the book of Revelation, the righting of wrongs, and the coming in of a new heaven and new earth, He must score victories in the hearts of His own people.
¹ Some scholars see in Thyatira a prefigure of Roman Catholicism, since it was the first organized entity of Christianity to develop out of the earliest phases of the church. As an ex-Catholic myself, I believe Catholicism has evolved a labyrinth of traditions and forms and liturgies that has led its members into an enormous spiritual vacuum. Still, this view shouldn’t be used as an excuse for smear campaigns against all Catholics. The language of verse 24 says that some do not hold the objectionable teachings of Thyatira. I personally know some lovely and sincere believers in Christ who are Roman Catholic, although I believe their faith would greatly benefit if they could get free of that system.